Walmart Expands Marketplace, Challenging Amazon

Walmart’s U.S. ecommerce sales in the last quarter of 2020 increased by 69 percent year-over-year while its total sales grew only 7.3 percent. The message is clear: future growth will depend on ecommerce.

Emboldened by a pandemic-driven increase in digital sales, Walmart has decided to challenge Amazon’s dominance in the ecommerce arena. Walmart is presumably the only retailer with the financial resources, logistical prowess, and size to do this.

In its two-pronged approach, Walmart is trying to lure Amazon’s sellers and expand its own marketplace to international sellers. The company is reaching out individually to a few of Amazon’s largest sellers. It has already contacted Perch, one of the large aggregators that buy smaller Amazon sellers.

Global Revenue: Amazon, WalmartBar chart with 2 data series.2019, 2020 total company-wide sales; Amazon FYE 12-31, Walmart FYE 1-31; US $ billionsPRACTICAL ECOMMERCE | Source: SEC.govView as data table, Global Revenue: Amazon, WalmartThe chart has 1 X axis displaying categories.The chart has 1 Y axis displaying values. Range: 0 to 600000.2019, 2020 total company-wide sales; Amazon FYE 12-31, Walmart FYE 1-31; US $ billions$280,522​$280,522$523,964​$523,964$386,064​$386,064$559,151​$559,15120192020AmazonWalmart$0$200,000$400,000$600,000Global Revenue: Amazon, WalmartPRACTICAL ECOMMERCE | Source: SEC.govEnd of interactive chart.

Sell on Walmart?

According to a survey by Jungle Scout, an Amazon-seller tool, 39 percent of Amazon sellers are considering Walmart this year. Those looking to expand tend to be established FBA merchants, Fifty-four percent of these sellers have more than 10 active product listings on Amazon. Many Amazon sellers have become disenchanted with the Amazon Marketplace. Some have been kicked out without explanation. Objections to Amazon’s actions often take a long time to resolve.

The survey shows that those sellers interested in Walmart tend to list products in the top-selling Amazon categories such as home and kitchen, toys and games, and sports and outdoors. Walmart.com and Amazon have the same general customer base.

Walmart does not charge sellers monthly fees, while Amazon professional accounts cost $39.99 per month. Walmart charges sellers a fixed referral fee per sale (typically 15 percent of the product’s sale price) plus additional fees if they use Walmart Fulfillment Services, which launched last year.

While Walmart does not publicize its fulfillment fee structure, it states that the storage and fulfillment fees are based solely on the product’s weight and dimensions.Screenshot of Walmart Fulfillment Services web page

Fees for Walmart Fulfillment Services are based on weight and dimensions.

It is still easier to set up an account with Amazon. Anyone can register and have a product listed within a few days. In contrast, the Walmart Marketplace requires a potential seller to apply and be vetted. Walmart sends an invitation to those who meet the qualifications. Sellers must have a U.S. tax identification number.

Walmart’s Strategy

According to Marketplace Pulse, Walmart now has around 80,000 marketplace sellers, a minuscule number compared to Amazon’s 9.8 million, although only 1.9 million are active.

Walmart wants to grow as quickly as possible. In February, Walmart announced a partnership with BigCommerce, an ecommerce platform. Walmart said the partnership will allow it to quickly increase the number of products it offers consumers from the 85 million now in stock. BigCommerce sellers can use an app called “Walmart Connector for BigCommerce” to easily integrate their stores with Walmart Marketplace.

To attract new sellers, Walmart is also simplifying its onboarding process, which had been criticized as burdensome. Walmart is also promoting a limited-time offer called New-Seller Savings that provides a 30-day waiver on sales commissions to all merchants who join the platform by March 31 and go live by May 1.Screenshot of the "Apply to sell" page for Walmart's marketplace

Unlike Amazon, which allows anyone to register and sell on its marketplace, Walmart vets potential sellers.

Walmart recently announced it is opening its marketplace to foreign sellers. Until now only merchants with a U.S. address could participate. Merchants will be vetted by Walmart’s global trust and safety team. Walmart is targeting Chinese retailers and manufacturers who offer low-to-moderately priced goods popular in the U.S. The surge in ecommerce in the U.S. due to the pandemic has made the country an appealing venue for Chinese vendors.

Walmart Advantages

Walmart has 4,756 retail U.S. stores. They can be used for in-store pick-up, curb-side delivery, and customer returns. By contrast, Amazon’s Whole Foods chain has only 500 U.S. stores.

Earlier this month Walmart dropped its $35 minimum order requirement to qualify for its express two-hour delivery service, which is available in close to 3,000 locations, reaching 70 percent of the U.S. population. The stores are crucial to the two-hour delivery service, which is primarily for produce, pantry items, household essentials, and other consumables. Two-hour service typically costs $10 on top of a standard delivery fee ranging from $7.95 to $9.95.

However, Walmart waives the entire delivery fee if consumers subscribe to Walmart+, which costs $98 a year or $12.95 a month. Walmart+ is a competitor to Amazon Prime, and though Walmart does not offer videos and music, it does provide a five-cent-per gallon fuel discount at Walmart and Murphy gas stations and member pricing at Sam’s Club gas stations.

Walmart is a long way from catching Amazon. But it has made substantial progress. Its online shoppers, unlike its brick-and-mortar customers, are similar to Amazon’s. And with a growing range of online goods and services, Walmart could challenge Amazon’s dominance.

The benefits of a thriving consumer forum

An ecommerce website can have content other than products for sale. Consider a forum, for example.

