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How to compete with bigger online retailers

It may seem as though large retailers dominate the ecommerce market, but smaller can be smarter when competing for online sales as Chris Barling of SellerDeck explains

Life isn't easy as a small online 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 finance. It's hard to compete.

However, small brands selling online can make their mark and even steal a march on bigger rivals. 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 ecommerce 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 on your ecommerce website. 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 on your website. And if there's a good story about how your business came into being, tell it on the 'About Us' web 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.

The competition may be big, but big can be slow moving, even online. By making yourself strong in one niche where your competitors have less advantage, you can keep one step ahead.

Written by Chris Barling of SellerDeck. Ecommerce content edited by Chloe Thomas of eCommerce MasterPlan.

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