You could actually create a fully functional online store in 90 minutes. If you are in it for the long run, however, it might be worth thinking ahead and give the process a little more time. 90 days should be more than sufficient to take your idea to the market – in a solution where your business has room for growth. You need no prior knowledge of web development or Internet marketing to get started, and the venture doesn’t have to be expensive. What you do need are the proper preparations and a bit of time.
If you can use a computer you have all the technical knowledge required to start an online store. That would not have been the case a few years ago, but today there are tools available that greatly simplify the process of launching and running an e-commerce website. Some platforms are so easy to handle that you can be up and running in a matter of minutes, but careful planning will greatly increase your chances of long-term success.
Throughout this guide, we will cover the most important practical aspects of starting an e-commerce website. Perhaps you run a brick and mortar store and are looking to take your business online; perhaps you have a great idea that is just waiting to be put into practice. Regardless of your starting point, we have divided it into a simple step-by-step process:
- Think your idea through and find your niche. Avoid all of the major pitfalls by evaluating the competitive situation and find a way to stand out in the crowd.
- Put your idea to the test on a small scale. If you want to make sure that the customer base is there and that the idea actually has potential, test it.
- Evaluate suppliers and shipping solutions. Logistics isn’t the most inspiring topic, but finding the right answers could translate into a competitive advantage.
- Register a domain name. This step is as simple as it is important, since it defines your identity on the web.
- Choose the right e-commerce platform. Evaluating different e-commerce platforms will help you eliminate barriers for future growth.
- Integrate a payment solution. A good payment solution is not only about getting paid, or at least it shouldn’t be. It should also simplify your administration, reduce friction and help increase your revenue and turnover.
- Content creation. Your store obviously needs products, but while you add content, also look at the big picture and consider factors such as search engine optimization (SEO).
- Find the right marketing channels. When it comes to marketing, the alternatives are numerous and some channels are more effective than others, especially when you are just getting started.
- Be social. Actively participating on social media sites is an effective way to build personal and long-lasting customer relationships, but all meetings don’t necessarily occur online.
- Develop your business. At this point it’s time to look forward.
If you are still undecided on whether or not your idea is viable – stop hesitating and start evaluating the possibilities. E-commerce is still in a strong growth phase that shows no signs of weakening in the years to come. The risks and costs associated with starting an e-store are considerably lower compared to many other ventures. Move on to step one right away:
1. Evaluate Your Idea and Find the Right Niche
By carefully assessing the competitive situation before launch, your e-commerce website has much greater chances of reaching profitability within a reasonable timeframe. Moving into extremely competitive and broad niches with tiny profit margins takes extraordinary resources or a truly unique value proposition.
It doesn’t hurt to be self-critical in this phase, or to get honest input from someone you trust with the relevant business experience. On the other hand, it’s equally important to identify opportunities where others see obstacles. Some important questions to ask yourself are:
Who will buy my products?
It’s easy to be self-referential, thinking that the target audience for [insert favourite product here] is broad when it’s actually quite narrow. More on this in step two.
How competitive is your niche?
Some competition is expected in virtually any part of any industry, but some niches are far more saturated than others. You can get a rough idea by googling some of your most important keywords.
How will I stand out in the crowd?
The stronger the competition, the more important your unique selling proposition (USP) becomes. A USP could be anything from being an eco-friendly alternative to offering the lowest prices or free shipping.
How will I get traffic to my store?
A newly established online store may have to use a mix of both innovative and proven methods to get traffic.
If you have not done so already, also check out our article on How to Identify Your Competitive Advantages. This is a more detailed guide on how to evaluate your e-commerce plans.
2. Is there sufficient demand for your products?
A fairly simple way to find out if your products are in demand is to launch your business on a small scale. You can do so almost entirely without risk by using one of the major marketplaces such as eBay, Etsy or whatever marketplace best suited for your products.
Sell a selection from your forthcoming product range – at prices you will be able to sell them for when scaling up your business. This gives you not only an idea of how easy to sell your products, but also some insights into shipping costs, returns, and a lot more.
3. Compare suppliers and shipping options
Once you have tested your idea in both theory and practice, it may be time to flesh out your business plan by taking a look at your potential suppliers and shipping alternatives. You also want to ensure that shipping in every direction is painless and preferably as affordable as possible.
- Cut out the middlemen: low prices are appealing to your customers, and even more appealing in terms of profit margins. Are there any costly parts of the supply chain that can be eliminated, e.g. by buying your products straight from the factory instead of via wholesalers?
