Over ten years ago, e-commerce was still an emerging channel. Now it’s become a worldwide phenomenon racking up sales in the stratosphere. According to a new report by the market research firm Forrester, online retail sales in the U.S. are poised to tap $327 billion by 2016. Furthermore, overall online consumer spending is expected to increase to $1,738 per person by 2016 in contrast to $1,207 per person in 2011. For 2012, the forecast is for $226 billion, a 12 percent jump from $202 billion in 2011.
Improvements in mobile devices, coupled with myriad online promotions, may be driving the growth. In the same Forrester survey, conducted in partnership with Bizrate Insights, approximately 75 percent of shoppers polled during last year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday said they made their holiday purchases online simply because the deals were better. Clearly, for small business owners looking to increase their profits, launching an e-commerce site is not simply a key best practice anymore—but an imperative.
However, if you don’t have an e-commerce site (and you don’t have unlimited capital), how do you start? What should be on your to-do list?
If you don’t have the funds to outsource this (and chances are more than likely you do not), then ask for recommendations among trusted colleagues regarding the e-commerce provider they are currently using. Also, do some research on your own. Make sure that whatever provider you choose for your inaugural site, they offer the most bang from your buck—meaning they offer an affordable price plan in line with the volume of products you would like to sell.
Ask yourself the following questions: Does the e-commerce platform you’re considering require monthly fees? Can they link in directly with any PayPal or bank account? Make sure before you partner up with them that they don’t take a percentage of your sales revenues. Examples of some e-commerce solution providers that small business owners might want to check out are Shopify and Big Commerce.
Check out the competition
What are your rivals doing in this space? Review their sites. What they are offering? What are their payment plans, target audience(s) and their Google search rankings? What can you do to distinguish yourself from the competition and seize a sizable portion of the market share? Offering improved customer service, expedited shopping, or the ability to speak to product experts on the phone may be what distinguishes you from online titans like Amazon.com and eBay.
Make your site search friendly
By leveraging customer service and search marketing, Bill and Lauren Elward were able to position their online store Castle Ink, which sells recycled printer ink cartridges and toners, as a formidable contender against heavyweight competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and Epson. Launched in 2005 by the husband and wife partners for $5,000—a sum culled from their savings—Castle Ink generated $1 million in revenue last year. This is in stark contrast to its first year when the site didn’t quite crack sales of $50,000. Not bad for a venture initially viewed by Lauren, a former high school English teacher, as a way to supplement family income while on maternity leave.
Bill credits search engine optimization (SEO), which he honed as the director of web analytics, digital strategy, and online marketing at the College Board (a day job he continues to hold) as the number one factor behind Castle Ink’s success. “I think that’s been the key to everything,” he explains. “To have our site findable on Google where almost 100 percent of our traffic comes from [has been critical]. We’re able to outrank some of the super large companies that have much deeper pockets than us simply by having a better organic ranking.”
Don’t sacrifice quality for pricing
Another challenge that Castle Ink has had to tackle is pricing. Larger competitors, says Bill, offer low price points as a way to draw in the most customers. But that doesn't presuppose the quality is up to par. “Because there’s a false sense of inferior products out there, it has turned consumers off to the whole idea of using a recycled product,” he says. “That’s been a battle for us. One of the things we’ve done to overcome that is to give people a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. We pay for return shipping so basically they can try our products for free; if they don’t like it, they can always send it back.”
Hire staff and make sure they’re qualified
Even if your business does not have the funds to hire a full complement of staff to get your e-commerce site running, it’s still a good idea to bring on someone, even if temporarily, whose sole responsibility will be to launch this component. This is especially true since it might end up yielding more revenue for your company than your other platforms. Take it seriously and don’t treat it like a sideline hobby.
In this vein, make sure you find someone who is qualified. “Don’t go with someone’s nephew who just graduated from college and can program a site,” cautions Julian Barkat, founder and director of e-commerce at Egg to Apples, a Philadelphia-based marketing agency. He adds that one client hired a niece to set up an e-commerce site simply because she “liked colors and studied that in college.”
Barkat, who has managed e-commerce operations for large and mid-sized companies in the past, currently acts as a consultant to small businesses looking to overhaul their site or launch one. Recently, he had a success story with Rescue Rittenhouse Spa, a luxury spa located in Philadelphia. Barkat started working with them in 2010, following the client’s earlier failed attempts at online sales.
After streamlining its SEO efforts, Barkat and his colleagues built out the spa’s e-commerce site via a new platform, Magento. After launching the site in November 2011, the client saw an immediate impact on revenue, while relevant search terms rose up in rankings. For 2012, Rescue Rittenhouse Spa’s year-over-year revenue forecast (which encompasses both the spa and the online store) is up 150-200 percent.
Here are a few other best practices for entrepreneurs to employ when launching an e-commerce site to bolster ROI:
- View your e-commerce site as a way to deepen your relationships with your existing customer base rather than pursue new customers already.
- Link all of your marketing efforts to your site.
- Use Google analytics to track and monitor the visits to your site, particularly your repeat visitors. This will give you a keen sense of what is working on your site and what isn’t.
- And finally test your site out before it goes live. Before Bill and Lauren Elward launched their e-commerce site, they spent considerable time and energy testing it and working out the kinks. “In the online space, it’s easy to try something and to wholly invest a small amount in it to see if it’s going to work,” says Bill. “Launch a pilot before you fully embark on a huge display advertising campaign or a huge search marketing campaign.”