With the billion-dollar company Thrasio buying up small e-commerce stores and lots of smaller firms following suit, starting one and flipping it later is a great way for solopreneurs to start building wealth.
But even online shopping at a high after the pandemic—US ecommerce sales reached $871 billion in 2021, according to MarketPulse—ecommerce has gotten crowded and competitive.
So how can you find your niche? Chloe Thomas, host of the eCommerce MasterPlan podcast, recently shared her insights on how newcomers can break into the field. Thomas, an online marketer who has been involved with ecommerce since 2004, is author of the bestseller eCommerce Marketing and four other books on the topic and hosts an annual e-commerce summit.
Elaine Pofeldt: Many people are eager to start an e-commerce brand but have no idea where to begin. How can they get started?
Chloe Thomas: The first thing is to find the problem to solve. What does your product bring to the space that no one else’s product does? People are buying online, but the competition has gone up massively. Lots of people who previously didn’t sell now are selling online. It’s rare you can’t find as a consumer what you are looking for.
If you want to start something new, it’s going to need a reason why it should exist. Perhaps everyone else’s product is terrible in the space and your version is the best one. If you are not creating something people actually need and want, you will struggle to grow the business.
All of the marketing channels are cluttered and competitive. There’s so much noise out there. You have to find a way of cutting through that noise. You need a product that people need and solves a problem nothing else solves.
I don’t think going in with the idea “I want to do ecommerce is the route to success.” If it’s, “Everyone is doing garlic presses,” you can’t do that anymore.
It’s “I want to do X and ecommerce is the best route to do that.” If you want to start something from scratch, you’ve got to have the vision and problem-solving opportunity behind it.
Elaine Pofeldt: Are there any great research tools you can recommend?.
Chloe Thomas: Where I’d go to research is I’d look to other people selling similar goods and look at their reviews, whether it’s on Amazon, eBay or Etsy. See what people are disliking or finding is missing from it. If your product fits one of those, you’re probably onto something good.
I’d get in front of the target customer going to a real-world market. See what they think of the product. See how people react to it and how they’d be willing to pay for it. Or you can do it online these days. You can run a Facebook ad to the target audience. Get them to do a survey or 30-min Q&A where you send them a Starbucks gift card.
You need to do more due diligence before starting to sell. There’s still a research process. You need to do the work up front before you invest money and find out it doesn’t have any impact. There’s an awful lot of great business ideas where it wasn’t possible to attract enough audience at a price that works. Or there fundamentally there weren’t enough people who wanted to buy the product.
Elaine Pofeldt: How do you know if a business has legs?
Chloe Thomas: Businesses don’t always fail because they can’t make some money. They are often chosen to be closed because they don’t make enough money. The opportunity is not big enough. Anyone coming into ecommerce is probably doing it because of the fast scalability of the platform.
Failure is continuing to say, “I know there are five people who want this product so it must work.” The most successful, sensible thing you can do in that scenario is stop the business and say, “It doesn’t do what we want it to do.”
On the research side of things, the other area I tap into is the growing number of business brokerages growing ecommerce stores, like Empire Flippers. They are listing Fulfilled by Amazon businesses, Amazon associate or affiliate income business. You can see on there the trends that are popular with the end consumer. There is first-hand opportunity to buy something. If you don’t have an idea that’s where I’d go: Buy someone else’s business.
Elaine Pofeldt: How long should someone give a business before they reach a verdict on it?
Chloe Thomas: That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t think there’s necessarily a time limit. You can put a line in the sand that if it hasn’t done this by this date, we will re-assess. How quickly you are able to discover whether it works or not will depend on how quickly you manage to get visibility to it. Failure comes in not driving the business, not optimizing, not trying new challenges. If you are doing the work and doing your SEO, then within 6 months you should know if you have a potential opportunity. Then it might take a couple of years before you know it is a good-enough opportunity, or not. There’s always that danger you will fail to tap into the one thing that actually would have worked. It may be, for instance, that influencers are a magic thing in your space.
I had a business on the podcast called Bouq, an American florist. They have a really complicated end-to-end supply chain. They went live, thinking their target market was men. Within 6 months, they discovered their target market was women – women buying for other women and themselves. They did a total 180. They had to completely rework all their branding, messaging and marketing. Once they appealed to their actual customer base, they were able to bring in flowers for a fresh flower subscription service.
Elaine Pofeldt: What advice do you have for businesses that want to scale?
Chloe Thomas: Look for the data. Once you start having data, you start having success. You’ve got the information you need to take things forward in a good way. You can add additional marketing channels into the mix.
Elaine Pofeldt: What trends are important for readers to know about right now?
Chloe Thomas: A couple of key things you need to consider if you want to grow your business are based heavily on two big trends we are seeing. Number one is increased online competition. There are cookie issues. It is hard to get visibility on marketing platforms. It is hard to stand out, get people to your website.
The other one is consumers’ increasing desire for some form of connection and friendship of sorts with the brand they buy from. There is a lot going on around sustainability, doing better for the planet. With all of us having gone through a pandemic where we were denied social connection, people are increasingly responding to emotional-based content.
You take those things together, and you need to diversify your marketing a bit. Now is the time to try some offline marketing—direct mail, magazine and newspaper advertising. Bigger-picture PR. That’s essential to cut through the competition at the moment.
We also need to flip our focus from gaming the algorithm to the actual creative. I strongly believe by the end of this year we will see a massive increase in copywriting, graphic design and videography. All brands need to up their ability in the content arena. You need strong content, strong creative, across your e-mail, across your advertising, across everything you are doing to get across the right message and attract the right consumer to your business.
Elaine Pofeldt: Any advice on how to stand out?
Chloe Thomas: The way to stand out isn’t to run a half-price sale. It’s to tell the story of your business why you are supporting World Bee Protection day or removing plastic packaging from your business?
The other key thing within the creative piece is to have really strong customer reviews. Awards are nowhere near as useful as a customer giving you a video review. You use them in your advertising. If you only have the bandwidth to do one, work on mobilizing your existing customer base. It’s about the creative over the algorithm.