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Networked Webstores

The Future of E-commerce For Small Businesses

Imagine a network of small businesses, all connected via a symbiotic network of websites and online stores, where they share products, customers, information and ideas. Instead of operating in silos and struggling to drive consumer traffic to their individual webstores, they collaborate, wire together all their stores, and start sharing customers between them. You buy shoes from one store, a leather bag from another, a designer lamp from a third store and order chocolate cookies from yet another store.

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All these stores refer traffic to one another, a community of online businesses that sells more together and keeps a buyer engaged within their own e-commerce network. These mini-networks of connected webstores could well become the way of doing online business in the forseeable near future.

Kings and Commoners

Big e-commerce traditionally takes a top-down approach, where you have one large marketplace or e-retailer selling big brands to a nationwide audience. Typically, the seller is a faceless retailer or distributor of one or more large consumer electronics or household name brands. Big e-commerce takes care of the logistics and provides a large choice of goods under one virtual roof, the merchants ship out goods promptly and handle returns and refunds and keep customers happy.

Payments flow freely from one end of the chain to another. The system works and works well for all parties - from the seller trying to ship out the latest batch of smartphones to the online tech giant who takes care of all the ecommerce headaches to the consumer who gets the latest gadgets shipped to their homes efficiently within 2 business days.

The Small Online Brand

Then you come to the smaller e-commerce retailers and all the delightful little brands - creative people who grind their own coffee beans, produce clothing and handmade rugs and build guitars at home. These people can always join big e-commerce and start selling online but what they really need to do is develop their own online brands. Creating your own brand can be as simple as starting an online store and setting up a social media presence.

But generating online sales, figuring out e-commerce and shipping out product to the far corners of the globe may not be everyone's cup of tea (or coffee). A physical store in a busy shopping area may guarantee a certain amount of monthly sales but fishing in an online stream for customers is a completely different game. Finding customers online, selling online and handling product returns are skills that all these small businesses need to master. Or outsource.

Generating Consumer Traffic

Big e-commerce takes care of the most important part of e-commerce first - finding customers. Amazon, Ebay and many of the other online retail giants have spent years, gallons of midnight oil and millions of dollars to grow their online properties into names that people recognise and become focal points for online consumer traffic. A successful online marketplace delivers the first requirement of any ecommerce venture - repeat consumer traffic.

The Sharing Economy

No one's going to come looking on their own for an online store run by some small, unknown business. Building an online property takes time and a serious amount of investment involving search engine optimisation, content marketing, online PR, digital advertising and social media. Many small brands do make this investment and manage to generate small amounts of traffic. They could go a step further and start sharing this traffic, by connecting their web stores with each other.

Cross-selling and referring traffic to each other is the first step in creating a community of networked web stores.

From Connected Stores To Online Marketplaces

Connected webstores can also give rise to another kind of internet property - the online marketplace. Once you have a community of webstores built around a common theme or industry and they have a large number of products to sell between them, an online retailer specialising in that particular area could bring all these products together to create an online marketplace. There's a number of advantages a common marketplace brings to each small brand involved in the community. Marketplaces, by offering a larger variety of consumer goods than individual stores, tend to attract larger amounts of traffic.

E-commerce marketplaces are where online stores can come together in one place, out of the shadows of anonymity, and get exposure to serious amounts of consumer traffic. It helps if the e-commerce platform supports individual businesses in retaining their brand identity while they supply products to a third party or common marketplace. Big e-commerce cannot allow this, of course, for it would collapse their business model - hence the reliance on anonymous, behind the scenes, product 'sellers' and not brands.

Solving E-commerce Logistical Challenges

Marketplaces could bring more advantages to small brands. Shipping can be an e-commerce show-stopper for the inexperienced online brand owner. A marketplace owner who is not involved in manufacturing products and nurturing a small brand can instead concentrate on providing these e-commerce services to small brands - warehousing, product packaging, shipping and customer handling.

Big e-commerce brings the superstore shopping experience to the far corners of the globe. People in small villages, towns and far-flung areas can order online products that may not be available in small retail outlets in their physical location. An e-commerce marketplace can open up new consumer markets, by shipping to these areas and places where physical retail is limited or less varied.

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