Whether you are offering a product or a service, the Internet enables you to reach customers all over the globe, who can conveniently order from your online store 24 hours/7 days a week. The primary difference between a regular website and an e-commerce website is that the latter is designed to perform only one function – selling. In today’s competitive Internet world, starting or growing your online business requires careful planning. To take full advantage of the opportunity offered by e-commerce, ensure your online business is based on a solid foundation, covering the following elements of e-commerce:
1. Establish your identity with the right domain name and host
The first step when creating your online business is selecting the name of your site (or URL e.g. www.yourdomainname.com.au). The domain name tells the customer who you are and how to find you on the Internet. The right domain name can make the difference between a memorable identity and getting lost in the online crowd. Once you have decided on a domain name, you need a home for that name or hosting. You can either set up your own server or find a reliable, customer support-oriented web hosting service provider to host your website. When selecting a hosting service provider, ensure they are offering at least a 99% uptime guarantee. That means your website should be accessible 99% of the time.
2. Build an attractive store front
Choose the right building tools You can either hire a web development firm to build your e-commerce site or if your budget is limited you can make use of website building tools to build the basic structure of your website yourself. Many of the free software offer whole e-commerce solutions such as database driven websites, shopping carts, the ability to add categories and products etc. These features depend on the software chosen, so it’s always good practice to carefully read the features offered. Shopping Cart Consumers appreciate the convenience of a shopping cart when they buy at an e-commerce website. Sellers also benefit from virtual cart software since they can manage and track their customer sales more effectively. Sellers can process and record large amounts of data for easy retrieval. They can even record customers’ purchase histories to determine their shopping patterns and preferences. Here are some of the most popular and free e-commerce solutions:
There are many templates you can choose from for free or at little cost. You may choose to customise the look and feel into your current website design.
3. Let customers know they can trust you
Online shoppers want to know that their personal information and credit card numbers are protected. You can either set up a PayPal account or set up a secure shopping cart and a merchant account to process credit card orders. PayPal PayPal is the easiest and cheapest solution when accepting online payment. Using PayPal enables you to accept payments from Credit Cards, Debit Cards and Bank Accounts. Your customers don’t need a PayPal account. PayPal also serves as a secure payment gateway. This means you don’t need to worry about setting up Merchant Accounts and securing your website to accept credit card payments. You can also use the PayPal shopping cart or integrate PayPal into your custom-made shopping cart. Merchant Account If you want to process credit cards through your website directly, you will need a secure shopping cart and a merchant account to process the orders. What is a Merchant Account? A Merchant Account is a service offered by a Merchant Account Provider (MAP), which includes the following:
- Credit card verification
- Processing credit card transactions
- Depositing money from the transaction into your account
You can only apply for a merchant account through a Merchant Account Provider. A popular Australian MAP is Merchant Link and a number of Australian banks offer Merchant Accounts. With merchant accounts, the start-up costs and ongoing monthly costs are high, though the big advantages are public perception and fast access to your funds. Some questions to consider when selecting a Merchant Account Provider:
- Which credit cards can I accept?
- What are the fees associated with the account? (many accounts have additional costs e.g. using American Express, fees for accepting offline payments and gateway fees)
- Are there any additional fees related to the account? Such as: yearly, set-up, application, monthly minimum, statement, support, cancellation, discount, per-transaction, gateway access and card rejection fees?
- What other software and services do I need to become fully e-commerce enabled online? (such as secure gateway provider)
- Do I need additional hardware or software?
Ask as many questions as possible and ensure you have developd a mutually comfortable relationship with your Internet Merchant Account provider from the start. Don’t forget about the shoppers who do not use credit cards online. Offer your shoppers a printable order form to enable them to pay by cheque or money order. Payment Gateway Payment gateways are interfaces between your online e-commerce site and your merchant account. While not mandatory they will reduce the amount of time taken to process your online orders. Often the Internet Merchant Account Provider will offer a Payment Gateway as part of the Merchant Account or will be able to offer a list of preferred providers.
4. Test your website
Take time to review and test your website thoroughly before going live. Check for broken links, grammar and correct contact details. Make sure you go through the entire ordering process to test its usability. Test on different computers (both PC and Mac if possible) and different browsers. Ask friends and family to test the website and to provide feedback.
5. Promote your site
Now that you’ve built your online store, it’s time to let the world know about it. Register your site with search engines Submit your website to the important Web search engines that robotically index the Web. Look for a link on the search engine that asks you to ‘Add Your URL.’ In Australia, the most used search engines are: Google, Yahoo and MSN. Submit Your Site to Key Directories A link from a directory will help your ranking and will increase traffic. Some popular Australian directories are:
Put your domain name everywhere In order to promote your website and establish your corporate identity, put your domain name on any promotional or advertising material: brochures, advertisements, business cards, hats, jackets, t-shirts and car banners. Request Reciprocal Links Find complementary websites and request a reciprocal link to your website (especially to your free service, if you offer one). Develop an out-of-the way page where you put links to other sites – so you don’t send people out the back door as fast as you bring them in the front door. Your best results will be from sites that get a similar amount of traffic to your site. High-traffic site webmasters are too busy to answer your requests for a link and don’t have anything to gain. Look for smaller sites that may have linking pages. Start a newsletter While it’s a big commitment in time, publishing a monthly e-mail newsletter is one of the very best ways to keep in touch with your existing customers, generate trust, develop brand awareness, and build future business. Having an email newsletter also enables you to collect e-mail addresses from those who visit your site but aren’t yet ready to make a purchase. Ask for an e-mail address and first name so you can personalise the newsletter. Develop a Free Service You will draw more customers if you offer a free feature on your website. Developing free resources may cost time and energy, but may be cost-beneficial by increasing traffic to your site. Make sure that your free service is closely related to what you are selling so the visitors you attract will be good prospects for your business. Give visitors multiple opportunities and links to cross over to the sales part of your site. Following these basic steps will help you lay the foundation for a thriving e-commerce business, ready to succeed in the competitive world of the Web.