Online Retail vs Offline: What’s the Real Problem?


It seems that each day there is more bad news for Australian retailers.  Some people like to blame retailers’ woes on the rising percentage of shoppers turning to the internet to shop (add in the high Australian dollar and that overseas retailers are GST exempt and it becomes a compelling argument), others on consumer optimism being low and the country turning into a nation of savers (gasp!), others high rents and rising wages.

But for all the bad news stories for retailers (Colorado anyone? Borders?), there are positive stories like Spanish retailer Zara which launched in Sydney and Melbourne in a fanfare of free publicity.

If, as the experts say, the key to business is to find out what people want and give it to them then you have to assume that it’s the retailers that get it right that will prosper (like Zara) and those that don’t (Colorado) won’t.  Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, clearly there were other issues involved in the collapse of the Colorado group.

But if you take the maxim about giving people what they want to be the reason to be in business then all other issues are secondary to that.  You can have low debt levels, lean corporate structure, refurbished outlets and slick branding but if people aren’t buying what you’re offering then the rest doesn’t count for much at all.

So how can businesses find what potential customers want?  Ask them.  Not every business has a huge pot of money they can spend on market research but thankfully now you don’t need it.

An easy way to run a survey is to set up an online campaign targeting your ideal customers.  Offer them an incentive for participating – discount on future purchase, chance to win a prize – whatever you think will motivate them.   Ask them to

  • give feedback about what they like and dislike about your brand and products
  • find out what pressing problem they have that they want to solve
  • what are they looking for that they can’t get
  • ask them how they want it – online or offline
  • what information they look for before making a purchase.

Pick a few key areas from the above list to focus on; what you pick will depend on your business and industry and how much online experience your business has.  It’s important not to ask for too much information and to let participants know up-front how long it will take to complete.

Another tip is to leave several blank boxes for them to fill in their own answers.  Sometimes this can be the most illuminating part.

If you don’t have an IT department to whip up a survey for you there are a few companies providing survey services:

Survey Monkey is a service I’ve used many times in the past – they have a free version and a few different pro plans with monthly payment fees.  You can join, set up your survey and then cancel your membership when the campaign has finished its run.   Survey Monkey

If you use WordPress you can incorporate your own survey into your site through a free Survey plugin.  I’ve used Survey Gizmo and found it integrates well and is easy to use.  Survey Gizmo