What makes a good forum? In my experience, it is where participants can ask questions and receive relevant answers within a few hours, no longer. A good forum is busy with lots of helpful content. A high-traffic forum can generate a secondary income from advertising or membership fees.

Advertising revenue needs plenty of visitors. Membership paywalls will restrict visitors. Thus the problem is twofold. How do you make a forum busy enough to keep people returning or worth paying a membership?

Relevant to your products

Firstly the forum should be relevant to your ecommerce site, focused on topics that interest visitors. It should answer questions and provide advice. Ideally the questions, answers, and advice all come from visitors. But initially you’ll likely have to seed the forum with content and in-house members.

A casual visitor will read interesting content. He may even ask questions if it appears the answers would be helpful. Again, the initial answers may have to come from staff, but over time visitors will ideally provide both the questions and the replies.

Achieving forum success is not easy. It will likely need considerable investment in time. But the rewards of frequent, interested visitors who value what you sell cannot be understated. You could ask their opinions, solicit pre-orders, and otherwise promote your products. Members could post about their products, forthcoming releases, business challenges, and more. Thus an active forum can generate relevant content.

Once the community has many participants, you could consider paid memberships. You will likely need to offer something to make it worthwhile. This could be a private forum with exclusive offers and discounts or a marketplace for members to sell products (especially relevant for collectibles). I know of one forum where paid members can link to their website and ask peers to review. It is not for the faint-hearted, however, as the reviews can be brutal but (usually) helpful!

No spam

Spam is the one thing to avoid on any forum. That can be difficult, as once it becomes popular a forum will attract spam posts, such as thinly-disguised adverts and offers for prescriptions, passports, or bitcoin deals. A good forum is moderated so such posts are gone within a few hours at most.

Loyal customers can serve as effective moderators. In time they “own” the forum and visit it more often if they think they are valued. Pitched correctly, the moderators can receive free memberships and nothing else. Moreover, volunteer moderators will not only remove spam but could also post knowledgeable replies.

Done properly, a forum can eventually be self-sustaining — requiring little staff time. It only works, however, if the forum directly relates to what you sell and interests visitors.

Launching a successful forum takes much promotion and nurturing. It will never gain traction otherwise. That’s why an active forum is rare. But, done correctly, a forum can generate customers to an ecommerce site as well as advertising and membership revenue.

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11 New Ecommerce Books for Spring 2021

Here’s a batch of new ecommerce books for your spring reading list. There are titles on branding, social media marketing, cross-border selling, podcasting, customer experience, transacting on Amazon and Shopify, and selling your business.

I compiled this list using Amazon. From Amazon’s “Books” category, I selected “Business & Money.” From there I chose the “Processes & Infrastructure” sub-category and selected “E-commerce.” Then I handpicked titles from that group based on customer ratings and relation to ecommerce. Also, I selected a few titles from the “Small Business & Entrepreneurship” sub-category.

New Ecommerce Books

The Digital Seeker: A Guide for Digital Teams to Build Winning Experiences by Raj K. De Datta

Cover of The Digital Seeker

The Digital Seeker

Exceptional digital experiences don’t just meet customers’ transactional needs. Instead, they address deeper problems for which customers seek solutions. Exceptional digital experiences are built on agile platforms, offering personalized, scalable performance. “The Digital Seeker” offers key lessons on the digital transformations from innovative businesses. Kindle $15.50; Hardcover $24.95.

Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results by Brad Cleveland

Cover of Leading the Customer Experience

Leading the Customer Experience

Getting customer experience right is essential in today’s marketplace. Absent a strategy, culture, and processes, a business will suffer from high costs, dissatisfied customers, and brand damage. “Leading the Customer Experience” is a step-by-step guide to shaping experiences to win loyalty and deliver exceptional business results. Paperback $29.95; Hardcover $90.00.

Social Media For Small Business: Marketing Strategies for Business Owners by Franziska Iseli

Cover of Social Media For Small Business

Social Media For Small Business

“Social Media For Small Business” is a practical guide on how to grow a business through Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and more. Explore the tools and strategies to develop your brand and see a rapid return on your investment. Paperback $19.99.

Rethinking Competitive Advantage: New Rules for the Digital Age by Ram Charan

Cover of Rethinking Competitive Advantage

Rethinking Competitive Advantage

Digital disruptors such as Amazon and Alibaba have redefined the nature of competition. In “Rethinking Competitive Advantage,” explore the new rules on how to get ahead. Learn to create an ecosystem to personalize the customer experience, build a social engine to drive innovation and execution, and attract angel investors. Kindle $13.99; Hardcover $18.26.

Re-constructing Cross-border E-commerce: The Globalization Practices of Small- and Medium-sized Enterprise by Xinxin Li and Xiaoling Peng

Cover of Re-constructing Cross-border E-commerce

Re-constructing Cross-border E-commerce

“Re-constructing Cross-border E-commerce” explores worldwide ecommerce, the state of China’s foreign trade, and the strategy of Alibaba in the global market. Examine the success stories of foreign traders, and follow the new trends of world trade and the role of Chinese suppliers. Hardcover $38.95.

Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success by Sabrina Horn

Cover of Make It, Don't Fake It

Make It, Don’t Fake It

Authentic leadership eliminates the need for the shortcuts that sabotage success. In “Make It, Don’t Fake It,” learn from the core principles of leadership, authenticity, reality-based business integrity, and discover how to attain and maintain it. Paperback $18.95; Kindle $9.99.

How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley

Cover of How Innovation Works

How Innovation Works

“How Innovation Works” chronicles the history of innovation, which is not an orderly, planned, top-down process. Instead it happens as a result of human exchange. Innovation turns inventions into practical and marketable things of use. Learn valuable lessons on the nature of innovation through examples, how they started, and why they succeeded or failed — such as search engines, computers, artificial intelligence, and more. Kindle $14.99; Paperback $17.99.

