The online opportunities for IBDs

By Stacey MacNaught, founder of SEO agency MacNaught Digital

The future of retail is unpredictable. COVID-19 was the final nail in the coffin of many large high street brands in recent months. And it’s no secret that brick and mortar retail has been struggling in many areas for some time.

So as IBDs, a solid safety net is likely to be available in the form of a performing website – a website that can generate revenue even on the days when the shop is quiet.

But it comes with its challenges. The online Google Ad spend in this space is dominated by big names like Halfords and Evans Cycles.

And big retailers have the big budgets to invest in all-singing-all-dancing websites with the bells and whistles. So can an independent retailer really compete online? I think so. And here’s why.

Searches are on the up… Big time. Especially following lockdown, searches for “bikes” on Google UK are astronomically high. In May 2019, 110,000 people searched “bikes”, based on data from KWFinder. In April 2020, that was a phenomenal 550,000. And although the peak was May and searches dropped slightly in June, we’re still way above the level of this time last year.

COVID-19 means that people who would normally go to a physical store for a bike have made the purchase online. And this could lead to long-term habits in people who have previously shopped in store for cycling equipment.

So if more people are likely to be shopping online for bikes, then there’s more of the online market to go around. In other words, the timing is great for independents looking to make online work.

Big brands dominate big searches – but not all
Big brands have a big challenge on their hands keeping up with content requirements on their websites. When you stock hundreds of thousands of products, you cannot realistically create in-depth content and information on every single page with any degree of ease.

Yes, if you search “bikes” in Google, you’ll find Evans, Halfords and Decathlon all in the top five.

It’s not too dissimilar if you search “mountain bikes”, which had over 600,000 searches in May. But data from search engines shows us that people search in much more specific terms too. You know your customers and you know the level of research they might do before making a purchase. This is often online. And when they get to the point when they’re ready to buy, they might type in much more specific queries than those big ones.

Some examples:
– “Cinelli bikes” (5,400 searches in May) where much smaller retailers can be found on the first page of Google
– “Ridley bikes” (6,600 searches in May)
– “Elswick bikes” (2,900 searches in May)

In other words, by researching how people are searching for more specific brands or even products, you can target your marketing in areas less dominated by retail giants.

Big brand reputations are suffering online
In part down to fulfilment issues in lockdown and also in part down to other issues, many of the big retailers struggle with online reviews, which are critical in the decision about whether or not to buy something. Halfords is rated just 2.7 out of five on TrustPilot, while Evans is even lower on 2.1.

With thousands of reviews, it’s hard to turn these average scores around. But newer-to-the-online-space independent retailers who focus on great customer service can build a pristine online reputation from day one.

Independents can create better web content
As an independent retailer, you probably know the specific questions of your customer far better than a marketing team inside a head office somewhere. As a smaller business, even if you’re not customer-facing day to day, you’re likely closer to your customers than the marketing team within a large retail organisation. In other words, when you come to create a product page for a bike on your website, you can:

– Write content as someone who has been hands-on with that bike, giving a solid first-hand description rather than a simple specification based on data from a manufacturer
– Answer questions you know customers might have right there on the page

A unique, in-depth product page is something, with a smaller range than a big retailer, you could potentially do better than the big brands and in turn, this is something that works in your favour with getting in search engines.

So, how do you do it?
We’d need a whole series of articles to walk you through the step by step. But to cover it concisely, let me point you in the direction of some resources to get online, research your audience and start learning the basics of online advertising and SEO if you’re new to it.

First up, a website doesn’t have to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and take several months to create. Try shop builders like Shopblocks and Shopify for a quick and cost-effective website that will enable you to sell online fast. SEO and Google Ads are powerful marketing tools because they let you reach users while they’re actively looking for your product. Deciding how to reach that audience all starts with understanding how they search.

Online tools will help you to understand, such as KWFinder, SEMrush and AlsoAsked. Some resources if you’re  embarking upon this without the assistance of an agency  or consultant:

– Google Skill Shop equips you with resources to learn the basics of how to use a host of Google tools
– The Moz Beginner’s Guide to SEO is a great place to start with getting your head around the basics of SEO
– Google’s Own Webmaster Guidelines offer insight into what Google is looking for with your website

More people are looking to buy bikes online and independent retailers have a potential knowledge advantage over many of the marketing teams within large brands.

You don’t have to invest hundreds of thousands to go head to head with the market leader. Instead, you identify and carve out your own area of the search market, get a cost-effective site up fast and start building a reputation for offering the same level of expertise and service online as you do in your physical shop location. Good luck!

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