How to build a successful ecommerce business

Ecommerce is a vital part of any successful retail business strategy. But how do you make the online world work for you? From websites to social media, this guide will help you get started.

Ecommerce can help you expand your business

Ecommerce means doing business online. Put simply, it’s using the internet to promote and sell your products or services.

Some retail businesses might be able to survive without a strong online presence. If you’re serving a local market with perishable items for example, then you might find selling online isn’t a viable option.

But for everyone else, being online isn’t just an option, it’s a necessity if you want to reach the widest possible audience.

Find your customers online

People are increasingly shopping online. Whether it’s on a laptop, smartphone or tablet, search engine data shows that customers are using the internet to find businesses like yours.

If you’ve never built a website or developed a social media following it can be hard to know where to start. As with many other areas of business, start by asking yourself some thought-provoking questions.

Five questions to understand your ecommerce goals

If you want to know how to make the best of ecommerce, you need to ask yourself these questions:

  1. How important is ecommerce to my retail business?
    If you already have an established ‘real world’ business, maybe you’re looking to expand your customer base online. A modest investment in ecommerce will let you test the waters. On the other hand, perhaps you’re planning an online-only retail business. In that case you’ll need to invest a lot more time and money.

  2. Why?
    A simple, open-ended question – so you can think about your motivation. Do you want an ecommerce presence because everybody else has one? Or because you understand how it could help your business? A useful resource here is the ‘Start with why’ TED talk from Simon Sinek.
  3. What’s my timeline?
    How long do you think it will take for ecommerce to pay off for you? Will it be profitable in three months, six months, or 18 months? Use your accounting software to make some forecasts, so you can budget sensibly.

  4. Are my customers ready?
    Ecommerce is widely-used and effective. It’s a must-have addition to almost every business. But not all businesses. Perhaps your customers come to you through word-of-mouth or local advertising. If your business is already growing well, the investment might be better spent elsewhere – or postponed for a while.

  5. Is my business ready?
    This could be the most important question of all. If your ecommerce investment is successful it could change your retail business almost overnight. Make sure your cash flow is good and all your accounts are in order. Be ready for any new business that comes your way.

Ecommerce is part of your brand

Perhaps your ecommerce business plan is based around a sales platform like Amazon or eBay. If so, some of the technical work will be done for you. If not, you’ll need your own website.

Either way, your online presence is an extension of your brand. If your website or trading page looks cheap and badly made, it will discourage customers.

So it’s worth paying for some help. There are plenty of web design and development businesses you can use. Quality varies, so check reviews and ask for customer references. Make sure you’re paying for high quality work.

Ecommerce means selling. That means you may need a catalogue or shopping-cart application on your website. You might also need secure payment processing – especially if you’re taking credit card orders.

All of this requires knowledge and experience to set up, so don’t cut corners. Get professional help to build an ecommerce presence – one that proudly reflects the quality of your brand.

Engage with your customers

The beauty of an ecommerce business is that it lets you engage in a two-way dialogue with potential customers. For example:

  • Facebook makes it easy to start conversations with people who ‘like’ your business. Other social networks can be used in the same way. Remember, if you offer something of value to your customers, they’ll spread the word about your business.

  • Email newsletters are still very popular, helping you share news and special offers. Your customers can reply easily, to discuss their options with you.

  • A Twitter account lets you start discussions with your existing and potential customers. For the best results, keep your tweets light, friendly, interesting and helpful.

Although we don’t cover social media in depth here, there are plenty of resources online. Just be sure to learn how to handle any negative feedback, which is much more visible online. Our guide to handling customer complaints will get you started.

Make the cloud work for you

Many business applications are now available online. This is great if you’re running an ecommerce business, because:

  • you can access your business applications and data using a laptop, smartphone or tablet

  • you can log in from anywhere, at any time of the day or night

  • your data is secured and backed up for you

  • you don’t have to worry about software upgrades and maintenance

To make the cloud work for your retail business, think about the types of application you’ll need. For example:

  • inventory management

  • accounting

  • sales processing

  • marketing and advertising.

There may be others, depending on the type of retail business you’re in. Do your research and find online applications that work well for you. Ideally they should all ‘talk’ to each other, so you can access everything from within one application.

Don’t forget your taxes

Doing business online means you might be selling into different jurisdictions – or even different countries.

This can make tax calculations tricky, especially sales taxes, which can vary a lot from one place to another.

Make sure you understand all your obligations when it comes to taxes. Ask an accountant to help you get started, and choose good quality accounting software to process the numbers.

This is something you can’t afford to get wrong, because the legal penalties can be high.

Keep your business compliant

Just because your business is online doesn’t mean you can ignore the real world. Like any other organisation, your business must:

  • Be registered as a business entity such as a partnership, corporation, or limited liability entity

  • Keep detailed records of all transactions, sales and purchases

  • Have suitable insurance to protect you, your employees and your customers

  • Obey all laws and regulations, especially those regarding employment, payroll, accounting and taxation

It’s useful to have someone to help you keep an eye on all this. Talk to a financial advisor, business mentor or accountant to make sure your business stays compliant.

Understand how ecommerce works

Doing business online is different to doing it face-to-face. Things tend to happen faster online, for a start. Before you begin, you'll need to be aware of the differences and prepared for them. For example:

  • you may have sales enquiries at all hours of the day and night.

  • you might have questions from people in different countries and in different languages.

  • you will have to find cost-effective shipping methods.

  • positive reviews of your business can spread quickly – but so can negative ones.

  • inventory management will be a vital part of your business (except for 'drop-ship' sales) – you’ll need to learn how to deal with returns and fraudulent purchases. 

However these problems are far outweighed by the potential benefits of having an effective ecommerce business.

Don’t forget about mobile

More people access the internet on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. In fact mobile users make up 50% of all web traffic and it’s growing all the time. So your ecommerce website must be accessible and usable on mobile platforms.

This is something you should discuss with your web development company. There’s no need for you to learn the technical details, but make sure the following boxes are ticked:

  • fast and responsive – mobile users don’t like to wait for sites to load.

  • easy to navigate – don’t force users to tap their way around your site.

  • big user interface – a finger on a touchscreen is less precise than a mouse click.

  • uncluttered – steer customers where you want them to go.

  • easy to search – let your customers bypass your navigation to find the product they want.

Don’t confuse a mobile-optimised website with a mobile app – they’re two different things. Start by getting your website right and then you can move on to getting an app developed if you have the budget for it.

Tie your business together

Ecommerce should be tightly integrated with the rest of your business.

Whether you're selling online or through a store, your customers deserve the same great service. Keeping everything together makes it easier to track sales performance and manage your inventory.

So use whatever tools you need in order to keep your business fully integrated. There are cloud applications to handle inventory, accounting, payroll, marketing and more. These will help you keep tabs on every aspect of your online presence.

That way you can make the most of your ecommerce business – wherever you happen to be.

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