Online shopping basics haven't changed much over time - a list of categories, details of the products and a 'shopping basket'. So why is selling on the web so difficult?
In years of creating online stores, we've lost track of the number of retailers that have said "I've tried selling online, but it doesn't really work for me". Intriguingly, in the same time period, we've helped many clients sell online and it's always worked out.
So what's the difference between success and failure? Time to crack out a cliché: you get out what you put in. Unsurprising, perhaps, but half-hearted online selling is a common stumbling block for many businesses that give the Amazon thing a try.
High street retailers know that making sales depends on the location of their stores, the presentation of their products and the service delivered by their staff. A friendly well-lit store on a busy street will always outperform a dusty outlet that's hidden down an alley.
Unfortunately online stores are not always viewed in the same light. Off-the-shelf software makes selling widgets via the web so easy that business owners often just 'have a bash' to see how things go. It's usually bad. WhatYouSeeIsWhatYouGet (WYSIWYG) text editors may give you the ability to edit your own website, but they are the start of a slippery slope. Soon content becomes confusing and amateurish, product photos are of poor quality and navigation is inconsistent, bordering on useless.
In fact, unless products are priced without a margin, no-one will shop at such stores. The company's reputation will suffer, and the experiment will be written off as a failure.
But enough of such gloom. You're probably reading this because it's titled 'The Secret to Selling on the Web' and so, without further ado, here it is:
"Treat your online store as a high street store."
That's it. But we're not going to leave you there. The rest of the article covers what treating your online store as a high street store actually means for attracting shoppers, impressing them and making sales.
Done right, you will generate income and reduce your costs. You'll even get more people walking in to your high street premises (if, of course, you have any!). We know because we've made it happen, again and again.
Why is Oxford Street the UK's premier shopping street when it's hated by all who have walked it? Because being in the middle of London means lots of people, which means lots of shops.
The online equivalent of Oxford Street is Google. Recent research suggests that most purchasing decisions - whatever they're for - start with an internet search. These searches are probably for something like 'digital cameras'; note that the keywords used aren't the name of a store, but the category of product required. How do you make your company stand out? Here are some ideas...
Content: A high search ranking for generic keywords is essential, and essential to this is content. When Google scans a site, it catalogues written content. When other people link to you, it's because your site has something interesting that they want their readers to see. Both factors result in higher search rankings, which result in more visitors and, of course, more sales. So, get writing content. Whether it relates directly to your company, your products, or is simply a general guide on, say, the season's fashions, get it up there.
Online advertising: You can also advertise on search engines, and we recommend it. Google is the new Yellow Pages and a well-placed ad on their Adwords system can do wonders for the traffic to your website (and even have a profound effect on telephone and walk-in business). Indeed, if you wish to get serious about selling online, we recommend you spend as much on online ads as you did on the store itself - every year.
Feeds: Internet shoppers increasingly use price-comparison sites to find what they're looking for. So getting your products on the main price aggregating sites (such as Google Products, Kelkoo and PriceRunner) is essential and, in some cases, free. Oddly, price comparison sites aren't just about price. They're about finding specific products without having to trawl hundreds of possible sites. By providing 'feeds' of information (i.e. your product catalogue) to these sites you can ensure your products are seen by the people that are searching specifically for them.
Any of the above will help you attract more customers; applying them together will all but ensure it. Your next challenge is to make the most of that virtual footfall.
Turning shoppers into customers
There are two types of internet shoppers: those that need help in selecting the right product and those that know exactly what they're looking for. Satisfying both types can be tricky, as you must 'add value' to both types of shopping experience to differentiate yourself from your competitors.
Good high street stores present their products effectively, using attractive displays and sympathetic lighting. Big chains are getting better and better at showcasing their products and the same goes for online stores. We're not suggesting that every web store must be the online equivalent of Harrods, but at the least it has to look professional; your customers will also shop at Amazon and there's no need for the comparison to be unfavourable.
Image: Your shop should look good - as with books and covers, people judge businesses by their websites. Keep your store's image fresh and elegant. Provide product details that go beyond the manufacturer's specs. Ensure images are consistent, high quality and have a 'click here to enlarge' option.
Navigation: Whether they have a target in mind or just want to browse, people need to be able to get around your store quickly and easily. A search facility should help those who already know what they're looking for while clear and intuitive navigation will assist the others in finding their way around.
Stay on the customer's agenda: It's tempting to think that the more you show people the more they are likely to buy. Unfortunately not. Make it easy for customers to find what they're looking for and they may hang around to buy something else; make it hard and they'll leave. Even Ikea's website doesn't make you trawl through the whole shop.
Help with the buying decision: Your site can provide 'walk-throughs' for people who can't make their minds up, providing an online equivalent of the in-store assistant. Using buying guides to explain product terminology, whether bicycles or bedsteads, is a good start. You can also address the different reasons customers have for buying from you: are they looking for a style statement or comfort and what would you recommend in each case?
