The first ever recorded e-commerce sale in human history is generally believed to have taken place on August 11, 1994. Then, 21-year-old entrepreneur Dan Kohn sold a music CD from his New Hampshire based website to a friend in Philadelphia, using encryption technology to protect and to charge the man’s credit card.
That $12.48 sale, which included shipping costs, opened the door to what would become, after several years of fits and starts, a literal revolution in the way people shopped for goods and services.
Two and a half decades later, on-line shopping has become a global phenomenon, spurred on by advances in technology and improved logistics supply chains. Customers love the convenience of 24/7 shopping from the comfort of wherever they happen to be, the sheer limitless volume of choice, and fast delivery times.
Businesses, of course, can’t jump on board fast enough. And why not? Research from Statistica shows that the number of online shoppers is expected to reach 4.6 billion by 2024, up from 1.6 billion in 2016. In 2019 e-commerce sales around the world reached $3.53 trillion. Revenues in 2022 are expected to increase to $6.54 trillion.
While it all may sound like a veritable gold rush, studies of companies that have hit paydirt online reveal some very unique characteristics, other than simply having poured piles of money into the latest modern websites backed by sophisticated algorithms.
It all starts with the customers who, armed with the very same technologies that have led to this revolution in selling, are newly savvy themselves. No longer do people just want to buy a product. Today, consumers want to buy a brand that speaks directly to them, to their values, and to their communities.
In 2012 while working for a multi-national financial corporation, Eric Bandholz was told by his bosses that he would have to shave his beard because of the company’s “no facial hair” policy. Instead of shaving his beard, he quit and launched Beardbrand, a beard grooming company.
The goal originally wasn’t just to sell beard and grooming products. Bandholz wanted to “foster confidence in men through grooming,” and sought to change the way society looked at beards and empower the men that chose not to shave.
He started off with a mere $30, a commitment from a vendor and poured his efforts into a blog, a YouTube channel, and posting pictures on Tumblr. He shared his knowledge about growing a beard and provided style inspiration for others. His line of all natural products, including beard oils and washes, softeners, mustache waxes, shampoos and conditioners, and grooming kits, began to catch on with his growing followers. Eventually the New York Times featured Beardbrand in an article. The rest is history.
Today, through its online store, Beardbrand racks up over $120,000 in sales per month. Their Youtube channel has over 1.7 million subscribers.
“We wanted to be more than a company that sells products,” Bandholz said. “and instead we want to guide men to become the individuals they want to be (beard or beardless).”
Australian James Lillis lacked funding when he designed his first pair of women’s leggings back in 2009. After getting turned down at local stores, he started a blog and posted pictures of his leggings. He made some sales and word quickly spread and hasn’t stopped since. His company, Black Milk, has since grossed millions of dollars selling through its online shop and employs over 150 people.
To this day Black Milk maintains no marketing budget and relies on an almost cult-like relationship with its rabid followers online. The company features actual customer pictures on its website product pages, making customers feel like they are part of the action. Black Milk lets customers manage localized Facebook pages where they develop like-minded communities. The company even has a name for these fans; they are called Sharkies.
To top it off, these loyal customers love the fact that the company strictly adheres to ethical business practices.
“We are committed to maintaining ethical practices that support positive wellbeing of our people, our community and the environment,” Lillis said. “It’s a non-negotiable for us that everything is manufactured ethically.”
Another company that has built online success through its enthusiastic relationship with its customers is popular personal lubricant brand, #LubeLife. The company recently reached 100,000 reviews on Amazon, which is over three times as many reviews as its nearest competitor.
According to Tara Merkle, Senior Director of Marketing of #LubeLife, it’s all about focusing like a laser on the needs and wants of their customer base.
“As a brand, we truly encourage and value consumer feedback,” Merkle said. “We thoroughly read each review we receive and have made changes to our formulation and packaging as a result. We offer free samples so consumers can try before they buy, as well as a 100% satisfaction guarantee because we prioritize the happiness of our consumers and their limitless adventure.”
Engaged customers are loyal customers and here #LubeLife delivers. Their social media and blog posts cover adventurous topics in ways that come through as fun, socially conscious and hip, which resonates with their customer base.
It’s all part of the keys to making it in the online gold rush in the 21st century. Don’t just sell a product. Create a brand that becomes a part of people’s lives, their aspirations, and their communities.
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