Getting Started in E-Commerce: A Guide for Small Businesses
The only way for a small business to grow is to reach new customers, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that many of the opportunities in the digital age lie with the Internet.
E-commerce gives you the chance to reach out to a national or even a global audience in a way that was once practically impossible for any company other than enterprises with huge financial and marketing resources.
There are many ways to sell products and services online, ranging from online auction sites like eBay to major e-commerce stores like Amazon, and others use online directories like Craigslist for publishing private listings. Another popular way to sell things online is through affiliate marketing, in which case the owner of the product outsources their entire marketing and selling efforts to someone else.
Despite the myriad of ways to do business online, such as those mentioned above, a full-fledged e-commerce store remains the most effective way to reach a wider audience.
Whether you’re planning to expand a traditional high-street store or you’re looking to migrate to a purely e-commerce business model, having your own online shop gives you complete control over your brand.
At a first glance, building an e-commerce store might seem expensive and complicated.
After all, there are many things to think about, such as security, payment systems, delivery options and, of course, what you’re actually going to sell.
Nonetheless, with a multitude of platforms available to build an online store around, stepping into the lucrative world of e-commerce isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds.
Before you begin, it is important to set realistic goals and expectations:
Contrary to the myth commonly propagated by many unscrupulous affiliate marketers, there’s no reliable way to become successful overnight. Your efforts will take time to come to fruition but, best of all, it doesn’t even have to cost you anything other than a small domain registration and hosting fee to get started. If you want some help to get started, here is an awesome resource by Berkaweb.com with hosting recommendations. Mark Berka compares 6 of the most popular hosting companies on things like website load time, server uptimes, how servers deal with sudden spikes in traffic and way more.
#1. Find Your Product
There is no shortage of success stories that prove many small businesses can profit enormously by adopting an e-commerce strategy, but there are always exceptions.
Business-to-business (B2B) products, for example, are less likely to be suitable for selling online than products aimed towards the consumer market. Certain product types, such as alcoholic drinks, also require additional licenses and, in some countries, may not be sold online at all. Other products that might not do too well online include those that people generally like to see in person before purchase, such as expensive jewellery or high-end fashion items.
That being said, there are plenty of exceptions, and it often still makes sense to open an e-commerce site to complement a traditional high-street store, regardless of what that store sells.
Products that generally sell the best online include:
- everyday commodities and
- many consumer products manufactured by well-known brands.
Of course, niche goods, which might be difficult to come by using traditional methods, also tend to sell very well.
For example, if you’re in the business of selling artisanal items to a small local audience, opening an e-commerce store, in this case on a platform like Etsy would be the best, presents the opportunity to increase your reach enormously.
Since some products are easier to sell online than others, there are a few important considerations you should take into account before getting started:
- Can online customers be expected to understand your product and its benefits just by looking at pictures and reading descriptions online? If, for example, your product relies a lot on tactile appeal, it might not be easy to sell online. In order to reduce the apprehension that potential buyers might feel in such cases, you will likely need to offer an excellent returns policy and guarantee. Fashion stores, for example, practically have to offer these things.
- Can you expect to make an acceptable profit margin once you’ve taken into account packaging, delivery and any other overheads that might be involved?Selling cheap items, for example, will likely not make any financial sense if it costs more to package and deliver them than they’re actually worth. Instead, such items may need to be sold in bulk to make it worthwhile. Additionally, selling any perishable items will be subject to greater requirements.
- Can your product be converted to a digital format? If you’re selling products like magazines, books, movies or music, then e-commerce is simply the modern way of doing things. For example, many traditional magazines now provide purely online versions of their content by way of paid subscriptions or free, ad-supported versions. Other such businesses have failed to survive simply because they did not adopt e-commerce quickly enough.
- Can you actually expect to sell your product to a wider audience?If you’re a high-street store that caters exclusively to a local audience, then you’ll need to consider whether or not your products will appeal to someone the other side of the country. For example, if your high-street store sells tickets for local events or discount coupons for local venues, then your wares are not likely to be of interest to others far afield.
Oftentimes, small businesses don’t rely on widening their reach by way of e-commerce alone. Sometimes, it makes sense to branch out into different areas to allow your business space to grow, including into online markets.
For example, a local electronics store will have a limited amount physical space for storing things, whereas e-commerce presents an opportunity for it to expand its product inventory enormously.
