Today’s retail landscape is more competitive than ever. Small- and medium-sized businesses don’t only compete with much larger brands; they compete with the thousands of similar-sized businesses that are launched every day. It’s becoming essential for these businesses to differentiate themselves almost immediately upon launching -- and that’s only the first step. Over the past few decades, shopping has gone from a single, in-person transaction to an omnichannel experience involving multiple points of contact before a consumer even considers purchasing a product. In an omnichannel world, each touchpoint a consumer has with a brand influences their brand perception and determines how likely that person is to complete a purchase, become a repeat shopper, and share their experiences with others.

    Here’s how SMBs can not only stand out from day one, but build brand loyalty from the initial point of contact to post-purchase communications in order to stay ahead of the competition.

    Build Awareness

    Social media has fundamentally transformed how brands communicate with their audiences. By leveraging social, retailers can connect with target audiences and share the mission behind their product more efficiently than ever. Additionally, social media offers a tool for engaging with consumers, from conversing over interests to acting as a support channel.

    What’s more, social media now has the power to drive sales thanks to new features like Instagram Checkout. The new feature enables Instagram users to buy items directly from merchants without ever leaving the app, allowing for a more seamless shopping experience. Features like Instagram Checkout help level the e-commerce playing field and enable SMBs to better compete with bigger brands. With over 130 million consumers currently tapping Instagram’s product tags on shopping posts, e-commerce merchants can take advantage of this new feature by integrating online stores with the social platform as it becomes widely available.

    Prioritize Website Optimization

    The second a consumer lands on a website, they expect a seamless shopping experience from start to finish. With over half of website visits now originating on mobile devices, a mobile-friendly website is essential in today’s retail landscape.

    Site speed should be a top priority. A study by Google found that 53% of consumers will abandon your site if it doesn't load within three seconds. That's a lot of money left on the table. Shoppers who stay on your website are eager to learn as much as they can. This is why all product pages should include as much detail and imagery as possible, and feature product reviews for today's research-obsessed shopper. Once items are added to a cart, a frictionless checkout process is key, particularly for mobile shoppers. For SMBs who can't absorb the cost of free or discounted shipping, allowing the shopper to calculate shipping rates during the checkout process is a nice way to build trust and transparency.

    Bolster Your Return Policy

    According to recent research conducted by ShipStation, 66% of online shoppers review a retailer’s return policy before purchasing a product. And brands don’t have to offer a free return policy to boost sales -- shoppers simply value free return labels and an easy, accessible return process. Offering hassle-free returns, for example, through a self-service portal that allows customers to easily print branded return labels and track return shipping shows full confidence in the product.

    In fact, SMBs who used branded returns portals saw a 16% increase in online sales. In many cases, both the order volume and average order value increased. The research also showed that shoppers who returned an item through a branded returns portal were nearly 30% more likely to be a repeat shopper than consumers who returned items through another method. By providing a clear policy and an easy returns process, SMB merchants can not only optimize the post-purchase experience but increase brand loyalty and retain high-value customers.

    Enhance Post-Purchase Communications

    The customer journey doesn’t stop at the point of purchase. As the final touchpoint shoppers often have with your brand, shipping plays a big role in ensuring customers walk away with a positive view of their brand experience, and effective, branded communication is key.

    Many studies have shown that retailers are failing to communicate with customers during delivery which is a problem that can be quickly solved with shipping software. Three automated and branded emails are necessary for effective post-transaction communication. First, send an order confirmation email, including details of items purchased and total cost of the order, notifying customers that you have received their order and are beginning the fulfillment process. Once the order has shipped, notify customers that the package has been sent to the shipping carrier and is in transit with a shipping confirmation email. Here, brands should include tracking information so customers can check the package location at their discretion. Lastly, once the package has been delivered, a delivery confirmation email should state the time of drop-off and location of the package. This simple integration leaves customers feeling updated and trust that brands have effectively managed their order.

    Build a Community Around Your Mission

    Brands who win build relationships with people who deeply connect with their product and mission. Developing an effective, authentic content strategy is key to building a community around your brand. Publishing original content consistently across platforms your audience regularly engages with enables them to interact with your brand and connect with others who are like them. Reshare photos of the ways your customers are using your products. Consider partnering with authentic influencers who can also bolster the brand’s message and help you reach a broader audience. This approach shows that you’re not just pushing a product, you’re creating a community. Once you’ve built your community, listening to their interests and adjusting your product or strategies based on their needs will ultimately ensure long-term success.

    Meeting the needs of today’s omnichannel shopper is becoming increasingly complex. The brands who make the customer experience their number one priority -- both before, during and after the sale -- will create lasting brand loyalty and a business that stands apart from the competition.

    John Kinny is the General Manager at ShipStation, the world’s leading web-based e-commerce shipping solution. A seasoned executive with more than 30 years of technology sales and business development experience, Kinny leads ShipStation’s sales, support, and strategic partnerships teams, ensuring sellers have a complete, seamless e-commerce order fulfillment solution. Prior to joining ShipStation, Kinny held sales leadership roles at leading technology companies including IBM Software, Ingram Micro Asia Pacific, Convergys, Motive Communications Asia Pacific, and Academic Superstore.