Online isn’t better, it’s more efficient – 5 reasons why you shouldn’t shut up shop

As the founder of a retailer, Vape and Juice, I have a love hate relationship with bricks and mortar storefronts. We have them, we will likely open more in the future and we also have our eCommerce.

The key retail headline for the last few years is the mantra that online is catching up in terms of overall shop sales. Of course it is, new shoppers are being born everyday and they are being nursed with a smartphone. On the other end of the spectrum, shoppers are dying, who have never shopped online.

shop closedThe statistical study isn’t finished yet. We won’t truly know how many people want to shop online over offline, until everyone that shops now has access to a smartphone, a debit card and a good internet connection.

Every industry has seen online eat into the offline market, well all except for commercial property agents. (Fingers crossed those guys get it soon.) Many fear for their businesses and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s doomed.

When you run a vape shop that can’t use paid ads, or well, any ads really, you learn how to do other things better. So this is my 5 top tips for your retail business to tackle that online menace.

1. Same day delivery

If you own a physical shop, you are at a unique advantage locally. Few online retailers offer free next day shipping, fewer still can do same-day delivery. Those that do offer it, charge a high minimum spend ceiling and usually in prime city locations.

Amazon do a little in central London for example, but their product range is unlikely to be as extensive as your specialist store. Our Vape and Juice shops offer same day vape delivery, because we know it puts us at an advantage over online competitors, and Amazon don’t offer it in our region. Where there is a little overlap in London, they don’t carry the product range our customers want.

What if we don’t have the functionality on our website?

You can offer this with a pay over the phone arrangement or using a mobile terminal at the door. If you deliver by dinner time, it means some additional hours for part time staff, or something an owner operator can manage themselves.

2. Offline customer service online

One reason why many who do shop offline like doing so, is the perceived customer service support. Not every shop seems to care about it, but most well established retailers, know the importance of it. Customer service is a valuable add-on feature of a visit to a bricks and mortar store.

Amazon may be able to offer slick returns, but what they can’t talk about on a webchat is the in-depth knowledge of screws, fastenings, vape kits or toddler accessories.

Amazon is great if you know what you are looking for, but it’s downright appalling if you don’t. Pages and pages of the same product, with different pictures at varying prices. Every product is written about a little differently, all in the hope they win for the right keywords. Amazon products are often algorithm friendly BUT not customer friendly.

4 years ago at we added a live webchat with a policy of never using bots. Completely staffed by employees in our stores during their quiet periods.

The same way you greet a customer on entrance offline, we do the same now online. The service we used at the time, Tidio, worked out at £120 per year.

On our first day, we spoke to a prospect, who made a large enough order, to cover that entire cost. We would frankly not have gotten that order without it. It turned out that a question we hadn’t covered in our international shipping section was what he was searching for.

You see the great thing about a webchat, is it also tells you things too. Importantly, you have the resources with staffing to eclipse what most of your online only competitors can do. They are all about being streamlined, reduced costs, you have human resources. Use them. For you, adding an online webchat feature is a small cost, to them, it requires recruitment and therefore an increased need for more sales. Sometimes, it’s just not worth their time.

You are already paying for it.

NOTE: As an additional point, it also helps handle customer issues outside of the store. This stops awkward in store conversations holding up potential buyers and further strengthens your brand’s value to them.

3. Sensory overload

Being able to visit a shop and look, touch and get advice on a potential outlay is a major draw that online can only dream of. Online we have 360 degree images, time consuming videos to make etc But nothing can compare to a friendly, well presented member of staff handing it over to the customer and explaining why it’s right for them.

Obviously, all that added sales weaponry carries additional costs. But here’s the rub. According to 30% off all online orders are returned, compared to only 8.9% offline. If you are in an industry where returns are unsellable, but denying the return is bad for business, you don’t want to be taking back 30% of your sales.

Added to this, the conversion rate of sales for online businesses is fairly low. For every 100 visitors to a ‘Food, beverage and tobacco’ website, there are 3 buyers. I would imagine, your shop has a higher statistic.

Your goal therefore is to get people through the door.

4. Convenience

We spoke about being able to do same-day delivery, but you can also offer a level of convenience that a website can’t. Sure, on a wet miserable day, it’s more convenient to order from a website for many. But, weekends are a bit of a write off for most of those eCommerce sites. This is because most won’t dispatch until Monday. That means after 4 or 5pm on a Friday, anyone who needs what you sell, can get it immediately from you.

