Want to Sell Online? Here’s How to Get Started with E-Commerce
Ready to start selling products online? Starting an e-commerce business can definitely be intimidating if you don’t have any experience. The good news is it isn’t as complicated as it seems thanks to a variety of services that can help you design and open a digital store in 15-30 minutes. Of course, you will have important decisions to make along the way.
Here’s what you need to know to get started with e-commerce. This guide assumes you have already figured out the business aspect, including your business name, branding, logo design, market research, pricing, and what you will sell. Branding Tips.
What is E-Commerce Exactly?
E-commerce or e-commerce goes by many names, including online marketplaces and online stores. It’s essentially the use of an online platform to complete business transactions. E-commerce can refer to any commercial transaction conducted online, including major brand web stores, digital marketplaces like eBay or Amazon, and even social media platforms like Facebook.
E-commerce and online shopping are rapidly gaining popularity with an ever-growing number of consumers turning to the internet to find products and even local services. With its growing popularity has also come easier and more affordable ways for anyone to begin selling online. If you have a brick and mortar or mobile business, you can create an online store to complement your business. Some businesses are run entirely online.
Importance of an E-Commerce Business
E-commerce is certainly the future. In 2017 alone, e-commerce accounted for $2.3 trillion in sales. This figure is expected to reach $4.5 trillion by 2021. About 10% of all retail sales are now made up of online shopping transactions and this is predicted to grow 15% each year for the foreseeable future.
Virtually all (96%) of Americans have used online shopping at least once and 80% have bought something online just in the last month. Consumers are also increasingly researching purchases online before making a purchase. If your business doesn’t have an online presence, you are missing out because you can be sure the competition does. If you’re planning to start your first business, choosing an e-commerce business is a good place to start with a large audience and low upfront costs.
Almost any industry can benefit from e-commerce. An e-commerce business can offer dozens of unique benefits depending on your business. Here are some of the most common advantages of setting up an e-commerce storefront.
#1. Low Startup Cost
Launching a traditional business can be expensive. You need to lease a building, pay for merchandise, cover utilities, buy several forms of insurance coverage, and more. An e-commerce business has a much lower startup cost that can make it ideal for an entrepreneur. With a hosted shop, you will pay for hosting, your online shop, and security with one fee. You will still need to cover the cost of marketing and transaction fees. You may also have other miscellaneous expenses like shipping but e-commerce is still cheaper to set up than a brick and mortar shop.
#2. Reduced Operating Costs
Running an e-commerce business and enabling online shopping for your customers is an effective way to reduce your operating expenses. Checkout, billing, and inventory management is all automated to reduce the number of employees you need. Advertising for an e-commerce business isn’t a requirement but marketing an online business is easier than traditional forms of advertising like commercials, billboards, and print ads.
#3. Offers More Information to Consumers
One of the biggest advantages of e-commerce is you can provide a host of information to visitors to tell them about your products and what makes your business unique. You can deliver your shop’s story to create engagement and trust. Providing detailed information about your products also increases conversion rates. With items in a traditional store, you have very limited space to communicate anything important, such as ingredients, quality, origin, or workmanship. On an e-commerce shop, you can go into great detail to sell your products, even going as far as providing datasheets on your products.
Just make sure you take advantage of this benefit with detailed descriptions of your products or services. According to one recent survey, 88% of customers using online shopping consider detailed content as very important when making a purchasing decision.
#4. Expand Past Your Geographical Area
An e-commerce website allows you to expand beyond your geographical area to sell products and services throughout the world. With the rise of mobile online shopping, you can even sell to people who may be commuting to work, waiting in a doctor’s office, or grabbing lunch with a friend. Going global can even help you tap into unique niche markets that wouldn’t be possible or profitable in your area.
#5. Gain Valuable Insight Into Your Target Audience
Running an e-commerce website allows you to collect a wealth of information about your customers, including their buying habits, their interests, how they reached your website (such as organic search results, paid ads, or social media), and how long they browse. If customers add items to their shopping cart but do not check out, you can follow up with an abandoned cart email to increase the chance of a conversion. This information is valuable because it helps you fine-tune your website, your marketing strategy, your products, and more. Read more about simple Google Analytics.
#6. Online Shopping Is Available 24/7
An e-commerce website has no business hours. Your customers will be able to browse your products and services, read reviews, and make purchases 24/7. You do not need to worry about staffing your business with the entire shopping process automated.
#7. Allows for Customer Reviews
Enabling customer reviews on your e-commerce website allows happy customers to essentially sell your items for you. Reviews can play a crucial role in the success of your business by influencing the buying decisions of past and potential customers. 85% of customers trust reviews they read online as much as a recommendation from a friend. Every e-commerce business can benefit from product reviews that work like free marketing to gain customers’ trust and increase the chances that they will make a purchase. This ability to provide customer reviews directly next to your products is something you simply can’t get in a brick-and-mortar store.
