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Online retailer strategy

Why read this? : Choosing to sell online through someone else makes selling easier, but you give up some control. We review the pros and cons of the main online retailer options. Read this for insights and ideas on how to build your online retailer strategy.

Online retailer strategy

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Explore how complexity and control drive your e-Commerce channel choices.
  2. Learn the pros and cons of different online retailer channels.
  3. Identify the key skills you need to drive your online retailer strategy and plan.

Many factors influence your choice of where you’re going to sell your products and services. It’s a key part of e-Commerce planning.

For example, understanding what online shoppers want. And what e-Commerce capabilities you need to be able to sell online.  

Your e-Commerce channel choices come down to how much effort you want to put in, and how much control you want to have. 

So you can choose to be a relatively passive online seller. The easiest way to sell online is to piggyback on someone else’s selling model. e.g. selling via online marketplaces. 

Or you can be an active online seller, and do everything yourself. Setting up your own online store gives you full control over the whole selling experience. But it also requires the most investment and has the most risk.

Selling via online retailers sits between these extremes. We’ll look at the pros and cons of the main options :-

We’ll also cover the key e-Commerce capabilities you need to work with online retailers. Learn why skills like digital marketing and account management should be part of your online retailer strategy.

Samsung mobile phone with amazon logo on screen

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about online retailer strategy?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains online retailer strategy quiz and see how much you know about online retailer strategy already.

Where your online retailer strategy comes in

In the e-Commerce planning process, you normally look at e-Commerce channels after you identify and validate the online selling opportunity.

The opportunity identification and validation stages should generate insights about customers and the market. You should understand where customers currently shop online, and what they’re looking for. 

Even if you don’t do direct research, you can use secondary research tools like Google Autocomplete and Google Trends to get an idea of which online retailers are winning online, based on their search ranking.

You should also have some idea of your business objective as this influences your channel choice. The bigger your objective, the more control you’ll want over how your product is sold. 

However, that control always comes at a price. You have to handle more parts of the customer experience yourself. This adds complexity. And trying to find the right sweet spot between control and complexity is a big part of deciding on your online retailer strategy.

Some online retailers make things easy for you. But in return, you have little control over how your product is sold. Others are harder to deal with. But in return, you often have more control over how you sell your products.

e-commerce planning process - The 5 key steps of the e-commerce process
e-commerce 5 key channel options - on a x-y graph against level of complexity and control

Impact on financials

This control / complexity trade-off is important for your online retailer strategy. The level of control and complexity impacts your e-Commerce profit and loss. It impacts how you drive sales, how much you need to spend, and your bottom line.

For each part of the selling process the online retailer manages, the bigger the share of the selling price they take. Which of course, means you receive a smaller share of the selling.

This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Each step of the e-Commerce process comes with costs. So, when the retailer has to handle it, they take more of the selling price to cover the costs.

Your online retailer strategy then means you need to find the right balance of control, complexity and financials to suit your digital business model. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each channel.

Bricks and clicks

Bricks and clicks retailers (sometimes also called omni-channel retailers) sell through both physical stores AND an online store.

They’re a step up from marketplaces, as they buy the product from you.

They list it on their website (albeit with your help to fill in their product information management system details) and they handle order to delivery and customer service

You work directly with the buying team or program at the online retailer. You’re not involved in handling individual orders and transactions.

That makes bricks and clicks less complex than most other e-Commerce channels. Your main focus is to drive sales using the online equivalents of how you’d drive sales in their physical stores. 

For example, you research what shoppers want. Do advertising and media to build awareness. Run sales promotions and price discounts to drive trial. There are also more advanced selling techniques like offering exclusives, targeted offers and shop-in-shop to grow your online sales

It’s just that each of these processes is in the context of e-Commerce when they sell through their online stores.

So, the market research relates to online shopping.

The advertising and media appear in digital media channels, not in-store.

And the sales promotions have to work online on their website, rather than in-store.

Often, you’ll also have to work with different teams at the retailers to manage these activities. even though they’re basically the same activities.

Screengrab of Coles online bottled water page showing 12 different bottled waters to choose from

Bricks and clicks business model

You also have to think about how the broader bricks and clicks business model works. There are implications on your finances, what you have to do, and what you can do.

They’ll have a strong negotiating position to get a good trade selling price out of you. They take their margin out of the retail selling price, and the more they buy from you, the bigger the discount they want.

That will impact what your profit and loss looks like.

Lit up dollar signs on a dark background

Bricks and clicks retailers also won’t give you much control over how your products are sold. You supply product images, information and recommend pricing to their product information management systems. But, how all of these appear in their online store is ultimately down to the online retailer, not you. 

If they want to sell your product differently, that’s their choice. For example, if the online retailer decides to price discount your product, or change the selling message, you don’t have much scope to influence this. It’ll depend on your relationship with them, and how transactional it is.

