A Trade Magazine for New Age Retailers

How to Start Selling Online

Until Spring of last year, not having an ecommerce store for your brick and mortar would be perfectly normal. It’s another point of focus for any store owner and manager and if the foot traffic took all of your time, e-commerce wasn’t needed. But that all changed in March of 2020, and the mad scramble for e-commerce began. My inbox was peppered with questions from my wholesale customers about e-commerce and recommendations for how to get a site up quickly. Suddenly, store owners who long resisted the internet were in immediate need of a website. Many new websites and creative e-commerce ideas were launched and still some store owners ditched the idea and waited out the first pandemic shutdown. As November rolled around and infection rates skyrocketed again, the holdouts were talking websites one more time. My inbox was again filled with the same questions and this time, I asked back, “Why are you not online yet?”

Why Are You NOT Online Yet?

Your answer to this question is what will show you the way forward for your business’ online presence.  You may not have a site, you may have an online store that is not doing as well as you wanted it to, or you may be social media heavy and have no time to put all of your products online. Creating a full-fledged e-commerce site is a large and tedious job with a million micro decisions, but it can double your revenue in the long run. Ask yourself this question right now (and jot down your answer): “What stops me from creating an e-commerce website?” It is a simple question that may have a multi-layered answer. Write it all down. You will look at this information again to create the online experience that suits your business.

What Do You Want to Get Out of a Website? Where Do You Want to Drive Sales?

In past articles, I have talked about marketing and websites and how much attention they need to be successful. “If you build it, they will come.” Is not a strategy. Even during the pandemic shutdown, your customers were shopping everywhere, they were not waiting for you to get your e-commerce self together.

To be successful, you must define what you want to be successful at. Do you want to drive traffic to your brick and mortar store? Do you want to drive traffic to your classes (online or in-person), do you want to sell your one-of-a-kind items? Are you wanting to keep your readers busy? What do you want your online or e-commerce to do for you?

My phone conversation with a friend in May, who moved her resale boutique in February to a space triple the size, was a little heartbreaking and hopeful. She was open for three weeks before she had to shut down. After a month of no business, she went back to her first marketing technique and posted pictures of items for sale on social media. There were styled one-of-a-kind outfits that were drool worthy and totally affordable. It was heartbreaking to hear of the full showroom of summer dresses that were laying fallow and it was hopeful to hear about her daily sales goals being met by selling items via social media.

Another retailer in California started doing 30-min Facebook live posts to promote the crystals that were hard to sell online. As they generated funds from these live posts, they streamlined their products to a manageable website. They were going to go deep with a few key items and selling off the rest. A new specialist in their industry.

A Canadian retailer listed all her products online and tied it to her point of sale. Everything she buys goes online and she is a one-stop shop. It has taken a lot of time, but she is in it for the long haul and is treating this as two business models with two crews. Next step is marketing and getting noticed.

A local designer who made their money at fairs and conventions teamed up with an online retailer and took their products to Amazon. Five billion people now see their products and they are almost back to regular income levels from Amazon alone. There are many ways to create e-commerce in your business, deciding what you want out of this sales avenue helps you drill down to the options that fit you. The next questions you must ask yourself are, “What do I want to get out of my website?” and “Am I able and willing to put the effort and investment in to get there?”

Your resources (time and money) and your e-commerce vision must match for your website to get off the ground. Keep the answers to these questions top-of-mind as you plan and build your website. In 2019, Coventry Creations launched a redesign of our site. It was super fancy with lots of style and options, and it crashed our sales. Four weeks of no sales at all and we restored our old site. Sales popped right back up and we realized that we lost sight of what we wanted our e-commerce to do for us – make sales.

What Do You Want to Sell?

Not all products are created equal. Not all products sell well online or have the return on investment you need to justify their sale. For instance, our company does not sell individual votives online as it would cost more to ship one votive than what it sells for. Mixing your own bag of incense sticks or selling a one-dollar sticker does not translate well into e-commerce. Is the item easily breakable? Will it melt in transit? There are items that need extra packing material and special handling. Are you ready for that increase in labor and material needed for that specialty item and did you factor those costs into your sales price?

What you sell online is a cross between price point, profit, ease of packing, and cost of shipping. Scan your inventory and start with the easiest, most profitable items. Are they unique to you? Are they competitive in pricing online? Then ask yourself, “What products do I really want to invest and focus my marketing efforts on?” Look at this choice as part of your business branding. If you are known for your one-of-a-kind pieces but put together a site of mass market items, you are breaking your brand.

Can You Build the Site Yourself?

