The Small Business Owners Guide to E-Commerce

Ecommerce-memeThere's a whole world of commerce  happening outside of your local brick and mortar store.  People that live right around the corner from your location are buying the same product that's sitting on your shelf from a person half way around the world.  Why?  Because they can.

Welcome to the world of E-Commerce. People just love to buy stuff online, not only for the deals, but for the experience of getting stuff delivered to their door, minus the drive, taxes and  the sometimes annoying sales clerk.

No matter what you sell, whether it's swimming pools or handmade sock puppets, the internet is the perfect place to cast a much wider net than you could ever cast with just your physical store front.

You may think it's too technical to create an e-commerce store for your business, and five years ago you may have been right.  Luckily today there are so many resources and new technologies that let even the technically challenged business owner create and run a successful e-commerce store.

What we are going to discuss here are two things:

1- How to actually create an e-commerce store for your business, including all of the tools you will need

2- How to successfully market your e-commerce store and turn those eyeballs into paying customers

Why Create an Online Store?

Because it allows you to reach a much bigger potential audience than your local brick and mortar store could ever do.  And because it's not terribly hard to do, though it does take quite a bit of work.

Think of it as your second store front. You probably spent a pretty penny building out your store, why not spend a fraction of that amount and possibly build a store front that can totally launch your business into a new level of awesome.  If you run your business from home, it's your opportunity to create that awesome store front you dreamed about at a fraction of the cost.

E-commerce is easy to get into but hard to execute

With an e-commerce store, you don't have the business owner or salesperson there to answer every objection, to sweet talk the potential customer into making a purchase.  You need to make all of that happen virtually, without ever getting the chance to speak to that customer before they decide to purchase or not purchase.  What this means is that you need to carefully plan how you will take the potential customer from window shopper to customer.

The Tools You Will Need

E-Commerce Software

There are several great e-commerce and shopping cart solutions available to you.  Some of the solutions are called hosted solution, which means they not only provide the software to create your e-commerce store, they also host your website on their servers as part of the monthly fee.  A self hosted solution is where the software is provided to you, but you are responsible for hosting your website on your own hosting account.

Hosted solutions are a great way to get started with e-commerce.  They require little technical knowledge as they handle all of the hosting responsibilities and they are truly a one stop shop when it comes to creating and running an online store.  The down side is that you don't have 100% control over your site, meaning if you ever decide to leave and switch to a new platform, you may be faced with having to rebuild much of your store over again.

Self hosted solutions are more difficult to setup as you have to manage your own hosting as well as configure several things like your shopping cart and payment solutions yourself.  This is a good option if you are a bit more technical and you are the type of person who wants full control over your own online store.

Below are a few of the more popular e-commerce and shopping cart solutions

Hosted Solutions

Shopify – Create a beautiful e-commerce store without knowing a lick of code.  Hundreds of themes to use, you can get a storefront open in a weekend.  Plans start at $14 a month for a basic store with several options if you're looking for more.  They run a great blog where you can learn everything you need to get your own store open.

Big Commerce – Another really popular hosted e-commerce solution.  Tons of themes available as well as add-ons and payment options.  Plans start at around $25 a month, though they do not charge transaction fees, which Shopify does for their smaller plans.

Self Hosted

Magento – Magento is one of the most popular e-commerce solutions when you want to host your store on your own web hosting service.  There is a steeper learning curve involved over any of the hosted solutions, but it's not too difficult once you've spent the time getting used to it.  The Community Edition is free to download and is probably all you'll need.  There are hundreds of third party apps that can extend the functionality of your store.

Open Cart – Another self hosted shopping cart solution that has been around for a number of years and has a good reputation.  They have a large community of developers and it's easy to find help in building your store if needed.  Open Cart has a GPU license, which means it's free to use and modify as you see fit.

Woo Commerce – If you're currently using WordPress or you know that's the platform you would like to use, Woo Commerce is a great option for building an online store.  It comes from Woo Themes, which has a solid reputation in the WordPress community and is free to download and use, though there are several add-on features that you would have to pay for if you need additional functionality.  It's not as robust as all of the options above, but a solid choice if you know you will be using WordPress.

Payment Solutions

Paypal – Probably the fastest and easiest way to start taking payments online.  It's a great option to get started, though yu may want to switch to a different provider if your sales start to grow as the transaction fees are typically a little higher than other options, though they don't have monthly charges which makes it great for starting out.

