The recent valuation of Facebook at $104bn, the purchase of Instagram (by Facebook) for a billion dollars, and even Rakuten’s investment in social network Pinterest shows that there is serious money to be made in online business. 

We ask all our merchants to join the Rakuten University to help them maximise their online sales, but some of the principles taught here can be applied to any online business, however they sell.

Here are some invaluable tips for online business and retailers that we’ve learnt over the years…

1. Exceed expectations every time 

Shopping online is largely a vending machine style experience. You see, you buy, you receive. Shoppers expect goods to arrive undamaged, be sold at the best possible price and meet stated specifications. Getting this right every time is vital, but it’s a minimum requirement and won’t blow your customers away.  

To stand out in this price transparent environment, merchants should seek to create extraordinary shopping experiences online, a defining characteristic of Japanese customer service known as Omotenashi.

This may come in the form of a small gift, a bonus offer, a follow-up note or call, if appropriate. Ultimately loyalty is a question of perceived value not price.  

2. Let shoppers engage on their terms

Today’s consumers are constantly connected; their purchases are influenced by a multitude of sources from blogger reviews, tweets and Facebook posts to the banner ads they see when browsing online.

Savvy retailers must ensure all preferred channels of communication are available, from Twitter and Facebook to private email. When it comes to engagement, speed is of the essence.

In today’s information and offer-rich web environment, failure to respond to an engaged customer could result in losing a sale to your competitor. Benchmark against your competition, but as a rule of thumb respond within 24 hours to any post/email/tweet.  

3. Tell your story

The internet is a powerful medium for storytelling. By telling the story behind the store, merchants are able to engage customers on a deeper level than price alone. People want to feel good about the products they buy and trust the stores where they buy them.

We encourage our merchants to use a range of media, such as blogs, photos and, increasingly, video, to tell their stories, each of which are unique and remind the customer that the vending machine approach to e-commerce is lacking the rich human connections that have defined the brick and mortar shopping experience. 

4. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer

The e-tail space is evolving rapidly, whilst innovation and exceptional customer service starts at home it shouldn’t end in house. Your best practice should be constantly benchmarked against your competition.

Engage with your rivals from a customer perspective to understand how you can take their offering and better it, from monitoring what tweets and visuals get shared and retweeted the most, to subscribing to their email alerts and tracking the personalisation and frequency of their promotional emails.  

These simple steps will allow businesses to make significant strides into driving sales and repeat purchasing online.