E-commerce presents opportunities to move some of your business online, grow your customer base and insulate your business from future uncertainty. A 2020 e-commerce report by eMarketer predicted U.S. online sales of just over $7 billion, an 18% increase over 2019. If potential customers can’t currently buy from your business via the internet, it’s time to start thinking about opening an online store.
How? It’s important to have a plan. So, let’s build one step by step.
Learn about e-commerce in your business sector
Below are articles that show you how some businesses have done it. You can dig online to find additional resources more specific within your industry, from professional services to healthcare to every kind of retail, or even within the geographic area(s) where your business operates. Here are some ideas:
Furniture Home Goods
Ask yourself some important questions
What do customers like about your store? Why do people come to your restaurant? Why is your small law firm different? Think about how to replicate the feelings they have in person, and take that online. Maybe customers love chatting with their stylist, so a spunky editorial style will work on the web page. Or maybe they miss perusing beautiful goods, meaning it’s worth putting more energy into high-quality product photography. Understanding what’s special about your brand—to you and your audience—is essential to putting together an e-commerce strategy.
Playbill, the company that produces the paper programs at Broadway shows, saw its advertising revenue plummet as theaters were forced to close due to the pandemic. The company pivoted to online content. Using materials from their archives for articles and photo galleries, and leveraging existing relationships to create videos with Broadway stars, the company has grown its website visitors by over 50%. This strategy was driven by the key insight of what their customers love (and miss) about the in-person theater experience.
Decide what to offer
Part of moving into e-commerce is reinvention. Think about whether there’s something you’ve always wanted to do with your business: Does the distribution model of the internet make it possible? Does access to anyone, anywhere increase your potential audience?
For instance, Alinea, an acclaimed fine-dining restaurant in Chicago, pivoted to lower-priced, assemble-yourself to-go meals. Nick Kokonas, a co-owner, told the Chicago Tribune that they created an experience at a price point that met the moment. Expanding your business model prepares you for the unexpected and provides new avenues for growth.
Bring in new offerings
Think carefully about what your business can offer and how you might best pivot to an online presence. Here are some ideas:
- Can your service become a kit? If you’re a salon, chances are your customers keep coming back for the experience. But (a) some customers will not feel comfortable coming back for a while and (b) there’s an opportunity here! You could sell hair dye and care packages to customers who aren’t ready to come in yet and to new people who find you online!
- Offer gift cards. Many clients want to support businesses they miss, and gift cards can be part of a good e-commerce strategy. Just don’t let them be your entire e-commerce strategy.
- You don’t have to sell everything online. You can include best sellers, items that showcase your business or even a rotating selection of whats available at your physical location.
Articulate your business strategy
Using what you’ve learned, write a business plan. You (hopefully) wrote one for your business when you were starting out, but the world has changed. Dedicating some time to thinking about how you want your e-commerce business to work will help you stay disciplined. And studies compiled by Bplans.com show that existing businesses benefit from plans even more than startups do, and businesses with plans grow faster than ones without.
It’s important to think about what you’re going to charge when you go online. In New York City, the 92nd Street Y turned into a primarily online institution and avoided layoffs in the process. The Y expanded its audience tenfold, to 3.5 million participants globally, with a mix of free content and paid classes. The Y reported to New York Public Radio that their niche offerings have been hits, underscoring the opportunity the internet presents for many businesses: You can reach customers with very specific interests anywhere in the world.
Choose your technology
To run an online store, you need two main pieces of tech: secure payment processing and a storefront provider.
A payment processor handles transactions on your site, so customers can actually pay you. You’re probably familiar with PayPal, but there are tons more, including ones you can use for both online and physical sales. One such provider is Square, which has a free monthly plan that only charges you when you make a sale.
You also need to choose a platform for running your store. Look for platforms that allow you to own the customer relationship. This means getting to see who is buying your products and how to reach them. There are many options, with some specializing in different industries. Big players in restaurants include Toast and Tock, which provide end-to-end point-of-sale solutions. Etsy is good for handmade and vintage goods.
The big player in e-commerce right now is Shopify, which enables you to quickly set up a store on your own website and to get analytics to assess the effectiveness of your strategy. Shopify has tons of integrations, meaning it can grow with your business. And finally, website builders like Squarespace and Wix now have sleek online store capabilities built in.
The range of options for different industries and the specific requirements you’ll have for your business mean there isn’t only one correct choice. But, good news: It’s not hard to switch between providers, and sometimes the best thing to do is the thing you can do right now. As your business grows and your needs change, you can make adjustments.
Now, create the online store
The platforms in this article are designed for ease of use and provide step-by-step guides (here’s Shopify’s). They also have tech support teams you can email—and sometimes call—meaning help is just a click or dial away. And if you’re still having trouble, try a Google search for the name of the platform you chose plus “developer for hire” to find paid help.
Engage customers old and new with creative content
People like your small business for the connection they feel to it, what it can offer them and perhaps its charm, and capturing a little of that magic in your online store will help you keep customers and win new ones. Here are some more ideas to get you thinking about content:
- Put on a show. If you sell clothing, show off some looks on Instagram Live. A bookstore can do online readings or author interviews.
- Have a contest. An art supply store can run a painting contest and announce winners online.
- How-to videos. If some products might present a challenge for customers to set up, like speaker systems, or require some know-how, like a pasta maker, make a short video showing them the ropes. (Think about partnering with local businesspeople, like electricians or carpenters, to offer home installations for your products.)
- Peek behind the curtain. You can blog about how you run your business. How do you choose which books to order? What’s the story behind your logo? Which of your products do you use at home? You’re the expert, and you can forge a connection with customers by letting them learn about how your expertise plays out in your own life.
- Change with the seasons. Put together lookbooks or shopping lists for customers to peruse, complete with links to buy the things they’re interested in.
- Provide Q&As. Don’t guess what your customers want to hear about—some of them will tell you. A question-and-answer format Zoom webinar or blog post can engage customers while showcasing your expertise.
- Instagram can be your friend. If you have lots of unique, one-time products, like custom cakes or vintage furniture, posting photos can help show prospects who you are—and keep existing customers connected. And many apps enable you to embed your Instagram feed right into your website.
Wrapping it up
There’s no doubt about it: Building your business back up will require some work. Adding e-commerce is a terrific way to strengthen existing relationships with customers and create worthwhile new ones, in the here and now and well into the future.
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