The new storefront is online and to be successful there, it’s best to learn all you can about how to do it.
That’s according to James Bledsoe, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration’s eCommerce Innovation Lab in Tacoma.
“That’s how people are finding you and finding your products,” Bledsoe said during TRIDEC’s fourth annual FABREO (Food and Beverage Retention & Expansion Opportunities) expo in June.
About 300 people attended the two-day event that featured 23 food and beverage industry brokers, distributors, retailers and exporters. The expo is designed to give start-ups a leg up and shorten their journey to success by offering entrepreneurs access to the brokers and distributors they need to grow beyond the commercial food kitchen and farmers’ market.
This year’s agenda included a break-out session with e-commerce experts on how businesses can get in the game, strategize and improve efforts in the digital marketplace.
Bledsoe and representatives from Kennewick-based Artmil Design emphasized the growing necessity of cultivating a strategic online presence to reach customers.
Bledsoe said that food and beverage ranks No. 5 among the top five industries selling and growing via e-commerce.
He cited results from a study of Magento’s top 400 clients that found businesses grossing from zero to $1 million dollars per year in sales may see up to a 137 percent return from investing in e-commerce. Magento provides a cloud commerce platform to merchants and brands.
“It used to be you had to have a business card. Now, it’s this stuff,” said Dennis Miller, principal at Artmil, referring to the myriad web-based tools available to businesses today.
Derek Munson, senior designer and web developer at Artmil, shared statistics pulled from Mag.ispo.com that illustrate the way shopping habits are rapidly transitioning to online channels.
He said companies with blogs generate 67 percent more leads per month than companies that don’t, and email open rates on mobile devices have increased by 180 percent, which Munson cited as the main reason mobile-friendly email campaigns and newsletters are becoming a greater necessity.
He also talked about the importance of pursuing ways to bring as much coverage to your company and products as possible, which still includes brick and mortar events, such as trade shows and expos.
“Recognition equals value,” said Munson, citing that of the 40 million images posted to Instagram every day, more than 10,000 are the Starbucks’ logo.
“It’s a brand culture,” Munson said. “It takes customers only 10 seconds to form a first impression of a brand’s logo, but it takes five to seven impressions for consumers to recognize the logo.”
“Marketing and selling always begins with developing a strong brand identification,” he added.
“Brand identification, essentially, is how a business wants to be perceived by customers,” Miller said.
Though it may be tempting to dive headfirst into marketing strategies, such as social media where opportunities to promote one’s brand abound, all three presenters emphasized the necessity of focusing only on the campaigns that translate into the most clicks, and more importantly, the most sales.
“If you’re not going to invest the time to regularly post, then don’t have it,” advised Bledsoe, who added that unless you are dealing in direct consumer goods, many businesses don’t necessarily need to maintain so many social media platforms.
“There’s nothing worse than going to a social media channel that hasn’t been updated in six months,” Bledsoe said.
Munson noted that claiming your business on Google, adding photos and making sure contact information is correct is important. Search directories also need to be checked periodically to ensure company information is up to date and accurate.
“Google has been at the top for 15 years,” said Bledsoe, who cited a 2016 study of the most used search engines. Google is used 89 percent of the time by desktop computer users and 95 percent of the time by mobile users.
Another key point emphasized by presenters is it’s not enough to just have a website, but a smooth, intuitively arranged, polished site that is easy to navigate and where products and product information can be found quickly.
Bledsoe said 89 percent of all online product research is performed as part of a job. He said research also shows “they will spend less than a minute on your website … if I have to fight to find your products, I’m going to leave your site.”
The Department of Commerce recently launched its new and improved Business Service Provider Directory, making it easier for businesses to find web developers, marketing firms and other resources that can help guide efforts.
When it comes to investing in digital marketing, Bledsoe said, “You must have analytics or SEO to make this worthwhile, otherwise you’re just burning money.”
“SEO is the foundation of your site,” he continued, explaining that since search engines draw results from web page content, without information attached to graphics, logos, and photos on websites for search engine algorithms to reference, those items aren’t searchable.
He said this is something businesses often overlook when trying to get their websites to the top of search results.
Bledsoe said another implication of joining the world of e-commerce is becoming visible to the international marketplace and the potential of selling products worldwide.
“If you’ve ever sold to Canada or Mexico, you’re exporting,” said Bledsoe, who explained that even if you are selling your products on the world wide web, those transactions are still subject to export regulations and fees, which vary from country to country.
Export.customsinfo.com provides information regarding taxes, duties and tariffs by commodity classification.
Export.gov has information on labeling requirements and prohibited items and ingredients by country.
Equally as important as knowing how to legally sell in other countries is how to be successful doing so.
Bledsoe recommended analyzing direct competitors and borrowing what is working for them.
He said it also is important to understand national and regional marketplace dynamics and buying habits to tailor a sales approach. He added that third-party, in-country distributors can be a company’s best ally in learning these subtleties.
In-country distributors also serve as valuable trade partners who can introduce foreign products to existing customers. Bledsoe recommended coordinating with the U.S. Embassy to be matched with relevant distributors.
He emphasized the burden is still essentially on the shoulders of individual companies to abide by all applicable rules and regulations governing international trade and to protect themselves and their customers.
“International e-commerce isn’t regulated by anybody,” he said. “It’s still the Wild West out there.”
The privacy of customer data remains a major problem in e-commerce and regulatory entities worldwide are still trying to devise the best solution.
Many countries are attempting to combat the issue by adopting General Data Protection Regulations, or GDPR, which aim to punish “businesses that are flagrantly not trying to protect information,” Bledsoe said.
In response, the U.S. Department of Commerce has introduced Privacy Shield, a completely voluntary, “pay-to-play” self-certification program that enables participating companies to demonstrate their efforts to protect customer information.
“Some people really want to push and really want to get their product all over and some people would rather just be a regional company who hits all of the Fred Meyers and has a great following. That’s valid,” Miller said.
But companies need to be educated and plan their strategy accordingly, the panel experts said.
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