Starting an e-commerce site doesn’t have to be hard. Just follow these steps from an expert in building an online presence to see your sales soar.
By Kavita Sabharwal
Two decades ago, most people could not have foreseen that it would be possible to buy and sell products and services online. With the invention of the first web server in 1990 and Amazon’s launch in 1995, the shopping landscape was permanently altered.
Online sales account for a small yet hearty portion of total overall sales. In 2013, Canadian spending reached over $480 billion on goods and services, yet online spending only accounted for 5.2 per cent of that, according to a BMO Capital Markets report. However, e-commerce is steadily growing at approximately 17 per cent per year, and is expected to reach 7.4 per cent of total retail sales by 2017, according to eMarketer.
This is compared to online sales in the U.S., which reached 5.8 per cent in 2013, and the United Kingdom, with online sales accounting for 11.6 per cent of total retail sales. Although Canadians are lagging behind on the e-commerce trend, the climbing sales indicate that Canada is catching up to the e-commerce trend at a rapid pace.
Steps to success
According to Moody Hashem, a consultant at the digital marketing firm Rytalo, proper planning is essential to having a successful online store that can make a real positive impact on your business numbers. Here are a few key steps that any retailer should follow in order to grow its online presence.
1. Identify your value propositions and target audience.
Hashem says the first step in deciding to move a store online is identifying your target markets and target audiences, and building your strategy around those customers to figure out your growth opportunities.
“Look at all the marketing elements: messaging, landing pages, the look and feel of the website, all the different ways to position yourself for your target audience,” advises Hashem. “Most importantly, make sure your content is clear and fulfills your audience’s needs, because the behaviour of consumers in-store is totally different from when they’re shopping online. The idea is to make sure that they’re putting the content in the proper format to fit the visitors of the website.”
Hashem also advises thinking about your target audience’s problems or issues they need to solve, and how your products and services can help solve those issues. Why should customers use your product over all others? This question is important, as is differentiating your store from all the other options available.
Finally, figure out what additional information and content would be required to drive visitors’ interest and get them to become leads (potential customers), and make the decision to complete the transaction.
To do this, Hashem recommends identifying who will be visiting your site and segmenting them into groups. “For each group, we need to develop a persona to understand their characteristics, preferences, challenges and needs, and then identify clear benefits that will meet each persona’s unique needs,” he says.
Hashem identifies persona-based content and calls for action for these personas. “The developed content should be mapped to the information required to drive consumers and move them forward along the path from being a visitor into leads who are interested in making a purchase decision, and finally, becoming customers,” he says.
2. Build your customers’ trust and identify calls for action.
The problem with online retailing is that in person, it’s easier to build loyalty, since the sales associate spends time with the customer and helps them choose products, which doesn’t exist in the online world.
“The main objective of online retailing is to build confidence and trust and move visitors gradually from one stage to the next until you can close the sale,” says Hashem. “We want to develop the relationship to convert them from a potential customer into a loyal customer with repeated orders.”
That involves planning certain aspects of your web presence before going live, such as the content, the value proposition, whether your site will feature customer reviews to show depth and trust of the products and the clear call for action. The design of the landing page and the website should be easily and clearly promoting the values of the company, according to Hashem.
A customer’s call for action may include learning more information about the subject, downloading a whitepaper or e-book to get exclusive information, reading or viewing other consumers’ experiences with these product or services, signing up for a newsletter to stay informed, calling the brick-and-mortar store or company; posting a comment on a blog post or liking a Facebook page or making a purchase.
3. Configure your site and operate efficiently.
Depending on your personal preference for how sophisticated you wish your e-commerce site to be and the customization that is required, this aspect of launching an e-commerce site could take up to three months alone. This stage includes choosing a technology platform and host and the development phase including designing the page. “The performance of the site and mobile-optimized sites are crucial,” says Hashem.
He says the most important part of this step is ensuring the site runs quickly and easily, as visitors will not tolerate slowness. “That needs to be taken into consideration when choosing the e-commerce platform. Also, choosing the host and the servers, the point is to make sure the whole operation and performance of the website performs smoothly,” he says.
