“Now would be a good time”
The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted all kinds of damage to the world, and especially to the United States. And one of the worst hit was the retail brick-and-mortar sector, with containment measures putting locks on physical stores to battle the virus.
By the end of 2020, over 15,000 retail stores had shut shop in the US, mostly declaring bankruptcy, as strict restrictions led to slim revenues and rising debt. Of course, a large number of retail stores were making a steady transition to the online space, a step that was influenced by both the pandemic as well as adaptation to a growing trend of doing business online.
A Statista survey revealed that global retail eCommerce sales in 2019 amounted to USD 3.53 trillion, which is projected to swell up to USD 6.54 trillion in 2022. Sounds like a “when one door closes, another opens” sort of scenario, but it’s definitely an opportunity disguised as a disaster. That being said, if you’re one of those physical retail store owners that haven’t made the online plunge yet, now would be a great time to do that.
Perhaps you even toyed with the idea of doing this earlier. Whatever be the reason, not going online with your brick-and-mortar store seems less of an option and more of a necessity now. With customers shying away from visiting physical stores and malls, not having an online presence simply means letting go of a sizeable chunk of sales.
So, how difficult is this transition exactly? If you want a straight answer, not at all. A wide range of technologies plus several plug-and-play solutions available today means transitioning to an online store is quite simply a walk in the park. Let’s take a look.
Building your online store: The first step
Now, even though you’ll be building your very first online store, it won’t really be a huge step, since all you will be doing is moving from brick-and-mortar to online. You already have an advantage of having a physical location from where customers can pick up their order via a curbside pickup. Think of it as a project involving only a few key steps.
The second key advantage you would have is an already running POS system, which will have products, prices, taxes, and inventory management embedded in it. All you require now is an online platform into which you can integrate your existing setup.
Setting up an eCommerce platform for your webshop doesn’t require you to have any technical background. There are several platforms designed to support beginners with a host of features that just keep getting better with time. Here’s a good read on some of the most popular eCommerce platforms that are ideal for beginners and startups, with a detailed analysis of the benefits and features they come with.
These platforms are simple, DIY kits that will take you through some easy-to-follow steps in creating your webshop, populated by the existing products that you already sell. Such type of platforms are called Software as a Service or SaaS, one of which you hire for use and pay for on a monthly basis. The other kind, which require your own development work, are called open source platforms, one of which you may download for free, but then spend your own resources to build a store out of it.
How do open source and SaaS platforms compare
The open source eCommerce vs SaaS eCommerce topic is a much discussed one, being covered by several experts on which is offers more advantages and benefits. But the truth is, which of these two platforms is best for your business will entirely depend on your business category and therefore your unique business needs. Of course, it’ll also largely depend on the budget you’re starting off with.
Open source eCommerce platforms
These platforms are readymade online store builders with open source code access, which can be used to set up your entire website. Let’s find out where they excel and where they lack in.
- Using the open source codes you can quite literally build your eCommerce website on your preferred host in minutes.
- Open source eCommerce platforms will offer you full control in running your site without the recurring cost that a SaaS platform would demand.
- You can also scale it up as required and customize its features the way you want them.
- You must possess a certain amount of technical skill to manage the platform.
- Site management and admin UI is generally trickier than SaaS-based solutions.
- Finding a good web host for your eCommerce store also becomes your responsibility.
- A big limitation of open source platforms is that they provide few useful features and you have to keep purchasing extra modules.
To overcome this limitation, certain vendors started offering premium and custom open source platforms, which came with improved features, full customization and complete control over development without the need for a technical team.
Payments for such subscriptions are generally one-time with no recurring charges, although it could go as high as $2,000, making it beyond the reach of many businesses. Some of the leading open source and premium vendors are WordPress, WooCommerce, Magento, PrestaShop and OpenCart.
SaaS (Software as a Service) platforms
SaaS eCommerce platforms are a blessing for entrepreneurs who are low on technical resources and are not flush with funds. But, how do they fare in other parameters? Let’s find out.
- As a cloud-based service, you don’t have to download or install any software, making it an easy step-by-step process to set up your eCommerce website in hours.
