Not too many years ago, you'd need revenues approaching the hundreds of thousands of dollars to afford building an ecommerce store. However, with the rapid democratization of technology, small businesses have access to low-cost (and in some cases no-cost) ecommerce solutions that are powerful, simple and relatively quick to implement.
But before you commit to the first ecommerce platform you find, it's important to know which features you need now and which ones will help as your small business grows.
Essential Ecommerce Features
Managing the backend of online sales is a crucial capability and lets small business owners make the most of lean resources to achieve the farthest reach with customers. Brian Weil, account manager at CleverBridge, an ecommerce technology provider, suggests that small business owners carefully consider an ecommerce platform's ability to handle testing and analysis.
"Any good ecommerce business always looks at its analytics," says Weil. "Does a certain landing page work better than another one? Does a button with a particular color work better than a different one?" Business owners should ensure that any potential ecommerce solution can facilitate ongoing testing as the company, its catalog of product offerings, and its customer base grow and evolve.
The ecommerce platform you select should be able to integrate cleanly with any other services you'll need to conduct business. "Think about where you're going to be shipping and what type of payment solutions you need," says Leah Anathan, chief marketing officer at open source ecommerce software provider PrestaShop.
Many platforms integrate with payment providers (PayPal or other digital wallet solutions, for example), as well as a host of shipping services. Also consider how well the platform integrates with the systems that power your marketing efforts. Anathan says that includes things such as email integration. "That lets me send newsletters to my clients, and it lets anyone who visits my site sign up for my newsletter to receive the best offers."
Because consumers increasingly browse—as well as buy—from their mobile devices, Anathan says it's important that an ecommerce platform support mobile commerce, too. Traditional wisdom used to say that mobile optimization could come later, but with so many shoppers whipping out their smartphones and tablets for a quick purchase, small businesses would do well to consider all platforms from the beginning. "Regardless of whether your customers access your website with a smartphone, a tablet, or a desktop computer, you want to give them a seamless shopping experience, says Anathan.
Plan for Ecommerce Growth
Once your ecommerce site is up and running, you're going to want to be able to quickly add customizations that can help boost sales. When Mother's Day or the 4th of July rolls around, for example, small businesses may want to attract customers with a targeted campaign that showcases specific products.
Your ecommerce platform should make it easy to tie marketing, sales and site design elements together, so you can present your seasonal or limited-time offerings to customers in a way that makes it very easy for them to buy from you.
Even if your firm isn't ready to dip a toe into the international marketplace now, you might investigate whether your preferred ecommerce platform can handle the many different aspects of selling internationally. "Ask if it can localize the checkout pages, can it support different payment methods, and those kinds of things," says Weil.
Most ecommerce platforms have built-in functionality that supports the payment cards most commonly used U.S., but they may not include all the choices available for doing business in other countries. "If you don't have access to those and you're trying to grow, you might lose out on an easy revenue stream," says Weil.
Preparation: It's Essential for Successful Launch
Success with any ecommerce platform involves more than firing up a piece of software and hoping for the best. Weil says that by doing the legwork, small business operators can smooth the process and help get everything off on the right foot. He encourages business owners to "map out the order workflow and the checkout workflow. [Have a clear idea of] what the internal process will look like."
Focus on services that will interact with your existing internal systems, so you can identify where you need to do additional work before the new platform goes live. "Organization is first and foremost," he says.
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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