7 Things to Consider Before Starting an Ecommerce Store

7 Things to Consider Before Starting an Ecommerce Store

Embarking on an e-commerce venture is like strapping up for a real adventure. While you may argue that business is business everywhere, there are many aspects of an e-commerce business that make it unique and exciting simultaneously.

The platform on which an e-commerce business depends – the internet – is an ever changing landscape with constant surprises waiting for you round every corner.

Every other day something new ambushes the unsuspecting e-commerce entrepreneur – Google decides to change its search algorithms which affects your site’s rankings and visibility, Facebook decides to start charging for stuff that was free so far, email marketing rules become more stringent with Gmail and Yahoo cracking down on spammers and so on.

Then there are the surprises that come with running a retail business anywhere on the planet – inventory stock outs, shipping trouble and the like.

While it is practically impossible to be prepared for each and every aspect that may challenge your e-commerce venture, there definitely are certain risk-mitigating steps that you can factor in before you launch your digital dream.

1. Domain Name & Web Hosting

In the early days of e-commerce and SEO, it was considered a good idea to use broad category-specific domain names (exact match domains) to attract more visitors. But that practice is being debated and we now see a bigger influx of brand oriented domain names. Though it means you spend money in building your brand and then get traffic to your site, picking a brand specific domain name helps in brand recall and pays off better dividends in the long run.

Tony Hsieh of Zappos recounts a story about domain names in his book Delivering Happiness. In it he says, Zappos.com was originally supposed to be Shoesite.com. But Tony shot down that move and after much brainstorming, they ended up with Zappos.com, which is just as well, because today Zappos sells a whole load more than just shoes.

Opt for a .com domain name if you are based in the US or most other countries around the world. In some cases special domains work – if you are in the UK, a .co.uk name works better, in Germany .de is more popular than .com. But by and large, users have a tendency to append .com at the end of most domain names and this will help with getting you traffic.

Picking a domain name is like choosing a name for your house. But you’ll also need space on the internet to build your house – your hosting service. Pick a reputed hosting service for your website that will allow you to grow and spread as your business grows bigger over the years.

2. Web Platform, Store Design and UX

A web platform is the skeleton on which you will build your e-commerce store. The sequence is simple,

          Domain Name -> Hosted Web Space -> Web Platform

         House Name -> Plot of Real Estate -> Skeleton for the House

You can pick from 3 types of web platforms on which to build your site:

a. Open Source e-commerce platforms – You download the source code and build your store from scratch with the help of developers and designers. Useful if you are a developer yourself or are getting in a professional team of developers to build your site. This option is cheap in the long run and allows endless flexibility. The downsides are significant too. The complexity of setting up an open source site from scratch means high dependence on professional developers to build and maintain your site. The open source software needs endless patches and updates on a regular basis. There’s no real customer support team to turn to in case your site runs into trouble and so on. Examples: Magento, UberCart.

b. Hosted e-commerce platforms – Ready to roll out e-commerce sites that need minimal customization. You can develop your site yourself with drag and drop functionality, full hosted services, round the clock technical support, a range of plugins and apps to enhance site features and a monthly or annual fee in return for all these services. This is the quickest route to market, but is also often the most expensive in the long run. Costs add up quickly with each site feature you add, there is very little flexibility to the site design once you’ve zeroed in on a particular one, worst of all, as you grow in size and scale, your hosted platform will charge you higher fees for supporting your operations. Examples: Volusion, Shopify.

c. Hosted Shopping Carts – This option lets you add a shopping cart to an existing blog or plain website and integrates a checkout, payment and order management process into a basic non-e-commerce site. This can be set up even by rookies and does not affect the overall functions of what you offer. Example: ShopIntegrator.

The design and layout of your store will determine to a large extent how many visitors to your site will convert to paying customers. Spend time researching the best designs that you can consider, test the various design options you have with A/B tests and qualitative usability testing before your decide to freeze on any one design option to launch your site with.

Owen Fuller takes you through the intricacies of balancing great aesthetics with good conversion optimization techniques in this post. Christian Holst from Smashing Magazine explains the science of building navigation structures and product categories for easier findability and conversions in e-commerce set ups here.

3. Supplier relationships & Inventory management

No brick and mortar retail store can survive too long without managing their suppliers well. The same holds true for e-commerce stores as well. Invest time and effort in choosing good suppliers.

