4 Key Ways to Differentiate Your Clients’ Ecommerce Stores From the Competition

4 Key Ways to Differentiate Your Clients’ Ecommerce Stores From the Competition

Consumer behavior is changing rapidly, and as the number of brands coming online has exploded in recent years, offering a myriad of options to customers, differentiation is now a significant key to success. 

According to research from McKinsey, over 60 percent of global consumers have changed shopping behavior during the pandemic. In the US it was even higher—75 percent—and the top three reasons for shopping for a new brand in the US were: value, availability, and convenience. What a brand stands for is also important: Shopify’s recent Future of Commerce report found that 52 percent of global shoppers are more likely to purchase from a company with shared values.

The days of squeaking by with a sub-par website and poor communication are clearly over. It’s no longer enough to just compete on price or a specific product feature. The bar keeps getting set higher and higher, and it’s essential to not just help merchants meet customers’ expectations, but also exceed them.

We polled some trusted Shopify Partners and industry leaders to find out what it takes to stand out from the crowd in 2022. 

Check out Commerce Trends 2023

The 2023 edition of Shopify’s annual report is now available. Learn about the latest trends shaping commerce, pulled from proprietary data, insider experts, and top global brands.

See report

1. Help merchants bring their brand story to the forefront

Trying to appeal to everyone can come off as bland and colorless. The best brands today are standing out by being passionate and authentic. Ben Jabbawy, founder and CEO ofPrivy, says that the brand story is one of your merchant’s most important assets when it comes to differentiation.

“As an independent brand, you are not Amazon or Wayfair, and there was a reason you started this business,” Jabbawy says. “Maybe you were passionate about your product or your service and left your job to work on it. So tell that story and help build that connection.”

Advise your merchants to start by finding out what theircompetitors are doing, and then tell a story that is uniquely their own. Focus all of your marketing efforts on the story and bring it to life to build better relationships with your customers.

Telling a compelling brand story is going to help merchants reach the next level and differentiate their business from everyone else. By way of example, Jabbawy points to Baraka Shea Butter (also check out Jabbawy’s interview with Baraka founder Wayne Dunn in this episode of his Ecommerce Marketing School podcast). 

“It’s not a well-known brand, but revenues are growing quickly,” Jabbawy says. “They anchor their website, email program, packaging inserts, and everything else around the women hand-making the products. Baraka’s success is their success. The products are fantastic, but what converts the customer is the story behind the product itself. Putting it front and center helped them significantly grow sales. The story became the focal point throughout the tactical marketing execution.”

Screenshot of the main web landing page for Baraka Impact

Create a unique brand identity to cut through the noise

Digital consultant Kate Collinson believes that capturing the brand story and personality is critical. “I think investing in branding is a really important exercise. It's what's separating a lot of businesses who are excelling and growing at a rapid rate versus businesses that are just getting by,” she says.

However, the process of nailing that branding doesn’t always happen as effortlessly as your merchants might hope. That’s when it may make sense for your merchants to conduct internal workshops with employees, or partner with an outside contractor.

“Really hone in on that brand identity or that brand bible to cover who you are, why you are, what you bring, and what you look like to customers,” Collinson says. “I strongly encourage it as it builds a really solid foundation for growing businesses who need to onboard new staff, especially when working with third-party contractors.”

Collinson advises that it’s vitally important to conduct competitive research and understand where stores sit within the market landscape. “Why do you deserve a place there? What sets you apart? Is it price, quality, value, content, or meaning and purpose?” 

Kate Collinson recommends Simon Sinek’s book and TED talk Start with Why as a great place to start building a brand identity from.

Andrew Bialecki, founder ofKlaviyo, stresses that the best thing you can do is not to try to be anything but yourself. Customers now hold brands to a much higher standard, and it’s essential to engage with them in ways that feel authentic. 

“Successful brands, and this is true not just in retail but for all industries all over the world, have a strong opinion,” he explains. “They let their personality show through and what’s near and dear to them. A good exercise is just writing it down: Ask your friends and family to describe you in four or five words. Is it the same as for your brand? What’s different and why? Then make sure that either you have an element of humor, something interesting, or a certain expertise that you can offer that will stand out.”