If you add extra value, like market research, advertising, media and sales promotion support, you can use these investments in selling to persuade the online retailer to go with your view. But, your competitors are also doing this. Online retailers will always do what’s best for their business, not yours. You aim to find solutions that work for them and you. This relationship is normally formalised as part of your ongoing commercial agreement with them.

For online, this will add extra details to your agreement. For example, how customer data is shared (or not) between you. How your digital media and websites connect. Who is responsible for keeping your product pages up to date, and how that works. It’ll also cover obligations on both sides around the supply chain, such as what happens if products go out of stock and how customer service enquiries are handled. 

Bricks and clicks - moving forward

Your online retailer strategy and plan should work through all these types of questions. It should be tailored to how popular bricks and clicks retailers in your category operate.

None of these challenges are impossible. But they take time to work through, as you have to find the right working relationship with each retailer.

For example, think about the marketing support you can offer them. Think about the value of your products. What can you ask them for in return for those?

Dan Murphy's website Home Page showing image of Olivers Taranga Vineyards and a logo saying Love Aussie Made

What sales and shopper data can they share with you, for example? For privacy reasons, you won’t get access to specific individual shopper data. But you should be able to get access to aggregate segment data. You can use this as a more advanced e-Commerce technique to make targeted offers online. 

You have no control over their website or supply chain systems. But you need to make sure you have the right skills and assets to work with retailers in those areas. Overall, you usually build an e-Commerce category management plan with each key retailer. 

Pure Players

Pure players are online stores with no physical outlets. They’re online only. Like Bricks and Clicks retailers, they buy the product from you. They’re responsible for selling that product through their online store. That makes it easier for you to sell online as they manage the store website, payments and deliveries. But, you lose some control over how your product is sold. It’s their site and their order to delivery process that drives sales.

Different ways of working from bricks and clicks

However, the way they work brings some different factors into your online retailer strategy.

Because Pure Players have no physical stores, they don’t have the costs of owning and running physical stores. That affects how much of the selling price they want. This also means they focus more on reducing storage and delivery costs. 

They aim to keep costs low and often have the lowest delivery charges. They have no legacy systems and processes to protect and manage, unlike Bricks and Clicks retailers. 

Because their business is 100% online, they’re more likely to operate in a digital way. They’ll move faster. And they’ll focus on improving the online customer experience. They’ll often be the first to introduce new marketing technology breakthroughs. 

Because they focus so much on the online shopper, they’re likely to gain a disproportionate share of the online market. So, for your online retailer strategy, they bring a lot of additional advantages compared to bricks and clicks sellers. 

Amazon

Within Pure Players, it’s hard to ignore the most well-known, Amazon. However, with the purchase of Whole Foods in the US, you could argue that they’re technically no longer a Pure Player. 

But even if they do now own physical stores, their approach to doing business is still very different from traditional Bricks and Clicks retailers. They operate two selling models – Vendors and Marketplace. 

Amazon Vendors

In the ‘vendor’ model, Amazon works like an online retailer. They buy your products from you. Then, they sell them on their main Amazon site. 

They set the selling price. However, you can access a series of Amazon marketing tools to improve sales. These are usually more advanced than those of traditional bricks and clicks retailers. Amazon have global scale. They have a track record of investing in customer experience improvements.

That, along with their high level of visits, makes them attractive to work with as an online retailer.

Two amazon boxes made to look like people with arms legs and faces holding two large heart symbols

Amazon vendor services and marketing tools

However, one of the challenges is that as good as these marketing tools are, you don’t get automatic access to them when you become a vendor. They charge for everything. You pay to drive your sales on their store. 

For example, if you want detailed sales data about your products, you need to pay for it. This service called ARAP – Amazon Retail Analytics Premium – charges a % on every transaction you do with Amazon. 

With Amazon, you generally don’t even have a dedicated account manager for your business. The “buyer” will manage a large range of products within a category. If you want more personalised support, you pay for it. It’s part of their service offer called SVS – Strategic Vendor Services.

So those can be costs BEFORE you even get to the ‘marketing tools’. 

Amazon updates their marketing tools regularly, but nothing is freely given. If you want to access A+ Content and Vine for example, which help create better product pages and generate faster reviews, then yes, more cost. 

Listing your products in Subscribe and Save and Events can be great for driving sales. But again, it comes at a cost. If you want to work with Amazon Marketing and Media services to run ads or improve your search position on Amazon, all those things come at a cost.

Amazon is undoubtedly an interesting retailer to consider when building your online retailer strategy due to its high reach. But we recommend you do some research into their offer before engaging them.  Make sure you’ve identified and are happy with the selling costs as those will affect your profit and loss

Amazon Marketplace

Amazon also offers their own version of the marketplace selling model.

