The following is an edited transcript of an April 2021 conversation between GetApp general manager Thibaut De Lataillade and ColderICE Media CEO John Lawson. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview at the end of this article.
Thibaut De Lataillade: Hi, I’m Thibaut De Lataillade, general manager at GetApp. As part of our Rebuilding Your Small Business series, we’re interviewing expert contributors for practical business advice on how to improve the overall customer journey. For those who don’t know, GetApp helps businesses such as yours discover and compare great software.
Today, I have the honor of interviewing John Lawson. John is the best-selling author of “Kick Ass Social Commerce for E-Preneurs” and CEO of ColderICE Media, a consulting agency helping small businesses with online sales, marketing, and content creation.
Watch Thibaut De Lataillade and John Lawson discuss CRP Growth Hacking in this episode of the GetApp Contributor Network: Rebuilding Your Small Business series.
We’re super excited to have you with us today! Before we start, I’d like to ask you to share with our audience your own experience of being an entrepreneur and running a business.
John Lawson: Basically, I am that quintessential kitchen table entrepreneur. I started my business completely out of need, as I was about to go bankrupt over a really bad real estate deal. So, I decided to sell my used e-books on eBay—that’s how I got started! And my business grew so much in the first few years, we were invited as early beta testers for Amazon’s third-party seller platform back in 2005. For more than 20 years now, I’ve been both a marketplace seller on Amazon/eBay and a direct-to-consumer business with my website at ShoeStringKing.com.
TDL: During the past year, we saw how pandemic restrictions forced brands to pivot from traditional marketing tactics. What are the most striking examples you saw in action?
JL: What’s crazy is that what was expected to take eCommerce three to five years to get to adoption, happened in a single year because of COVID and lockdown restrictions. Consumers ended up spending $861 billion online with U.S. merchants in 2020, and that’s up an incredible 44.0% year over year; 44% growth in one year! The move to online commerce has been nuts.
And smartphone shopping is now 45% of the total U.S. commerce in general. Nike, for example, has been using its website and shopping apps to release limited-edition footwear. When Nike would drop releases in the past, you would have lines outside malls. Well, the malls were closed, and Nike made that shift online with its app. It transformed into a direct-to-consumer business when previously it was very dependent on retail.
TDL: You made some bold predictions a few years ago about social commerce. Can you explain what it is and what businesses should do to jump on this trend?
JL: Absolutely! As the name implies, social commerce is the process of buying products directly on social media. It’s an $89.4 billion industry but is projected to grow to a whopping $600 billion in annual spend, and 35% of business owners said the pandemic helped them focus their business on eCommerce and 19% of these respondents had never done eCommerce before. So, this is their first time in this field, and many of them said they would have had to shutter their doors if it wasn’t for eCommerce.
I don’t believe social commerce is a subset of eCommerce, but actually the opposite. All commerce starts socially—social business is the top level, and eCommerce is a subset of that. Social media helps us sell those things online using tools such as the Facebooks, Instagrams, and Pinterests of the world. Instagram Stories alone has over 500 million users a day! Pinterest has over 459 million active monthly users, and that number is up 37% year over year.
TDL: We’re seeing many third-party marketplaces, such as Amazon or Etsy, that are trying to make it easy for small businesses to build a store on their sites. Do you think these are good channels for small businesses?
JL: Marketplace selling has its perks for small businesses. The biggest is probably a pre-existing audience of millions of consumers who frequent these marketplaces. Your ability to set up a store on a marketplace is often faster and much easier than building your own store, simply because the infrastructure is already in place for you.
Along with building your shop, many marketplaces also allow you to promote and advertise your products to their shoppers, giving you the ability to promote on places such as Walmart or Amazon—which alone has more than 225,000 sellers doing over $100,000 in sales. It’s got low startup costs, is easy to set up, and you get mass exposure. So for me, it’s kind of a no-brainer as an option for small businesses to succeed online.
TDL: I like that. Low startup costs, easy setup, mass exposure—that’s a recipe for success! Now let’s talk a bit about eCommerce tools. What are the must-have features to support small businesses to succeed online? And do you think different businesses require different features?
JL: Absolutely! Businesses have websites that can be 100% unique to their brand, but there are some basic things that need to be present in your design to help facilitate a great user experience and up your conversion with optimization.
So one thing is, it needs to be user-friendly—keep it simple. It needs to be mobile-optimized. Like we said about how many people were buying on mobile; over 61% of visitors to sites are coming from mobile devices. You also need flexible payment options. With the growth of Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, Amazon 1-Click, and Bitcoin, the more options you can give to your buyer, the better off your site is going to be. If your site has limited payment options, you could be missing out on some opportunities.
Another necessity is customer reviews. You have to have that social proof for credibility, and it can actually improve your SEO since you have more content on your page. Then, make suggestions. Related items are a creative way to create an efficient experience for your shoppers so that they don’t have to look for related stuff themselves; it’s presented right there on the page. Also, high-quality photos. Since you can’t feel or touch them, you need to spend the extra $1.50 or so to make high-quality photos. And finally, you’ve got to load fast. The faster your speed, the better your customer experience. Google also takes that into account for SEO rankings, so, typically, you wouldn’t want anything to take more than three seconds to load.
TDL: You mentioned the more flexible payment methods, the better. Actually, a recent Gartner report recommended the payment experience should be a strategic task, not just an operational one (full content available to Gartner clients only). Can you explain the role digital payments play in customer experience?