Tell the brand’s sustainability story

One of the largest opportunities to create a meaningful point of differentiation is to talk about the sustainable business practices the merchant is implementing: according to the Future of Commerce report, nearly half of customers chose to buy brands that have a clear commitment to environmentally-friendly values in 2021. 

Kyle Monk, director of insights at the British Retail Consortium, believes that a brand’s purpose is increasingly important in helping customers make a purchasing decision. What a brand does beyond just selling a product or service to keep customers coming back has to be very easily discernible. 

“Look at Body Shop,” he suggests. “The company very clearly stands for ethical consumption, sustainable packaging, and protecting ecosystems. That’s their purpose, and that will resonate with people. Think about the brand equity and what makes you different. If it’s sustainability credentials, put them front and center. Make sure that it’s very clear in all your communication. Price is very hard to beat, but you can also compete through specialism and sharing the reasons someone might be interested in buying a particular product. Content goes a long way.”

To find out how to conduct a sustainability storytelling audit on an online store, check out the chapter by Shopify’s senior manager of social impact, Katie Boothby-Kung, in the ‘Sustainable Ecommerce Handbook’.

image with the main text of "Why we love bamboo" with rows of bamboo in the background
Sustainability-centered toilet paper company Reel has a separate page that explains why it favors bamboo over trees. 

2. Consider the customer journey from start to finish

As advertising costs continue to climb, investing more in the customer experience has become a key part of customer acquisition. Chelsea Jones, founder ofChelsea & Rachel Co., recommends thinking of your site and the interaction with your consumers as an artwork. 

“The more you can engage as a brand, the better it's going to be,” she advises. “Start thinking in terms of how the brand is engaging with customers. If you don't, you're going to be just lost in the mess. Everyone is now online, it’s expected from you. But how do you actually engage with your customers in a way that makes sense to your purpose and your goals?”

To retain customers, grow your (clients’) business, and leave the competition behind, it’s crucial to think about the entire customer journey. Highlight unique differentiators at every customer touchpoint, and ensure you create a consistent end-to-end customer experience across all digital channels.

Andreas Wächter, founder ofbeeclever, says that brands need to be creative to set themselves apart and reach customers. “Merchants need to care about the UX/UI design as well as the fulfillment and product quality,” he advises. “This will become so much more important in the future. No matter which industry you’re in, find creative ways to engage with your customers emotionally for the very first touchpoint until you send them an email thanking them for their purchase.”

Don’t neglect the post-purchase journey 

Sharon Goldstein, CEO of ecommerce conversion data network LimeSpot, points out that direct-to-consumer channels in particular are an opportunity to create a unique unboxing experience that customers will remember.

“As marketplace shipments are generic, unboxing experiences are a place to shine,” she suggests. “Include colored paper, free samples or gifts, in-box notes, or coupons. Unboxing is something that customers look forward to and will encourage them to make future purchases directly from your site.”

Giovanna Fariello, product marketing lead for shipping services at Shopify, agrees that it’s important to differentiate the customer experience beyond the checkout. “You hear a lot about packages being taken off people’s porches, right from in front of their door,” she explains. “This is an opportunity for merchants to improve their shipping. Is there a low cost way to insure the packages for theft, damage, or loss, for example? There’s usually a cost associated with replacing the product. Time and energy go into the customer’s claim. But if the packages are already insured, it makes it so much easier and creates a better experience, not only for the customers but also for the merchant and their staff.”

image of rows of boxes with the word Heatonist printed in bold letters across them
Hot sauce store Heatonist collaborated with the Shopify Fulfillment Network to be able to continue to ship products in custom packaging at scale. 

3. Make the most of the digital experience

As more people buy online (the global ecommerce market is expected to total a mind-boggling $5.55 trillion in 2022), a smooth digital experience that helps show the products in the best possible way is also essential.

Kelly Vaughn, founder of The Taproom, explains that your merchant’s website will likely be the catalyst for whether or not customers complete a purchase. “If you want to differentiate yourself from other brands, whether you're brand new or you're a legacy brand entering into this ecommerce space now, setting your store experience apart online is going to be really important,” she says.

This goes beyond website navigation. It also encompasses the level of customer service that can be experienced on the site. Copper Cow Coffee, for example, offers shoppers a custom quiz flow to help them build a subscription based on their coffee tastes, while Raceface focuses on a custom UX/UI, a truly fast site, and easy item discoverability with smart filtering and product comparison. 

