Many small businesses are limited by their location. They are limited to the customers that live or work near them. They are limited by the hours in a business day.

The cost of additional staff and additional operating expenses may make extended hours undesirable. Even their geography can make all night operations unpractical, unprofitable, or unsafe. For many small organizations with finite resources, 24/7 business hours are impossible.

However, with e-commerce sites, many types of businesses can allow customers to shop and learn about their products and services at any time of day. e-commerce enables the company to take orders and send communications, even when the shop is closed. No wonder so many small businesses have started making e-commerce sites part of their strategic plans.

In March of 2020, many small businesses became more interested in e-commerce solutions. The COVID-19 crisis mandated the shut-down of many types of brick and mortar businesses. While many of those enterprises were able to bounce back after all the restrictions were finally lifted, many companies found they had to shut their doors forever. For other organizations, an E-commerce site helped defray or eliminate losses while Americans stayed at home and social distanced.

For many firms, the pandemic accelerated the need for a strong e-commerce site. However, the argument for websites that handled shopping or transactions was already well developed. In fact, the use of e-commerce sites has been growing in importance over the last ten years. And it’s easy to see why.

E-commerce sites have become easy to use. Online transactions have become more secure. Customer shipping options have become more affordable or even free. As a result, online sales increased by nearly 15% in 2019 alone, and that growth is predicted to continue or accelerate over the next five years. That means that for anyone selling products or offering services, e-commerce may become a viable way to increase revenues and expand reach without opening more locations.

On April 24, 2020, Emarketer reported,

“Whether by desire or by necessity, consumers are moving their spending online. And some of these consumers, who rarely or never bought online, may not go back to shopping like they used to. As a result, brands are increasingly pivoting to a direct-to-consumer business model and many e-commerce businesses are experiencing sizable growth. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce sales represented the bulk of overall retail sales growth in the US—$600 billion in online sales accounted for 56% of overall retail growth last year. And projections say e-commerce sales may go as high as $6.5 trillion in 2023.”

While online shopping used to be a novelty limited to tech-savvy Millennials, today it’s the norm. From tweens to retirees, all ages have become more enthusiastic about online shopping. With grocery purchases, apparel shopping, and even car sales happening online, e-commerce has become a necessity that shows no signs of slowing down.

It’s easy to see why. e-commerce sites allow consumers to shop when it’s convenient for them. Busy parents can order necessities at any time of night or day. Third-shift employees can buy on their schedule. At the end of a workday, Americans can now relax in an easy chair and take care of shopping needs from the comfort of their living room. Compare that with rushed trips to stores in rainy weather, and the appeal of e-commerce is clear.

While some people avoided online shopping for years, 2020 changed all that. A tsunami of people began learning how to use e-commerce sites out of necessity. This need to get comfortable with online shopping fast, regardless of your aversion to websites in the past, made transactional websites even more popular. Unprecedented world events combined with technology trends to create unexpectedly strong demand.

Retailers who were undecided about adding online shopping to the mix became more motivated to create an online presence with e-commerce functionality. Technological advancements made it easier than ever for all sizes of companies to develop scalable, sustainable revenue streams that expanded a business’s geography beyond a neighborhood or township. In theory, a small shop with one location could now have a worldwide presence in a matter of weeks. But best of all, once an e-commerce site gains traction, it can serve as a buffer from the idiosyncrasies of the market. Businesses with online components and options are better positioned to weather recessions, pandemics, or other world events that can impact face-to-face sales.

But even without factoring in major disruptions, e-commerce makes good business sense. After all, more and more consumers say e-commerce is their preferred way to buy. In a recent UPS study, almost 70 percent of participants reported that they preferred shopping online.

On April 24, 2020, in The Washington Post, Sindya N. Bahnoo reported,

“The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the die-off of America’s storefront retail at a frightening speed, forcing independent stores to close on short notice and deepening the advantage of online behemoths like Amazon and Walmart. But a few independent retailers have rapidly pivoted toward e-commerce, in some cases using strikingly low-tech analog systems to retaliate against Amazon, which itself went live as a small online retailer of books 25 years ago. These businesses may not beat Amazon at its own game, but with some creativity and customer goodwill, they might survive the crisis and come out with some much-needed upgrades.”

