How to Start an E-Commerce Site
Take a moment to think about this phrase: start an e-commerce site. Seems like it could be the easiest thing in the world, doesn’t it? It’s just basically building a website, putting some products on it, adding a shopping cart function, and voilà! You’re in business! It’s nothing like it used to be where you had to:
- either build or rent a storefront.
- buy signage.
- warehouse, unpack, and display inventory.
- hire people to work in your store.
That took a lot of up-front investment of both time and money, and if the venture failed, the results could be disastrous.
Granted, starting and running an e-commerce site offers a much lower barrier to entry into the retail space, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t some important things to take into account—or that you’ll be turning a profit right away. Let’s assume you’re halfway to building your e-commerce site, and you’ve already decided what products to sell, and get right into starting your site.
Create a Business Plan
Yes, you have to. You’re not just starting a website; you’re starting a business, and any business started without a plan is destined to fail. Following a plan will ensure you’re hitting milestones, and growing the way you want to.
More importantly, if you plan to invite anyone to invest in your business, no one is going to hand over a dime to you without first seeing your business plan. They need to know they’re going to get a return on their investment, and the only way you can demonstrate that is with a solid business plan.
If you’ve never written one before, that’s OK. Thanks to the Internet, most things—just like starting an e-commerce site—are easier than ever. Check out sites such as RocketLawyer.com and Nolo.com for business plan templates and kits. The Small Business Adminstration also offers myriad resources for new business owners. If you’re still not comfortable with doing things yourself, you can hire a business consultant to help you.
Choose a Domain
The debates over whether domains should be branded or not are numerous, and warrant separate examination. The bottom line is, you must choose a domain name before you can begin building a site. Regardless of best practices for the actual name selection, one thing to keep in mind is a .com domain is going to be easier for most people to remember than a .net or .biz.
If the .com you want is taken, try to find something else before you resort to another domain extension that may not see as much traffic. Keep an open mind about your domain name. It doesn’t need to match your business name exactly as long as it’s memorable and can be branded well.
Choose a Web Host
You’re almost ready to build your e-commerce site, but begore you can do that, you need a chunk of Internet real estate where your site will reside. Selecting a Web host is easier than you think.
The best thing to do is find a few that offer e-commerce hosting, or easy shopping cart integration, then compare Web hosts based on those features, cost, service, and whatever other factors are important to you, read some reviews on each of them, and choose the one that comes out ahead.
One of the most important hosting decisions you can make for an e-commerce site is whether to purchase dedicated or managed hosting. Dedicated hosting will decrease the likelihood that your site will go down or run slowly due to reduced bandwidth, and will provide a higher level of security to your customers. This is especially important when customers are providing credit card numbers and other personal data to shop on your site.
Managed hosting will offer all of those features, plus you’ll have the peace of mind that should your site go down in the middle of the night or while you’re on vacation, your host will work to get it back up and running as quickly as possible with little to no intervention from you.
Finally, choose the host and the type of hosting that’s going to offer speed. How quickly your e-commerce site and your product pages load is vital to keeping customers interested, and completing sales. If a customer puts a product in their shopping cart, and then has to wait too long to be able to complete the transaction, it’s likely they’ll simply abandon the cart and move on to a site that allows them to get their shopping done more quickly.
Select a Shopping Cart
Just like hosts, shopping cart options abound. You may not realize it yet, but online shopping carts can do much more than simply carry out monetary transactions. A lot of shopping cart software can also do things such as:
- provide coupon codes (if you’re offering them).
- track shipping for customers.
- provide customers with shipping options and rates.
- send email notifcations to both you and your customers when purchases are made.
- and much, much, MUCH more.
Again, it’s a matter of narrowing it down to a few contenders, then picking the one you like best, or that seems to garner the most positive reviews. Don’t forget to make sure the shopping cart you want is compatible with the host you’ve selected.
Wireframe and Design Your Site
If you’re not familiar with the term, wireframing basically means mapping out what your site will contain and where things will be located. It’s more about functionality and usability than aesthetics, which is where design comes in. A wireframe will indicate things like where the navigation menu will be, where the search box will appear, how long each page is, what appears above and below the fold, how many and what pages your site will contain, etc. This will provide you with a plan to follow when you’re creating the content that will go on your site, and will indicate where the products you’ll sell on your e-commerce site will be found, and how they’ll be categorized and organized.
Whether you’re designing your e-commerce site yourself or having a designer do it for you, the wireframe will help in knowing which features should stand out, which can be less prominent, what colors to use, etc.
Now you’re about halfway to launching your site.
Part 2 – Launching Your e-Commerce Website
You’ve written a business plan, bought a memorable domain, got your Web hosting in place, and you’ve wireframed your e-commerce site.