- There’s absolutely no prerequisite to possess prior knowledge in coding or your own web host. The software simply resides in cloud and you just pay a monthly usage fee.
- You will be allowed to use one of the numerous design layouts from the several free or paid templates that the platform will offer.
- Most of them have very intuitive interfaces and simple to manage admin dashboards, making them perfect for beginners.
- SaaS is not a self-hosted service, but a hosted service offered by a third-party vendor, leaving you with hardly any control over the platform.
- Even though SaaS platforms are easy to manage and work around, customization is a area where it can fall short of expectations.
- If you’re an online merchant with a SaaS platform, you’ll find out (to your dismay) that customizing checkout prices is something you won’t have control over.
Features to look for in an eCommerce platform
In your quest for the right eCommerce platform, the first thing you need to do is check whether it is apt for the size of your business and the industry you are in. One of the key features that you should look for in a platform is the ability to facilitate seamless integration of your existing POS system.
But, more importantly you should rate the platform based on where it stands in terms of these key features:
- SEO friendliness: Almost every online task begins with a basic search (mostly on Google), including online shopping. If your website’s visibility on search engines is pretty low, you’ll find yourself losing out on a lot of prospective customers.
An SEO friendly eCommerce platform can take care of that challenge with features that can push up your website’s ranking on search engines. Check out some of the top SEO friendly eCommerce platforms in the market today.
- Product management system: This is at the heart of any eCommerce platform. Managing your products on your platform involves being able to upload products, images, features, pricing, reviews, etc., which you need to do in large numbers.
While analyzing the platform, you need to find the answer to this basic question. Does the platform provide quick, hassle-free templates and CSV for bulk uploading?
- Order management system: Once you've put up your products on your online store it’s mostly marketing and promotion on your end to lure buying customers to step in. But before that, you need to make sure that the site has a system that is user friendly but can handle all the complexities of order management, including functions like “add to cart”, discounts, delivery and payments.
While product management will convert visitors into customers, it is order management system that will make prompt them to come back for more.
- Returns management: With a rate of 15 to 40 percent in eCommerce returns causing a trillion-dollar crisis for online retailers, a robust system to manage returns is the key to survive this ordeal. That, and some cleverly laid out strategies to maintain profitability in the midst of returns.
- Mobile friendliness: With most eCommerce transactions taking place on the mobile, having a winning mobile adaptation of your pages is essential.
- Security features: Your website must provide total security to customers when it comes to ensuring safe payments and data protection. Some of the leading online retailers use HTTPS and provide SSL certification, which should ultimately be your objective as well.
- Analytics and reporting: One of the prominent advantages of an online operation is the ability to receive detailed reporting and analytics, tuned to your preferences. Having this feature on your platform should be a given if you want to track the performance of your eCommerce business.
- Multi-channel integration: In this age of technological advancements, it is critical that the platform facilitates seamless integration with multiple and popular channels like Facebook, Instagram, Amazon and Twitter since you'll likely be selling on these channels too.
- Platform scalability: Since you are here to stay and watch your online business grow, you need a platform that provides scalability in the long term to adjust to that growth.
Analyzing some of the leading eCommerce platforms
Undoubtedly, a platform whose time has come and in no uncertain terms, Shopify a leading brand in eCommerce platforms today. According to a 2020 Statista survey, Shopify generated over USD 900 million in merchant solutions and over USD 640 million in subscription solutions in the global arena.
The reason for the phenomenal success of Shopify is simplicity. Their software is so clear in its approach and simple to use, in spite of being a powerful software, that you can hardly make a mistake in going about it.
With 4,200 apps in the App Store as of May 2020 and 25.8 million installed apps as of June 2019, Shopify has a success run that is most impressive. But even more impressive is the fact that Shopify grew 10 times in a matter of just three years, which is a mindblowing feat in itself.
Merchants who used Shopify and grew along with it didn’t just stop there. No, 26,400 Shopify partners referred a merchant to the platform in a year’s span leading to more partners. Here are more Shopify statistics that you might find inspirational and interesting.
