Of the R1,2-trillion in traditional retail spend in the last year, almost R300-billion was directly influenced by online activity, according to the South African Digital Consumer report.

This means that a significant number of consumers are using websites, ecommerce stores, and social media marketplaces, to browse and compare products, find deals, and read reviews – all in preparation for in-store purchases. For small businesses, this highlights the importance of building a strong digital presence to guide consumers to their physical storefront.

“Brands need to understand that even if purchases don’t happen online, this is where many customer journeys begin. Digital and traditional shopping have become so intertwined that even if you don’t have an ecommerce store, an online presence is still critical to driving consumers into your sales funnel. Your website and your brick-and-mortar store are not separate entities – they’re part of a unified strategy,” says Thomas Vollrath, head of local web hosting company 1-grid.com.

Beyond giving consumers an opportunity to conduct research, a strong online presence also contributes to brand credibility. Almost 93% of customers look at reviews before making a purchase, to gauge how other users have experienced a business and their products or services. A website that showcases positive testimonials about your business builds trust, by showcasing quality and consumer satisfaction.

“It takes people less than half a second to form a first impression of a website – so you want that impression to be good enough to drive them to your store. It needs to be user-friendly, content needs to load fast, and your services or products must be easy to find and navigate. The hosting provider you choose has a substantial effect on all these elements, as you don’t want to get caught in a situation where your website is turning people away because of technical or design flaws,” says Vollrath.

Beyond showcasing products and services, a dedicated web presence also increases exposure to a local audience. The “Vicinity Update” rolled out by Google last year takes the location of a business in relation to an online search into account, and provides results based on where a consumer is located. Small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) with a .co.za domain can take advantage of these algorithms, by advertising their physical store online, to attract local clientele.

SMBs also need to consider that in South Africa, most online searches take place on mobile – but not all of these convert to digital sales. “To make sure they’re getting the best deal, or help them make up their minds, some consumers will search for reviews while in your store. With this in mind, creating a mobile-compatible website should be a priority for business-owners,” says Vollrath.