You’re on your way to a profitable future—if you do it right. It may sound like an easy proposition, but building an e-commerce site isn’t like putting up a blog. You’re building a business around selling products to customers who will be trusting you with their money. One misstep can bring the entire venture tumbling down before it even really gets off the ground.
The best way to avoid disaster is to have a plan, and to put a good foundation in place before you start selling anything. You’ll be in a much better position to set yourself—and your e-commerce site—up for success.
Decide What Features to Include
Aside from the products you’ll be selling on your e-commerce site, what else do you think would be beneficial to your customers, and help you boost sales? A blog? Buying guides? Product comparison charts? Keep in mind that features like buying guides and comparison charts are pretty static, and wouldn’t need to be updated very often (depending on the produts you’re selling, of course), but a blog would require regular updates and maintenance to stay relevant, interesting, and valuable to both your customers and your site.
If you’re not interested in or able to keep up with a blog, it’s probably better not to include it. The only thing worse than not having a blog on your e-commerce site at all is having one that sits stagnant, making it look as though your site is never updated, and you don’t care about your business or your customers. Not having a blog will not negatively affect your sales as much as having an abandoned blog will.
If you want to have a blog, but you just don’t have the time or writing skills to maintain one, consider contracting a copywriter to produce content for you. Be careful whom you hire, though. Ten bucks for a blog post may seem like a steal, but you get what you pay for. Investing in quality content that is valuable to your customers and increases sales is always a good business decision, and worth the expense.
Create a Customer Service Mechanism
Any time you create a business that offers something in exchange for money, you’re creating a relationship with customers. Whether that relationship is beneficial to both parties lies, for the most part, in your hands. If customers have no way of reaching you when something goes wrong (and at some point, it will), this can breed mistrust, and cause you to lose both current and potential customers.
You must decide how customers will be able to get in touch with you when they have questions or problems with their orders. A simple contact form? A phone number? Live chat support? The costs for these options vary widely, as does the effectiveness. If you provide a contact form, will you monitor email to ensure customers receive responses in a timely manner? If you provide live chat support, will you be available 24/7, or pay a service to be available for you?
If you’re just starting out, consider going with the least expensive—yet still effective—option at first, and upgrading to better support as your business grows and your revenue increases. The bottom line is, regardless of the method you choose, make sure your customers feel taken care of. That’s what keeps them coming back.
Market Your Site
Once you’ve purchased a domain and hosting, you’ve designed and populated your site with products and good content, it’s time to open your doors to customers. But where are they? As you may discover without a bit of planning, customers don’t show up to buy simply because you built an e-commerce site. You need to get the word out.
A marketing plan should be part of your business plan. Will you make use of social media? Will you buy pay-per-click ads? What about traditional advertising on the radio or in the newspaper? Will content marketing work for you? These are all things to figure out before your launch.
Once your site does launch, and you have all your advertising and social accounts in place, it’s time to get the word out. Family and friends can always be counted on to help you spread the word, but don’t discount social media as an important marketing tool.
Just a few things you can do are:
- offer coupons exclusively to people who like your page on Facebook, or tweet using a certain hashtag you create
- search Twitter for mentions of your products, and respond to those tweets with links to your new e-commerce site
- reach out to bloggers in your vertical and ask them to review your products, or offer to guest post to get word out about your business
- pin photos of your products on Pinterest, with links back to your site
Social media marketing offers too many channels and opportunities to list here, so do a little homework to figure out how to make those networks work for you and your e-commerce site.
Maintain Your Site
Once your site is built, you’re gaining customers, and making sales, your job isn’t done. You must monitor your site to ensure it functions the way it should at all times. One of the worst things that can happen to an e-commerce site is first that it goes down in the middle of the night, and next, that customers begin complaining—loudly and publicly—that they can’t make the purchases they want to make. Head off that kind of disaster with site monitoring tools and services, such as managed hosting.
Also, be sure to keep your product pages up to date. If you’re selling your own products, it should be pretty easy to keep up with what’s available and what is discontinued. If you’re a reseller, though, you don’t want to upset customers by offering a product on your site that is no longer made by the manufacturer.
Resist the temptation to redesign or reorganize your site too often. E-commerce sites encounter a special challenge in building trust with customers. People are handing you their money; they want and need to be able to trust your site, and part of that trust comes from not encountering difficulties in navigation, and being able to find what they want when they want it. If you’re contstantly moving things around, customers will become frustrated and stop shopping with you.
Building an e-commerce site is, in itself, not that difficult, really. But it does take planning and good execution to work and grow into a long-term, successful and profitable venture. Never underestimate the power of quality and good customer service.
Last update: March 2015
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