#8. Keep Your Business Competitive
If you already operate a brick-and-mortar store, it’s important to keep in mind that, while some customers will always shop in-store, many prefer to shop online. Around 56% of Gen Xers and 67% of millennials are more likely to buy online than in-store. The vast majority of people also begin searching for products and services online, even if they go to a store to make a purchase. If you don’t have an online presence, potential customers won’t know you exist. You can bet that your competitors are already using e-commerce which means they’ll get the customers that would otherwise go to you.
#9. Many Consumers Prefer Online Shopping
An ever-growing number of consumers are turning to online shopping for convenience and price comparison, the two main drivers of ecommerce. Consumers like online shopping because they can shop 24/7, compare prices and deals, save time, and avoid driving to the store. Online merchants are also able to provide a greater variety of products, even hard-to-find items, with everything in one place.
Setting up an e-commerce website allows you to make your products and services more convenient for customers which directly impacts sales.
#10. Attract New Customers Through Multiple Channels
Adding an e-commerce website to your existing business model doesn’t just give you a single new channel for adding customers: it can give you unlimited channels. Depending on your customer base, your multi-channel strategy can incorporate:
- Marketplaces like Amazon and eBay
- Social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest
- Niche marketplaces
- Comparison shopping websites like Google Shopping
- Daily deals sites like Groupon
- Subscription box services like Cratejoy
- Organic search engine traffic from Google and Bing
- Paid search engine marketing from Google
- Paid social media marketing on Facebook
#11. Complement an Existing Business
If you currently operate a brick and mortar store, an e-commerce website can complement your current business model. You can make it easy and convenient for customers to order when you are not open, when they move out of the area, or when they simply don’t feel like going to the store. If you sell services, an e-commerce website can allow you to sell related products or specialty accessories that complement your business. For example, a hairdresser may sell specialty hair products and accessories that they recommend to customers on their storefront.
Setting up an Online Store
Starting any business, including an online store, requires thorough research, including choosing a product or service to sell, defining the goals of your business, researching your target market, choosing a business name, and making a marketing plan. With this legwork done, you will be ready to actually set up your new online store. Check out our marketing packages we can help you put a plan in place.
Once you’re ready to actually build your store, you will need to choose the software for the store. This is a good first step to make because choosing the store software first allows you to choose add-ons that will be compatible, including a payment gateway to accept payments.
Types of E-commerce Stores
There are two primary types of e-commerce stores: self-hosted and hosted. A self-hosted store means you will choose and pay for a server and download and maintain the e-commerce website yourself. While a trickier option for beginners, self-hosting gives you greater freedom and lower costs. With a self-hosted store, you have greater control over your shop’s web design and presentation which is important for the trust of your business. You will not need to pay transaction fees and listing fees to the e-commerce platform, although you will still need to pay payment processing fees to accept credit and debit cards.
A hosted store is the most popular option. When your store is hosted, your store software will be run on a server and maintained by the same company for a monthly fee. Hosted stores are easier to set up but they don’t give you as much control as a self-hosted website.
Here are the steps you need to take for each option.
Self-Hosted E-Commerce Stores
A self-hosted store will need more to get started than a hosted platform. You can still get the platform for your store but you will need to decide where to put it. Here’s how to get started if you decide to self-host your storefront for online shopping.
Your domain name is your website’s address. An ideal domain name incorporates your brand or a phrase that makes it clear what you sell or do. Your domain should be as short as possible, easy for customers to remember, and free of any copyright issues. You will need to check that your domain is available so you can buy and register it. Here are 10 tips to purchasing a domain name.
Your website will need quality web hosting to power it. A web host maintains a database of servers or computers that are designed to be opened to the public so people can access your website. Because your self-hosted e-commerce platform can be set up anywhere, you can choose the host you prefer and move on later if your store outgrows your provider. Don’t make the mistake of choosing the cheapest host you can find. Choosing a quality host is important because it will determine your website’s security, uptime, and speed.
There are several things to look for when choosing a hosting provider. Because your website will support online shopping, it’s important to choose a host that is able to provide a high level of security to protect personal information. Hosting services are also tiered for different levels of traffic. While you will likely have low traffic at first, make sure your host can handle increased traffic down the road.
An SSL certificate gives you a green lock next to your website’s URL. When it comes to online shopping, an SSL certificate protects your customers’ personal information and establishes trust. The SSL certificate works by encrypting sensitive information provided by customers online.
Set up Payment Processing
To begin receiving payments, you will need a special type of bank account called a merchant account and a payment gateway or payment provider. A payment gateway is a service that receives transaction requests from your online shop and directs them to the payment processor, which validates card information and ensures the cardholder has sufficient funds for the transaction. The transaction will then be authorized and the money will be transferred from the customer’s bank. The status of your transaction is transmitted back to the payment gateway. When the transaction is successful, the funds will be transferred to your merchant account, a unique bank account that holds funds received from debit and credit transactions.
