How to start selling online
Tue May 02 2017
Let’s not faff about with long introductions; you came to find out exactly how to start selling online, so here we go.
The first step we’ve outlined is relevant for anyone thinking about selling online. After that we’ve focused on how to do this through your own website, rather than an online marketplace. We’ve also assumed you’ve done all the legal stuff, like registering your business with Companies House etc.
If you’re in a rush, here are five quick things to set you on the right track:
- Don’t take another step or spend another pound before you’ve written down your ecommerce strategy.
- Nerd up on how people are buying (on mobile? Via apps? On social media platforms?) and ecommerce trends.
- Choose a platform and payment solution that’ll grow with your business, not just one that suits you now.
- Build a brand before you build a website.
- Once you’ve got a website, never stop working on it – there will always be things you can be doing better.
Have a crystal clear plan of action
The crucial first step to successful online selling is knowing exactly what you plan to achieve.
According to Smart Insights1, 77% of marketing professionals think a planned approach focusing on analytics and continued optimisation is the most effect way of managing digital marketing. Only 14% thought a relatively unplanned, reactive approach was best.
Although the former sounds obvious, it’s tempting to just get selling when you’re excited about your product or the prospect of a new way to make money. But your ecommerce strategy doesn’t have to be long, complicated and full of business jargon. Quite the opposite, in fact. Write down answers to the following questions and you’ve got yourself the bones of a strategy that you can flesh out before you launch your website:
- What am I going to sell and does my product lend itself well to being sold online?
- How much will I charge customers and how much does it cost me to buy/make my product? The answer to this will give you your margin.
- Who are my customers and how will they find out about my website?
- Are there are lot of people who want what I’m selling? This is crucial – it’s so important to understand if your product is trending or in decline. Be honest with yourself at this stage and it’ll save you battling to find customers if, realistically, there are very few.
- Who are my competitors and what can I do that’s better/different? Understanding your unique selling point (USP) is a business basic, because if you’re offering exactly the same product, at the same price and with the same customer service and delivery options as an established player, you’re fighting a losing battle. Your USP might be that you’re the cheapest, your product is of the highest quality, or your customer service is superior. Whatever it is, know it inside out and make sure your customers know it too.
- How much do I need to sell to break even, make a profit and grow the business? Your sales targets and growth predictions are really important. If you don’t know your numbers you could get yourself into seriously deep water financially. Watch an episode or two of that popular show where inventors ask for investment and you’ll see what we mean.
This isn’t everything, but it’s a great start and should get you thinking about whether or not you’re ready to start selling online.
“The planning phase of any eCommerce venture is absolutely critical,”
Head of eCommerce – Small Business, at Barclaycard.
“While the product or service you’re selling online is obviously important – people have to want what you’ve got – it’s almost secondary to a rock solid plan of how your website is going to work, practically, for your consumers.”
Know which platform is best to start on
Now you know what your business is and who you want to sell to, it’s time to work out how best to start selling online. Think of the two options – hosted and self-hosted2 – as the equivalent of renting or owning a house. A hosted platform basically means you are renting your online store from a company. A self-hosted platform means you own that online store. There are pros and cons for each, as you’d expect.
Hosted: The good stuff
As soon as you sign up, you’ll have the beginnings of your online shop. You’ll be able to choose from templates, basic functions and optional extras to add on – you don’t need to know much about ecommerce at all. And if you find yourself stuck on something, most hosted platforms have some kind of support system in place – some are better than others so do your homework on what the package gives you. Being constrained by templates and functions can be a great way to stick to a tight budget, or even help you set budgets upfront.
Hosted: The drawbacks
Like renting a house, being on a hosted platform means you won’t necessarily be able to redecorate to your tastes. So if you don’t like the design templates offered by your host, or it doesn’t support the online payment solution you want to use, there’s very little you can do about it. Also, you won’t know if or when changes or updates are coming – and you’re certainly not in control of what those will be. You’ll also be tied in to the platform for a certain amount of time.
Self-hosted: The good stuff
You get to do whatever you want; make your website look exactly like you want it to, with whatever functions you choose. There are no limits, except your budget and imagination.
Self-hosted: The drawbacks
It’s more expensive than the hosted option (with costs that can spiral easily), and in order to brief web designers and developers effectively, it’s really important to understand the mechanics of getting a new website up and running. If something goes wrong, it’s up to you to fix it and if you don’t know how, getting someone in who does can be pricey.
As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. If your budget is small partly because you want to be cautious in the beginning, you might be better off testing your products and customer service by selling via an online marketplace first. Whichever way you go, make sure you choose the right one. Your decision should be based on your stock size, skill level in terms of customising the website and understanding its functions, budget, the level of support you think you’ll need, and the payment system you want to use.
A convertible website explained
In short, a trustworthy, seamlessly integrated payment solution. Ok, so there are loads of things that affect conversion, but this one is right up there with the most important. Just as with the hosted/self-hosted decision, we’d strongly advise you not to skip the homework phase. The likelihood is that no matter who your customers are, they’ll want the choice of making digital payments and debit/credit card payments. According to recent research by Postnord3, 49% of online shoppers in the UK chose to pay by debit or credit card, 40% by PayPal and just 5% by bank transfer.