While COVID-19 wreaked havoc, it also created new opportunities for small businesses. While building an e-commerce site can feel like an intimidating undertaking, following LNP Media Group’s step-by-step guide may simplify the process. For many companies, it’s easy to start small and scale up as demand increases. Over time, your e-commerce website may rival your bricks and mortar locations for sales and profitability.

But how to get started? We’ve outlined several e-commerce development steps to help small businesses think through the process and prepare for the world on online commerce.

Step 1: Define Your E-commerce Niche

While Amazon makes money selling everything, most retailers do better by sticking to a specialty or niche. Customers are more likely to choose you over big brands if you’re an expert in your field and offer specialized products and services developed for a narrow audience.

While it’s tempting to be all things to all people, it’s smart to start as a specialized business, with a limited product line. Once your online model is up and running, and profitable, you can expand into other areas with confidence.

Step 2: Research E-commerce Models

Before you get started on your new website, make sure you know what kind of sites are already out there. Start your journey with research. Spend time online. Look at what your competitors are doing. Explore what e-commerce looks like for other industries.

After all, growing any online business is an investment, and will require your time and your treasure. Research will increase your understanding of what works and reduce the chance that you choose a problematic model or one that discourages customer interaction.

It’s also important to remember that no one structure or type of e-commerce works for everyone. A store selling lamps will operate differently than an IT consulting service. Pizza shops have different needs than furniture stores. Pharmacies have specialized transactional requirements, while floral shops may have delivery restrictions.

The good news is that today’s e-commerce platforms provide customizable software that empowers almost any type of enterprise to offer complex online shopping functions. A decade ago, e-commerce solutions were generally costly and required the help of an experienced IT team and maintenance by an in-house development team. The old platforms were hard to scale and difficult to integrate with other marketing platforms like your existing website, your email programs, or your social media.

However, today’s platforms are flexible, intuitive, and comparatively inexpensive. Even the most basic e-commerce platforms allow users to customize products, pricing, inventory management, and promotions. And most come with easy-to-access reporting systems that can enable real-time monitoring of sales and inventory

It’s also wise to think through your customers’ payment preferences. Some platforms exclude payments from third-party vendors such as PayPal, which could slow sales.

Subscriptions provide a steady revenue each week or each month. For example, it may make sense for a lawn service to offer subscription rates, with services delivered in pre-determined intervals. Medical or health care products are also good choices for subscription deliveries.

Step 3: Choose an Online Shopping Program

E-commerce is defined by the inclusion of payments online. There are many online payment and e-commerce platforms out there that can be used to create a new site or to integrate into an existing company website. Some of the most popular names in e-commerce include Shopify, Woo Commerce, Big Commerce, Ecwid, Jimdo, Weebly, and Volusion. CRM programs like Squarespace and Wix also offer e-commerce programs. Even Square, the iPad-based cash register program, offers sleek integrations that allow businesses to create online stores or online ordering for in-store pickup.

Most of these platforms operate on a monthly fee basis. However, just reviewing flat rates can be deceptive. That’s because costs may depend on whether your site is self-hosted vs. hosted, and the estimated traffic and number of transactions. Most of these platforms charge a processing fee that can add up quickly. Conversely, other platforms are too simple and limited to just a few functions. Others may charge for bells and whistles that you won’t need to meet your online shopping goals.

Almost all online shopping platforms offer basic features such as a shopping cart, a search bar, and a customer login. They will allow you to use your company’s logo and brand colors. They will have data encryptions features that ensure your customers’ data is secure and to make hacking very difficult. Most platforms allow you to group products into categories and add images for each product or service. You should also be able to set prices, offer promotions, and manage your email lists within the platform.

