- Staying on top of best practices for your e-commerce site could be the difference between making the sale and not.
- In addition to making sure you're selling something people want, owning an e-commerce site means that you will have to consider the overall user experience.
- Consider improving your presence on social media platforms, as that's a great way to promote your brand and get people interested.
Just about every aspect of modern society has been affected by the internet, and your small business is likely no different. If you sell goods or services online, then you are part of an ever-growing e-commerce ecosystem that has a lot of inherent challenges. Creating a new e-commerce setup from scratch takes time and effort, but with a basic strategy and the right tools, you can create an online presence that engages your audience and gets them spending.
"Every online store wants to increase traffic and conversions," said Asim Rais Siddiqui, co-founder and chief technology officer of TekRevol. "But even after you've put together a basic strategy, it can still be challenging to decide on which tools and marketing tactics you should try."
How to turn your web presence into sales depends on various factors. How your company is branded and marketed and how you make sure your products get to customers can make or break an e-commerce business.
The following are some key items to keep in mind when starting your small e-commerce business. With some attention to detail and today's best practices for online retail, your online operation can see the success you want.
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1. Consider your brand.
Think of some of the world's most popular brands. Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple and the like all have something in common – logos, slogans and brand aesthetics that set them apart from the competition. As a small business owner, you should try to follow in the footprints of those giants and establish an online brand that differentiates you from your competitors.
How you brand your company will be the first thing people notice on your e-commerce site, so make sure your brand reflects your company's values and priorities. If you do this right, you'll attract the customers you want and turn away the ones you don't.
"A customer's first impression is determined by your branding," said Henry Kim, co-founder and CEO of Swiftly. "A consistent brand message sets you apart from an increasingly saturated market where the barriers to entry are continuously falling." [Read related article: 6 Trends That Are Driving E-Commerce Growth]
2. Make your e-commerce website engaging.
With so many avenues for small business owners to get their online retail businesses off the ground, competitors can crop up out of nowhere. That's why it's important that your company always puts its best foot forward. One way to do that is to ensure that your website not only runs smoothly and is up to date but also makes the act of buying something easier for the consumer.
While global e-commerce sales this year are expected to total more than $3.5 trillion worldwide (and that figure is expected to balloon to $6.5 trillion in 2022), sales conversion rates were just 4.4% for consumers on desktop computers. The conversion rates for tablet users (3.6%), mobile phones (1.8%) and other devices (0.06%) also show a consistent trend of e-commerce interest that doesn't always end in a sale. Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests those numbers are so low because customers don't necessarily feel comfortable doing business in an e-commerce setting.
Researchers at HBR found that page layouts and aesthetic choices on an e-commerce site "may be far more critical to associative trust-formation processes" than they originally believed. As such, an engaging and well-functioning website will not only increase overall trust in your brand, but it could also mean more sales.
For that reason, Siddiqui suggests keeping these practices in mind when setting up your e-commerce website:
- Your website should be user-friendly.
- It should have good search engine optimization.
- It should be accessible on mobile devices.
- It should feature enticing, high-resolution product photos.
- Users should be able to easily find specific items.
- The checkout process should be fast and easy.
- Multiple payment options should be available.
As a rule of thumb, Siddiqui said, brands should consider conducting a full website redesign "every two to three years to stay modern." If your site isn't drawing enough traffic or has a low sales conversion rate, you may need to "reevaluate and make some updates in order to capture your users' attention and turn them into customers."
If you're not a website-building master, e-commerce website builders like Wix and Squarespace can ease the process. Siddiqui personally recommends Shopify for its variety of features, including "unlimited products with unlimited bandwidth and online storage, point-of-sale tools, online sales channels, fraud analysis, manual order creation, discount codes, and staff accounts.”
3. Come up with a marketing plan.
Just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, e-commerce sites rely heavily on good marketing strategies. If your potential customers have no idea you exist, how are they going to visit your site and buy your products?
"Marketing is the lifeblood of your business," Kim said. "Even if you have a great product, great customer service, great retention and great organic growth, the question you should ask yourself is, 'Do I want to reach my next revenue goal faster?'" If your answer is yes, then marketing is where you should place your attention, he said.
If you want to take a more direct approach to marketing, you have a litany of options, from digital marketing methods like web ads to more traditional methods like direct mailers.
One easy (and free) way to get the word out about your company is to establish a social media presence. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter each have millions of users just waiting to learn about your brand.
Part of your marketing plan could be allowing users to write reviews of the products you sell. User-generated content is a major aspect of some of the largest e-commerce companies. If your target audience includes digitally savvy shoppers, giving like-minded customers the opportunity to speak their minds could increase trust in your online store.
Kim also noted that it's easy to measure your marketing efforts' return on investment, making it one of the safest investments you can make in your business.
4. Make sure you can fulfill your orders.
Of course, order fulfillment is closely tied to customer satisfaction. In today's fast-paced world, no one wants to wait weeks to receive something they purchased online. Unless your e-commerce business deals in digital products, a good fulfillment strategy is a necessity.
Order fulfillment is one of the hardest things to get right when you're starting out, Kim said. It's especially hard for small online retailers that often find themselves competing with some of the world's retail juggernauts.
"Amazon has already set the bar on the level of service your customers expect," Kim said. "This means same-day fulfillment and incredibly fast shipping."
It may be impossible to meet those standards at your current stage, but speedy shipping – even if it's not next-day or two-day shipping – should always be something you strive for. Keeping your customers happy will benefit your business in the long run.
"If operationally you're having a hard time meeting these expectations, you end up eroding your customers' goodwill and reducing the chance of repeat purchases, which means you have to pay those customer acquisition costs all over again," Kim said.
5. Manage and streamline shipping.
Regardless of how fast you ship your items, shipping costs are unavoidable. Most of the time, brands lose money on shipping, especially new businesses.
With that in mind, it's important to consider how much you charge for shipping. If your shipping costs are too high and your customers are left to shoulder that burden, you'll lose sales to your competitors. To that end, Kim suggests offering free shipping to some of your customers as part of a marketing campaign. For example, customers who spend above a certain amount get free shipping.
"Shipping actually helps you close a sale and becomes a part of the marketing budget rather than a cost center for a subset of customers," Kim said.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that all four of these components need to work together.
"Since the workflows of these business areas are intertwined in e-commerce, it's impossible to achieve success in one area without paying close attention to the others," Kim said. [Read related article: A Small Business Guide to E-Commerce Shipping]
Additional reporting by Brittney Morgan. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.