You don’t have to be a Radio 4 listener to have heard the numerous stories focusing on the decline of footfall and trade traditionally associated with town centres. If we’re to believe various government reports, including one from our self-proclaimed Queen of Shops, Mary Portas - Many shoppers choose to no longer venture into the town centres due to a lack of parking spaces, inconvenient opening times, minimal choice and overpricing. Similar noises can be heard from market stall produce traders, complaining that supermarkets now sell too cheaply and in some cases are open 24hrs. This shift in consumer behaviour got me thinking – could we eventually see a similar shift online?
Okay, so where am I going with this? Well imagine that online search now represents the online equivalent to the town centre. Like a search engine list of results, town centres have brand and non-brand businesses standing shoulder to shoulder and unless you’ve visited the town before you might find yourself wandering the streets, searching for your desired item, in much the same way as you’d trawl the search engines results – assuming that you’ve not found your item in the first five places you visit.
If you have the time you could of course visit every shop in the town or click through every online result, making a note of prices, brand labels, customer reviews and end up with a potential list of possibilities. But what if you’re in a rush, do you still have time to explore and search when there are established alternative solutions? Out of town shopping centres are one such solution and with detailed floor maps, convenient parking, late night shopping and established brands back to back, understanding the consumer shift starts to become clear.
So if search engines now represent town centres, what has become the supermarkets or out of town shopping outlets in the online world?
Online shopping sites such as eBay, Amazon, Play and Google Shopping, to name just a few, continue to grow in size and popularity, but why? Well from the consumers point of view it’s a similar story in many ways to the shift in the offline world. Consumers enjoy shopping with a reputable brand, where they already have existing accounts. The big online stores allow sellers to open their own ‘shops within a shop’, much like a real wold shopping centre, meaning that products and prices can be directly compared. And search engine results become influenced as these larger brands benefit from online scale, branding, technology and marketing investments.
Sustaining the Online Town Centre While councils will no doubt debate the merits of park and drive schemes, cheaper shop premises and the introduction of country and European open air produce markets - assuming you already have strong organic rankings and online visibility, the ways to ensure your online business remains robust aren’t perhaps quite so drastic.
Trust is arguably the most important element and it is a big decision factor for an online shopper. If they feel that the site isn’t trustworthy it’s unlikely they’ll use an online payment system or call with an enquiry. There are many ways to build trust including strong secure payment messages, onsite and third party customer reviews, a good social presence and visible telephone number.
Reviews in particular send strong message of trust as it highlights that other online shoppers are using the service. There’s always the argument that reviews onsite could be falsified, but with third party review site plugins such as Trustpilot, making false reviews is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Google themselves use reviews as a trust indicator and are believed to reward sites with good reviews and social presence with increased search engine rankings.
Is It Time To Embrace Change While protecting both the online and offline town centre strategy is important for businesses, there is always going to be the argument that these shifts in customer buying preference are just a natural change. But does that mean that you only have to embrace one option or the other.
If you consider how many brands now occupy both town centres and out of town shopping complexes, there is no reason why this doubled up strategy shouldn’t be replicated online. Even exclusive or boutique brands can benefit and with the right marketing can retain brand integrity.
Choosing to occupy a selection of sales channels can not only increase visibility and revenue but also help to establish consumer trust. eBay, Amazon and Google Shopping all offer shop schemes allowing you to retain your brand name but sell under their established brand umbrella, for a commission fee or upfront cost. And while many businesses are put off these avenues due to increased administration and stock control, there are ways to integrate automated systems into your current online platform.
Does Anyone Fancy a Coffee? While physical town centres will no doubt remain a topic of debate for some time, with suggestions for improvement being met with a mixture of scepticism and applause, making the changes to your online strategy needn’t be so elongated.
If you’d like to understand more about affiliate sales opportunities and increasing your brand presence online why not call us to speak with a member of our marketing team? And in the meantime why not consider the benefits and revenue potential that could be achieved through making these changes over a cup of coffee, in your local town centre…