Online retail has become a very competitive space, far more competitive than it was ten years ago. When I first started my online-only furniture store Milan Direct we were told many times that selling furniture online wouldn't work. If we’d listened to those people instead of the market that was crying out to buy furniture through an online channel, then I wouldn’t have found success through my online business.
Online shopping image from Shutterstock
Dean Ramler is the CEO and co-founder of Milan Direct
How to listen
If you want to hear your customers, the first thing you should do is open up the channels of communication to make it easy for them to contact you, give you feedback, offer suggestions and even inspire new ideas.
Being an online retailer, we decided that social media was a pretty important platform for us, and as a result we’ve invested in our social media presence, particularly Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. A lot of brands use social media primarily for marketing, but we’ve found it’s far more valuable as a customer engagement tool.
In addition to sparking discussions, social media allows us to keep an ear out for what our customers want. We can form an idea of trends that might work as future products and, if they come to fruition, we can trial our ideas and gather feedback from customer reactions. These responses are then taken into consideration (with the caveat that what customers say they want and what they buy can be different) when deciding on our range.
Staking out the competition
Having customers at the forefront of our business does not mean we forget the competition entirely, but staking out the competition has to somehow lead back to improving our business. Our competition in Australia doesn’t give us new ideas; in fact, we tend to see similar products to ours on the market six months after we’ve debuted them.
Instead, much of our research on 'the competition' has largely been outside the Australian market. For instance, I like to benchmark Milan Direct against great furniture retailers in the USA and UK, not to copy — our markets are quite different anyway — but for inspiration about what is possible for an online furniture retailer to achieve.
I also like to look at retailers outside our sector. ASOS and Amazon have amazing browsing and checkout systems and I think we can learn a lot by tweaking our payment system to be more user-friendly like theirs.
What customers want
Too often I see a would-be competitor open up shop and, in an effort to secure as much of the market as possible, try to be everything to everyone. This works well for some retailers but not all, and what we’ve found is that it’s better to go deep by specialising than go broad by stretching yourself thin. Customers don’t want a thousand categories with five products in each; they would rather five categories with a thousand products in each and the technology to easily find and scroll through the options.
As a result, we’ve narrowed our focus. Although we started with home furniture, then outdoor furniture before moving to camping furniture, for example, we’re not about to offer camping gear and clothing because that’s too far away from our core offering. This not only makes it easier to nail our marketing as ‘the best place for furniture and homewares’, it also makes our website a richer place for customers and marks it as a go-to website.
The lesson here is to listen to what your customers (and potential customers) are saying. Chances are they’re pointing to a gap in the market for you to serve, or giving you feedback that you can use to improve your business. You don’t want to miss that because you were looking at what your competitors were doing.