Online Shopping – Suitable for niche industries?

Online Shopping for Embedded/Industrial products – what we’ve all been waiting for, or a dangerous path indeed?

We’ve all grown to love the online shopping experience; no queues, parking charges, transporting (often heavy) goods home, easily comparing prices – the list goes on. However, do these retail shopping benefits translate into niche industries, especially ones with highly technical or complex product lines, or as a result, do we then lose what differentiates us from a ‘shop’?

As a Sales Manager, this is something I’ve wrestled with for years. Do my customers want online shopping facilities? Surveying, all queried responded a resounding ‘Yes!’. Though, as an existing customer are their views unavoidably tainted? As they already have long since established and utilised that supplier-customer relationship, that which I fear losing the most through such a non-human purchasing path.

In a niche industry such as our own embedded/industrial computing arena, we’re very used to rules that often apply in our commercial counterpart, differing (often the opposite) from what our own client base demands.

Of course there are positives, those aspects that can improve the efficiency of both the supplier’s operation and the client’s usability of our products and services are difficult to argue with, but are they masking something else?

In our ‘instant access’ society post millennium, individuals have come to expect the availability of instant product information, and indeed, pricing. Long since passed are the days of self-addressed product information forms and suppliers responding with cumbersome product brochures spanning their entire product range – users these days expect to know about a single product, in its entirety, immediately.

Following on from this, once the internet age had presented this individual product information to a user on immediate request, the question of instant pricing was still unresolved. Soon, for ‘commodity’ retail items (i.e. DVDs, books), pricing seamlessly became part of the experience, with the shopping cart facility and online credit card processing completing the job.

Such facilities, when applied to a niche marketplace, have a much harder job to do. Firstly, sticking to the topic of pricing, how should a supplier position their price? DSL have prided itself for over 20 years in being an Engineering company, offering often hand held support through development phases and never being simply a ‘box shifter’ – should our price continue to reflect this (and risk a perception that we’re ‘expensive’) or should we bow to the pressure of the online ‘lowest price = best option’ mantra – and become that very ‘box shifter’ we much loath?

How do you encompass quantity breaks? Customer discounts? Scheduled orders? Special build options? Bespoke product? – Quite simply, you can’t!

A company then finds themselves forced into an avenue of often simplified product ranges, having to make additional effort to try and cover the huge number of potential product modifications in written words, often unusual requests that could be discussed and confirmed within seconds via more traditional, verbal means.

Clients with projects involving multiple units naturally expect a reduction in unit price (who wouldn’t) but how can this be managed online, often given large variations in batch quantities, batch sizes and even payment terms, again, you can’t.

One then finds their Online Shopping portal becomes purely for sample/development units, all well and good (in fact I intended our Online Shop to become this) but is there a risk potential customers are alienated by what they falsely believe, at a quick glance, is your best price?

Of course the benefits exist, customers can compare similar systems, deciding exactly where their price vs. premium point lies, rather than having to request a plethora of quotations – similarly within the confines of a product: What is the price difference of a larger display, extra RAM, larger storage medium etc.?, without requesting an abundance of different quotation options.

Those exist who find any contact from Sales staff irritating, perhaps it’s those who would benefit most from an ‘on your own’ approach. Whilst some clients are experts in the niche products you supply, many aren’t and I’ve lost count of the number of customers I’ve directed to an entirely different, yet far better solution; who, had they gone at it alone – would have been left unsatisfied with simply the wrong product, this then damaging your reputation as a solution provider.

It’s a thin line indeed, one we aim to navigate carefully on by making obvious both routes. Those potential buyers who wish to utilise our decades of expertise in selecting the right product for them and benefitting from our wealth of pre-sales support expertise, the option is very obviously there and encouraged. Those who are frustrated that every product on earth isn’t available to buy online also have their playground.

My main concern, far more important than any of the above, is how do you build that critical relationship with a customer from day 1, if you don’t get to speak to them? This held back our willingness to offer such facilities for many years, as this is what DSL value the very most.

In business, you need a company face you can trust, someone trustworthy that represents an operation with integrity, one you can rely on to aid with any pre/post sale technical support, solution recommendation, obsolescence management and work together with when the pressure is on – how do you portray that via an online shop?

Do you risk publicly losing the essence of everything that’s made your company as successful as it is today by changing how you first communicate with a customer? Or do you retain this, but risk being left behind in a world where buyers want pricing information now, and if they don’t, they’ll go elsewhere.

At DSL we’ve considered this deeply and hope we have incorporated this new capability whilst retaining our core fundamental principles of client support and service – if you’ve any feedback on where we’ve fallen short or could improve, I’m keen to hear all comments.