Whether you sell t-shirts or run a restaurant, plan weddings or design custom jewelry, it’s almost impossible these days not to think about your online presence. Still, for businesses whose main offering isn’t a shippable product, ecommerce tends to fall to the wayside. If you’re a contractor or run a nail salon, for instance, you might think people can’t buy what you’re selling online.
But the ecommerce-averse attitude may be a little too hasty, as today’s best-in-class software can help virtually any business grow and optimize their sales. Take it from Alan Wood, co-founder and CEO of Rally Beer, an Ontario-based brewer with a line of low-alcohol, low calorie beers targeted at an active lifestyle audience. Despite recent changes to provincial liquor laws that have opened the doors to more bottle shops, Rally Beer doesn’t have a retail store authorization and is therefore not licensed to sell alcohol online.
“We put a lot of effort into our digital presence anyway,” says Wood, “because it helps us grow our sales elsewhere. Plus, we’ve spun out a non-alcoholic beer and some other items along the way which we do sell online.”
Below, we explore a few of the key ecommerce tactics that businesses like Rally use to acquire, retain, and grow relationships with customers.
When it comes to converting prospects into customers—and getting customers to keep coming back—there’s probably no better tool out there than email. It’s personal, it’s versatile, and if you don’t take it too far, it helps keep you top of mind.
“We use a tool called Klaviyo to design and automate emails,” says Wood. “And that allows us to stay in touch with our prospects and customers at various points. If someone places an order, for instance, it sends them a thank you email. And then if they haven't placed an order in 30 days, we might send them another email reminding them about Rally, or seeking feedback, or showing them a new piece of merch. Eventually we’ll offer them 10% off if they reorder. Little things like that to keep the party going.”
The trick, of course, is getting people to sign-up for emails in the first place. Many websites—Rally Beer’s included—incentivize sign-ups with a 10% discount upfront, and reward readership with exclusive or early-access content, whether it’s a giveaway, event announcement, or limited release product, offerings that help build a sense of community around the brand.
“It's ultimately a combination of getting them subscribed and then engaging them from time to time. Not too much, you know, but just the right amount with some fun incentives. Maybe it's free shipping, maybe it's a free beer koozie on all orders for the next 30 days.”
In terms of sheer revenue, there’s almost nothing better than automated repeat business—in a word, subscriptions—allowing customers to get your product delivered to their door on a weekly or monthly basis. Fortunately, there are tools out there that make subscriptions easy.
“Our website is powered by Shopify,” says Wood, “and inside Shopify there’s a third-party app called Recharge, which gives customers the option to subscribe to deliveries of our non-alcoholic beer on a monthly basis. We call it the Non-Alc Beer Club.”
With subscriptions, not only do customers enjoy the experience of “setting and forgetting,” but businesses get to build a loyal customer base, and the reliable revenue stream that goes with it.
Whether or not your core offering is saleable online—it may be too bespoke or experiential for that—it’s important as you grow to think about digital-friendly products you might offer on the side. Again, Wood’s story is telling.
“Ecommerce is a big reason why we decided to spin out a non-alcoholic beer option. We were just sitting there like ‘We’ve got this audience, we’ve got this website, it'd be nice to be able to sell something online to them,’ so it definitely pushed us over the edge to do it.”
Not only do alternative products create a new revenue stream in their own right, but they can act as a trojan horse leading the customer to your other, more flagship products.
“Basically I'm using ecom to drive trials, you know, get people to try our non-alc. And if they want to keep doing that through our website, great. But they may also see it in a store and buy it, or they might see one of our other beers at the LCBO and give it a try. Our ecommerce efforts are having a bit of a halo effect in that way.”
A special kind of alternative product is branded merchandise. If people love your brand and the lifestyle it conveys, they will want to signal their inclusion through branded clothing and accessories—items easily sold online.
“When we release a new shirt or something,” says Wood, “we get a lot of people ordering it online. And when they do that, a lot of them will buy our non-alcoholic beer in the process.”
Partnerships and collaborations
Merch and emails work great when people already know who you are, but how do you get the word out in the first place? One great top-of-funnel strategy is to team up with a larger brand and piggy-back on their online audience, driving awareness and gaining followers along the way. With its brand connection to the outdoors and active lifestyles, that gives Wood and Rally Beer any number of interesting partners to work with.
“We collaborated with a popular running brand called Ciele Athletics to create a hat, and that in turn drove a lot of people to our website. People love that brand. Anytime we have a Ciele hat it's gone in like hours.”
Contests with prizes are a great way to drive engagement online. And when you combine a contest with a partnership, your audience can really start to grow.
“Social media contests, they just work. You give away a free case of beer and a free Arcteryx jacket and you get a bunch of followers... But who you do it with has to be aligned to your brand. I couldn't do a contest with a car company, for example, because alcohol and cars don't go together. We're trying to build an active adventure brand, so Arcteryx was a great fit.”
This one’s straightforward: if you can eat the cost of shipping for customers—especially those who pass a certain price point—you’re more likely to upsell and convert. It’s a tried and true tactic, and Rally Beer makes no exception.
If you sell your product in a third-party store, you might be able to get the hard sales figures, but you won’t get the qualitative feedback you need to keep innovating. With ecommerce, you gain access to that feedback directly, whether outbound via email or simply by watching the conversation on your social media accounts.
“Running our online store is also about getting feedback and generally learning more about who our customer is,” says Wood. “That includes what they like and don’t like about our product, packaging, flavours, you name it. And then I can apply those learnings across the board.”
You may not want to invest the time and money into running your own ecommerce site, or maybe you want to complement it with other platforms. Either way, a good ecommerce strategy means more than just having your own website.
As Wood explains “We’re also available on other ecom marketplaces. lcbo.com stocks us, for example, as well as non-alc beer marketplaces like well.ca, designateddrinks.ca, and notwasted.ca. It’s good to be where your audience is.”
Advice and research for Canadian small businesses from our expert team