As a startup, your products quality will be a part of your marketing efforts. Don’t opt for cheap over good quality. Many startups look at Asia for bulk manufacturing. While this saves costs and is done by the biggest names in the business like Walmart and Apple, they typically tend to have superb supplier networks, dedicated teams to handle suppliers and a strong supplier management policy framework. Learn from the biggies in this area and tread carefully. Even big names like Mango, Gap and Benetton have had to face the heat when suppliers mess up big time.

An online store cannot pull down its shutters in the night while its owners are asleep. By definition e-commerce is 24 x 7 x 365. This makes inventory management supremely important.

4. Payment Processing & Gateway Partner Choice

When you decide to sell products online, the assumption is that you are going to accept online payments. Figure out what payment options you’d like to offer (duh, all!) and what you can afford to offer and strike a balance between payment gateway charges (to you) and payment convenience (to the customer) before you make your final call.

Your payment mechanism choice also defines your level of website security. When you venture into offering credit card or debit card payments, you will need to get a SSL security certificate for your site which will allow transactions to be carried out through a secured section of your website.

PayPal and similar third party payment processor will charge you 3.5% per transaction plus 30 cents per transactions as their processing fee. In the case of credit card companies, they will charge you 20 to 50 cents per transaction plus a fixed percentage of the total transaction amount. With PayPal, transaction security is taken care of by them, while with credit and debit card companies, the onus of transaction security is squarely on you.

These are typically issues faced by websites that are built on open source platforms or even hosted e-commerce platforms. A plug and play shopping cart like ShopIntegrator will take care of integrating your site with a payment gateway, include all necessary security features and offer you a host of payment options to boot.

This totally eliminates the need for you to build in an SSL certificate on your site, as the ShopIntegrator plugin already has SSL certificates built in. No payment data is captured on your site directly – the customer is taken to the payment gateway in order to capture their payment details, thus removing the risks and liabilities associated with handling sensitive customer data.

5. Shipping Costs & Processes

Shipping your goods to your customer is a process that is exclusive to e-commerce. Traditional retail seldom has to worry about this aspect of the sale.

Check out the various shipping companies in your country of operations and pick the one with the best combination of good reputation, low costs and great service.

Shipping costs are a huge determinant of final e-commerce conversions, with at least 61% of users are likely to cancel their entire purchase if they eventually find that free shipping is not offered.

You don’t always have to offer free shipping on everything – it can be for specific high margin items, for purchases above a certain minimum threshold amount and so on.

6. Set Up & Train Customer Service

Many brands (like the aforementioned Zappos) have built their reputation and success purely on the back of exceptional customer service. A happy customer spreads the word about good service she received from your brand and brings in more customers at zero cost to you. A study by Econsultancy, showed that 70% of customers trust recommendations from other users while just 14% trust advertising directly from the brand.

Invest in a good customer care team, train them well and set them up with good CRM software. You can take your pick from Salesforce, Zendesk or NetSuite and see your customers’ journey from the time they browsed your site for products to their purchase history to their profile information all in one place.

Offer 24 x 7 customer service through a toll free phone number which is the expected bare minimum today for e-commerce sites. Also look at options like Live Chat and social media customer care post launch and growth of your business.

7. Aggressive Launch Plan & Continued Marketing

You may have sent months or even years putting together every little aspect together to launch your e-commerce venture. But without a big bang launch followed by sustained marketing, your e-commerce venture could vanish without a whimper.

Spend time with your marketing team and agencies to develop a distinctive personality and voice for your brand. Research your target audience and understand what media platforms you can market to them effectively on – Internet? Mobile? Radio? Email? Social Media? A mix of all of these? Get the brew right and launch a sustained campaign on your chosen media platforms at least a minimum of a fortnight before your site actually launches.

Once you pull off a successful site launch, switch over to the detailed marketing strategies that you have developed in advance and continue to stay on top of mind for your target audience.

As a new age entrepreneur you have a million and one tools at your disposal to unleash your original business idea on netizens around the world. Capitalize on this fact, put in your time and efforts in a strategic manner and your chances of success multiply exponentially.

Building and running an e-commerce business is complex, exhilarating, and scary, but in the end immensely satisfying. All the best on your exciting adventure!

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Selling on Facebook: Grow online sales with a Facebook Store

Open a Facebook shop

How your business can benefit from a Facebook Shop

You may already be using Facebook as an integral part of your online marketing strategy –  helping drive traffic to your website and building customer relationships –  but have you thought about using it as an additional sales channel?

