Our industry has enjoyed a period of strong growth following the global financial crisis of the past decade, and in that time some PPAI member companies have benefitted more than others. This is especially true when you look at the growth in ecommerce sales. 

The PPAI 2017 Annual Sales Volume report shows that more business is going online in one form or another, making ecommerce a more important consideration than ever for businesses focusing on the long term. There are still plenty of offline sales occurring, so there is no need to panic in the short term, but the long-term trend is clear: customers are moving a significant portion of purchases toward online channels. 

A trend that appears to correlate to the growth in online sales is that more large companies are representing a greater percentage of industry sales volume than ever before.

Keeping an eye on trends like this is one of the ways your industry trade association helps members prepare for and leverage market changes. It’s the third of PPAI’s four goals: Develop and Leverage Strategic Foresight.

Hundreds of companies offer unique online ecommerce solutions selling promotional products, and thousands of companies use website templates from service providers—yet there are only a handful of standout online promotional product companies. What’s their secret? A company doesn’t have to be large to win with ecommerce. In fact, smaller distributors can stand out against large online players by leveraging the strengths that got them where they are. 

A good website is critical to success, but there are quite a few companies with excellent websites that are not leading ecommerce players. On the flip side, there are companies that are doing quite well yet have poorly designed websites.  

What makes the few successful online companies stand out is the amount of traffic their sites generate and how well it converts to revenue. It’s very costly to drive traffic via online advertising (pay per click) or organically (search engine optimization/SEO), but some companies use those strategies quite effectively. However, the more firms that use these techniques, the more expensive it becomes to generate traffic, and the early leads established by some companies become harder and harder to overcome.

How does the average distributor compete online with the largest online players? They embrace their websites and leverage the strength of personal connections. Online players create relationships out of online transactions. Traditional distributors can leverage personal relationships and strengthen them online. 

Too many traditional distributors try to compete with online companies by highlighting their personal service, but once an online company establishes a relationship, the service is often quite good. In fact, online companies have larger staffs working longer hours providing online chat, online order history and other services that are tough for the average distributor to compete with head-to-head. 

The right approach for traditional distributors to ensure they can compete with online distributors is to supplement great personal service with excellent online service. Customers occasionally want to browse on their own and you need to constantly encourage them to do that on your site.

It’s likely that your customers are already sending you links from competitive sites asking you to quote on a product. Eventually, the customer may find it easier to just click and buy from wherever they are searching so you need to make sure they are searching your site and having a great experience before, during and after the sale. You are responsible for getting your customers to use your website, or you will eventually lose some to online companies.

A great website with quality products, useful features and a good overall experience is important, but if you are not driving traffic there, your online sales will not be successful. Traffic is the overlooked key to winning online. It’s time to more aggressively invest in your website as an online sales tool to support your offline approach.