Creating an online store is an exciting step forward for any business. It can sound like a daunting task. According to the State of Small Business in America Report, "only 25% of small businesses said they have websites with ecommerce functionality – in fact, 58% earn less than 10% of their sales from online purchases."
The good news is that a ton of tools exist to help you create an ecommerce site without major technical skill. If you do have luxury of a strong software platform, an experienced design and development team, and a little bit of elbow grease, it can revolutionize your business. With so many different shopping cart software and web professionals to choose from, often the most difficult tasks relate to selecting the right software and vendors to help you meet your E-commerce needs and goals.
Whether you’re starting the project yourself or going through a development team, we’ve laid out some of the most important steps for starting an E-commerce website for you.
Define your Scope
Determining your basic needs and wants is the first step in the process. It’s always a good idea to look at websites selling similar products to see what features and pages they have, and document what you’re hoping to achieve. It’s important to keep in mind that, like everything in life, the more you want, the longer it will take to build, and the more it’s going to cost.
While it’s good to look at sites like Amazon as the gold standard, it doesn’t mean that you’re ready to invest the resources that they have into your website. It’s also important to recognize that you can keep adding and building to your site after it launches, so you don’t need to try to fit in the kitchen sink into your initial scope. With that in mind, it’s good to break your scope up into sections:
- What you want for launch, allowing you to focus on getting up and running more quickly,
- What you want to focus on adding post-launch, and
- What you plan to keep on your long-term wish-list as your online business grows.
Purchase a Domain Name
Your URL, most often a “.com”, is important to reserve early on in the process. Much like registering a corporation, domain names are on a first come, first served basis.
You’ll want to make sure that you get yours registered before you begin setting up your website, or you may find that the domain you wanted isn’t available, and you have to go back and make changes to the setup of your site.
Choose an E-commerce Platform
Your E-commerce platform is the backbone of your online store. It should be able to manage your online product catalog, online sales, and basic webpages like About Us and Contact Us.
It’s important to identify if the platform you’re looking at will meet your short-term and long-term goals. While you can always upgrade and grow, there’s time and expense associated with this (much like moving a physical store), so it’s best to make an educated decision.
Hosted E-commerce Platforms
A hosted E-commerce platform is an all-in-one solution. It is hosted on a server that you don’t have access to, and provides specific features and design template options. Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion and 3dCart are all examples of such systems.These types of systems are considered to be user-friendly, and don’t require very much technical knowledge to use, making them ideal for home-based businesses that want to get their feet wet in the E-commerce world.
The downside is that you generally don’t have direct access to the databases that are housing your data, or access to edit the source code of the website. You’re simply renting your store. Your ability to customize to meet your particular short term and long term needs and wants is more limited.
Open-Source, Self-Hosted E-commerce Platforms
For larger businesses, or smaller business with anticipated growth, the best route is often an open-source, self-hosted solution like Magento. In other words, a software platform that you’re able to edit and adjust to meet your particular needs. This requires more knowledge of coding, but luckily there are many great web design firms available to help.
Since software like Magento is open-source, there are also more plugins (add-ons created by different developers all over the world) available for nominal fees to help add features and functionality relatively quickly and easily. This allows for more cost effective long term growth and success.
Proprietary, Self-Hosted E-commerce Platforms
These are a conglomeration between hosted, and open-source self-hosted systems. You own and host your site, and have access to the databases, but don’t have full access to edit the source code. Likely there is “hard coding” that only the software developers would be in a position to adjust.
Self-Hosted E-commerce Plugins
An intermediary route that some small businesses and startups choose to take is to use a software like WordPress, which acts as a great Content Management System (CMS) and add an E-commerce plugin like WooCommerce, allowing you to have a more custom site with a bit less effort than using Magento. This is also a self-hosted solution using open-source software, but isn’t quite as robust and won’t have as many plugins and add-ons available.
The latter three options require a web hosting provider for the self-hosted platform to work off of. That is when you must decide on a reliable web host.
Select a Web Host
Your web host will provide computer (server) space that’s accessible to the public to view your website 24/7. In some cases, they will also host your business e-mails – the e-mails @ your domain. There are many ways to evaluate potential hosting providers. Here are a few that we recommend looking at:
- Technical Support Methodology – Is support provided by phone, e-mail, live chat, ticket system?
