Getting online is no longer a luxury but a necessity for SMEs

shutterstock_152876816Mathew Norbury, co-founder of Vitamin Ltd tells Talk Retail that SMEs need to get their online shop window in order.

The rapid growth of online shopping in the UK is something that SME’s can no longer ignore. The Centre for Retail Research published a report in May which indicated that e-commerce is now the UK’s fastest growing retail market with sales expected to grow from £44 billion in 2014 to £52 billion by the end of 2015.

Despite this many smaller businesses short on budget and fearful of the time required to build and maintain a web presence, either chose not to have one, or under-invest, opting for a cheaper ‘off-the-shelf’ alternative, which often fails to deliver the quality of design or functionality they need. This worrying trend is backed up by the Federation of Small Businesses research into SME digital use – according to the FSB, one-in-four small UK businesses are still operating without a website, and for those that do have one, only a third are using it for sales. Further research by Jump Marketing and business start-up advisors, www.startups.co.uk, suggests that small businesses and start-ups chose price over quality with up to a third of small business spending less than £1000 on their digital assets.

Gordon Henderson, senior development manager, Federation of Small Businesses believes the high cost of web solutions is one of the major barriers to smaller businesses: “An online presence is absolutely vital for all businesses both to trade with customers and to act as a shop window telling prospective customers what they have to offer. However, one of the big challenges facing SME’s is the expense of setting up an all-encompassing online presence at a time when they are paying out for other marketing materials, premises, staff, insurance and loans. Websites and e-commerce shouldn’t need to be the huge expensive affairs that they can be.”

GOON, the registered charity that helps get more UK businesses online, backs this up, pointing to several factors that put small businesses and retailers off from investing in a website or online shop. These vary from a lack of time/resources, poor digital skills, and a concern over the costs required to set up and maintain a professional looking website.

The bottom line is, by turning their back on the digital space, many small businesses in the UK are missing out on lucrative online trading opportunities at a time when e-commerce is at its zenith. They are also missing out on a valuable opportunity to interact with their customers, build brand loyalty and forge stronger links with local communities. And it is the smaller independent retailers that are likely to suffer the most – competing with large retail chains is an ongoing and frustrating challenge, but without a digital presence to maximise revenue potential and maintain brand loyalty, this task becomes even harder.

Today, buying and maintaining a professional website or online shop does not need to cost a fortune, and there are many cost effective solutions out there which provide a high level of functionality, design and service without breaking the bank. For example, we have been developing a digital solution for the SME market called Vitamin, with the simple aim of bringing high-end, custom designed websites and online shops within reach of smaller businesses with limited time and budget.

We developed Vitamin to sit in the middle between the budget end and high end, custom built site, with a cost-conscious solution that does not compromise on quality of design, functionality or ongoing support. We believe this is the kind of solution that small businesses need to look for – it must be affordable but without compromising on quality. A poorly designed site can have a detrimental impact on brand reputation and customer loyalty, so getting this right first time is imperative.

There is also a lot of help out there for businesses worried that their digital skills are not up to scratch. Digital Skills UK is a great resource providing customer case studies, workshops, top tips on managing and maintaining your digital assets. Other organisations such as GOON and the Federation of Small Businesses have useful resources to get you started.

Finally, it’s good to talk to other businesses who have a great website or e-commerce capability – find out how they went about getting online, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them.

Today it is clear that being online is no longer a luxury but a necessity – the digital age is here to stay and those who embrace it will benefit from greater customer loyalty, brand recognition, competitiveness and profitability.