If your small business has thrived in the local community for years, it can feel daunting to go out on a limb to establish an online store. After all, it seems like having your own online store could require twice as much work for no guaranteed gains. Will your customers use the online store? Why fix what isn't broken?
The truth is that an online store or e-commerce website is an incredible tool for small-business owners to leverage thanks to numerous benefits. With the increasing popularity of do-it-yourself platforms like Shopify, you don't have to be an expert to create a high-quality store (but hiring an expert doesn't hurt). Setting up an online store can initially take some time, but it will inevitably pay for itself as the sales start rolling in. If you end up getting overwhelmed with a high volume of purchases, you can always hire a new employee.
To achieve those kinds of knock-you-over results, combine an e-commerce store with online marketing tools and tactics to rake in new customers, like search engine optimization and social media marketing. An online store is the perfect complement to your brick-and-mortar store. Weigh the benefits against your doubts or reservations and create a budget before deciding to go ahead with your e-commerce initiative.
Instantly Reach a Larger Audience
An easy way to increase sales is to increase your audience. Perhaps you've already saturated your local market, meaning that everyone within about a 20-mile radius knows you exist, and people have already made up their mind to patronize your business or choose a competitor. You could try to heavily advertise to this local audience, but it may not be easy to convert them away from competitors.
Instead, why not aim for low-hanging fruit? What about people who live 500 miles away and would love to purchase from your store but have no way to get there? That's where an online store instantly opens your doors to people from across the nation and even from around the world. For a modest investment toward setup, you can increase your sales by no longer limiting your audience to those who live locally.
In fact, you may end up increasing your local orders as well. People are busier than ever, and shopping online is convenient. Perhaps your neighbors would love to support your business but just don't have the time to stop by your storefront when it's open. Let them browse your product pages online and make a purchase whenever it's convenient for them — even if it's at 3 a.m.!
Gather Data and Behavioral Insights
An online store will also give you access to built-in analytics and data about your customers and their shopping habits. For example, it could be helpful to know what kinds of products are frequently bought together so that you can offer a special bundle discount or cross-market the products on other pages in your web store. If you do frequently offer discounts, you might like to look at whether they are used by first-time customers or repeat customers to understand the codes' impact on customer loyalty and lead generation.
Data can also help you troubleshoot your website or prices by showing you which web page causes people to exit your site or what kind of products are typically in abandoned carts. Does your shop easily convince people to make a purchase, or do many visitors leave? How much time are they spending on your site, and what's the average order value?
The type of data or behavior that you'd like to track is virtually limitless, but you may need a little help from a web developer or marketer to set up the right kind of tracking system if the data you want to gather isn't automatically offered through your chosen e-commerce platform (i.e., Shopify Analytics) or tool (i.e., Google Analytics).
Take Advantage of Online Marketing Tactics
You can't take advantage of online marketing tactics if you don't have some kind of online presence. An online store instantly gives you a marketable web presence that can show up in search engine results, be shared on social media or be used to gather emails for a newsletter campaign. Of course, your shop/website won't achieve these things automatically. You'll need to actively use social media, search engine optimization and email marketing techniques to ensure that you accomplish specific goals: attracting people to your website who will ultimately make a purchase, thereby increasing your revenue.
In fact, the success or failure of your online store can hinge on whether you create effective online marketing campaigns. Don't make the mistake of creating an online store and then not telling anyone about it. Start with a simple postcard or email newsletter campaign alerting your current customers to the new option to make purchases from your online business. For best results, factor the ongoing need for marketing into your store budget alongside the initial estimates for designing and creating the store.
Remain Competitive and Relevant
It's time to face the facts: e-commerce is here to stay. Now that consumers have gotten a taste (more like an all-you-can-eat buffet!) of how convenient it is to order products online and have them delivered to the doorstep, they've come to expect it and seek it out. If your shop doesn't do business online, you run the risk of losing customers to your competitors.
