Getting Started in E-Commerce
For many small businesses, e-commerce offers a number of benefits and advantages that are worth exploring. An e-commerce effort can be dramatically less expensive to set up than a traditional retail store, for instance.
In addition, selling merchandise online can allow a small business to tap into a customer base far beyond your hometown, state or region. Many small companies use e-commerce to sell and ship products globally.
Although setting up a website capable of completing e-commerce transactions isn’t too complicated, there are a number of considerations business owners have to address before they can start selling online.
The first thing to think about is your Web hosting platform. If you already have a website, it’s a good idea to review your hosting package to make sure you have enough bandwidth and server space to add e-commerce capabilities to your site.
Because you’ll have to include product images and descriptions, along with online shopping cart software, an e-commerce site will likely need more storage space than a typical small business site or blog.
If you don’t have a site, most hosting providers offer specialized e-commerce packages with templates and shopping cart software that makes it fairly easy to add (and update) product descriptions, images and the payment information needed to complete a transaction.
Shopping Cart Software
A key part of your e-commerce infrastructure is your shopping cart software. Most customers think of the shopping cart where they enter information to complete a purchase. To a business owner, online shopping carts are critical because they also manage the site’s merchandise descriptions, images, inventory, customer information and payment data.
Shopping cart software comes in two basic forms —hosted and licensed. Hosted shopping cart software is provided as a service that you access and manage online. For a monthly fee, you can add or edit information as you need, and the software takes care of your e-commerce sales and purchase data.
Licensed shopping cart software performs the same functions, but you purchase a software package that you install and administer.
Choosing the right package depends on your needs and technical expertise. For companies starting out, a hosted shopping cart provides e-commerce capabilities without the need to install and manage the software yourself. For companies with larger inventories and technical ability to manage a shopping cart, a licensed package usually offers more flexibility and customization.
Many Web hosting providers offer shopping cart software services and packages designed to meet the e-commerce needs of small businesses.
In addition to shopping cart software, you’ll also need a way to receive online payments. If you have a merchant account, you can simply add the appropriate data into the shopping cart software. If you don’t, PayPal, Square and several other online payment systems may offer a good alternative to a merchant account.
Once your site is up and running, you’ll need a way to get people to visit it. There is a variety of ways to promote a website, including:
- Interacting with customers and prospects on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, can help you attract online shoppers.
- Providing interesting content on your site, and updating it regularly, can help search engines find your site and bring in people researching the products you’re offering.
- Pay-per-click advertising with search engines can be effective in attracting potential customers. You can specify how often you want ads to run, as well as a daily budget for your ads.
- Email newsletters and direct mail can also help inform customers or other people who may be interested about your site.
Like any promotional effort, it’s important to keep track of your results so you can continue with effective investments and avoid wasting money on promotions that don’t work.
Another important consideration is trying to protect your site from hackers interested in trying to steal customer or financial information. If you accept credit cards, for instance, there is a number of Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards you’ll need to understand and with which to you’ll need to comply. Offering your customers secure transactions is vital to the success of your e-commerce business.
It’s also helpful to require the use of strong passwords on your site and shopping card software, and to install software updates as necessary to reduce the odds of your site being hacked or victimized by online criminals.
Successful e-commerce requires paying attention to a number of technical, business and security details, but the potential profits, global reach and comparatively low start-up costs make e-commerce an attractive opportunity for companies of all sizes.