Are you ready to expand your business into e-commerce?

December 6, 2013

Publisher: Kelly Burkart

Wisconsin SBDC

With e-commerce sales topping a record-breaking $1 trillion worldwide in 2012, many small businesses are turning to the web to increase their market share and increase sales. E-commerce may seem like an economical way to expand your business without all the pesky overhead costs of a brick-and-mortar operation. It’s true that e-commerce offers boundless opportunities for business success, but it also presents unique challenges. Before you take the big leap into e-commerce, consider a few key points that may help soften your landing.

Get to know your online competition. You may know what you’re up against in your local or regional market, but what does the online environment look like? Check out the websites of your competition beyond the usual suspects locally. How do you compare in terms of your product offerings, prices and customer service? Your prospective online customers will have a level of expectation that their experience on your website will be at least as good as or better than your competitors. If it’s not up to par, pay special attention to addressing these critical issues.

Walk in their shoes. You may have a remarkable product or service to offer but if the process of actually buying it is too confusing or time-consuming, your customer may just give up. That’s bad news for your long-term profitability, especially if your competitors don’t make customers jump through the same hoops.

Go through the online shopping experience repeatedly on your website from first contact all the way through to completion of checkout. Enlist the help of friends and family to go through the process as well and provide feedback about what they liked and, more importantly, what they didn’t like. Can they find what they need? Do they have enough detail – in both images and text – to confidently make a purchase decision? Is the actual purchase process easy to complete? Consider the feedback of your testers objectively along with your own observations and modify your site accordingly.

Know who is on point. The e-commerce portion of your business can’t be an afterthought that you tend to in your copious free time. Whether it’s you or another member of your team, designate someone whose primary responsibility it is to respond to online inquiries and manage online sales.

Anticipate peak times. Peak times will vary widely based on the types of products and services you offer, but chances are high that you DO experience ebbs and flows throughout the year. Consider what factors drive in-store traffic (if applicable) and determine whether these will apply to your online efforts.

Examine potential hidden costs. Unfortunately, e-commerce involves more than just creating a user-friendly website (no small feat on its own!) The idea of fueling your current sales is understandably appealing, but what are the unintended consequences of major increases? Can you obtain raw materials in sufficient quantities? Do you have the manufacturing capabilities to produce at that level? Are you prepared for the added demands of packing and shipping product? Have you allocated resources for frequent updates to your website, including new promotions, product images and videos, and for regular technology upgrades? These are critical questions to ponder as you consider how to proceed with your e-commerce efforts.

Tap into social networks. Social media can be a great way to engage with existing customers and attract prospective ones. Keep in mind, however, that you can’t just “set it and forget it.” Develop a simple communication plan for the social networks in which you choose to participate. A few key considerations for your social media presence:

1) Aim specifically for your target audience.

2) Avoid “spammy” posts; have a reason for posting.

3) Although it’s fine to post the occasional pithy observation or photo just for fun. Generally try to include content with a clear call to action.

4) Social networks thrive on visuals so include a relevant photo or video.

5) Post at times when your target audience will be most receptive to the message (there is a lot of research available but don’t discount your own observations from actual practice).

Prepare for mobile users. Mobile shopping on smartphones – especially tablets, accounted for 11 percent of total U.S. retail sales in 2012 and is expected to jump to more than 37 percent by the end of 2014. With that kind of consumer interest in m-commerce, it is vital for online retailers to have a responsive designed website. A responsive design will adjust to the size of the screen it’s being viewed on, which helps you to avoid strange-looking pages and cut-off information. A mobile app may be a workable alternative, but regard it as a short-term get-around.

Kelly Burkart is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn. While she has spent most of her time writing about financial services the past 15 years, she has also explored and written about everything from cardiovascular health to travel, higher education and sustainable energy practices.

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