The 2011 Holiday/Christmas season has officially begun, with Walmart kicking it off Saturday, November 5, 2011. So, Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas!
We mean no offense to other religions or those with no religion at all, but Christmas IS the number one source that drives sales in November and December.
This year, the Saturday After Thanksgiving is Small Business Saturday, where Chambers of Commerce across the US will ask consumers to support small local Brick and Mortar Stores. We think this is a great idea, but hope to carry the theme over to small online retailers.
It’s pretty much known that when any huge national retailer (and we single out nobody in particular) moves into an area, some jobs are created. Unfortunately, many small retailers soon go under, causing other jobs losses. And once small businesses are driven out, the low prices at many “Big Box” stores often start creeping up.
Often (but by no means always or even usually), large national stores can offer lower prices than small e-commerce sites. Usually the savings are small, but in these times most people are saving where ever they can. When considering the “best deal,” do you think about the many advantages shoppers get when they buy from small retailers.
You can’t really put a dollar value on these things. Here are some things to think about this year when you compare prices when shopping for holiday gifts, and our pitch on why to support small businesses in general and small online retailers in particular!
Each and EVERY Customer is Important to Small Retailers
Let’s face it: two or three single sales or even two or three dozen lost or bungled sales won’t really hurt a large national store.
Not so for a small business! So, most small online and brick & mortar stores give personalized attention to each and every order they receive. Even when the customers are working with “incorrect” information.
Our store, for example, treats all of our customers equally. It doesn’t matter to us if they are buying a $34.99 solar accent light or purchasing several solar lamp posts for hundreds of dollars.
Why? Our customers’ opinions are important to us. If we get negative feedback about a product or a specific delivery, our policy is to do some additional research and if the comment is valid, drop the product. (This has only happened once, and we bought the product for our own home.) And, when we confirm the purchase, we ask that customers tell us how they like (or do not like) the product.
Equally important: we try to prevent negative comments on our store in today’s world of blogs and other social media. A a basic premise of customer service and sales is that for every 100 happy but silent customers there are one or two unhappy customers who are very vocal.
Here’s an Example of Customer Service with “Difficult” Buyer
We had a customer who ordered a small dollar solar accent light. And, it’s true that the manufacturer delivered it later than they should have. Within a few days, we had daily calls and/or emails from the woman who made the purchase. She told us (even after we had confirmed delivery) that she never received it. She also told us she had called the manufacturer and been told the item was discontinued and out of stock.
However, we work directly with the manufacturer, as we do with most of our products. We knew the item was not discontinued and was in stock. In fact, a separate customer ordered and received the item the very same week.
There there was no “middleman” between our store and the manufacturer, so we knew she had spoken with the wrong party. Our honest opinion: a passerby helped themselves to the package when the woman wasn’t looking.
We never doubted the woman, but we had measures in place so it should not have happened. It was delivered and she was told the specific date and a time window when it would arrive.
Whenever possible, small e-stores track deliveries and notify customers of the expected delivery date and any changes due to weather or other events. We also recommend to customers that must work or won’t be unavailable during expected delivery to have a neighbor keep an eye out for the package. We also ask customers to let us know if an emergency comes up and they have to leave town during the delivery window. If they notify us, we work try to change the shipping date or have it held at the closest shipping location until they return.
How Did this One Sale End: We gladly refunded the woman the full price of the item and didn’t ask who she spoke with at which manufacturer. There was no point: we knew the facts and the sale, and probably the customer, was already lost.
Small Businesses are More Likely to Know their Products Better
Just as someone who loves plants and gardens is the most likely type to open a local nursery, small e-stores are usually started by those who have a particular interest in the products sold. With a small number (often only one or two ) of people doing most of the work, who you work with at a small online store for customer service is likely the same person that helps select and evaluate inventory, deals with manufacturers, keeps a pulse on new products within that “niche,” and keys an eye on the competition.
Let’s say you want an unusual plant and need help selecting one for your garden, climate and tastes. And, you want it to have a long and happy life. Where would you feel more comfortable getting help? An expert often someone with a background in horticulture) at a local nursery, or a sales associate at a large national store?
Let’s say you want a hosta with bluish green leaves and white flowers. Generic home centers or multi-purpose stores are unlikely to have them. Since usually only specialty nurseries or online sites carry these, you may have no option but to go to a small local store. If they don’t have them, most small stores will try to get the product or give them the name of a competitor who does. Long term: it’s good for business.
Here’s another reason why small businesses are often better places to shop. There was a small hardware store within a mile of our house and a major national home center 15 minutes away. When we redecorated our home, we assumed we would get a bigger bang for our bucks from a big store.
Wrong! When we went to get the little things we forgot or needed more of, we ran to the local hardware store. Not only did we get better advice, we found that the prices were equal to or better than those at the national chain store.
Unfortunately, two other large home centers opened up soon after and the small Mom & Pop hardware store closed down due to a considerable loss of customers. Customers, like me, who made incorrect assumptions about the savings available through the Big Guys.
While large national stores can often offer prices a bit lower than smaller competitors, this is not true for all or even for many products. And then there is “Can’t Put a Price On It” things like customer service.