- Import duty and taxes: the importing and exporting of goods is surrounded by varying sets of rules and regulations, depending on the type of goods and country of origin. Make sure to read up on the specifics regarding your specific products to rule out potential problems.
- Warehousing: how much warehouse space do you need? And where is it most convenient and cost-effective (these two factors can be mutually exclusive) to have it located?
- Shipping costs: depending on the items you sell, shipping costs could be anything from a minor expense to a crucial factor to your bottom line. In the latter case it is particularly important to look at all the pros and cons of your different options and distributors.
4. Register a domain name
Picking the right domain name for your e-commerce site is very important, because it is unlikely to ever be replaced. The cost of registering a domain is negligible, but its impact on your brand is far-reaching.
Domains can be registered at a large number of so-called registrars, including most web hosting companies. Your best option is generally to go with an established registrar, which is not the same company as your platform provider, in case you need to switch platforms at some point.
The second part is choosing a top-level domain, or TLD. Most generic .com domain names are already taken, but your clever and unique brand name is hopefully available. A country-specific domain name (gTLD) is an even better option if your business is geographically restricted to one country. Domain names ending with .co.uk is your best option in the UK, .de in Germany, .dk in Denmark and so on.
5. Choose the right e-commerce platform
In order to run an online store at your new address, you need a versatile shopping cart and/or content management system. The alternatives are many, ranging from all-inclusive, proprietary solutions to open source platforms that can be tailored to your exact specifications.
All platforms have their individual pros and cons. All-inclusive solutions are a great way to get started, but they rarely scale as well as their open source counterparts. On the other hand, open source platforms are much more complex; although they look like a low-cost option, you will likely need to hire developers and purchase extensions to get your desired functionality and appearance.
Pick what’s best for your business, but choose carefully. Moving an established online store to a new platform is a major and often expensive undertaking. Save money and time by putting together a list of requirements that includes what you need to get started, as well as things that you will likely need in the future. This might be difficult to predict, but keep in mind factors such as: Ease of use: Is it easy to add products? You will spend a lot of time in the platform’s backend, so it is important that you can use it efficiently.
- Design: are there only a few ready-made templates to choose from, or can the design be fully customized? There is nothing wrong with using templates – it’s cost-effective and saves time – but at the very least you should be able to adapt them as needed.>
- Content: product pages and inventory management are essential features in all e-commerce platforms, but what about other content? Perhaps you want to add a blog/ news feed or create product guides at some point. It is also important that the content on the product pages is easy to edit, extend and customize in terms of layout.
- Search engine optimization: a brand new online store will not achieve high rankings on Google’s search result pages in the short term, but you want to ensure that the right conditions for climbing in the search engines are there from the beginning. Most importantly, you should be able to add the information displayed in the search results – HTML titles and meta descriptions.
- Analytics: platform-integrated statistics can rarely measure up to standalone solutions like Google Analytics. Make sure you can add a tracking code for an external service.
- Web hosting: web hosting is normally included when you pay a monthly fee for an all-inclusive e-commerce platform. When using open source solutions, however, this is an additional service that has to be evaluated separately.
- Support: does the platform provider offer prompt support at all times? Urgent problems require urgent attention.
- Payments: what payment solutions are included and easy to integrate? Is the solution easy to use, for both yourself and for your customers?
- Mobile: does the store accommodate the rapidly increasing share of shoppers who use smartphones and tablets? The best solution is a responsive design, which adapts automatically to any screen size.
- Terms and pricing: needless to say, monthly fees and contract terms are also important. Compare what you actually get for your money in terms of support, web hosting and functionality.
- Last but not least, it is important to choose a platform provider that you trust – one that continually develops the platform, regardless of whether it’s a proprietary solution or a customized open source alternative. Since you will be dependent on this company, it should be a trusted partner, which is as likely to be around not just tomorrow, but in ten years from now as well.
6. Integrate a payment solution
Your choice of payment solution is just as important as your choice of e-commerce platform. Having a checkout process that signals reliability and security is essential for getting paid.
A payment solution with few steps to a completed purchase greatly reduces the risk of abandoned shopping carts. According to statistics compiled by the Baymard Institute, the average documented online shopping cart abandonment rate, equating lost sales, is an entire 68%.
In other words, having the best possible payment solution in place right from the beginning will convert a larger share of your traffic into customers. So, what characterizes a good payment solution?
