By Christopher Bernat
Ecommerce is steadily taking more and more of the consumer’s wallet every year. Since 2007 (with the exception of the “Lehman Quarter”), ecommerce has grown an average of 6-8 percent per quarter.* For millennials and future generations, purchasing online is the norm, and traditional retail will simply have to adjust. Not everyone has felt it yet, but all categories will eventually. Within certain categories, such as apparel, the shift to the Internet has been faster, according to Poonam Goyal, analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. That is not a warning to conventional business, it is an opportunity for real economic growth if you do something about it.
Right now, customization and a wide array of customization technologies are in almost every marketplace. Manufacturers, and manufacturers of customizable products in particular, are using ecommerce to expand their market opportunity and increase margins with new Business-to-Consumer revenue streams. It is part of the larger economic trend of extreme vertical focus on smaller customer segments.
Humans “self-select” in all aspects of life. We select favorite teams (often due to family ties), favorite colors and favorite foods. We lean to a specific genre of films or music and pick our desired college. Until now, consumerism has always been limited in its customization capacity. That has officially changed.
Hopefully you are wondering how you can apply this to your current business. You can, if you have a product that you want to expand your markets with via ecommerce. You need to know what customers want and you need to speak directly to them. What are you known for? What products do you have that lend themselves to being customized?
Villy Customs is a company you may have seen on Shark Tank. They offer a level of customization for bikes that is amazing. Their website, which is also their production software, makes it so much fun to design your own bike that it feels like a video game. They are a classic example of mass-customization coupled with ecommerce for massive expansion.
Speaking with Airion Watkins-Clark, director of marketing at Villy Custom, it is clear they embody this concept. They are not your ordinary bicycle manufacturer.
“Our number one goal has always been to push the envelope and expose the customer to something new,” says Watkins-Clark. “This journey begins with our cruiser-bike customizer and ends with our b2c x c2b relationship.”
Their interface is critical to their success, he went on to say. “We found a way to offer the customer an enticing experience worth their time. The builder’s birth was centered around the question of “how can we offer an ‘ah-ha’ moment to our audience?”
The ability to analyze online customer behavior is real and leads to a constant improvement mentality.
“With any customizer, there’s a responsibility to pay attention to the data. The analytics collected has allowed us to refine the build process. … From color selection, color finish, the 3D model angles, rendering detail, steps to checkout, percent of exits at each step, average time on spent and more. I couldn’t imagine what it would take to scale this idea without the data accumulated from our ecommerce store.”
Do you remember the Bradford Exchange? This company was founded in 1973 and has always sold collectable plates. Facing the fact that collectable plates were losing popularity, they dove head on into change. In the last five years, they have coupled customization and ecommerce with amazing success. Are you a Cubs fan that wants a world series trophy replica but you live in Bamberg, S.C.? They got you. Looking for his and her Camo Wedding Rings but you live in Palo Alto, California? Relax, they have three setting options from which to choose.
Going vertical with e-commerce doesn’t have to mean changing your business. It actually should not force change in your native marketplace. You can work with current customers and grow in new markets that are not competitive them.
Altered Latitudes has done just that on Amazon with hundreds of unique nautical designs. A local UPF fishing apparel brand headquartered in Charleston, Altered Latitudes works with its retail partners to ensure that they capture just the right look for each retailer’s discerning customer. The Charleston Angler, Coastal Expeditions, Isle of Palms Marina, Wild Dunes, See Wee Outpost and Charleston Harbor Marina all offer the brand in their own unique way. These retailers are leveraging their brands and driving traffic to their stores by partnering with a customized brand like Altered Latitudes. To ensure that they do not compete with their retail customers, the brand charges more for its apparel on Amazon. It focuses on “Getting Local”.
“If you live on Sullivan’s Island, you want a Sullivan’s Island shirt, not a Charleston shirt,” says Tom Henry, director of sales for the company. “Same for Edisto, Daniel Island or Folly Beach.” The company has duplicated this concept for coastal areas throughout the hemisphere and is enjoying the lift in sales as a result.
Getting to Amazon: Amazon is the dominant ecommerce platform in the U.S. Getting your products into this market is an essential part of any North American ecommerce play. By getting into the marketplace, you open yourself up to growth, direct consumer feedback and the ability to maximize your customization expertise. No opportunity comes without challenges; counterfeiting and knock-off products can thwart your business, but smart brands know how to overcome these obstacles in exchange for the growth opportunity. The winning combination? A great product and even better customer service. Developing a sense of urgency about this marketplace and customer service in general can cause meteoric growth.
Even without the Amazon cherry on top, these companies are succeeding where others failed to recognize how the marketplace was changing. All of these companies share the same perspective about leveraging mass customization, manufacturing, and ecommerce. They are examples of how digital technologies as simplifying the supply chain as it expands consumer choice. Years from now, will you also be able to look back at this time of massive change in commerce and smile? There has never been a more compelling time to secure your business’ future.
*U.S. Census Bureau Quarterly Ecommerce Report
(Editor’s Note: Christopher Bernat Chief Revenue Officer and Co-Founder of North Charleston-based Vapor Apparel. This is the first in a series of columns written by executives of South Carolina’s 25 Fast Growing Companies.)