Taking Your Online Store from Website to Brick-and-Mortar Business
For years, brick-and-mortar businesses heard constant admonishments to move online. Within the past few years, the idea of having a business without a website has come to seem absurd.
But now, just within the last year or two, an entirely different and surprising trend has come onto the scene: online-only businesses expanding their offline presence.
Take Warby Parker, for example. The online store for glasses managed to establish a brand reputation and grow a customer base entirely online over the last few years. Recently, they’ve begun opening storefronts all across the nation for customers who like the idea of browsing for glasses in person.
Wired, the technology magazine and online store, has started opening up a pop-up store in New York each winter for technology enthusiasts doing their Christmas shopping. Even a brand that’s entirely focused on the technological and online worlds has seen the benefits of moving into the offline space in this particular context.
And Amazon, (arguably) the king of online commerce, has drawn attention this year for plans to open a number of types of physical stores selling groceries, electronics, and – going back to their roots – books.
If you feel like your online store is due for an expansion, it might be time to consider if you want to take the bold, but potentially smart step of moving part of your business offline.
Benefits of Expanding an Online Business Offline
When we’ve all seen stories of retailers facing lost profits or even going out of business due to the competition of online shopping, it feels unintuitive – risky, even – to consider going the brick-and-mortar route. Yet, it does provide some tangible, meaningful benefits.
1. You can meet customers in person.
Shopping online – just like running a business online – is extremely convenient. However, it takes one part out of the equation that a lot of people find meaningful: meeting with a person face to face. Being able to chat with a customer in person, offer them helpful advice and answer questions on the spot creates a more personal and meaningful experience for both of you.
When a customer can put a face to the name and has a picture that pops to their mind every time they think of the brand, their relationship to your company will be stronger because of that personal connection.
2. You’ll reach a new audience.
While nearly 80% of all people in the United States say they shop online, 65% of people still prefer the experience of shopping in a physical store.
Many shoppers like being able to browse a number of items and see them up close before making a decision to buy. The experience of in-store shopping is something that just isn’t the same online.
By branching out into a physical store, you can reach a set of people unlikely to find you online, where getting found is extremely competitive. You may well earn some new customers to your online store who were finally able to find you only after your opened an offline location.
3. It gives customers an easier way to try things on.
This point doesn’t apply to every type of online business, but if you sell clothes, shoes, jewelry, or anything else people wear, the ability for customers to try the items on to see how they look is an important part of the shopping experience. Granted, when people order clothes online, they can send back anything that doesn’t fit, but that adds extra effort to the process (for both the customer and your fulfillment team). Being able to see how an item looks and fits before buying is a valuable part of the experience for many shoppers.
3 Forms Offline Businesses Can Take
Think that expanding your online business into a physical location could make sense for you? Here are a few ways to do it.
1. A Physical Storefront
The most common and traditional option is setting up a storefront for your business. If you think about most of the stores you regularly go to when shopping, this is most likely the type of physical business they have.
What are the advantages of a physical storefront?
To set up a storefront, you have to identify an available space to rent, fill it in with furniture, decorate it to match your brand, and then stock it with your products. When you have a consistent storefront location, you can make the changes needed to the space to make it suitable to your brand and products. It also makes it easy for loyal customers to know where to return when they want to buy more.
What are the cons?
The main downside to starting a storefront for your business is cost. Renting a space for a storefront is expensive. Making any updates to the space you feel are important to making it fit your needs is expensive as well. And hiring people to help you run it and wait on customers is another big expense. If your storefront doesn’t attract enough customers, then you’ll have a hard time breaking even.
2. A Pop-up Shop
If you’re not quite ready for the long-term commitment of a storefront, you can start smaller. Pop-up shops are temporary stores that set up in vacant spaces. You’d still need to identify and rent out a particular space for your store, but you’ll only have the space for a few weeks.
What are the advantages of a pop-up shop?
This option allows you to try out different areas of town – reaching different customers as you go. It’s more affordable, less permanent, and can help you test out whether or not having a physical location makes sense for you. It’s also a smart option for any business whose sales peak at a particular season. If you primarily sell bathing suits, then just having a physical store in the summer will make more sense for your business than having one year round.
What are the cons?
The main downside of pop-up shops in comparison to storefronts is that you lose out on some of the consistency of repeat business. People who visit once and like you are less likely to come back if you won’t be in the same place next time you’re in the area. And it makes promoting your physical location a bit trickier if you’re always moving around.
Nonetheless, pop-up shops are becoming more common for businesses that sell seasonal wares, wish to take advantage of big events that attract a lot of people, or simply want to test the waters of having a storefront without making the long-term commitment.
3. Booth at a Flea Market or Street Fair
An even more low-stakes option than a pop-up shop is setting up shop in a flea market or street fair.
What are the advantages of a booth?
This option can be great for some types of businesses – particularly those that sell items of the sort people are likely to be looking for when they go to a street fair. Businesses focused on clothes, jewelry, furniture, crafts, or artisan items like handmade soap are all likely to do well here. And the costs of going this route are much less than those of setting up a space of your own. Plus, you’ll gain access to all the people who come to the fair or market specifically to shop – in other words, you reach an audience ready to spend money.
What are the cons?
With a booth, you can capitalize on the marketing done by the market or fair and the crowds they bring in. But in exchange, you’re surrounded by a lot of competition also vying for those customers.
If you want to start with a relatively low-cost, low-risk way of branching into the offline world for your business, research your local flea markets or street fairs to see if one might be a fit.
Tips for an Effective Transition from Online to Off
There are both a lot of differences and a lot of similarities between running an online and offline business well. If your online business is doing well, then you already have some of the most important stuff down: good products, good UX, and good customer service, for example.
To make sure your offline business is just as successful, there are a few tips you should follow to handle the transition.
1. Keep your online brand alive and well.
There’s no reason to give up on what’s already working. If your online business is thriving, treat your offline expansion as an additional component of the business rather than a replacement.
Keep your current staff and policies in place and hire any additional staff you need to manage the physical location, so you don’t risk getting overwhelmed and putting both facets of your business – online and offline – at risk.
2. Research the best location for reaching your audience.
For a brick-and-mortar business to succeed, the location has to be right. In most cases, no one’s going to drive far out of their way to come to your storefront.
You want your business to be located in place where your customers will find it while out and about shopping for similar things. It should be convenient for them to return whenever they want to come back. Also think about practical issues like parking and how easy it is to see your business from the road. Your business will perform better if people can access your location without any extra effort.
3. Make sure your physical location is on brand.
You want anyone familiar with your online brand to be able to immediately make the connection between your physical location and the brand they know.
Your name and products will already be the same, but also be sure to use the same colors and logo and instill the same customer service philosophy in your employees at the physical location. Every experience a customer has at your physical store will now influence their view of your online brand. You want that to be a good thing.
4. Use your offline presence to promote your online presence (and vice versa).
Every customer that likes your brick-and-mortar store is in the target audience for your online store. Likewise, any online customer that’s located close to your physical store could be interested in checking it out.
Use your website to promote your physical location, and let the customers that visit your physical store know about your website. You can even sweeten the deal for regular online customers by offering a discount when they shop at the offline store, as a way to get more people through the door in those first weeks and months.
Ecommerce is still a big part of how people will be browsing and shopping in the future, but the brands likely to perform the best in the coming years will be those that figure out how to thrive both online and in person.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.