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29 April 2020

Insights from bol.com: what are the advantages of selling through online marketplaces?

Christel de Boer, platform consultant at bol.com, shares key insights into how to grow your business by selling your products through an online marketplace. bol.com is one of the most successful marketplaces, selling over 23 million articles in more than 50 different categories, across Belgium and The Netherlands.

Given the huge increase in e-commerce volume over the past couple of weeks, she also discusses how bol.com is supporting partners (brands, retailers or entrepreneurs who sell on the platform) and customers (consumers who shop on the platform) during the corona crisis.

Christel de Boer from bol.com

Why should a brand sell their products through a marketplace?

"Having a marketplace as an extra channel is a huge traffic driver. If you list your products on a marketplace, you are present where your customer is: on bol.com, we have over 10 million active online shoppers. Convenience is the major reason customers shop on marketplaces or one-stop-webshops where you find millions of different products from many different brands in one place. Flexibility is another advantage; the customer can have their orders delivered at home or at the pick-up point of their choice at the time they prefer – the former is a huge benefit during these challenging times.

In addition, you can draw on the many services marketplaces offer and their knowledge of customer behavior. Marketplaces provide experienced local support and personal guidance to set up your online business.

No risk is involved when selling on a marketplace: as a partner, you are in the driving seat and your commitment determines your success. If you successfully manage your presence on the platform, distinguish yourself from other sellers and optimize in line with your customers’ needs, you’ll definitely reap the benefits."

How can a brand be a successful seller on a marketplace? What are the key success factors and what are the challenges?

"Besides commitment, the key success factors are quality, price and delivery speed. Make sure your listed assortment has an added value compared to what is already there. Whether it’s new, better priced or has a different USP: fill the gap. When deciding which products to list, start with thorough customer research and a clear competition analysis. Know what your client is looking for. We help partners with this by regularly sharing a list of white spots.

  • Quality: The performance of partners, in other words the partner quality, is always strictly monitored by the marketplace. On time delivery, no cancellations, responding to customer questions, etc. are all elements that contribute to the quality.
  • Pricing: The partner is always responsible for their own retail sales price but sometimes, in the pool of 20 million articles, we notice extremely high prices that deviate from the benchmarks. We refer to this as “insult pricing” and remove the articles immediately from the platform. The best advice for partners is to be aware of the transparency and online competition, and to benchmark well against the market to avoid extreme pricing.
  • Delivery speed: Having your order delivered the next day or the next week makes a big difference in e-commerce. Remember that 40% of the customers shop after 5 PM so make sure that your delivery terms reflect this. If your delivery policy says, “Order before 5 PM and receive your order tomorrow”, you are not aligned with your customer and miss out on serving a broad potential pool of shoppers looking for next day delivery. Of course, this is a bit different under the current circumstances.
  • The over-arching key to success is commitment: the level of commitment and time investment determines your success. Selling through a marketplace is a business in its own right and requires your full attention. One reason why partners stop listing their products on a marketplace is because they can’t keep up with the fast-paced environment: they don’t have enough products in stock, are unable to handle all orders, … In a transparent business you have to keep the promises you make for customers to come back time and again."

How can a brand be a successful seller on a marketplace?

Speaking of challenges: what is the impact of the corona virus for bol.com and your platform partners?

"This crisis will have a huge impact on the worldwide economy and is predicted to leave its mark on different sectors. Due to the fact that non-food retailers had to close in Belgium, even more customers have found their way online. While consumers are used to resorting to different sales channels, their options are more limited nowadays. Maybe the silver lining is the positive effect that this will have on e-commerce in both Belgium and The Netherlands.

We are doing everything in our power to keep the logistical flow going, while putting safety and hygiene first. We are managing to structure the chaos through an agile approach and monitor and adapt daily. We are really striving to continue offering the best possible service.

We are observing the following impact on our e-commerce business:

  • Items per basket are increasing ('hamster' behavior also online)
  • The platform-own split has altered positively towards platform, and the Belgian partner share has risen from 10% to 15% (meaning more partners are joining)

We advise our partners to focus more than ever on what the customer needs right now. They need to be as flexible as possible without sacrificing quality. We notice some partners putting their e-commerce business on hold for a few days to prepare themselves for the high traffic and make sure that, when they reopen, they can provide the best customer service possible.

By making the right choices, we aim to provide all Belgian and Dutch customers with essential products in 3 main categories on which we focus our main efforts:

  • Necessary products, such as personal care or baby care
  • Products that facilitate homeworking, like computer screens, printers, keyboards, headphones or office chairs
  • Products that make living at home more fun and bearable: entertainment for kids and adults, sport equipment, books, gardening tools, Easter eggs, breadmakers

We are not advertising these essential products, but emphasizing these categories with awareness campaigns so customers can navigate and shop them easier.