The enterprise version of this platform, which has been named Shopify Plus, was introduced in April 2019 and boasts a following of over 5,300 businesses on it. If you run an enterprise level company, this would be an interesting read to find out if Shopify Plus is right for your business.
With 73 Shopify themes as of now, out of which nine are free and 64 are paid with a price tag of up to USD 180, the platform may not score high on its offer of themes, but the ones that they offer traverse diverse business categories and are rich on design. A major advantage is its offer of Shopify themes that support 3D images and videos of products.
In summary, Shopify has a lot going for it. As a customer you benefit from its approach to simplify things for you and to get you going with a top notch eCommerce store in hours without any headache.
Even though this cloud-based platform sits far below its rivals with a pretty low market share, BigCommerce is nonetheless a popular choice among many businesses, especially the small and medium online stores that are looking at high growth. And the reason is because it provides extreme scalability for such online stores.
BigCommerce has more built-in sales tools than any of its competitors, and combines these features with advanced SEO and fantastic multi-channel integration. It's designed to help boost large and fast-growing businesses into the big league.
It has certain large brands like Toyota and Kodak as its customers and may not be the right option if you are small or medium store looking for a simple solution. But if that’s not enough to impress you, maybe this would - the company filed to go public in July 2020 even BigCommerce had managed to raise a total funding of USD 224.2 million as a private company.
The reason behind this bold step was its performance in 2019 and and the first quarter of 2020, where BigCommerce saw a growth in its revenue generation from USD 112.1 million in 2019 to USD 33.2 million in Q1 of 2020.
Square, which is essentially a mobile POS, handling your online payment processing, sales analytics, inventory management, square marketing campaigns and so on, is actually a great option for retail store owners who are contemplating making the transition to online space.
One of the biggest advantages of using this POS solution is its ability to work offline when the internet is temporarily unavailable. Once the device reconnects to the internet, the system automatically syncs up. How amazing is that?
Setting up an online store on Square is very simple, since all you need to do is auto-import your items from any Square POS to set up your online store in no time. Alternatively, you can even turn your Instagram feed into your webstore. Not just IM, you can integrate your Square store with your Facebook and Pinterest profiles for some wider reach.
In fact, you can retain your brick-and-mortar and manage it alongside your Square online store as well. And, you know what the best part is? There’s absolutely no monthly fee, no contracts and certainly no start-up expenses. Only thing you’ll be parting with is 2.9% plus 30 cents for every transaction.
There are some optional Square hardware and accessories available, including the compact POS terminal, card reader, barcode scanner, cash drawer and scale. Square Online looks quite appealing and is simple to use. The menu is very simple and the layout for information and reports very clean.
Key steps in setting up your eCommerce store
If you've made your choice of the right eCommerce platform for your business, your next step would be to simply follow setup process that the software outlines. This will involve choosing a design template, populating your product pages, setting up the cart and the ordering process, the payment system, shipping information, delivery tracking and so on.
Here are the key steps:
1. Shipping process
One thing that will need to be added to your existing brick-and-mortar business when you take it online is the shipping. The following options are available to take care of the shipping process:
a) In-house fulfillment: Given the fact that you'll already have a warehouse and inventory management system in place, this option appears to be the most suitable one. Your daily order of the day would include packaging, printing address labels, shipping, tracking delivery and picking up returns. Of course, you will need to partner with a courier company for the delivery and returns parts.
b) Third-party fulfillment: Then there’s the option where you hand over all the responsibilities, including packaging and delivery to a third-party vendor. There are shipping solution providers like ShipStation that will take care of your entire packing, printing of address labels and shipping including picking up returns, for a fee.
They may do so from your existing warehouse or from their own warehouse, depending on what works best for both of you. Of course, this may entail higher costs, but could be a viable option until your orders increase substantially for you to justify setting up your own shipping operation.
c) Curbside or store pick-up: This would be an appropriate option if you happen to have nearly 100 percent of your customers local, residing within a few kilometers. Customers can buy online, agree on a designated time slot for pick-up and drive in to your curbside or storefront.
