Many traditional retailers, small and big, keep away from the online business model, mainly because they find it highly technical or extremely competitive. With a little effort and understanding, they will realize that starting up in the online shopping world is not so tough after all. This article covers the basics of setting up an e-Commerce store front, getting started with payment systems and even putting up a website up and keeping it running.
Starting your e-Commerce venture – A Guide for Small Businesses
Before the onset of e-Commerce, it was practically impossible for small businesses to reach a global audience. At the same time expanding reach in the local market was not easy either. e-Commerce was then considered the playground for a select few who were mostly large enterprises with large financial resources and marketing abilities such as Amazon and Flipkart. But it’s a different story altogether now. No matter what your company’s size is, e-Commerce gives you the ability to compete with major online retailers and expand your footprints far and wide.
There are many ways to sell online now including websites like eBay, market places like Flipkart, Myntra, Jabong, Amazon and your own website too. Marketing your website can be an expensive affair but there are ways to optimize your costs. You can either have your own direct online marketing and social media marketing campaign or use affiliates to promote your products for a fixed pay per sale model.
While there are many ways you can sell online but there is nothing better than setting up you own e-Commerce store. The control that you get over your brand when you have your own store is second to none. Not to mention, higher profit margins and a set-up and the customers are yours exclusively. That being said, as a small business you may not have the financial muscle or technical expertise to get started. In order to identify areas of opportunity and to get a feel of the system, it is a wise idea to begin by selling on eBay or other e-commerce market places.
At first, setting up your e-Commerce store may sound difficult because of the numerous technical aspects that go into setting it up. Jargons such as a shopping cart, payment gateway, CRM and more can be mind-boggling. However, with so many new platforms like Shopify, and Buildabazaar from Infibeam, setting up your e-Commerce platform can actually turn out easier than setting up your email account.
The most important aspect before you begin is to be realistic about your goals and understand that nothing comes easy. Success in the e-Commerce space will require time, effort and little investment. Most importantly, it requires patience and a desire to learn from competitors and from your mistakes. Success will take time but with consistent effort it can be achieved.
Identifying the product(s)
While there are a lot of products and services you can sell online, the first step is to understand what interest you the most and to identify a product or service that you know well and care about. The reason for this is because; it gives you the edge over competitors and is definitely better than trying to sell something that you know very little about. Having said that, just because something interests you, it may not necessarily spell that you stand a chance of a bumper sale online. The key to this would be to study the market and to try and understand if there is a demand for the product(s) you wish to sell.
There are some products like medicine that have restrictions when sold online and therefore it is best to choose something that can sell easily and has a big market like electronics, everyday commodities, etc. Selling personal products like jewelry and apparels may sound exciting but you may also have to understand the cons that these products may require a person to visually see and feel the product before a purchase is made, which in turn may make these products slightly tough to sell online. Study the demand and complexities before choosing what you wish to sell. Selling apparel or personal products like fashion accessories will require you to have a good return policy.
To begin with, it may be considered wise to choose an uncomplicated product that requires very little information partaking before a purchase is made online. A product that requires a lot of explaining and personalization is best avoided when you are starting off. A product that has a lot of information available publicly through the manufacturer or reviews makes an easy sell. Customers don’t need a lot of information from you to decide if they should buy the product or not. All they will be looking for is good price and a reliable seller.
Consider the cost of the product and its packaging costs to determine if the profit margins make sense for you to sell online. Selling a low value product means your profit margins will also be thin unless you sell them in bulk.
Look up trends on ebay (seller trends) and Amazon (seller trends) to see what people are shopping for the most. You can then shortlist products that you see a demand for and develop a niche ecommerce website around it.
Building the ecommerce store front
Your website is nothing but a digital version of your physical store. Just as you would focus on providing a great user experience to people visiting your physical store, it is important that your digital store also provides a user experience that is easy to use and appealing.
Start by registering a domain
There are a lot of domain registering companies available like GoDaddy, BlueHost that will help you register a domain in minutes at very affordable prices. When registering the domain consider the theme of your business and try to get a domain that closely relates to it. If you have a physical store and an existing brand then the best way to go may be to look for a domain that represents your brand.
You should also consider the TLD (top level domain) when registering. If your business is specific to a region (India, US, UK), you could consider a domain that ends with .in , .us , or .co.uk. If you are lucky enough to find a .com then you should also consider registering other variations (regional) to avoid domain squatters buying up your brand domains later.
