14 E-Commerce Merchandising Strategies for Small Online Brands

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The power of retail merchandising is evident in retail.

Walk through any high-trafficked upmarket shopping street, and you’ll see it on full display: beautifully curated window displays, festive decorations, discounts, and samples galore.

Online merchandising has its own unique merchandising practices. For small brands, implementing these merchandising strategies doesn’t necessarily mean you need the budget of a luxury e-commerce player.

In this article, we’ll go over Blue Bottle’s success as a case study and offer 14 simple ecommerce merchandising strategies for small online brands to help you drive more sales.

What is E-Commerce Merchandising: A Short Case Study

First, let’s start with the definition of retail merchandising, which is any practice (primarily visual) that drives sales.

Let’s take Blue Bottle Coffee as a case study of a brand that succeeded in retail and online merchandising. Blue Bottle started as a lone Berkeley farmer’s market coffee stand and grew to almost a billion-dollar retail and online coffee brand via the power of its unique merchandising.

Blue Bottle’s merchandising is minimalist. Its modern interior design is chic and zen, with clean lines, muted colors, simple product offerings, lots of white space, and an ethereal atmosphere. Every Blue Bottle you go to is selling more than coffee. It’s also selling an experience.

(Image: Blue Bottle Retail Shop in Tokyo, Japan)

Blue Bottle was able to translate this retail merchandising approach very successfully online as well. Like its retail shops, Blue Bottle’s e-commerce page is elegantly simple and non-stressful, yet it is still chock full of clever merchandising strategies.

Even if you’re a small online brand without a big budget, there’s still a lot you can do with merchandising strategies online to drive sales.

Using Blue Bottle as a case study, let’s launch into our top online merchandising strategies.

1. Start with a Clean Homepage

Blue bottle was able to translate its minimalist retail architecture directly into its online shops. The homepage’s product images, site design, and page organization reflect the same clean lines and simple retail aesthetics.

(Image: Blue Bottle e-commerce Landing Page)

Blue Bottle’s homepage navigations are also incredibly simple. There are often just 3-4 categories to choose from anywhere on the page. The prominent CTAs on their landing page are shop blends, indulgence, and crowd-pleasers. Additionally, their main navigation bar has only four options: shop, holiday, subscriptions, and learn.

At first glance, this may seem too bare-bones. However, the beauty of Blue Bottle is the complexity lying underneath, much like its coffee. As a customer, visiting the homepage doesn’t stress you out, similar to the feelings evoked in its retail locations.

There are few options to choose from, and decision fatigue is limited. These design choices are done with intention and contribute to Blue Bottle’s retail and online success.

2. Start Simple, Entice with More

Click a little further into Blue Bottle’s seemingly sparse navigation menus, and many delightful options appear.

For example, the seemingly terse “shop crowd-pleasers” belies more complex product offerings after the page jump.

(Image: Shop Crowd-Pleasers on Blue Bottle’s homepage)

The “Shop Crowd-Pleasers” section expands into several subcategories, such as holiday gift sets, something for everyone, rare gifts, Blue Bottle classics, indulgence on the go, gifts under $25, under $50, rare gifts, etc.

Blue Bottle intentionally chose to keep the smattering of options off the main page to adhere to its simple aesthetics. The same simple to expansive navigation is displayed when you click “shop” on the main page.

By clicking shop, you open up a world of subscriptions, coffee brewing tools, collectibles, drinkware, and other cross-selling offers. What Blue Bottle does well is that it doesn’t inundate the user with all the cross-selling or complex navigation upfront. The more you click, the richer the experience gets.

3. Create Urgency and Scarcity

Scarcity is a great way to get customers to buy.

All of us have tried to book airline tickets or hotels to see flashing “last-minute deals” or “this offer expires in X minutes” signs. These are all intentional merchandising tools to get you to buy. Blue Bottle does this with free shipping, which is “only available for the next three days.” Limited product drops or discounts also create the same urgency and scarcity.

4. Educate Your Customers

Blue Bottle’s Coffee Lab blog has everything you could ever want to know about coffee, from “This Year’s Honduran Single Origins” to how they’re building a zero-waste coffee operation.

I’m guilty of buying a Chemex coffee maker after reading Blue Bottle’s coffee-brewing guide years ago and witnessing its use in stores. Blue Bottle stands out from other coffee shops because it educates customers about why their coffee and coffee-making processes are the best.

One of Blue Bottle’s unique selling points is that the coffee is roasted within 48 hours, which makes the coffee taste better. Talking to a barista also lets you find out this information. Most retail shops employ knowledgeable sales workers as a merchandising strategy. An automated chatbot is also a potential fill-in for an informed salesperson.

Pro tip: To attract and convert customers, create good how-to guides and informative content for your products. Good content will help your brand rank for SEO as well.

5. Tell Your Story / Do not be Generic

A popular saying on social media is “niche down to niche up.” There’s a market for everyone, and you don’t need to copy Blue Bottle’s or any other brand’s merchandising strategy.

In fact, we advise against it.

Authenticity is hard to fake, and the trend with social media and consumers today is to veer away from perfectly curated online shops or Instagram feeds. There’s a reason why some of Gen Z’s favorite brands today are Shein and Tiktok, which can be described with another favorite Gen Z adjective, “chaotic.”

