Chapter 4 Competitor Analysis: How to Know What Makes You Different in a Crowded Ecommerce Market
Almost any product you can think of is already being sold by someone else.
That’s both good and bad news. The good thing is that competition is a strong proxy for consumer demand. And where there’s demand, there’s potential for growth and on-going profits. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the Pepsi versus Coca-Cola debate.
Now, the wrinkle is that you’ll have to share the same customers and playing field (sales channels, marketing tools, etc.) with another online store. How do you stand out? What can you do to sway consumer decisions without being too different?
A well-executed competitor analysis can provide you the insight you need.
What is a Competitive Analysis?
Every market has more than one company pitching similar products or services to the same category of buyers. A competitive analysis helps to identify the main market players, determine what strategies they use to succeed and identify resources your company could use to dominate the market.
In economics, there are two primary theories around businesses attaining a competitive advantage:
The Market-Based View (MBV) strategic framework states that a company’s performance is solely determined by the structure and competitive dynamics of the industry.
Coming out of that is the Porter’s five forces model, which shows five main forces that add competitive pressure to your industry. Analyzing these forces will give you a better understanding of the target markets and prepare for launch.
Barriers to entry: High entry barriers mean lower inter-industry competition, but can also be a sign of a monopoly. An industry that’s hard to break into will likely have several established players, holding a large market share.
- Example in ecommerce: online furniture sales. The market is challenging to penetrate due to shipping costs. Big-chain players such as Ikea, West Elm, Wayfair hold the grounds. But it still has room for more entrants as DTC retailer Burrow proved.
Supplier power: Top suppliers (merchants) can control prices, reduce the quality of products, and set benchmarks for other participants.
- Example in ecommerce: Amazon popularized the concept of “free shipping” and “next-day delivery”, effectively forcing other players to follow suit.
Buyer power: Vice versa, powerful buyer demographics can impact the markets by demanding better product quality, driving down prices or forcing the industry players to compete with one another.
- Example in ecommerce: Sustainability has become a major issue among consumers. Some are boycotting companies using palm oil in foods. Or rally against cosmetic brands using synthetic fragrances. Such buyer groups spend money with brands that better align with their values. And prompt wider changes in the industry.
Threat of substitution. Some products are at risk of becoming redundant or substituted with cheaper, more sustainable or trendier alternatives.
- Example in ecommerce: In 2016, Apple removed the headphone jack from new iPhone models, effectively launching the market for wireless headphones (that they also happened to produce). This impacted headphone sellers, who previously targeted iPhone owners.
The second popular theory of competition is the Resource-Based View (RBV) strategic framework. This paradigm focuses more on analyzing how internal resources may contribute to the company’s competitive advantage.
When doing competitor research using RBV, your goal is to determine how each company uses its resources to secure/improve its market position.
The two types of resources RBV analyzes are:
- Tangible assets — all physical assets the company has such as equipment, capital, brick-and-mortar locations, ecommerce website, mobile application, etc. Physical assets provide a lower competitive advantage since any competitor can buy identical assets.
- Intangible assets — all types of intellectual property, brand positioning, customer experience, work culture and other intangible assets the business has developed over the years. Intangible resources are harder (if not impossible) to replicate. Thus, they provide a long-term competitive advantage.
Further, RBV breaks down the resources by types:
Heterogeneous resources — every business possesses a different set of skills, capabilities and core competencies. Even companies in the same niche start with a different mix of resources. Consequently, this allows businesses to differ from each other by pursuing competitive strategies based on their strengths. Per RBV, heterogeneous resources help businesses attain a competitive advantage even if they are selling similar products.
Here’s a quick competition analysis example to illustrate the point:
Apple, Sony and SkullCandy sell headphones. But each company uses its tangible and intangible assets differently to secure a market share. Apple has strong brand equity and focuses on building long-term relationships with each customer through upselling different gadgets. Sony leverages its vast distribution network and economies of scale to sell an array of cheap and higher-end products across markets. SkullCandy is a niche player, focused on selling “statement” and limited edition accessories to music fans.
Immobile resources — certain business resources cannot be easily transferred to another company in the short-term perspective. For example, you cannot “copy” Skullcandy’s brand and ecommerce experience and “paste” it on your store to get the same results.
Most of the intangible business resources are immobile — internal knowledge, product development process, branding, etc.
Therefore, you should evaluate how your intangible immobile resources can be leveraged to outperform the competition, rather than simply trying to copy what others are doing.
To sum up, competition analysis is a multi-facet process, aimed at exploring:
- Who are the main movers and shakers on the market
- What external and internal forces shape the competitive landscape
- What types of resources different players have
- How they use their assets to stand out
- Where are the gaps in competitors’ capabilities
- Which resources you have (or need) to fill in those gaps.