Find a Hosting Service
Most domain registration companies will also bundle or provide hosting services separately. The most important factors to consider a hosting company is to check reviews about its reliability, quality, scalability, uptime guarantees and customer support. Most hosting services also provide platform specific hosting (WordPress, Magento etc) which can eliminate a lot of compatibility issues when configuring your website. Depending on your need, you could choose between shared, dedicated or even a cloud based hosting service provider. It is advisable to start small and then gradually scale up your hosting infrastructure as your traffic builds up.
Choosing a CMS
Once you have decided on your domain and hosting provider, it is time to choose your CMS/Platform. Most small business websites don’t need to build a complex ecommerce store with tons of features. There are a lot of ready to use ecommerce store front solutions that you can run on WordPress, Joomla or Drupal that can be up and running in no time. Consider using a simple product that is easy to setup and yet scalable.
Design & Theme
When you are running on a budget it is best to consider using a custom template that makes your store look unique. Avoid using a ready to use template that is already in use by other stores. If you are pressed for funds, you may then consider hundreds of ready to use themes that can be bought for a fraction of the cost of paying up for a custom theme. Start with a ready to use theme and consider upgrading later when the business starts generating sales.
Choose the color scheme that looks appealing. Browse competitor websites and industry leaders to find out what color schemes they have used. These stores have invested time and money to figure out what works best for their users. Get ideas from those websites and try to choose a color theme that you feel could work for your website.
You should definitely consider having a custom logo designed to make the site look appealing and also for users to connect with your brand better. You can use freelance designers on sites like Fiver who can take up your project at affordable price. You could even approach a designer you know locally to design a logo for you.
Integrating an e-Commerce platform
Now that you have decided on your hosting, CMS and design, it’s time to choose an e-commerce platform that will allow you to take orders and process payments. When choosing an e-commerce platform consider the features it offers and check to see if it fits your requirements.
There are a lot of popular platforms out there from low cost to the really expensive ones. Options include e-Commerce platforms like Magento which is very popular and powers a lot of e-commerce website. WordPress ecommerce platform contains a lot of plugins to help you setup your e-commerce storefront on WordPress. Shopify is another great platform that is growing in popularity among other options.
The key here is to consider your requirements, budget and ease of use. Go with a platform that helps you with your current requirement and is yet scalable to help you expand your business in the near term. Once you have scaled up enough to afford a more complex platform, you can always upgrade later. Consider the features that you would need the most at the beginning and see if the platform you choose has the ability to perform those functions.
There are a ton of platforms available out there for small, medium and large businesses. Make sure you evaluate your needs and see which platform is the best fit. Read reviews, and even consider setting up a demo (trial) to evaluate its features. Once you have identified the platform, you will be able to setup the payments gateway and security features as most platforms come with in-built capabilities to address these needs.
Promoting your e-Commerce business
Building your e-commerce store is only half job done; the other half is promoting it. What good is a store, if no one knows about it? You need a solid digital marketing strategy to promote your store and grow traffic. You may have great business selling products on a market place like Amazon, Flipkart and others, but always remember that you are still dependent on their website/brand for business. There is nothing better than having your own brand and customers.
One of the biggest advantages of having a good digital marketing strategy is that it can be very cost effective and can help your business/brand grow consistently.
The fastest and most popular method of acquiring traffic is by using paid search (Google Adwords, Bing, etc). These platforms can provide a quick way of reaching your target audience when they are searching for a product that you are selling. You can control the cost of these campaigns by setting budgets and goals that meet your marketing objectives. This is also a great way to test if people are showing interest in your products. The down side of paid search is the cost associated with it, there is a lot of competition bidding for the same keywords and users that you are looking for and therefore this should not be your only focus.
This is more of a brand building exercise and not meant to be a mainline marketing activity. Writing blogs, articles and generating content (video, ebooks, shopping guides (like this one), etc) is a great way to share material with people who could eventually become your customers. This is also a great way to find quality back links to your website and create awareness. Content Marketing has to be a regular activity and not just a one- time effort. The more content you publish either on your blog or other platforms, the more long term traffic you tend to gain. Make sure that the content is informational and useful to readers and not just a marketing pitch.
Content marketing is incomplete without a social media strategy. What use is great content if you don’t share it? Social media is a great way for you to share your content and gain referral traffic. With some luck you can even gain viral traffic that can quickly boost your traffic volumes.