Many people at Big Box stores (online and physical stores) are well-trained and lucky enough to get a customer service job in an area of special interest to them. But most customer service reps for large stores? No way!
You can test this out. Pick out any large store and call their general customer service line. Eventually you will get through to a person. When you do, ask them specific details about any given product. Start with an easy one like who the manufacturer is (which is often different than the brand name). Then ask a tougher one, like when was the product or its technology was last updated. When will new or similar models be in stock? How about if he/she can cut a deal if you want to order several units of the same item. Good luck getting accurate answers quickly!
It is true that you may need to email a small online store, or you need to leave a voice mail because small shops are often on the line with other customers, manufacturers, web hosts, etc. But when they do call you back, odds are the answers you get will contain far better information than available from the Big Guy.
Like many small online retailers, we believe that educated consumers are the best customers. If you are buying a product that you don’t know all that much about, look and see if the site provides any information to help you learn about what they sell.
Don’t Forget About Flexibility!
Any small business that is well run can adjust its course far more quickly and easily than a large business. There are less layers of management and often no boards of directors or investors who need to approve decisions.
Say a product isn’t working out, or that a small business wants to add a particular new product or a whole line of new products. A small online store can usually do this within a couple of days. Not so for the Big Guys.
Small e-stores can usually drop an item that customer don’t like within minutes of making a decision. Our online store, for example, can usually research and find new products within a week and can delete a product from our inventory in seconds.
Why Shop Online Instead of a Small Brick & Mortar Business?
Many people like the convenience of shopping from home, particularly during the holiday season when finding parking can take up a big chunk of time. Online shops have no lines, no crowds, and no aggravation when someone sneaks into a parking space you waited five minutes to get.
Many small online retailers (SolarFlairLighting.com included) would someday like to open their own physical store. While there are significant costs associated with running a quality online store, they don’t compare to that of opening a brick and mortar storefront.
E-commerce doesn’t require merchants to spend thousands of dollars to rent store(s) and storage space. Many manufacturers do not require e-stores to warehouse large quantities of merchandise. Fewer people are required to start-up the store.
These resources are spent on marketing, developing relationships with manufacturers and distributors, and last but certainly not least, customer service.
It’s not as easy as the “Infomercials” promising quick bucks through an online business suggest. Significant investments are required to start an e-commerce site including research, training, accountants, insurance, website development, hardware and software expenditures, web hosting, marketing costs and more. Yes, less than opening a brick and mortar store, who probably also has a great website if they are successful.
But, there are also hidden costs that impact not only the online shopping experience, such as the look, navigation and speed of the site. More importantly: how safe is your online purchase?
Most anyone can make sales using PayPal, who in our opinion doesn’t screen merchants very carefully. They make sure a credit card is valid and that there is some SOME money in some bank account. We do note that if a business develops a bad reputation and has a lot of complaints, PayPal will no longer do business with them.
In contrast, an account with a credit card payments processor costs money. It also requires a lot of paperwork, credit checks, references and more. Quality security measures and security certificates also cost money, as does compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).
Mandated by all major credit cards (but not PayPal), “Certify PCI” requires a merchant to prove that not only that its own site is secure but that its web host service is secure. CertifyPCI also mandates physical protections be in place to protect customers’ personal information, including invoices, and any limited payment data that a merchant actually sees. (For example, most merchants see a few numbers of your credit card but not the CVC code or other information. We asked PayPal, and they wouldn’t answer data is available to which employees.)
Why the Quality of An E-Commerce Site is Important
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the quality of a site is important! Most legitimate companies want to be in business for the long-haul and want to continue to grow. A well-designed, attractive and fast website usually means that a significant investment has been made, indicating a commitment to being around long after you make your purchase.
On the other hand, looks aren’t everything. Fast is great, but you really need to look for the sites that provide information that they are legitimate and that they use security measures to protect you during the purchase. If you don’t see the following, you should move along:
- A site should be current, and updated regularly
- A phone number (even one that goes straight to voice mail) and an email address should be on the home page
- Clear information should be available about shipping, return and cancellation policies.
- Testimonials are great, but it takes a long time to get these. Don’t be fooled by a site (especially a relatively new site) with a lot of them, because they can be faked easily enough.
If you are making a large purchase, feel free to ask for references by email or phone. Legitimate stores will provide references, although common courtesy AND Payment Systems Standards require that a merchant contact the customer before they will share any “personably identifiable” information such as an email address, full name or phone number.
Most online stores don’t provide full addresses and it’s really not necessary. The reason: many small online retailers have home offices and like you, want to protect their privacy.
So, when you’re holiday shopping this year, particularly if it’s for a product with evolving technology, please support small online retailers! It’s good for your pocketbook, good for the economy and good for the person who will receive your gift.
On behalf of all of them, we wish you and your family a happy holiday season (early as it is) and best wishes for a safe, happy and healthy 2012!
Note: SolarFlairLighting.com and SolarLightingSmart.com aggressively protect our copyrights! You may use material from this article only if you provide credit to the following owners with working links.