Why is a Competitive Analysis Important for Ecommerce
In 2020 the global ecommerce retail sales grew by 27.6% and reached $4.2 trillion, though the total worldwide retail sales dropped by 3%.
Much of the ecommerce market growth was driven by a pandemic-prompted shift to online shopping among consumers, who prioritized brick-and-mortar sales before that. The above also prompted a lot of retailers to launch (or expand) their online presence.
At the same time, some retailers were forced to declare bankruptcy, too.
Source: Digital Commerce
Many ecommerce-first businesses, though, have seen a major spike in sales. During the 2020 holiday season, businesses selling on Amazon surpassed $4.8 billion in worldwide sales from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, an increase of over 60% from last year.
Here’s what that data tells us. The retail market underwent a major reshuffle with a good fraction of profits shifting online. It’s not yet certain how long-lasting this shift will be. But the market forecast so far states that the ecommerce market will decelerate compared to 2020 and only grow by 14.3% in 2021.
Thus, knowing how to conduct competitor analysis becomes crucial for understanding how to effectively enter a growing but turbulent and increasingly competitive market:
- Crystalize your market positioning in terms of value proposition and differentiators
- Estimate the entry barrier into the target market/niche
- Identify baseline consumer expectations, set by others
- Find market gaps and opportunities for improvement
- Uncover potential risks and weaknesses in your marketing plans
How to Do a Competitor Analysis in 9 Steps
The goal of a competitor analysis is to equip you with insights to inform your product development and marketing decisions.
To dig out those “hidden-in-plain-sight” knowledge nuggets, complete the next nine steps.
1. Identify your competitors.
To conquer a mountain, you’ll first need to decide which mountain you are going to climb.
Hiking up a 1650’ hill with marked pathways isn’t the same as trekking up the Kilimanjaro. You’ll need different types of preparation, gear and guidance.
To estimate the difficulty of your “climb,” you’ll need to analyze three types of competitors:
Direct competition is an ecommerce business providing similar products to the same target market (both geographically and demographically) at a similar price point. Think
Xbox vs Sony PlayStation.
Direct competition is the first contender you should analyze for your own brand. Why? Because doing so helps fulfill two purposes:
- Evaluate product viability — this type of good is probably in demand if someone else sells it.
- Estimate entry barriers — direct competition sets the bar for entering a market. For example, a competitor’s product costs $10, you won’t be able to charge $25 for it, unless you add another twist to it.
Here’s how to identify direct competition:
- Analyze search engine results (SERPs) for similar product queries
- Look at market share statistics using Statista or a similar source
- See who’s sourcing products from the same suppliers/wholesalers as you plan to use
- Note brands your target buyers use or mention the most during interviews
Direct competitors are easy to notice, but it can be easy to miss indirect competitors.
Indirect competition is an online seller offering products that differ in some way, but could also satisfy the same customer demand.
For example, both New Chapter and Nutrology sell natural supplements and vitamins. But Nutrology focuses on protein powders and natural supplements for sports enthusiasts. New Chapter, on the other hand, sells a wider range of vitamins for boosting overall health or addressing a certain issue such as immune health.
While their products are similar, they fulfill a somewhat different need and cater to different buyer audiences.
Thus, there’s no point for Nutrology to analyze New Chapters’ marketing strategy, pricing or social media presence to look for ways to overtake them. Instead, both brands can thrive by selling their own products in respective ecommerce niches.
However, indirect competitor research may be interesting for more established ecommerce brands, evaluating new product ideas and/or new markets.
For example, if a skincare brand would want to launch a new CBD product line, they should analyze what other CBD businesses are doing to identify which intangible assets they could leverage to compete with them.
Finally, there’s replacement competition — a business with the potential to replace your product with something different altogether. Such “disruptive” brands try to bite into the existing profits of more established competitors by offering a better product or experience. A couple of examples you’ll recognize:
- Uber replaced standard taxis.
- Airbnb eroded the hotel market.
Choosing to go the “replacement” route may be challenging, especially if you are up against bigger competitors. You also risk investing in your own product that no one else needs if you fail to validate your product viability.
However, the higher risks are offset by higher rewards. Bumping a large competitor, especially one holding a monopoly on the market, can generate rapid growth for your own business.
2. Perform a competitor SWOT analysis.
This is a great tool to visualize how you stack up against other businesses. Once you’ve lined up several direct competitors, analyze their business from the perspective of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Your analysis should cover the following areas:
- Brand positioning
- Ecommerce website
- Customer experience
- Sales strategy
- Pricing strategy
- Marketing strategy
- Content strategy
- Shipping strategy
- Discounts/Promo strategy
To get answers for each section, ask the following questions:
- In which areas does this brand excel?
