For millions of consumers worldwide, online shopping has become routine, from purchasing the latest bestseller or the hottest designer fashions to furniture and furnishings. If you sell products and services to a wide audience, e-commerce is a low-cost way to expand your customer base and your brand by keeping your products in a 24/7 sales channel.
To get started you will need to set up a secure online store, install a payment processing system and a system to track customer feedback so you can manage your online reputation.
The first thing you need to decide is: Are you ready to sell online?
E-commerce is big business for retailers of every size, with a variety of products and services. In order to compete in this market, you must become a mail-order business willing to offer discount pricing and low-cost shipping along with fast and responsive service. If you’re prepared to make these adjustments, then it’s time to take the next steps.
Set up an e-store website where your customers can find your products and place orders. The site will consist of two parts: the consumer-facing store, with product pictures and descriptions, shopping cart, and payment and shipping options, and the back-end administrative dashboard, where you track sales, manage inventory, and set preferences for transactions and payments.
You may choose to set up a storefront on one of the large sites such as Amazon, eBay, or Etsy, but you won’t own your own store. You don’t control the user experience and have only limited control over visual branding.
If you want to set up your own Web store, you’ll need sufficient server space and e-commerce software or you can turn to existing e-commerce sites like Shopify or Volusion. These sites do not require you to have much design or technical expertise to get started and will walk you through step by step to create, manage, and market your online business.
“ In order to compete in this market, you must become a mail-order business willing to offer discount pricing and low-cost shipping along with fast and responsive service.”
- As you research your options, look for these capabilities:
Website building tools. Your Web store needs to look appealing and be easy to navigate. Look for products that offer professionally designed templates, which you can customize, along with built in search engine optimization tools to help your site get found.
- Administration features. Managing the back end of the store should be simple and include many automated functions. You’ll want to upload products in bulk, utilize live order tracking, and be accessible from your phone when necessary. Look for quality reporting tools with a range of features as well as a variety of payment and shipping options.
- Security. It goes without saying that keeping customer data secure is vitally important to building ongoing trust with your customers. See below for more on required security functions.
- Marketing tools to increase traffic. Many options offer marketing functions to help link customers to your store, including social media connectivity, coupons, daily deals, and loyalty programs.
- Support. If something goes wrong, you need to have help available. E-commerce software may offer email, telephone or live chat support. A comprehensive knowledgebase, FAQs, user guides and support forums are also helpful for troubleshooting small issues.
Payment processing is one of the most important aspects of an e-commerce site. It’s critical that your customers’ data be securely locked down while still flowing efficiently from your customer to the payment gateway to your bank. You have two major options: on-site and off-site and each has its pros and cons.
PayPal and Amazon Payments are two of the biggest off-site payment processors. Many small businesses choose to let a third party handle payment processing because it’s easy to setup and maintain security protocols and privacy liabilities. There is a huge trust factor in using these well-known processors to handle your customer transactions. Shoppers want to deal with companies they know and trust. Additionally, you don’t need a merchant account because you are not accepting payments directly.
The downsides to using an outside processor, however, are that your customers will leave your site to complete their purchase, with no guarantee they will come back to continue looking at your products and you have little or no control over the checkout experience, apart from some minimal branding with your logo on the checkout screen.
If you have a large e-commerce site and you expect to generate a high sales volume, you may want to set up your own on-site payment processing which keeps your customers on your site and provides an experience for your customers which you manage and control, including the ability to offer specials and add-ons to boost sales before final checkout.
However, all this control requires technological complexity, additional costs, and extra work. You’ll also need a merchant account, SSL certificate and PCI compliance, plus a payment gateway to provide the infrastructure and security necessary to ensure fast, secure and reliable credit card transactions.