Bringing your store into the digital world is becoming an increasingly important step in ensuring your company’s success. Customers often prefer the convenience of ordering their favorite goods online, and small businesses that can offer those goods thrive online with the expanded potential market. This process will look a little different for different types of businesses, but regardless of your business model, resources like Shopify are available to make any eCommerce business successful. The following step-by-step guide will give you what you need to create a successful online store. As well, to illustrate this process we’ll be looking at these steps, taken by a fellow entrepreneur, Jen.
Step 1: Finding your product
For many store owners, the product comes before the store. For others, the desire to have an online store and get into the eCommerce game comes before the idea for a product. If you’re in that second boat, it is important to take the time to consider what you want to sell, and who you are going to sell to. Taking the time to establish what you want your business to create and accomplish is an important prerequisite to setting up your eCommerce website, and will greatly benefit you as you do.
Find your niche
An online auto parts store has a lot of competition, especially from big brands. In contrast, an online auto parts store that has custom designed parts specifically for vintage collector vehicles has a much more specific market. Although your potential market is smaller, the lack of competition will increase your customer base and your chances of achieving brand recognition increase dramatically.
Research the market
It’s important to do your homework on the market. Research trends to see what products are more popular in one region than another, what products are season specific, and general product trends.
Meet Jen. Jen is an excellent baker, and has started learning how to bake treats for her puppy! She’s been very successful, and after following the advice of her (furry) friends, she’s decided to start an online shop to sell her pet friendly baked goods. In the following steps, we’re going to show you how she went about starting her online business.
Step 2: Establishing Logistics
There are many cogs and gears that keep a store running, and it is essential to understand each part. When considering your products, you need to evaluate what the production requires, what shipping and storage needs you have, and determine what expanding your operation will mean for you.
Create a budget
It’s important to create a business budget before you get in too deep. There are a lot of moving parts when starting a store, so it is important to have a good idea of what it is going to require. You need to consider the costs of:
- The product
- Shipping and handling
- eCommerce software
- Custom or professional design and photography
Some costs may be one time fees, and others will be ongoing. Give yourself some wiggle room, as there will always be unexpected costs. This step is especially important if you are just beginning or have little eCommerce experience, as there will be a lot of things you’ll need to learn.
Draft a business plan
Once you’ve researched the market, found your niche product, reviewed the costs and logistics, and created a budget, it’s time to put it all together in a business plan. In this plan you should have:
- A description of your business, including the product, company goals, and basic operations.
- Outline of the intended market and trend analysis.
- Budget and finance projections.
Having a business plan will be helpful to refer back to as you start your online site, and will be a helpful resource when seeking out investors in the future.
Jen has decided that an online store is the best option for her bakery, Pupbake. After researching the market, she’s seen a rise in popularity of pet friendly bakeries, but there aren’t many options online. After performing an audit over the costs of making her products, researching shipping costs and the realities of shipping perishable goods, and making a budget for her site’s expenses, she’s confident moving forward with her eCommerce store.
Step 3: Choosing your domain, hosting, and platform
Once you’ve established a clear business plan and are aware of the needs of an online store, the next step is to actually make your store digital. This step will help you identify the technical needs of your business.
Hosting refers to where the data of your site is located. Each website is connected to a physical server, and having a functioning server is crucial to the reliability of your website, so choosing hosting is an important decision. There are two basic options to consider when choosing how to host your site.
- You can host the site yourself. Self-hosting requires physical hardware, a server, and is not the best option for those without the tip-top tech skills.
- You can use a hosting service. There are many variations of this — you can go with a company that provides web hosting alone, like HostGator, or go with a platform that provides hosting in addition to other services like domains and eCommerce software companies. Some companies require you to exclusively use their services for your site, like Wix.com.
Doing it yourself, like many things, will save you money in the long run, but paying a hosting service will save you a lot of time, with the guarantee of a functioning site.
When choosing a platform, there are countless options. Among the most popular website builders are WordPress, Wix.com, Squarespace, and GoDaddy. These platforms make it easy to design a site, organize orders, payment, and shipping, and give professional quality to start-up sites. Shopify is a popular platform for easy, yet high-quality eCommerce solutions. It provides business owners with:
- It is important to choose a platform based off of the needs of your business. For example, if your business only deals with custom orders, the ease of adding products and managing product pages may not be a crucial feature. Research the pros and cons of several eCommerce platforms to find the best fit for you.
- Although eCommerce sites have great, basic functionality (e.g., automatic SSL certificates for security), many will require plugins or applications for further features like payments systems. These plugins and apps can give your site added features that will be extremely valuable to your customers’ experience. They can add extra costs to your budget, but they will pay off if they give your site the function it needs.
Once you’ve selected a platform and establish a hosting service, you’ll need to choose a domain. Your domain name is your URL and is crucial to attract customers and establish your brand. The best domains must be related to your product or brand, and be intuitive. It should be easy to spell, easy to type, and the shorter the better. You want it to be as easy as possible for your potential customers to get to you.
Jen isn’t as familiar with hosting and such, but she’s really good at making treats for good dogs, so she’s selected WordPress to use for her hosting, as well as her eCommerce platform for convenience. After the quick set-up, she’s got the domain ‘pupbake.com’, and she’s ready to start designing the site.
