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Compete successfully online

With large retailers setting up heavily-resourced ecommerce arms, you might think you could be squeezed out of your online market. But Chris Barling, Chairman of SellerDeck, argues that smaller can be smarter when competing online

Life isn't easy as a small retailer. The major retail chains seem to roam unchallenged across the online retail landscape, relentlessly extending their product range to embrace everything from camping equipment to banking. It's hard to compete.

The internet used to be a niche channel, the preserve of small specialist businesses and online startups, but now the major retailers are a serious force to be reckoned with. Here are three tips for beating them.

1.  Niche not general

The major way to compete with the big guys is to become a specialist at one thing, and beat them at that game. The great thing about developing such a niche business is that it automatically incorporates a good marketing strategy. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in business is trying to be all things to all people. You can avoid this when you "go niche."

Focus brings many advantages. Your brand may not be widely recognised, but it's much quicker and cheaper to become known within a specialist area. There are generally a small set of publications, online forums and bloggers. It costs less to reach and influence them than to establish a reputation in a broad sector.

Within your niche, you can quickly develop real expertise, so don't diversify unless you are sure about what you are doing. Use customer endorsements, the logos of related trade bodies you belong to, and sponsor key events in your market. Plus enable your internal specialists to talk to customers and prospects using social networks. The non-specialist retail giants, are unlikely to be interested in doing such things and their experts won't want to stay in one silo, because they're looking for broader opportunities.

2.  Focus on search

Experiment with search phrases on Google AdWords. Try longer and more specific phrases like 'Carp Fishing Rods' rather than generic ones such as 'Fishing Rods'. The latter are more expensive and produce proportionally fewer sales. And then optimise relevant pages for the free search listings once you know which search phrases generate the most business. Also exchange links with as many relevant, good quality sites as possible that offer complementary products.

3.  Get personal 

Look for every opportunity to show real people behind your business. Personalise the site with photos of your staff and give their email addresses. And if there's a good story about how your business came into being, tell it on the 'About Us' page. This puts you ahead of the faceless giants and reassures customers should they have any queries. Social networks such as Facebook or Twitter are also a great way to interact with customers more personally.

Wake up time

Times are hard, and even more than ever the stretched consumer is looking for a bargain. The competition may be big, but big can be slow moving. By making yourself strong in one niche where your competitors have less advantage, you can keep one step ahead.

For more information on this topic, see the Resources box right.