Ecommerce blogs were once full of the stories of retailers who had built a thriving ecommerce business sitting on a beach in Thailand while doing as little work as possible. Their business model wasn’t complex: they bought cheap goods from suppliers in developing nations, dropshipped them to US and European consumers with a substantial markup, and lived off the profit.
If you’re unusually smart and lucky, it’s still possible to find success walking this path, and you will have little trouble finding ecommerce bloggers happy to sell you the secret to their success (and a large dose of snake oil to wash it down with).
But for today’s hopeful new ecommerce merchant, that path doesn’t lead anywhere worth going. As the ecommerce market matured, the low-hanging fruit was picked. In 2017, the most successful small ecommerce retailers are focused on niches they understand well and can build a rapport with.
The suppliers relied on by the dropshippers of old got wise. They don’t need small ecommerce merchants to act as the middle-man when it’s just as easy to sell online themselves. There are suppliers who don’t want to be involved in the retail end of the business, but those are generally wholesalers who only sell in quantities that smaller retailers can’t afford.
As Commerce Notebook’s Brian Krogsgard puts it:
Yesterday’s dropshipping gold rush is today’s dropshipping myth factory. You should be prepared for the realities of dropshipping today in a highly competitive environment, and know that it’s not as easy as some of the stories you’ve heard.
Plus, if all your store does is attempt to replicate a tiny subset of Amazon, you’re onto a losing proposition. You can’t beat Amazon at its own game.
And yet, small ecommerce merchants continue to thrive. How? By doing what the Everything Store cannot: providing excellent service to a niche market whose needs they understand. I’ve seen dozens of smaller ecommerce businesses flourish by focusing with single-minded determination on a niche audience.
Why niche ecommerce works
Niche ecommerce works because it’s all-encompassing. Every aspect of these sites fits their particular specialism, including the passions of the target audience. When building user personas for your site, the better you know your audience, the more effective those personas will be when running PPC campaigns, improving SEO and optimising product listings!
Branding, communication, product, design, service: everything is calculated to appeal to a specific and clearly identified group of people. Groups that are large and diverse enough to be worth selling to while possessing a sliver of a common identity.
One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is Dolls Kill, a fashion retailer that sidesteps the norms of the fashion industry to appeal to a clearly articulated individualism. The online store calls for shoppers to ‘navigate through the site and unleash your inner riot girl’, and they even have a brick-and-mortar pop-up shop in San Francisco right now.
Towards the more mainstream end of the spectrum, Grovemade manufactures and sells wooden furniture and other products. Its branding focuses on design, craftsmanship, and the quality of its materials, with content that tells the story of each product’s genesis, from concept, to design, to manufacture.
Although different in tone, audience, and product, these retailers are similar in one way: each understands the values, lifestyles, and needs of a niche market. They unapologetically sell products and build a brand that appeals to that audience. Their customers get the products they desire, but more than that, they buy from a retailer that projects an authentic image in-line with their ideal identity.
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What’s next for niche ecommerce?
The future of ecommerce might be in a combination of these worlds, the old and the new, the big and the small.
On one hand we have niche sites that combine next-gen dropshipping with the power of a platform like Shopify, WooCommerce or Magento that make it easy to scale -- as long as you choose the best reporting tools to understand revenue and customers. Littledata’s ecommerce analytics app is particularly useful for Shopify and Magento stores that want to find the right buyer personas to sell to, and to connect that marketing directly to revenue.
On the other we have larger stores like MADE.com and Figleaves in the UK. These online stores are now household names, but they became that way by building best-in-class customer support teams and online customer communities with specialised, personalised tools. Two standout examples are MADE’s Unboxed customer community, where shoppers share design pics, and Figleaves’ My Perfect Fit tool, where shoppers can find their perfect lingerie fit.
MADE’s story is especially worth noting because they created a niche based on the story of how their business operates, cutting out the middleman and selling directly from designers to consumers. Once they found this niche, they scaled using data-driven decisions that lead to radical increases in yearly revenue.
That’s the deal with niche selling: no two stores are ever the same, but your chances for success increase many fold when you use proven tools for hosting, design and tracking -- and create ways for your customer community to share inspiration while at the same time discovering new products and trends.
Niche ecommerce is a powerful force, and anyone entering the ecommerce market in 2018 should pay heed to that power.
About the author: Graeme Caldwell works as an inbound marketer for Nexcess, a leading provider of Magento and WordPress hosting. Follow Nexcess on Twitter at @nexcess, Like them on Facebook and check out their tech/hosting blog!