Buy online, pick-up in store or BOPIS has quite literally changed the face of the retail business industry in the US in the wake of the pandemic. The Q2 figure for 2020 showed a 44.5 percent surge compared to Q2 of the previous year, the biggest quarterly surge in 20 years.
Bopis grocery sales in 2019 in the US generated a revenue of USD 4.3 billion, which shot up to USD 7.4 billion in 2020.
2. Pre-launch checklist
The major components of your website may be broken up into the following categories:
- Web pages
- Othery key bits
a) Home page: The home page will probably be the first and the most visited page, unless they are redirected to a specific page on your website. It basically tells your visitors what your business is all about crisp & clear content plus relatable designs.
In addition, the non-verbal communication that emanates from the home page content can help build trust and other reactions in the subconscious of the customer. Do your homework and make sure that the key messages and designs are inspiring. If you have doubts, evaluate the cost and time involved in changing things over.
b) Product pages: If not the home page, customers usually will begin at the product page. As an entrepreneur these are the pages that show the customer just how much efforts you have put in to make them feel important.
Recheck if the categories and personas are showing up clearly, whether the click-through takes the customer to the right product group and so on. An uncluttered approach, where the product stands out complete with all important information and reviews, is what will prompt the customer to proceed towards checkout.
c) “About Us” & “Contact Us”: When unsure of a company’s credentials, and yet pulled in by interest in their products, customers may decide to take a look at the “About Us” page. They want to find out whatever they can about the company, its reason to exist, its human and technological resources and so on to trust it enough to buy.
Transparent and no BS content on this page will be the key to win the trust of your customers. The same goes for the “Contact Us” page. The coordinates of the company and its associated offices/stores, including addresses, email, social media links and an easy-to-fill “contact us” form will reassure the customer that they are not dealing with a fly-by-night operator. So do make sure there is sufficient information on these pages.
d) Blog: Blog is to an online store what know-how is to an individual. Customers judge your expertise in your domain by the quality of your blog posts. If you have impressive industry-versed articles, brownie points for you. This exercise will tell your customers you know what you’re doing and you’re sharing your knowledge and latest trends in the industry you’re in.
e) Other pages: Your website will have other web pages that will be equally, if not more, important. Review pages are one of them. For a new store, there likely won't be any existing customer reviews, but that shouldn’t stop you from making it possible for for customers to leave their feedback after they’ve shopped on your store.
A rewarding step for new online stores would be to have a comments / feedback space next to reviews so customers can tell you what they find right or not so right about your products, prices, etc. In fact, this could become an ongoing research tool that could tell what the customers have on their mind when surfing through your site.
a) Order flow: This is at the heart of the matter and you cannot afford to have a single glitch here, however small. Ordering process must go as smoothly as possible for customers.
Customers don’t come with a lot of patience and the slightest of issues may trigger their withdrawal from an ongoing order. Test the ordering process again and again, taking all possible routes that may occur during an order, right down to the cart. If there is the slightest hint of an error, redo the process until it turns robust.
b) Checkout: Perhaps even more important than order flow, the checkout end segment is where cart abandonments occur. As many as 70% of online shoppers abandon their cart for some reason or the other.
This segment is where the customers need hand-holding and trust with security breach issues like data theft and online fraud have put them on high alert. Click here to find out how to reduce shopping cart abandonment and boost conversion rate.
c) Inventory management: This is a very critical area to get it right before the launch, because if there are glitches in here and you begin operations anyway, it will take you ages and some serious financial setback to get your inventory figures right midstream.
It's like flying without doing a maintenance check beforehand and if any malfunction is detected mid flight, you’ll be forced to return to base. That involves losing much time and resources, not to speak of passengers waiting for you to take off again. Many will surely drop out.
So, do check this module thoroughly before launch. Here are some essential inventory management techniques to learn so you can save yourself some serious load of money.
d) Returns: A big chunk of online purchases are returned by the customers for a variety of reasons, including wrong product, damaged product and so on. In fact, eCommerce returns are one of the biggest threats stunting the growth of this industry.