- Can you identify any intangible assets (e.g., memorable branding) that give them an advantage?
- Which processes or experiences need improvements (i.e., in terms of online shopping experience)?
- What areas do they neglect/miss (e.g., do they invest enough in search engine optimization to get organic traffic)?
- What can your company do better, based on your resources (e.g., can you come up with better messaging for or new types of content for your website)?
- Can this competitor substitute you? Can they threaten you in another way (e.g., by offering faster shipping)?
Contrast the competitors’ weaknesses against your strengths. Pay attention to the opportunities they are missing. Is there any way you could capitalize on them?
Strengths and threats, on the contrary, will help you better gauge the overall market conditions and entry barrier — and prepare you to conquer it.
3. Examine your competitors’ websites and customer experiences.
Customer experience is one of the decisive factors in ecommerce. 59% of US consumers will abandon a brand after several bad experiences, 17% will tolerate only one “strike.”
Treat competitor research as an opportunity to close the gaps on your ecommerce website design roadmap.
To effectively assess your competitors’ UX and CX, use this 5-step UX research framework developed by Erin Sanders from the Research Learning Spiral:
- Set the objectives: What knowledge do I need to obtain? At the very basics, you should analyze the competitor’s navigation, product catalog, product listing, checkout experience, shipping policy, on-site marketing tools (such as discounts, coupons, upsells, etc.)
- Create research hypotheses: Using your earlier knowledge about the competitor’s strengths or weaknesses, create a set of assumptions about their customers. For example: does competitor’s content help shoppers decide on the product?
- Select your research methods: These will depend on your resources. Use both quantitative (benchmarks, user testing data, performance metrics, etc) and qualitative methods (surveys, focus group interviews, customer reviews, etc) for evaluating their UX/CX.
- Conduct the evaluation: Get as much data as you can during the set research timeframe.
- Synthesize the findings. Use the obtained information to fill in the knowledge gaps, challenge or confirm your hypotheses and evaluate alternative design opportunities.
4. Determine your competitors’ market positioning.
Competitive positioning is your core “differentiator” from others. This information is easy to uncover when you evaluate indirect competition — their solution will be somewhat different than yours.
That difference stands for their unique value proposition — a factor that attracts new customers to them. Every brand needs one if they gear up for success.
To map which position competitive brands hold on the market, do the following:
- Identify the primary group of customer needs that you plan to address.
- Choose a geographic region you want to study.
- Decide if you want to track the entire market for a product or only a specific segment.
- Select a price range you want to analyze (cheap/low-end products, mid-market, luxury).
- Identify what primary benefit the customer receives at different price point.
- Organize competitors by product price and its level of primary benefit on the map.
5. Look at your competitors’ pricing and current offers.
Perceptual mapping helps identify how different competitors price their products and where you could fit in. This data gives you some baseline figures on how much people are willing to pay for different types of goods (from different brands).
Yet, it’s not just objective factors such as quality or feature range that impact consumers’ price sensitivity.
- 43% of all consumers are ready to pay more for greater convenience such as faster shipping or low-hassle delivery.
- 71% are ready to pay a premium for brands that provide full product traceability.
As you analyze the competitors’ prices, pay attention to such “add-ons”. Try to determine how they tie in extra value to their prices to avoid competing on dollar value alone.
6. Learn about the technology your competitors are using.
Technology may seem like a tangible asset any brand could acquire. But we often forget that technology is an enabler, so it’s less about the technology than how it’s being used.
Indeed, competing businesses can rely on the same ecommerce platform but configure and extend it to create a unique brand experience (intangible asset).
Thus, when doing your analysis pay attention to the following:
- What type of ecommerce solution does the company use — open source, SaaS or headless commerce?
- Do they rely on any custom extensions/plugins?
- What types of supporting systems do they use — e.g., payment processors, email marketing service providers, 3PL integrations, etc?
- Are they using any innovative technologies such as AI, chatbots, AR or VR to deliver an immersive shopping experience?
- Is there any way you can offer a better online shopping experience by choosing another technology stack or implementing custom integrations?
An easy way to learn about the competitor’s tech stack is to analyze their website with BuiltWith.
7. Ensure you are being competitive with shipping.
Shipping is a determinant purchase driver for most consumers, according to Baymard Institute, shipping costs are one of the top reasons for cart abandonment.
Determine what your competition is charging for:
- Same/next day delivery
- 2-day shipping
- Standard shipping
- International shipping
Then analyze different logistics providers to estimate if you can offer similar rates. Typically, ecommerce brands can negotiate bulk discounts for shipping/long-term contracts.
Alternatively, you can mark up the prices to offset some of the shopping costs for bulkier items.
Lastly, if you have brick-and-mortar operations, consider BOPIS or curbside pickups. Both can help reduce fulfillment costs.
