Brick-and-mortar stores will always have their built-in market segment... but why not win over some online shoppers at the same time? Lately, more and more offline retailers are expanding into online markets to earn a little extra income. You no longer have to choose one or the other anymore — now you can have both.
Yet, despite the clear benefits, plenty of brick-and-mortar retailers are resisting the shift or putting it off. According to a Visual Objects study of over 500 small businesses, just last year 40% of SMBs didn’t even have a website, with 28% saying they were unlikely to create one in the future. Maybe they’re not aware of all the perks a website brings, but maybe it’s the misconceptions about ecommerce that’s holding them back.
So below, we explain what a small business needs to know about starting an ecommerce site. We’ll talk about all the amazing advantages of having a website — from sales to branding to better relationships with customers. But first, let’s talk about the gatekeepers, or more accurately, what people mistake to be “gatekeepers.”
The 3 Imaginary “Boogie-Men” of Website Building
What’s stopping those 40% of SMBs from starting their own websites and selling online? For a lot of them, web design appears much harder than it actually is.
For over a decade, digital communities have been working hard to make website-creation accessible to everyone. A lot of people still think creating a website is about writing lines and lines of mind-numbing code, but the truth is that most modern website-building software doesn’t include code at all — you can have a complete website up and running in just a few minutes!
Let’s take a look at the three most pervasive myths about making a website — cost, time, inexperience — and why, on closer inspection, they’re no reason at all to stand in your way.
Working with a team of high-end developers and top business strategists can get expensive… but don’t forget, there are other ways to go about it. What a lot of SMB owners don’t realize is that website building is scalable; sometimes it costs tens of thousands of dollars, sure, but other times it costs just tens of dollars.
In the last few years, web-builder technology has become a competitive market, with different software companies vying for cheaper and easier ways to simplify the process for beginners. What we have now is a range of different methods at a range of different prices. You pay only what you want.
For example, if you want to build a cutting-edge site with visual effects the world has never seen before, then you’ll have to pay for the professionals to make that happen — and that won’t come cheap. But what if you just want to build a small online sales channel to sell four or five pieces of merchandise? That, you can practically afford with sofa change.
Take Shift4Shop for example: it offers a completely free plan if you use Shift4 Payments as your payment processor. That includes site security, hosting, on-site checkout, domain registration, and 24/7 tech support, plus extras like a blog and Facebook store — all with no monthly fee. With that kind of pricing, the difference in your budget will show immediately.
Of course, you can scale up or down as you prefer. If you have high ecommerce ambitions, you can invest more money for a more robust site. If you just want to sell online as a hobby, you can get by with a site at just the bare minimum. No matter what your budget is, there’s an option to make it work.
The other important resource besides money, time is an essential requirement to building a website. But just like the financial cost, you can find solutions tailored to your needs, even in emergency situations where you need a published website yesterday!
One interesting feature of modern web-building platforms is AI design: simply answer some basic questions about your brand, and an algorithm will design and populate an original website just for you. It may not be as stylized as a site you design yourself, but it will generate everything you need in just a few minutes (and at a fraction of the cost).
Once your site is up and running, however, you’ll need to spend time to manage it, just like a brick-and-mortar store. Marketing, book-keeping, product sourcing, inventory management: these are concerns in ecommerce just like traditional retail. It also pays off to invest in social media and blogs as well — these are powerful tools for attracting online shoppers.
On the bright side, you can minimize the time spent in these areas. In particular, you can automate a lot of the day-to-day tasks to save time, again with the help of modern technology. Inventory management software like ecomdash, for example, lets you manage all your sales and inventory data from the same dashboard, so everything you need is right at your finger-tips. You can also schedule automatic low-stock alerts and bulk-edit product pages to further save time.
For some, it’s not about time or money, it’s about not knowing what to do. And in their defense, there is a lot of nuance and skill in ecommerce web design, including graphic design, digital sales strategies, and the technical difficulties of keeping a site live. All these things, when considered as a whole, tend to intimidate first-timers into giving up. But here’s the secret: you don’t need to do them alone.
For starters, you can use one of the AI-generated sites mentioned above. That removes your design skill from the equation altogether. But what if you want something a little more customized to fit your brand?
Even if you don’t have the budget to hire a professional designer, you can still learn the basics of web design on your own, and for free. Ecommerce blogs often answer the frequently asked questions about building a site; in fact, Shift4Shop has an Ecommerce Website Guide, aimed at beginners getting their feet wet.
And don’t forget, most website platforms let you edit at any time, so the site you first launch is by no means the final version. As you work in ecommerce and pick up new tricks, you can revise and improve your site as you go. Even the best managed websites have to update every few years to keep from getting stagnant, so if you do make a mistake, you can easily correct it.
