These days, savvy business owners know they have to be online or risk being elbowed out of their markets altogether. An online store is an essential channel for generating sales – and an equally important method for brand and awareness building that has helped countless small businesses punch well above their weight.
Entrepreneurs with successful online operations generally look back on their early days online and shudder at how much they didn’t know – but, as with any business activity, you learn more along the way.
Winston Jeffrey, who operates the Urban Flower shop in Concord, in Sydney’s inner west, has been selling online for ten years – but it’s only in the last 18 months that he has found an online store that he’s happy with.
His first attempt, which saw him paying a web developer $4,500 to put together a custom site, proved to be slow, unresponsive, and frustrating for customers. “It didn’t do the job at all, and caused a lot of issues and difficulties for us,” Jeffrey recalls. “We invested a fair bit of money in it, and wanted to start marketing the website and driving customers to it – but we were getting so many complaints and negative feedback that we weren’t keen to try and push traffic to it.”
Instead, Jeffrey backed away from online selling for nearly two years, subsequently enlisting an independent web developer to build a site from the ground up based on what seemed like an impressive portfolio of work. That site worked better but was difficult to use – which kept Jeffrey on the lookout for a better solution.
He finally found it in the form of Flower Store In A Box (FSIAB), a pre-packaged online store designed specifically for florists by Sydney Web development firm Inflection. Compared with the earlier custom-built efforts, FSIAB has proved both easy to use and user-friendly for its customers.
The site is now not only supporting a thriving online-ordering business for Urban Flower but has paved the way for Jeffrey to offer a companion mobile-optimized shopping site and a planned smartphone app for his business.
That’s not bad for a florist who, by his own confession, knows very little about web publishing, can’t code his own websites and has far more important things to think about.
Thankfully for small-business owners taking the online plunge now, the process of building an online store is easier than ever before. It’s no longer necessary to drop thousands of dollars to get a web developer to custom-write an entire site for you.
Pre-packaged solutions from the likes of Inflection, Ashop Commerce, Volusion, Big Commerce, Shopify, and others, will let you set up a store with little more than entering your product details, designing your look and feel, adding your logo, and starting your marketing.
That said, there are many choices that must be made before you set up your virtual awning. Choosing a name, for example, is crucial: you’ll need a name that reflects your business – and a corresponding web domain name that’s available.
That rules out most generic names like horses.com.au, fashion.com.au, and the like, which were sold long ago. Be aware of potential branding confusion: you don’t want customers ending up at a competitor’s website because your site’s name is too similar. When you register your domain name, you can look up potential options to see what’s available. Consider getting a name that’s also available with a global .com ending.
Most domain registrars offer website hosting, which means they’ll store and back up the files that make up your online store, then serve up the site to your customers as they visit. Although it’s possible to host your own site, few companies do this: all it takes is a really busy day and your systems will come crashing to their knees. Make sure your hosting provider secures and backs up your data; entire businesses have disappeared in a millisecond thanks to inadequate protection being set up by hosting providers.
One major consideration is whether to get a professional web developer to build a site for you. This is typically an expensive and often frustrating process, but one that technically savvy business owners sometimes prefer because it gives them a high level of control over every aspect of the store. However, results vary: custom solutions are expensive – and you risk disappointment if your web developer leaves the industry or just turns out to be less proficient than you thought.
“My site was set up by a web developer using a free e-commerce platform,” says Kathy Hunter, whose online lingerie store MatildaJane.com.au has been running for over two years. “I paid a fee to have the program customized to my needs, and it took about three months’ work. I have now shifted to another developer who also hosts my site; this type of platform takes up a lot of memory so I can’t use any cheap hosted site because the online store will run too slowly.”
For simplicity’s sake, many small businesses are opting for a ‘cloud’ solution, in which a third party handles every part of your online store; all you have to do is maintain your product catalog and manage the look and feel of the site.
Most platforms will allow you a degree of customization, with control over elements like images, colors, and layout of elements. You may not be able to tweak such a site within an inch of its proverbial life as with an online store that you have someone build for you – but you probably don’t need to, anyway.
“If I was to start again, I would probably use a shopping cart platform rather than a full e-commerce platform,” says Hunter. “While there are limits to these, they are much cheaper to run, allow the option of using your own domain name, and can be self-established and maintained without any programming knowledge.”
Choosing a third-party provider also makes it easy to get a full-fledged site up and running, since such solutions typically let your store piggyback on their online merchant agreements. Accepting online payments was once complicated, but any hosting or cloud provider worth its salt has links with major bank gateways and independent offerings from the likes of eWay, SecurePay, or Payment Express.
Consider whether you’d also like to offer direct debit or PayPal, which has become a favored online payment method because of its broad support and anti-fraud measures. Not everybody uses PayPal, but it’s popular with many customers around the globe because it is easy to use, and can be easily integrated to facilitate payments from mobile-wielding customers.