What’s most important in your online visual merchandising is to have an authentic, consistent, and true-to-yourself brand image and story. If your brand is fresh, new, and chaotic like Trolli, a Gen Z favorite gummy brand, then convey that. If you’re a 200-year-old apothecary, don’t hide that, but don’t let that history weigh your brand down with blandness.

A turn-off for many online shoppers nowadays is a generically corporate design with a backstory and product offerings indistinguishable from the hundreds of cookie-cutter brands offering the same thing. Dig into what makes your brand or product different, and highlight this distinction with your brand’s images, videos, copywriting, and backstory.

6. Do not be Afraid to be Novel or Reinvent

Consumers love a comeback or reinvention.

Take Crocs, for example, which started in 2002 and grew rapidly throughout the early 2000s before nearly bankrupting in the 2008 recession. Today, it’s bouncing back with a vengeance, with a revenue target of $5 billion by 2026.

Crocs succeeded because it realized that its target consumer could be 70 or 15. It ended all commercial and print ads, doubled down on Gen Z, and reinvented its brand image and merchandising. It moved from being viewed as silly orthopedic shoes to cool, must-have pandemic comfort wear.

(Image: Balenciaga High-Heeled Crocs)

Crocs was also not afraid to take risks.

During the pandemic, Crocs released iconic collaborations such as a high-heeled croc with Balenciaga. The high-heeled croc is an example of a novel (highly impractical) product that probably started as a joke but gained incredible brand goodwill with young consumers.

Another example is Hot Topic releasing a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos eyeshadow palette. The lesson for your online brand is that risk-taking pays off. Novelty gets attention, introducing new customers to your brand.

7. Take a Stance

Mixing politics with commerce can be scary, depending on how much you want to stand out or stand up. Only do it if it’s authentically a part of your brand, and not just for the trends (e.g., fast fashion pretending to care about sustainability).

However, if you’re a make-up brand for people of color, feel free to let consumers know where you stand.

Take Fenty, Rihanna’s billion-dollar beauty brand, which makes its stance on many racial issues apparent while enjoying incredibly positive consumer goodwill. During the Black Lives Matter protests, it closed shops globally to show solidarity with BLM via the Blackout Tuesday campaign.

Another example is Beyond Meat. Vegetarian food is nothing new, but Beyond Meat built its brand on plant-based foods as a movement.

8. Share User-Generated Content

User-generated content (UGC) is moving beyond just showcasing positive reviews. Brands are increasingly incorporating viral TikTok videos or Instagram posts directly on their e-commerce page.

According to Stackla, consumers are 2.4 times more likely to say UGC content is authentic than brand-generated content, and 79% say it influences their buying decision. It’s obvious when a shop has used stock models or generic photography to sell its products. As consumers, we perk up when we see real users authentically reviewing and using products.

For example, Fabletics, a woman’s activewear brand, incorporates UGC directly into its e-commerce site:

(Image: Fabletics homepage)

9. Optimize for Mobile

According to Statista, mobile accounts for almost 73% of all retail e-commerce. Mobile dominance means you should design your page with mobile-first in mind rather than as a secondary afterthought.

Designing with mobile in mind will keep you sharp as it forces you to eliminate clunky and distracting elements that do not convert to sales.

10. Be intentional with Copywriting and Images

While it’s tempting to be minimalist with your product descriptions, writing a compelling and detailed product explanation is better for SEO and inventory search. More information also leads to more purchases from consumers.

A good strategy is to copy Apple. Everything is minimalist upfront, but you can always click further to obtain the detailed specs. Apple’s images are also incredibly crisp, quick loading, and allow for further zooming in and 3D views.

Many brands omit dimensions (both inches and centimeters), different product angles, or other specs, which hurt sales. Lack of information is a significant concern for consumers in Asian markets like Japan.

11. Collect Emails, Discreetly

Don’t shove pop-up banners in users’ faces. In fact, you should delay any pop-up by at least 30 seconds or avoid it entirely. Better yet, offer an enticing discount or coupon to someone who gives you an email (see here for more email marketing strategies) discreetly in the corner.

12. Offer Free Shipping by Default

Free shipping is now the expected default on most e-commerce sites. If you can’t afford it, build it into the cost of the product. 60% of online shoppers abandon their cart because of extra costs, including shipping.

13. Sell Globally from the Start

Software such as Shopify makes it increasingly easier to launch your e-commerce brand globally. Why not start selling your products globally if you sell a product that can ship internationally?

Consumers overseas love buying cross-border, especially American products, so make sure you optimize your pages automatically for the correct currencies, languages, and experiences that also translate globally. You’d be surprised where your customers and demand for your product originate.

14. Offer as many Payment Options as Possible

The more ways you can let consumers pay, the easier it is for you to convert sales. Visas, cash on delivery (in Asian markets), Paypal, and AmazonPay should be provided by default, but consider adding crypto or buy now pay later (BNPL).

44% of Gen Z and 37% of Millennials have made a BNPL payment in 2022. BNPL leads to more conversions (as much as 44% more), higher value per order, and offers your customers even more flexibility.

Let’s discuss! Are there other effective online merchandising strategies that work for you? Drop a comment below.

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