In this article aimed at business owner-managers I will be providing some tips and insight into how to create and build a successful e-commerce business.
Firstly, to successfully sell online you will need some ‘desirable products’ - whether your own product range or retail/distribution rights to sell on behalf of a manufacturer/distributor.
Secondly, you will also need some advantageous capabilities and assets, for example: trade knowledge and business experience, maybe intellectual property, patents and trademarks, an existing market advantage, own a trusted brand, have a large loyal customer base, or have access to something competitors don't - a new solution or efficient method.
If you’re a manufacturer or distributor, you may wish to sell B2B and B2C with e-commerce. B2B e-commerce websites (distributor / wholesaler ecommerce) typically have a login to see prices and place orders. A lot cheaper, more efficient and effective than having and maintaining a paper catalogue.
British businesses have distinct global advantages when selling online. Our language is international, our domestic ecommerce market is very mature and trusting, and our businesses on the whole are trusted more when compared to online businesses based in other parts of the world.
We have reliable delivery services, consumer protection laws, widespread broadband and 10s of millions of relatively well-off people regularly shopping online. However, you still need to effectively compete.
All business success, including e-commerce, can be defined by Sales Growth, quarter upon quarter, year upon year, whatever your starting point.
Established businesses have a large advantage over start-ups when choosing to sell online. They already have some experience, customers, premises, stock, cashflow, staff, reputation and refined methods. Established businesses still need to properly plan and finance an expansion into e-commerce, but the risk and investment capital needed will be lower than for a completely new business.
You probably won’t be launching your e-commerce website with thousands of daily website visitors, massive warehouses full of all the required stock and all the talented staff you need to produce, promote, process and manage. Therefore, you have to build that over time.
Google Search will gradually establish your deserved organic ranking position over time. However, each e-commerce sales target reached will build your confidence to acquire more stock, hire more staff, move to bigger premises and buy or develop more products.
Whether an e-commerce project’s ambitions are large, medium or small, the size of the initial capital investment needs to adequate. If your investment capital is inadequate your chances of success are low as you just won’t be able to pay for what is required - human talent, marketing, storage space and stock.
Whatever the size of your ambitions and initial investment, successfully selling your products online will also require suitable research and planning, good business management skills and some talented and dedicated people.
You will need to research and write some very important documents in order to ascertain the amount of investment capital you will need to create, launch and promote a successful e-commerce business (with all the necessary staff, storage space and stock).
Write a Personal Mission Statement, it will help you define your level of ambition and therefore which behaviours, skills and character traits you will need to focus on.
Then research and write your E-commerce Business Plan with Cashflow, and Marketing Plan with SWOT. All should ideally be reviewed at least annually.
To help produce these documents seek advice from the e-commerce designer-managers you would like to hire, a senior accountant and if possible someone you consider successful in business.
The process of researching and producing these plans will help you and others decide if your e-commerce project is feasible, if it is, they will also help you focus your ideas and boost your confidence.
You will also need these documents if you need to raise funds or convince a fellow director or shareholder.
On the assumption you are a company director or business owner-manager, you have many hats to wear - the most important being corporate strategy. You need to delegate many tasks in order to free up time to focus on growing the business.
Naturally it follows that you hire talent to design, build and manage your ecommerce website. Depending on your ambitions, budget and turnover you either employ a team directly or you pay fees to an independent e-commerce services firm.
If you want to directly employ a team you’ll need a lot of personal e-commerce experience in order to effectively define roles and expectations, interview, hire and manage.
If you don’t have the experience nor the budget to directly employ you need to decide upon and commission an independent e-commerce services company, like Roxbourne.com, that you can work with long-term as a dedicated partner.
Clearly this requires having a lot of trust and faith in the company; so getting direct references from their other clients is very important. The magnitude of your e-commerce ambitions dictate the calibre and cost of the talent you will need.
Watch out, there are a lot of web designers out there, most willing to have a go at building an ecommerce website for you. Use the same due diligence and interviewing process that you would use when hiring a key employee or Director.
As the boss, it is not your job to design your website, nor decide on functionality. It is your job (or the assigned project manager's job) to provide the product info, the creation and management budget and convey realistic sales expectations.
Clearly there will be branding guidelines that will dictate some design elements, but it is the e-commerce design team that you hired that will design and build. They will have a lot of questions for you and your team, your answers will guide them.
Remember, you hired them based on their references and the quality and success of other projects they are or were responsible for - so trust them to do a great job for you too. They shouldn’t need micro-management.
The nature of your products and the market you are in should set the tone of the design aspects of the e-commerce website. Above all else, the website’s design elements, text and functionality should convey TRUST, otherwise no-one will buy from it.