You may not have the luxury of a space granted by physical premises to hold all of the products you sell yourself, then you might want to consider the dropshipping model of e-commerce, whereby you do the selling, but the manufacturer hosts and delivers the goods.
When it comes to finding your product, the obvious choice is to stick with what you already sell at your local store.
There are tools to help you discover good opportunities, in the dropshipping realm, sites like Doba and DropShipLifestyle can be useful for the beginner, while–when you are looking to start an FBA business–tools like Jungle Scout Pro and Cashcow Pro will be save you tons of time.
Nonetheless, making your foray into e-commerce presents the perfect opportunity to expand your portfolio, provided that you don’t end up moving into markets with which you’re unfamiliar. Once you’ve established your e-commerce goals and determined what you want to sell, you’ll be ready to choose a host and start building your website.
#2. Build Your Website
Your website will serve as the digital analogue to your physical store so, in many ways, the same rules apply.
Just like your high-street store, your e-commerce website needs to offer an excellent browsing experience while allowing your consumers to experience and engage with your products as much as the digital medium allows.
Its visual appeal is also important and, just as people might be put off by walking into a dirty, poorly presented shop, they’ll turn away if your website is slow, buggy and lacking in aesthetics. In these days of content management systems and a multitude of cheap hosting companies to choose from, almost anyone can set up a website, but it’s not always easy to get it just right.
Registering Your Domain
Normally, you’ll be registering your domain (Web address) and organizing your hosting through the same company.
The first step to take will be to find out whether or not your preferred domain name is still available, since you’ll normally want to use the name of your existing business to make it easier for existing customers to find you.
As a local business, you’ll normally be best off choosing a country top level domain (TLD) such as co.uk, .ca or .au etc. However, American-based businesses will invariably use a .com address, since .us is rarely used and thus unfamiliar to most people. It’s also a good idea to have a .com address as well that directs visitors to the same website, particularly if you intend to reach an international audience.
With well over 100 million .com addresses out there, there’s a good chance your name is already taken.
However, if your domain name is a registered trademark, but someone has already registered it, your brand could be the victim of cybersquatting. When, in this case, the domain is your exact trademark or very similar, you should be legally entitled to reclaim it. Sometimes, however, it may be purely accidental, so you should always approach the domain owner for clarification first.
It doesn’t much matter who you register your domain with, but you’ll almost certainly end up doing it when you choose a hosting package anyway. You’ll typically end up registering your domain for at least one year, but you can renew this constantly. Most important is to choose a hosting company that presents an excellent track record when it comes to reliability, customer service and performance.
Prices vary between $10 and $30 per year for a basic business website, but you should generally expect to stay on the higher end of this range.
After all, you will ideally need a premium business hosting package that offers the following features and benefits at minimum:
- Website analytics tools
- Scalable storage for growing websites and product inventories
- 24-hour, toll-free customer service and support
- 99.9% uptime (a maximum downtime of 43 minutes per year)
A few other useful extras to have include additional email addresses, one-click installations for popular content management systems (CMSs) and integrated payment and shopping cart systems. However, these features are not strictly necessary, since you can, and likely will, be installing them separately yourself.
To get started quickly with minimum hassle, one of the most popular hosted e-commerce platforms that Floship recommends, and has build plugins to, is Shopify.com.
Shopify allows you to easily get a store up and running in no time so you can test your market and refine your offers.
For more on Shopify, we have a few articles on this site you may want to read:
- Choosing Between Magento and Shopify to Power Your Ecommerce Website
- The Complete Guide to Shopify Order Fulfillment’s Third-Party Warehouses
- The 5 Minute Guide to Scaling Your Shopify Shipping Strategy
- Scaling Shopify – 3 Winning Tools to Skyrocket Your Store
- Shopify + Floship Integration
Other options to choose from include WooCommerce and Magento (see below).
Content Management Systems
Unless you have very specific requirements, small business e-commerce stores typically don’t require websites programmed from scratch. Fortunately, this means you likely won’t have to outsource the Web design work, since modern CMSs (website builders) allow almost anyone to design a professional-looking website without even having any knowledge of coding themselves.
You may still end up spending money on a professional website theme, as well as any plugins you might need, but one of the popular free and open-source CMSs will almost certainly suit your needs.