The role of an online payment gateway, processor or solution is to approve a credit or debit card transaction in real time. Think of it as the middleman between your online shop, the customer’s bank or credit card company and your business bank account.
If that middleman goes off sick you’re in trouble. So make sure you go with a provider who has systems in place to minimise problems and fix them quickly and seamlessly if they do occur. Talking of problems, because card fraud is a big problem – one in 10 adults in England and Wales fell victim to cybercrime in the 12 months to March 20164 – making sure you’re complying with current security regulations is essential.
Swot up on PCI DSS, which stands for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. It’s a set of standards introduced to help businesses process card payments securely by protecting cardholder data. As well as being a very good thing for your customers, it’s also essential for your business.
No one wants to put their customers’ online security at risk, and if a data breach does happen and you’re found not to be PCI DSS compliant, you may well be fined. And your payment processor might stop working with you, which means you won’t be able to accept card payments.
Both could be game changers for your business, and not for the better. It’s basically about understanding exactly how and why you collect and store customer payment information, but you can find a full checklist of how to be compliant, here.
Here are some basic questions to keep in mind when you’re shopping for the right payment strategy:
- Can the solution be easily integrated into my choice of website platform and can I customise it to fit with the look of my site? More on the importance of a consistent brand, later.
- Is the system that’s provided secure and backed by a name my customers
- will know and trust?Will I get fraud prevention and security measures?
- Will I get regular reports to help me manage my online business?
Clue: Your chosen provider should be able to answer ‘yes’ to all of the above.
“As the ‘sharing economy’ (think Uber and AirBnB) grows in popularity and spreads to other industries, it’ll become the norm, increasing consumer demand for instant gratification,” comments Greg Liset.
Put yourself in your customers’ shoes
You might have an incredible product, but if your customer service is shoddy, your delivery strategy is non-existent or your payment platform is hard to use, you’re in for a rocky ecommerce ride. Thinking about each step of the customer journey and how you can build trust with visitors, is critical to the success (or failure) of your website. Don’t just rely on the strength of your product, consider:
- What your website looks like and how it performs across different devices – this is about far more than a responsive website that adjusts its proportions to fit different screen sizes (this is a very important factor, though). It’s thinking about how willing customers are to fill in extensive log in, billing and delivery details if they’re on a mobile rather than a laptop or desktop. It’s thinking about how much scrolling customers must do to find the right information, or how many clicks it takes to complete a purchase. If you’re not catering for every device, you might find yourself missing out on potential sales. After all, studies from 20165 showed that around 30% of all online purchases were made on a mobile or tablet; of those, 70% were through a smartphone.
- How customers can ‘check out’ – this means the steps it takes from choosing to buy a product, to adding it to a basket, choosing delivery options and paying for it. Is this process as easy and quick as it could be? Research6 carried out in the US in 2016 found that 46.1% of all shopping basket abandonments happened at the payment stage, and 37.4% happened when asked to log in before checking out. Only one of the five top reasons for abandoning a shopping basket had to do with price, the other four (including the two just mentioned) were all to do with process. That’s why your choice of payment platform is such a critical one when it comes to selling online successfully.
- Security and a name you can trust – customers are wary of things like identity theft, so make sure you choose a reputable online payment solution. Most people will want to choose how they pay, so it’s important that your website accepts credit and debit card payments, as well as digital payments like PayPal. Making clear what you do and don’t accept at the start of the process should reduce abandonment rates.
- Your delivery options – are they as good as they could be? We’re an impatient lot, which means we expect several delivery options depending on how urgently we need something. If you can offer free standard delivery all the way through to same day delivery (not for free, of course) then you might be pretty popular with thrifty and last minute shoppers alike.
- The consistency of your website – does the look and feel of your site persist throughout the customer journey, from landing on a blog, home page or product page all the way to payment confirmation? A disconnect between any one of these steps can deter customers and potentially turn them off their purchase. Design, tone of voice and functionality all play a part here. Which brings us on to building a brand…
How will people know you’re the best?
There are some brands that most of us have heard of, but you’re just starting out so possibly only a handful of people have heard of you. That’s because you’re not yet a brand. Put simply, a brand is anything that separates one thing from another. This could be a symbol (like the famous sportswear brand’s swoosh), name (insert your favourite brand name here), emotion (think fizzy drink ads), tone, and much more.
Becoming a brand is a huge part of successful online selling. After all, your customers can’t see you, can’t walk back into your shop to complain, ask for a refund or browse around – it’s all done in a virtual world. Your brand is the online equivalent of your high street shop front and friendly shopkeeper, so it’s really worth investing time and money into your brand story, brand design and tone of voice.
And aside from your customers, potential investors will need to buy into your brand, too, if you’ve got any hope of securing that lovely cash injection you’re after.
Work doesn’t stop once you’ve made a few sales
You don’t need us to tell you that running your own business is incredibly hard work. But if you’re brand new to selling online, it might be easy to forget that one of the most important factors of success is focusing on repeat business. A great website, product and shopping experience is just the first step, the next is all about follow up. Have you thought about how you’ll keep that customer for life? Well that’s a whole other article…
In the meantime, stop by when you’ve set up your website and test how good your cyber security really is.