Two entrepreneurs examine the site architecture for a mobile web page.

Boosting Sales Through E-commerce

Ecommerce was once a luxury for small businesses, but not anymore. According to IBM’s U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic has accelerated the shift away from physical stores to online shopping by roughly five years. That’s a giant leap, one that small businesses need to turn into a competitive advantage.

Online purchases will account for almost a quarter of all retail sales globally by 2023. By the end of 2020, global e-commerce sales will be over $4 trillion. The shift is not only fueled by stay-at-home orders and phased reopening mandates, but by subsequent changes in shopping patterns. Where online ordering used to be a value-add for many small businesses, it is fast becoming an expectation of customers.

Why you need to sell online

The numbers above don’t lie. But there are other reasons to sell online, including building lasting relationships with customers, expanding your customer base, even internationally, and leveling the playing field with larger competitors who may not have mastered their own online shopping platforms and strategies.

Online, even the smallest company can look big. You may have a very small footprint on main street in your community, but you can look huge online thanks to new technologies. Best of all, selling online isn’t terribly expensive to set up and costs even less to maintain. You’ll spend far more time optimizing keywords, marketing and fulfilling orders than managing the e-commerce portion of your website.

The secrets to success in online selling are pretty straightforward:

  1. Do your research first. Figure out who your customers are and how to reach them.
  2. Set a budget. Be sure to factor in all the costs related to adding e-commerce, from the platform and payment processing fees to marketing and fulfillment.
  3. Choose the right platform. Your e-commerce process should be simple for you to manage and easy for customers to use.
  4. Figure out fulfillment. This can be one of the most challenging aspects to master, filling orders once they come in, especially if you are a one or two-person operation.
  5. Determine your marketing strategy. Customers won’t magically show up at your new online store, even if they are current visitors to your brick and mortar. Many traditional methods will get them there, but you can add some new tricks to your toolbox to generate sales consistently.

 

1. Do your research first

Before you dive in head first, you’ll want to do some old fashioned research.

Start with your competition. If your competitors sell online, visit their storefronts. Assume the role of a potential customer and experience the sales cycle. Contact them with a question, see how their e-commerce module calculates shipping costs and what the promised delivery times are. When are these calculated during the checkout process, what payment options do they accept? What is their pricing strategy and how does it stack up to yours? You may want to order something from them to see how the order arrives and assess the packaging and labeling. Pay particular attention to where they came up short in fulfillment, such as poor packaging or late delivery. This will help you avoid making similar mistakes and improve your customer service and support.

Do a keyword search. Use Google to search for keywords you think your customers would use to find you. Don’t cheat by using your company name. Instead, think like a customer who may be searching for a product they know you carry, or better, a product they think you may carry. See what the search engine returns. Make a list of possible keywords before you start so you can do this in rapid-fire fashion. Then branch out with additional keywords and phrases. Study how the search returns differ with each search entered and who appears on the first page of search results with that particular keyword or search phrase. See where your competitor ranks with the different keywords. Are they above your listing or below?

Study the pros. Visit some of the major online retailers to see how they handle online sales and fulfillment. Note what sticks out to you. Is it easy to find products? How good is the store’s search engine when it comes to returning results that match what you were looking for? Do they offer other items you might like or make recommendations based on your selections? How easy is it to have a question answered? Do they have customer service staffed by real people, is it a bot (using artificial intelligence), or is it via email? How quickly are orders filled and what are the delivery options and timeframes? What is their return policy?

The point of this exercise is to study what others are doing so you can take advantage of lessons learned and tap into best practices. Mirror what other companies have done well, making your own improvements to their ideas where the technology allows. Don’t worry. You can always start simple and gain sophistication as you increase online sales and prove its effectiveness as a sales and revenue-generating strategy.

2. Set a budget

There are a lot of ways to create an online shopping experience. The general rule is you get what you pay for. That said, you also don’t need a solution that has more bells and whistles than you will ever use. In determining a budget, do some additional research. If you already have a website, then the addition of e-commerce shouldn’t run you more than $1,000 to $2,000, depending on how much of the work you want to do yourself (such as adding and setting up products). If you are starting from scratch with a website that will have e-commerce, expect to pay between $2,000 and $4,500.

You can also rent a solution. Places like Shopify, Wix and Square offer website templates with integrated e-commerce. In return for the convenience, these sites charge a monthly fee and a per-transaction fee attached to every sale. If you want to go this route, compare the monthly and per-transaction prices since they affect your profits. Also, know that once you build your site on one of these platforms, you are stuck there. You can move your domain name elsewhere (assuming you own the name, which is covered in our website tutorial), but your store stays behind and you’ll need to start over.

