What to Know Before Starting an eCommerce Business
The internet is a glorious mix of information, fun, and you guessed it… products. With two-thirds of all American adults smartphone equipped (and that’s not including teenagers) , eCommerce (buying online) is quickly becoming the new American pastime.
Reading about a new technology, or a solution to any issue from gardening to sore feet? There’s probably a product to purchase just a click away.
How many of you have tried to pick something up at the local grocery, only to have it out of stock? Did you open up your Amazon app and have your much-needed product delivered to you?
And, how about that snazzy new product launch that turned a kid with an idea into a realization of the American Dream? He’s probably selling online…
With consumers becoming more and more comfortable shopping online, business owners are realizing the need to invest in an eCommerce solution but are finding themselves lost in a vast ocean of options including everything from building their own site, launching a “store” in Etsy, or leveraging a 3rd party hosted solution like Shopify. Which one is right for your business? Will it really be worth the effort to start an eCommerce business, and what does the ROI really look like?
This is the first article in a series that aims to help you answer those questions, and find the right eCommerce platform for your business. We’ll start with looking at what’s involved in selling online, then dive into reviews of specific eCommerce platforms to help you choose the best platform to sell your products.
Should I Sell Online?
Wait, what? I thought we were just diving into the options to get things going! We’ll get there in a moment, but let’s first make sure that your business is ready to say yes to the question, “Should I sell my products online?”
Before you can pick the perfect eCommerce platform, you need to know what your goals are for your store, understand the resources you will need in order to maintain the online store, and verify that the concept is a good fit for your business model.
Do your eCommerce homework — research the industry, before you sell online
Before we dive in and build a site selling super awesome widgets, let’s verify that people want your products! A good place to start is with your competitors. Are they successfully selling online? If not, it could be an indication of a market without an audience (and a clue for you not to invest in eCommerce) or a glorious opportunity for you to do it right and capture a market that your competitors are losing out on. For business owners with a new product and no direct competitors to snoop on, check out previous solutions for the problem your product solves. If those old not-so-good-compared-to-mine items are selling online, there’s probably a market for your product too.
Get Organized—eCommerce means more than just a shop
Let’s assume that there is a market for your product, and take a look at what an online store will require (just at a top-level for now) in order to be successful. Remember, you’re gearing up to increase your overall sales (i.e. make more money), reach a wider audience, be open for business 24/7, and connect with consumers who can purchase from a device that is ALWAYS attached to them. Ready? Let’s start with covering some basics:
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is providing free shipping. Thanks to Amazon Prime, consumers are coming to expect free shipping. But, that’s not the only shipping concern. What about…
- boxes, tape, and shipping labels
- a packing system to ensure your product is delivered in tack, well branded, and undamaged
- tracking systems, lost package insurance, and returns
If that got your head spinning, you might want to consider leveraging a fulfillment center (where someone else handles all the shipping of your products for you), or a drop ship relationship (where you buy products one at a time from a wholesaler who ships them directly to your customer when purchased).
How are you going to field custom inquiries for potential sales? With a business that’s open 24/7… FAQs, clear product descriptions, and possibly a sales hotline should be considered. And, don’t forget those who already purchased.
- How are you going to handle the consumer who purchased your product, didn’t read the product description and is unhappy with their purchase?
- How are you going to thank your valued customers, and encourage them to share, like, and send their friends to your shop?
We’re aiming to sell more, remember? So, do you have more to sell?
- Can you warehouse enough product to meet anticipated demand?
- Will your product expire if your full inventory doesn’t sell, and can that be financially supported?
- If your product is custom or handmade, do you have the resources to meet an increased demand?
- If you have a brick and mortar location, how will you integrate your online store with your internal POS?
Beyond the legality of shipping your product (for example, some products require ground shipping due to chemical hazards), eCommerce brings up many legal concerns:
- Data protection (including credit card information, usernames, and passwords)
- Consumer law and consumer rights (which are quite different in the EU and the US).
- Liability insurance
- Trademark and copyrights
- Product claims… and more
Website Resources and Upkeep
Once you decide that selling online is right for your business, you’ll need a website. Once you have a website, you’ll need to maintain it. We’ll dive into more specifics about each platform throughout this series but just keep in mind that the actual website is just one piece (albeit a big one) of an eCommerce business.