JL: Absolutely! Digital payments liberate consumers to go interact and shop with vendors on the fly and have a really seamless transaction. I was hungry the other day and saw a food truck that took the Cash App—that’s a digital payment. Now he doesn’t have to worry about carrying cash, and as long as I have that app on my phone, we can easily complete that transaction. Taking that concept of the Cash App with a food truck to the next level, we have what is called true mPOS or mobile point-of-sale. Mobile POS technology is making a huge difference in the way payments are processed in retail small businesses, by making it more streamlined and flexible, by replacing the central checkout areas with sales staff equipped with mPOS devices.
This can also generate contactless payments. If you think about the environment we’re in right now, everything is “contactless” because we are in a COVID period. That kind of payment simply allows customers to wave their device in front of a reader, and the payment is done. And then finally, biometric authentication is coming. You’ve already got it on your iPhone or smartphone. You just touch your finger, and it verifies who you are—that’s biometric authentication. It’s a verification method that involves things on people, such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scanning. All of that is coming to payments in 2021 and beyond.
TDL: Let’s move on the customer journey. Once customers place an order, many expect same-day delivery. How can small businesses think holistically through the fulfillment aspect, such as delivery and returns?
JL: I don’t think this is talked about much in the eCommerce space, but the passing of the late Tony Hsieh really makes me think about his idea and how it transformed eCommerce in a massive way. When he sold shoes at Zappos, he was so internally focused on the customer experience that they had an unparalleled commitment of satisfaction to customers. That translated into buyers being allowed to return shoes up to one year after purchase, with no questions asked. One whole year! And guess who ended up buying that company? Amazon. What happened was that ethos then became part of the Amazon culture, from same-day delivery to A-Z returns, which is pretty much what Tony Hsieh created.
So how do small and midsize businesses (SMBs) compete with Amazon? You don’t. Just because you play basketball doesn’t mean you have to compete with LeBron. What you do is start from your own customers’ experience and what they need and what they want. Consumers need their expectations set, and then once you set the expectation, all you need to do is simply meet and overcome them with surprise and delight. That’s how you compete in this kind of world with Amazon. There’s a robot behind Amazon; it’s not a person, and everyone knows that. So when they come to small businesses, they shop with us because they want a personal experience. So, start with that in mind.
If you want to provide the same-day experience, there are a lot of options out there. You can utilize Fulfillment by Amazon as a somewhat hybrid dropshipping solution—yes, it’s going to cost more, but convenience has a fee. There are a lot of options for growing SMBs right now. Services such as Roadie and Bungii can allow you to offer same-day delivery with local pickup options. And Shopify right now is beta testing its fulfillment network. The landscape is multiplying rapidly. And of course, good ol’ USPS offers Priority Mail Express, from overnight to two-day guaranteed delivery. Then on the backside, have a liberal returns policy. This, in turn, will increase your conversion rate because it removes the risk of the buyer from the consumer and transfers that risk to the vendor, where it should be.
TDL: There are definitely lots of alternatives that SMBs can leverage. Also, how do you recommend they select the right tools for their business?
JL: ECommerce has an “E” in it for a reason—it’s electronic. So eCommerce success is all about your tech stack. You have to find the best tools and solutions and then integrate all of that with your current hosting platform. You can use sites such as GetApp to find and compare tools based on your business requirements. GetApp will actually assist you by identifying integrated solutions, and you can gain access to more than 1.2 million validated—which is important—peer reviews to assist you with making sound choices. That validation is the difference between somebody’s opinion and a validated opinion.
TDL: So let’s assume we found the right software on GetApp, what are your top tips for businesses to increase online conversions?
JL: I’m going to give you five suggestions for success.
Use high-quality images and videos, when possible, for product display.
Offer free shipping. Although there’s no truly free shipping because of postage, but the deal is you can put that into the price, and it will increase your conversion rate. Making people do math isn’t a good thing. Keep it simple!
Tweak your checkout process for simplicity. We don’t want any surprises in the cart, so be upfront on pricing and fee.
Improve your site speed and mobile responsiveness.
Make sure you have an abandoned cart sequence for recapturing consumer interest.
TDL: I think I feel ready to launch my own eCommerce site! So how do you consider AR/VR in the shopping experience?
JL: To be a contrarian. Virtual reality (VR) is so fascinating, yes. But the problem is for us small businesses, I find VR to not really be a reality. It’s sort of a bridge too far. And the reason why? It's expensive. It’s expensive to create and program a virtual world, and it’s expensive for the end users that require expensive headgear to engage. In that realm, it’s still somewhat restrictive for mass adoption at this point.
Now juxtapose that with augmented reality (AR), and now we’re cooking with oil. AR is becoming more and more simple for small businesses to harness, and the only hardware you need is your cellphone. That puts AR in the reach for small business owners. Sephora, the makeup retailer, created an app for you to try on makeup on your face using AR. You can try on your glasses before you buy them at Zenni Optical. Try on clothes with AR on Stitch Fix, and Project Color from Home Depot will let you paint your room before you buy the paint.
SMBs have an opportunity here. AR projects are actually affordable, and you can implement this stuff quickly. It’s in reach for small businesses as it is today.
TDL: Finally, do you think these trends are really here to stay, and will they continue to be amplified?
JW: The juice is loose, and you can’t put it back in the box. Online commerce will continue to be a force that’s really inspired a complete shift in the way consumers think and behave, and part of that due to restrictive movement during the pandemic. As we transition out, the mindset will still remain. There’s now a true hybrid between digital and physical shopping that has become more ingrained in people’s everyday life.
Welcome to 2021 and beyond!
TDL: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, John! That was great and incredibly helpful. What I’m taking from our conversation today is that there are plenty of solutions for small businesses to sell online successfully. From social commerce and stand-alone platforms to third-party marketplaces, small businesses can now compete in the same league as big well-known brands.