According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, close to one-third of all sales — around 33% — are driven by eCommerce websites. But as you probably know government agencies tend to run a year or two behind when publishing data and that information comes from 2018 numbers. A lot has happened since then.
While numbers marched on in a relatively predictable trajectory through to late 2019, the coronavirus swooped in to turn everything on its head.
People started shopping more online — with more people buying things they’d never purchased via eCommerce before. According to eConsultancy, North American chain retailers saw a year-over-year eCommerce sales increase of 80% in April 2020.
And those sales figures aren’t limited to large retailers — and most experts believe the explosive growth isn’t going to reverse itself after the pandemic. “It is likely to create permanent shifts in consumer behavior that retailers need to start preparing for,” reports the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It’s more important than ever for businesses to have an eCommerce store, even if you also sell in physical storefronts. One of the lessons learned from spring 2020 is that you can’t always rely on foot traffic, and balancing well between physical and digital can help you keep your business running even in uncertain times.
Let’s look at why you should invest in eCommerce today and how you can get started.
Should You Sell Your Products Online?
Selling your products online is great for business continuity because it creates redundancy. You have customers, even if they can’t or won’t come to your physical store. Here are three other reasons to set up an eCommerce shop.
1. People are spending money online.
Increasing numbers of people are spending money online, and they’re buying everything from household essentials and food to technology and recreational products. In March 2020, around 23% of adult Americans said they were digitally shopping for grocery items more, and eMarketer notes that “changes in consumer behavior will be lasting” even after the pandemic.
Ecommerce was rising before COVID-19, and people that weren’t managing their businesses remotely were on a path to struggle. The societal changes in 2020 have simply moved up that timeline.
2. An eCommerce website costs less than a storefront.
The good news is that eCommerce sites typically cost a lot less to run than a retail storefront. You need fewer people and less space to manage day-to-day customer service and sales. You’re also looking at less risk which can reduce the cost of overhead items, such as insurance.
3. Online shopping provides convenience.
Consumers don’t have to leave their homes to shop and buy the items they need, which means they can tick items off the to-do list much easier. And that matters a lot. According to the National Retail Foundation, a whopping 97% of consumers have stopped in the middle of a purchase because it wasn’t convenient enough.
9 Steps for Building an eCommerce Website
To connect with all those online shoppers in a way that’s convenient for them and cost-effective for your business, you have to build a quality eCommerce website.
Follow these nine steps to get started.
1. Purchase a domain name.
Your domain name is the virtual address at which your eCommerce store resides. A good domain name can help ensure people find you online and potentially contribute to the SEO power of your pages.
When choosing a domain name, stick to some best practices, including:
- Avoid creative spellings. People need to be able to remember your name and type it into a web browser. Creative spellings might be cute, but they could result in consumers landing on your competition’s page instead of yours.
- Avoid generic names. Simple doesn’t mean bland or generic. Choose a domain name that defines your brand or gives people a better idea of what you do.
- The shorter, the better. Shorter domains are easier to type, remember, and fit on marketing materials such as business cards.
2. Find a developer.
Yes, there are DIY website builders you can try to tackle on your own. But if you don’t have the time to devote to learning the ins and outs of troubleshooting all the issues that can arise, you’ll want to hire a professional developer.
Take the same time and effort in hiring a developer as you would when working with any other professional service provider, such as a lawyer or marketing agency. Get references from other eCommerce businesses, read reviews, and ask questions to help you understand whether a developer is the right fit for your business or not.
Those questions might include:
- What is their experience?
- Are their skills backed by education and credentials?
- What are their rates, and how much do they charge?
- How long will it take for the site to be complete, and what’s included in the service?
Most professional developers will provide you with different web hosting options, pricing, website features, and ongoing maintenance so that you can focus on running your business.
3. Get all the paperwork you need for a legitimate business.
Your eCommerce business might not exist in a traditional physical space, but it does have traditional obligations when it comes to taxes and legal requirements. Contact a local lawyer to assist in the creation of your eCommerce business or the eCommerce wing of your existing business.
For example, you need to understand:
- Whether you need a business or vendor license
- What legal issues might be relevant to shipping goods and marketing online
- How do you calculate, collect, and pay sales taxes
- What paperwork is required to accomplish these and other critical business functions
4. Find your perfect eCommerce website builder.
Obviously, it’s essential to choose an eCommerce website builder that meets your needs from the beginning. However, you should also spend some time planning for the future so you can partner up with a platform capable of supporting you as you grow.
Consider some of the top options below in your search for an eCommerce platform.
- Woocommerce is a market-leading eCommerce platform that helps you build an online store using WordPress. Woocommerce has extensive plugins and themes for users to choose from when creating their eCommerce site.
- BigCommerce is an open SaaS platform that provides existing design tools and the opportunity for flexible creation and integration. A focus on user-friendly simplicity over complexity makes it easy to launch and grow an eCommerce store on this platform
- Shopify is a platform popular with dropshippers and other eCommerce start-ups. You can use existing templates to launch fairly basic stores quickly, or hire a Shopify expert to add extra customization or marketing to your site.
- Magento is Adobe’s eCommerce platform. Magento integrates with the full suite of Adobe marketing and content management tools and supports a wide range of uses, though the learning curve is steep for non-developers.
5. Find a theme that matches your eCommerce website vision.
Whether you’re doing it all yourself or working with a developer, starting with a theme is a good idea. Most eCommerce website builders provide at least some themes, so you don’t have to build out or code functionality from scratch.
But don’t choose a design and leave the defaults as they are. Chances are hundreds or thousands of other brands are using the same themes, so you want to customize what you can to ensure you stand out from the crowd and that your site speaks to your brand.
