written by
Bret Williams

Should Brick & Mortars Rush to Online?

Ecommerce 5 min read

As the COVID-19 pandemic slows or shutters many brick and mortar stores, there are many rushing to go online to sell their wares. This mad rush is being fueled by many in the online development space. But is this race to relocate wise?

Karen Baker is the CEO and Founder of Austin-by-way-of-England-and-Ohio ShipperHQ. Among add-on vendors in the SMB ecommerce space, her company is one of the more well-known. Previously called WebShopApps, ShipperHQ adds sophisticated shipping calculation rules to help merchants more accurately price shipping for customers. It's a daunting piece of software which she and her team have adroitly evolved through the ever-changing landscape of shipper rules and rate changes.

Recently, Karen has been on a crusade to help online merchants who are struggling to maintain sales during this period. "If I can, for instance, find a merchant that is still able to keep functioning with social separation in place," Karen recently posted, "can we build a template for that and get other merchants online?" To that end, she spearheaded the creation of a new website, offline2on.com, focused on matching retailers, wholesalers, and restaurants who want to suddenly launch an online presence with agencies and developers who can help.

We all should be looking for opportunities within our means to extend a helping hand.

In this spirit of "crisis community," efforts such as this are admirable, indeed. We all should be looking for opportunities within our means to extend a helping hand. But, moving quickly to go online won't be the savior that most will expect. The proof is on the Resources page of offline2on.com, where a long list of e-commerce platforms is shown with brief, bulleted descriptions of each.

For 25 years, I've built and helped clients build hundreds of online solutions. While it's possible to launch an online storefront in very short order, a successful store is a much different proposition. Every minute a store owner does not spend in preparation and planning is not a minute saved. The lack of proper planning will push the line of profitability further away.

Take another look at the list of platforms on the page mentioned above. If you were a new online merchant, how would you even begin to determine which platform would best enable your online selling objectives? Online success is much more than the technology; selling profitably is based on a hundred decision points, any one of which could make a hasty platform choice invalid and a waste of time and effort.

Many are hoping to snag new clients, and others hope to sell their software and solutions to a new crop of naive merchants.

And this is a point that Karen should realize as much as anyone. Not just Karen, either. The entire group who have raced to join this effort are not all, like Karen, seeking to be charitable members of the industry (I have no reason to suspect anything but the highest ideals with Karen). Many are hoping to snag new clients, and others hope to sell their software and solutions to a new crop of naive merchants.

I joined the effort, too, until I realized that even those involved in organizing this initiative are struggling with proper planning and coordination. Only today, we received a Slack message that the compiled offerings of various platform participants was not quite yet ready. If putting together this effort is complicated to its managers, bringing nascent merchants successfully online is even more complicated by a factor of at least tenfold.

Take for a moment the decisions regarding shipping and logistics to be pondered and satisfied. If the focus of this effort is merchants who are traditional brick and mortar businesses without online experience, the transition to shipping is considerable. Let's imagine Bill's Formal Wear. Bill has been selling and renting tuxedos, prom gowns, and wedding dresses for forty years. Until the Coronavirus eliminated his foot traffic, he had not the time to consider, plan, and execute an online strategy.

Now, Bill is contemplating an online selling store. While his nephew has him convinced that Shopify is the way to go, Bill is eyeing BigCommerce because there are no transaction fees beyond merchant costs. Unfortunately, Bill is getting the cart before the horse. He hasn't yet dived into how he plans to sell online. The "how" is not the technology, but the logistics of taking and fulfilling an order.

If I was visiting with Bill on a Zoom call (I'd rather sit across a dining table or coffee shop dinette, but...), I'd have him spend time working through the following:

  • How will you provide sizing? Knowing that buyers of tuxedos and dresses want more exact sizing than small, medium, and large, how will you teach customers how to measure themselves? How will you want those measurements communicated?
  • What will your turnaround time be? Can you still get materials and stock from manufacturers? Do you have suppliers in the USA, given that much of overseas shipping is being restricted?
  • Do you have the means of calculating dimensional shipping costs? Since apparel boxes are often large, but not as heavy, Bill will most likely be charged "dimensional" rates.
  • With what carriers do you have relationships? Do you have a rate structure you can use to compare with the discounted rates of Shopify, BigCommerce and other platforms?
  • Do you require a deposit, or can you take full payment upfront? How will you handle returns or alterations?

Those are just some of the questions to be considered regarding shipping and logistics; there are so many more relating to other areas of an e-commerce effort. Obviously, not all retailers have the same challenges Bill has. Other merchants will have other unique considerations.

What I have not yet seen in all this good-cause effort to bring offline sellers to the online world of commerce is providing proper planning and evaluation. We can't begin to expect developers and vendors to provide unbiased advice, no matter how good the intention. Yet, there are so few agencies and consultants who are not already fully engaged in helping their own clients weather the current economic climate.

This is not to say that we should not try to help small businesses get online. It's the expectation that needs to be managed. And each case that comes to groups like offline2on.com should be first triaged by a small, nimble team of analysts who are not owning to any particular technologies, development agencies, or services.

It's a very tall order, indeed, but without a proper process of offline to online migration, the merchants who need help the most will, instead, be mostly damaged further.

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