Getting started in e-commerce
Okay, you have a great product to sell and have decided to start up an e-Commerce website. Now what? Operating an e-Commerce store is straightforward isn't it?
You are sitting in front of a computer screen with the desire to sell your product and looking at all of the options available to you as an Internet marketing executive. The excitement of starting a new business can quickly be replaced with confusion and dread! It doesn’t have to be that way. Getting started needs careful thought; thought to both the actual product offering and to the shopping experience. We're assuming that you have an excellent product; now for the shopping experience objectives.
The most important feature of any online business is an attractive and functional website. Your website is your on-line storefront. You must look critically at the first impression that you give, in exactly the same way that you would look critically at a physical shop. It is the first impression your customers will get of you and your product. It needs to give them all the information they need to feel good about purchasing your products or services. If you fail here the site will fail.
Consider the analogy with a physical shop – if it looks scruffy, poorly laid out, difficult to find your way around, with indifferent staff lolling around, will you go in? Of course not!
It is mandatory for your site to be fast loading and easy to navigate. These are vital. Give them both very serious consideration. In addition, you need to offer visitors the following important features:
About you: Well known high street sores have a reputation and customers know whom they trust and what to expect from their buying experience. They know nothing about you unless you tell them. Make sure that there is enough information about you and your retailing philosophy readily available on your site.
Security: This is absolutely vital to any business that sells items or services online. Your customers need to feel secure in providing personal and financial information to your website. Be explicit about your policy, remind them that personal data is sent using encryption (Secure Socket Layering in the jargon!). Refer to the https in the address bar and to the padlock at bottom right. Would you enter your pin in a physical store with people looking over your shoulder? Of course not!
Customer service policies: These need to be clearly stated and readily accessible. What are your service standards? What about returns? Refunds or a credit note? What about packing and delivery costs? These are often hidden until the very last minute in the buying process – be upfront.
Support and information: Customer support is vital in good e-Commerce websites. You hope that you have made your offer crystal clear, and therefore highly automated. However, there will always be customers who need support. Make sure you have quick and easy ways for your customers to get in touch with you. The traditional means of phone and postal mail are only a part of a good support system. Many companies today offer email information service, or instant chat, for customers to contact them. Think of the support that is available to customers in a physical store!
Shopping cart or Purchase buttons: There needs to be a logical, clear and unambiguous path through the purchase process. This starts with product information, then selection and then through the payment process. Allow for additional items to be added and for changes to already selected items. At the end of the process don't forget to confirm the transaction and to say thank you! This, again, is exactly as you would expect in a physical store. There are many shopping carts, and payment systems, on the market – choose those that meet these criteria – many don't.
Stocks and supplies: Where will you hold stock? Have you contracts in place to supply the goods you will sell? How long is delivery lead-time? What happens if orders far exceed, or fall short of, your expectation – does your contract give you appropriate flexibility? If you fail on your delivery promise to your on-line customers your site will fail. There is an old marketing truism that a dissatisfied customer will, on average, tell 13 other people of their problem.
Opening hours: Your on-line shop needs to be open 24/7 as your customers may well be in different time zones, or prefer to shop late at night. This means reliable and secure hosting with secure backup. Imagine the situation where the hosting computers crash and have inadequate backup. What are the outstanding orders, who to, have they paid, and so on – the nightmare scenario.
Site coherence: Broken links, out of date information, pages under construction are all to be avoided. Update and check your site very regularly; try out all the links and pages, double check the spelling and grammar, go through the buying process; and then evaluate all this critically.
Site updates: Who will do this? Your site can be designed for you to update the content but will you also update the structure? Probably not. In that case make sure that you have a maintenance and update arrangement with a professional web company, who will also fix any technical problems.
Additional Communication: A great e-Commerce website will provide their customers with all the expected ways to communicate with them. In addition, you might wish to consider chat rooms, blogs and forums. These are becoming increasingly popular and mainstream.
Reaching the proper level of elegance and functionality is very important. Keep it simple enough that your customers can easily find all the information they need to make a good decision, while providing a pleasing look and attractive design.
So, you have commissioned a brilliant website and it is up and running. How do you get potential customers to your site? Other articles in this series address this question. You might want to have a look at:
Use the tips in these articles to make sure that your website is elegantly built, optimised for search engines and that the site performance is closely monitored. This is the best way to be sure you will get customers to your site.
Some of the more technical decisions that are needed for a successful e-Commerce site will be covered in a future article. Finally, why are you doing all this? To make a profit! We can do no better than to quote the following:-
"Profit should be the ultimate goal, not rankings or traffic or even sales."
(Source: Rachel Money, Internet Journalist)