Good e-commerce platforms also give you many ways to manage your database, grouping it into pre-selected segments such as regular customers, people who have not purchased for a while, and people who began to order something, but then abandoned their online cart without purchasing.

Most platforms also offer automated email follow up or integrations into email programs such as Constant Contact or MailChimp. That means you can use the programs together to create a robust shopping, purchasing, and follow-up program.

It may sound complicated, but all it takes is time online, investigating how similar businesses operate, and thinking about what you do and don’t want to offer online.

It’s also critical to ensure that the e-commerce platform you choose will integrate with your website. Most online shopping platforms feature a wide range of tools and integrations that allow you to customize the shopping experience.

Other plugins are available to handle accounting need such as sales reporting, estimated taxes, and P&L reports.

Some programs offer robust email marketing tools as well as sophisticated list management features. Others offer shipping add-ons or customer loyalty widgets.

Before you make your decision, make sure you understand all the ways you can use the platform to manage your e-commerce business.

Step 4. Make Sure Your E-commerce Site is SEO Friendly

Traffic from search engines will become your site’s most significant source of new customers. That’s why many e-commerce businesses live and die by how well they manage their Search Engine Optimization or SEO. A site with strong SEO will rank high on search engines against selected keywords. Ranking higher on search engines means that customers can find your business when they’re searching for products or services like yours.

While that sounds simple enough, SEO is actually relatively complex and can take up a lot of time. But because top-ranking sites consistently attract more click-throughs than lower-ranking sites, SEO is well worth the time and effort.

Google’s Free SEO Tools

While SEO should be a long-term business strategy, newcomers to e-commerce can get started by using simple strategies and following best practices. For example, Google offers many free tools to help websites improve their SEO. Setting up Google Analytics and a Google Search Console is relatively simple and free. These tools will help you track traffic to your website and understand how to improve your site so it can rank higher against your chosen keywords.

Google recommends you submit your sitemap to Google through your Search Console account. Most e-commerce platforms, such as Woo Commerce or Shopify, and CRMs like WordPress or Square Space, automatically generate sitemap files. These list your website’s individual pages. These site maps help search engines index all the pages on your site, which is one way to improve SEO.

Google Search Console also reports crawling errors. Search engines like Google index websites using programming bots which “crawl” the website and its pages. When a bot attempts to reach a page or website but fails, it reports a crawling error. Crawling errors hurt your SEO, so it’s smart to fix broken links, missing pages, or other crawling errors immediately.

Follow Google’s official recommended practices to help you avoid the e-commerce and website practices that may end up hurting your site’s SEO.

E-commerce SEO Starts With Keywords

Keywords are the building blocks of any SEO effort. To rank on search engines, you start by choosing the words or phrases you want to rank against. For example, if you’re a salon, you might want to rank for “Best Lancaster Salons” and “Lancaster County Beauty Salons.”

How do you know which words and phrases to use? Google’s Keyword Planner is an excellent place to start. This tool will show you the search volume for any keyword or keyword phrases you submit, so you get an idea of whether the keywords are used regularly, or if they’re too generic and used too frequently for unrelated topics. For example, while “cars” might seem like a good keyword for your business, people searching for cars might be looking for automobiles, Disney movies, or 80’s pop bands. Using terms like “Used Buick in Lancaster” might be a more specific and relevant term for your business.

Spending time with Google’s Keyword Planner helps marketers understand how people search for products and services and will allow you to get more targeted in your keyword choices.

A Word About E-commerce Page Optimizations

Website platforms have many tools that can make it easier for search engines’ bots to find and index your site.  H1 tags are one of these tools. Use one H1 tag on each page to serve as the main headline. Preferably the page’s H1 tag will also contain at least one the site’s main keywords or keyword phrases.

Another way to boost SEO is to keep page titles under 60 characters to prevent them from being truncated or cut off in the search results.

A meta description is the preview text that appears when your site shows up in a search. Having the right meta description in place can increase your click-through rates. While Google has reported that there is no official limit on characters for meta descriptions, most experts say that using 155-160 characters is optimal.

