The e-commerce movement has quite literally opened up a world of opportunities for retailers. Today, you can source and sell products to anyone, from anywhere, with just a few clicks. Without the overheads of a physical location, smaller brands can compete in a global marketplace that would have been off-limits just a few short years ago.
It’s certainly exciting, but like many businesses, you may still be still reluctant to dive into the world of e-commerce. Perhaps you’re not sure what to sell or how to make the move online, or you’re worried about the cost, or you don’t think you have the technical skills and know-how to create an e-commerce store yourself.
Thankfully, setting up an e-commerce store has never been easier or cheaper. In this guide, we’ll take you through the wide range of options for creating and hosting a great online store, covering everything from choosing a domain name to shipping your products to promoting your store.
Choosing your product
The first step is to choose your product. You may be taking an existing product online, or you may be starting from scratch and choosing a new product to sell. In either case, there are some key questions to ask first.
First and most importantly, is the product actually suitable for online commerce?
For example, high-ticket items might sell well in a physical store, where people can see the product for themselves and you can answer their questions in great detail. However, people might be more reluctant to hand over large amounts of money for something they haven’t seen in person.
Because online shoppers are essentially buying sight-unseen, many countries have protections in the form of a grace period to return unwanted products. Would your products be simple to return, or would they cause the customer and yourself a lot of inconvenience?
Is there enough demand for your product?
A great place to start evaluating demand for your product is Google Trends. Here, you can see how many people are searching for your product, or look for new product ideas in the top trending searches.
If search interest is high, that’s a good indication you have a viable product.
Next, visit sites like Amazon or other major retailers of products like yours and look at the reviews. Lots of positive reviews suggest a viable product, but even negative reviews can give you ideas. If the consensus is that it’s a good book but it’s not detailed enough, for example, you can capitalize on this by writing longer, more in-depth guides on the topic.
The last step is to plug some keywords related to your product into Google Keyword Planner. The planner will show you not only search volume, which indicates demand, but also competition, which brings us to the next question.
What is the competition like?
If the Google Keyword Planner suggests a high level of competition for terms related to your product, it’s going to be much harder to stand out online. That’s not to say you can’t make sales, but if you’re going up against major brands, then you need to be prepared to invest time and money in your marketing. If you can’t do that, then consider niching down or choosing a product with less competition.
Setting your price
To get an idea of an appropriate price range for your product, you can look at other brands in your industry, selling similar products to a similar audience. You also need to know the net cost per item, which includes acquiring the customer (i.e. marketing), creating or obtaining the product, storing it, packaging it, delivering it, and paying any required taxes.
The difference between the net cost and the sale price will be your profit margin. The higher your net cost, the higher the sale price you’ll need to set in order to make a profit. Of course you want to make a good profit, but it’s also important to consider whether your audience, market, and level of demand can support a higher sale price.
If your target audience has a low disposable income — think teenagers, for example — then you have to keep your sale price low. If you want to make a good profit, that means you need to keep net costs low, too. If you can’t, then you may need to go back to the drawing board and choose a cheaper product, or market your product to a more suitable audience.
Packaging, shipping, and delivering your products
The beauty of e-commerce is that you can sell your products all over the world. However, this comes with some challenges.
First, you need to decide where to sell your product. Different states, territories, and countries have their own rules on what can and can’t be shipped there and from where, so you need to be aware of restrictions to avoid falling foul of local laws.
Then there are logistical considerations. How expensive will it be to ship your product abroad? If your product is fragile or perishable, how will you ensure it reaches your customer in good condition after a long journey? And how will you handle returns?
You may be able to overcome these issues while maintaining a good profit margin, but if not, you may need to restrict your geographical area. You can also consider using a fulfilment service.
A fulfilment service will take direct delivery of your product from the supplier, store it for you, and then package and ship it to your customers as needed. If you ship a high volume of products and/or you don’t have the space to store merchandise, this is a perfect solution to save time and overheads.
Choose your fulfilment service carefully. If you expect to be moving a high volume of products, then it’s important to choose a service that can handle large-scale orders. And if your merchandise is fragile or expensive, be sure to discuss liability and insurance matters before signing a contract.
Choosing a domain name
You’ve established your product, pricing, and shipping logistics — it’s time to start selling! The next step is to buy a domain and set up your web hosting.
Your domain is your website address. You can buy a domain name from providers like GoDaddy, Name or Domain.com for as little as $10. Choose your name carefully and try to use your brand name if its available. Keep it as simple as possible and avoid using dashes or alternative spellings, as these make your address less memorable.
Hosting your website
Now you have a domain name for your e-commerce store, you’ll need to find a reliable host. You have two options — you can choose a hosted solution, like Shopify, or you can choose a self-hosted platform, like WordPress.
If you don’t have much web design knowledge, then a hosted solution offers an easy and affordable alternative to building your own site. All of the design and programming is done for you, so it’s simply a matter of choosing a theme and uploading your product information.
If you want to host your site on your own server, or if you want more freedom over the design and function of your e-commerce store, then a self-hosted solution may be better for you.