Step 4: Building your brand
One of the elements crucial to the success of your store in the eCommerce market is your brand. Having a recognizable and attractive store brand increases customer recognition and retention. Some of the ways you can build your brand are having a clean web design and logo and engaging in consistent customer interactions on your site and on social media. Incorporate your values and style as a business owner to give your brand heart and character.
The design and layout of your site is a representation of your brand. It is vital to take into account what features will be most important for your customers, and what functions are crucial for you as a store owner. Have a strong and distinguished logo that customers can recognize, and that is consistent with the feel and tone of the website.
The interactions you have with customers both on your site, and on social media, tell them a lot about the values of your company. Make sure that all of your communication is professional and consistent. All the content on your site should be written professionally and set the tone of your business.
When designing her brand, Jen has made sure her business name and site design is reflective of her business’s mission. For Pupbake, it is crucial that customers are able to easily submit custom orders. This requires easy to navigate product options and varieties. When Jen is building her site, she is going to make sure that her product variations are cleanly organized, so her customers can see all the different types of cakes she makes. As well, on the home page of her site, there will be a easily noticeable button reading ‘Custom Orders’, leading to a page where her customers can submit order requests.
Step 5: Managing site logistics
As we talked about earlier, there are a lot of little things to consider when running an online store like payment and shipping. Although they may not be as exciting as your product or your site design, these things can make or break a business, and if done poorly, will drive customers away. On the other hand, having these ducks in a row will leave you with happy and satisfied customers.
For any store, a functioning payment system is vital. For customers, an easy to use payment system is something that increases customer satisfaction immensely, and can even make or break a sale. Like hosting platforms, there are many tools that you can use to implement a payment system. Some of the most popular are PayPal, Stripe, and Braintree.
- There are many programs to give you an easy to manage the setup for receiving payment. The primary need for an online store is a system that accepts credit and debit cards. Payment gateways like Authorize.Net accept all major credit cards, giving your customers ultimate accessibility.
- It is also important to consider accepting other payment options to cater to alternatives to customers. Some customers may not have credit cards, but more common is customers who use digital wallets. The popularity of protected payment systems like PayPal and Amazon Pay is growing.
- An important consideration is the setup of tax configurations. This feature is often included in eCommerce platforms and software, or you can use a system like Avalara. Systems like these take care of the details, taking into account the location of your customers and applying the appropriate taxes on the order.
We’ve already talked about the importance of shipping. The need for quick and easy shipping is becoming an increasing demand for customers. Coordinating shipping can be intimidating, but many eCommerce platforms offer the ability to work directly with shipping providers. Having a smooth shipping system is vital to customer satisfaction.
- Your first step is to choose a shipping provider. In the United States, the three main options are USPS, FedEx, and UPS. You may consider using a combination of any or all of these carriers, or sticking to just one to streamline your shipping services. This choice, as well as many others, comes down to your time and costs, balanced with the needs of and options for the customers.
- Integrating shipping into your site may be apart of your site’s functions, like with 3dcart.com, or you may want to purchase a plugin to enhance your capabilities.
- Another option for shipping is using drop shipping services. Drop shipping is when the eCommerce store doesn’t store the products but instead buys the products from a third party, who then ships the product to the customer. Services like Magento provide order fulfillment services that ensure happy customers and provide you with shipping solutions.
Jen has decided to use Stripe and Paypal for online payments, as they easily integrate into her WordPress site and give her customers the options that they need. As well, Jen has decided to use FedEx for her shipping, and will use the FedEx Shipping plugin, which allows her to print her own labels through her site, making everything organized and efficient.
Step 6: Starting an ad campaign
Marketing is an important part of making a successful online store. Your market has to know about you before you can begin to make any sales, and a few advertisements can go a long way. Creating a marketing strategy can seem like a daunting task, but there are many tools you can use to take the weight off your shoulders.
Take a look at this fantastic collection of marketing resources by Outgrow (which includes links, guides, and more).
Here are a few of our suggestions and resources:
- Set a marketing budget: It is important to assess your business’s needs when it comes to advertising. Your business might garner a lot of word-of-mouth attraction or referrals, making the need for advertisements less important. Depending on your needs, set a firm budget that will allow you to spread the word.
- Identify what type of marketing you need: There are a lot of different ways to market your business online, like search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising, social media, and email marketing, commercials on digital media, and the list goes on. With an established budget, research which style best fits your means, your brand, and your market.
- Google Ads and Analytics are great resources for putting together an easy marketing campaign. Analytics helps you understand customer habits better, enabling you to tailor your site to your market. You can see if customers are coming from clicks on an advertisement or from a Google search. Google AdWords helps you use this information by letting you select where you want your advertisements on the internet, and setting a budget. They do a lot of the heavy lifting with determining pay-per-click pricing and search rankings, giving you the best chance of appearing for potential customers.
Jen used Google AdWords to set a budget, and get a boost in Google searches. She also set up a Facebook page and Instagram account (which are super free!) to start generating content and connect with potential clients.
Navigating the eCommerce industry can be intimidating, and starting an online store can be risky and challenging. That being said, customers are more engaged than ever in online retail, and an online presence can connect you with people who want to support your business. As well, there is an increasing amount of resources to use for questions about starting an online store, so there is always somewhere you can turn for help. Having your own business requires a lot of effort, but gives you a lot of freedom and power. Put in the work, and you’ll reap the rewards. Happy selling!