Live from Internet Retailer 2011: Tips for competing against e-commerce giants

SAN DIEGO — As chief technical officer of, Nathan Barling knows firsthand how difficult it is for smaller retailers to get noticed online.

Barling’s company, which sells brand-name shoes and accessories, competes directly with powerhouses like Zappos and Amazon, and even department store sites. “We’re selling what everyone else is selling, so we have to give consumers a reason to shop with us,” he said during a seminar at this week's Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition.

Barling, and co-presenter Sophia Amoruso, founder of apparel e-tailer, shared strategies for competing with larger e-commerce businesses -- strategies which powersports dealers can apply to their own retail websites.

Be creative with photography and images. For Amoruso and Barling, photography is an integral part of the online experience. Barling and the Shoebacca staff use a mix of manufacturer photos and in-house photography so that customers can remain familiar with manufacturer ads they may have already seen as they are introduced to Shoebacca as a distinct and unique store.

“We do our own photo shoots,” Barling said. “It may not be as high-quality as a $2,000 photo shoot, but it gives the illusion that we’re bigger than we are without us having to invest tons of money into it.”

Creative example: One Shoebacca holiday ad featured Christmas lights illuminating from a pair of clear shoes. “They’re shoes. Everyone’s seen shoes, but we wanted to show them in a way that no one else was doing,” Barling said.

Barling also started including manufacturer logos on Shoebacca’s site to increase customer familiarity. “While [customers] may not know Shoebacca, they know these brands. They know Nike, Addidas, and they’re familiar with them,” he said. He told the audience that after they added the manufacturer logos, they noticed an almost immediate increase in traffic.

Make the playing field as equal as possible. You may not be able to offer all of the bells and whistles that larger retail sites like Amazon can, but at least make some sort of effort to gain consumer confidence.

Shoebacca offers an enhanced price-match guarantee, where if a customer finds the product in question for cheaper elsewhere, Shoebacca will match the price and award an additional 10 percent off. Shoebacca also offers free shipping and return shipping.

“We wanted consumers to feel as if it was a no-risk transaction,” Barling said. “They can return [items] for a full refund, and move on. People were far more willing to give us a try, figuring, ‘why not?’”

And when an item goes on sale, customers are automatically credited the difference -- an effort that helped Shoebacca gain customers (and increase sales by percent) by simple word-of-mouth. “People were talking about it. It brought people in,” Barling said.

Once the company started promoting free return shipping, Shoebacca’s return rate remained exactly the same, but conversion rates increased.

Offer extended payment options. “People don’t trust companies they don’t know,” Barling said. “If they don’t trust you, they don’t want to give you their credit card numbers.”

Barling suggests offering PayPal or other similar methods of payment to help new customers get familiar with the online purchasing process. This way, you don't directly ask for their credit card information, and the familiar form of payment acts as a bridge for the customer to build their trust in you as an e-tailer.

Don’t hide your faults. Customers appreciate honesty. “We have negative responses on our Facebook,” Barling noted. “But by leaving those up there and showing that they were resolved, it builds confidence with the customer. And it shows that I’m confident in my business.”

Same goes for any negative reviews you receive on Yelp, or through Twitter. Address the issue honestly so you and your customers can move on.

Offer customer perks. Securing a purchase with online shoppers can be as easy as offering a gift with purchase — whether a manufacturer or store-branded hat, T-shirt, or keychain, or even offering a premium subscription service for your preferred customers.

Shoebacca, for example, offers an annual subscription-based incentive program that allows customers to shop at lower prices, and gives them free two-day shipping upgrades and access to the store’s private sale program.

“Again, give the illusion that you’re bigger than you are. Don’t say, we’re really small, and don’t have a poorly designed site,” Barling said. “If you go out and act small, [consumers] aren’t going to trust you and aren’t going to give you their business.”

Related coverage from this week's Internet Retailer conference::
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Business tips for economic survival
Consumers research online but prefer to buy local
Producing budget-conscious videos
Do your employees have a clue?
Convenience top reason to shop with smartphones