While some sites automatically generate URLs, they can also be customized. To boost your e-commerce site’s SEO, be sure to include some keywords or keyword phrases in each page’s URL.

Google Image searches account for nearly 23% of all web searches. Each time you add an image to your site, you can create alt tags and file names for each image. Make sure each of your file names and alt tags have descriptive names and try to include keywords or keyword phrases.

Step 5: Create Relevant Content

A well-planned content marketing strategy not only helps your site become more visible to search engines, but it also makes the site more relevant and engaging for your customers.

Content can describe your products and services, but it can also show customers how to use your products in new or unusual ways. For example, grocery stores can include recipes and storage tips. An auto repair shop can include tutorials on checking oil or putting air in tires.

Answering Frequently Asked Questions or FAQs is another way to boost SEO while meeting your customers’ needs. And all content should be developed with keywords and SEO in mind.

In G2, Andrej Kovacevic emphasized,

“…a whopping 70% of marketers are currently investing in content strategies, and 72% cite having a good content strategy as a major key to their success. For small businesses, content marketing is arguably even more vital. That’s because smaller companies often don’t have the marketing resources that larger firms do, and content marketing delivers some of the highest overall ROI for every marketing dollar spent. It’s also a long-term strategy that can continue to pay dividends for a long time after it’s put into effect.”

As a rule of thumb, blocks of content and blog posts should aim for 500 words and up. While quality trumps quantity every time, this is not the place for short, snappy prose. Take your time to describe and explain everything thoroughly, so you give search engines and consumers plenty of time to understand who you are and what you sell.

Google penalizes you for plagiarism or duplicate text among websites or webpages, so make sure your text, product descriptions, and blogs are your own. If the text lives anywhere else online, even on your company’s other websites, social media, or other websites or social media, consider rewriting it. Google and other search engines won’t index duplicate copy, which means repeated descriptions could hurt your SEO.

If a page on your e-commerce site becomes inactive or products are removed, it’s smart to add a redirect that page, which will send users to a different but still relevant page. Not only are inactive pages frustrating for consumers, but they also make your site look uncared for, and hurt your SEO.

Step 7: Make Sure Your E-commerce Site is Mobile Friendly

Almost 60% of searches are completed on smartphones. Much of e-commerce also happens on a mobile device. Because mobile is becoming the dominant tool for accessing the internet, it’s more important than ever to make your site completely accessible on mobile devices. Many e-commerce programs and CRMs such as WordPress offer responsive or adaptive templates that automatically reconfigure to meet the needs of the device.

As you create your e-commerce site, remember that many of your images will be seen in smaller dimensions on a smartphone, so keeping images simple makes sense.

Your site should also download quickly. Site download speed is a significant ranking factor, for both desktop and mobile searches. Google offers PageSpeed Insights to measure your site’s download speed and can provide advice on improving speed.

Step 8: Think Through Customer Service

While many business owners understand how customer service works face-to-face, online customer service can be more complicated.

E-commerce offers a new set of customer service challenges, including service issues, software glitches, and other things that are often out of your control.  E-commerce platforms with 24/7 service reps are worth the extra cost when you need answers immediately (and not three days from now.) Make sure you understand what kind of customer service is offered with any e-commerce platform you’re considering.

You may also want to consider amping up your own online customer service with pop-up chat options, chat agents, and other ways to contact your team (or outsourced customer service reps) with questions or concerns.

Step 9: Don’t Skimp on E-commerce Site Security

Online security and data security is one of the hottest issues in online commerce today. As a result, most e-commerce platforms and CRM programs include robust security standards. However, it’s also essential to make sure that any site that allows consumers to input any type of data, whether it’s an email or a credit card, uses HTTPS encryption to ensure a safe and secure checkout experience.

According to Google,

“HTTPS helps keep your browsing safe by securely connecting your browser or app with the websites you visit. HTTPS relies on encryption technology—SSL or TLS—to secure these connections… HTTPS web connections protect against eavesdroppers, man-in-the-middle attacks, and hijackers who attempt to spoof a trusted website. In other words, encryption thwarts interception of your information and ensures the integrity of information that you send and receive. Because older hardware and software often don’t support modern encryption technologies, users of these devices may be more vulnerable to security threats.”

