Seven ways to compete with online retailers

posted on 01/03/2016 09:23:13 by James McAllister

In recent years, the popularity of online retail has really taken off, as more and more people begin to shop online. The impact of this shift in consumer behaviour is beginning to emerge up and down Britain’s highstreets, with more and more local shops being put out of business by the convenience of online services such as Amazon.

However, this trend doesn’t have to continue, as it is possible for smaller local retailers to compete with the online giants. All that’s required is the ability to step back and assess where your advantages over online retailers lie, and make the most of them.

To help, we’ve put together a list of seven ways that bricks-and-mortar shops can compete with their online counterparts for custom.

Face-to-face customer service

Setting up as an online retailer can afford many luxuries, such as fewer overheads like staff wages, rent and utility bills. Because of this, retail websites will often pass savings onto consumers as way of staying competitive online. However, this means that it’s rare to see a bricks-and-mortar retailer compete with an online store on price – this just isn’t a battle a high-street shop can win. Instead, you should look to add additional value to your service through face-to-face interaction. This can range from a simple smile and a friendly conversation, to home installations and after care.

Customer service is one area where small businesses can gain the upper hand over their online counterparts. As a shop owner, you must seize every opportunity to interact with your customers. Try to understand their needs, wants and hesitations - and then act on them. This is something that is much more difficult to achieve as an online-only retailer, because surveys and user testing are required to collate data that could otherwise be obtained with a simple face-to-face conversation.

Take advantage of this fact, and ensure that each and every interaction is adding value and improving your customer journey. 

Reach new customers online

Just because you don’t sell products online, it doesn’t mean that you should completely disregard the web from your whole business plan – in fact, an online presence is a great way to find new customers for your business.

A website is useful for developing an online presence – but it’s certainly not essential. Social media has been instrumental for many business owners looking to develop an online strategy for their brand. Instagram, for example, is great for showcasing the products that you have on offer, and Twitter can provide you with instant feedback from your follower base. Each platform has advantages and disadvantages, so it’s worth taking the time to consider which will benefit your business the most. 

There’s also a good chance that you will be able to find and assimilate your business with existing online communities that share interests in your business’s niche. You should get involved with these communities by offering opinions, answering questions and just generally interacting with other members. However, it’s important to note that you’re only there to interact with potential customers, and not to sell to them. Doing so is often frowned upon, and could even threaten the perception of your brand. Have faith that being a genuine and helpful member of an online community is enough to spread the knowledge and work of your business.

Become a local champion

Another advantage that high-street shops have over their online competition is their physical presence within a local community. This means that your customers will likely see your shop frequently, which keeps it at the front of their minds when it comes to making a buying decision.

It can also help to get actively involved with your local community, for instance by sponsoring a football team or helping out at events. This will help to publicise your business’s “local connection”, and some customers will even actively look to purchase from independent businesses such as yours, as a way of supporting their local economy. 

Remember, your voice is much stronger in a localised community, when compared to the diluted nature of the vast online market. Use this to your advantage and involve your business with its surrounding community.

Create a loyalty programme

Bricks and mortar businesses, much like online retailers, can use loyalty programmes to encourage return custom. This can range from a simple 10% off on your next visit, to buy 5 and get your 6th free – dependant, of course, on the products that you sell. This is not revolutionary, but it’s a proven way to improve the chances that customers will return to buy from you again.

Another advantage of running a loyalty programme are the branded loyalty cards. As you offer these to your customers, they act as a permanent reminder of your business, conveniently carried around by customers in their wallets. This is another great way to keep your brand at the forefront of customer’s minds when they are making a purchasing decision.

Strength in numbers

The old saying “strength in numbers” can certainly be applied when local businesses are competing with online retailers. This is not to suggest that you should partner up with your local competitors, but reciprocal referrals with other local businesses can be a great source of trade without spending a penny. For example, a bar could partner up with a neighbouring nightclub to offer exclusive drinks promotions and cheap entry to customers who have visited associated bar earlier in the night.

The key to this strategy is to learn your customer’s buying habits beyond your own shop. For example, if a customer purchases a pair of football boots – chances are they, or someone close to them, enjoys playing football. In this instance, you may consider partnering with a local sports centre to offer discounted rates on pitch booking. Not only with this give your customers extra incentive to purchase through your shop, but the sports centre will also return the favour and send custom your way.

Be more than just a retailer

It may sound strange, but as a retailer it’s important to understand that customers aren’t always looking to purchase when they come into your shop. As a retailer, it’s your job to deduce whether a customer is looking to buy, or whether they are simply after guidance. If they seeking the latter, and you continue to try to sell to them, it can result in frustration and the customer choosing to purchase from you in the future.

Much like with online communities, if you are willing to answer questions and offer advice, you will find that customers will be appreciative, which improves your chances of custom when they come to make their final buying decision.

When compared with online merchants, bricks-and-mortar retailers are much better positioned to assess the needs of each one of their customers, and adapt their interactions to meet these needs. Digital retailers, however, rely on inflexible online journeys that consumers must follow, that may not necessarily meet their exact needs.

Try before you buy

The final, and possibly most obvious, advantage of running a bricks-and-mortar business over an online one is that customers have the option to get ‘hands–on’ with the product, to help inform their purchasing decision. Sites such as Amazon have launched services to try and help online users understand the dimensions and scale of their products – but nothing comes close to a bit of hands-on research.

This puts your business in a unique position when compared to online retailers, because customers who may have the intention of purchasing online, may come into your store to conduct preliminary research about the product. This is your opportunity to communicate the added value that your service offers, and convert this sale for your own business.

If, as previously mentioned, you make an effort to converse with potential customers as much as possible - you may find this ‘hands-on’ approach is an ideal way to achieve this. In addition, it’s also a great opportunity to assert your brand at a point in the customer journey where a purchasing decision is more likely.


There’s no denying that an online presence is becoming more and more essential for businesses - even those who operate offline. But, as you can see, running an offline business does have its advantages, so don’t let your business get put on the back foot by online competition. Take the time to figure out how your business can leverage the advantages available to it, and using our advice, you can protect your business against the tide of online retailers.

If you’re in need of further protection for your business, visit our shop insurance page to fund out how Make It Cheaper can help.

James McAllister

James is an online content creator at Make It Cheaper. Having previously created a variety of content for a number of websites and media outlets, James focuses on making it easy for SME owners to find interesting and engaging content - as well as useful guides and online tools.You can email James at

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