Quick Query: ProStores Exec Lin Shearer

The beginning of the year brings fresh energy and energy for many online merchants. A lot of them are trying to jump start sales, cut costs and grow and improve their businesses. For ideas to help merchants will all this, we talked with a seasoned ecommerce pro. He is Lin Shearer, a senior marketing manager with ProStores, a leading ecommerce platform. He talked with us in this “Quick Query”.

PeC: What ideas do you have for ecommerce merchants to jump start sales for the new year?

Lin Shearer:“One of the best things you can do today is to give your shop a makeover. I am not talking about the appearance and feel, the design of your shop, but about small improvements that could go a long way to convert more browsers to buyers. To do that, there are three places I think that you can focus on to push people conversion rates up. To begin with, get shoppers to trust you. Secondly, get them interested. Third, keep it simple.”

PeC: So, how can you tackle each of those?

Shearer:“To inspire confidence, ask yourself whether your online shop make shoppers feel comfortable doing business with you. Does your shop look professional? Again, you do not need a fancy layout necessarily to inspire confidence, but you want to deliver a professional appearance and expertise. So, no missing pictures, correct spelling, and decent product descriptions will go a long way in that respect.

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“Secondly, be transparent. In case you’ve got third-party suppliers like dedicated SSL certificates, Better Business Bureau badges, any sort of verifiable third-party standing builders which you can display on your website go a long way in demonstrating potential buyers that you are a secure place to shop.

“Finally, another idea that I think is getting plenty of popularity is customer testimonials. You can show people who you have got an existing customer base that stores from you and provided some comments on the products you sell. That may go a long way also. One of our very own ProStores’ merchants, CurrySimple.com, really enhanced their conversion rate by over 50 percent, quarter over quarter, the conclusion of the past year just by incorporating product reviews.”

PeC: Are those testimonials searchable and spiderable by search engines?

Shearer:“That is the additional benefit of getting that content there. These reviews are searchable, and it may help you generate frequently updated relevant content that search engines love. If it’s possible to create more of this through product reviews, all the better.”

PeC: What thoughts do you need to cut costs and save money?

Shearer:“Any company can benefit from having a look at costs. I think small companies, particularly, are taking a close look at that. I believe one of the best places for you to concentrate on is to get smarter about stock, to truly understand what your clients are buying, what is selling the finest, and carry that, and if at all possible, just that. In this economic climate I do not think we can afford to go deep across a wide product catalog. We saw a significant number of our clients streamlining their stock last holiday season and we expect it to continue.

“Also, consider expanding your relationships with existing clients. I believe that the product reviews we just talked about are a good example there. It costs much less to sell again to an existing client and market more to an existing client than it does to go out and attempt to attract more new clients. So, check out building on what you have already established.”

PeC: Could that be through extra stock, or is it for improved cross-selling opportunities?

Shearer: “Yeah, absolutely. The way that CurrySimple managed to drive that sort of increase in conversion speed was they’d repeat customers, but there were certain products that they simply won’t buy. They would return specifically for something they’d bought before and would not look at other products. Well, once they added the merchandise testimonials, that then reduced the perceived dangers of those buyers for purchasing a product they have never attempted before if they saw someone else had tried it, then they were more comfortable buying that. So, just by doing this, he managed to get people to expand what they had been purchasing from him.”

PeC: Can CurrySimple moderate those reviews? How can that work?

Shearer:“Typically with that solution, you have the chance to go in and take a look at the reviews that people are setting up there. Now, they are about CurrySimple’s products, so I do not know that it’s a good deal of incentive to only put up the fantastic reviews. I mean if it puts up just the good reviews, then when someone receives a product that they are unhappy with, then it does not do him any good in the long run. My understanding is that a good deal of buyers perform their own filtering things such as this and make a determination about whether the inspection is reputable or credible. Again, it appears to be working for CurrySimple. Authenticity is key there.”

PeC: Do you have some other ideas about marketing channels or advertising ideas that merchants might not have considered during the last couple of years?

Shearer:“I think everyone is talking about social networking. It is actually consistent with cutting costs, also. It’ll take up more time, but I think if you are smart about it, we have seen lots of examples where you can cut costs from items like expensive paid search and such a thing and expand your client base.

“For instance, another ProStores merchant, Exquisitecanes.com, really cut paid search altogether. They were very smart about how they engage through social networking and started to drive business like that. They have got a Facebook fan page and they socialize on Twitter, but they did not just go in there and just start setting up promotional offerings and things like this. They went out and were real about establishing relationships with groups that had shared interest in themthat were in accord with their product line; then once they cultivated a relationshipthey then could put out special offers for men and women in the groups and induce people to their shop like that.

Social media is simple except in the sense that it does occupy your time. Butif you are smart about it, I believe that’s a fantastic way to go for this coming year.”

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PeC: What trends do you see happening in ecommerce in 2010?

Shearer:“I think that the economic climate is still likely to be a variable. I believe we’re beginning to see some things turn around and as a matter of fact, the great news was that this last holiday season, was that brick-and-mortar was basically flat. Online sales grew by about 6 or 7 percent. ProStores merchants’ sales are right in line with that trend and, actually, are growing faster than ecommerce overall right now for an assortment of reasons. They’ve identified a fantastic market product, selling at exceptionally competitive prices, but still in a gain. Thus, we anticipate our merchants to continue to have the ability to grow their internet business.

“Also tied to the market, typically, recessions are drivers of entrepreneurial activities. So, that exact same dynamic that’s allowing our current merchants to expand, and we hope to see more people seeking to create their own opportunities by starting an internet business or as a brick-and-mortar shop bringing that company online and developing their business like that.”

PeC: Which are the top three ecommerce suggestions to help merchants as we begin 2010?

Shearer:“First of all, I would say focus your company. We see a good deal of merchants trying to sell a wide assortment of products and also our most prosperous merchants have a solid focus. I believe that the two examples I have already talked about are amazing examples there. So, being smart about your stock, taking a look at the 80/20 principle that a large part of your earnings, 80 percent of your revenue is most likely coming from 20 percent of your product line, and actually have a look at focusing, finding a niche and then promoting that market.

“In accordance with that, the next thing I would say is get into social networking, but be smart about it and get it done right. Engage with your people who have similar interests, not as someone there that simply sell them, but actually look to establish real relationships with them and I think you’ll discover from that you are ready to bring in new clients.

“Finally, think like a buyer. Offer your shop a makeover. Small merchants in particular get very involved in the shop as kind of an extension of who they are and have a very specific vision of what the store should look like, but beyond appearance and feel, beyond layout, go through your shop and feel like a buyer. Inspire trust. Again, tell your own story. Let them know who you are and keep it simple.

“So, focus your company, give social networking a try but be smart about it, and think like a buyer and give your store a makeover.”