6 Ways to Differentiate Your eCommerce Website

Photo: geopaul

As an avid online shopper, nothing pleases me more than a spot-on search-engine result to the right eCommerce website. Moving quickly along the continuum of product need, search query, and landing page, then to item inspection, shopping cart, and checkout with no surprises is my idea of an exceptional shopping experience. Creating depth to the site characters — owners, merchandisers, customer service teams — connects me to the business and keeps me coming back for more, making the relationship memorable.

There are as many ways to differentiate an eCommerce website as there are site owners and SKUs. Here are 6 techniques focused on trust-building, reliability, and consistency.

1. Use RDFa tags.

RDFa tags improve the chances that the results delivered by your eCommerce site will match the needs of Internet shoppers, as expressed in their search queries. This microformatting approach involves specifying product attributes (names, categories, brands, manufacturers, and prices) in XHTML using Resource Description Framework-attribution methods. Basically, eCommerce site owners can give shoppers precisely what they want; and help them avoid enticing, attractive e-destinations that don't actually stock items described by shoppers in online searches.

At the moment, prior to full-scale adoption by eCommerce businesses, RDFa tagging could boost search engine rankings; over the long haul, applied consistently, these tags will dramatically improve the reliability of results.

Jeff Finkelstein of Customer Paradigm alerted me to this method and gives an easy-to-understand explanation in RDFa Microformat Tagging for Your Website; this article covers business implications (potential for higher SEO and greater sales) and illuminates the technical aspects of implementation. For more information, see notes from the WC3 (World Wide Web Consortium) in an RDFa Primer on Bridging the Human and Data Webs; that is, translating information that is easily discernable by people into machine-readable data for indexing based on commonly used attributes.

2. Tell shoppers about inventory availability.

Providing reliable information on the availability of items can set your eCommerce site apart from competitors. Delivering a positive experience by actually having the product ready to ship upon demand makes your company memorable.

But, unless your company has excess dollars to invest in large amounts of inventory, you may not always have high availability; being able to alert customers to low-stock or out-of-stock conditions with expected in-stock dates is valuable in creating goodwill.

Syncing your customer-facing website with your back-office inventory system is a first step in giving up-to-date information on product availability. Taking physical counts, comparing to inventory records, and resolving discrepancies immediately can improve inventory accuracy. For drop-shipped and hard-to-find items, dialogue with vendors can yield insights to anticipated availability; and possibly let you know about products that are soon to be discontinued or those with extra-long lead times. As a result of these steps, your company can give better information to customers when they consider products for purchase.

3. Make it easy for customers to find products they want in addition to the one item that they've been searching for.

Primary categories of products should be limited and organized logically from the shopper's perspective, which may or may not be aligned with each merchant's area of accountability. And, fewer primaries make it simpler for customers to predict the appropriate category for a wanted item.

Subcategories can be expansive so that customers can quickly pinpoint where products should be found. At the same time, customers can recognize alternatives to explore if the first subcategory doesn't contain the right product.

4. Update content daily.

Though daily updates may seem like a time-consuming, resource-robbing task, even brief announcements can show visitors that you (or one of your employees) are minding the store.

Site updates can promote newly introduced products, shipments that just arrived, and special sales. Or, updates can relate industry news that is relevant or entertaining to shoppers.

5. Make your location a selling point.

Discover and showcase ways that your location differentiates some element of your business. There may be product-related ties: your company sells sweet potatoes from North Carolina; Vidalia onions from Georgia; Amish furniture from Pennsylvania; couture apparel from New York.

Or, there may be subtle benefits: your business holds down costs and offers attractive pricing by headquartering in a small town; tests hiking gear on a close-by mountain range before adding items to its product mix; or ships its gourmet cookware from a facility near a renowned culinary school.

6. Offer a chance to get connected.

Link the virtual world with the real one. Even if you don't have a brick-and-mortar location, you can announce your presence (or that of some key employees) at a trade show, professional meeting, or social event. Or, host a company event and invite customers to attend (see ideas for controlling special-event expenses). It's irrelevant whether thousands of people shake your hand: it's your willingness and desire to meet and understand customers that is valued.

Don't be so different that the reasonable shopper gets confused (asking customers to place items in a bag and not a shopping cart, for example); instead, differentiate your website by giving the customer what he wants as quickly and easily as you can.

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