You don't need to be a business expert to know that e-commerce has reshaped the modern marketplace in recent years. While it's a dominant model, selling goods or services online comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages compared to traditional brick-and-mortar businesses.
Therefore, businesses need to look beyond the hype and develop their own perspectives on the value of e-commerce. How does it help businesses and why do consumers love online shopping? It's important to explore both perspectives because advantages for consumers might end up becoming a disadvantage for e-commerce businesses. The most successful companies understand all the benefits and drawbacks well before they begin to see growing sales figures.
Female small business owner packaging merchandise at laptop in workshop
Hero Images / Getty Images
The internet might be the single most important facet of modern society. It plays a primary role in everything from political discourse and higher education to the way we conduct ourselves and our businesses. It's no wonder, then, that switching to an e-commerce model comes with significant advantages.
E-commerce eliminates the need for physical stores and allows businesses to expand their customer base. On top of eliminating the possibility of long lines, e-commerce sites offer a huge advantage to both shoppers and stores that aren't located in major urban areas. Even if you are located in a big city, e-commerce opens up new markets, allowing you to develop a new business model geared toward your expanding consumer base. Many businesses have found particular success in developing good e-commerce Search Engine Optimization, which drives more traffic to the site.
Your business can also save money on rent, utilities, maintenance, and other costs associated with physical stores. Your e-commerce store can essentially remain open 24/7 without hiring employees to watch over the store and protect items. Since you aren't confined to a set amount of shelf space, there is no limit to the number of items that can be sold online, and your store's stock can expand exponentially. Physical products will still have to be stored somewhere, but storage spaces are often cheaper than retail spaces, and you won't have to worry about factors like foot traffic and parking spaces.
Digital products can be sold online with little-to-no overhead cost. Thanks to e-commerce, consumers can purchase music, videos, or books instantaneously. Stores can now sell unlimited copies of these digital items, without having to worry about where they'll store the inventory.
E-commerce also allows your business to scale up easier than physical retailers. When a brick-and-mortar store grows, it needs to consider how it will serve more customers in the same small space. More employees are needed to expedite check-outs, more of the floor gets dedicated to forming lines, shoppers feel more crowded as customer base and inventory grows. Of course, logistics always get tougher as a business grows, no matter how the business operates. With the right choice of a third-party logistics provider, however, e-commerce companies can manage this growth without worrying about the physical store aspects.
Keeping in contact with customers is often easier for e-commerce businesses. Since the e-commerce merchant captures contact information in the form of email, sending out both automated and customized emails is simple. Let customers know about a sale, promote a new product, or just check in with customers for a personal touch—all with minimal effort. Additionally, web tools like cookies allow for superior store customization and consumer behavior analysis.
The benefits consumers enjoy are shared by e-commerce companies when it comes to the supply chain. Consumers like online shopping because they don't have to deal with cash, worry about schedules, or wait in long lines. Those benefits also apply to entire supply chains interlinked with business-to-business e-commerce systems. Procurement becomes faster, transparent, and there's no need to handle currency notes or cash. The result is cheaper, easier transactions with fewer opportunities for accounting errors.
Finally, e-commerce allows your business to track logistics, which is key to a successful e-commerce company. Having everything digitized makes it easier to automatically collect data and crunch numbers. While you can benefit from knowing what's selling best, you can also afford to take more risks on low-volume goods. The conventional retail strategy focuses on stocking fast-moving goods, but the economics of e-commerce permits slow-moving and even obsolete products to be included in the catalog. Storage is less expensive, and displaying the product is as easy as adding another item page to your site.
While it may initially seem like e-commerce will solve all your business problems, there are disadvantages to switching from a physical location to an online store.
Many consumers still prefer the personal touch and relationships formed at a brick-and-mortar shop. This can be especially valuable to customers shopping for specialized products, as they may want to consult an expert about the best product for their needs. A solid customer service hotline can't replace face-to-face interaction with a specialized sales rep. Additionally, many customers want to experience the product before purchase, like when shopping for clothes.
Security and credit card fraud are also huge risks when dealing with online shopping. Consumers run the risk of identity fraud and similar hazards every time they enter their details into a site. If your site doesn't convince shoppers that the check-out process is secure, they could get scared out of buying. On the other hand, businesses run the risk of phishing attacks and other forms of cyberattacks. If one of your employees opens just one malicious link, it could compromise your website functionality, financial information—or worst of all, your customers' information.
If shopping is about instant gratification, then consumers are left empty-handed. They often have to either pay more for expedited shipping or wait for several days until the product arrives. The wait could drive away customers. For businesses, the shipping becomes extra complicated when a customer wants a refund. Growing e-commerce businesses need to expand their reverse logistics functions, meaning the shipping back of goods and refunding of costs.
Speaking of costs, there's a multiplicity of regulations and taxes that come with opening an e-commerce shop (and a fair amount of confusion, as well). On June 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can charge sales tax on e-commerce transactions. But the Supreme Court left it up to states to decide what size of online retailers must pay sales tax, and what that tax rate will be. That's just one example of the regulatory confusion that has stemmed from e-commerce's rapid growth, and it doesn't even touch on international trade laws. The result is a regulatory patchwork that retailers are responsible for learning, no matter how complicated.
Good for Consumers, Bad for Businesses
Some aspects of e-commerce don't fit nicely into just the pro or con side of the argument. Unique issues present an advantage to shoppers while adding difficulty for businesses. Customers might be buying, but the business could suffer in other ways.
Price comparison is a major advantage for online shoppers that can restrict businesses. Consumers can compare prices with a simple click, rather than crossing town to check another store. Many shoppers will search for the absolute lowest price, and if you can't offer it, you will probably lose the sale.
Even if you can offer lower prices, businesses who compete in these price wars will see their profits decline. Though there is nothing about e-commerce that's intrinsically tied to discounts, the way online business has evolved has led to lower prices. Buyers love the lower prices, but sellers—not so much.
Shipping is convenient for consumers, but it adds inconvenience to the business. Shoppers love having things delivered right to their doorstep, but the logistics of delivery adds substantial strain to the e-commerce business operation. The more you ship, the bigger the burden becomes. Logistics and management can become a nightmare, even as the business enjoys steady profit growth and customer retention.