Once you have the products, details, pricing information and inventory, it is crucial to figure out how to integrate this with the brick-and-mortar location’s existing operations without overlapping.
“In the end, to minimize overhead and logistics, that’s very important, otherwise it will become a very high-cost operation,” warns Hashem. His advice is to learn how to streamline the operation, including using one combined inventory system for both the physical and online stores.
Engaging in ongoing analytics is important when running an online store, in order to stay on top of what interests consumers, and what doesn’t. Use these analytics to optimize the design of your site, as well as its processes and any other functions. Also consider sending out an e-newsletter that sends out information to consumers to encourage them to visit your site and make a purchase decision.
4. Promote your new storefront.
Hashem warns that although having an online store can provide a big boost in sales if done properly, since the online business is so competitive, it requires commitment and the resources and budget to advertise it properly. This includes engaging all the advertising channels possible, such as sponsored placements on Google, Bing, Facebook and Twitter.
“That’s all ongoing marketing. Also something I consider very crucial is measuring and getting an analysis of what you have and how you can enhance every step of the business,” he says. “Campaigns will generate traffic. You guarantee great conversion rates to convert traffic into sales.”
Hashem recommends using analytics to see how each step is performing and work out ways to enhance that performance. “Ongoing management and measurements help you understand the effectiveness of each advertising message and learn your own formula for each channel,” he says. He suggests testing it out by using a small amount of money in one channel and seeing how much business you get used on that small budget, allowing you to plan your budgets based on your sales objectives.
He also champions direct email marketing. “If you have a user coming onto the website, trying to purchase products, and they don’t complete their transaction, the idea is to make an email to get them back to their abandoned cart,” he says.
Hashem estimates that the number of consumers that do not make a purchase after visiting an online store is between 95 and 98 per cent. “That’s a very high bounce rate. At physical stores, people visit one or two before making a decision. Online, people shop around at eight or 10 different stores before they make a decision,” he says. “The whole objective of the website, which needs to be clearly planned, is how to put out the right elements and right information to make sure when the visitor comes to the website, you are able to capture them to become a potential lead until they eventually make a purchase. That’s the most important part.”
In terms of the trends of webrooming and showrooming, Hashem says these are now part of our reality. “That’s why it’s crucial for retailers to put the information out there to differentiate themselves and try to give their products and services value above all others,” he says. “If you put something in a store without any value, that wouldn’t give you any advantage. Most likely, you will attract people looking for special pricing and if they don’t see it, they will move on.”
Hashem suggests sending an e-mail offering them help from an online customer service representative, sending them reviews of the product they were looking at to help encourage a purchase or sending a discount incentive if they return to complete the purchase.
Confirmation e-mails are also a great way to say thank you to customers who have made a purchase. “Offer them other deals for an upselling opportunity. Send them an e-mail inviting them to write a review or rating and share their experience,” he suggests.
Hashem’s next marketing phase is to plan growth strategies to other niche markets and target audiences to expand your online business.
5. Making the transition
Hashem says that after a period of three months of planning and three months of marketing through various channels, to plan for about six months to one year to see a return on your investment. He also suggests using that time to help the company grow by increasing your advertising budget to see rising sales.
For the natural health market, there are not any particular web services that may only be useful in this industry, however, given the competitive nature of the industry and the sheer number of products available, providing detailed product information and customer reviews are a good way to build trust from new consumers.
“Product reviews, testimonials and one-on-one customer service chats with an expert all engage the user and helps them make a decision,” says Hashem.
He also recommends analytics to help a retailer understand what they’re doing right and what areas need work to appeal to new clients. “That, to me, is very crucial,” he says.
Most important to Hashem is providing the customer a reason for a customer to become loyal to your store and keep coming back. “Whether the customer will make their purchase in-store or online, the whole idea is to provide them with that value and they will come back and purchase from you again.”