- Uptime Guarantees – This relates to the likelihood of your website going down.
- E-commerce Specialization – Are they prepared to help make sure that your hosting account is PCI compliant, helping to ensure that you’re not at risk of credit card data breaches? Do they specialize in the e-commerce platform that you’ll be using?
- Control Panel – Will they give you a user-friendly control panel to manage your hosting account? Depending on the control panel software, this portal can provide you with hosting statistics, allow you to setup e-mail accounts, and address other basic tasks.
- Scalability – Do they have the ability to support you with Dedicated and/or Cloud Hosting solutions as your website grows and needs more resources to keep operating efficiently?
- Management – Unmanaged hosting means that you’re in the driver’s seat. Most new e-commerce website owners would greatly prefer to have this managed by their host.
Keep in mind that if you’re having your website built by a professional web design team, they may offer to act as your host during the website build, saving you this expense for a while.
Design your Website
Most website platforms offer the ability to start designing with templates. However, while pre-canned designs can offer great savings, give some thought to how much customization you’ll need to fit your branding (and any branding, such as a custom logo design that you may need in general).
For self-hosted solutions, web designs are most often created in Photoshop, and then either made into your own custom template, or integrated with an existing template. With hosted solutions, typically you’ll pick from the available templates, and then swap in banners and other collateral. In many cases, knowledge of HTML and CSS will be needed if you want a professional looking website that ties together your branding and other design elements effectively.
Manage your Store
At the core of any E-commerce project is a need for your store to function as needed. If it’s pretty, but can’t service your customers the way you need it to, you won’t see the results you’re hoping for.
You’ll need to enter categories, products and a wealth of other data to successfully build your catalog, and create an effective store. You may also benefit from tweaks to various features, such as your site search, the feature that helps shoppers find products within your website, or search filters, the options that appear in category and search results pages within your site that help customers whittle down the results by attributes like size, color, material and brand.
Shopping Cart Features
Your online store can have many potential solutions to help customers checkout. You’ll need to decide which shipping carrier(s) to use and whether you want national or international shipping. This can include choosing which levels of service (such as Overnight, 2-day and Ground) to offer, and options for free shipping.
In addition, you’ll determine where you need to charge sales tax, and make sure the site is setup correctly to do so. There are systems like Avalara that can manage this for you. You’ll also need to setup payment methods, such as to accept credit card payments. While you may choose a traditional gateway like Authorize.net, consider alternative additions, like PayPal and Amazon Payments, which will give shoppers a trusted choice to checkout with.
Test your Site
When setup is complete, it is now time to review the buying experience on your site. Purchase an item to get familiar with the shopping cart, checkout and confirmation process. On the internal side, learn how you will be notified when orders are made, how to fulfill or ship orders, and how funds are transferred to your business bank account.
Have a Marketing Plan
When building an E-commerce website, it’s very important to plan how you’ll help potential shoppers arrive at your doorstep. Some businesses have existing clients who will be interested in their new E-commerce sales channel. In most cases, a healthy mix of internet marketing methods is essential. This includes promoting your website in a variety of search engines and social media platforms.
Search engine marketing comes in two major types:
- Paid ads through platforms like Google AdWords
- Natural/organic listings search engine rankings
To come up toward the top of the organic “free” listings, you need search engines to determine that your website is more important than other sites for particular targeted keyword phrases. This can take time and effort, but can be an extremely effective long-term strategy.
Choose an Agency with E-commerce Experience
If your budget allows, call in the cavalry. Much like other service industry professionals like doctors, accountants, mechanics, and general contractors, agencies can have different specialties, and are there to provide you with services to meet your specific needs. As opposed to hiring a part-time or full-time employee, you benefit from hiring a group that has a range of staff available to assist you.
A good agency will have the knowledge and experience to help you choose the best E-commerce platform and hosting provider to fit your business’ needs. They can even help assess additional areas that may be crucial to your business – such as connecting your new e-commerce website with your ERP, POS, Accounting, or other software to make managing your inventory and prices across different platforms seamless, and to allow you to fulfill orders in one software platform.
Additionally, while you may opt to do some or all of your marketing on your own, it’s always a great idea to find the right firm that also specializes in internet marketing for E-commerce websites. Even if you don’t hire them to provide services in full, they can act as consultants to make sure your efforts are on target.