Competing with retail giants online

Competing with retail giants online

Big retailers like Amazon have tailored their businesses to meet our increasing desire for convenience and have steadily dominated the retail industry. With a growing range of products and more complex services than ever, many start-up businesses simply can’t keep compete. Or can they?

The competitive edge

Ecommerce marketplaces such as AliExpress and Amazon continue to win new customers even when it seems there can’t possibly be any more to win. They’re also notoriously good at keeping customers, with membership services such as Amazon Prime providing consistent monthly revenue from millions of people.

With over 300 million users alone and 44% of web shoppers going directly to Amazon for product searches, it’s unsurprising that Amazon has become the inspiration for small, medium and large ecommerce businesses the world over. Unfortunately, copying the success of Amazon is nearly impossible. Their vast product range and intricate distribution network are simply unachievable for small and medium businesses to replicate. Subsequently, the easiest thing for these types of businesses to compete on is price.

In most cases, this type of competitive driven pricing eats away at profit margins and is often a vicious cycle, particularly when the rest of the industry has the same idea. Consumer electronics is a typical example of this, where price competition has sky rocketed and the whole industry experiences poor returns despite selling lucrative products. Additionally, competing with retail giants on price only works for so long. Most of the time there will always be someone who can undercut your price further, and marketplaces such as Amazon are breeding grounds for this type of pricing strategy.

Competing on value

While this all sounds like bad news, there are other ways to differentiate your business from direct competition and retail giants like Amazon. Rather than competing in the race to the bottom and slashing your prices and your margins, look instead at competing on value.

You can add value to any part of your business, from the products themselves to the way you sell them. Many of the services and strategies that add value to your brand or products are the very things that retail giants often can’t compete on themselves. Added benefits such as personal customer service or a relatable brand experience are difficult to achieve for huge companies like Amazon, yet these services are often what customers will pay more for. Not only does this mean you’ll be growing your customer base and competing on the weaknesses of larger retail marketplaces, but you’ll also be able to stop competing purely on price and can even start to grow your profit margins.

There are several ways to introduce additional value to your business, many of which can be tailored to your specific business and provide a distinct competitive edge. They’re also all achievable even with a limited budget or resources.

Branding and content

The everything and anything product range of big retailers means they often lack the type of branding that customers relate to. As well as implementing creative and consistent visual branding, content should be used to help define the personality of your brand and reach out to customers. This should tell the story of your brand and give it a ‘personality’ that customers can form a relationship with and will keep coming back to.

Content is an important form of added value for your business as it entices customers with free information or advice; distinguishing your business as a leader in your industry. Nike uses a variety of content to tell all the stories that make up its brand, from behind the scenes during product manufacturing to personal profiles of sports personalities. Today they are one of the biggest brands in the world and their content is instantly recognisable.

Here are some basic steps for creating content to tell your own brand story:

  • Basic customer and industry research should quickly reveal some key topics and themes that are popular.
  • Consider a variety of content, such as informational pieces, guides, lifestyle pieces, recipes or inspiration and ideas. Don’t forget to add some personal content and company updates.
  • Consider a variety of media for your content to keep it interesting, including blog posts, eBooks, infographics, images and videos.
  • Find your tone of voice by looking at others in your industry and looking out for what might be missing, or simply inject your own personality into your content.
  • Share your content on the right channels, whether it’s interactive content on your website like an about us page, a blog post or social media channels.

Products and pricing

While operating in a niche market is preferred, most businesses find themselves in the same markets that Amazon and other ecommerce marketplaces thrive in. Fortunately, even ordinary products can provide opportunity for personalisation or customisation that the larger retailers can’t offer. Sellers featured on are just one example of how many products can be augmented to offer personalisation, customisation or bundled gift sets. This can also be achieved with an additional service or extras that others in the industry don’t offer.

Even mundane products like potting shed tools can be personalised to differentiate from the standard items stocked by retail giants.

When the product themselves leave no opportunity for differentiation you can always look at your pricing strategy. The ability to easily compare prices for essentially the same product on marketplaces like Amazon encourage a competitive pricing strategy, but there is no reason why other retailers need to follow suit. Even without higher quality or niche products that can demand a higher price, the following pricing strategies can still be used to grow your margins.

  • Segment your customers and know which ones consistently buy at full price and which ones never do. If a customer often buys outside of promotions and sales, target these customers with full price products first.
  • Keep an eye on popular products and trends, particularly with supply and demand. If people want it and you have it, you may be able to charge a premium price.
  • Create a VIP campaign for new release products offering loyal customers a chance to pre-order or buy before anyone at a more premium rate.