By far the most popular of these CMSs is WordPress, although Joomla and Drupal offer a similar range of benefits.
WordPress, though originally designed for blogging, is ideal for smaller e-commerce stores, thanks to its ease of use, extensive support and the enormous range of themes and plugins available for it. These CMSs allow you to get a basic website up and running in a matter of minutes. You’ll be able to continue designing your website by choosing a customizable theme or even designing your own and adding plugins to further enhance functionality.
Branding and Your Website
Once you’ve installed the CMS of your choice, you’ll have a blank website with a generic template in place, so there’ll be a lot of work to do to make it unique through a design that’s consistent with your brand.
Firstly, you’ll need to choose a suitable theme and, for this, you’ll likely want to opt for a premium customizable theme designed for a specific purpose.
For WordPress, for example, there are countless themes for just about every niche. When designing the look and feel of your website, you’ll want to apply your business’s own unique branding at every stage by taking into account the following:
- A distinct color palette. For example, Amazon uses orange and blue.
- A recognizable logo. Your brand colors will likely be based on the logo.
- An emotive style, such as abstract imagery or bright and vibrant designs.
- A specific tone of voice in your written content, such as fun or serious.
- A specific font or set of fonts that complements your branding.
The above points illustrate five of the things that make a brand unique and memorable.
By defining your brand’s characteristics and applying them consistently across the board both online and offline, you’ll be able to build something that people start to recognize.
#3. Integrate an E-Commerce Platform
While you’ve already had an introduction to the more generic CMSs for building your actual website, this chapter deals with e-commerce platforms themselves.
The purpose of an e-commerce platform is to provide your website with an online shopping cart and payment system.
In most cases, you can integrate your chosen e-commerce platform with ease, including on websites programmed from the ground up in HTML.
The simplest e-commerce solutions involve copying and pasting some code into your website, but for popular CMSs like WordPress, there is a whole range of plugins available that allow you to do the following things with ease:
- Specify payment and delivery options
- Manage and process payments
- Integrate an online shopping cart, complete with wish lists and other features
- Manage product inventories, including images, stock information and more
When choosing a suitable e-commerce platform, you must make certain it provides a modern, mobile-friendly solution.
Don’t make the mistake of prioritizing the cost, since you don’t want to end up with an obsolete and rarely updated system. After all, choosing the wrong e-commerce platform can greatly increase your shopping cart abandonment rate.
However, many of the most popular e-commerce platforms are free and open-source. Following are the best-known solutions:
- Magento powers almost a quarter of all online stores, making it the most popular platform in the world. This full-featured platform sports many plugins and extensions and may be used on any website.
- WooCommerce is the number-one e-commerce plugin for WordPress, powering the vast majority of online stores that use WordPress as their base CMS. It provides easy setup and extensive customization options.
- osCommerce powers around 11% online stores, and plugins are available for the major CMSs. However, while popular, many users claim that its developers tend to be slow in releasing updates.
- Shopify has grown enormously in recent years to provide their platform to some 100,000 online stores. It’s highly mobile-friendly and extensively customizable.
Find out how to Automate your WooCommerce Order Fulfillment process with the WooCommerce + Floship Integration here!
Already using Shopify as your e-commerce platform, then you won’t want to miss the free guid below:
There are numerous other solutions to choose from, some of which are better suited to larger businesses than small-scale e-commerce stores.
Alternatively, it is possible to have your own platform designed from scratch specifically for your purposes, although the costs involved render it impractical for all but the largest e-commerce stores.
Once you have an e-commerce platform in place, you’ll have everything you need to handle payments and shopping cart issues.
The service provider will also be responsible for credit card security and related issues, since they will be responsible for handling all payments.
For example, Magento allows you to choose from many different payment processors, including online credit card payments, PayPal and money orders.
#4. Promoting Your Business
A digital marketing strategy is essential for any business of any size, whether or not they maintain an e-commerce store as well.
Once your website is up and running, accepting payments and your product pages are properly presented with high-resolution images and plenty of written content, you’ll need to start promoting your new e-commerce venue.
One of the greatest advantages of online marketing is that it tends to be extremely cost-effective.
Many of the methods that exist to increase traffic to your website are free, although you’ll likely find yourself outsourcing all or part of your marketing campaign so that you can continue to focus on core areas of your business. There are literally countless ways to market a business online, but this section gives a brief overview of some of the most effective, low-cost and easily deployable options.
