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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to fuel e-commerce growth, many small businesses are wondering how to maximize their online sales in 2021. From customer outreach to product delivery, business owners will need the right tools and insights to make the most of their digital sales strategy.

In this installment of CO— Blueprint, content director Jeanette Mulvey gathered practical insights from e-commerce experts and small business owners to help companies transition from in-person to virtual sales.

Visibility, supply chain and content are the keys to e-commerce expansion

There are three core areas every business should focus on to expand their e-commerce operations, said Matthew Rhodus, senior director of strategic initiatives at Oracle NetSuite:

  1. Visibility. Every business must have clear visibility into its inventory, cash flow and supply chain. The more your business shifts into the online realm, the more transparent you'll need to be about these areas with your customers and vendors.
  2. Supply chain. There are two sides to your supply chain: inbound — how you acquire inventory to sell — and outbound — how you're meeting the shipping standards consumers are used to. Options like dropshippers and third-party logistics (3PL) companies can help you create a smoother, more seamless process for customers to get their products.
  3. Content. Digital content, whether it's on social media, email marketing or your business website, is of paramount importance in creating a consistent but tailored digital experience for your customers. Make sure the content you're posting on each channel and device is appropriate for the platform, but still delivering the same message, said Rhodus.

[Read: How to Drive Traffic to Your E-Commerce Store]

Brick-and-mortar retailers need to rethink the way they connect with customers

Many businesses that have had to make the shift from in-person to online sales have found it challenging to translate the in-store experience to the digital realm. This was the case for Bunnie Hilliard, owner of neighborhood bookstore Brave and Kind Books.

"It was never my intention to be an online bookstore," said Hilliard, whose goal was to create an in-store experience of discovering curated, diverse books. "We were very transparent about moving away from in-store browsing to online, but [I thought], how can I make it still feel like a book shop experience?"

To replicate that experience, Hilliard began taking photos of books from their shelves on the bright rainbow rug that serves as a focal point of Brave and Kind Books.

"Taking those photos [and] putting those on our website, in addition to creating packaging that felt warm and personal, translated [the experience] from in-person to shipping into [customers'] homes," she said.

We were very transparent about moving away from in-store browsing to online, but [I thought], how can I make it still feel like a book shop experience?

Bunnie Hilliard, owner, Brave and Kind Books

Vivian Sayward, founder and CEO of Vivacity Sportswear, had a similar experience when moving her sustainable women's fashion line from resort and cruise ship boutiques to online sales.

"We're tactile — we want to feel what we're buying [and] try it on," said Sayward. "Conveying that visually is very difficult."

Sayward's business began creating new digital touchpoints, including more video and social media content to convey that "cruise/resort" messaging. This included getting Vivacity's products into Facebook and Instagram's shopping features to connect with customers where they're already hanging out online.

[Read: Investments in E-Commerce Yield Big Gains for Small Businesses Amid Pandemic]

Think ahead to the future

Businesses that have been scrambling to keep up with online demand need to determine what's going to keep them afloat today and tomorrow. For instance, Chris McCasland, founder of City Bonfires, is already anticipating a lot of orders for his portable mini bonfire kits through the holiday season.

"We're trying to … make sure we have enough supply going into the future," said McCasland. "We're overbuying now, but I would rather have inventory … and hold it than come up short. We're over-hiring … to make as many of these as possible and fill [orders] as quickly as we can."

Now is also a good time to look at the technology and infrastructure to make your transition, said Rhodus, who recommended investing in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to stay on top of inventory, finances, logistics, supply chain information and more.

"At some point your business will not scale anymore," he told CO—. "You are just not capable of manually holding it together. When you … [invest] in tools like [ERP] … your technology spend is going to go up, [but] your efficiency and what you're getting out of it should very easily offset that cost."

According to Rhodus, getting those foundational tech tools in place now will "future-proof" your business and make you more adaptable to the changes and market shifts to come.

"It's very difficult [to keep up] if you don't have a solid foundation underneath," he said.

[Read: 5 Small Business Owners on Their Most Essential Tech Tools]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published November 19, 2020