David and Goliath: Competing In the Days of Amazon

In an eCommerce landscape dominated by behemoth online marketplaces like Amazon and Walmart, many small business retailers are struggling with the same question: How can my business compete?

Recently, I attended a conference about survival strategies small business Davids can use against these eCommerce Goliaths. The keynote speaker asked us to raise our hands if we were struggling to keep up with Amazon’s tactics. Nearly everyone in attendance raised their hands, either for themselves or on behalf of clients they represented. Then, the speaker followed up with a call for hands from everyone who had an Amazon Prime membership. Again, nearly everyone in attendance raised their hands.

As a consumer, I love the convenience of Amazon, especially the benefits of Prime membership. (Yes, I raise my hand!) But as an eCommerce professional, I find Amazon’s tactics to be absolutely maddening. For example, most eCommerce retailers can’t afford to offer free overnight or two-day shipping on all orders and remain profitable. No one can claim tactics like this don’t work; Amazon purchases make up a third of all eCommerce transactions in the US. This staggering statistic raises the unavoidable question: Is it possible for a small eCommerce business to compete against Amazon in the modern digital marketplace?

Plenty of people say yes—and then try to sell you their services or tools to do so. But when you consider Amazon’s size and the resources at its disposal, the practical and honest answer is no. But another recent experience led to a realization: Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question.

Online Insights from the Offline World

My wife is a painter. A couple of weeks ago we traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to participate in the 46th Annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts. Nearly 400 artists and 50 other vendors traveled to Tuscaloosa to showcase and sell their artwork. Over 100,000 visitors attended the event, and the creative synergy of the festival was awe-inspiring.

As I chatted with shoppers in our booth, I kept asking myself, What was it about this festival that drew so many people? What specific elements inspired so much wonderful dialogue? Sure, the festival had great music, beer, and funnel cakes, and the weather was perfect. But those obviously weren’t the main draws; they were just peripheral delights. Don’t get me wrong, I would never minimize the power of a funnel cake, but there was something else going on. It was the human interaction. The personal connection with like-minded people—in other words, the community—is what brought art lovers to the festival in droves.

My experience at the Kentuck Art Festival gave me an answer to the Amazon question. Instead of asking how we can compete with Amazon, we should ask ourselves a different set of questions altogether: How can I create an amazing shopping experience like the one at the art festival in the digital marketplace?

Why would a customer visit my website, and what would inspire them to make a purchase? To answer those questions, we must consider a few others:

  1. Who is our community?
  2. How is our community doing?
  3. Do our digital channels and our web store align with and support our community?

The Strategy

Chances are, if your eCommerce business is growing, you have a unique community. What are you doing to offer your community a unique shopping experience tailored to their specific wants and needs?

At the Kentuck Art Festival, each artist’s booth was highly stylized to reflect the creativity and style of the artist. I watched some shoppers get drawn into our booth almost magnetically, while others would pass by without expression. I watched artists share their stories and the stories behind their works to the delight of their community. And inevitably, I watched shoppers leave with a painting under their arm and a smile on their face. I knew those paintings would hang on a living room wall or over a dining room table, and the story behind the work would be told over and over again.

Small online retailers need to adopt a similar strategy. We need to make the online shopping experience something truly special, one that represents our particular niche or community. Our marketing, social media, content, and web store must fill our customers with joy, just as the Kentuck artists did. That should be the ultimate goal for the Davids of eCommerce: Delighting our customers so they’ll tell the tale of their shopping experience, just as art lovers share stories when describing the newest addition to their home art collection.

Practical Steps

So, how do we accomplish that goal and create that delight? The first and most important step is to get to know your customer. I mean really get to know your customers as living, breathing humans, not as numbers on a Google Analytics spreadsheet. We are, after all, store owners, even if our stores are digital. Our stores, brand, and products reflect who we are as people. We must treat our store and our customers just as we would if our stores were brick-and-mortar boutiques, building rapport, having conversations, and reflecting on the customers we meet and the people we talk to.

Think about your favorite physical stores. What is it about these stores that you love so much? How can you replicate that experience online? Here are a few strategies to use to get to know your community.

  1. Connect with a VIP survey
  2. Reach out with specific questions through our social media channels
  3. Encourage and incentivize product reviews
  4. Create Facebook groups and address specific product questions
  5. Encourage social sharing
  6. Sponsor community events

The Idea In Action: Namaste Y’all

Many years ago, I opened an online store called Namaste Y’all. You can guess the focus: We sold yoga stuff back in the yoga heyday. I wanted to set our packages apart from other yoga clothing and gear retailers. I used a few strategies to do that. I would make sure everything in the box was beautiful and perfectly packaged. In every package, I’d send a logo sticker, which is a fun and relatively cheap form of marketing. To my amazement, on a road trip, I once spotted one of my stickers on a car a thousand miles away from home!

Our most successful strategy was a special invitation to join my online community. In each package, I included a smartly designed invitation to visit the Namaste Y’all YouTube page. There, fans and followers could watch videos of me actually teaching yoga classes, quick clip videos breaking down individual yoga poses, and even videos of me and some yoga friends goofing around at yoga festivals. During the videos, I’d plug blog posts and specific products to draw repeat business.

My customers loved this stuff. It really brought them into the Namaste Y’all community. Most importantly, it created real, human-to-human connection. They saw my face, heard my voice, and watched me practice yoga using the products I sold. That built trust and established credibility. When my customers went to their local yoga studios, they told their friends about my store and my business grew!

Vending Machines vs. Real Human Connection

Compare that personalized, relational approach with big-box shopping. What does Amazon really offer? Have you ever experienced content or brand delight on Amazon? Amazon is a marketplace with millions of products and thousands of vendors, each nearly identical to the last. Shipping and delivery are quick and cheap, and they can access your money with one click. But they don’t have a personal story. There’s no sense of community among Amazon shoppers. Retail Goliaths like Amazon and Walmart are really just faceless retail engines, giant digital vending machines. When I receive a huge box filled with air pillows and my new 128GB flash drive at the bottom of the box, I feel a little dead inside.

Now, think about your online store. What can you do better than Amazon? You can create a cool brand that your customers love. You can reach out to your community, let them know a little more about your company, and introduce them to the humans on your team.

A Different Story

The truth is, small business eCommerce can’t compete with many aspects of the Amazon model. But here’s the golden question: Why would we want to? This industry is a huge pie and it’s only getting bigger. Growing your community is like a snowball. It may start off small, but as you push it down the hill, it will gain momentum and grow very quickly. Instead of thinking of yourself as David facing Goliath, be Bill instead. Who’s Bill? A guy in a different story altogether. Bill has better things to do than face down Goliath, and you have better things to do than trying to beat Amazon at the cheap-and-quick game.

Do you need help building your online community? We can collaborate with you to develop an eCommerce strategy that will get your momentum rolling. Contact us today, and let’s make your story great.

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