It’s also important to make sure that any e-commerce platform you choose is PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant. The PCI Security Standards Council recently updated standards, as noted in this June 2020 press release,

“Established to protect PINs (Personal Identification Numbers) and the cardholder data stored on the card (on magnetic stripe or the chip of an EMV card) or used in conjunction with a mobile device, PTS POI Version 6.0 reorganizes the requirements and introduces changes that include:

  • Restructuring modules into Physical and Logical, Integration, Communications and Interfaces, and Life Cycle to reflect the diversity of devices supported under the standard and the application of requirements based upon their individual characteristics and functionalities.
  • Limiting firmware approval timeframes to three years to help ensure ongoing protection against evolving vulnerabilities.
  • Requiring devices that accept EMV enabled cards to support Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) to help facilitate the EMV migration to a more robust level of cryptography.
  • Enhancing support for the acceptance of magnetic stripe cards in mobile payments using solutions that follow the Software-Based PIN Entry on COTS (SPoC) Standard.”

Step 10: Get Ready to Ship

For e-commerce sites that ship their products, this step is critical. Your ability to sell or get repeat business may hinge on the decisions you make about shipping.

Free Shipping Pros and Cons

Free shipping has become standard on many e-commerce sites. That’s because free shipping is one of the most effective ways to drive purchases and reduce shopping cart abandonment. However, while you may offer free shipping, as any online merchant will tell you, shipping is not free for the merchant. If you want to offer free shipping, you’ll need to factor those costs into your e-commerce pricing strategy. How do you do that?

  • Increase product prices to cover costs for shipping to keep healthy margins.
  • Cover the full price of shipping, thereby reducing your margins.
  • Bump up the product price enough to partially cover shipping costs which means the customer will pay for a part of it, and you will pay for part of shipping.
  • Offer free shipping based on a minimum order amount. Not only is it easier to cover the cost of shipping for larger orders, but this strategy can also help you increase your average order size.

Flat Rate Shipping

Some e-commerce sites charge one rate per order, regardless of order size. This makes sense when your product line is made up of items of similar sizes and weights.

Real-Time Carrier Rates

Many e-commerce platforms, such as Woo Commerce, offer real-time integrations with carriers like UPS and the USPS to automatically calculate shipping based on their order. Small, light packages cost less. Big, bulky packages cost more.

Local Delivery

When your customer base is local, and your products are expensive to ship, local delivery is a smart option. Many e-commerce retailers use their own delivery trucks and employees to offer free local delivery for larger orders such as mattresses, appliances, boxes of office paper, or other heavy, hard-to-ship items.

Step 11: ABC…E (Always be Collecting Emails)

Opt-in forms and email database management is at the heart of any successful e-commerce site. Collecting emails and sending out proactive messages via email is one of the most effective ways to gain new customers, nurture existing clients, and find new prospects.

The best way to grow your email list is to include opt-in forms throughout your e-commerce site. Why not ask them to sign up for your news, deals, and information at a time when they’re already engaged on your e-commerce site?

Opt-in forms don’t need to be pushy or unattractive. With a little effort, you should be able to create forms that look great, support your brand, and drive opt-ins. Here are a few hints for creating hard-working opt-in forms.

