This post is also available in: Japanese
I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in my neighbourhood recently – with some difficulty as most of the floor was covered in boxes of newly purchased books. This led to a conversation with the owner about he managed his stock. I said I supposed that he put online the stock that he did not have room to display. He replied he did not have a website – he had tried to use e-commerce during the pandemic but it proved to be unprofitable.
He found he could not compete with Amazon and Amazon’s second book arm, Abe Books, in terms of search engine rankings. He could sell his books via Abe Books, but there is fierce price competition and if the book is not rare, the margins are very small.
As I write this, I am watching a British online art auction. Almost all British art and antique auctions are now online, since the pandemic forced them to switch – and these auctions are now consolidated on a website called saleroom.com, which also has auctions from continental Europe and the USA. Buyers have returned to the auction room in person too – and I would certainly prefer to see art and antiques in person before bidding. For signed art by known artists with known provenance, it is of course less of a risk.
On the other hand, a son of a friend of mine has become very rich selling online, even though his products are cheap, no-brand, highly commoditised products – for example lint removers – and are manufactured in China. The secret to his success is his total obsession with data – even when he is on holiday he is checking sales volumes and competitor prices and ratings and tweaking his pricing and his social media advertising.
Many B2C companies in the UK have become entirely online, with no physical retail presence. This is partly because the overheads, particularly energy costs, have shot up recently, as well as labour shortages. But the most successful b2c online businesses started with a physical shop, to establish their brand.
It’s no surprise then that one of the most cited barriers for Japanese companies in a recent JETRO survey, particularly small-medium sized businesses, to growing their e-commerce sales in Europe, is their lack of brand recognition. For Japanese companies who are already selling overseas via e-commerce, the second largest concern after lack of information about overseas markets is the difficulty in increasing brand awareness overseas – even for the larger companies.
Over 20% of the Japanese companies in the JETRO survey wanted to expand their e-commerce sales to Europe. If physical presence in Europe is not possible, then the digital first solution would be to hire a European specialist marketing agency. If you have the budget and a strong brand, they can run advertising and social media campaigns for you. For smaller budgets, or a commoditized or B2B product, then a smaller local agency can recommend specialist consolidated EC websites, analyse your sales and marketing data and make recommendations on pricing and product positioning.
This article by Pernille Rudlin first appeared in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News in May 2023
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