Welcome, and thank you for reading this guide on how to start an e-commerce website. How many of us have thought about starting our own online shop? How awesome would it be to work from home every day? How helpful would this e-commerce website be to our local shop? Imagine the money coming in 24/7, all year long, from anywhere on the planet… Well, it’s not that simple.
What? Thanks for ruining it Anthony!
Don’t worry, this guide will help you achieve your goals so if you’re ready, let’s start!
Bad news #1, you’re not the first one to think about an online shop.
Amazon launched their e-commerce website in 1995. Compared to actual bookstores, they had no limitations and could literally sell any book in the world. Because of their initial success, they started to grow and sell pretty much anything. I can’t recall how many times clients asked me to build a kinda Amazon website. Not easy…
In 1998 Google and Paypal definitely made it easier to sell online. One would generate traffic, the other allow you to process transactions.
In 2004, the PCI security standards started regulating this wild ecosystem, reassuring buyers all around the world.
That’s when e-commerce websites exploded. I started making them in 2009, and at that time there was still some room even though some industries were starting to be crowded.
The e-commerce bucket
No it’s not a new viral challenge ( I wonder what that would look like), it’s a way to visualize the e-commerce online shopping market. Imagine a bucket that was empty at first and was filled over the years.
Between 1995 and 2004, the market was mostly filled with big companies and a few start-ups. The reason why is fairly simple: e-commerce websites were very expensive to make, not really mainstream, and definitely not in most entrepreneurs preoccupations.
Between 2004 and 2010 the public started to learn more about e-commerce and some entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to start a business. Most of the big companies that haven’t adopted it before finally joined the herd.
The bucket starts to be filled, but it starts to change a lot. Some big companies failed to succeed online and some small businesses became huge.
After 2010, everyone joined the party. Making an e-commerce website became much easier, with an array of solutions for every need.
Not only this, but artists can now sell on specialized platforms like Etsy, anyone can sell on Ebay, Market Places like Amazon are huge, people sell on Social Media, on Blogs, everywhere…
The good news is that the bucket gets bigger every day. In 2000 the value of e-commerce was about $27 billion, $143 billion in 2009 and $630 billion in 2014. Between 2000 and 2014 the bucket got 23 times bigger , and no one knows when it’s going to stop.
Before you start an e-commorce business, evaluate the market
Like any business, you must evaluate what’s the market like in your industry, find a niche, and study your competition. The good news is that it’s not too hard to do online.
- Google, Google, Google. There is no secret, you must know by heart who’s leading the industry in Search Engines. I recommend you spend time searching for what you’re about to sell and see who shows up. Don’t get scared or start copying anyone, just look and take notes.
- Social Media: That’s also pretty easy. Search for hashtags related to your industry, with a social media twist to it. Here users don’t buy; they like, they comment, they ask, they share, etc… so think fun and interesting.
- Adds: Google Adwords, Instagram adds, facebook adds, blog adds, anywhere that your products could be sold, there must be adds. Learn who pays for them.
- Market Places: Amazon, Ebay, Specialized platforms, etc… again, study your competition.
- Blogs: Always a great place for e-commerce since buyers and sellers can both talk about the products and get some traffic.
By now you should have a pretty good idea of who’s leading the industry, and who’s investing in what. I’m sure you will see the same companies over and over again. And you’ll realize that there might be a spot for you.
I recommend you get some help for these long nights of research:
For SEO: You must know the keywords since you’ve googled them. If you don’t have all of them, it’s ok, you can use MOZ Keyword Explorer, a great tool that will give you Search Results and more importantly suggested keywords with useful data associated to it.
For knowing how many visits a competitor gets and who’s linking to them, what keywords they rank for, etc… I use SEM RUSH. Even though it’s not perfect, it’s one of the best tools to get competition’s data.
For anything Social I use Social mention, You enter a keyword and the system tells you who’s talking about it across all social media and blogs.
For Adds, I recommend you use every platform add-generator to get to know how much is an add. You can do so on Google Keyword Planner and any Social Media that has an add system. That will give you a lot of insightful data and help you plan your future Advertisement budget and strategy.
