If you’re considering the launch of an e-commerce website, you are poised to cash in on a continually growing trend. UPS’s 2016 Pulse of the Online Shopper study reported that 51 percent of shopper purchases are made online.
However, there’s more to launching an e-commerce site than simply launching your business in cyberspace. There are technical, legal and fulfillment challenges, to name a few.
First, you must choose a domain name. If your business has a unique name like Wally’s Wowza Widgets, you’re in luck. Otherwise, you may have a hard time finding a URL that’s not already taken. Cyber squatters have found it quite lucrative to buy up popular domain names and sell them for profit. Keep in mind that .com is no longer your only option, and not necessarily your best. Newer choices include .shop, .store, .buy and dozens more. One site you can use to check domain availability is WHOis.net. While you’re there, you also can register your domain, which is the next step on the road to a successful e-commerce site.
Next, you’ll need to decide whether you want to build the site from the ground up, so to speak, or use a prepackaged option such as BigCommerce's site builder. The latter is a good option for smaller companies or those with a tight launch time frame.
Let’s assume you want to go it on your own. Here are the basics you must consider before “going live.”
- The Home Page & Beyond
Think of the home page as your storefront. It’s where you’ll promote seasonal specials, new items, and more. This is the most valuable “real estate” on your entire site, so don’t waste it. While product images will attract potential customers, it’s content that will attract the search engines.
That’s why search engine optimization (SEO) is so important. Not only should you have quality, relevant content on your entire site, you must include common keywords and phrases to boost your position in search results. Learning how to use SEO effectively is important for the success of your business.
The home page is the gateway to all of your products, so you must make it easy for visitors to navigate your website. Just because you categorize products in a certain way doesn’t mean your customers do. If you already have a brick-and-mortar store, take note of how departments are arranged and how products are displayed.
Categories in your navigation menu do not have to be listed alphabetically. If it makes more sense (and results in more sales) to list top-selling categories first, then go for it.
Amazon does a great job of making it easy for customers to find what they want. As illustrated below, it guides first-time visitors and welcomes return customers. It features seasonal content in a clean, uncluttered layout.
- Products, Hierarchy & Descriptions
As with an offline store, you must determine the inventory for your e-commerce site. You don’t have to offer everything you sell in your brick-and-mortar store. In fact, you shouldn’t. Think about it: if you have very large items, shipping costs can be exorbitant, and the hassle is rarely worth it. If you do decide to offer oversized items, arrange for in-store pickup only. This is especially true if you offer free shipping, as you’re likely to take a big loss here.
Once you determine your product assortment, you need to create a visual presentation. This is often referred to as the product gallery. A few things to think about:
- How many rows and columns per page?
- How big should each product image be?
- Will customers have the option to zoom in on an image? Pick color swatches?
- How many clicks will it take to purchase?
Uncommon Goods offers visitors two ways of finding products. First, more traditional categories appear in the navigation bar on the home page. As shown below, because it is a gift-oriented site, products are grouped by occasion and other attributes.
Just as you don’t need to offer the exact same items that are in your offline store, your pricing structure may differ, too. Many customers expect to find better bargains online, so you’ll have to manage those expectations. Some companies, such as Lenox, do not traditionally offer discounts on individual products. To make up for this, they offer a percentage off the entire purchase, free gift wrap, a bonus gift or similar promotions.
How you describe your products is equally important, but when it comes to this point, don’t think you are restricted to a single style or standard. Fans of “Seinfeld” will remember Elaine, who worked as a copywriter for the J. Peterman catalog, hailed by those in the industry for its eloquent copy. Its real life site, like its catalog, uses product descriptions much longer than industry standards. However, it’s actually effective, as evidenced below. You’ve got to figure out what works best for your products and your audience and run with it. Whatever you do, though, you can’t ignore SEO.
