Amongst Finnish online shops, only one in five has planned a strategy for international markets, and less than half feel they have the resources needed for developing e-commerce in general. These are some of the discouraging results of a survey, which was conducted by North Patrol and eCommerce Finland. On the brighter side, the survey shows that it is possible to run profitable e-commerce even without significant investments.
North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.
In the survey, 54 Finnish online shop keepers were answering questions concerning the present state and future development of their e-commerce, as well as the key success factors they have identified, and challenges they have been facing.
Half of the respondents were representatives of a micro-enterprise, employing only a couple of people, and having a yearly turnover of less than 2 million euros. This characterizes Finnish e-commerce quite well: a large number of online stores are small-scale, quite local and small in sales volume.
Minimal personnel and resources
According to the survey, 43% of the web stores are run by one or two persons (full-time). 10% of the respondents stated that there aren’t any full-time employees running their web shop. Because of the scanty staff, it is hard to find the competence and know-how needed for e-commerce development in-house.
When asked whether the resources are sufficient for the maintenance and development of the online shop, a bare majority of the respondents (60%) said that the resources for running and maintaining the shop are sufficient, but almost half of them (48%) stated that there are not enough resources for developing it.
For this reason, the storekeepers need to outsource the services for developing their web shop, but this is costly, and sometimes the services are not even available, as a third of the respondents reported. The most commonly outsourced services, quite obviously, are the payments systems, technical development and legal services. Also, an outside supplier is commonly used for advertising, SEO and logistics for deliveries and returns. Typically, the online shops take care of the customer service, product information and inventory management in-house.
Shopping features by default platform settings?
The survey responses paint a scenario of an e-commerce user experience that is driven by technology, not strategy. The features most commonly provided in web shops are the ones that are easily applicable, or default capabilities of the chosen e-commerce platform.
In most Finnish online shops, the customer can see their previous orders (77%), track the shipping and delivery of their order (68%), see recommendations of similar products (62%), or use comprehensive search functions (58%). However, these features are seldom really thought through or chosen for their significance to the customer.
The web shopkeepers have found it challenging to provide e.g. added-value content with product information (like useful tips), to provide rating or commenting possibilities, and to track the availability or stock of the products. In future investments, the hottest topics in web shop features are profiling, recommendations, comparisons and customer service chat.
The weakness of strategy and shortcomings of technology are intertwined: the shopkeepers may find it hard to deploy the technical possibilities into serving their strategic goals; and technical constraints might block creative ideas for customer service.
Online shop survives with or without technological refinement
According to the survey, most Finnish e-commerce is run on light-weight or middle-weight platforms. Magento, ePages and osCommerce are most often mentioned as digital commerce products on which the web shop has been built, representing one quarter of the web stores in the survey. All the rest are built on versatile products and platforms, even some custom-made ones.
Integrations are typically difficult and costly to build: 30% of the web shops in the survey are not integrated to any operational back-end systems. If they are, 60% are integrated to an inventory management system, 43% are integrated to a product information system (PIM, ERP or such), and 33% have integrations to an identity/access management system. Approximately one in five has integrations to an external customer management system (CRM). The percentage of e-commerce systems in the survey that have at least 3 different integrations is quite low (12%), which characterizes the strategic role of investments for technologically advanced solutions: only some of the web shops can afford these integrations, and see them worth the investment.
Nevertheless, two thirds of the respondents gave their e-commerce a good or an excellent grade, so the quality of the web shop does not depend on its technical refinement. When asked about the technical success factors of their e-commerce solutions, most of the respondents said that the most critical features are data security, payment systems and mobile use. Most of the respondents (approx. 4/5) find these features very satisfying in their web shops.
Local shops for local people
About 90 percent of the respondents stated that their clientele is mainly Finnish. Only few of the online stores in the survey were targeted at European customers, or global markets. A troubling picture of small-scale, short-sighted Finnish e-commerce emerges from the survey, when only 25% of the respondents have even estimated their global market potential.
On the other hand, many of the online stores are selling everyday consumer commodities that have no special competitive advantage for international market. Many of them simply support and expand the services of a local brick and mortar store. For this reason, it might be self-evident for shopkeepers that they have no potential for international e-commerce.
In addition, when asked whether their e-commerce has any obstacles that restrain international expansion, a noticeable 75 percent of the respondents had identified severe hindrances, like the costs of logistics, or taxing and customs procedures.
Yet, the situation might be changing, as two thirds of the respondents stated that they have explicit and strategic goals for their online store, and the strategy for international e-commerce was one of the hottest topics for future development.
About the survey
The web survey of Finnish e-commerce was conducted in June 2015, and it had 60 respondents representing 56 different online shops. The enterprises in the survey were ranging from larger, even internationally operating companies with hundreds of thousands of monthly web customers, to micro-enterprises and stand-alone web stores.