Authorize.net – Very popular payment processor that gives you more options than PayPal.  Low monthly fees to use the service, and lower transaction fees than PayPal.  You have more control of the payment process with this method over PayPal, though you have to go through an application process and it's a little more technical to setup than PayPal.

There are several other payment processing solutions available, you can read more about them here.

Hosting

If you're going to use a self hosted e-commerce solution then you'll need to get your own hosting.  The cheapest alternative is known as shared hosting, which will only set you back $5-10 a month to host your website on your own hosting account.  Shared hosting is when you share server space with other websites to reduce costs, kind of like living in an apartment building.

Your next step up would be a Virtual Private Server (VPS) where you are still technically sharing server space, but you are essentially walled off from the other websites and have much greater control and security over a shared hosting account. A VPS will run you anywhere from $20-$150 a month, depending on the hosting provider and features you are looking for.

After a VPS, you're getting into hosting your own server (Dedicated Hosting)which is probably too expensive for you at this point (hundreds a month) and requires advanced technical skills to create and maintain.

If you run an e-commerce store, you will be required to purchase a private SSL certificate for your site.  This security certificate encrypts communications on your site, which is required if customers will be entering in any kind of payment information during the checkout process.  The cost will run you anywhere from free, depending on your hosting account, to around $50-75 a year.

Technically, if you implement a payment process where the actual transaction occurs off of your site, like how PayPal typically operates, (they take you to Paypal for the payment and then return the customer to your site after the payment is processed) you may not need an SSL certificate, though I still think it's a good sign of trust to have one anyway.

A Small Orange – Nice independent hosting company that provides reliable service, good support at a great price.  I used to use HostGator, but their service has gone downhill so much I cannot use or recommend them anymore.

WP Engine – If you're going with a WordPress website, WP Engine provides dedicated and managed hosting for WordPress websites.  A little more expensive than a typical shared hosting solution, but you'll get better performance and support.

Converting Visitors into Customers

After you've learned the technical details of creating an e-commerce store, you'll be moving onto the harder part, driving visitors to your website and converting them into paying customers.

You'll have to learn how to:

1- Drive qualified traffic to your website

2- Turn them into paying customers

Between steps 1 and steps 2, you'll have to manage all of the steps in between and know how to deal with issues like shopping cart abandonment, product descriptions and how you charge for shipping and handling.  These are all issues that need to be addressed as it doesn't take much for someone to drop everything and leave your online store if they don't feel totally comfortable during their visit.

You'll need to educate yourself on how to run a successful online store as well as converting visitors into paying customers.  Below are some great resources that can help you along the way.

E-Commerce

EcommerceFuel.com – Great blog and podcast on creating and running a profitable e-commerce business.  Talks about niche e-commerce businesses, interviews and general tips for e-commerce.

Get Elastic – Popular e-commerce blog that covers pretty much anything and everything you need to know about e-commerce.

Buildmyonlinestore.com – Another blog and podcast dedicated to creating and running an e-commerce store.  Offers case studies and interviews with people who've already had success building and running their own stores.

Marketing & Conversions

Conversion XL – Probably my favorite blog when it comes to learning the details on how to convert visitors into customers.  Dives deep on on all the little things that make people want to buy.

Hubspot – This blog offers a ton of marketing research and advice on how to market your business successfully.

CopyBlogger – Great blog on copywriting for the web, creating an audience through thought leadership and fine tuning your website so it gets found online.

PPC Hero – Great blog about Pay Per Click marketing.  Has a bunch of articles on advertising online for your e-commerce store.

The hardest part is getting started

There is a ton of information and a steep learning curve to build a successful e-commerce business, but the thing that stops most people from doing it is actually to start doing it.  It may be confusing at first, you'll make mistakes, but you'll also see that after you spend some time doing it, it's not as hard as you thought.

Why not extend the size and reach of your physical store front by building a potentially bigger and and more successful virtual store front on the web?  Everything you need to get started is above so get going!

There's a lot of information above, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me here.

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Gary

CEO at 3Bug Media
Gary Shouldis is the founder of 3Bug Media, a web marketing company that helps businesses create 360 Marketing Strategies to dominate their market. His blog is read by over 15 thousand small business owners a month and has been featured in the N.Y. Times Small Business, Business Insider and Yahoo Small Business.
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