- Mobile usability: many online retailers miss out on a large percentage of their sales because the checkout process lacks mobile optimization. Consequently, pick a payment solution that simplifies buying with mobile devices.
- Reduce friction: each additional step that isn’t an absolute must, such as login requirements or overly lengthy forms, will result in customers dropping out. The checkout process should be as streamlined as possible.
- Security and trust: Security is an important factor to all online shoppers. It is particularly important for a newly established online store to be perceived as safe and reliable. An established payment solution that your customers recognize is an important piece of the puzzle.
- Customer choices: Some customers are hesitant to provide credit card details, particularly to a yet-to-be well-known online store. Give them the option to pay by invoice or bank transfer. More choices for the customer will translate into more sales.
7. Add products and content
When all the previous steps are completed, the technical gears are in place and your business is ready for takeoff. What remains is to add products and other content to your store. Depending on your niche, this process can be very time-consuming. For example, if you are going to sell ink cartridges and suddenly realize that you need to upload thousands of products – stay calm. You can always expand the inventory in small increments, or check with a developer if there is a technical solution available to automatically import products.
Not everything has to be in place from day one, but it’s a good idea to have the big picture in mind when you start posting your first product pages. Here’s a checklist:
- Keep the search engines in mind: Look for keywords that your potential customers likely use to find each product page, then customize titles and headings accordingly. This will help you in the long run with both paid searches and search engine optimization.
- Start with the most important products: Identify the products where you have the best profit margins and make sure to get those pages up first. Factors that affect your profit margins are not just your buy/sell rates, but also the competitive situation in your marketing channels.
- Always think of the user: Ensure that your product pages are user-friendly. Nicely structured copy and high-resolution images can make a big difference.
- Publish your company information: Be open about your company information and share information on who you are, where you are located and how you can be reached. This is an important trust factor. A detailed and personal About Us page is also a plus.
- Avoid pages that serve no purpose: Pages that are “under construction” or lack content should not be published at all before they are ready to go live.
8. Get started with marketing
An online store with no traffic is of no use to anyone, so you need to quickly find ways to get traffic and customers. One of the most accessible marketing channels – and one that is also useful in the longer term – is keyword advertising with Google AdWords. In short, AdWords lets you bid on specific keywords and phrases in Google searches.
There are several advantages with search engine marketing. One is that you can buy very specific and targeted traffic. You also get access to useful tools that help you find new keywords and provide insights that are also useful in your SEO efforts. The advertising cost is determined in automated auctions, so how often you appear in Google depends on your daily budget. Keyword advertising is one of the easiest and most effective ways for new online retailers to get started with online marketing, not least because it gives you measurable and immediate results. By advertising with AdWords, you will also learn how your competitors advertise and what keywords they are using. Buying ad space on sites related to your business is another option. However, in that case, it’s more important to follow up the results with analytics software such as Google Analytics to keep track of your investments. Check out our guide on how to use Analytics efficiently.
Yet another marketing tool that works very well for some retailers are social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
9. Social networking – online and offline
Advertising and interacting with your customers on social media websites can be pro table and give you helpful insights about your customers. Facebook advertising can have both long-term and short-term goals; the ads can be used either to generate interest in your store, i.e. persuade your target audience to “like” your page, or to drive direct traffic to your store. Even if social media isn’t your primary marketing channel when starting out, it is easy and costs you nothing to create profiles for future use. Naturally, you start by engaging your own friends and acquaintances, as they will most likely be happy to help you out by “liking” your page for free.
However, your social interactions need not be limited to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter – or even take place online. Participating at trade shows and other industry events to build professional relationships and showcase your brand could result in many mutually beneficial partnerships.
10. Develop your business
Perhaps it takes more than 90 days to get your online store up and running, perhaps a little less. Everyone’s starting conditions are different, but it is hopefully obvious by now that you need very little prior knowledge and resources to get started. The most important factor is careful planning. When the various pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, the most challenging parts are behind you and you can start focusing on growing your business.
Your next step might be to add more products to your store or to fine-tune your marketing activities. To get more traffic and add value to your website as a whole it is also a good idea to add additional content to your site, such as product guides, blog posts, a news feed or YouTube videos. This will also help you climb on Google’s organic search result pages.
Remember to keep track of the numbers – and not only incomes and expenditures, but also your site statistics. A competent tool, which is also free to use, is Google Analytics. This will help you make informed decisions about your marketing efforts.