It's hard to imagine a business these days that doesn't have a website. Even the decades-old, traditional brickand- mortar retailers have an online presence. For a new business just getting started, it's the fastest, easiest, cheapest way to carve a product niche that you intend to capture. This article is a brief introduction to the basics of e-commerce and what you'll need to conduct business through the internet.
It's hard to imagine a business these days that doesn't have a website. Even the decades-old, traditional brickand- mortar retailers have an online presence. For a new business just getting started, it's the fastest, easiest, cheapest way to carve a product niche that you intend to capture.
This article is a brief introduction to the basics of e-commerce and what you'll need to conduct business through the internet. E-commerce is softwaredriven, so you might need to consult with an expert while choosing what fits best for your business. Some money spent upfront to get it right will save you more money and headaches once things are up and running.
Your website will be the first thing potential customers will see, so it has to be professional and easy to navigate. But what's going on behind the scenes is just as important as what they see. It's critical that the company hosting your site has the server capability to flawlessly perform all the functions required by an online store.
Other important factors are reliability, technical support, bandwidth, and special features offered by the host. As your business grows, you need assurance that your website will continue to function seamlessly to keep your customers coming back. Going offline is like shutting and locking the door to your business.
First impressions are everything, especially online. If a customer doesn't like what they see, you don't have an opportunity to convince them to stick around. They move quickly to the next website. Your product catalog has to quickly grab them and keep their attention. Perception is important when potential customers aren't familiar with your business and products. How your catalog is designed and the way you present your products have a tremendous impact on turning browsers into buyers.
Make sure your catalog has all the info customers need to make an informed decision: specifi cations, sizes, colors, materials, warranty, weight, etc. If you haven't answered all their questions in the product descriptions, you run the risk that they won't contact you to get those answers. It takes time to produce a top-notch catalog, but it's worth it in the long run. Keep the look and feel of the catalog attractive and current. Make sure customers can easily sort and compare products with the click of a button.
The website interface is the tool you use to control and update your online store. It facilitates all the other functions that you set up to operate and maintain your store, such as the shopping cart. You want that interface to be robust and flexible, but relatively simple to use. This is another element to consider in selecting the proper host, as you want the ability to expand perand enhance your website as you grow. You want the tools and capacity to perform complex tasks with ease and confidence.
Once the customer chooses an item to buy, you want your shopping cart to be effortless and foolproof. This is where their order is confi rmed and processed for payment, but don't give them any reason to back out of the purchase. Before providing you their payment information, customers want to know the bottom line price, including any taxes, handling and shipping. Set up the checkout procedure to show that information on the first screen. If they don't see it until the final submit screen, they may abandon the purchase before ever getting there.
Don't ask for more than the minimum personal information needed to complete the order. Be clear about how the item will be shipped and the estimated shipping time once the
destination address is known. Offer as many payment methods as practicable for your business in order to maximize customer convenience.
Security is a paramount concern to customers shopping online. Stories abound of hackers stealing personal information from major retailers, and it seems to happen routinely. Before typing their credit card number into the order form, customers want to know it's going to be protected. For an online business, the first question to be answered is whether you'll store payment information on your website or redirect it to a PCI-compliant (Payment Card Industry) gateway merchant that specializes in online payment processing. For most small businesses, outsourcing this aspect of the business is usually the best and least expensive approach.
Beyond payment processing, there are many other aspects of website security that can't be adequately covered in this article. Consult with your hosting company or an independent expert to ensure your site incorporates necessary security measures to protect your shoppers' personal information.
The cost of shipping is enough to deter some people from shopping online, especially for inexpensive products. No one wants to pay $8 to ship a product that costs $10. Many merchants attempt to alleviate this problem by offering reduced or free shipping for a minimum dollar order. Amazon.com has been very successful with this policy.
Offering different shipping options with different delivery speeds and costs is the most common approach. The important thing is that customers know exactly what the total cost will be before placing their order.
Getting customers to your website is job number one. Fortunately there are many ways to accomplish this without spending large sums of money. There are search engine optimization (SEO) techniques that can make your website show up in organic web searches. You want to be on page one or two, or you're not likely to see clicks to your site. If you don't have the expertise to do this, hire someone who does.
Paid advertising such as Google AdWords is available on a cost-perand click basis. Many businesses also use social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to gain traction with potential customers. Other ways to spread the word include email newsletters, community networking, press releases, special contests, marketing videos, discount coupons, customer loyalty programs, custom calendars, public speaking, and teaming with other companies that complement your products or services.
A customer-centric website is invaluable in attracting customers and delivering sales. It also takes the human element that can't be duplicated in the digital world. Prompt and effective service to the customer before, during, and after their purchase will bring them back again and again. Set up well-defined and clearly stated policies regarding how you will deal with warranty, return and exchange issues. If there's anything customers don't like, it's to be surprised after the fact with an expense they didn't anticipate.
Many websites include a box to check before finalizing a purchase that requires the customer to certify that they've read and agree to your terms of service and conditions of sale. Keep them as simple as possible so that a layman can understand them.
Finally, make sure everything online is backed up. When disaster strikes, you want to be back in business in a heartbeat.