Creating a Facebook Store where you can  sell your products directly off your Facebook page makes sense – especially for small online businesses.  It can be cost-effective and offering as many options as possible is good for you customers and your sales. Not only does  a Facebook store provide you with an additional sales channel through which customers can purchase your goods, you are also reaching customers in an specific environment where they are engaged and interacting  – a Facebook store gives them the convenience of being able to buy there and then. And after all , shouldn’t customers be able to buy where they like?

The power of Facebook

Facebook is the world’s largest social network and you simply can’t ignore its power. Having a good Facebook page should be an essential part of any small businesses online presence. Facebook statistics are impressive and the numbers speak for themselves:

  • 1.23bn monthly active users
  • 757m users log onto Facebook daily
  • 556m access Facebook via their smartphone or tablet
  • 48% of users log on any given day
  • 48% of 18-34 year olds check Facebook when they wake up
  • The average time spent of Facebook per visit is 18 minutes
  • Facebook users grew by 22% between 2012 – 2013
  • 1 million links are shared every 20 minutes on Facebook

 

social media like imageBenefits of selling directly from Facebook

Right, we can see from the statistics that having a Facebook presence is important – Facebook is quite simply too big for your business to ignore. But why include a Facebook shop in the Facebook pages you already have? What additional benefits can a Facebook Store  bring to your online business? We’ve listed some of the key benefits below:

  • Increase your online sales through an additional sales channel. It’s all about making it as convenient as possible for your customers to make a purchase. The more sales channels you have available, the better chance you have of enabling customers to purchase in the way that most suits them – be that via a website, bricks and mortar store,  telephone, post or their favourite social network. The point being the more options you have the more likely you will find a channel to suit almost all your customers and potential customers.
  • Your customers are on Facebook. If your customers are on Facebook (and statistics would indicate there is a high likelihood that many probably are!) then it makes sense to offer them the opportunity to purchase your products or services there and then – on the platform they are currently on. Of course some customers will be quite happy or may even to prefer to click-through to your website however, you’ll want to be able to offer the opportunity for customers to purchase on Facebook should they so wish.
  • Improve your conversion rates . Converting even very interested customers into an actual sale is always a challenge. You need to make sure that their route to purchase is straightforward, and has as few distractions as possible. Adding a Facebook Store to your Facebook pages means a customer can directly and immediately purchase your product without having to click separately through to your website – meaning there is less chance of you losing them en-route.
  • Increase social sharing of your products. Having a Facebook Store means your customers can quickly and easily ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ their favourite  products with family and friends – a great way to grow new traffic.  And don’t forget, as the number of likes increase so to does the confidence new customers have in your product or service. So, when you’re choosing a Facebook Store App check that it is enabled with the Facebook ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ button.
  • Easy to get started. It isn’t difficult to set up a Facebook store with a Facebook App that is easy and quick to integrate – some can have you up and running in minutes. And, if you are new to selling online and haven’t got a website then a Facebook Store is a great place to started and test the water.

 

A few things to consider when choosing a Facebook Store App

  1. Easy integration: Make life as easy as possible for yourself and choose an app that is simple to use and  can get you up and running quickly and easily. With the right Facebook Store App there is no reason why you can’t be set up within minutes.
  2. Cost-effective: Setting up a Facebook Store shouldn’t cost you the earth, so look for a cost-effective solution.
  3. Centralised Store administration: If you are already selling online through your website then it makes sense that your products are managed from the same, centralised store administration. This way you will find you can manage orders and stock control easily across both sales platforms.
  4. Customise: Think about keeping your brand consistent by  customising your Facebook Store page to reflect your website shop.

 

Facebook store demonstration

ShopIntegrator Facebook Store Demonstration

Checkout ShopIntegrator’s Facebook Store demonstration and tutorial

Finally, to help you get a real feel for how a Facebook Store looks and works take a look at our  Facebook store demonstration on Facebook and to see just how easy it is to set up a Facebook Store, checkout our e-commerce video tutorial ‘How to add a free Facebook store page’.

 

We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this post, so please do leave a comment

‘Like’ image courtesy of tungphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 

 

Building an E-Commerce Startup: What You Need to Know

There was never a better time to start your own business than the present day. With the internet boom and all the various avenues it has brought with it, would be entrepreneurs are spoilt for choice.