For merchants offering more high-end products building cutting-edge ecommerce sites and apps is slightly more complex but they can take advantage of emerging technology like augmented or virtual reality and chatbots to enhance the customer experience with interactive features.

“Shopping for luxury items online doesn’t have the same personal touch that you’d get shopping for a luxury item in a physical store like Hermés, for example,” Vaughn explains. “When you’re shopping for an item that costs hundreds or thousands of dollars and you can’t try it on or feel it, it can be more difficult to make that purchasing decision.”

Vaughn recommends brands can bridge this by offering pre-purchase customer service. International fashion house Akris, for example, has an AI assistant to help customers explore products, and personal skincare company Dermalogica enables shoppers to chat with a “professional skin therapist" to figure out which products they need to purchase.

“These kinds of experiences stick with customers, and it's going to incentivize them to come back and also tell their friends to shop there as well.”

You might also like: What to Consider When Planning a Website Redesign.

Screenshot of one of the questions in The Taproom's quiz
The Taproom worked with specialty Vietnamese coffee brand Copper Cow Coffee to create a personalized subscription quiz-flow to engage customers.

Build a mobile-first store

These days, most customers are shopping on mobile devices. How well a website works on mobile is therefore a huge factor in driving sales. “Mobile transactions made up about 73 percent of all ecommerce sales worldwide in 2021,” points out David Wagoner, co-founder and CMO ofP3 Media

He continues: “We’ve been talking about mobile-first design for a decade but it’s now more important than ever to invest in your mobile experience and really treat this as an iterative process. Once you update your mobile site, it doesn't stop there, you have to continue to improve that process to deliver better experiences to your customers.”

To optimize the mobile performance of an online store, Wagoner recommends auditing it regularly across four key dimensions—third-party apps, mobile cart experience, dynamic loading, and extraneous code—and conduct extensive user testing to find out how to better address the needs and desires of your clients’ target customers. 

Wagoner also believes that site speed is now a competitive differentiator. “Speeding up your website by just one second can increase conversion rates by up to seven percent. Consumers now expect faster sites, and companies like Google prioritize site speed as a metric that they really care about both on the consumer and brand side.”

You might also like: How Mobile Commerce Is Transforming UX and CX Forever.

4. Personalize what you offer to customers

Finally, merchants should keep in mind that while they may only sell one set of products or services, they may have many different types of customers that have different needs and wishes. Consumers now expect the website experience to be personalized and relevant to them, so both the selection of products and the communication should be tailored accordingly to really connect with the target audience. 

“The millennial generation in particular can hardly be won over by the one-size-fits-all approach,” beeclever’s Andreas Wächter says. “Think about product customization, bundle-building, and mix and match opportunities that make your offerings more customizable for consumers.”

Here it can be a real advantage to be a smaller merchant. It enables you to make fast decisions and provides you with the flexibility to experiment, for example with product recommendations and site segmentation to make shoppers feel known, assist in discovery, and increase conversions.

A smaller size also makes it easier to talk directly to customers, be personal, and identify with them in a way that more faceless brands aren’t able to. That human connection is very valuable and helps to surround products with a sense of community.

“The smaller the business, the easier it is to create personal activities,” explains Simon Kemp, founder and CEO of strategic marketing consultancy Kepios. “The more that I feel special, the more I am likely to engage. If I feel that I’m part of something and that that person cares, I’ll pay attention and reciprocate it. That’s just how it works, and it’s not scalable in most instances. There’s a lot of technology out there that helps you with personalization but if you’re a small merchant with a personal touch, it’s like the coffee shop on the corner that remembers my name. It’s exactly the same concept.”

The brands that speak to everyone speak to no one

In today’s competitive ecommerce landscape, the resilient retailers who continue to try new strategies and use their data to figure out what works for them are going to thrive. This is the time to compete not on price, but on brand and value proposition. 

A strong, unique brand identity, clear values, and how you communicate that story and what your (client’s) business stands for are critical differentiators. Use the technology that’s at your disposal but in creative ways, always asking yourself how it’s going to set the ecommerce business apart from the competition and how it’s going to benefit the customer. Consumers are looking for differentiated experiences and brands that they can connect to. Show them how what you’re offering is different, and you’re one step ahead. 

Grow your business with the Shopify Partner Program

Learn more