Are you looking to start a web store or take your existing business online? Unless you've the time, patience and technical know-how to build your own web store, you'll also be looking for an ecommerce provider or software that does the hard work for you.
We've already written on the general subject - Successful Online Sales - but this article's a little more detailed. It's about the factors that make a difference in online sales; the details that will attract shoppers, turn them into customers and close the sale. In particular, it lists features that you should ensure your ecommerce solution provides.
What we say here is particularly relevant if you're either planning to move your offline business online, or open an online shop in addition to your physical premises. It's important to ensure the things that make your high street stores successful make the transition to the internet. These characteristics make the difference between you and your competitors and losing them en-route is easy.
Customers enjoy shopping in store because of personal service and the opportunity to touch the products. Of course, you can't replicate these online, but you want to get as close as possible. Can the ecommerce software you're looking at do the following?
Every web store has product detail pages, which makes them seem deceptively simple. However, many detail pages fail by not catering to the specific requirements of the product being sold.
There are some products you can sell with little description, such as commodities - where each one is just like all the others - or items with no substitutes - where only a Harry Potter DVD will do. There are many other products that need more explanation and specific fields. Clothing comes in different sizes and colours and, were you to go all-out in fashion retailing you'd need a web store that reflects this. If you're selling highly priced furniture, ecommerce software that only allows two lines of description just won't cut it.
The software you use has to allow product details that can answer the questions a customer might ask a salesperson in store. Is it suitable for...? Can it do...? Why should I buy this one?
When an in store customer asks a question that relates to a selection of products, experienced salespeople will recognise the opportunity for a sale. By asking the customer questions and trading off the products' features and benefits based on their answers, a salesperson can reach a specific recommendation. This recommendation will be very powerful, as the customer's own requirements will back it up.
While successful, this process is difficult to transfer online. Can your web store software provide space for asking customers the type of questions a top sales person would? Such questions go beyond product features and get customers to think about benefits. For example, what are they looking for in a mattress; back-care, luxury or image? And what should they do in each scenario? With software that can walk a customer through the buying process you will give them confidence and make more sales.
A lovely aspect of shopping in a high street store is being able to ask an assistant to point something out, rather than having to go through all the shelves. Search performs the same function for an online store and, in a world where people are used to Google, it gets used all the time.
The ecommerce solution you choose has to have a high quality search function - one that takes people to product listings, rather than obscure parts of the site, such as press releases. It needs to be able to correct misspelt queries and it needs to do all of the above fast.
Of course, just as in a physical store, there will be some who like to browse. Most likely they will know the type of product they want to buy, but not the model. These people need clear, effective navigation that suits the products you sell. Be aware that some ecommerce solutions offer navigation that cannot be sufficiently customised.
For example, the best stores that sell clothing have an option to navigate by size. This makes sense - each shopper will only be looking for at most a few sizes. Being able to browse only the sizes you are interested in is a huge step forward for usability. So why do so many clothes stores not do this? It's a limitation of their ecommerce software.
A product guide helps customers choose among the products you sell. Using clothes as an example again: a product guide might be a run down of the different cuts available. If you sell in-car satellite navigation systems, you could easily and usefully produce a guide to the main features.
The product guide communicates your expert knowledge to the customers and gives them confidence that you're a reputable retailer selling quality products. More than that, it saves them the trouble of going to the next website. A product guide will help customers make up their own mind to buy from you.
More broad than a product guide, a market overview is an explanation of the industry you are operating in. If you're selling clothes, it could be an explanation of the season's trends or a rundown of the different designers you stock. A market overview for headphones might explain differences between the headphones that come with an iPod and expensive replacements.
The market overview helps to orientate customers; it introduces them to what you're selling and communicates why your store is special. It gives customers a reason to visit your site (and re-visit, if you keep it updated). Google loves it, which gets you a high search result ranking and lots of visitors.
Finally, the first thing a customer sees: the front page is the most important page of your site. It's no coincidence that it's also the page you should put most effort into.
This effort should be focused on customisation that reflects your business, something that a lot of ecommerce solutions don't allow you to do. Does your online store allow you to choose which products appear on the front page of the site? Does it allow you to add custom text and images so that you can run particular promotions?
Although they have invested millions and can appear automated, stores like Tesco and Amazon still have teams of people crafting their front pages by hand, because what customers see first affects what they ultimately buy. Their software allows them to do this.
Sales online is the same as sales offline; the challenge is to understand the customers' needs, recommend the most appropriate product and sell to those needs. Each of the features above can break the mould of a normal online shop - they go beyond the standard lists of categories, products and features.
Unless you are in a commodity market, where the product itself doesn't matter so much and the most important thing is low cost, choosing an online store that is not flexible and cannot provide the above will lead to failure.
You're a computer user, and there are web stores out there that you like and some that you don't. When starting your own, don't forget that your experience as a user is a valuable asset. As a user, demand the functionality that you enjoy on other sites.
As a business person, you should look for software or a service that can deliver a customisable shopping experience and will not restrict your sales practices. This may mean avoiding off-the-shelf products and looking for something that is either bespoke or semi-bespoke.
A bespoke option is designed purely for you and never used anywhere else; usually a privilege of the large high street retailers, such as John Lewis, or web behemoths like Amazon.com. The semi-bespoke option is more practicable for smaller businesses; it means having a web development firm create a custom web store on a established platform. You get the best of both worlds: a bespoke interface at a lower price.
And your web store can do anything.