Exit Rich: The 6 P Method to Sell Your Business for Huge Profit by Michelle Seiler Tucker and Sharon Lechter

Cover of Exit Rich

Exit Rich

Knowing when to sell your business is one of the biggest challenges for an entrepreneur. In “Exit Rich,” mergers and acquisitions authority Michelle Seiler Tucker and author Sharon Lechter offer a guide for all business owners, whether they’re gearing up to sell a business now or preparing to sell in the future. Learn to objectively evaluate your business, improve your chances of finding the right buyer, and sell for maximum profit. Hardcover $27.95.

Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire by Brad Stone

Cover of Amazon Unbound

Amazon Unbound

Ten years ago, Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone profiled the rise of Amazon in his bestseller, “The Everything Store.” Since then Amazon has expanded dramatically while its workforce has quintupled in size. In “Amazon Unbound,” Brad Stone presents a portrait of how a retail upstart became one of the most powerful and feared entities in the global economy. See how the seismic changes inside the company over the past decade have led to innovations and missteps. Also follow the evolution of Jeff Bezos, from geeky technologist to iron-fisted ruler to billionaire chairman. Kindle $14.99; Hardcover $30.00.

Start Your Own Podcast Business by The Staff of Entrepreneur Media and Jason R. Rich

Cover of Start Your Own Podcast Business

Start Your Own Podcast Business

“Start Your Own Podcast Business” is an easy-to-understand guide for setting up, recording, branding, marketing, and managing your podcast. Create pod listings and marketing plans that attract the right listeners. Pick the best equipment and tools to produce a winning show. Maximize your brand with design elements, targeted campaigns, storytelling, and more. Paperback $19.99.

Shopify: Create Your Very Own Profitable Online Business Empire! by Jonathan S Walker

Cover of Shopify

Shopify

“Shopify: Create Your Very Own Profitable Online Business Empire!” is an introductory guide to selling on the popular platform. Learn how to generate income, explore drop shipping, and discover the benefits of Fulfillment by Amazon. Paperback $16.50.

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How to Use Transactional Emails to Foster Customer Loyalty

Staying in touch with your customers with timely, informative emails after they make a purchase is an important part of building your business. Businesses who do this well make shoppers feel valued and confident about their order, and their overall satisfaction will be high. This can lead to repeat sales from people who are happy to sing your praises online. 

But no shop owner wants to be beholden to their inbox. Reassure your shoppers that their order has been received, is being processed, and is out for delivery with automatic transactional emails.

What is a transactional email?

A transactional email is an automatic notification sent to a customer based on events that happen around their order. For example, each shopper should receive an auto-generated confirmation as soon as they complete their purchase, listing the items they bought and the total cost. The main purpose of transactional emails is to keep shoppers informed of their order status. 

WooCommerce includes several transactional emails configured by default. Automatic emails are sent as orders progress through your shop’s delivery process; you can let your customers know when their order has been received, is being processed, and is out for delivery. 

Pro tip: If you have additional steps in your process — such as moving an order into an “assembly” step for a custom-created item — you can create new order statuses that trigger automatic emails with the WooCommerce Order Status Manager extension.

Customizing your transactional emails

Default WooCommerce transactional emails send basic information to your customers, but you can increase engagement and trust by customizing your emails with your own logos, colors, and additional information. Customized emails serve several purposes:

  1. They’re instantly recognizable. Recipients will know that the email comes from your company and that it contains important information about their order. 
  2. They look more professional. While we personally love the default WooCommerce purple emails (it is our brand after all!) changing the colors to fit your own style will help customers recognize your brand.
  3. They provide helpful information. Adding extra information reduces the need for customers to hunt down answers to questions or reach out to your support team. 

You can change the header, footer, and colors of your transactional emails by navigating to WooCommerce → Settings → Emails. Want to work visually? Try MailPoet’s email template customizer! Edit all of your email elements using a drag-and-drop builder without using any code.

MailPoet Interface

Beyond the design, you can also change the text content in your email settings. Click Manage next to the one you want to edit, and change the subject line, heading, and body text as needed.

If you have information to send for specific products, such as a user guide or installation instructions, you can add custom notes and links to files for each item. This is called a Purchase Note and can be added in the Advanced section of the Product Data box for an individual product.

MailPoet Email Types

Turning transactional emails into conversions

Yes, a transactional email does typically mean that you’ve already made a sale. But with the email template customizer from MailPoet, you can turn those emails into additional orders! Let’s look at a few ways you can do this:

  1. Include a coupon code. Consider adding a discount or free shipping offer to your “order confirmation” email. This encourages shoppers to go ahead and buy that accessory they were considering or come back for a second purchase in a few weeks. Plus, it rewards them for shopping at your store in the first place.
  2. Ask for a review or social share. Your customers are the most excited after they receive your product in the mail. There’s something special about getting exactly what they’re looking for on their doorstep! Make the most of that excitement by asking for a review or share on social media in your “product delivered” email. This is a great way to reach a new audience (your customers’ friends and family) or boost the confidence of those considering your products.  
  3. Add a call to action button. A CTA (call to action) asks your customers to, well, take action. You might ask them to turn their one-time order into a subscription or you could combine images, text, and buttons to showcase additional items that are available on your store.

The best part? With MailPoet, you can just drag and drop any of these items into your transactional email templates and preview your updates. It’s as easy as clicking a button.

