Britain is apparently moving into recovery with retail sales on the increase. But from my perspective, as an e-commerce consultant working with small businesses, it has only really been the big players who have seen things improve. My clients, on the other hand, had an incredibly tough 2013 with a few of them calling it a day.

Right now it seems that online shoppers are looking to spend as little as possible, so they are attracted to the large corporations (who can offer savings due to their economies of scale) rather than to independent businesses.

How can small businesses hope to compete when they cannot offer the sort of low prices available to the big players?

Focus on quality

Any transaction represents some degree of risk for a potential customer. Is my order going to arrive in a timely manner? Is it going to arrive at all? What happens if there's a problem?

Your job as an online store owner is to minimise the perception of risk in the mind of the visitor. Try and look at your site with fresh eyes and make sure that you come across professional, helpful and a great company to do business with.

It's this personal touch that will potentially give you the edge over a big faceless corporation.

Preach to the converted

Another important resource that is often forgotten is your database of previous orders. Within that you have a huge number of contacts just waiting to be reminded that you exist.

Think about some great special offers that will tempt them back. Obviously you need to make sure they've given you permission to be contacted, but online mailing systems such as MailChimp and Constant Contact make it simple to send out attractive promotions, and hopefully achieve some easy sales.

If you can't beat them, join them!

For a few of my struggling customers, a lifeline came by them setting up a shop within eBay or Amazon. My clients were able to list their products in their own little shop fronts within the corporate mega malls, and it generated a decent amount of new visitors and new customers.

The downside was that Amazon and eBay took a hefty proportion of their sales, but the number of extra sales they made did ease some of the pain of handing over a portion of their business to a corporate monster.

Ride out the storm

I think the lesson from the last five years is that small businesses need to focus on the quality of experience they give to online shoppers, and go on to cultivate a reliable database of happy customers.

It's that foundation that will keep a business healthy when the economic storms start to blow again.

  • Chris Dicken is an e-commerce consultant at SellerDeck, helping small businesses make the most out of the internet.