Thinking of selling online? Here’s some practical advice to help you plan the process and avoid some common pitfalls that can have unexpected impacts on resources.
In the last few years there’s been a huge shift in consumer purchasing activity, moving away from the high street and onto the web. As a result, setting up an online shop can be a very attractive proposition for businesses trying to meet this growing demand.
While a decision to go down the ecommerce route can be a wise and necessary one, it is very common for this whole process to be underestimated in terms of time and resources required. As well as the usual issues that need to be tackled when creating a standard website, an online shop has particular challenges that need to be carefully considered.
How many products?
This should almost be the starting point as it will impact heavily on the set-up time, which includes your time and your web designer’s time if you need to hire one. Also the more products there are, the more bandwidth will be required and this can have cost implications. In addition, these products will need to be managed on an ongoing basis, for instance, if there’s a supplier price increase or a range is discontinued and so on.
The internet is a highly visual medium and the quality of your images will be extremely important. Unlike a ‘bricks-and-mortar’ store there is no touch or feel experience so you need to optimise the visual experience for your visitors. Using cheap, badly lit photos will give a very bad impression. Luckily, there are very affordable solutions. If your products are relatively small a Lightbox can be purchased very cheaply on eBay which can allow you to achieve very good images with a decent smartphone. You can even make your own home-made Lightbox and produce equally good results. Another option, if you sell generic products, is to use professional stock images which can be bought relatively cheaply on stock photography sites such as Big Stock or iStockphoto.
Search engines such as Google crawl the internet in search of unique content, and websites that deliver this can be rewarded with enhanced search rankings. Conversely, websites that duplicate content can see their rankings suffer. This is a particular challenge for online stores as there is often a lot of common terminology across product ranges. However, if you do want to increase your chances of being found then you need to invest time in creating some level of unique product information.
This takes ecommerce onto another level and is outside the scope of this article but it is something that must be considered for obvious reasons.
‘Bespoke’ or ‘Build Your Own Store’ Website
Bespoke means having a fully customised website made exactly to your requirements in terms of design and functionality. This can be an expensive option but may be required if brand identity is of sufficient importance to merit a build from the ground up.
A ‘Build your own store’ website can be an excellent alternative for a business trying to get a foothold in the online world. With a bit of technical know-how you can register your store, set up your products and upload your images and basically start selling.
In reality, it may not be that easy as you’ll need to familiarise yourself with the user interface and every one of these platforms will have their own quirks, but it is definitely doable if you’re willing to invest the time. In addition, the companies that offer these services generally have very good support and there are lots of online tutorials to help.
Generally, the difference with this type of solution is that you pay a hosting charge per month and you don’t have to outlay for an initial design as you choose from a range of sample templates so the cost in initial investment is very low. An added benefit of this option is that these stores come with many built-in features as standard such as analytics, sales reports, stock-out reports etc. and these features are constantly being enhanced and added to as companies compete with each other. Even the best bespoke designs will struggle to match this. Some of the main players this field are Big Commerce, Shopify and Volusion.
Delivery and Returns
With an online shop, unless you are selling digital products, you will have to physically deliver your product so this added cost needs to be factored in. Also, you need to consider which locations are going to be serviced. Will there be a flat delivery fee or will there be a different delivery charge per area? Should the charge be based on weight and/or size to reflect delivery companies rates? There are other issues to consider too. What arrangements will you put in place if a customer wants to return a product? You can’t ask them to bring it back to the shop! What happens if the order gets damaged in transit? Do you need insurance to cover this?
It goes without saying that any successful online shop will invariably need a complementary social media campaign to maximise awareness. Firstly, this requires resources and secondly, it requires someone with the necessary knowledge and skill to execute it successfully and actively “engage” with potential customers. Just posting links and “interesting articles” is not going to cut it. Successful social media activity will require investment in time and resources. Blogging is an another activity that is becoming very popular as websites try to satisfy the search engines appetite for interesting content which it can supply to internet users. This may be something that needs to be considered as part of your SEO strategy. Again, it’s just another potential element of ecommerce that may impact on resources.
Shop Maintenance and SEO
Do you, as a business owner, have the time to manage the administration of your online store on top of everything else you do? If not, then who is going to manage it? SEO, a subject in its own right, is a crucial activity which needs to be continually managed. It is time consuming, difficult, requires a good level of analytical skill and can be expensive if you need to subcontract out to a third-party. But there is no way around this. If you are to be found you simply have to optimise your site and you will need to continue to do so to stay ahead of the competition.
As you can see from above, there are many aspects to consider before entering the world of ecommerce. These issues, like any other business activity, have to be assessed and weighed up against available resources to give the best chance of success.