So, you’ve set up your small business marketing site, established your social media presence, opened your brick and mortar store, and sales are doing okay so far.

Now what do you do? Depending on how often your customers interact with your website, the logical next step for many small business owners may be to explore the world of online selling. E-commerce is a fantastic way to increase your sales and reach new customers. Here are 8 fool-proof steps to help you create and maintain a killer online store.

Product Selection

The first step for most people looking to ‘get into’ e-commerce store is to clearly understand what you’ll be selling. This helps you to determine how to create the user browsing experience, how to lay out your products on the site, and even how to design the checkout process. Luckily for you, as an existing brick and mortar merchant, this step will be much easier. You can simply offer the same items that you carry in your physical store, or be a bit more strategic and carry just a variation of them online – based on customer demand and preferences.

Be sure to do your research and strategically determine this. One of the great things about online selling is that it’s possible to get a sense of interest from your potential customers before buying any inventory. Set up a page with a sample of the products you’d like to sell and then ask customers to register their interest by providing their email address. By asking people to submit an email, you are asking them to take a concrete action and getting a genuine sense of their interest in your products. What’s more, you will then have a way to contact them when you are ready to start selling.

Note: If you’d like to branch out and sell different products, make sure your online brand and product offering is consistent with your offline environment. Consumers respond well to brands that are seen to be authentic ‘from the feet up’. This means that if you have an italian restaurant, you’re more likely to establish a success online olive oil emporium than an online store offering imported leaf-blowers.

If you feel that your online store will create a demand that your suppliers may not be able to fulfill, then scale back and offer just a fraction of your product line. This point leads to the second part of step one: selecting your suppliers and fulfilling orders.

Supplier Selection and Order Fulfillment

If you already have a brick and mortar store, chances are you already have suppliers that you order from and have a consistent relationship with. We previously delved into strategies for getting the most out of your suppliers in a recent Counter Culture post, so be sure to check that out when deciding which suppliers to work with.

In the world of e-commerce, there is a whole new skill to learn in the art of managing what’s known as ‘fulfillment’. That’s the industry term for the process of actually servicing the orders you receive online. In general, there are really two options available to you in this regard. The first is to work with your existing inventory and take on the packaging and shipping of each order yourself. The second option is to get started with what’s known as ‘drop-shipping’, a process whereby you route your online order to a third-party who actually warehouses, packages, and ships the product in question.

As a brick and mortar retailer with existing supplier relationships, you may well want to start with managing your own inventory. This will often result in higher overall margins (you’re not paying the drop-shipper) but definitely involves more labor costs on your part.

Determine Your Target Customers

The best e-commerce websites are those that were clearly made with the end user in mind. Ever visit an online store and find yourself spending more time figuring out where everything is than actually browsing the items you’d like to buy? Make sure that your online store is not one of those. Knowing who your target customers are will help you understand their mindset and what they are looking for when they land on your site. Not only will it help you market the product better and present what they’re looking for, but it will help you create a flow and control the way that they browse your site.

Create A Budget

Like anything else involving your small business, you should definitely not ‘wing it’ when it comes to determining the costs associated with running an online store. You should carefully plan out everything from the monthly fees that are charged by whatever platform you decide on (see step 5), to site maintenance, to website consultants if you choose to go that route and have someone assist with the design and creation of the site. E-commerce can be a great additional revenue stream, but it also undoubtedly carries a lot of extra financial risk. Properly assess these costs and budget accordingly before committing to anything.

Choose Your Platform

You’re a small business owner not a web designer, so creating your small business marketing website or online store can seem a daunting task. Fortunately, you have the internet and a host of articles all over the web that outline the different types of e-commerce platforms and what they require. The three most common platform types are Enterprise, Open Source, and Hosted. As the name suggests, enterprise systems are generally suited for larger companies, as they’re more complex, feature-heavy, and as a result carry a heftier price tag. As a small business owner, you’ll most likely want to consider one of the other two. Here’s a simple breakdown of each:

  • Open Source: Open Source platforms are the most affordable – most are free. However, they require that you handle most of the back-end work and technical support on your own, so consider this to be the option for more advanced, tech-savvy users. Essentially, you will need to have some working knowledge of coding and web design to create a solid web store with this method. If you’re paying a consultant to build your site, then this may be a good option.
  • Hosted: Hosted platforms are the most common for small business owners, as they allow you to leave all of the major work to someone else. With a hosted platform, you pay a recurring monthly fee, but do not have to install software, pay for servers, etc. Essentially, this option provides you with great looking design templates to choose from and a super intuitive back-end interface for you to add your SKUs and product descriptions. With this option, you don’t have to spend much time creating and managing the site, nor do you have to hire a web designer. The one drawback with this platform type however, is that your site relies completely on the hosting company. If their servers go down at any point, then your store will not accessible. Considering the work and costs associated with the other options however, this is a small price to pay. The most popular platforms used by small business owners are Shopify, Magento, and Bigcommerce.

Set Up A Merchant Account To Collect Payments

Given the fact that the majority of purchases on online stores are made with credit cards, this one is a no-brainer. If you already have a brick-and-mortar store and are happy with the fees and service from your processing company, then simply link that to your e-commerce site. Hosted platforms will usually offer you the basic tools to set up and link a merchant account to your site. Choosing a merchant account is sometimes tricky, so if you’re not sure where to start, check out Lesson 8: Credit Card Processing in our Point of Sale University course.
Marketing
Now that your site is built and you’ve set up your merchant account, the next thing to do is find ways to drive customers to the online store.

  • Social: There are many ways to use this channel to push customers to your online store. Aside from simply listing the URL of your online store on your FaceBook, Twitter, and other social pages, experiment with different strategies. Post content consistently for your audience, and link to your web store from time to time. Use social buttons on anything that you post on your websites to encourage customers to share with their networks and drive more eyeballs back to your site. Try posting videos or interesting content specifically about your products.
  • Promotions: Present special offers and discounts from time to time to help bring back old customers and drive new visitors.
  • SEO: What good is having a website if no one discovers it? Too often do small business owners overlook the importance of SEO. Familiarize yourself with the basics of SEO and keyword search and help your business get found more often. There are many blog posts and articles out there that assist with this, but Moz is a great place to start.

Keep Going! Continuously Review and Improve

The last step in creating and maintaining a great online store is consistent review. Don’t run from data, get comfortable with it. From the start, keep track of your sales as well as various website stats such as the number of unique visitors, page views, and bounce rates. This will allow you to have a starting point to use as a benchmark as you move forward each month. Understanding where your customers are coming from will allow you to optimize and increase spend on your profitable channels and cut down on your less profitable ones. Running a successful E-commerce store takes patience, time and plenty of commitment. Be sure to set realistic objectives to work towards each month.

About the Author

Paul Nugent is a small business advocate, and Head of Marketing at ShopKeep point of sale’s UK headquarters. Paul uses his background in the startup space, along with his POS system expertise, to allow small business owners to make informed decisions within their specific budgets.