You may not be able to change what you’re selling but you can change how you’re selling it. Just as telling a story sells your brand, you can also use stories to sell your products and inspire customers. Most successful brands work because they sell their products as part of a lifestyle that their customers can relate to and desire. They often do this by grouping or theming products in the form of curated commerce, such as with ‘shop the look’ features that show products in a desired lifestyle setting and allow customers to click through and shop. Because it features a select number of products this type of curated commerce works especially well for companies with smaller or niche catalogues. These small stories should still fit in with your bigger brand story, but they may be influenced by current seasons or trends.

The simplest way to create a shop the look feature or curate products in this way is Pinterest. Pinterest has continued to make improvements to aid ecommerce retailers with promoted pins and CTA’s that enable users to click through and purchase.

Personalised content like this quiz from Burt's Bees can be used to make product recommendations and enhance the user experience, perfect for SMEs competing with retail giants online.

You can also curate products that are personalised to the consumer, for example with product suggestions on product pages and the checkout to ‘complete the outfit’ or ‘complete the set’. Additionally, email marketing can be used to send curated product suggestions based on previous shopping behaviour. Burt’s Bees is a particularly innovative example with their 8-step questionnaire for a personalised face care regime. Based on their answers respondents receive a selection of products at the end which they can then click through and buy either individually or together.

Ranking well

With 87% of customer journeys starting with a search there’s no doubt that aiming to have your product pages rank well should be a priority. Although the sheer size of retail giants like Amazon can make it seem like an unfair fight, it is possible to get product pages to rank up there with the big brands. Likewise, if you’re selling your products on Amazon, optimising your product pages can see you list above some of the bigger brands.

Ensuring all products have thorough and detailed product information listed will help them appear in filtered content.

Optimising your product pages should start with being thorough with basic product details and ensuring product features are categorised properly. Ensuring that every possible product has been categorised will make sure your products appear in the right filtered lists when users narrow down their search. When it comes to SEO, research frequently used and related keywords with a keyword planner tool as well as your own internal site search.

Remember as well that product copy is there to sell your product as much as SEO visibility. Rather than simply listing product features get creative with product copy and highlight how each feature will bring actual value to people’s lives. These value propositions, rather than the material or feature, are what your customers are looking for in a product.

Brand reputation

Your reputation has the potential to be one of your most valuable assets and can often be the thing that wins the new customer and keeps all the others coming back. The best way to build a positive reputation is to deliver exceptional customer service which is both personal and meaningful, something which retail giants like Amazon often struggle to do.

Optimising your customer service strategy should include deciding on a tone of voice and a system for dealing with complaints that all employees should be aware of. Set a prompt but realistic maximum wait time for dealing with complaints or queries and make sure your website includes essential information such as delivery guidelines, returns policy and a detailed, updated FAQ page. You can also get creative and add extra value to your customer service offering, for example with an extended returns time frame. Finally, make sure your customers know all about your great customer service and highlight anything valuable on your website and social channels.

User generated content such as customer reviews is the most authentic way to build a good reputation and should be a natural follow on from perfecting your customer service. Customer reviews can improve the credibility of your products and your brand as well as helping your SEO activities. Plus, product reviews can be a positive feedback loop for customers, encouraging hesitant ones to make the purchase and review themselves.

Fabletics reward their customers with points if they review a product and the results are a staggering number of reviews and detailed feedback that encourages even more purchases.

You can also look at creative ways to encourage customer reviews, such as with competitions or special rewards. While you don’t want to slip into the murky area of paying for (good) reviews, you can incentive customers with a rewards scheme. For example, the fitness wear site Fabletics works with a points system that customers collect when they make a purchase or complete other actions such as completing a review.

Reward your customers

Finally, don’t forget to keep those hard-won customers coming back for more. When it comes to keeping your customers engaged it’s time to step up your email marketing game. Automated workflows now allow businesses to create complex email chains aimed at keeping customers on board, whether it’s winning back an usubscriber or simply nudging a customer that hasn’t purchased in a while with a special discount. With sophisticated behaviour tracking it’s easier than ever to make these emails completely personal with product suggestions, recommended content, sale notifications for favourite products or categories, or promotions for loyal customers. Your email marketing is limited only to your own knowledge and creativity, so here’s some ideas and suggestions to get started.

Quality, not quantity

The staggering success of giants like Amazon have made many forget that quality was always better than quantity, and the same is still true today. The brands that master quality are the ones that command a premium, and their bottom line reaps the rewards. Quality brands also benefit from a more loyal customer base, where price centric companies find their customers easily swayed by the next best offer or, eventually, by the better quality brand. Competitive pricing should remain a tactical decision used seasonally or as a last resort, while the real focus should remain on the added value of your business, whether it’s the brand, the products or your additional services.

If you want to find out more about achieving a competitive edge in the age of the retail giants, contact one of our team today and find out more about our full range of digital marketing services.