Ensuring your transactional emails arrive safely

It’s no use creating great emails that never arrive in a customer’s inbox. Can you imagine the frustration of placing an order and never receiving a confirmation? That can compromise trust with your buyers. So how do you prevent this?

The first step is to make sure that your transactional emails are enabled in WooCommerce → Settings → Emails. Then, set your “From” email address to something at your domain name rather than an email service like Gmail or Yahoo, which can trigger spam filters.

To take deliverability a step further and make sure your emails arrive every single time, you may want to try an SMTP solution. This is an application specifically designed to send and receive emails and verify that your email address is legitimate. This ultimately helps you avoid spam filters. 

MailPoet offers this feature with an advanced deliverability infrastructure that sends 30+ million emails each and every month. While many SMTP providers cap the number you can send per month, MailPoet offers unlimited emails. Plus, they’ll arrive in your customers’ inboxes in seconds, so shoppers don’t have to wonder if their order went through.

Going beyond transactional emails

What happens after a purchase is made and an order is delivered? How do you keep your customers coming back weeks, months, or even years down the road?

That’s where email marketing comes in. Once you’ve sent effective transactional emails, continue to reach out to the customers that give you permission with information, educational materials, updates, and coupons. This keeps your company and your products top of mind.

welcome email series in MailPoet

The great news is that you can use MailPoet to set up both transactional emails and marketing emails. Here are just a few of the features available to you:

  • GDPR-friendly signup forms directly on the checkout page.
  • Automatic syncing of new and previous customers.
  • Email marketing messages tailored to the specific product that each customer purchased.
  • Complete customization with a visual, drag-and-drop editor.
  • Automated email series that welcome, educate, and inform your customers.
  • Advanced email statistics so you always know how much revenue your emails generate.

Combining transactional emails with marketing emails is an incredibly powerful solution for increasing sales and keeping buyers happy. Already have an email list? Learn how to turn those subscribers into customers.

Communication is key

Remember, your goal is to keep your customers happy and engaged before, during, and after their purchase. With customized, branded transactional emails, you can ensure that they’re being taken care of, manage their expectations, provide all the information they need, and bring them back for additional purchases all at the same time!

Ready to set up beautiful transactional and marketing emails? Get started with MailPoet.

Customize your store with official extensions for WooCommerce in our marketplace

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Ecommerce Product Releases: March 15, 2021

Here is a list of product releases and updates for mid-March from companies that offer services to online merchants. There are updates on Amazon advertising, shipping rates, live-streaming, drone deliveries, fraud mitigation, and chatbots.

Got an ecommerce product release? Email releases@practicalecommerce.com.

Ecommerce Product Releases

Jungle Scout acquires Downstream Impact to expand Amazon advertising capabilities. Jungle Scout has acquired Downstream Impact, an Amazon advertising and analytics software company. With Downstream, Jungle Scout customers will have a full-funnel view of their Amazon business, including advanced advertising insights, along with sales, pricing, and competition. This acquisition news is part of an announcement that Jungle Scout has raised $110 million in growth capital, led by Summit Partners.

Home page of Downstream Impact

Downstream Impact

Instagram launches Live Rooms. Instagram’s new Live Rooms gives users the ability to go Live on Instagram with up to three people. (Previously, only one other person was allowed.) With Live Rooms, viewers can use interactive features such as Shopping and Live Fundraisers. Instagram is also exploring more interactive tools — such as moderator controls and audio features — available in the coming months.

eBay announces 2021 spring seller update. eBay has released its 2021 spring seller update with new ways to manage and promote a business. The update includes new guidance features in Seller Hub, a coded coupons tool to offer discounts to buyers, automated Promoted Listings campaigns, a new unified listing experience, and streamlined management of unpaid items, among other new features.

Twitter tests new ecommerce card and Shop button. Twitter is testing a new card format that links to ecommerce product pages. The experimental new tweets include a prominent Shop button and details, such as product name, shop name, and price. Matt Navarra, a social media consultant, tweeted screenshots of the new format, shown below.

Screenshot of a tweet showing Twitter's new shopping card

Twitter’s new shopping card.

ShippingEasy releases guide to 2021 shipping rates. ShippingEasy has published its guide to 2021 shipping rate changes. The guide reviews changes across all major carriers, including a side-by-side comparison of the changes and guidance on how they affect your business. It also helps identify alternative services, such as USPS First-Class Package Service, USPS Priority Mail Flat Rate, or USPS Priority Mail Regional Rate boxes.

GoFor Industries partners with Aurora Aerial for drone delivery. GoFor Industries — a marketplace for last mile, on-demand, and same-day delivery and logistics — has announced its partnership with Aurora Aerial, which creates remotely piloted aircraft services. GoFor and Aurora Aerial’s collaboration in the emerging area of last-mile delivery will provide a new option for businesses to change and improve delivery speed. GoFor and Aurora Aerial’s partnership will launch in Canada before expanding to GoFor’s other operating markets. The drones used will be Transport Canada Part 9 Safe and are compliant for operation within controlled airspace in defined areas per local guidelines.

Digital River enters 2021 with updated connectors for global commerce growth. Digital River, a global commerce provider for established and fast-growing brands, has launched enhancements to its connectors for customers on Magento, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and WordPress. These new connector versions include increased functionality for localized global commerce and additional back-end support for cross-border sales and local fees. Additionally, the latest Digital River connectors feature drop-in payment, allowing brands to enable localized payment methods quickly.

Home page of Digital River

Digital River

Amazon adds shopping experience to music app. Amazon Music has announced the integration of artist merchandise within its mobile app, offering a new way for artists to engage with their audience. Merchandise will now appear in the Amazon Music app on participating artists’ pages, side-by-side with their songs, albums, live streams, and music videos. Fans in the U.S. can now shop merchandise, most of which is available with Prime shipping.