For your business and for eCommerce as a whole to retain the trust of customers, a reliable returns mechanism is essential. Here’s a good read on how to put up a robust eCommerce fulfillment, including a fail-proof returns & refund process..
e) Multiple channels: A good number of customers spend time on multiple channels for a single purchase just for the sake of price comparison mostly. So, it's a good idea to check if your store is connected across other sales channels like eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Google Shopping, Instagram and Pinterest. The more exposure you have, the more sales you make.
f) FAQs: If you don’t already have an FAQs page, it’s time you created one, listing all the important questions that your customers might have for you. The best way to generate questions is to think like a customer and see what questions come to your mind.
g) Email settings: Check the email settings again to make sure you are taking full advantage of this useful plug-in. Three key emails that should go out to the customers are: Order confirmation, order shipped and order delivered as an exercise in customer retention.
Other key bits
a) Loading speed: The speed at which the first page loads when a customer hits your site makes all the difference to the customer’s progress in their purchase journey. If your page loads in 0.8 seconds, it is faster than approximately 94% of the web. Read more on what a good page load time is for SEO.
If there is a delay beyond three seconds, your page load will figure in the lower 50% category of the web, where you don’t want to be if your objective is high page ranking. Some pages are so design heavy that even though they may look appealing, they would take 10-15 seconds to load, which is far too long for a customer to wait.
Paradoxically, it is the very factors that make your site appealing - beautiful designs and images - that increase the loading time. The solution to that is image optimization and platform server speed. While we talk about the former below, the latter is a critical factor to evaluate when you are choosing an eCommerce platform.
b) Image optimization: As you very well know by now that SEO is the key to high ranking on search engines. But SEO is not just about content, but images as well.
And one way that you can optimize your images for SEO is by adding alt tags to the images that you upload on your website. Of course, there are other equally vital factors like image size, proportion and format that go into image optimization.
Once you have selected your images, optimized and uploaded them, run A/B tests for certain images to find out which ones load faster. Click here to learn these seven advanced image optimization tips that can lead to increased traffic through your images.
c) Analytics: Analytics is the key to understand customer behavior onsite, in addition to an overview of vital stats like customer visits, navigation path, time spent at each page, order confirmations, payments made, orders shipped and so on.
Most eCommerce platforms have their own analytics tool that they provide you with, although you may look out for an alternative option based on your needs. Click here to know everything about analytics for eCommerce websites and how to use the knowledge to your advantage.
d) Marketing campaigns: Your marketing campaigns must be prepped and ready-to-go before you launch the store because that’s how you’ll draw all the attention you can to your website. The marketing campaign must be based upon a good understanding of customer behavior - where, when, and how do they shop.
Email marketing is one of the most potent marketing strategies that can help you convert customers to loyalists. Here are some successful eCommerce marketing strategies that can help you drive greater sales.
e) Custom domain: Even if you are using a SaaS eCommerce platform, it would be a good idea to have your own custom domain to have a unique brand that customers would easily remember. Of course, you may not find the exact domain because it may have already been taken. So, either the closest domain could be your option or settling for a domain name that is available and rings with your business philosophy.
3. Test runs
Finally, have your team and some real customers go through some full test runs on your website. From site entry to product selection, order placement to even mock shipping, delivery and returns, carry out every possible shopping scenario to rule out any errors in the process.
This exercise will make sure that your entire cycle of operations are running well and glitches, if any, will be thrown up during these test runs. Here’s a list of eight critical tests that you should run before launching your website.
The time to move from physical stores to online stores is NOW. If anything, the recent shopping trends have shown during the current pandemic that customers are reluctant to visit physical stores to make their purchases.
Online shopping is the obvious answer as the eCommerce growth statistics have showed over the last couple of years. With that being said, setting up an online store with readymade DIY eCommerce platforms are the perfect solution for retail store owners who don’t want to lose the tempo of their sales by resorting to something that would take months to develop.
If you’re a retail store owner who’s looking at transitioning to the online space but unsure of how to go about it, we have a whole posse of designers, developers and marketers ready to guide you through this process in a hand-held and fulfilling experience. Just fill in your details and get in touch with our representatives so we can get down to building your dream online store in no time.