This is especially true if you cater to people who tend to be busy by definition. For example, if you sell products for babies and toddlers, moms make up your target audience, and they typically don't have the time or energy to pack up the kids to make a special purchase in person. However, if you offer a convenient online shopping option, they're more likely to buy from you and to tell their friends.
E-commerce is also a smart option for your small business because it allows people to use the payment methods with which they are most comfortable, whether that's PayPal, Stripe, Apple Pay or credit cards. Your storefront may not yet have a secure way to process these payment options, but your e-commerce store certainly can. Be sure to have an SSL clearly displayed before your domain name to assure customers that their connection and information are secure.
Save on Rent Costs
What was the most important factor you considered when looking for a space to rent for your small business? Location, location, location! Prime real estate comes at a price. Are you happy with the amount of foot traffic you generate based on your location in exchange for the cost of rent?
With an online store, your physical location doesn't really matter. You can even store your inventory in your basement as long as you check with zoning and tax requirements first. However, if you do want to maintain a space where customers can come visit you to make their purchases, consider renting a more affordable space. Now, instead of relying on your location as a source of advertising, online marketing will become your number-one priority, and the money you save on rent can go toward those marketing efforts.
You also have a little more flexibility in terms of your daily schedule, especially if you choose to transition completely to e-commerce. For example, you can process orders and respond to customer emails at any time of the day or night. You only really need to pay attention to when the post office closes so that you can send out your packages on time.
Creating a Successful Online Store
First, you'll need to decide which selling platform seems to have the features you want while also being easy for you to use. Shopify is highly functional and user-friendly but isn't the only option. If you already have a WordPress site, you can use a plugin like WooCommerce or BigCommerce to add selling capabilities to your site. Wix and Squarespace are additional beginner-friendly online-store builders but may not offer all of the features you'll want.
If it's within your budget, consider paying for a professional web store design. A website that looks half baked does not reflect well on your company. It needs to be visually appealing, easy to navigate and quick to load in order to provide a good shopping experience. If customers get frustrated on your site, they will have no problem going to a competitor.
Based on what kind of items you sell, you can also consider linking inventory to reseller platforms like Amazon or Walmart. However, you'll need to be approved to sell certain items. You can also link your online store to eBay with inventory syncing software.
What Online Selling Looks Like
A day in the life of an online seller looks a little different than the average brick-and-mortar store routine. When an order comes in, you'll receive a notification through your email and/or through your selling platform. At that point, you'll want to print two documents: the order receipt and the shipping label. Ideally, the shipping label will have paid postage already on it along with the buyer's address, your return address and a tracking number.
Using the order receipt, you'll collect each item from your inventory and decide how to package it. A variety of boxes, envelopes and packaging supplies (bubble wrap and tape, for example) are crucial to have on hand. Add the order receipt to the package, tape it securely and stick the shipping label to the front. You can either coordinate with the post office for package pickup or drop it off at the post office yourself.
For most small businesses, it's possible to handle the influx of online orders during periods when foot traffic in the store is slow. However, if business is booming both online and in person, consider hiring a new employee to help with the online orders as well as with any customer service queries related to online shopping.
Technology Helps Get It Done
Remember to also use software and tools to your advantage to streamline the process of handling orders. If you try to do everything by hand, you may forget to update your inventory numbers and create accurate purchase orders. You'll also end up spending a lot more time at the post office if you don't have the ability to print prepurchased shipping labels with tracking information already embedded on the label, and you'll have to manually add those tracking numbers if your software doesn't do it for you.
Perhaps one of the best ways you can ensure your online store turns out to be a success and not a thorn in your side is to arm yourself with the right tools for the job. Shopify has a lot of capabilities embedded into its platform, but third-party inventory management software like Zoho or Capterra also exists. Whenever you find yourself getting a little frustrated about part of the process, do a quick Google search for a tech-based solution. Someone has usually already invented what you need.
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.