It’s best to own every aspect of your website if you can from the start. It may cost a little more upfront, but if you calculate the cost of leasing an online store vs. owning one, you’ll find that the cost of ownership over a period of five years is far less than a leased solution.

3. Choose the right platform

We covered this in our website tutorial, so we won’t go into it in too much depth.

WordPress runs about a third of the entire Internet these days. It has a vast development community and thousands of plugins that add functionality. Several excellent plugins will allow you to sell online, but WooCommerce is the dominant player. It has a lot of bells and whistles, allowing you to create a shopping environment that is sophisticated and affordable. It is easy to expand so that you won’t run into any dead ends. This allows you to start with a basic shopping environment that you can build onto over time as sales begin to flow in.

Again, do some research before you make a choice. If you are already working with a web designer, ask them for their recommendations. Even if you settle on the e-commerce platform, you will need some other things, including a server host and plan, a content management system (WordPress is an example) and a domain name. Our web tutorial covers all these bases for you.

No matter which platform you choose, you will need to factor in the cost of the payment gateway. When someone wants to use a credit card (and even some other payment methods), the payment request runs through what is known as a gateway. A gateway is a third-party provider who handles the financial transactions that shift your customers’ funds to you in a secure fashion. Every provider is different, so you want to do some research to compare pricing. Most charge a flat percent plus a per-transaction fee. These will affect your pricing and, ultimately, your profit margin. So shop around.

To ensure security, you will want to make sure your site has what is known as an SSL (Secure Socket Layer). This is a security encryption process that ensures things like credit cards and other sensitive information are encoded and shared securely. If you see the ‘s’ at the end of ‘http’ in a web address (https), that means the site is secured using an SSL.

If you’re reasonably savvy with web site design tools or a content management system, you can set up an online store yourself. After installing the plugin, a lot of it is point-and-click and fill in the blank. If you have other things on your plate, think about hiring a web designer or team to do the work for you. There are plenty of experts out there, including those found on sites like upwork.com and guru.com. A local firm is a good choice too, and there are plenty of good design firms in Washington.

4. Figure out fulfillment early on

Generating sales is the easy part of e-commerce; filling the orders can be more challenging. If you haven’t filled online orders before or have done a relatively small volume, experts advise that you figure out how you are going to process and fill orders before your online store goes live.

This includes having sufficient supplies on hand, such as packing peanuts, tape, labels, a scale, and customs forms (if shipping overseas). You’ll also need a way to print out postage or delivery service shipping labels. Of course, you’ll need a dedicated space to fill the day’s orders and a place to store merchandise. A garage or spare bedroom usually fills the fill nicely, at least in the beginning.

You’ll also want to create sections on your site that outline your return policy, store credits or refunds, and estimated delivery times, which would include the time it takes you to process the order, pack it and ship it out.

In an Amazon “One Click, Get It Next Day (or Same Day)” world, you want to manage customer expectations. You’re not Amazon, so orders may take longer to fill and ship, especially if you live in a rural part of Washington where you have to drive to town to drop off shipments.

You can, however, be Amazon. Nearly 60% of all products sold through Amazon are from third-party sellers – primarily small and medium-sized businesses. The company offers a couple of different levels of their Fulfillment by Amazon program with varying degrees of cost, either per product or as a fixed bulk fee. You can sell your products on Amazon or have a store of your own. Either way, Amazon will handle all the fulfillment details. All you have to do is set up your account with them, ship your products to one of their distribution centers when asked, and they handle the rest, including returns.

For businesses new to the idea of online sales, this can be a real godsend, especially if you’re operating out of your home or a small apartment. There’s no need to warehouse products or stock up on shipping supplies. On the downside, Amazon gets a cut of your profits in the form of the program fee. This doesn’t seem to bother too many business owners as 300,000 small businesses let Amazon handle all the fulfillment for them.

5. Determine your marketing strategy

No one hears a tree falling in the woods, except perhaps the lumberjack that chopped it down. You need to blow your own horn loudly and often to get people to notice you. Just like a brick and mortar shop on main street, you need to market your online store like crazy. Yes, a few people may happen upon you accidentally. But it takes a consistent, effective marketing strategy to drive traffic to your online store and additional strategies to get them coming back again and again.

Focus on content. Search engines love good content. You want your site to be sticky in terms of offering visitors more than just products to buy. As such, you need to provide value-added content to your site, not only for the search engines but for your customers, so they feel confident buying from you.