Although invariably talked about in the context of digital marketing, content marketing has actually been around since the dawn of modern advertising.
Content marketing is all about the creation, publication and sharing of media that offers genuine value to its target audience, such as the recipes that have been printed on food packaging for over a century. In a digital context, content marketing might include blogging, email or social media, hence the crossover with the various other marketing methods covered later on in this chapter.
Content marketing is not meant to be promotional in nature, although some promotional elements might exist in certain cases.
Instead, content marketing is meant to build brand authority, visibility and reputation by publishing genuinely relevant and useful content, whether in written or visual forms or a combination of the two.
For example, if your e-commerce store specializes in high-end computer hardware, a blog post detailing top tips for upgrading a processor is something that your potential and existing customers will likely find genuinely helpful.
In the digital age, content marketing is largely inseparable from social media marketing in that great content inspires conversation and social sharing. As such, social media presents an important platform for you to promote content, new products, your brand and much more.
However, unpaid promotional content should be used sparingly, since people are not likely to follow your profiles on networks like Twitter or Facebook if all you do is advertise. Instead, you should approach social media as a way to build up an active and engaged community around your business.
While social media marketing, with the exception of various paid advertising opportunities offered by the larger networks, is generally not meant to be directly promotional in nature, it does present an important range of benefits that no business should be passing up.
Most significantly, it allows you to manage your digital reputation by reviewing and responding to customer feedback and getting invaluable insights into your target audience. In times when businesses of all sizes are under increasing pressure to act transparently, social media is often a must.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that most Web traffic comes from the search engines, particularly Google, which processes some 3.5 billion search queries per day.
As such, the success of your e-commerce venture is heavily reliant on your visibility in the search engines. While high-street stores need to pay close attention to local search results, any e-commerce component will need to take a different approach. The various processes involved in improving your visibility in the search results are collectively referred to as search engine optimization (SEO).
While you’ll want to make geographical references in your website’s content to drive more foot traffic into your high-street venue, you’ll need to take a wider-reaching approach to drive Web traffic to your online store.
To understand how SEO works, you’ll first need to understand how Google ranks websites.
In the case of e-commerce stores, one of the most important ranking factors is to have unique product descriptions rather than those copied directly from manufacturer’s websites. The presence of relevant keywords also helps, so long as you don’t overdo it.
Email marketing is often a difficult thing to get right, particularly because it takes a lot of time and effort to build up a quality mailing list.
However, of all of the forms of digital marketing, email promises the highest return on investment, not least because it is so cheap to deploy.
However, a poorly executed campaign can hurt your reputation, so it’s imperative that you avoid buying mailing lists and instead obtain explicit permission from your recipients before you send any promotional emails to them.
Email is actually the favorite way for consumers to keep in contact with businesses, and it’s particularly well-suited to the world of e-commerce. The best email newsletters are personalized based on the customer’s previous experience with your website.
For example, it might showcase new and related products, accessories or special promotions based on the purchase history of the recipient. You’ll need to experiment a bit to find the perfect timing and mailing frequency for your business, but your efforts should more than pay off in the end if you take the right approach.
There are many email automation programs to integrate with your e-commerce sales site, a few worth looking at include:
Paid online advertising comes in many different forms, though the most common by far is pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.
Paid advertising can help enormously to raise brand awareness and promote new products in a short time, instead of having to rely solely on the gradual increase of your organic search engine ranking.
The most popular PPC platform is Google AdWords, which allows you to create small text- or image-based ads. These ads are then displayed automatically in search results as sponsored listings as well as on external webpages featuring related content.
Another extremely important paid advertising platform is Facebook Ads, which shouldn’t be too surprising since the social media giant is the world’s second-most visited website.
Facebook Ads are goal-centric, meaning that you can start a campaign by specifying a goal, whether this might be to increase engagement with your business’s Facebook page, traffic to your website or increase event attendance. Like Google AdWords, Facebook Ads uses the PPC model, allowing you to set a daily advertising budget.
Although you should be starting small, the whole purpose of e-commerce is that it gives your business an enormous amount of space to grow.