Social media offers both paid and free traffic opportunities. While you should consider both, it really depends on what you are sharing. If the content is mostly marketing oriented then you could consider a paid approach, if the content is of great informational value, then simply sharing a link on your social media page can help you gain some free referral traffic.
Search engine optimization
An often-overlooked aspect in small business websites is a search engine. It is vital to understand that optimization can impact your e-commerce business greatly. Most small businesses don’t spend any time or effort in optimizing their websites for search, and miss out on a great opportunity to drive free traffic to their websites. The beauty about search engine optimization (SEO) is that size of the company does not matter. No matter how big the competition may be, if you optimize your site the proper way, you stand a high chance to compete with them for traffic.
A big mistake that small businesses make is to copy meta tags and content from other competitors or manufacturer websites and use them on their website as their own. This could lead to potentially damaging results and may stand a chance of even getting penalized by search engines. You should focus on writing unique meta tags and content that is true to your product offering and not a mere copy paste of what is already available on other websites. Search engines rewards websites that have unique content that is an accurate description of what is provided on the website.
Consider getting professional SEO help
It is not advisable to tinker with SEO on your own if you have little or no knowledge about how it works. Consider hiring a professional SEO to help you with this and do it the right way. It may cost a little but it is well worth the investments when done right. Once you understand how it works, you can manage SEO on your own or even hire a full time SEO for your website
This is often an overlooked aspect of outreach for most small businesses because of the complexities involved. However, if done right, this can be a great way to connect with your customers. E-mail marketing is the most direct form of advertising that you can use and is also the cheapest form of marketing. Your weekly newsletters, promotions, land right in front of the user periodically and give them constant updates about your offers and promotions. This method can boost your sales instantly. Consider using an email marketing platform that has inbuilt tracking features, subscription management and spam compliance features.
Not all users have credit cards and many of them prefer to use a certain payment method (PayPal, etc) to shop online. Consider a payment gateway that allows maximum flexibility in the forms of payments allowed. This will ensure you have minimum shopping cart abandonment rates. This unfortunate scenario happens when people leave your website after gathering products in the cart and one of the main reasons for this is not finding a conductive payment option.
A hard reality of online shopping is that most users prefer free shipping and consider that as an incentive to shop online. Consider offering free shipping over a certain order value, if margins permit. Negotiate with shipping providers to get the best possible deal for your shipments and also look at product price points on your website. Don’t try to compete with large retailers that have the money power to offer free shipping at a loss. There are a lot of customers out there who are willing to pay a reasonable fee for shipping, if the quality of product and service is good.
Speed and Performance
Online shoppers are a very impatient lot and can leave your website for another one if they find it sluggish or broken. Make sure your website is tuned for maximum performance and everything that is supposed to work actually works. Test every feature of the website to make sure nothing is broken or acts as a barrier to a user completing a sale. There are a lot of free speed testing services, including the one provided by Google where you can test your websites performance and also get recommendations to improve it. A faster website also ranks better on search engines and therefore improving the performance of your website. Speed and performance have many advantages and are aspects that you cannot afford to ignore.
Having a great looking website, with excellent performance alone will not help if usability is overlooked. From the time a user starts his/her journey on the website till a purchase is made, the process should be intuitive and easy to use. Simple things like guest checkout instead of forcing users to register while checking out can help ease the checkout process. Think of your website as a physical store and streamline its flow to help users navigate with ease and checkout with the least possible delay. Reinforcement messages are a great way to build buyer confidence during checkout. Showcase your security features; free shipping info, customer reviews and payment options during the checkout process to help overcome any last minute objections the user may have in completing the sale.
Setting up the storefront and taking care of digital marketing is just the start. Once you start selling, the process is one of constant learning and making improvements. Every sale is a learning experience from which you can gain useful insights into what your customers want. You can use this knowledge to improve your service offering and gain customer loyalty. The bigger your customer base, the better your long-term prospects are for success. Don’t ignore any issues, if there are negative reviews or customer complaints take note of them and use them as a feedback to make changes and improve your processes.
Starting an online business can be easy, but making it profitable and successful is a different ball game altogether. The key to success here is consistency. If you focus on your strengths and consistently lookout for areas to improve, then your online business can successfully survive the highly competitive ecommerce race.