Getting Your Business Online: eCommerce
If you’ve been following this series of posts about getting your business online, you should by now have a good grasp of the reasons why your business should have a website, how to build a basic website, how you can go about developing content for it, and how to make sure that your website is found by people looking online for the goods and services that you sell.
In this post, I’m going to discuss turning your website into an online store – an extension of your physical bricks-and-mortar operation that just might win you a whole new set of customers and will certainly make it easier for your existing customers to do business with you.
What is eCommerce?
Even as much of the retail world moves away from talking about eCommerce as a separate thing — it’s all commerce, they correctly argue — it’s useful for this post to define eCommerce as business you transact across the web, from product search and selection through order placement and payment to fulfillment. Some companies exist entirely as eCommerce sites while others operate both online and in physical stores. Since this series of posts is addressing the requirements of small Canadian businesses like Celine’s Bakery, I’m going to deal with ecommerce as an adjunct to your physical operation.
Why add eCommerce to your site?
The web is a potent marketplace, and even small local businesses like a bakery can take advantage of it. Whether it’s allowing customers to place pre-orders or special orders online or selling your goods around the world through a web storefront, implementing eCommerce on your website can increase your revenue.
In the case of Celine’s Bakery, she could display her baked goods online and let customers submit orders — especially custom orders — via the internet. This would give Celine better control over her perishable inventory to ensure she’s never out of stock on something a customer wanted. And she’d be able to process custom orders during less busy times in her bakery or even after hours.
Hosted web store versus installed eCommerce software
There are lots of companies that will host your web store for you. This is probably the fastest and easiest way to get a store up and running, but you will be paying fees, possibly including commissions on sales you make, for as long as you subscribe to the hosted service, and switching providers down the road can be a hassle. Still, given that most hosted services have very simple and cost-effective entry-level options, this will most likely be your best bet. Most of the bigger service providers can grow with you, offering additional eCommerceand marketing services, even international delivery options, that you might need as your eCommerce success takes off.
In the alternative, you can purchase eCommerce software and install it on your own website. Besides the advantage of a one-time cost, most off-the-shelf applications will give you much more control over how your online store looks and operates. If you go this route, however, you will need to be considerably more technically capable or have someone who can help you with the technical details. And ecommerce software vendors frequently release new versions to fix security holes so you will need to stay on top of this.
This is one of the most essential tools you’ll need to manage your website. You will want to choose a web store application that makes it easy to create and later revise your product catalogue, including simple uploading and sizing of images. If you already have an electronic inventory system, some web store applications integrate with this, making the whole process of creating an online product catalogue rather seamless.
Images are very important in a web store since your customers can’t physically touch the products. Imagine how effective it would be for Celine to post great-looking pictures of her delicious baked goods, especially shots of some of her amazing custom cakes. You will need good-quality photography that accurately represents the product on offer. And, properly tagged, images are powerful for search engine optimization.
Celine would probably opt to have her web customers simply come into the bakery to pick up their orders, so she may not need to take payments online. Most other web stores, though, are going to need to be able to process payments. This is one of the trickier aspects of eCommerce, and you need to be careful about how you go about it. Even if you have a merchant account for in-store payments, you almost certainly will not be able to use it online because of the greater security and privacy concerns posed by Internet payments.
You can use a third-party payment service like PayPal. It’s very easy to implement and lets you avoid any worries about security or verifying the identity of your customers. But it can be an expensive option, adding its own costs on top of credit-card fees.
Most eCommerce applications integrate with a wide variety of payment gateways, and this may be the best way for you to proceed. You can choose to have the gateway handle all the details on its own secure server or you can do so on your own website. The former gives you less control over how the payment page looks but can instill greater confidence in your customers. The latter option gives you lots of control but that control comes with the considerable responsibility of securing your customers’ credit-card details.
There is no shortage of payment gateway options and each one has its own array of different fees so pay attention to what you’re going to incur whether that’s for the initial set-up, for ongoing monthly subscriptions, or for per-transaction charges.
Celine’s Bakery and many other local merchants that have web stores can either get their online customers to pick up their purchases in store or easily deliver them locally. If these aren’t options for you, you’ll need to provide delivery and either charge for it or absorb those costs. According to a relatively recent Comscore study, nearly half of all online purchases had some sort of “free shipping” offer. Meanwhile the same study reported that that 61 percent of consumers said they are “somewhat likely” to cancel their order if free shipping is not offered.
The large global courier companies all provide the ability to integrate shipping-rate calculators and order tracking directly into your website or your hosted store. If you are shipping beyond your province or country, you’ll also have to calculate different tax rates and, again, there are simple plug-ins for this.
The bottom line
I don’t know of any business that wouldn’t like to attract new customers and creating a web store that can reach people almost anywhere on the planet is a great way to do so. It’s not easy, however, so you may wish to take advantage of a bundled solution that is easy to use and includes a payment gateway, real-time tracking of purchases, and more.
How would your business footprint expand if you added a web store to your bricks-and-mortar operation? Have you already done so? Share your ideas and experiences with us in the comments.