How Websites Improve Business in Any Industry
Now that you know you can make your own website, let’s talk about why you should. Considering the scalability of time and money, if you build a site within your means, there’s really no drawbacks, only gains.
What gains, exactly? Sales, credibility, customer loyalty, publicity — everything a retail brand wants. When done well, a company website is one of the most useful business tools available. Here we’ll dive into the specifics so you know where to aim with your own site.
New Markets: The 2020 Rise of Online Shoppers
Perhaps the biggest advantage of an ecommerce website is more customers. Certain shoppers across all age groups prefer the at-home experience of ecommerce over in-store shopping, even if it means not seeing the product in person. The only way to attract that type of shopper is by having an online store.
And while that was incentive enough to start an ecommerce website years ago, it’s even more urgent after 2020. The Covid pandemic has driven customers away from public stores and onto the internet, and according to Digital Commerce 360, online shopping during the holidays so far is already up 21% year-over-year.
That same study shows that 63% of shoppers plan to avoid public stores during the shopping season, opting instead to buy online. And while ecommerce’s popularity may dip once the pandemic subsides, in general ecommerce sales tend to rise steadily. Online retail has always been a growing industry, and this year just gave it a solid push.
Branding & Customer Loyalty
There’s more to company websites than just online sales. Websites are an opportunity to communicate with your customers, positioning yourself in the best light and strengthening brand loyalty. Your website is more than just a sales portal, it’s a company portfolio — so what does that say if you don’t have one?
Especially for younger groups, people commonly check a company’s website when they want to learn about who they are. Just having a website reassures them that your company is real, but that’s just the minimum. By using a stylized design to your website, you can influence how people perceive your brand and ingratiate yourself with the right market.
Think about a site that uses bright colors and speaks with slang in its page copy, and then compare that to a gray-toned site with overly formal language. What impressions would you draw about the two different companies? Which one would you want to do business with?
One unique feature of ecommerce that brick-and-mortar retail lacks is product reviews. Most online stores have product reviews right there on the page, so shoppers can hear from actual customers without having to scroll too far.
When you take a proactive role in eliciting product reviews, they can be a powerful sales tool to encourage new shoppers to buy. Just look at these statistics on online product reviews from Oberlo:
- 9 out of 10 shoppers read online reviews before purchasing.
- 3 out of 4 shoppers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations from friends and family.
- Product pages with online reviews have 350% more conversions than pages without them.
Seeing good reviews on your website gives you social proof — new shoppers see that their peers like you, and it suggests that they themselves will like you as well. But that’s something only ecommerce online shoppers can enjoy; in-store shoppers are limited to personal recommendations or the advice of the sales assistant.
Enhanced Shopping Experience
Different customers have different shopping behaviors, and try as they might, brick-and-mortar stores will never satisfy the customers who prefer the at-home convenience of ecommerce. Online shoppers love how quick and easy online shopping is. You don’t need to go anywhere — you don’t even need to leave your couch.
The only way to do business with this customer group is to meet them on their own turf: their living room, their bedroom, etc. If you don’t have a website, they won’t even consider buying from you. It’s not that they’re lazy, it’s that they're more comfortable with online shopping than doing it in person.
You can even go the extra mile and make your online shopping experience as streamlined as possible. The less clicks it takes to go from your home page to a completed sale, the more conversions you’ll have. Keep that in mind if you’re designing your own site; make navigation obvious so shoppers never have to think about what to click.
Omnichannel Sales Strategies
If you’re serious about breaking into the ecommerce market, creating an online sales channel is just step one. Step two is to create another online sales channel, and step three is to create yet another. This strategy is known as omnichannel retailing, and it’s the best way to reach new and more customers online.
For retailers who want more than just “a little extra” income from ecommerce, they’ll need to plan out a sales strategy across multiple channels; for example, having a website, but also selling on Amazon and eBay under a branded account. The idea is simple: each channel (Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Etsy, etc.) has its own specific audience, so by selling on different channels you reach different customer groups.
Of course, more sales channels means more organization, so if you just want to sell a handful of products in your spare time, this strategy isn’t for you. However, if you want to make the most out of ecommerce sales, it’s worth dedicating some time to research the different channels and see if your products work on them or if your prices are competitive.
Owning a Website is Easier Than It Looks
Compared to even just a few years ago, it’s a brand-new world for website building and design. Many of the technical obstacles have been removed, and virtually anyone can create and manage a website at an affordable cost. Don’t let misconceptions get in the way of your business.
Consider what you’re willing to invest for the website you want, both time and money. Once you nail down a budget (or amount of time you can spend learning to do it yourself), you can find the perfect methods for building your site. Don’t forget that making a website doesn’t have to be stressful — once you get behind it, the process can actually be pretty fun!