Here are some common questions, with often overlooked elements, to building an online store that we’ll be looking at in this series:
How much time will you have to dedicate to building an online store?
Creating a website involves planning, design, and development. The planning phase includes determining how many and what types of pages you will have; what types of content you need to generate traffic, answer questions, and communicate with your users; establishing what the user experience will be for both site visitors and site administrators, and creating plans for mobile needs such as leveraging responsive and adaptive technologies. For an eCommerce site, planning also includes determining what types of functionality you need for your products (variable product types like color and size, custom options like engraving) and how you will handle calculating shipping, payment processing, reviews, and customer Q & A.
The design phase applies your brand to the planned site. If you are starting a brand new company, this will also mean designing a logo and brand standards. At a minimum, it means determining appropriate colors to assist users navigating through the site, imagery standards, navigation styles, and typography choices.
The development phase will vary greatly based on your chosen platform. Some platforms are very limited (like Etsy) and there is no development—you just add your products, company details, design a banner, and go. Other’s allow complete customization with HTML, CSS, scripts, and extensions that require code knowledge to customize. And you could even build a completely custom solution from the ground up.
How expensive will an online store be—up front and then monthly?
Most people consider the upfront investment, but neglect to consider monthly or ongoing needs. If we just look at running the site (i.e. exclude marketing from the equation for a moment):
- A solution like Etsy can offer a low-cost solution for a hobbyist looking to explore selling a few products online, as they only charge a negligible item listing fee ($0.20 per item) and a percent of each sale (3.5%).
- Leveraging a hosted platform (like Shopify) can also be free to launch, but after a trial period, you will have everlasting monthly service fees, transaction fees, credit card fees, and any monthly fees for extended features.
- For self-hosted solutions (like WordPress with WooCommerce or Magento) you will have an initial development cost (ranging between $4-6,000 and up depending on the complexity of your products and needs). But, the only other must-have ongoing costs are site hosting and domain name registration, and software maintenance (i.e. updates and new functionality that you may wish to add). Site hosting can range from $50 for a quality small business site to $1,000+ per month for enterprise solutions. Domain name registration (something every site needs) is negligible at a few dollars per year.
What is there to keep in mind in terms of upkeep for an online store?
In addition to the initial set up (which will vary anywhere from a week to months depending on your strategy and platform), you also have to consider the time necessary to manage your site.
- Maintaining your software, addressing updates to your core platform, any extensions you utilize to retain compatibility with ever changing technologies and security protocols.
- Listing new products including taking pictures, writing descriptions, and configuring settings in your site admin
- Managing product inventory, restocking when new shipments arrive
- Marketing efforts (see below for an outline of various marketing elements)
- Customer service and reputation management
The specific amount of time will vary based on your business model for each item, and larger sites often have one or more full-time individuals, or an outside team of professionals, dedicated to each task. The point is, don’t expect your site to run by itself once it’s launched. As with any business, starting an online store requires ongoing upkeep.
Marketing your Startup eCommerce Store
“If you build it…” unfortunately, they won’t always come.
Are you positioned to find your audience in their online space, and convince them to click over to your products? The internet has changed our world (for better or worse) and for business owners, it means more marketing channels. To be competitive online, you have to be prepared to meet your audience where they are, and invest the time and budget to be seen:
- Aligning your brand across all branches of the business for online sales
- Search engine optimization
- Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising
- Social media marketing
- eMail marketing
- Content marketing and inbound processes
- Reputation management
So, should you sell your products online?
Starting an online store is a great way to expand (or start) a business, but only if you are prepared for the undertaking. Stepping into starting an eCommerce business lightly, or thinking the site will run itself once built, will be disastrous for your brand and could end up damaging your business beyond saving. The key to successfully launching an online store is to weigh all of your options first, and then ensuring you have the resources (funds, time, professional design and development, and marketing support) to fully support your endeavor.
If you are ready to start planning your online store and selling items online, be sure to subscribe to email updates and receive notification for each new part of this series. We’ll be reviewing the top leading platforms for eCommerce sites and helping you weigh your options to launch a successful online store.