The rules of e-commerce Business
Are you still there? Really? Wow, you must be really motivated. Good.
E-commerce has a bunch of rules, and you kinda have to follow them. Creativity is great, but don’t change everything. Why, you ask? Because user (buyers) know how to online shop and anything new, while potentially great, is also scary and confusing. Keep what works, and have fun with the rest.
In general, make sure that users can find the products easily, the navigation must be so awesome that anyone, even your 70 years old grandpa, can find the product they are looking for.
The search should also be awesome. Don’t make your visitors use a basic search that only looks for the exact keyword. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but users assume that every search bar works like Google now.
Search result for “mintoun bind”: Do you mean MOUNTAIN BIKE? Yes, we have some, they are right there.
Anything that helps the user is great. You should spend time on building your catalog, make it logical and self-explanatory. The Information architecture and the UX must be well-thoughts, for any type of users.
Don’t assume every customer is like you.
Don’t forget that customers shop on any type of device.
Write UNIQUE product description. You want to know the difference between you and your competition? The product description. Most of the Online store owners will simply copy the brand description, yes, the one you’ve seen everywhere and you thought you could use too. Sorry but that’s a bad idea. First of all, your creating duplicate content, that means your page will rank badly. Then, what do you feel when, as a customer, you finally find a product page that has a lot of professional information, useful tips, and great pictures or videos? You’re much more enticed to buy.
Your price is not the most important criteria for customers. If you offer great service, good quality products, great choice, good advice, free shipping, reward programs, money-back policy, customers will not care about a few dollars difference.
Treat your customer right!
You know what e-commerce website you want, let’s build it.
Now that you know what website you want, let’s start the technical conversation.
I suggest you talk to a Web Team (like us) to define what technical solution will fit your needs. Most of the times quotations are free and very helpful.
If you want even better advice, offer to pay for the proposal, you’ll get the Web team more involved and everyone will benefit from it.
Here, at Noble Pixels we’ve prepared a small questionnaire that helps gather information in order to design the proper solution. You can get the full e-commerce client’s questionnaire here, but here are some questions to start the conversation with:
- What are your main goals?
- What does success look like? What about your current situation do you not like?
- Which institution do you identify as your main competitors online?
- Could you describe your audience groups?
- What additional services apart from traditional e-commerce are you interested in offering your clients?
- Are you interested in having other languages on the website? Other currencies?
- Are you interested in working on Search Engine Optimization?
- If interested in paid advertising, which channels do you prefer?
- Are you interested in Social Media developments?
- Are you interested in Email Marketing?
The best e-commerce platform
There are dozens of e-commerce platform out there, and most of them are great.
You can choose yourself the best platform for your project, or ask advice from a Web Team. If you want to know more about what is available you can Google “best e-commerce platform” and you will find a lot of answers. For example, this comparative test between the most popular e-commerce platforms in North America (weirdly missing Magento?!).
Some e-commerce platforms are free, some aren’t, some are hosted, some require their own hosting, some platforms are ideal for small catalogs, some for big catalogs, etc…
Below are four of the most popular e-commerce platforms. I will only talk about these since I’ve worked with them.
Magento. Huge and powerful. Magento offers three different options as I know off, and a bunch of different versions for each.
There is Magento Go, a simple, hosted system, ver limited but ideal for small projects and no development skills.
Magento Community, the main Magento, incredibly powerful but hard to handle since any customization must be done by a Magento web developer, and these guys are expensive.
Magento Entreprise, supposed to be the finest of all, is incredibly expensive and requires specific hosting and specialized developers (both being very expensive and quite mysterious…). If one day I suggest you use Magento Entreprise, well it will be because your Wallmart and I don’t know what else to do.
Woocommerce. Well, this one is much simpler. It is often used on existing WordPress website that suddenly start selling a few products. You know like a blog that start sellings shirts. It’s customizable if you have a PHP developer, our friend Changyong created a complete plugin for a client that needed different levels of admins, different POS management and a lot of custom things.
Apart from that, Woocommerce is cheap and plugins are quite cheap. But it’s limited.