It’s even better for retail entrepreneurs. No more shelling out big bucks for your retail store. No unnecessary expenses on utilities, rent and overheads. No need to employ large sales teams on the shop floor to assist shoppers. Last, but most importantly, no more being limited by the population of a locality to grow your business.

Amazon

With the birth of Amazon and eBay in 1994, e-commerce in the form we know it today was born. It has evolved to a nearly unrecognizable level from its humble beginnings, but the basic idea remains the same – get customers to visit your website, let them browse around for the things that interest them, allow them to make a purchase and pay for items that they finally settle upon; all online.

So if you have a bright idea for the next Amazon in the making, put on your listening ears. Here’s a step by step roadmap to launch a successful e-commerce startup.

1. Think Through Your Idea. Do concept testing.

The one thing that gives a startup a definite edge over competition is an innovative concept. While established businesses can afford to buy market share by spending huge money on marketing, a great idea often attracts attention by pure word of mouth and can be the USP of the business.

If you think you have hit upon such a game-changing idea, get more opinions on it. Test your idea with your target audience and see if they are equally gung-ho about it. Use survey tools like SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics to do your concept testing by yourself before you unleash your business idea on the world.

2. Figure Out Source of Funding

Before you can plunge headlong into building your business, figure out where the money for the venture is going to come from. Today, startups have a variety of choices when it comes to getting funding for their business.

Figure Out Source of Funding

  • Bank Loans: There’s always the tried and tested route of taking a bank loan to get started. The amounts are often not very large, but it’s a lot easier to obtain than a lot of other funding options.
  • Venture Capitalists: Approach venture capitalists or angel investors for seed funding for your e-commerce startup. Even Google started small with VC funds and grew into the internet behemoth it is today. You will need to come up with a clear business plan, an airtight revenue model, timelines for when your business will breakeven besides loads of enthusiasm to make a pitch to a potential VC and secure your funding.
  • Crowdfunding: Another option you should consider is crowdfunding. With this option, you present your business case to the public at large through a crowdfunding site and invite the public to contribute funds towards your business idea. In return the donors or investors get a share of equity in your business, a fixed return on their investment or even a special gift as a thank you for their donation. Pick from sites like Angels Den, Crowd Cube or Indiegogo to get your business idea off the ground.

3. Legal Eagle – Get Your Paperwork Done Correctly

There’s some level of paperwork involved while setting up any new business. An e-commerce venture is no different. While the intricacies of the legal requirements may vary from country to country, largely you will need to take care of these three priorities:

  • Copyright: Once you have established that your business idea is one worth pursuing, you need to take measures to prevent someone else from copying it and getting to market before you. If it is a never before seen product or service idea, copyright it to protect it from me-too copycats. This step however, is a matter of choice, not necessity.
  • Registration and Ownership Structure: Next you need to register the business as a legal entity and get your taxation details set up. Since you have figured out your funding sources already, spell out the ownership structure of your business (sole proprietorship, partnership, public limited company etc.) right at the beginning in order to prevent problems later on.
  • Domain name and Web Hosting: Every startup, especially and e-commerce startup needs a place on the web to host its website. Buy a domain name and get a web hosting service for your business from any of the hundreds of services out there. Take your pick from HostGator, GoDaddy or FatCow to build your website on. Make sure the domain name you buy is unique, relevant and is the same as or matches your brand name.

4. Pick A Good Platform To Build Your Site

Shop around, do your research, speak to existing e-commerce business owners and understand which platform will be best suited to build your e-commerce venture on. Spend some time and effort in this process, as the platform you build your website on, will decide how stable your website is, how fast you can process transactions, how versatile and multi-functional you can make your site and more.

Pick A Good Platform To Build Your Site

You have multiple options to pick from. There are the free to use, open source options like WordPress, Drupal or the e-commerce favorite – Magento, or you can choose to go with plug and play e-commerce platforms such as ShopIntegrator.

Your final choice depends upon how flexible you want your site to be, what your budgets are, and the extent of e-commerce functionality you’re looking to offer over the long run.

5. Use Conversion Optimization Principles For Your Website At The Design And Development Stage

A lot of e-commerce sites get into optimizing their conversions retroactively – after they see sales slumping or traffic bouncing off at alarming rates.