- User Experience (UX)
Try to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Sometimes you are too close to your products to understand how they are perceived by others. You need to walk through the online shopping experience from beginning to end, uncovering any roadblocks along the way. Best practice is to ensure that no more than three clicks are needed for a user to reach his/her destination.
Web features that you may think are great might actually annoy your customers. Take dropdown menus, for instance: menus that automatically expand when your cursor hovers over them may obscure other elements on the page, making for a frustrating experience.
Give your customers the option to continue shopping once they are in the checkout area. The inability to return to the exact point where they left off can be irritating.
You also can't ignore mobile design. It goes without saying (but we'll say it anyways) that your site must be optimized for mobile devices. That means you might have to rethink your desktop navigation to make it mobile-friendly. Make sure to test your website on many devices, including desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets to ensure that the experience maintains a consistent quality across platforms that your customers are likely to use.
- The Checkout Process
If you’ve ever been stuck with a careless cashier or behind a clueless customer in the checkout line, you know how frustrating a slow or disorganized checkout process can be. The same goes for the online shopping experience. You want to create a streamlined checkout process. Failure to do so can easily result in the dreaded shopping cart abandonment.
Many customers prefer to pay by PayPal, so that is something you may want to consider. PayPal will even take care of managing credit card information for you, so this can be a good option for security and convenience.
Consider too, if you have a brick-and-mortar store, whether you will arrange procedures to allow for in-store pickup, and how to seamlessly integrate this option into the checkout process. These are just a few of the issues you'll need to address before setting up shop.
If you have offline stores, you already have order and fulfillment operations. If not, you must determine how you'll get orders from Point A to Point B. Will you house products in one main warehouse? Will you be drop shipping orders? Will everything be done manually, or will you use automation? Will you ship to Canada? International? U.S. only?
Before opening your store, decide on these issues, and plan your business around them. Getting an order from China can be expensive if your system was only organized with domestic shipping in mind.
- After the Sale
Your job is not over once a sale is made. Indeed, it's only beginning. You'll want to set up automated emails (called "triggered emails," because they are triggered by a user's action) to send order and shipping confirmations, and other order-related notifications. Note that these types of emails do not fall under the same CAN-SPAM guidelines as other emails.
You will need dedicated customer service staff for your e-commerce site. The site will be available 24/7, but will your customer service reps be? Will you offer live chat? Be sure to have a robust FAQ section to cut down on the number of inquiries to customer service.
You will also need to establish a return policy. Zappos is known for its customer-friendly policies:
Take a look at the return policies of other companies, especially those in your market, since these will determine your customers’ expectations, and decide what’s right for you.
- If You Build It, Will They Come?
Just because you purchase a URL, build an e-commerce site and launch it, doesn't mean items will be flying off your virtual shelves overnight. In order for your venture to be a success, you'll need to promote it. You'll want to plaster your new URL on everything — collateral, packaging, point-of-purchase displays (if you have an offline store), advertising, etc. You will also want to invest in search engine marketing (SEM).
Establish a customer email database so that you can market regularly. For this, you will need an email signup on your homepage and be sure to comply with CAN-SPAM regulations.
You'll also want to track traffic, interactions and purchases on your site. That means you will need to set up tracking codes to use when directing traffic from emails, banner ads, etc.
In short, to run a successful e-commerce site, you need a plan. Think both short- and long-term. Rely on the guidance of experts — supply chain, legal, marketing, accounting, UX, creative — whether they are consultants, or full-time employees. Remember: you don't have to launch everything at once. It's best to launch your e-commerce site in phases. Start with the basics and add the bells and whistles once you've worked out the kinks.
Let the online shopping begin!
Darcy Grabenstein is a freelance copywriter with more than 20 years of experience in print and digital advertising. In the digital world, she has worked extensively with e-commerce and email campaigns. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Want to learn more about any of the subjects mentioned above? Here are some relevant classes: SEO For Business Owners, Turn Website Visitors into Customers via Conversion Optimization, Fundamentals of Online Marketing