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Shopify Unite 2016: Takeaways and tips for merchants

Shopify Unite 2016: Takeaways and tips for merchants

Shopify has just wrapped up its first Shopify Partner conference, “Unite 2016”, in San Francisco. Some of the Out of the Sandbox team made the trek to the Golden State, along with over 600 others from all over the globe, to hear what Shopify has in the works and to meet with fellow partners and Shopify Experts who also build their business around this popular ecommerce platform.

And while the conference was mostly geared toward developers and designers who are actively building apps, themes and custom shops for merchants, there were still some great general insights that you —  as a Shopify store owner — can also benefit from!

Trade and trust are inextricably linked

In his keynote address, Tobi Lütke (the founder and CEO of Shopify) made a deliberate point to contextualize the present and future of commerce by first considering its past and looking at its roots.

Long, long before there were websites, marketing campaigns and even brick-and-mortar shops, human beings engaged in trade. At the earliest points in human history, no one person could make or gather all they needed to survive; but when the notion of trade came about, more needs were met and communities began to form because individuals could then access the goods, skills and services of others, and leverage what they had vs. what they needed.

Trade — in its most basic as well as its more complex, contemporary forms — ultimately requires trust. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s products, services or a currency that are being exchanged; it all hinges on the belief that you will receive something (of similar value) in return for something you give away. Importantly, a successful trade also kicks off a relationship; one where both parties feel secure in making an exchange, trusting that the other will honor the promise of a fair swap. And with this assurance also comes the likelihood that they will continue to trade with each other in the future.

So what are some of the things that you, as a shop owner, can do to establish and maintain the trust of those who are trading their money for your products?

  • Develop relationships, don’t just conduct transactions.
    This means not hiding behind a logo or shop name; tell your story, and don’t sacrifice being personable at the expense of being “professional.” The advantage that entrepreneurs and smaller shops have over the big players is that they don’t have to try so hard to humanize an otherwise faceless big brand; it should come quite naturally.
  • Deal with negative customer reviews and feedback immediately.
    Listen attentively and with a healthy dose of humility. Make your shoppers feel heard. Ignoring or overlooking less-than-stellar responses to your products and/or services is a missed opportunity to assess and improve your offerings, and can also alienate your customer base. Handling any complaints or issues in a timely and diplomatic manner can often turn a situation right around and earn you a fan for life.
  • Service is king.
    Products are common; spectacular customer service, not so much. Chances are that there are plenty of other retailers out there who carry similar, if not identical, products as you do; so one of the best ways to differentiate your shop — and earn the repeat business of shoppers in the market for what you sell — is to offer prompt, helpful and empathetic customer service at every step in the funnel, from pre-sales inquiries down to post-delivery feedback.

Opportunities to sell are everywhere

A number of new SDKs or “software development kits” were unveiled at Unite 2016, one of which was the Sales Channels SDK. While the technical nuts and bolts of this are of more interest to developers, the take-away for merchants is simple: there are a ton of places where you can and will be able to sell your products! Commerce really can happen anywhere: in your social media feed, in a temporary pop-up shop, or even while chatting next to someone on the bus.

So while your online store is a given for showcasing your wares, there are plenty of other “channels” where you can integrate and promote your products and facilitate their purchase too, including social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, curated marketplaces such as Houzz or Wanelo, existing websites on non-Shopify platforms, native mobile apps, etc. The key thing here, really, is to think beyond a dedicated e-shop and go where your customers are. Understanding your target market and their lifestyles — where they hang out online and IRL, what devices they use most and what spaces they inhabit — will help you figure out where you and your products really need to be.

Attention spans are short; speed is critical

Very few folks want to wait for the “privilege” of being parted from their money, whether this means waiting in long lines at the mall or searching for and attempting to purchase something online. The big advantage of ecommerce is, of course, that we can shop without the real-world nuisance of checkout lines and slow-moving crowds, but our expectation of ease and speed in the digital space is increasing every minute — literally.

To this end, site speed is a big consideration for online shops, and merchants are increasingly looking to Google’s PageSpeed tools and tests to check their page load times and gain insight on what can be fixed, compressed, minified and optimized in order to get a higher rating. In reality, the Google tools only offer a partial picture of site optimization and speed, but there are still a few things you can do here as the merchant:

  • Use a well-written theme
    Choose a theme that’s been built with best practices in mind and optimized code; your theme developer will be in the best position to address the more technical considerations here, but keep an eye out for premium themes that have also made speed a priority, through their code structure and choice of scripting libraries, tools and technologies.
  • Keep your shop neat and tidy.
    Make it easy for shoppers to search, browse and enjoy their online shopping experience by eliminating extraneous info and visual clutter.

  • Optimize ALL your site images
    This means not just the product photos, but also any banners, logos, blog article images, etc. Ask your theme designer for their recommended sizes for each of these elements, and run your pictures through an optimizer such as the ImageOptim app before saving and uploading them to your shop.

Design: Always consider your end-user

“UX,” or user experience, design is a newer, applied term for a long-standing, general concept  which looks to empathize with the consumer and optimize his or her experience of interacting with whatever it is that you’ve produced — whether that’s a mobile app, a billboard or even a bicycle. As Web designers, we pay particular consideration to UX when planning our page layouts and theme features, often weighing the value of these elements in relation to merchant requests, web trends, the shopper or end user’s needs, and flexibility vs. complexity in terms of the code itself.

When you think about the different shoppers that may visit your site, remember that not everyone uses the same device, browser, OS, input method or screen size to view your shop; some visitors may even be visually-impaired and use screen readers, or have a degree of color-blindness.

While much of the responsibility for producing a solid, well-designed, responsive theme lies with the theme developer, there are still things that you can do as the shop owner, to optimize your site visitor’s experience:

  • Keep accessibility in mind.
    One of the simplest things you can do in your shop to help increase its accessibility is to ensure that all your images have relevant and descriptive “alt” tags. Bonus: This will also help with SEO!
  • Shop features should serve a function and solve a problem.
    While apps abound and themes often include many potential features, it doesn’t mean you have to use them all; try to avoid feature creep and include only those that are most likely to delight your user (yes, aesthetics do serve a function!), address a pain point and/or facilitate your visitor’s overall experience of your shop.
  • Keep related images uniform in size or aspect ratio
    These are subtle visual cues for the shopper that help with grouping and categorization and cut down on clutter that’s akin to walking into a messy or poorly organized retail shop.

So Unite 2016 has officially wrapped — all the talks have been given, the mingling ended and the beer drunk —  and we Canadians had to literally pry ourselves away from the California sunshine to return to the muddy gray of spring here. But we’ve got lots to think about now and put into action, and as designers and developers we’re looking forward to all the places we’ll help take ecommerce and Shopify this year.

Most importantly, for all the merchants out there, we echo the sentiment that Shopify drove home repeatedly: We really can’t wait to see what you do with all these wonderful tools at your disposal. Let’s keep moving this new age of commerce forward, together!

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