For an online store, you’ll need to choose a site that supports the PHP server language and MySQL databases. It’s also a good idea to choose unlimited bandwidth and storage. Hosting companies like BlueHost, HostGator and DreamHost offer these options for under $300 per year.
Hosted or self-hosted? WordPress or Magento? Download the free Definitive Guide to Choosing the Perfect E-Commerce Host now to find out.
Designing Your Online Store
Whether you choose a hosted or self-hosted solution, you should plan the design of your e-commerce store carefully. Your site should be:
- Easy to navigate and use.
- Laid out in a logical manner.
- Designed with your customers’ needs and preferences in mind.
- In line with your brand image.
There is certainly a lot to think about when designing your site, but you can still create a great user experience if you don’t have much web design experience. Check out How to Design a Beautiful, Functional E-Commerce Site for more.
Setting up online payments
It’s time to get paid! In order to accept customer payments, you’ll usually need a merchant account and a payment gateway account. There are alternatives available, but first let’s look at how this popular method works.
A merchant account is a specialist business account that allows you to collect payments from bank accounts or credit cards. For an online store, you’ll need a ‘Card Not Present’ (CNP) account to accept payments over the internet or by phone.
Payment gateway account
The payment gateway acts as the middle man between your customer’s payment method and your merchant account, authorizing the transaction and transferring the funds securely. Some merchant accounts provide payment gateways as part of their service, but you can also use a third-party provider.
While the majority of customers tend to pay via debit or credit card, some prefer alternative methods. The leading alternative by far is PayPal, but platforms like Stripe, Chargify and Braintree are also gaining in popularity.
These alternatives can also come in useful if you can’t obtain a merchant account, or the fees are too high. Either of these things can happen if you’re just starting your business, perhaps because you haven’t been trading long enough or you’re not yet exceeding a minimum transaction value.
Securing Your Website
Customers are handing over their sensitive financial information, so naturally they want to know that your site is secure and their data is safe. In fact, one poll found that 63% of customers have abandoned an online purchase because of security concerns.
You can put your customers’ minds at rest with Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) verification. When a customer visits your site, they’ll see a security symbol that tells them your store is legitimate and their data is protected.
This first involves embedding a small piece of code into your site, which scrambles your customer data so that it can’t be intercepted by hackers. Next, a certificate authority will verify your website’s authenticity by contacting you directly and checking credentials. It may take a few days, but the potential fallout from a data breach is well worth the effort to avoid.
Promoting Your Store
Your e-commerce site is up and running — congratulations! But how do you get customers through your virtual door? There are two methods of promotion — inbound marketing and outbound marketing.
Inbound marketing refers to the ways in which you attract traffic to you. The most effective inbound tactics are search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing and social media marketing.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO is the practice of optimizing your website so that it appears highly in search engine results based on key search terms. So if you’re a cosmetics retailer, you might optimize your site to be among the first results for searches like “best waterproof mascara”.
You can optimize your site in a number of ways, like threading your keywords strategically throughout your site’s copy. You can also build your credibility with search engines by encouraging other sites to link back to yours, a process called link building.
Content is a way of offering value to your audience, with the goal of building brand awareness, strengthening relationships, and eventually converting them to customers. It can include everything from informative blog posts and articles, to entertaining videos and podcasts, to educational e-books and research papers.
Social Media Marketing
Chances are your customers are using at least one social media platform, and you should be too! Social media allows you to connect with your target audience, promote your products, distribute your content, and direct traffic back to your e-commerce store, among many other benefits.
So how exactly do you use inbound marketing to promote your e-commerce site? Read How to Promote Your Store with Inbound Marketing for more.
Outbound marketing refers to the ways in which you reach out to your audience. There are many tactics, but for our purposes we’ll focus on the main two — paid advertising and email marketing.
Most search engines and social media platforms now offer some variation of paid advertising to drive traffic to your e-commerce store. In most cases, these are ‘pay-per-click’, or PPC, meaning that you only pay when somebody clicks on your advertisement.
Google offers AdWords, a service that lets you display an ad in the search results for specified keywords related to your product. Facebook and LinkedIn offer a similar service, allowing you to display ads based on targeted demographic information specific to your target audience. Social media platforms also offer sponsored posting options, where you can pay to have a post-style ad displayed in the news feeds of your target audience.
Retargeting, also known as remarketing, is a form of paid advertising that targets visitors who have left your site. A tracking cookie is embedded in your website code, attaching itself to visitors. Later on, this cookie signals to your ad providers to serve the visitor an ad for a product they browsed, with the goal of reminding them to return and make a purchase.
Email Marketing and Automation
You can use email marketing to target both existing and potential customers. After a purchase, for example, you can send an email requesting feedback, showing similar products they might like, or simply offering your thanks.
For potential customers, you can send out news, special offers and discounts to encourage them to buy. You can also set up shopping cart abandonment emails to entice people back if they don’t complete their purchase.
The best part? All of these emails can be fully automated, meaning you don’t have to lift a finger!
Want to know more about using outbound marketing to promote your e-commerce site? Read How to Promote Your Store With Outbound Marketing for more.