Avoid this situation altogether by building your site from the ground up using the best conversion optimization and SEO guidelines in the book. Some conversion optimization fundamentals that you must keep in mind at the time of developing your site are:

  • Good Copy: Invest in good writing and functional copy that engages readers while it communicates facts. Pay special attention to headlines. A great headline captures users’ attention and also tells search spiders exactly what the page is about to raise your page rank on SERPs.
  • Page Meta Data: Take care to include accurate and descriptive title tags, meta descriptions and alt tags on images for each page on your site. Each of these help search engines discover your site more easily and improve your page rankings
  • Clear Navigation and Site Structure: A clear breadcrumbs based navigation structure, intuitive categories and sub-categories and logical link architecture helps not just search engines but also allows users to find products on your site with ease. Better showcasing of products = better chance of a sale.
  • Call to Action: Every page out to have a clear call to action that stands out from the rest of the page. Use contrasting colors, arrows or ample white space around the CTA to make it jump out at the visitor.
  • Social sharing: Include social sharing icons alongside every product listed on your e-commerce site. People like to share interesting things they find online with their friends. Play into this need and get your pages to become more popular online
  • Quick and Easy Checkout Process: This is of prime importance for e-commerce sites. Make sure your customer does not get distracted by other interruptions on your site once they add items to their shopping carts. Create a simple, linear checkout flow with minimal steps to avoid shopping cart abandonment and improve conversions. Take a look at some of ShopIntegrator’s shopping cart and checkout options for inspiration.

Here’s a great guide to conversion optimization best practices for further reading at your leisure.

6. Keep Costs Low

As you start out on your journey towards a new business, it is important to keep your expenses under control. Technology now allows you to use free or low cost apps for doing stuff that large organizations employ teams of people to do.

Keep Costs Low

Some free / cheap apps that you can consider to get your everyday business done for free are:

  • Dropbox for Storing Data that can be accessed anywhere. You get 2 GB of free storage post which you can pick from one of their paid plans based on your storage needs.
  • Asana for Project Management and collaborating with your team on projects smoothly. They have a free option for teams under 15 members. For bigger teams you’ll have to go paid.
  • Free Conference Call for using Conference Services for absolutely free
  • MailChimp for Email Marketing offers a great free account that can be upgraded eventually as your email database grows bigger.
  • Natural HR is a free Human Resource Management tool that you can consider for recruiting, onboarding, training and payroll management.
  • Streak a free CRM tool that works from right inside your email inbox.
  • Shop Integrator is a complete Store Management & Shopping Cart solution with a free online retailing option where payments can be made by PayPal or offline checkout. The free version also supports 7 storefront languages and includes a tax manager.
  • Free Press Release allows you to submit press releases for free that get distributed to news sites, blogs, search engines and social media.

7. Hire Good Talent

A big mistake that a lot of entrepreneurs make is taking too much onto their plates and getting burnt out eventually. While it helps to have a business partner or involve your family in the business to keep costs down, it is not a long-term fix. Do what you are naturally good and delegate the rest.

Hire talented people who share your vision and can help take the startup forward.
Check out LinkedIn profiles of professionals who work for your competitors and reach out to them with interesting offers. That’s a free and effective way of hiring capable talent. Another free avenue is to tap into your college network for references of talented professionals whom you can approach.

Only once you have exhausted your free options and networks should you venture into paid recruiting platforms that cater to your particular industry. LinkedIn offers job posts by industry, so do leading career portals like Monster and CareerBuilder.

8. Manage Your Cash Flows

Managing money is often the Achilles Heel for many new startups. Multiple expenses are a given in a newly set up business. Besides capital expenses, there are running expenses like payroll, tax payments, utilities, business travel, business entertaining and more.

Keeping track of each expense often becomes too cumbersome and things quickly spiral out of control.

Manage Your Cash Flows

Stop spending from personal accounts, and open a dedicated bank account for your business. Get a corporate credit card that can be swiped for everyday business expenses. Invest in an accounting software that will link your bank account, credit cards and all expenses together and keep the paperwork sorted in one place. Apart from managing income and expenses, most expense management tools also take care of invoicing and payment receipts from clients, payroll and taxation as well as overall book-keeping for future records.

You can use a free app like Wave Accounting for this, or if you want to go bigger, you can upgrade to apps like Xero or QuickBooks.

In Closing

Setting up and running a business was never easy. But with technology on our side, we can now predict our performance and correct our course before it’s too late. Even when mistakes occur, it is easier to bounce back on an e-commerce platform than a real world retail set up.

So go ahead, take these fundamentals of building an e-commerce startup, add your own creative flair to them and create your dream enterprise to rival the e-commerce behemoths of the day.

(Image source: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)