Small business essentials: The art of e-commerce

Whether you’ve done it before or it’s your first venture, there has never been a better time to explore the money-making potential of e-commerce, says Patrick Foster.

The e-commerce economy is booming, and is poised for significant growth in the coming months and years. Businesses need no longer be restricted by geographical bounds – only by their willingness to try new technologies and get creative. Appealing in its inherent freedom and flexibility, e-commerce has the potential to be extremely lucrative, if it’s approached in the right way.

While setting up an e-commerce store is easier than it’s ever been thanks to user-friendly platforms, making a success of an e-commerce venture is no different to brick and mortar – it requires time, planning and sound business acumen. Whether you’ve done it before or it’s your first venture, there has never been a better time to explore the money-making potential of e-commerce.

Choose your platform carefully

As with most things, it’s best to start at the beginning. One of the most important things to decide at the outset is how to power your e-commerce site. There are two types of platform to choose from: hosted and self-hosted.

  • Hosted e-commerce platforms include software and hosting. You get everything in one package, which makes things a lot simpler if you’re building an online store for the first time. Hosted platforms include dedicated support and are less likely to ever go down, since you have backup in place. They are usually charged on a monthly basis.
  • Self-hosted e-commerce platforms are software based, meaning you will need to get your hosting elsewhere. They offer more scope for customisation, but unless you’re well versed in using the software, you risk not getting the most out of them. It’s a good idea to budget for a freelance developer to help you with a self-hosted site, should you encounter problems you don’t know how to fix.

Related: What’s the best website builder for my small business?

Here’s an example of an online store that sells popcorn. It was built using Shopify: a hosted e-commerce platform that provides a range of editable design templates. One of the best things about using Shopify is that it has multiple add-on apps that allow you to easily introduce new functionality for marketing, sales and more – and it’s all very simple to use.

Here’s another example of an e-commerce website, this time self-hosted. This gift and homeware website was created in WordPress and uses the WooCommerce plugin to add shop functionality. It’s fairly straightforward if you are already familiar with WordPress, but it’s not for the first-time e-commerce entrepreneur – unless you have some help on hand.

Focus on your customers

UX is a big deal in the world of e-commerce. The most successful online stores go out of their way for their customers, turning them from loyal consumers into brand ambassadors. Online selling is a whole different ball game to selling in a traditional shop. On the internet, attention is like currency. It must be earned. Your visitors want to get from A to B to C with minimal fuss – so make it easy for them.

Trust and ease of use the two most important factors for getting those all-important conversions. What with the prevalence of dodgy websites and online scammers, creating a website that makes your customers feel comfortable is your first priority.

  • First impressions are everything: a badly-designed website with too much going on is a real turn-off. Minimal design is very popular in e-commerce, as it looks clean and professional.
  • Talk the talk: be open about your brand, your products and your company ethos. Include well-written product descriptions, contact details and pricing information. Transparency is a good way to show that you’re for real. Be sure to spell check all of your content before publishing.
  • Don’t be too pushy: if your products speak for themselves, you don’t need to force them on people. Instead, focus on displaying them to best advantage. That means quality imagery, original descriptions and an intuitive search function.
  • Make it ridiculously easy: modern consumers want things now. Their attention spans are tiny. Once you’ve got someone onto your website, make it super easy for them to find what they want and buy it. The purchase journey should be quick and seamless – so keep form-filling to a minimum and ensure every call to action is clear.

A good content strategy will get you a long way

In the early days of your online store, it’s a mistake to assume that people will effortlessly stumble across it. Among other things, one of the best ways to get organic traffic to your site is with a well thought-out content strategy. It might seem like a big time commitment (or cost commitment if you decide to employ a freelance writer), but quality content – regularly updated – pays dividends.

A good starting point is to build a blog into your website. This can be updated regularly and include all sorts of topics that relate to your mission, business and product. Come up with relevant, shareable content that can be published on social media for more exposure, and from there build your online profile and work on connecting with other industry influencers. Here’s how to create a content strategy for your online store.

The future is mobile

As an e-commerce entrepreneur you can do everything right, but if you don’t build your business to accommodate mobile users, then you will become irrelevant very quickly. Mobile commerce is getting bigger and bigger, and it’s unlikely to slow down anytime soon. By 2020, it could make up as much as 45 percent of all e-commerce.

Mobile commerce is not yet as straightforward as online shoppers wish it to be, for many sites at least. For the most part, there is some catching up to do. Mobile users crave simplicity, but since most websites are created for desktops, some do not transfer well. In reality, designers should now be doing the opposite – creating sites that are perfectly attuned for mobile before adapting them to suit the desktop.

So unless you want to alienate just under half of your potential customer base, make sure your e-commerce website is mobile-friendly – particularly when it comes to the checkout process. Firebox is a great example of an e-commerce website that works equally well on mobile and desktop – check out some other examples here.

Test until you can test no more

If you want your e-commerce store to do well (and I’m assuming you do) then there is really no reason to avoid split testing. There is plenty of software available that make it easy to do – particularly if you’re using a hosted platform. Split testing helps to give you a better sense of what’s working and what’s not – in particular, which elements will lead to improved conversions. When the data is there in front of you, you have the potential to increase the number of sales with very little effort on your part.

Good e-commerce merchants should always be testing their websites for ways to improve, be it content, formatting, navigation, shipping settings, discounts or colour schemes. It’s also easy to split test your email campaigns using a software like MailChimp. If you’re planning on trying something new and quirky, why not test it first?

Running an e-commerce business is exciting and potentially lucrative, but it’s not the easiest job in the world. The key is to keep learning – and not to give up at the first hurdle. As with any business, you will probably make some mistakes, so consider them learning opportunities. Read about the experiences of other e-commerce entrepreneurs and absorb their lessons, since they may yield some pearls of wisdom.

Patrick Foster is an e-commerce entrepreneur, coach and writer.

Further reading on e-commerce

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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