Every transaction you process will come with a fee which is expressed as a percentage plus a flat rate. There are also other costs associated with credit card processing. There are many options when it comes to payment processing.
Which Payment type is Right?
When choosing a payment processor, pay attention to fees. Here are some hidden costs to watch for:
- Monthly minimum processing fee. This fee is the difference between how much you paid in payment processing fees and your monthly minimum each month. If your monthly minimum is $500 and you only paid $350, you will be charged a fee of $150.
- Batch fees.
- Statement fees.
- PCI compliance fees.
- IRS fees.
- Set-up fees and application fees, which are not necessary at all.
- Annual or monthly fees to keep your account open.
- Early termination fee. Don’t lock yourself into a long-term contract. Choose a month-to-month provider.
Set Up Your Website
The final step is setting up your website and shopping cart. You can set up your website like any other with a shopping cart function for online shopping or you can use a dedicated e-commerce platform to generate content. Your shopping cart system will need to be installed on your website through your cPanel. Once installed, you can begin customizing the appearance and function of your website and adding products.
There are many e-commerce platforms that can help you set up a store for online shopping, even if you choose to self-host. Popular options include:
Challenges of Self-Hosting an E-Commerce Store
A self-hosted platform usually isn’t recommended for beginners. This option comes with many challenges such as:
- Technically difficult setup process. You will need to have technical knowledge to set up your store, including being able to use an FTP client to upload files to the server. If you outsource this to someone else, it will increase your costs.
- Difficulty maintaining your store. Hosting your own store means you will be responsible for the maintenance, research, and fixing bugs on your store.
- PCI compliance and SSL certification. When you host your store, you will be responsible for security. This includes PCI compliance and SSL certification to accept online payments. This ensures the consumer’s data is kept safe.
Hosted E-Commerce Stores
With a hosted store, the platform you are using, such as Shopify or WordPress hosts your store’s files on their server. The host platform will handle a wide variety of technical aspects like:
- Optimal bandwidth
- PCI compliance
- Backing up your data
A hosted e-commerce platform makes it easy to set up an e-commerce store for online shopping with no technical knowledge necessary. These platforms offer an all-in-one solution that includes a shopping cart, hosting, and technical support. A hosted store is far easier and cheaper to manage.
With many popular e-commerce platforms, you can have a basic store set up and ready for online shopping in as little as 15 minutes. Shopify, one popular platform, offers an all-in-one system that gives you access to web design, product management, and e-commerce in exchange for a monthly fee. Getting started is as easy as choosing a template for your store and uploading products.
Popular Hosted E-commerce Platforms
You have many options when choosing a hosted e-commerce platform to build and host your store. Each option comes with its own drawbacks and benefits. You will want to consider several factors when choosing a platform, including how easy it is to customize, payment options you can accept, analytics, ease of use, and cost. Here are some popular options.
Shopify is a giant in e-commerce and has been around for more than 15 years with more than 500,000 users. This platform is easy to set up and use with a range of templates to choose from. You can also use a drag and drop tool to arrange descriptions and images with the ability to customize the look and function of your store with paid apps. There are plenty of great features that are included and it wins most competitions when it comes to add-ons (currently more than 1,500!) and integration.
As one of the giants in the industry, Shopify offers excellent third-party integration. It allows you to sell directly on Facebook and it works with most types of payment systems if you don’t want to use Shopify to process payments. A basic site costs $29 a month but it can go up to $299 per month for advanced features.
Magento has been around since 2008 as an open source e-commerce platform. This e-commerce platform is very reliable with scalability that makes it easy to grow your business over time. If you don’t know much about programming or have a programmer, using Magento may be a little complicated. While the basic version is free, the enterprise version can cost tens of thousands per year.
WooCommerce is a free WordPress plugin that can be used to add a shopping cart to a WordPress website. It comes with a secure and reliable shopping cart and payment gateway and it’s easy to use if you have experience with WordPress.
With over 95,000 online stores BigCommerce has become a big name in e-commerce. BigCommerce doesn’t have a high learning curve like Magento and can be used for even basic storefronts with a huge list of built-in features. In fact, it even has more features than Shopify. The downside is they only offer a tiny handful of free themes for your shop; you will likely end up buying a premium theme.
Downsides of a Hosted E-Commerce Shop
A hosted e-commerce platform is probably the best option if you do not have much technical experience but it isn’t without drawbacks. A hosted shop will probably cost more than a self-hosted shop, especially in the long run. Annual or monthly fees can also grow as your shop gains more traffic and adds features. You can still customize your store but you will have more limited options with only the ability to use approved plug-ins and themes.
The Bottom Line
As a beginner, you will probably want to start with a hosted e-commerce platform that includes everything you need to know. After all, even running a digital business comes with liabilities, risks, and challenges. A hosted service helps you manage some of your legal responsibilities like PCI compliance and other security measures so you can focus on growing your new business.