8. Review social media feedback and performance.
Social networks are a goldmine for the voice of customer (VOC) data you can leverage for product development and brand positioning.
Here’s how to conduct a competitor analysis using social media:
- Analyze how the company responds to support queries.
- Check how they respond to product questions.
- Browse mentions and hashtags to evaluate overall conversations.
- Read the latest reviews. These could help identify weaknesses you could improve upon.
- Use the Pages to Watch feature to monitor how similar pages engage with their audiences.
- You can also see what other brands your fans like by typing “pages liked by people who like [your page name]” in the Graph Search box.
- Check the competitor aesthetics and content calendar. What types of visuals do they use? Are they leveraging new Instagram features such as Reels or Shoppable posts?
- Estimate their engagement levels per post. Is it authentic? What are their comments to like ratio?
- Are they partnering with influencers? Who are they working with? Why?
- Popular brands with a cult following have dedicated subreddits to street interactions with their community. Check these out to get a better sense of the audience preferences, needs and missed opportunities.
- General subreddits (e.g., covering skincare or gaming) also have active and brutally honest discussions around different brands. Look for those threads to understand what fuels the competitor’s customer sentiment and drives purchasing decisions.
9. Use tools and methods for staying aware of competitors.
The above sounds like a lot, right?
To keep your competitor research structured and easy to re-visit in the future, use the following competitive analysis frameworks:
- Porter’s five forces model.
- Resource-Based View (RBV) framework
- SWOT template
- Perceptual mapping template
Also, to have an always up-to-date competitive intelligence monitor their:
- Social media: using Pages to Watch features or by adding them to your social media analytics tool.
- Search engine results (SERPs). Tools such as Ahrefs and Semrush are great for analyzing which keywords your competition ranks for and how they acquire backlinks to their website.
- Online coverage. You can set Google alerts for their brand name to learn when they get mentioned by the media/influencers and in what context.
- Traffic volume and sources. SimilarWeb provides free website traffic analytics, plus an overview of the main referrals.
Free Template: Competitor Analysis
Finally, if you want to keep a neatly organized list of competitors for hot-key references, we made a simple competitor analysis template.
It’s a good starting point for ecommerce brands who want to have a bird-eye view of direct competition:
Here’s what to include in a competitive analysis template:
- Mission statement (positioning statement)
- Main offering (flagship product(s))
- Primary sales channels
- Competition category.
The above data is a solid baseline for performing a deeper level of competition analysis for individual companies using the steps, mentioned above.
You can then add an extra category like key findings where you summarize the extra points of your research and link up to supplementary materials.
Competitor analysis not only helps you learn about others, but also identify areas where your brand can excel. You have a set of intangible assets that is the basis of your differentiators. Personal expertise, market knowledge, domain expertise, marketing and branding skills all count! Keep those above when comparing yourself against the competition.
To get the best outcomes from your competition research, select a host of baselines (parameters) for comparison such as:
- Distribution channels
- Product range
- Product features/qualities
- Online shopping experience
- Innovative tech features
Capture these insights in your template and then analyze where you can do as good or better than the others!
Competitor Analysis FAQs
1. What is in a competitive analysis?
Competition analysis aims at identifying your brand’s main competitors and determining the best ways to surpass them. The purpose of competition analysis is to help you determine why your target audience chooses their brand and what type of unique value proposition could prompt them to buy from you instead.
2. Is SWOT a competitive analysis?
SWOT is one of the tools for performing competitive analysis. By using the SWOT framework, you can identify your competitor’s weak areas and missed opportunities to capitalize on them. Also, SWOTs help you estimate other brand’s strengths and potential operational risks.
3. What happens if I don’t do a competitor analysis?
If you skip competitor analysis several things may go wrong. First, you may underestimate the entry barrier to your primary target market and respectively — the startup capital you’ll need. Secondly, you risk launching a product that has no/low demand due to poor market fit, high pricing or no strong differentiators.
4. Does competitor analysis take a long time?
Depends on your target market size and the depth of the analysis you can partake. A preliminary competitor analysis, covering the direct competition, can be done in a couple of hours. However, if you plan to use more advanced research tools such as focus groups or customer interviews, plan a longer timeline — up to a month.
5. Do a competitor analysis even if I sell niche products?
Yes, you better do. When selling niche products, you risk aiming for a market that is too small to turn in a good profit, for example. Or pick a niche with irregular demand or low consumer spending power. Even small businesses can majorly benefit from competitive research.
6. What is the first step in a competitive analysis?
The first step of the competitive analysis is identifying your key direct competitors. A direct competitor is a business selling the same product to a target audience you are eying. Knowing their market positioning, pricing, marketing and sales strategy will help you work out a set of differentiators to carve out your position on the market.
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