Learning Center

The Fundamentals of Selling Online

For those of us offering products for sale to a buying public—be it physical, tangible goods or digital offerings — selling online is an immediately attractive avenue to grow sales by expanding our sales reach to an ever-widening audience of potential customers. From the convenience of their couch, desk, or even on the go using a phone, the buying public has demonstrated a high degree of comfort and a defined level of expectation for how they will spend their money online.

Businesses know that opening an online store offers benefits that the traditional brick-and-mortar variety cannot match, including lower cost of start-up, elimination of physical barriers, and a connection with customers that is not limited by store hours.Like all forms of business, success is not granted simply by forging into the digital marketplace with products and hopes for high sales. There are many decisions, behaviors, and fundamental philosophies that need to be addressed in order to position the endeavor for its best hope at prosperity.

Today we have a special guest, Shawn Schmalz, who is a front-end e-commerce expert with Nittany Web Works, a website design and development company located just outside of State College, PA. He’s a graphic designer with an emphasis on e-commerce solutions, including user interface design and front-end development of e-commerce sites, as well as the marketing of e-commerce sites through search engine optimization and digital advertising.

Key projects Shawn has been involved in are sites for major golf tournaments across the country that sell apparel and accessories, as well as a beauty supply retail chain with 11 locations in Pennsylvania.

What are some common traits among businesses that are successful in e-commerce?

Well-designed responsive storefront. This is the most important thing of all — your site needs to work on all devices, especially mobile, which is now some 60 percent of all web traffic. Good design helps build trust, and you’re asking people to hand over their credit card numbers. An outdated site is not deemed trustworthy.

Well-organized and structured product categories. The scope of your e-commerce project should be very well-defined at the beginning, and it has to be easy for users to find exactly what they want. If you overwhelm users with everything you sell and make them hunt for what they want, they’ll go somewhere else.

Clean well produced product photography. If your products look terrible, nobody will buy! Cell phone photography and good descriptions will only take you so far. Your product photography has got to shine. In fact, good photography is the #1 thing influencing someone on deciding to buy — even more than reviews. Include as many angles and shots as you can, and be consistent in size and quality. (This Learning Center includes a variety of articles about photography that can help.)

Streamlined checkout process. Don’t add a screen pop-up for joining email lists right away — that’s distracting to the consumer, and puts a roadblock to buying. If you want to get their email, add that popup after they’ve checked out. Alternatively, offer a discount or some major special offer in the popup asking for an email address (even better, give them this after they’ve checked out, thus encouraging an additional purchase).

Offer multiple payment options. Let them check out using credit cards on your site, but many people really like using PayPal too. Provide as many avenues as possible for them to give you money.

Good product detail writing. Make sure you describe the product, but also make sure you get to the call to action in there — you want them to add their purchase to the cart. Make sure they don’t have to scroll forever to do that.

Cross-sell. Offer related products and make it possible for people to find more things, as the sales process is no longer linear.

Effective search engine optimization. What is the consumer going to be typing in when they’re looking for what you sell? These keywords need to be integrated into your site in as many ways as possible.

Marketing off your site. It’s important to have product integration with Amazon / Jet / Google shopping, for example. Social media and email marketing is important too. Social media giveaways and contests can be a good way to engage people. Engage in link building with related blogs, product feeds with comparison shopping engines, and so forth.

Effective online sales infrastructure. You have to be sure the sale will go through quickly, and an email confirmation is sent right away. This builds confidence in the consumer. People expect to receive status information about their orders, such as tracking information and shipping confirmations.

How long does it take to get an online store up and running?

This is largely dependent on how much you intend to sell. A month is a reasonable amount of time for a small site selling 50 products or fewer, for example. But some of the largest sites I’ve worked on have over 100,000 categories, and for something of that scale you can expect a three- or four-month process, because the organization is so important and all that product data and photography needs to be entered. So one to four months is realistic for most e-commerce projects.

We often find that businesses don’t have the personnel in place to gather all the information and product photography needed to launch a site, much less to deal with orders when they start coming in. Make sure you’ve addressed that issue — you don’t want the website development process to drag on forever, and you certainly don’t want your customers’ first orders to be their last.

What are some common questions new customers tend to ask?

Cost. How much will it cost to develop a site, and how much will it cost to actually run e-commerce? It tends to be less expensive than one might think and has a high return on investment.

Timeframe. How long will it take to get underway? That question is discussed above.

Control. Businesses want to know if they’ll have control over the site, entering new products and so forth. They want to know they’ll have an easy system to work with, and that the site will be easy to administer.

Are there reasonable expectations that can be defined for a start-up online store?

The biggest expectation is that they’ll going to sell. It’s not realistic to set up a store, put up your feet and wait for orders to roll in. You have to work to market the site and get it out there — you may have thousands of competitors. You can expect to work for six months to a year before you start to see significant results.

What options are available to businesses looking to start an e-commerce storefront?

There are free e-commerce website options available, and yes, they are free for small-scale projects. But they have advertising on them that is potentially distracting to your customers, and you’ll be part of that platform.

In addition, there are national e-commerce platforms such as Shopify, 3-D Cart, and Big Cartel that can integrate into your website. These are good solutions, but you can’t expect personal attention and support from those companies — you’re better off getting a web developer to work with these on your behalf (such as Prime Design Solutions), or hiring a web person to be on your staff.

Custom e-commerce sites are available through smaller firms like Nittany Web Works, and the advantage is that you get personal support and attention. They’re also able to offer support in marketing and analytics consulting, monitoring keywords, and all kinds of data that will help you succeed.

What are common problems in kicking off an e-commerce site?

Inadequate product photography is a big one, as discussed above. Not having an adequate team to help enter information, or for keeping up with sales is also key. We’ve had customers who do just fine most of the year with their e-commerce sites, and then get way behind in product fulfillment during the holidays, for example. That often causes customers to go to the company’s Facebook Page and ask where their orders are — then someone needs to respond to the complaint, and the problem is compounded. Customer service and shipping department have to be prepared, and you may need to adjust seasonally.

You also have to be prepared for the marketing effort it’ll take for a site to realize its potential. Who’s your customer, and what do they care about? You have to be active in email marketing and social media, where you have to get people engaged. (Check out 5 Steps to a Simple Marketing Plan on this site, and use that resource to put together a digital marketing strategy.) Think about who your ideal customer is before you start working on the site, as that answer will guide the site’s design too.

Make sure you have your payment integration worked out, as well as your shipping and return policies. Make these policies visible on your site. The biggest factor causing people to abandon their carts is high shipping fees. If you can offer free shipping for orders of a certain size, do it — this encourages people to go ahead and buy, or to buy just more item to get free shipping.

If I have an existing online storefront, and am looking to grow that part of my business, what can I do?

Search engine optimization. Improving your SEO is an easy, free place to start. Update your product descriptions with the correct keywords, and Google will reward you (Google also likes it when sites are updated regularly).

Pay-per-click advertising. Pay-per-click can be a good way to compete with the bigger sites, depending on your budget.

Email marketing. Email marketing works across the board, and gives you the biggest return on investment of any kind of marketing. You are targeting the people who’ve either bought from you or have expressed interest, and once you have your template you can email anytime. You can tailor email to what’s hot at that particular time.

Content marketing. Getting mentioned in related blogs is a great thing to do — link building is huge. Writing your own blog articles is a great idea, and helps with SEO too.

Shopping engine integration. Getting your site integrated with Amazon and Google Shop is important, because these sites are massive and where a lot of people start when shopping online.