In this model, Amazon don’t ‘buy’ your product from you, they rent you space on their website for you to sell your own products. They take a percentage of the sales price as a commission on each sale. 

In this case, as you’re the seller, you control the price. However, you don’t have access to the same level of marketing support as under the vendor model. 

They manage the payments, and you have some options where they can also manage the delivery

Amazon Japan cardboard boxes arranged to look like a small person walking

You can also choose “Fulfilled by Merchant”  where you manage orders and delivery yourself. Or, “Fulfilled by Amazon” where you use Amazon’s supply chain set up and they deliver it for you. Of course, they do this for a much higher percentage fee of the transaction.

Whichever way you sell through Amazon, they’re generally much more focused on the online customer than traditional bricks and clicks retailers. This means they want to make it as easy for you to sell online as they can. It’s in their interests to sell more, as they take a commission on every sale.

It helps keep their costs down, the more items they sell. That, and making you pay for all their services.

So, in terms of control and complexity, they do offer that extra level of control over the selling process that is harder to achieve with bricks and clicks retailers.

But they do also bring some additional complexities.

Amazon complexities

We have a separate article which goes into more detail on the challenges of selling with Amazon. But in short, you will likely face tough negotiations with them. They’re big for a reason, and they squeeze suppliers hard on margins and fees. And that’s in fact, if you even get a chance to negotiate with them. 

They’re a notoriously ‘lean’ organisation in terms of the number of employees. They try to automate as much as possible and reduce the number of contact points. That applies to how they deal with customers AND suppliers. Unless you sign up to their way of working, they’re not easy to work with.

It can be challenging that they charge for EVERY service they provide. Even down to having sales data and having someone who manages your business. You have to work through their costs and fees very carefully, to make sure you are clear on what you sign up for.

Other Pure Players

Amazon offers the broadest range of goods in the Pure Player space. They started with the ambition to be the “everything store” with the widest range of products.

Many others have tried to copy this model and been less successful. It’s only really the pure players like Alibaba who have been successful in China and South East Asia who offer real competition for Amazon on a ‘widest range basis’.

Where you do however, find more competition is when the shopping category is more specific.

And, some categories tend to work better than others when it comes to online selling.

For example, in online fashion, you find pure players like The Iconic and ASOS. The wide range they offer, and the relatively high value of clothing help make their business model work. Similarly, in beauty with pure players like Adore Beauty. Categories with products that are heavy or bulky also pull in pure players. For example, online alcohol pure players like Jimmy Brings and Boozebud, and pet food suppliers like Pet Circle

In general, these brands try to distinguish themselves from more generalist online retailers. They work hard to optimise the shopping experience and add extra levels of service to the customer experience. This builds traffic and loyal customers.

When you work with pure players, your market research can give you an advantage with them. Your level of product information and ability to produce entertaining or educational advertising or blog-type copy can also be a big help.

These types of online retailers want to build their presence against bigger and more established retailers. So, they’re open to any ways you can work with them to deliver this. 

Dropshipping and Print on Demand

As per our e-Commerce planning process, guide this is a more involved way of selling online.

Your online store website  “sells” products that aren’t yet made. You set up and manage all the product pages. Customers pay you the retail price. 

You pass the order to a supplier (dropshipper) or printer and pay them the wholesale price. They make and send out the product to the buyer.

You never actually see the product. 

Most dropshipping suppliers are in China, and you can look for them on alibaba.com. However, you can find suppliers in many other markets too. Print on Demand is usually US-based though again, not exclusively. 

Your profit comes from the difference between the retail and wholesale price. This profit needs to cover costs like your websiteadvertising and any refunds.

Woman wearing a black T-shirt with a design showing a WiFi symbol and the words Australian Invention

The appeal of the dropshipping / POD model is you use the dropshipper to manage stocks and delivery. Products are sold “to order”. So, you don’t pay for any items until you order them. This means no money tied up in storage costs.

Control over the selling experience

And, unlike all the previous channels, you have more control over the front end of the selling experience.

You set up your own storefront, directly manage the product pages and sell to the consumer. You then piggyback on the services of the drop shipping supplier to handle the delivery.

This is a halfway house model between working with an online retailer and running your own full direct to consumer store.

You become the online retailer, but you outsource the back-end functions to create the products and deliver them to a third party.

This gives you more control over the selling experience since you create the advertising and media plan, you set up the online store and you manage the payments and the interaction with the individual shopper.

Of course, with this extra level of control, also comes more complexity. While you may not have to physically produce or ship the goods, you’re responsible if anything goes wrong.

It’s important to review your suppliers to make sure they have good quality systems and customer service processes.

Screengrab of Three-brains Shop - headline says "merchandise to raise your game"

On sites where you can find dropshipping suppliers like aliexpress.com for example, you should always look at reviews and comments about the suppliers you want to use.

