Here are five strategies that can help smaller online retailers build customer loyalty, promote their brands and minimize the costs of shipping and returns.

Laura Behrens Wu, co-founder and CEO, Shippo

Laura Behrens Wu, co-founder and CEO, Shippo

It’s easier than ever to build an e-commerce store today. You have all the tools and technologies readily available to get started fast. But, only 50 percent of small businesses are left standing after five years, which means the hard work doesn’t stop after you get your company off the ground.

When you build an e-commerce store, an important question to ask yourself is: How will you compete with the major players in your industry to drive profits? What will make you stand out to keep customers coming back for more?

A great way to attract an audience and grow your business is by nailing the end-to-end shipping experience. From the time customers click “Buy” until they unbox their items, there are opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses to facilitate deeper, one-on-one relationships with customers. SMBs often have an edge in that their products are uniquely personal already. Thoughtful shipping tactics can attract repeat customers and more sales.

By making returns seamless and hassle-free, you can turn unhappy customers into happy, repeat customers.

Here are five strategies that entrepreneurs and online retailers can use to optimize their shipping experience.

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Give your brand meaning

Consumers want to buy from companies that offer more than just a product. They’re looking for an experience. Make sure you’re interacting with your audience where they “live” online, whether that’s on Instagram, Reddit or other social platforms, and speaking the same language as them. For example, if you’re catering to a youthful, fun audience, leave the corporate marketing jargon at home.

Build a community around your brand, encouraging hashtags, social sharing, and grassroots engagement from your customers. This helps move the needle as your customers aren’t just buying a product, they’re also finding inspiration, friendships, etc.

Once you’ve honed in on your message, make sure your brand is consistent across platforms and throughout the buying experience, particularly as items are shipping out into the hands of customers.

Optimize shipping costs

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It’s important to make sure you’re using cost-effective shipping options to meet your bottom line. Since free shipping is so critical to the user experience, look for ways you can offer it. That might be implementing a free shipping threshold or a limited-time free shipping promotion.

The best shipping strategies are proactive. If you haven’t already, review the current 2018 shipping rate charts across the shipping providers you work with to make sure you understand the prices beforehand.

Look at your monthly invoices or package archives to identify your most popular packages and routes. Spend extra time on these to see if there are any ways you can be saving money—either by optimizing the packaging you use or comparing with other shipping services.

Use the delivery experience to “surprise and delight” customers

Consumers have come to expect that brands will go above and beyond for loyal customers. Over half of online shoppers said that they would be somewhat or much more likely to purchase from a retailer again if their package came with a free giveaway.

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One of our customers, VNYL, a curated vinyl record subscription company, has created a truly unique experience for its subscribers. Since the records are a surprise each month, VNYL keeps the contents of its package a secret until the day of delivery, offering tracking without package information. At that time of delivery, Shippo’s webhooks trigger VNYL to automatically upload the same music to a customer’s Spotify playlist as an added bonus, so customers feel like they’re getting something special.

Don’t forget about returns

Unfortunately, returns are an inherently negative experience, since the customer is unhappy with the purchase. However, by making returns seamless and hassle-free, you can turn unhappy customers into happy, repeat customers.

For example, customers who received free shipping on returns increased their purchases over the next two years by 58 to 357 percent. While free returns may not be an option for everyone, slower shipping services can at least help keep your costs low. Especially on the return trip, don’t pay top dollar for speedy shipping unless the item is perishable or urgent. An affordable option for lightweight, smaller return packages is USPS First Class Package Service, which accepts parcels up to 13 ounces.

Invest in packaging for a social unboxing experience

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Niche e-commerce businesses are well-suited to use social media to their advantage. I like to follow small business brands on Instagram, because they have unique products that lend themselves to sharing and posting pictures, plus it feels like there’s a real human behind the brand.

One way to encourage social sharing among customers is to develop an unboxing campaign, and share with customers to participate. Make sure that your packaging is worth unboxing, which means you need to use pretty, branded materials and take care how you package your items.

This adds to your overall brand image, as well, since 40 percent of online shoppers said they would be somewhat or much more likely to purchase from a retailer that offers premium packaging. The same percentage of shoppers also said that branded or gift-like packaging affects their perception of the online retailer that shipped the item.

It’s important for niche businesses to offer consumers an engaging, personalized e-commerce experience. Smart retailers will use their shipping strategy to deepen their relationship with customers well after checkout and keep them coming back for more.

Shippo is a shipping platform for marketplaces, warehouses, and e-commerce businesses.

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