The fashion category is struggling a bit, but in general all categories are performing well. Based on online customer behavior, we assume every Belgian will come out of the crisis with a well-groomed garden, a fit body and breadmaking skills!"

Products that make living at home more fun & bearable, like books

Information is key during these challenging times; how do you keep brands informed on how to grow their online business?

"Partners selling on a marketplace want to be informed of how they can optimize and improve their business. As a marketplace, you need to help partners better understand the “rules” of online shopping and provide tools to better monitor their performance and give them insights into sales and conversion. Strong content, delivering on time, avoiding cancellations, adequate stock management and responding promptly to questions make for happy customers. And in the end, happy customers will lead to happy partners. This is good guide tool for partners.

We already have and will implement many more partner improvement tools in the near future. Within the logistics department we are testing a new service (“Verzenden via bol.com”), which will soon be rolled out for all partners, and concerns all their orders. It publishes even more detailed white spot information and offers Sponsored Articles version 2.0 to make it totally self-service and improve online visibility.

On a regular basis, we sit down with partners to see how we can improve their total business. We do this both on a management and daily operational level. We have our Partnerservices department that helps partners to run their business and improve their online performance. For example, if companies want to stimulate their online conversion (from visitor to buyer) then a good strategy is optimizing content. This can also minimize return rates: if you create a strong description, add photos and videos and clear information on size, taste or other measurements, consumers will be less likely to order a wrong product or a product they do not like.

Close contact is very important. By opening the bol.com office in Antwerp, we are physically even closer to our partners, and by being a local marketplace we can offer a very personalized follow-up where a dedicated account manager is a direct line for partners. We see this as a win-win situation for our partners, our clients and our platform. Working together is key."

Other than a boost in online sales due to the corona crisis, which other important marketplace trends do you see for 2020?

"Diversification towards services is a trend we see when huge ecosystems are created. Nowadays, all major marketplaces are testing voice technologies, running A/B tests on chatbot improvements, or trying out AI projects. At bol.com we are also experimenting with those trends. Another trend is sustainability, which is crucial for retailers in general and all types of business if you want to contribute to making the world a better place.

Still, if an e-commerce country is not as evolved as a country such as China, priorities are different. In Belgium and The Netherlands, fixing the basics comes first, so partners can better manage their business on the platform and fulfill their customers’ needs. This includes completing assortments, so all customer demands are met with good prices. More advanced technologies will follow, but this year we are focusing on mastering logistic services for the end customer, improving navigation online and optimizing customer journeys, implementing personalization, and facilitating marketing opportunities for partners."

Amazon.nl was recently announced, entering the Dutch market with more than 100 million products in more than 30 categories. Can you elaborate on the impact this will have? How is bol.com preparing for this?

"Every retailer or entrepreneur, no matter the size or the sector, monitors the developments in the market. We do this too. We don’t consider the new competition from Amazon.nl to be any different to that of any other market player.

We emphasize our own strengths and focus on how we can make the daily lives of our customers easier by paying attention to their local needs and desires. Our strength lies in local partnership and the daily contact we have with our partners. On top of that, we know the habits and customs of Flemish and Dutch consumers. We know how specific holidays are celebrated, we’re aware of the most important cultural aspects to keep in mind, … The fact that we are perfectly in tune with the needs of our customers distinguishes us from other marketplaces.

When an additional marketplace enters an e-commerce market, we believe this will boost the economy on that market in general. For sellers, it’s an additional sales channel, so an opportunity to grow faster. Some consumers will continue to have a preference for bol.com, while others will prefer another marketplace. We will see how the market continues to develop."

What will be the impact of Amazon.nl entering the market?

There are plans for expanding bol.com to Wallonia this year. What is your expansion strategy?

"This expansion will happen in different stages and all bol.com services will be accessible and equal for all partners and customers. As is the case with The Netherlands and Flanders, there are also differences between customers in Flanders and Wallonia. We will of course adapt our strategy to each market, playing on the needs and shopping customs of the French speaking population.

As well as an adapted marketing strategy, we're putting an additional product offering and a fully translated platform in place. A customer-centric approach is key to build trust with the consumer and show our partners we are a reliable platform to sell to the French speaking population in Belgium." 


Wrapping up this interview with a word of thanks to Christel! We hope her insights have inspired you.

If you need help with your e-commerce strategy, don't hesitate to reach out:

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