Illumy partners with PayCertify on fraud mitigation and payment processing. Illumy, a communications platform, has announced a partnership with PayCertify, a global fintech marketplace. Illumy will leverage PayCertify’s payment processing and fraud protection services to provide additional security, safeguards, and payment options for its growing member base. Illumy’s communications platform enables members to message, group chat, email, voice call, video call, or make international calls anywhere in the world.

Chatbot startup Heyday raises $5.1 million. Global customer messaging player Heyday has announced a $5.1 million seed round extension to accelerate growth in 2021 and help retailers adapt to the changing face of commerce. The round was led by Innovobot and Desjardins Capital. Heyday also announced its selection by apparel brand Lacoste as its global chat and customer messaging provider.

Home page for Heyday

Heyday

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Retailers, Brands, Manufacturers Are Converging in 2021

The distinction between direct-to-consumer ecommerce and traditional retailing has been vanishing for years. But in a post-pandemic 2021, the convergence could be accelerating.

Here is the context. Traditional retail is layered and complex. The product on the shelf in a local brick-and-mortar shop may have been purchased through a network of intermediaries that started with a manufacturer in China and then included one or more distributors or the occasional manufacturer’s rep. Eventually, the product arrives at a traditional retailer’s own warehouse or store.

Along the way, each business profited.

Digitally Native and DTC

Increasingly in the past few years, entrepreneurs have launched digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) and direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales channels, challenging traditional retail.

DTC brands sell directly to shoppers. DNVBs sell DTC but also integrate manufacturing.

Prominent DNVBs include Allbirds (shoes, apparel), Casper (mattresses, bedding), Dollar Shave Club, and Warby Parker (eyeglasses).

Screenshot from Allbirds website

Allbirds is an example of a digitally native vertical brand.

One might define the retail participants as follows:

  • Brand. Manufacturer or marketer of a specific consumer product. Popular brands include Nike, Carhartt, and Tide. In most instances, brands are wholesalers.
  • Retailer. A business that sells products from several brands to shoppers via a physical store or ecommerce.
  • DTC. A sales channel whereby a brand sells directly to a shopper, via the brands’ websites or, often, the Amazon marketplace.
  • DNVB. A company that manufactures its own products and sells them directly to shoppers, focusing on consumer marketing and promotion.

Convergence

In 2016, I wrote that one of the challenges retailers would soon face is that brands would sell against them.

“Many small online stores buy products wholesale from manufacturers or distributors to sell at retail. This is the classic business model for retail stores,” I wrote.

“Unfortunately, ecommerce’s low barrier to entry has encouraged many manufacturers to start selling directly to consumers. This means that the same company that sells your products may also be your competitor. As an example, Danner Footwear … sells not just wholesale to retailers but also directly to consumers on its website.”

In the past five years, DTC has become a channel for brands to grow and survive. This was especially true during the pandemic when many folks shopped online rather than in a physical store.

Retailers have been converging too. Amazon, Walmart, Target, and seemingly all major retailers have developed private label brands to sell against their traditional suppliers.

Take Wildology pet foods, for example. The brand is a partnership of approximately 40 farm-and-ranch retail chains in North America. The resulting product rivals something from the leading traditional pet food brands. Customers of Purina and Blue Buffalo just became competitors.

Screenshot from Wildology website

A group of approximately 40 farm-and-ranch retail chains created Wildology, competing directly with the national brands they also sell.

Even DNVBs are doing it.

“Beyond a few notable outliers, DNVB doesn’t scale. Nor does DTC. And the future demands embracing that reality,” wrote Aaron Orendorff, vice president at Common Thread Collective, an ecommerce agency.

“As evidence of scale’s adversity, many of DNVB’s founding parents — names like Bonobos, Casper, and Happy Socks — have entered wholesale either by way of acquisition or alliance. Traditional outlets like Walmart, Target, Macy’s, and Amazon are happy to serve as the middlemen that ‘vertical’ once cut out,” Orendorff wrote.

What’s more, shoppers might not care. For all of the attention on how brands, retailers, and DNVBs are getting mixed up, shoppers buy products they like from sellers they like.

Post-pandemic

To be clear, this trend is not new. It has been happening for years. The question is how the pandemic affects it.

Covid-19 is one of the most significant global events since World War II. It will have a lasting impact on economies, governments, and individuals.

Likely the pandemic has accelerated retail’s digital transformation for at least a few reasons.

  • Shopping habits changed. The pandemic forced consumers to shop differently; it’s unlikely that those shoppers will completely return to a pre-pandemic purchase pattern.
  • Technology investments. Many brands and retailers invested in software and infrastructure to provide online shopping, curbside pick-up, and similar.
  • Competition. The pandemic has forced sellers ―brands, retailers, DNVBs ― to embrace omnichannel selling, resulting in more and better experiences for consumers.

All things considered, expect fewer distinctions between wholesale brands, retailers, and DNVBs in 2021 and beyond.

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You Can’t Solve Accessibility with 1 Line of Code

Accessibility overlays are third-party web scripts that alter the user experience. Providers, which include AccessiBe, Userway, AudioEye, and EqualWeb, sometimes claim that installing their script will prevent lawsuits in the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Let me be blunt: These products will not protect you from lawsuits. They may not even help visitors with accessibility needs.

Overlays attempt to address accessibility issues in two ways. First, they analyze the content of the page for accessibility and make automated changes to fix problems. Second, they allow users to make manual changes, such as increased font sizes, higher color contrasts, or removing animations.

