Differentiate Your Ecommerce Business and Win the Online Retail Game

Stand out in the cookie-cutter world of ecommerce

Differentiate Your Ecommerce Business
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Ecommerce websites tend to be standardized. It is as if someone created a couple of standard templates, and everybody chose the one they liked. Sure there are custom graphics and colors, but the overall experience on most ecommerce websites is identical. But that is about the front end of ecommerce websites. As a founder, wouldn't you think about how to differentiate your ecommerce business?

Let us talk a bit about the back end. An angel investor attends many pitches by ecommerce startups. It is fascinating to note that most of them cannot provide a reasonable answer to the question, "How are you different from other ecommerce businesses?" Let's not be too harsh on these startups. It is tough to differentiate an ecommerce business. That is the nature of the beast.

But winners always find a way, right? So let us brainstorm and try to come up with methods that will allow our ecommerce business to stand out.

Have your own unique products

Suffice it to say that if you have a unique product that consumers desire, you have one of the strongest differentiators that ecommerce can offer. Of course, there will always be issues related to substitutes and complementary products cannibalizing your market share.

Harnessing Technology

On the one hand, it seems like ecommerce technology is commoditized. On the other, there are opportunities to be at the cutting edge. As an example, the earliest ecommerce websites that allowed users to "rotate" product images so that the product could be viewed from any angle, caused customer delight. Of course, rotation, magnification, alternative images and the like eventually became commonplace. But if you are innovative, you can always harness the latest technology to stand out. Here are some science-fiction like ideas, which might soon be reality:

  • What if you could smell samples of perfume online?
  • In the same vein, what if you could feel the fabric of the apparel that you are planning to buy?
  • What if an ecommerce website could suggest the perfect shoe sizes if you upload images of your foot?
  • Likewise, wouldn't it be great if an eyewear website could suggest frames that would offer a snug fit to your head shape?

If you think that ideas such as these are far-fetched, think again. A lot of technology that we take for granted today would have seemed outlandish just a couple of decades ago.

Harnessing Social Media

Given that social media has turned out to be a tidal wave, it is important to accord it a special place in your ecommerce strategy. Some interesting examples of ecommerce success that I have seen on social media are:

  • An ecommerce website that allows you to place and complete orders on Twitter. In addition to the novelty of the purchase process, the network of the buyer's followers can see the purchase. Could there be a better form of word-of-mouth publicity?
  • Ecommerce businesses that manage to create hysterical anticipation and demand for a soon-to-be-released product. With that kind of pre-selling, the product becomes an instant hit upon launch.
  • Ecommerce websites that have truly managed to embrace the concept of "zero cost marketing," by going entirely social in their marketing effort.

Offering Unique Services

This is easier said than done. But friendly customer service can be a differentiator, especially if it does not cost too much. As an ecommerce professional, you will have to decide what would appeal to your customer base. It could be same day delivery; maybe even same hour delivery if that is a possibility. It could be packaging, personalization, and shipping options. You are limited only by your creativity when it comes to figuring out unique ways of serving your customers better.


I wonder if the 4 P's of marketing that business majors study has anything to do with it, but I find that whenever there is a discussion around differentiating one's business, there is always someone who suggests being the lowest price seller. I agree that low price can be a formidable competitive advantage. But I do not know if it can be a sustainable competitive advantage. Then again, we have Wal-Mart as an example of the "every day low prices" strategy, and it seems to work.

Those Other Small Things

Sometimes the best way to differentiate your business is to simply do things right. Here are some examples:

  • Responding to customer's emails, and responding on time.
  • Providing a live chat feature that always works.
  • Delivering the right product, in the right condition, without delays.

None of these are outstanding ideas, but when you get these basics right, you avoid frustrating the customer.

Every ecommerce business owner wants to find the ultimate differentiator, the El Dorado of ecommerce if you will. Few will manage to actually differentiate themselves. Still fewer will manage to sustain that differentiation. But great success is not supposed to be easy now, is it?