If you are not comfortable with technology, too busy, don’t want to learn anything new, or are impatient, do not try to tackle a website on your own. If you cannot master emails, do not attempt this.  If you have never heard of HubSpot, you may quickly get confused by the new options out there. If the above does not apply to you, got for it! There are several excellent options that will sync with your POS or that are easy to build yourself. Shopify, Wix, SquareSpace, HostGator, and GoDaddy are well- known for their point, click and drag ease of building a website.

Stepping into E-Commerce

Building your own site or hiring a freelance designer still requires some basics that you need to know, such as: hosting services, content management systems, digital certificates, shopping carts, shipping options, and more.

Hosting Services – Shopify, Wix, SquareSpace, Network Solutions, etc. Your website will live on their servers and many of them offer one-stop websites based on their proprietary aps.

Content Management Systems – WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and other are options for hosting the content of your site. This includes front page and/or blog pages. Most platforms have their own hybrid CMS. This is important if you are moving from one platform or developer to another as some are not compatible.

Shopping Carts – Hosting services like Shopify are driven by their proprietary shopping cart, some hosting services let you choose the shopping cart.

Digital Certificates – This encrypts your website so people cannot steal your customers’ credit card information. Most full-service hosting services also provide this with an extra fee. Merchant account services will require this as part of their terms of service. The digital certificate gives your site the lock icon showing your customers their data is safe on your site.

Shipping applications – Ship Station and Pirate Ship are separate applications outside of your website that can import your orders and simplify the postage buying and shipping process.

There are dozens of articles online that rate the different website service sites. Spend time googling and reading your options before you talk to a professional website builder. If you are speaking the same language, you are more likely to get what you want from them.

Finding a Pro – What to Look For

As tempting as it is to go with the less expensive options of your neighbor’s cousin that likes to build things online or your nephew that is just getting into the website developer business, understand it will probably cost you sales in the future. You need someone who knows how to make a website that people will go to and buy things and someone who will be there when the site goes down. Prices will vary depending on the reputation, expertise, workload, and guarantee of the designer. If this is your first time building a website, go for something simple and easy to navigate. Add more polish later. The most successful e-commerce sites sell product on their front page. People generally only click twice to get to a product or the range or products they want to look at. Take a tip from the major retail sites, from Amazon to Zappos, shopping is the most important thing on their front page. Impress your shoppers with the product, not the website design.

Show the developer the favorite sites that you personally buy from and what you like about them. Listen to what the developer is recommending. Did they incorporate your business ideals and needs in their presentation? Make sure your contract has deadlines and expectations that are tied in with payments. Pay as you go with the final payment due once the site is live and functioning. As you are looking for a professional, ask yourself these questions: “Does this firm represent similar values as my business?” “What other sites have they done and are they successful?” “Do they specialize in e-commerce?” “Did they actually listen to me and come up with a concept that reflects my business?” “Does this meet my needs and ideals that I listed earlier?” “Can they help me market this site?”

Prepping Your Business for E-Commerce

Before you start building your business site, be sure you know if e-commerce works with your internal business processes. Are you ready to market and advertise your new site? Will your staff be able to handle the new needs of shipping and answering web related questions? Below is a list of new needs a website will bring to you:

Product Pictures – Where will you source the images? Will you download them from your vendors or take the pictures yourself? Not all vendors have useable pictures.

Product Descriptions & Codes – After the image, the product description is what will sell the product. You may find yourself writing lots of copy for your website.

Shipping Options – How are you going to ship your orders? What carrier? How are you going to package them? Downloading the orders is quick, packing them can take all day. Set up your USPS, UPS, or FEDEX accounts and see what training and support they offer. From boxes to packing materials, to shipping tape, you have a new stack of supplies to purchase.

Work Area – If your site is successful, you will need a dedicated area to ship your orders. Plan your space ahead of time.

Staff Training – This will be a new daily process for your staff. Document, train and have the contact information for customer questions they cannot answer.

Setting up e-commerce can be as demanding as opening a new business. This is all quite different than running a brick-and-mortar business and can create a new stream of income that happens while you are sleeping. Before you jump into the deep end with an e-commerce site think about your lifestyle and how much time and energy you want to invest. Starting on mass market sites like Amazon, Bonanza, Sears, eBay, or Etsy may be the testing ground for online sales. Ask your colleagues and watch how other stores are entering the e-commerce world, watch for what excites and inspires you and do that. No matter what you chose, create an advertising and marketing budget. If no one knows you have a site, they are not going to shop there.

Jacki Smith
Author: Jacki Smith

Jacki Smith is the co-owner of Coventry Creations. Her passion for personal empowerment and small business has been the driving force in her success and her journey of lifelong learning. Jacki is a regular contributor to the magazine and loves sharing her experience, successes and cautionary tales.