Shopify. We’ve used that one for a big organization that was transiting from POS to Online shopping. For us developers, it was not super easy to do what we wanted to since Shopify is not really meant to be customized by devs. But it has a lot of features, is easy to administrate and pretty cheap. You also don’t have to worry about hosting and development since it’s hosted on their platform.
It’s great to start an online business but if you want to move to bigger, more customizable you’ll have to start fresh on another platform.
Prestahop. Do you even know about that guy? Probably not. But I guarantee you it’s huge in Europe. It’s an open source system, easy to customize and full of plugins. These are generally cheaper than Magento which is good. Prestashop allows you to expand and grow your site as your business grows. It’s also pretty good with SEO.The main reason why store owners don’t pick it over Magento is because Magento looks stronger and beneficiate from a bigger community.
The main reason why store owners don’t pick it over Magento is because Magento looks stronger and beneficiate from a bigger community.
Alternate method: the Proprietary Solution. You can get a tailored e-commerce website made by a talented Web Team from scratch. It’s doable and even though less and less common, it stills offer great advantages:
- It’s 100% Customizable and tailored to your exact need. That will give you an edge since no one else will offer the same features.
- Less risk of being hacked since hackers generally attack existing platforms.
But it has some downsides:
- It could be expensive.
- You might be stuck with your developer.
- Make sure your developers know E-commerce CMS and take security seriously.
A good thing to keep in mind is that your system will need new features that weren’t planned initially. Make sure that the platform you choose allows that new feature, offers it, and how much it will cost.
Once you have your perfect E-commerce website it’s time to sell
Now that you have a great e-commerce platform, you’re ready to hear that chin-chin sound of money coming in. After all, you just spent $50,000 for your website and $100,000 for your products.
And that’s when it hurts. Sometimes money doesn’t come in. Your online store is perfect, but empty. It needs customers! Normally if you’ve worked with a good web development company you know exactly what your SEO strategy is doing, and you should get some customers. Not a lot at first, because SEO takes time: a few months at least. Sometimes the competition is so hard that SEO is simply too time-consuming, or simply unadapted.
Example: you sell handmade products that no one knows. Therefore no one is looking for your products.
Advertising. Remember the time you spent on Adwords and advertising at the beginning of your project? Well, now it’s paying off. At least you have an idea of what to do and how much it will cost you. You can read online a lot about how to conduct an Adwords campaign, or hire someone to do your SEM for you. You can also invest in Social Media paid campaigns or blogs affiliation.
What matters at the end is that your campaign doesn’t cost you more than a certain percentage of your sales. That percentage must be known since the beginning of your project. It’s generally around 15%. That’s the percentage you can invest without losing money or working for nothing. This percentage depends on your Conversion Rate. You must know it, for each source, every hour of the day, each audience type, etc… It will help you to optimize the money you invest and the ROI you get from each channel.
For that purpose, you need Google Analytics. And you need to set up e-commerce goals as well as tracking events, conversion funnels, and other awesome Analytics.
The ultimate goal is to optimize your conversion rate.
It’s the web, try stuff!
Online shopping is not like brick and mortar commerce. You might realize that you sell a product that you never sell in your shop. It’s a weird color, a giant size, a specific model… well, guess what? If customers can’t find it in their local shop, they will search online.
Each industry has its own rules, but none of your competition will be the king or the queen forever. If you bring something fresh, something great to the equation, customers might turn to you. Sometimes it’s a great UI, sometimes it’s aggressive prices, sometimes it’s a great catalog.
Be imaginative for your promotions, sales and reward programs. I remember working with a store owner that kept asking me custom sales features. It was hard to develop and I was always amazed at what new promotion he would think off.
The recipe for success in e-commerce business
After all the advice I just gave you must have a pretty good idea of how to start an e-commerce website. Although I think it’s great to start with, keep reading about e-commerce all the time, keep researching, and challenge everything you hear. There is a lot of misinformation out there.
My last advice would be to listen to people that have succeeded.
Here is a complete guide on how to start an e-commerce business. It focuses more on the business part, which I leave to experts.