All the products that you’ll launch with need to be detailed on a spreadsheet - titles, descriptions, SKUs, weights, net prices, options, features, categories, etc.
Suitable product imagery will be needed - clean, sharp, large images from a few angles; a commercial photographer can advise and assist. Cutting corners with product photos will not build visitor trust. You’ll also need some group images and lifestyle images for the home page, support pages, news posts, email newsletters, social media and other marketing projects.
You may also want to hire a talented copywriter to create engaging and trustworthy support text, ideally someone with SEO skills.
Your first online orders start rolling in - don’t panic. Plan for that in advance.
Processing staff need to be trained on exactly how to turn an electronic order into an addressed parcel awaiting collection by a courier, how to deal with the unusual orders, declined payments, switching items, returns, liaison with customers, etc. An order processing and CRM manual will need to be written.
Your delivery charges will need to be decided in conjunction with the charges of your chosen courier firm and Royal Mail.
At what point do you offer free delivery?
Various sizes of boxes and other packaging, labels and marketing inserts need to be decided upon, and clearly you’ll need adequate stock and warehousing space.
As you will have no idea on the quantity of orders in your first few months, assume that it will start low and you’ll acquire more stock and hire more processing staff as you go to meet demand.
It will not be unusual to move to larger premises a few times in your first few years. If you commit to the expense of large premises and too many processing staff too soon the cost could wipe out any profit you could have made in the early years. Better to have the problem of too little space, stock and staff, and increase to demand, than to have excessive overheads and the monthly worry that sales are never high enough to cover costs, let alone make a profit.
Depending on what you are selling, social media will either work or not work for you.
If you have exciting products with appealing imagery and potential for repeat sales, social media will work better than if your products are mundane or one-off purchases.
We all use blue chip banks, spend billions at the big supermarkets and with energy companies; but do we have an interest in following them on social media? I think not. The most popular liked and followed accounts on social media are not selling anything apart from themselves, their opinions, their movies or music. There are exceptions, but there's a good reason some companies do well on social media and others don't.
Key is, will yours? Don't assume its good for all. A lot of time, effort and hopes have been invested in Social Media by many businesses with no real measurable results.
If after really thinking it through, you truly believe your potential customers on social media will go nuts for your products and eagerly share your content with love, then hire an experienced social media manager. Trying to do it yourself will take up too much valuable time, and do you really have the required expertise?
This is a massive subject and not one I will cover in this particular article.
Although there are many search engines, Google Search is by far the most popular. Online Search will be the most important means to drive visitors to your website. It will take time to build your positioning in search engine results pages and there are many things that need to be done correctly and sufficiently on your website with SEO to impress Google.
Above all else you need sufficient, keyword optimised, unique and interesting content. Focused product descriptions and category descriptions. You need to tell Google as well as potential customers what each page is about in its text.
You can't copy text from other websites or you may easily get a Google Duplicate Content Penalty.
E-commerce SEO is a massive and very important subject, too big to discuss in this article – however, at least make sure your prospective ecommerce team can prove a high-level of understanding of SEO and a great track record in impressing Google Search with past projects.
Because of email spam laws, you can’t expect to just buy an enormous list of email addresses and promote your e-commerce website that way. However, you’ll be collecting actual customer emails as time goes by; so start emailing them about new products and offers when you have a decent number.
Whilst waiting for your natural online search positioning to improve you can supplement with online advertising in search pages and on social media.
Assuming your advertising campaigns are properly set up and managed, you will typically see fast results and get what you pay for.
For some businesses it can be relevant to advertise locally or nationally in newspapers and magazines, sponsor events, leaflet drop. You may have a physical shop where you can also promote your website. Try to collect the email address of all shop visitors.
There is so much choice in where to spend on marketing, so be very careful not to take large unknown risks. Small scale testing first.
With all marketing you are competing for attention; make it more effective and be more targeted. Where exactly are your potential new customers hiding?
Regularly study your direct competition and look for ways to improve your own products and the way you display and convey your offerings. You should have a marketing plan and someone in charge of marketing, if not a team. A properly researched and viable Marketing Plan is crucial. Review it regularly.
Focus on your products' main benefits and points of interest. If you stock Weed Killer and Grass Fertiliser, sell people "Beautiful Greener Lawns".
Develop new product ranges. Find a product niche if possible. There's less competition with a niche, but ensure you research potential demand for that niche product type.
As I said at the beginning, success is born through continual growth. To grow you must continually compete – so thoroughly know your products, your market, your customers and your competition. Knowledge is power.
Acknowledge that where you are lacking then hire talent.
Success is rarely accidental, you can’t wing it; and if you're doing OK despite knowing deep-down that your products, website, marketing, procedures and team are not particularly good, imagine what can be achieved with incremental improvements in all aspects.