Last year, online retail sales rose 12.9%, hitting $777.3 billion and making e-commerce a strong business opportunity. Consumers who are still reluctant to shop in physical stores due to the coronavirus will increasingly be going online to make purchases.
So, whether you’re a startup entrepreneur looking for a good opportunity or an existing retailer/e-tailer with an e-commerce site, now is a good time to make sure your e-commerce site is ready for growth.
To find out what you need to excel, I talked to Jonathan Ryskamp, cofounder of ThemeSupport.net, a leading third-party provider of support for WordPress themes, and Matthew Lane, Business Development Manager at Straight North, an internet marketing company that provides SEO services and PPC management.
What are a few things small business retailers need to know when building a robust e-commerce site?
Jonathan Ryskamp: You need to remember the no. 1 goal with an e-commerce site is to sell your products. I know this sounds obvious, but some e-commerce customers we work with seem to get distracted by the technology and forget this. For example, you need to make sure your site is intuitive, and customers can easily purchase items—so you may not want to require a complex sign-up process to purchase. And you need high-quality images of your products that ideally can be zoomed in by the user. If your site seems hard to use or your products are not front-and-center in crystal clarity, then you will fail to convert a large percentage of your on-site visitors.
Matthew Lane: Small business retailers who are considering building a robust e-commerce site should start with similar fundamentals they established when opening their retail store:
- What are the core products you intend to sell, and how much variability or customization is required to sell those products?
- Have you proven there is a market for them online? Furthermore, are there competitors you can research to prove the concept before investment, should you test selling via Amazon before investing in an e-commerce platform
- How are you going to deliver or get products to customers (logistics)?
If you already have a site, how do you know it needs a facelift—or that it’s time to redesign?
Ryskamp: First and foremost, if your site does not match modern website standards, then you need to redesign it. For example, if your site is not mobile responsive (in other words if your site doesn’t reshape itself to be easy to use on mobile phones or tablets) or there are major site errors, then you should rebuild it. Second, if users are giving you feedback that it’s cumbersome to use, then you should redesign it. Lastly, if your sales are decent but not increasing, then you should consider a redesign—a new look/feel to a website is a great excuse to invite back all of your past customers and can help you land new ones.
Lane: It’s no different than a retail environment—if your store isn’t clean, organized, and easy to browse/identify what you’re looking for, it’s time to make improvements. The beauty of having an e-commerce store is that all the data is available to you via free tools such as Google Analytics, Google Search Console, etc. Therefore, the key performance metrics you should evaluate are bounce rate, conversion rate, site speed, and mobile-friendliness to determine if you could profit from a redesign.
For instance, let’s assume your website’s conversion rate to sale is 0.67%. Considering the average retail e-commerce website conversion rate is 1 to 2%, we can assume there are significant opportunities to improve your website’s user experience (UX) and performance.
There’s more information here: Ways to Boost Your eCommerce Conversion Rates.
What are the crucial elements an e-commerce site needs?
Ryskamp: Besides an easy-to-use interface and good quality photos, the other things an e-commerce site needs to take into account that is often forgotten are the small sales-process details like shipping options/costs, taxes, inventory management, coupons, etc. We have worked on a lot of e-commerce sites where the vendor has strange or difficult shipping rules that don’t easily translate into simplicity for the end-user. Normally, these kinds of details are not front-and-center on the vendor's mind when they build the site, so we sometimes get to the end of a project and find out that the vendor doesn't even have a plan for these kinds of issues.
Lane: You need:
- Mobile-friendly Website: Mobile shopping accounts for 50% of online transactions. By creating a mobile-friendly experience for your visitors, you will improve time invested on-site, conversion rate, and SEO performance.
- Robust Security & PCI Compliance: The benefit to SaaS e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, Big Commerce, etc. is that most SaaS companies guarantee PCI compliance. As a result, your store is less susceptible to threats and attacks.
- Streamlined and Secure Checkout Process: Have you ever considered how easy it is to purchase something via Amazon or Zappos? Focus on balancing usability and building trust as if you were optimizing your checkout process so that a 5-year-old or 95-year-old could successfully make a purchase.
- Product Ratings & Reviews: Let your customers do the selling for you with user-generated reviews
- Social Proof: Create trust and authenticity by allowing visitors to connect with your social profiles (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.).
