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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

Selling Online: 3 Alternatives to an E-Commerce Website

Selling Online: 3 Alternatives to an E-Commerce Website
As the e-commerce market gets more and more crowded, online sellers are turning to new ways of conducting business on the Web. / Credit: Shopping cart image via Shutterstock

It seems like a new e-commerce business is opening up its virtual doors every day. Whether they're hosted shops on sites like Etsy or full-fledged online storefronts, these businesses are showing the trend of conducting sales over the Web isn't slowing down anytime soon.

"E-commerce is projected to grow exponentially over the next decade," said Joe Palko, chief marketing officer for e-commerce platform provider 3dcart. "The growing number of similar products offered by a variety of different sellers will shift the e-commerce industry into a buyer's market. Customers will have the purchasing power to choose between multiple brands to fit their needs, and it's important that online retailers have a strong marketing strategy in place to remain competitive and relevant in their customers' minds."

While an e-commerce website is the most popular way to sell products online, it's certainly not the only way. If you want to try something different with your online business, here are three alternatives to enhance — or perhaps even replace — the traditional e-commerce model.

Social media

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are included in nearly all online retailers' marketing strategies today. As brands realize the power of social sharing and customer advocacy, more of them are putting their social media accounts on double-duty as a way to make sales.

"Social media can play a critical role in the sales process and attracting the perfect client in a very genuine way," said Brian Krogstad, co-founder of online education platform Social Network Marketing University. "When people get value from your blog, news from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and are entertained on YouTube and Instagram, they are going to want more. [They will] feel a deeper connection to you and what you offer, [and be] much more likely not only to buy once, but to buy for life and recommend you. Social media has leveled the word-of-mouth advertising field, allowing virtually anyone to tap into the most reliable form of marketing: trusted recommendations."

Many companies that are exploring social commerce do so by including direct buy links in posts about their products. But some, like apparel franchise Mainstream Boutique, have eliminated the need for an e-commerce component of their website by taking and fulfilling orders right on Facebook. Through Mainstream's unique model, photos of limited-supply items are posted on each franchise's Facebook page, which customers comment on with their desired size and email address. Mainstream Boutique then sends the buyer an invoice for the product and ships it out. [Social Media Selling Solutions for Small Businesses]

"We wanted to create a win for the customer and a win for our franchise owners, and giving the customers the ability to make purchases via the Facebook page of their local Mainstream Boutique did just that," said Corey DeNicola, the company's director of franchising. "Each one of our stores has a Facebook page that acts as a mini community for franchise owners and their customers. Our franchise owners develop relationships with their customers and community, which creates an authentic, customer-focused shopping experience that can't be replicated online."

DeNicola noted that a traditional e-commerce model has the obvious advantages of increased revenue and profitability, but Mainstream Boutique chose Facebook-only online sales to reduce the associated overhead expenses for its franchise owners.

Mobile apps

As customers continue to use their mobile devices to browse for and purchase items, mobile optimization has been a key way for many e-retailers to make the shopping experience smooth and seamless.

"We like to think of [mobile commerce] as a brand extension to a business's full-service online store," Palko told Business News Daily. "It's an important component of meeting customers where they are, [such as] shopping online on their phones during a lunch break."

But another mobile-commerce trend, purchase-by-app, has also been taking hold, especially in the restaurant industry. Companies like Moe's Southwest Grill are able to cut down on in-store lines by allowing customers to complete transactions via the company's mobile app and pick up their orders in-store. Paul Macalusco, the restaurant chain's chief marketing officer, noted that, while the initial investment to create and market a commerce-enabled mobile app was relatively large, the company has seen a 70 percent increase in daily mobile orders since last year.

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"If you can help someone save money or time, it will help you gain loyal customers," Macalusco said. "[The app] was about saving time for people. It also helps our restaurants serve more people within a peak period of time. You do have to make an investment on the front end to get people to try it and change their habits, but [if you make] an aggressive offer, [you'll see] a significant increase in adoption of the app."

One additional benefit of selling via mobile app is the built-in customer database you can create, Macalusco said. The Moe's app allows customers to save their credit card information, location and favorite orders, which has been a great help in remarketing campaigns to boost customer loyalty.

Local retailer partnerships

Although your business may be conducted online, face-to-face interactions and relationships could be the ticket to driving sales. This is the case for Loxa Beauty, an e-tailer of professional hair and beauty products. The company partners with local salons and stylists, who receive a commission for directing their customers to Loxa.

Loxa co-founder Danielle McDowell said that her company's present business model evolved out of a simple consumer request.

"We had written a blog post about a product we loved that wasn't widely distributed," McDowell said. "Someone reached out who was interested in buying it, but the closet salon [that carried it] was 100 miles away. We wanted to directly connect consumers with professional hair-product lines without alienating our original client base of salons and stylists."

By partnering with brick-and-mortar businesses, Loxa is able to take advantage of word-of-mouth advertising, which is even more effective because the recommendations come from customers' trusted local beauty professionals. The commission-based partnerships also help the salons, proving the power of collaboration among small businesses.

But no matter which e-commerce model you choose, finding success is all about the right marketing techniques, specifically through social media.

"Social media allows entrepreneurs and businesses to compress time and maximize their marketing budget, while reaching more people than ever before," Krogstad said. "It also provides the opportunity for entrepreneurs to find and connect with like-minded people and ideal customers very quickly. It opens up an entirely new market. Having a Facebook business page, a Twitter account, an Instagram account, a blog and other resources will help you get people into your marketing funnel and provide a chance to make people aware of what you offer."

Originally published on Business News Daily.

Nicole Fallon

Nicole Fallon received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.