Content can be in the form of blogs talking about trends or new products, how-to videos for products you sell, and longer-form content that provides expertise or knowledge. Weave the keywords you identified in your research into these pieces of content. Don’t go crazy here. There are specific keyword frequency algorithms you need to adhere to. A plugin like Yoast will help guide you in sprinkling keywords strategically through your site give you feedback and recommendations for improving your rankings.

Content marketing is a long-term play and you’ll need to do some work to maximize its effectiveness. You need to use different keywords on different pages and in different posts. The sum of all these will affect your rankings in the search engines.

Use your social media wisely. Social media can be a useful tool in drawing prospects and customers to your website. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are reliable mediums for attracting customers to retail products and services, but not as effective in business-to-business sales. In those instances, LinkedIn is more useful. That’s not to say you should ignore the others. You want to find the sweet spot in the mix and that will require some experimentation. Just know that all social media isn’t the same, and you don’t want to be promoting your product in a space where no one is listening, let alone buying.

Instagram is an excellent way to showcase your product and demonstrate how it’s used. Pinterest offers you a way to create and share content that’s related to specific audiences and interests that will drive traffic back to your site. Twitter and Facebook are good places to build community and spread the word about your product or service. LinkedIn is focused on the business community. Think of it as Facebook for business owners and line staff.

Engage influencers to spread the word. Influencers are another way to get the word out. They have large audiences on social media channels, and their opinions carry a lot of weight with their followers. Some placements are paid, but others can be accomplished with a free sample of your product. To find the right influencer, you’ll need to spend some time on the selected social channel, such as Instagram or Twitter.

Leverage the power of SEO. Search engines are the primary way people find your business and products. To increase the chances a customer will find you, you need to refine your keywords and improve your website’s authority. You can increase your site’s authoritativeness through blog postings, videos and links to other sites that are instructional rather than purely sales-oriented. Google’s rankings are affected by how your site is perceived in terms of providing knowledge and expertise, not merchandise.

Email marketing. Email is an excellent tool for building awareness and connecting with your audience. Adding an opt-in form to your site is an excellent starting place for building an audience, so they can sign up to receive your mailings. If you are going to purchase a list (the equivalent of cold calling), make sure that what you send the list is pertinent and has an irresistible call to action, such as a sizeable discount on the first order, free shipping or a buy 1, get 1 offer. With a list, you get one brief chance to entice them, so make it count.

Make sure that your subject line and first lines of the body of the email are hard-hitting and compelling. You only have a moment to hit a home run and get them to read more and eventually click through on a link you provided.

Another strategy is to share expertise for free if you’re in a narrow category with a potentially broad audience. Use your emails to expand the recipient’s knowledge. As you do this over time, you will build a relationship because you’re seen as a thought leader, not just a product pusher.

Ultimately, marketing is not about a quick sale but a long-term relationship. When doing email campaigns, be sure to use a platform that allows you to monitor the performance of your mailings in terms of openings, click-throughs, etc.

Pay to play. Paid advertising is a time-honored tradition that people either love or hate. Either way, it can be a valuable and profitable strategy if you want to generate sales quickly. Pay-per-click (PPC) ads can be found on almost every website, on social media platforms and even at the top of Google search engine rankings.

PPC can get very expensive. The most obvious keywords that would point to your offerings are usually the most costly. When trying PPC as a strategy, set a realistic budget and monitor the account daily to see who is clicking on your ads and whether they are generating any sales. Also, you want to do what is known as A/B testing initially, trying out two or more different ads or keyword sets to see which ones get the most click-throughs. This will help you refine your marketing and messaging further, zeroing in on the offers that are most salient to your target audience.

 

Wrapping up

Offering customers the ability to order online and manage their relationship with you is no longer a luxury in the marketplace. The pandemic has changed the way people shop and interact with their favorite brands. If a prospect can’t easily place an order and get it delivered within a reasonable and predictable time, they are likely to buy from your competitor instead, even if they were a once-loyal customer.

Creating an online shopping experience is easier than ever, thanks to advances in technology and plug-and-play modules that add new capabilities to your website that require very little time or money.

Please don’t feel you need to become an expert in e-commerce. There are plenty of firms and freelancers out there who can help you create a fantastic online store, one that matches your aspirations and brand.

Nothing is more exciting than opening your mail in the morning and seeing a steady stream of order notifications that came in overnight. While your brick and mortar store may have closed at 6 p.m., your online store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowing you to build your business in ways you never imagined.