In other words, a small local store can leverage the opportunities afforded by digital marketing and e-commerce to expand to reach even a global market. Of course, the competition and whether or not your products would appeal to a wider geographic audience will determine your success but, if your e-commerce store is successful in the first place, there’s no reason not to expand.
The thought of expanding to reach a worldwide audience might be an exciting one, but there are many important considerations involved.
For example, you might have to adapt your branding to appeal to the sensitivities of different cultures, and you will undoubtedly have to have your website professionally translated if you want to have any hope of succeeding in a foreign-language marketplace.
There will also be local shipping options and payment preferences to take into account. Nonetheless, once you’ve conquered your local market, going global is often the obvious next step.
#5. Five Tips for Success
Once you’ve mastered the basics of e-commerce and digital marketing, your journey has only really just begun. Since the virtual world is a fast-moving one where trends come and go and new technologies make their debuts almost yearly, you’ll need to be consistently present for the longer term.
Once you have your online store up and running and you’re starting to receive visitors, you’ll need to start tracking your website’s performance and making refinements as necessary.
The following five essential tips for success should help get you started on the right track:
In a study carried out in 2014, comScore found that a quarter of shopping cart abandonment cases were due to a lack of payment options.
Consider how you would react if you had spent a considerable amount of time browsing an online store and filling up a virtual shopping cart only to find out at the last minute that they don’t support your preferred payment option.
It’s a frustrating experience that will likely lead to you never buying from that store again. As such, it is imperative that you offer as many payment options as possible, including AmEx, despite the higher fees involved. Fortunately, most e-commerce platforms support them all.
E-commerce Shipping and Product Fulfillment
The comScore study also found that lack of affordable shipping options was the single largest reason for people abandoning their shopping carts, accounting for an enormous 58% of cases.
Most online retailers now provide a free shipping option, even if it costs them significantly and takes a bit longer.
Amazon, for example, saw enormous success when it launched its free Super Saver shipping. On the other hand, there are also people who don’t care much about the shipping cost and just want their purchases to arrive as soon as possible, so it’s also important to provide a next-day or even same-day shipping option if possible.
When you are getting many international sales, Floship currently supports many clients who use Floship’s on-demand shipping integration and offer free shipping to their customers worldwide. Depending on the product and the destination, what previously seemed like an impossible dream, is now a reality for many consumers and sellers worldwide.
To see whether, Floship will work with your product and allow for free global shipping, you’ll want to get in touch with a Floship solution consultant.
People shop online to save time, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a slow online store will turn people away in droves.
Bounce rates tend to increase enormously when a webpage takes more than about three to load. However, even if your website and hosting company offer excellent performance and stability, the e-commerce platform you use depends on off-site resources.
As such, it is imperative that you choose reliable e-commerce platform and online payment systems to ensure optimal performance throughout the purchase process. As for your product pages, always provide thumbnail image previews linking to high-resolution versions.
While performance plays an important part in improving a website’s usability, there are many other considerations to take into account.
Since people shop online for convenience, you’ll need to make sure that the entire customer journey is a smooth operation throughout, from the moment someone lands on your website.
You can also avoid forcing people to register, instead allowing people to buy as guests, without requiring them to open an account.
Finally, and most importantly, your online store should also offer an excellent experience on the small screen, since a rapidly increasing percentage of online shoppers now use their smartphones.
Content is the driving force behind the Internet, so for the sake of both your human audience and the search engines, your website absolutely must have excellent, unique and relevant content.
In the case of online shops, the most important content will be that on your product pages, since this needs to be compelling enough to increase sales.
Unique product descriptions are a must for improved search engine visibility, but they also present an opportunity to illustrate the more tangible benefits of buying the product rather than just listing a boring set of specifications.
Of course, high-resolution images and, better still, 360° previews are essential.
Stepping into the world of online commerce might be time-consuming but, depending on your industry, it can be extremely profitable in the longer term.
In fact, the digital presence your build may well become your business’s most valuable asset, perhaps even more valuable than your physical premises.
Nonetheless, to ensure your success, you will need to be dedicated to your digital marketing and online reputation management efforts for the longer term.
The last thing you want to happen is to go to all the trouble to build an online component to your business only to fade into obscurity in the often noisy and highly competitive marketplace.
Interested in selling apparel online? The guys over at WEB4PRO wrote an excellent guide for you on how to get started with an online clothing business.