Analyzing for Errors

The process of analyzing and automatically fixing errors has potential. Certainly some accessibility problems can be corrected in that manner. However, the percentage is small, and in no way will it result in a site that meets standard accessibility guidelines.

In my experience, roughly 30 percent of accessibility issues can be detected automatically. And only a fraction can be automatically fixed, as the overlay tool has to first identify with certainty an accessibility error. Then it must know how to fix the problem.

For example, automation can detect that a linked image has no alt attribute. Automation could potentially correct this in a couple of ways: using character recognition to identify the presence of text on the image or by querying the target link to find out where it goes.

Neither of these options is failsafe, however. The image may not contain readable or relevant text. And the target of the link might open a modal that JavaScript triggers — a script won’t find any anchor text.

Automation could try image recognition to describe the image. But machines cannot remotely replicate human image descriptions, and scripts can’t distinguish images for decoration versus those that convey information.

2 images - one of "Austin City Limit" road sign and the other of the downtown Austin skyline

Automation could likely detect the text “Austin City Limit” on the image at left but not the downtown Austin skyline on the image at right.

An overlay can solve minor problems. But the unsolved problems are much greater.

What Automation Cannot Solve

Automation can’t solve many common and critical accessibility hurdles. One is form-field labels. Identifying a missing label is easy. But there’s no way to know what label-text to insert. Other examples include missing video captions, keyboard support for inaccessible buttons, and associating form-error descriptions with the correct fields.

Accessibility overlays provide options that site visitors can manually configure. But these are tools that visitors already have — albeit in a less-customized manner — such as text-to-speech tools, high contrast modes, dark modes, and font size adjusters.

And if he requires high contrast or text-to-speech on one website, a visitor likely needs it on all sites.

Thus most visitors who need overlay tools are already using them, either through their own operating systems, browser options, or assistive technology such as a screen reader or text magnifier.

Ecommerce Risks

Ecommerce websites are complex. They require product photos, prices, shipping and payment forms, and a means to communicate the total purchase amount and expected delivery date.

An accessibility overlay may help your visitors temporarily as a stopgap to permanent and accurate fixes.

But automated text that misrepresents a product, a price, or the terms of a sale could create legal risk. The U.S. Department of Justice has applied the Americans with Disabilities Act to websites. Many U.S. court cases have done the same.

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Show-stopper Wedding Rings Drive Manly Bands

Shopping in-store for wedding rings does not appeal to all men. That was an insight of Johnathan Ruggiero and his wife Michelle when they founded Manly Bands, a direct-to-consumer online wedding-ring company, in 2016. The second insight was the rings had to be unique — really unique — to compete against established jewelers.

“We try to develop what we call show-stopper products,” Johnathan told me. “People might say, ‘You have dinosaur bones? That’s crazy. You have meteorite? That’s nuts.’”

Yes, Manly Bands makes men’s wedding rings from dinosaur bones, meteorites, whiskey barrels, and more.

My recent conversation with Johnathan addressed the company’s founding, product selection, marketing tactics, and fulfillment — among other topics. The entire audio interview is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: We met two years ago. Your company has done so much since then.

Johnathan Ruggiero: The last couple of years have been a whirlwind at Manly Bands. We have 35 employees, almost double from two years ago. We’re now in a warehouse and fulfilling in-house.

When you and I met, the company was just Michelle — my wife, co-founder, and co-CEO — and maybe seven employees, mostly in marketing and customer service. We were using a third-party fulfillment company. Before that, we were fulfilling ourselves out of our garage in Florida, where she and I launched the business in 2016.

Having a 3PL freed us to focus more on customer service, product development, marketing — just growing the company.

Eventually, Michelle and I settled in Utah, which is a great combination of desert, trees, lakes, and mountains. And the entrepreneurial spirit is unbelievable. We’ve been here for about a year and a half.

Bandholz: You went from seven employees to 35 in two years.

Ruggiero: As your listeners know, it’s not easy to grow a team five times in a couple of years. It’s been challenging finding the right people. Nowadays the remote culture is common. Thankfully, we started that way. We launched in Florida with a remote team in mind. We had team members in California and Massachusetts. So once Covid hit, working remotely wasn’t a foreign idea.

We’ve roughly doubled revenue year over year, creating a need for more staff. So now, in Utah, we have a warehouse and our own fulfillment team. That was a big factor in growth. As we get more orders, we can fulfill them and process exchanges and returns. Our customer service team is also here in Utah. It’s about nine folks now. With more orders come more emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages — all of that.

We’ve also expanded our marketing team to include some videographers, editors, and creative directors.

Bandholz: Why bring fulfillment back in-house?

Ruggiero: We had a wonderful 3PL, called Ships-a-Lot. The company is located in Memphis. They were fantastic. We loved working with them, and we still have a great relationship. What we found, though, is that as we began to scale, it made sense from a cost-savings perspective to bring it in-house. We have hourly employees to process the orders and get them out the door and manage fulfillment supplies. We have a lot more space in the warehouse. It makes more sense financially once you hit a certain level.

Bandholz: Do you have a lot of returns and exchanges?

Ruggiero: We sell men’s wedding rings. Most men don’t know their ring size. We see an exchange rate of close to 20 percent. It’s not a huge problem. We can process a return right away.

Bandholz: You have many ring types — made from antlers, meteorites, wood, you name it.  How do you develop these products?

Ruggiero: One way to stand out is to create products that folks couldn’t get in a traditional store. They have no choice but to buy it online from us.

We try to develop what we call show-stopper products. People might say, “You have dinosaur bones? That’s crazy. You have meteorite? That’s nuts.”