Another crucial thing to consider is analytics. Platforms like Google Analytics (analytics.google.com) provide extensive information about who is coming to your site, where they’re accessing from, and at what time of day. This can be invaluable in measuring your results and tweaking your site design and marketing strategy.
A less structured, but often more valuable, source of information is too frequent consumer review sites like epinions.com or, depending on your industry, niche sites like TripAdvisor.com or UrbanSpoon.com; these sites collect often-scathing reviews from customers but also provide opportunities to quickly address any issues with your business. They can also help you see what your competitors are doing wrong, and fix any issues before you do the same.
To eBay or not to eBay
An easy and often popular way of setting up an online store is to build a presence on eBay, which used to be all about second-hand auctions but is now also helping businesses move new products online. Recent figures from eBay Australia suggested that fully 78% of products listed on the site are new rather than the user.
“eBay is good because all your customers are in the one place and it doesn’t cost you any money,” says Dean Piazza, who founded his online venture HomeGymEquipment.com.au as an eBay store and saw it grow rapidly thanks to a business strategy built around directly importing products and supplying them from warehouses located in low-rent areas of Sydney and Melbourne.
Although eBay served its purpose in the beginning, Piazza subsequently decided to set up his own online shop after he decided eBay had a little too much control over what you do. He recalls having the need for different distribution and marketing channels. He has since embraced a hybrid split sales strategy in which the company moves older models through its eBay site and newer products through its own online site.
Piazza has learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work online for his business. He has enlisted a search engine optimization company to help with his marketing, which has pushed the site to the precious first page of Google search results. “Online, you’ve got to get the traffic – which is why getting to the first page of Google is crucial,” he says. “Otherwise, your business is really going to do it tough.
“It’s complicated because you’ve got to make the mistakes to see what works and what doesn’t. Initially, it was very costly in terms of getting established online, but now I’ve attended online marketing courses and taught myself how to do it all – and we are outranking huge competitors with multi-million-dollar marketing budgets.”
E-commerce self-help books and courses are easy to find and will be of great help for anybody who’s unsure exactly how to go about putting their business online. Another crucial learning tool is web surfing – lots and lots of it.
Visit your competitors’ websites, and get a sense of which layouts you think work and which don’t. Look at the bottom of the page for clues about which platform they’re using. Sometimes it will be as obvious as the name of an e-commerce software supplier listed on the page, while in other cases you’ll have to look for similarities in design or functionality that reflect the design and operation of a particular e-commerce platform. Consider which stores you would frequent as a customer, and which would turn you off – and think long and hard about why.
Ultimately, any small business can find a way to make an online presence work for them. By all accounts, the key to success is to grow in stages rather than shooting too high, too quickly. Focus on building a compelling product and a loyal customer base, then grow your presence to ensure that those customers will never be kept waiting. As in the real world, treat your customers well and they’ll do the same to you, which will help the bottom line.
Five ways to market your online store
- AdWords, SEO and analytics. Online, marketing success is measured in unique visitors and transaction completion rates. Google’s AdWords service can be invaluable but expensive, but – backed by a tool like Google Analytics – it offers great insight into the types of customers you’re attracting and from where.
- Conventional advertising. It’s low-tech, but still effective, particularly if you have a bricks-and-mortar shop. Make sure your domain name is signed on your shop, printed on your business card, painted on your vehicles, and so on. This may pay off particularly well if you have a mobile-optimised site, since you never know when a passer-by will see your domain name and decide to buy something on their phone.
- Social media. Most entrepreneurs these days talk in heady tones about the value of customer engagement through Facebook and Twitter. Learn how to use them, and think flexibly about how they might help grow your business. All it takes is one enthusiastic customer with the right friends, and you could see transactions explode.
- Work hard to look good. Many small business operators are so busy with their everyday responsibilities that they put a half-hearted effort into their online stores. Don’t be one of them; online shoppers are savvy and can smell apathy half a world away.
- Service. In the end, whatever technology you choose is all about connecting with your customers better. Be responsive to their issues and proactive in building relationships with them, and you’ll be hitting your online-commerce stride in no time.
An online tool that lets you build and maintain an online store by loading pictures of your products. It handles shopping-cart features, transaction fulfillment, and more.
An All-in-one e-commerce platform is a popular choice with many first-time online retailers because it handles everything from presenting your website and completing your transactions, to finding your customers. Even shops with their own online store use eBay to clear out old stock.
This online payments processor has asserted its status alongside major credit cards. Widely accepted in many currencies, it saves customers from the uncertainty of entering credit card data into unfamiliar websites; and offers strong anti-fraud protections.
Find out if the domain name you want for your website is available. You can also package web and cloud hosting, e-commerce, SEO, and web design options.