When you plan to dropship, you should map out all stages of the order to delivery process, as if you were setting up a full online store yourself. You then identify at which stage the order passes to the supplier to complete. It’s important to plan for any issues or queries that might come up.

While this added complexity is less than running a full D2C store, it can still be challenging to work with third parties, You want to identify partners who are reliable and have a proven track record of delivery.

Dropshipping pros and cons

On the upside, you have more flexibility to adjust pricing and manage costs than with a marketplace, bricks and clicks retailer or pure player. You have control over the whole online shopping experience, including the payment.

From a profit and loss point of view, it’s an attractive model as long as you can manage the costs between the retail and wholesale prices. And obviously, you need to allow for operating costs like the store set-up and maintenance, advertising and media costs and the costs of dealing with any customer complaints. 

You also need to factor in that you have no control over shipping times and tracking. Those are down to the supplier. So, as per our Print on Demand shipping times article, for example, this can impact how much the online shopper has to pay, and how long they have to wait for deliveries.

Key skills to drive your online retailer strategy and plan

In this guide, we’ve covered the different types of online retailers you should consider as part of your online retailer strategy. But you also need to consider how you’ll work with them. There are a number of skills you need to build to have a successful selling relationship with online retailers. (Part of your overall e-Commerce capability plan). 

Digital performance management

E-Commerce stores are “live” sites with information updates on a regular basis.

You need to be able to check that all your products appear correctly and that there are no mistakes. 

So for example, is the product / range in stock and available to buy? Where does it sit on the digital shelf compared to competitors? Are your competitors running promotions, and if so, what is the impact? 

If you have a small range and a small number of online retailers you can check these sorts of areas manually.

But increasingly, these sorts of online store checks are being automated by companies like Edge Ascential.

For a fee, they’ll set you up with an online tool, that automatically scrapes online retailers’ sites and answers these types of questions with live data. You can then identify any issues and act to fix them quickly.

Digital marketing

All of the skills we cover in our digital marketing guides play a role in helping to drive your e-Commerce performance. 

For example, understanding how digital media channels like search, social media and display help you drive shoppers to online retailers and product pages. 

Understanding the benefits of websites and how they work, helps you gather marketing data, and review and improve product pages and site navigation.

It helps you make sure all relevant marketing technology systems are in place to manage the different processes needed to sell online.

Scrabble tiles spelling out Digital Marketing laid out on a wooden table

When you understand how data works online, you can build better insights and make more targeted offers to online shoppers. (See also our advanced e-Commerce techniques article). 

Combining all these types of skills for e-Commerce ultimately helps you improve the overall Customer Experience. And that means more online sales.

Account management and commercial negotiation

Working with online retailers, you also need skills to build strong relationships with them. You need skills to negotiate commercial agreements that work for both parties.  

It’s important to understand their business objectives. It’s important to understand what they need to drive their own customer experience.

If you don’t sell direct, they’ll have more detail about online shoppers than you. So, you must try to bring something additional and valuable to the table. 

Create strong business plans.  Be clear on what you want the online retailer to do, and what’s in it for them. Make sure both parties get their fair share of all sales and profits.

Close up of two hands in a handshake

Business Systems - Finance and Supply chain

While you can sell online without knowing the finances or supply chain set-up of the online retailer, it’s in your interest to find out. 

As per our functions of e-commerce guide, these are the two key other functional skills that matter in e-Commerce. 

For example, knowing the sales, cost and profit breakdown puts you in a better negotiating position with online retailers.

You build your online retailer strategy with a strong commercial grounding. You create more accurate forecasts, price your products at the right level to drive sales, and manage your costs.

Glass jar knocked over on floor with coins spilled out onto the floor

When you understand how products move through the supply chain, you can look for opportunities to improve the customer experience. Look at adding better services like order tracking and faster deliveries, for example. Or you can identify inefficient handling or delivery practices, and eliminate these to lower costs.

Creativity and perseverance

The final two skills you need to drive your online retailer strategy are more about how you work. e-Commerce is a fast-moving channel with potentially lots of complexity.

You need to have solid marketing skills, but also be able to pull in skills from creative thinking and innovation to come up with new ideas.

These are important skills to keep winning over online shoppers, and therefore winning over online retailers. 

The nature of e-Commerce is that it’s a lot of trial and error. Be unafraid to test new ideas, and be prepared to follow up on the ones which work. Throw away the ones which don’t.

Creative header image

It takes a lot of resilience and perseverance to succeed with your online retailer strategy. But if it was easy, everyone would do it.

And what would be the fun in that?

Three-Brains and e-Commerce

We’ve worked on many e-Commerce projects and have great experience across e-Commerce strategy and planning, working with online retailers and setting up online stores. We can help you optimise these activities to drive your e-Commerce growth. Get in touch to learn how we can support you with our coaching and consulting services.

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