Michelle is great at developing products. She and her team survey consumers to understand what they want. We always try to create something unique and different. That has helped distinguish us from the independent jewelry stores and the Kays, the Jared’s, and the Zales. So we provide a product that folks cannot get anywhere else.

Bandholz: Do you produce the rings in-house?

Ruggiero: About 80 percent of the rings on our site are manufactured in the U.S. in-house or with manufacturing partners. And then we source about 20 percent from all over the world. We’re always looking for great artisans and craftsmen that work with cool materials such as guitar strings and baseball-bat wood.

We just launched a partnership with Jack Daniels. We’re licensing the Jack Daniels name. We buy the company’s whiskey barrels and make rings from them. We do whatever we can to stand out and be different.

We had a generic whiskey barrel ring for a couple of years now. Once we obtained the Jack Daniel’s name and could say that we’re the only official Jack Daniels ring maker in the country, our sales doubled on that type of product. So the partnership has been hugely valuable.

Bandholz: What are your marketing tactics?

Ruggiero: Mostly via traditional digital ads. We’ve advertised on Facebook and Google since we started in 2016. But we’re exploring other channels now with lower CPMs and CPAs. We’re looking at outdoor billboards, bus stop signs, subway signs — things like that.

We’re also doing podcasts and getting on traditional radio and television. We’ve doubled down on television this year. It’s close to 15 percent of our overall ad spend. We want to hit people from a different direction and not necessarily where everybody’s advertising.

So far, we’ve actually seen our CPM costs go down for traffic to the site. And I think it’s because we’re mixing these less popular channels. Perhaps they’re more expensive in the short term, but overall, it’s reducing our traffic costs.

Bandholz: I’ve seen your television commercial. Was that from an agency?

Ruggiero: Yes. It was Creatably.com. They were fantastic. They jumped on the production. We started the day after we met with them in terms of writing the script.

It was definitely a learning process. We’ve done two commercials now with Creatably. We’ve learned so much. Michelle and I come from Los Angeles in the entertainment industry. But doing a full-blown creative commercial for a direct-to-consumer brand is a different experience for us.

Even though it was just a couple of days, it’s expensive. That was the first thing we learned. And then, the whole post-production process is long — many iterations. But it was great in the end. It’s a three to six-month process.

We all sat down as a team and picked the script that we thought would have legs. Once we decided on the script, we moved to produce the episode. Casting was a big deal, getting the characters.

Then the exciting part was shooting. We shot for a week. We did three or four commercials. It was exciting. And then it took a month or two to edit and finalize. And then we launched, about six months after we started.

Bandholz: Was it worth the investment? I’m thinking $25,000 to $50,000 to produce. Is that the range?

Ruggiero: It’s closer to 10 times that. But it was worth it. We’ve doubled sales year over year, and that video was a big contributor. It did eat up a lot of our cash flow for the year. But overall it was worth it.

It’s the same thing with television advertising overall. It cuts into our cash flow. It’s expensive. But it has also opened a lot of doors for us.

The benefits go beyond direct, immediate sales. We’ve gotten hundreds of thousands of folks to our website every month because of it. But it’s also about the relationships we’ve gained, the press coverage.  So it was pretty substantial for the holistic benefits to the business.

Bandholz: What do you wish you had started earlier, from day one?

Ruggiero: I should have delegated more. I didn’t always have faith in other people to have my same passion and commitment. That’s a huge detriment to an entrepreneur. There are so many talented people out there.

Manly Bands has grown not because of Michelle and me but because of our team. The sooner owners realize it’s okay to delegate, the faster they can succeed.

Bandholz: How can listeners learn more about you and Manly Brands?

Ruggiero: I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn.  Our website is Manlybands.com. We’re on all major social sites — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.

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Endless Possibilities: Create Customizable Products with WooCommerce

Create endless possibilities with customizable products in WooCommerce. 

One of the most powerful features of WooCommerce is the ability for shoppers to customize products. You can offer upgrades, add-ons, and custom-built items to meet buyers’ specific needs. This is a great way to earn their loyalty and stand out from your competitors.

WooCommerce makes it possible to offer a highly-curated experience that wins over shoppers for you. 

Let customers build their product

The first way to do this is by setting up variations within WooCommerce. Yes, you use variations to offer basic options like size and color, but you can also take them a step further.

Let’s say you sell protective mats for vehicles. By setting up some attributes and variations, you could have dropdowns with options for:

  • Vehicle make and model
  • Material
  • Color
  • Number and type of mats (floor, trunk, etc.)

If you listed all the possible combinations as separate products, it would be overwhelming and complicated. But with variations, a customer can create the perfect fit for their specific vehicle.

The second method is to use the WooCommerce Product Add-Ons extension. You can offer similar options as with variations, but with more flexibility. Shoppers can:

  • Add names, initials, or phrases they’d like engraved or embroidered on your products.
  • Choose options from dropdowns, like fabric type, frame style, material, and more.
  • Check boxes to add things like an extra watch band, a phone case, or matching socks.

You can set specific prices for each add-on and combine as many as you’d like — the product price will adjust automatically based on what your customer selects. 

moon cushion crochet kit with extra options for colors, hooks, and stuffing
Photo © https://www.woolcouturecompany.com/

Wool Couture Company uses Product Add-Ons to sell craft kits for makers. Their Moon Cushion Crochet Kit, for example, has options for yarn color (with visuals!), along with optional extras like crochet hooks and toy stuffing. 

Accept custom product designs

Imagine if you could let shoppers upload their own design for your products, creating virtually anything they can come up with. You can do just that with the Product Designer for WooCommerce extension.

