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Starting an online business might seem like a quick and easy way to make a few bucks, but there's more to it than plugging photos into a designer web template.
The National Retail Federation expects online retail sales to grow between 8% and 12% in 2017, so the industry is a productive space for ambitious entrepreneurs. But without some planning, yours could become one of the countless forgettable online stores.
Here are five steps to take to ensure a successful launch of your new business.
1. Choose the right platform
Once you have an idea, you’ll have to decide how to create your shop: Use a hosted e-commerce platform; create and host your own site with open-source, e-commerce software; or sell primarily on third-party platforms.
Hosted e-commerce platforms: You can use the customizable website templates and e-commerce tools — such as shopping carts — on sites like Squarespace or BigCommerce to establish an online presence.
Open-source, e-commerce software: If you’re tech savvy, you can build your own site. This gives you freedom to customize beyond the drag-and-drop of most hosted sites, but you’ll be in charge of security updates, and website maintenance and performance.
Third-party marketplaces: Like Amazon or Etsy, these services let you sell through them. You might get more eyes on your product, but you also give up the opportunity to establish your own internet identity.
2. Be prepared for the costs
One of the advantages of e-commerce is the low cost of entry. But low-cost doesn’t mean free.
You’ll pay for the product you’re selling — or the materials to make it — as well as online-specific costs such as domain fees, commissions for selling on third-party marketplaces or fees for hosting your website. Add that to basic business expenses such as advertising and packaging, and operating costs can stack up quickly.
“It may cost only a tenth of what it costs offline, but that is still money,” says Naomi Dunford, marketing and growth coach at IttyBiz. “People really forget that.”
3. Consider shipping details
Free shipping is a boon for customers, but should you make it work by increasing the cost of your products or by taking the cost out of your profit margins? Should you offer it at all?
“Make sure you are investing in things that matter deeply for customers,” says Jimmy Duvall, chief product officer at BigCommerce.
And if you’re selling internationally, you’ll have to deal with customs forms, exchange rates and higher shipping costs. Strategize before you launch so you aren’t scrambling to fulfill orders.
4. Look for ways to involve customers
The internet is vast, and even if you think your product is unique, it’s likely something similar already exists. But Duvall says offering a common product in a distinct way can help you stand out.
He points to StoreYourBoard, a website that sells hardware for hanging outdoor gear. The company won BigCommerce’s 2016 Innovation Award for encouraging customers to ask questions, write reviews and post pictures of its products in use on its website.
“All of it takes a lot of time and thought, but the results are a feedback loop that makes finding the right product even easier for future customers,” says Josh Gordon, StoreYourBoard’s founder and president.
You can start simple, Duvall says. Having a clean site with useful content, an easy-to-find “contact us” link, and an “About Us” section can help build that relationship from the beginning. And make your return, exchange and shipping policies transparent so customers know what to expect.
5. Establish expertise
You know your product better than anyone else, Duvall says. Now turn that expertise into reasons why customers should do business with you.
Adding content is one way. Say you sell pet products: What should pet owners take into account when choosing food or toys? Does it vary by breed?
This doesn’t mean you need to write regular blog posts — though if you have the time and skills, go for it. You can also add pages to your site with details about why you chose to make or sell a particular product or brand, and why you think that choice is best for your customers.