- Offer a Variety of Payment Options: Consider Apply Pay, PayPal, and alternative payment methods to improve conversion rate beyond Visa, Mastercard, etc.
What are some best practices for e-commerce sites for small retailers?
Ryskamp: First, pick a good solid platform. If you are super-small, go with Shopify. If you are medium size, WordPress WooCommerce is likely best. And if you are larger, then Magento might be the best fit. If you are working with a good web development company, then they can assist you in choosing the best platform. Then, once you find the ideal platform, choose a theme/layout that is easy to use and matches your brand's image.
- Avoid clutter by prioritizing the top product categories and products. Follow the KISS principle.
- Depending on the depth of your product catalog, create a streamlined search process (e.g. left-hand filter, search bar feature, etc.).
- SEO optimization if there is search demand for your products
- Encourage visitors to create a new profile when signing up, but give them a streamlined option to checkout as a guest. Think of this as the express lane at the grocery store with 10 items or less, customers will remember a positive 5-second checkout process and return. They won’t return, or worse, will exit stage left if it is a cumbersome 5-minute process to checkout.
- Provide the same level of customer service you’d offer in-store (e.g. phone number, live chat, email, etc.).
- Display high-quality product images, videos, etc.
- Feature authentic product reviews and ratings.
What about the budget? I think many small retailers are worried about the costs of building a solid site.
Ryskamp: If you have a small budget that is not in the thousands of dollars, then focus on setting up a Shopify or Etsy site yourself. These are super inexpensive to start, but they also take more of your profits as you grow through credit card transactions and other fees. If you are an established business that is serious about making a great e-commerce site, then you will need to budget more. We have seen projects ranging from $5K up to $100K, so there isn’t just one specific amount. If you let your website development company know your budget range in advance, they can usually work with you on options.
Lane: Once you’ve established the requirements or must-haves for a minimally viable e-commerce store, you can identify options in the marketplace that fit your needs based on your budget. It is crucial for a small business to think of their first e-commerce store like their first home. It isn’t necessary for your first home to be your dream home. In fact, you might not even need to own it, you could consider licensing/renting it via SaaS providers like Shopify, BigCommerce, etc. vs. open-source CMS’ like Magento, WordPress, etc.
The beauty of innovation and technology is that it doesn’t require a $25-50k investment to build an e-commerce website anymore. For $5-10k, you can work with experienced and competent agencies to develop a foundation that is suitable for your requirements. Again, just like that home analogy—your e-commerce store should never be complete, it is always a work in progress that can be continuously improved.
Security is a concern as well. What should small retailers look for in a host to know their site is safe?
Ryskamp: A small retailer should never host a site themselves. They should always use a platform that is tried and trusted (see above). They should also budget for continued maintenance with their website development company not only to ensure the site is secure but also to make minor changes/improvements to the site over time.
- SSL certificate: Establishes secure connectivity between a user and the website.
- Firewall: Provides a gateway or wall between two networks and permits authorized traffic and blocking malicious traffic.
- Two-factor authentication: Adds an extra layer of security by requiring username/password and a system-generated code sent via email or text.
What other factors should small retailers be concerned with?
Ryskamp: Besides just having a website to sell products, you need to concern yourself with a marketing plan to get users to your site. Sadly, we have built e-commerce websites that after completed, never had traffic or sales. You must create a plan on how to drive traffic to your site. Become familiar with advertising on Google and Facebook. Learn about SEO. Create email campaigns with MailChimp or Constant Contact. It is always a good idea to tell your website developer your plan for marketing and let them make suggestions on how to build the site around your strategy (i.e., building landing pages for web ads, a blog for SEO, or mailing list sign-up forms).
- Website Management: Who on your team will be the primary point of contact to manage things such as inventory, images, reviews, offers/promos, customer service, etc.?
- Establishing business goals & objectives
- Configuring Analytics & Reporting Dashboards to effectively measure business goals
- Shipping, packaging, & logistics services
Anything else you want to mention?
Lane: Identify, network, and establish relationships with mentors you can interview and learn from their critical mistakes, pitfalls, and things you haven’t considered. And consult with highly reputable agencies that have a track record of design, developing, and marketing e-commerce websites that are relatively comparable to the needs of your business.
Need more help starting or retooling your e-commerce site? A SCORE mentor can help. Contact one today.