Some things you can change include:
- Text sizes
- Color schemes
- Positioning of products on the page
- Features that visitors can use on your eCommerce site
- Whether social media is embedded and how
You can also increase functionality and convenience on your eCommerce site by embedding apps. Apps are typically found in the app market for the eCommerce platform you’re using; many are free, and you can buy others to differentiate your site even more by adding features that aren’t already built-in.
6. Add your products.
Once you have an eCommerce site built, you need something that people can buy. After all, that’s the entire point of the website! However, you must ensure you add products in ways that help your site perform well in search engines and make it easy for consumers to find what they need — remember that 97% of people will abandon your site if things become inconvenient.
Product descriptions serve two purposes. First, they should include keywords and relevant quality content that helps your page show up in search engines.
Second, they must help persuade consumers that this is the item they need. They should include feature-benefit copy that enables the person to imagine themselves using the product, but you do want to avoid:
- Complex jargon that makes it hard to understand the reason for purchasing your product.
- Clichés that can water down the impact of your description.
- Long sentences that make product descriptions hard to read, especially on mobile devices.
Pictures are worth a lot of words, and most people want to see what they’re buying before they make a final decision. Since people can’t see eCommerce products in person or touch them, you must go above and beyond in posting quality product images.
- Use high-quality images. Blurry, too-small, or poorly cropped images don’t let people get a clear picture of your product. Plus, they bring down the overall usability and professional look of your entire site.
- Make sure each image is the same size. Ensure that images are the same size so that you create a streamlined look that’s easy to browse. It’s disconcerting when you’re scrolling through products and one suddenly takes up the entire page, or it’s so small you can barely see it. It also slows people’s ability to scan your pages for what they need.
- Provide a 360-degree option. Whenever possible, offer 360-degree images that let people view the product from different angles. At the very least, post images that let people see the front and back of items, such as clothing or food items.
- Add product variation images. If you’re selling variable products, add images that help people choose the right one. Include pictures that demonstrate the difference between small and large or show the green, blue, or purpose options, for example.
- Add a zoom option. Integrate zoom features so people can get close-up views of certain features on the product.
Organize products so that they’re easy for people to find. Best practices are to divide products into overarching categories with options for filtering even further within each group.
Examples of common categorization methods include:
- Entertainment products can be categories by genre, such as horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and nonfiction.
- Toys can be categorized by play types, such as educational, outdoor, crafting, imaginative play, action figures, and dolls.
- Clothing may be categorized both by who is likely to wear it and by types, such as men’s, women’s, and children’s or pants, tops, accessories, outerwear, and shoes.
Add as much flexibility for consumers to drill down into product types without making your website cumbersome or too complex to use. Popular options for ranges and filters on category pages can include price, size, color, and materials. That lets customers hide items they can’t afford or don’t meet their personal preferences.
If you want to lead customers down a preferred shopping path, such as encouraging them to shop for certain brands or more expensive options, you can use featured products. These sit on top of each category page, so they’re the first thing a customer sees — featured items are the virtual equivalent of end cap displays in a physical store.
7. Set up payment methods.
Once people can find and choose your products, they need a way to buy and pay for them. The great thing about a quality eCommerce platform is that shopping cart functions are built-ins. But you do have to set up payment methods because those are based on your business preferences.
Two of the most popular ways to accept payments on your eCommerce store are:
- Payment gateway packages. A payment gateway is the virtual equivalent of a credit card machine in a physical store. It lets customers enter credit or debit card information to make a payment in a secured manner. Payment gateway packages include everything needed to place this functionality on your eCommerce site and receive payments. Typically, you can accept all payments supported by the gateway package, and you pay a fee to the package provider for that service.
- Credit card processing. You can also choose to use your own credit card merchant accounts for processing, but you do still need a secure way to get the credit card from the consumer into that process.
If you’re not sure which of these options is right for your eCommerce business, talk to customer service reps for your platform to get assistance. You can also speak to a merchant account and payment gateway customer service rep to find out what options are supported so you can make the best decision for you and your customers.
8. Sort out your shipping settings.
They saw your products, decided to buy, and entered their credit card details. Now you need to make sure you can get them the product in return. Here are some of the major questions you need to answer about shipping before you can launch your eCommerce site officially.
- What is your shipping origin address? Where are items coming from? This impacts how fast you can get them to customers, how much shipping will cost, and potentially some legal and tax considerations.
- What shipping zones do you want to ship to? Are you shipping domestic — only to locations in your nation, regionally — only within your state, or globally?
- What are the different shipping options? Will you ship only via regular postal service or offer ground and expedited shipping options so customers can choose flexible shipping times and budgets? You also need to decide whether you want to offer free shipping at a certain price point to ensure that you can cover those costs.
- Which shipping services can I use? Depending on what products you’re shipping, where they’re going, and the level of service you want, different shipping and fulfillment services may be an option.
9. Preview, test, and publish your online store.
You’re almost ready to open your eCommerce store for business. But before you start sending customers to your pages, test everything yourself.
- Does checkout work? Make a few purchases yourself to go through all the options and processes to ensure everything is working.
- Are the store’s functions working? If there are buttons and features, you should click on them and try them before customers do.
- Does the store work on mobile? Check your site on smartphones and tablets to ensure your responsive design is showing up cleanly and is easy to use.
- Test store on different browsers. Sites function differently in various browsers. Open your website in all the major browsers, including Chrome, Edge, Opera, Firefox, and Safari.
- Set up store settings. Make sure all the little details are handled, such as setting languages and time zones for your store and adding contact details and customer support options.
Yes, creating an eCommerce store takes a good bit of work. But with online sales growing at record levels and increasing numbers of consumers shopping online first, it’s work you can’t afford to skip. Use this guide to launch your eCommerce website, whether you’re starting a new business or trying to protect the future of your current retail store.