  • Place them in the site’s header, footer, and in the navigation bar. While these locations may have lower conversion rates compared to a dedicated landing page, consistent placement on every page is a good long-term strategy. Over time, the number of subscribers these locations generate adds up.
  • Create an opt-in pop-up form. When you set pop-ups to trigger based on exit cues, you can catch your visitor before they leave, without slowing down the purchasing process. These are called exit-intent pop-ups and are usually triggered when a visitor moves their cursor off your website to a search bar or back button. Most e-commerce platforms have simple plugins and add-ons that can help you find the best way to create effective pop-up opt-in programs.
  • Include opt-ins on blogs.While your content may have been developed to educate your customers, it’s also a common place for newbies to enter your e-commerce site. Why not capture their emails and try to convert them into customers in the future?
  • Offer high-value lead magnets. Instead of promising “news and deals,” why not create a special piece of content designed to attract new customers? If you’re a florist, create a video about how to select flowers for weddings. Bike shops can create pdfs with maintenance checklists. Grocery stores can send out mini cookbooks with valuable coupons included. The idea is to offer specific, high-value information designed to appeal to your best customers and prospects.

Step 12: Leverage Email

Once the visitor has left the site, email is one of the best ways to reach out to them to continue the conversation. If you have captured their information via opt-in forms or received their email as part of an order, now is the time to ramp up your email marketing efforts.

Make the Most of Emailed Order Confirmations and Receipts

Order confirmation emails or emailed receipts have some of the highest open rates. The open rates can be as high as 90 percent, depending on the industry. Why not take advantage of this high attention rate to start making your next sale?

Of course, the content your email receipts must tick all the usual boxes; what was ordered, cost, shipping address, and expected delivery time, but after these are taken care of, try suggestive selling.

  • Upsell related or companion products.
  • Send out an offer to get a second item at a discount.
  • Offer an ongoing discount if they establish a subscription purchase.
  • Give them a discount code or coupon to use toward a future purchase, preferably to be redeemed within a limited time frame. Bounce-back offers are proven ways to build customer loyalty.
  • Offer them the chance to send the same item as a gift purchase, at a discount.

Improve Your Shipping Confirmation Emails

Shipping confirmation emails also have high open rates, so make sure you’re setting them up to work as hard as possible.

  • Make it easy for your customers to track their orders. Include the expected delivery date and tracking number linked to the shipping company so people can click once to see exactly where their order is in the delivery process.
  • Suggest the customer refer a friend by forwarding a link to the product they purchased. Incentivize word-of-mouth marketing by implementing a referral program with rewards.
  • Include product suggestions that match a customer’s purchase. Make sure you’re asking shoppers to purchase something they’ll actually be interested in.

Email Marketing Boosts E-commerce Sales

While email receipts and shipping orders are valuable communication opportunities, email marketing can address your consumer in every part of the marketing funnel. Developing an email list, setting up a cart abandonment campaign, developing bounce back offers, and sending nurture emails will help you drive consistent, qualified traffic to your site that will boost sales.

Digital Marketing to Promote Your E-commerce Site

In addition to SEO and email, today’s e-commerce website has a wide range of marketing tools from which to choose. Google ads and Google display ads are an effective way to identify your site traffic and send ads to them based on their viewing habits. Known as retargeting, this marketing strategy uses automation and pre-programmed logic chains to send the right information to the right person at the right time.

Social media ads on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are also cost-effective strategies to help you find customers and increase online sales.

Paid search engine listings are another way to ensure your site shows up in front of people who are searching for products and services like yours.

Video marketing is another way to get people excited about your products. Once you create product and service videos, you can place them on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Pinterest, and LinkedIn as posts or as paid advertising.

And don’t forget to promote your e-commerce site in all of your traditional marketing programs. Promote it in-store signage, in print and broadcast ads, on your business cards, and even on your delivery trucks. Make sure all your existing customers know they now have a new way to order.

The Takeaway

Starting any business is challenging. Keeping an existing company profitable can also be a real challenge.  E-commerce is intimidating to many business owners because it has many hidden problems that can be hard to identify. While e-commerce can be scary, it’s a smart move if your firm teams up with an experienced online shopping expert that can help you avoid the pitfalls and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

If you’re considering moving away from the traditional storefront model, or diversifying your business with an e-commerce site, or want to offer your customers more ways to buy, choose a digital marketing partner and an e-commerce platform that makes sense with your products, service, goals, and budget. LNP Media Group is an experienced e-commerce marketing partner. We’re here to help you map out your path to online success. Contact us today for more details.

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