Cross-sell: Unobtrusively, of course. When products go well together, group them on one page. John Lewis do it with clothing - selling outfits rather than items; Ocado do it with food - selling recipes rather than ingredients; and we do it with our famous Tripp Trapp pages - making Back in Action the biggest seller of Tripp Trapps in the world!
So, the customer wants to buy your product! Don't breathe that sigh of relief just yet - there's still plenty of opportunity to lose the sale.
Closing the sale
Have you ever gone to the tills in a high street store and been told to 'open an account' before you buy? Is there ever a packing charge that isn't revealed until you hand your details over? You'd most likely walk out.
While you can't see internet shoppers walking away, it happens; people claim an incredible variety of reasons for giving up just before purchase, and only one is the price. If you make it easy for potential customers to spend money, they will, but if the checkout process is difficult they'll go elsewhere (think queues in sandwich shops).
To maximise sales you need to minimise the 'leaky pipe' effect where loads of potential customers go in at one end, but relatively few actual customers come out at the other. It's not rocket science - once people have started to buy, they want to finish - don't give them a reason not to.
Availability: It might not make a sale, but it could definitely break one. If customers can't find out whether you have the product they'd like in stock or how long it will take to reach their door, they might as well not be there.
Delivery: Give customers a choice of delivery dates, and make the costs clear up front; having both quick and low-cost delivery options will make sure all tastes are catered for. Of course, if you can offer next day delivery for free, so much the better!
Streamline the purchase process: Giving customers the choice of whether to open an account will remove a big obstacle for some people. If using third-party checkout systems, ensure they integrate smoothly. Every click counts.
Price: There's no getting away from the fact that price does matter, particularly on the internet where comparisons are easy. However, although your prices will need to be broadly competitive, adding value to the shopping experience will attract both new and repeat customers and mitigate any premiums you have. Don't, by the way, think that offering a popular product at a low price to attract custom through the search engines will lead to sales of other products at better margins. This is a fallacy, unless you're Tesco.
So, we've covered attracting shoppers, making them customers and closing the sale. There are a lot of parallels with high street shopping and, if you're in the retail business already, the lessons are the same: it's about understanding the psychology of customers' buying processes and designing your approach accordingly.
There are a few other - more geeky - aspects of online shopping worth covering here. If you're not technologically minded, skip ahead now.
Accessibility - Make your site accessible. This doesn't only mean ensuring users with disabilities can read it (a legal requirement), but also users with varying standards of computers and software. For example, at the time of writing, 25% of users have a screen that is only 800 pixels wide (...that's small!). Making your website wider than this is like putting ceilings in a showroom at 5'6".
Security - Strong security is essential for your sake as much as your customers'. Don't overlook the perception of security, though. If a potential purchaser doesn't feel your site is trustworthy they will not buy, no matter the reality. Ensure people never have to wonder whether their transaction is encrypted and ensure any third-party payment processing looks trustworthy by integrating it seamlessly with your checkout process.
URLs - The text in the address bar at the top of a web browser; URLs have an important effect on search engine rankings and ease of use. Use plain text, such as www.dianamaynard.com/jewellery/stone/ruby, rather than 'unfriendly URLs' (obscure combinations of characters) that mean both your visitors and Google have no idea where they are.
Headings - In web design, these are the <H1>, <H2>, <H3>, etc tags. It sounds simple, and it is: structuring your page using headings will get you a higher search ranking.
Metadata - Not only does good metadata (such as page titles and alternative image text) boost your search ranking, it also ensures that your site is accessible to everyone. Make it descriptive and relevant to each individual page or image.
Keyword Density - The terms your visitors enter in to search engines when they're trying to find the products that you sell are keywords. Make sure you use relevant keywords liberally in your site and you'll maximise your chances of a good ranking.
Site Maps - The major search engines allow site owners to submit maps of their sites in XML format (for example Google SiteMaps). This allows the search engine to scan every bit of the site and enables it to provide more relevant information on results pages.
XHTML 1.0 Strict - If you're starting a new website, make sure it's Strict XHTML. This means it complies to the W3C's standards for web programming. There are lots of really good reasons for doing this - the biggest being that Google will find it easier to read (and therefore list) your site.
Adobe Flash - It's the icing, not the cake. It sweets the overall experiences and can do wonders for aesthetics. However, just as no-one wants a cake made entirely of icing, it's best to steer clear of Flash-only sites and avoid using it for the navigation; it can cause all sorts of problems. Also, curb the temptation to have a 'click here to see our non-flash site' option, as it's very easy to end up with inconsistent and out-of-date information running on parallel sites. The very need for a dual site acknowledges the limits of the technology!
People are looking for the products you sell every day and most of them start their search on the internet. By having a web presence, you make it possible for them to find you. By having a web store you can make sales directly, reaching a much wider audience and growing your business.
If you're going to sell online, do it well. Treat your online store with the same care and attention as you would high street premises and the sales will flow in. Following the concepts in this article has led to much success for our clients. We hope it helps you.
This guide was brought to you by SAV; experts in web design, online software development and, of course, online selling. They have built and advised on web stores for clients of all sizes - if you'd like help, visit their site at www.sav.co.uk
and get in touch.