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.”

Quick Query: Full Sail Educator on Online Learning

There are various choices for ecommerce merchants who wish to learn new skills which could be applied to their organization. Full Sail University is just one of those online alternatives. Having a physical campus in Winter Park, Florida, the college offers online applications in areas like web design and development. With this “Quick Query” we talked with Ani Gasti, Full Sail’s director of faculty development.

Practical eCommerce:Tell us about Full Sail University. What degrees do you offer that would benefit an ecommerce merchant?

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Ani Gasti: “For the ecommerce merchant, there are some really obvious degrees I think. We have just graduated our first class of students in our master’s degree for Internet advertising. So, undoubtedly, Internet marketing is a place that is logical for an ecommerce professional. We provide that both for the bachelor’s and the master’s degree, but it is offered online only. There are some additional areas or degree areas which make sense I believe for ecommerce merchants like web design and development and visual arts for graphic design. But actually I think any of our level areas make sense for someone in the field of ecommerce because nowadays you are using all those tools for promotion. You use video and music and games and all of the various multimedia which we teach at Full Sail in some manner or another in every area of ecommerce.

PeC: The online advertising degree focuses on things like SEO and social media and analytics. Who are the specialists that you call on to teach these topics?

Gasti:“We need to satisfy our certification requirements, so in our master’s level we must have people at the doctoral level teaching or at least half of the school has to be at a doctoral degree. All the college in Internet marketing are fulltime, residing in Winter Park or the area of Orlando. Many have a shake which they hang out there and they are working as consultants. Consequently, they’re practicing Web marketers themselves and therefore the pupils are involved in the procedure. They are helping out these faculty members that do consulting work. Therefore, it’s really very good experience and it is very applied daily.”

PeC: What do you do to make sure that the online learning experience is at least as good as a conventional education?

Gasti:“Among the things we did at the start when we’re considering going on the internet, we thought,’Well, let us do our due diligence and study the present learning management.’ So, you might be familiar with terms such as eCollege or Blackboard and with all due respect to these entities, they did not deliver education in how we like to deliver it. Thus, we bit the bullet and decided to build our own online learning platform. And what we’re able to do that is address some of the greatest weaknesses of conventional online education. A couple of the large ones are a feeling of isolation on the student part and the perceived limit of what online education can be. And so, in designing our own learning management system, we built it in such a way that the pupils are very connected to their teachers, to one another and to the school itself. So a lot of online education is much more like a digital correspondence program. We built it to provide education using all of the multimedia tools on the internet that we use on campus. I’ve had many pupils say actually that they’re more engaged and connected within this internet degree of Full Sail than they were in their previous courses somewhere else.”

PeC: several ecommerce merchants are so occupied with their daily operations which –if they have something they have to learn– they may visit YouTube and look for a tutorial. That is absolutely free. Or they take one course offered via a website like Lynda.com. What’s the benefit of Full Sail over either one of these choices?

Gasti: Well, first of all, allow me to say that I think those choices are terrific and we use them. We use those in our classes. We’ve got courses where the students–as a part of the class material–get a lynda.com account, and our faculty members have their own YouTube stations and we utilize the present free stuff out there also. But it’s only part of the picture. The use of education, I believe, is to put everything into perspective. I love to use this case. One could say, ‘Why study French literature? All of the French novels are already out there.’ However, the education part is teaching you how you can talk French and read and write it and then to learn what’s the purpose, the significance and the background of all this. That is what we do with all our degrees. We teach the tools, but we put it into a larger context and provide a perspective and a feeling of what the value of all of this is and what is my role in this for the pupil.”

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“With Internet advertising, I think there has been a history of people learning parlor tricks. You learn what is the latest tricky thing to do with SEO, as an instance, and that’s excellent. That may help your organization to a certain degree, but we think Web marketing is a profession. So, yes, learn the tools and the tricks, but in addition, you have to be a strategic thinker in your area, your industry, so as to create a mark and become the most successful that you could be.”

PeC: Anything else you want to share with the ecommerce merchant?

Gasti:“The entire world is becoming more interactive and more collaborative and entrepreneurs will need to be sure they’re doing this as well. 1 thing that we’ve performed at Full Sail is to have an extensive use of web 2.0 tools and use them as teachers ourselves. Our students use them as students in the projects they perform, and our graduates–our working students–use these tools as professionals. I only want to thank them for being the backbone of the economy–the tiny businesses which are keeping things moving. At Full Sail, we do what we can to offer the education, resources and training for our students to follow the exact same entrepreneurial path. Our objective isn’t just to own graduates, but to have happy, successful graduates.”