Now there are many customers who can wait. Others who stock up. So think of your shop as a platform for targeting a specific niche of the customer segment. Those who aren’t ‘Stocker uppers’ but are instead ‘Just-in-timers’. A cursory amount of research can tell you the following:

  • What percentage of shoppers value service over price.
  • What percentage of shoppers buy ‘just-in-time’.
  • What number of people that equates to near your shopfront.

You can get this data from a number of places, your own shoppers, research papers etc. If you live in a town of 200,000 people, have an easy to get to location and 10% of the town buy your type of product, you need to establish how many of those would buy from a shop for service over price. If that number is a good few thousand, then you have a reason to keep your store open.

If you live in a student community, and the percentage of potential customers is low, plus there is a lot of competition, your options are different. It’s all about weighing up the specifics and not just assuming retail offline is dead in your patch because the national press says so.

More often than not you aren’t winning the service led customers, because your store doesn’t make it clear. Or because your store has no clear identity toward that.

We all know a business or twelve that we can’t work out what they stand for. Now turn around and look into yours. Have you seen a thirteenth?

You have the ability to clearly explain to people how something works, they can get it today and they can return it the same day. There is a very compelling reason for many in your town to shop with you. Just don’t blow it with a bad first impression, zero marketing or unclear offering.

Which takes us on to the final part…

5. Online is smart but offline should be smarter

Online isn’t better for all customers, but it is far easier for online stores to market in a bespoke manner.

Online stores can capture data very easily

eCommerce sites don’t need to pay for printing to adjust their window display.

There are a number of things that make a website very efficient. But even where they need to change their graphics on site frequently, you too need to change your instore posters. So why not ask your designer to make a second version of that work to suit a Google My Business page and your website. Extract more value.

It is easier for online stores to monitor customers. When a shopper buys from my online vape shop, I can set a formula that offers a target upsale to them focused on what they buy. It is personalised to them and therefore the uptake is far higher than a random blanket message.

That’s doable in shops using humans. But what about after the sale, when that shopper is at home. Ken from electronics isn’t going to knock on their front door and say: “How about this new extension cord?”

When you buy a car from a dealer, what happens a year later? You get an email inviting you to see the new version. It’s customised to match something they know may resonate with you. You go the for the canapes and come home with a finance term extension. They have been doing it for years.

Online can also capture emails from people who abandon their shopping visit

Could you imagine asking someone as they changed their mind in your shop and went to walk out, for their email.

“Hey before you leave, do you mind if I grab your email so I can send you some emails about it over the next week?”

It would not likely be greeted with much positivity. But that doesn’t mean you too can’t capture emails from offline shoppers.

3 ways we have found it to work well have been as follows:

  1. Business card in the jar competitions: Customers pop their card in the jar at the counter to be entered into a prize draw.
  2. On your shop opening time page online, have a pop up that offers a voucher for use in store. They input their email and you send them a voucher in an email.
  3. Loyalty Card Schemes | Do NOT overlook these.

Capturing emails means if sales dip off, you still have the ability to reach out to former customers. It is not to be overlooked. Yes, we do get bombarded with emails these days, but good emails with clever subject lines, still get opened.

Smarter still, collect SMS numbers instead. How many emails have you had this week? Lots right? What about text messages? Probably not so many. You stand out more when the supply is lower.

We find our store location pages are amongst some of the most visited parts of our website and for that reason it’s a really simple thing to do to grab a future point of contact in return for some value for the shopper.

Loyalty Cards

I want to finish with a little bit more on these. In the early days we overlooked these. We thought, well we only have 50 customers, what’s the point. 1 year becomes 2, becomes 5. Eventually you will have turned down the chance to capture thousands of emails.

Also, 80% of shoppers have an item in their purse or wallet linked to a loyalty scheme somewhere. Don’t let your customer have a competitor’s and not yours. When they are halfway to collecting a reward, they won’t be shopping with you.

Incentivise your staff to grab email and SMS numbers and you have a powerful marketing database being built. The old coffee stamps system is a cheap solution but it won’t collect information. It’s actually a very poorly thought out system. If you are offering something for free, get something in return.

What you will then have is a human data collection system that will do a lot better than an online only’s popup screen. I would tell you who we use for our shops, but then I’d have to kill you…

I hope I have given you some food for thought.

We all too often conflate declining sales with the emergence of the web, but we all know a shop or two that are killing themselves. No success will come without marketing, amazing service levels and a product people want. But when online brands have seen up to 150% increase in eCommerce sales in regions they have a physical presence, you probably shouldn’t shut up shop just yet.

David is the founder of online vape shop brand | He is also a co-founder of restaurant brand ‘The Skinny Kitchen’, and a regular blogger on all things retail startup.


Twitter: @The_MOBshow

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