Start with a base product — a T-shirt, for example — then add a “Customize Product” button. When someone clicks that button, they’re taken to the Product Designer, where they can add images, clip art, text, and more to create their dream design. You can charge individually for each element or allow endless customization at one price.

Offer unique bundles

Want buyers to mix and match your products for the perfect gift or treat? Custom Product Boxes is the perfect way to do this. Simply sort your products into groups, then let customers create their own bundles. 

The options really are endless here! Offer mix-and-match boxes of donuts or cupcakes, birthday party favor bags, gift baskets, cases of beer, and more. With the right visuals, it can also be a super fun, interactive experience.

building a cupcake gift box by mixing and matching options

And as with many WooCommerce extensions, flexibility reigns supreme. Set a fixed price for your bundle, price based on the specific items selected, or charge for the base box and add fees for any extras. It all makes for a very customized shopping experience that will keep people coming back for more.

Build composite products

Give people the power to build a product from the ground up with the WooCommerce Composite Products extension.

Gude your customers through the process step by step. For example, if you sell custom-built strollers, offer choices for wheel type, base shape, canopy, and handle. If you sell skin care gift boxes, walk them through choosing a face wash, toner, and moisturizer. The end result is a fully custom item that fits a person’s individual needs. 

CAMSS custom options like windows and colors
Photo © https://camss.com/

CAMSS Shelters sells portable military and commercial shelters in a variety of types, shapes, and sizes. Companies can request a quote or customize and create the perfect fit for their needs. They can choose the color and flooring type, select the number of windows, add lighting and electrical, and more, all in an easy-to use process. 

customizable espresso machine from la marzocco
Photo © https://home.lamarzoccousa.com

La Marzocco does something similar with espresso machines. Shoppers choose the machine they want to start with, then select their own knobs, filters, paddles, legs, and more. They can even see the picture change with each choice. 

The sky’s the limit

Your ultimate goal is to ensure that every customer finds what they’re looking for and is happy with their purchase. And by offering product customization, shoppers will find that your store is a place where they feel special and end up with the perfect solution for their needs. That kind of experience will keep them coming back time and time again.

WooBookings Bundle

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CommerceCo Recap: Podcast Endorsements Drive Traffic, Sales

Audio advertising can take many forms, but at least one industry leader thinks companies should aim for host endorsements for the best return on investment.

For some B2C marketers, audio advertising is either associated with traditional radio commercials or an unfamiliar and rarely considered option. But there are many opportunities with audio promotion.

Endorsements

“We focus on the native, host-endorsed ads. So if you’re working on radio, it’s really working with the hosts themselves, or if you’re targeting a podcast, specifically, it’s having the host…talk on behalf of your brand,” said Sean King, executive vice president of Veritone One, an audio advertising agency.

“You have an opportunity to have a very intimate relationship in the audio channel. If anyone is going to listen to a podcast, in advance of listening he has searched for the content he’s interested in, and then he has identified this [specific podcast].

“And maybe it’s the content that the show is talking about. Maybe it is the host. Regardless, there is a personal draw to that program.”

In this way, the listener has more invested with the podcast. He or she is less likely to tune out and more likely to believe an endorsement from a trusted host.

What’s more, because podcasts tend to be topical, advertisers aiming for endorsements know quite a lot about the audience.

“Brands [are] able to have a good understanding of who their core audience is, and what their likes and their interests are..and then [are] able to align with both the content and the hosts themselves,” said King.

This alignment means that even without some of the individual targeting found in performance advertising, podcast advertisers can still ensure a high likelihood that their product promotions are hitting the proper audience.

This approach also delivers a relatively satisfying ad experience for consumers since it is targeted without being creepy.

“It’s less of an ad and more of a referral or recommendation,” King stated.

On March 4, 2021, King took part in an exclusive 30-minute interview for the CommerceCo by Practical Ecommerce community. King answered questions about audio advertising, but the conversation ultimately focused on podcast endorsements as a way for commerce companies — omnichannel retailers, online sellers, B2B merchants — to achieve their marketing goals. CommerceCo members can access the complete interview at any time.

Audio Opportunity

King spoke at length about endorsements, but he also discussed audio advertising overall and audio opportunities.

He is not alone in his thinking. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal article from reporter Patience Haggin. The article, “Google Crushed Many Digital Rivals. But a Challenger Is Rising,” is about The Trade Desk’s David-versus-Goliath relationship to Google’s advertising business.

“Trade Desk has made inroads versus Google by investing in online advertising segments like audio and streaming TV where Google hadn’t already cornered the market. Pandemic-struck 2020 was especially good for business,” wrote Haggin.

Digital audio advertising is one of the segments where Google is not dominant. This could mean that it is one of the areas not yet saturated with advertisers. Thus audio advertising may be worth considering.

Digital Audio Ads

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, there are multiple digital audio ad formats.

  • Commercials. These can be placed before the audio program, during the program, or after — pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll. Commercials can be changed out of archived audio programming and purchased for a set number of listens.
  • Host-read ads. These spots are commercials, but the host reads them. Some are read live. Some are recorded.
  • Custom segments. Some promotions take the form of a segment during a podcast. This might be a game, a special short interview, or something similar. It is sponsored by the advertiser and may include a commercial.
  • Sponsorships. An advertiser can be named as the sponsor of an episode or series. Sponsors may be mentioned through a digital audio stream.
  • Endorsements. With these, the host tells the audience about her own experience with the product or service. Endorsements, as mentioned above, are a significant opportunity.

While King favored endorsements, he noted that, like all good advertising, audio promotions should start with specific goals and extend from there.

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