How to start an online shop

We asked web design experts Create for advice on how to plan and structure an online shop your small business.

Starting an online shop means you can tap into an unlimited market of customers. Open 24/7 and unrestricted by location, your online store is an important part of your business strategy which will work for you while you sleep.

How to plan and structure your online shop

Whether you’re adding an additional sales avenue to a traditional shop or exclusively trading online, understanding what you want to achieve for your business is critical to its success. Take the time to plan, so you can set your business up for online growth and profitability.

Every business will be different and unique. Think about how your online presence will work to support your overarching business objectives.

Don’t think of your strategy as something you need for a meeting with the bank manager. Think of it as a living document that you’ll draw from whenever you’re working on the business. Don’t be afraid to add to the document as you go along.

Key questions to kick start your online shop planning:

  • What is the mission of your business? What is it trying to achieve?
  • What is the goal of your website? Is it to generate leads? Process payments?
  • Who are your customers? What is important to them? Why will they buy from you? What problem will you be solving for them?
  • Will you sell a range of products tailored to your customers requirements or specialise in a particular niche?
  • Will your online store be your main sales channel or part of a wider sales channel?

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Choose the right e-commerce software

Once you’ve created the plan for your online store and outlined the goals of the site, choosing an e-commerce platform (an online retail platform) which offers the services you need becomes much simpler.

Depending on your time constraints, skills and budget you can either build your own online shop or employ a web developer to assist you. Be clear about how much you are willing to invest and consider the options.

As a small business owner you may want to update your website on a regular basis. Consider how much control you will have over this and what the ongoing costs will be.

With a hosted service like Create.net, you just log in and use the tools provided to build your store. Create take care of all the technical aspects and keep things up-to-date behind the scenes. This ensures you are free to manage what you do best – your business.

The alternative to this is to choose a solution which is self-hosted. This can be cheaper as there is free web-building software available like WordPress. This means you only need to pay for hosting. It can also be more tailored to specific requirements if your business has unique development needs.

Secure Your Domain Name

A domain name is your website address and is a visitor’s direct link to your site. It is unique to your business so it’s important to choose something that will reflect who you are and what your business does. So how should you choose your domain name?

  1. Aim to keep your domain name short and sweet. Make it memorable and easy to type in for potential customers. You should avoid hyphens and numbers which can add confusion for customers.
  2. Try and include your business or brand name. This will make it easier for customers to recognise your domain name and for others to access your site when they hear about it.

It’s also good practice to spend some time investigating existing domains which are similar to the ones you are considering. You’ll want your domain name to be unique to you in your industry so it’s easier for you to build a distinctive brand that sets you apart from your competition.

Accept payments through your online shop

When setting up your online store you’ll need to be ready to accept payments. This is usually completed with a credit or debit card transaction processed through a payment gateway (an application that authorises your customer payments online).

As speed is often key to making a sale, providing your shoppers with the option to pay by card is definitely recommended. For your website to be truly successful it needs to be as automated as possible.

Choosing a provider can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s a competitive market so it’s worth shopping around. PayPal is a great first step and well-recognised by shoppers, but if you have a high turnover it can start to be expensive. At this stage, looking into a card processing option could save you money and increase your sales. Start Up Loans recipients however can benefit from this unique offer with Paypal to help reduce early costs.

You’ll want to ensure that your e-commerce software is able to integrate with the card processing company (a company that handles credit or debit card transactions for your online shop) you choose. You’ll want to ensure that the two will work together seamlessly. If you’re opting for a hosted e-commerce solution just ask the card processing company for more information about which card processing options they support.

If your site is self-hosted check the integration documentation that your provider gave you to check it’s compatible, or see if a plug-in is readily available that you can install.

Any business accepting credit and debit cards through an online store needs to adhere to some additional security considerations known as PCI-DSS compliance. The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard is a worldwide standard to process card payments and reduce card fraud.

Don’t just think mobile

In 2014 mobile e-commerce sales overtook desktop sales and the increase in new mobile devices has resulted in a huge ecosystem of different screen sizes to design and build your website for.  Gone are the days when everyone talked about having a mobile friendly website. Now it’s all about providing the best experience to your customer no matter what device they have.

To put this in perspective, Create.net received visits from 1031 unique mobile devices in 2015. Each of these had their own unique screen size and configurations. Everything from tablets to games consoles can be used to browse the web and make purchases. When choosing your platform, you should consider whether your site provides the best possible experience for customers using any device.

Once your store is live it’s important to track what’s working and what’s not on your business’ website.

Building your online shop

With the technical, financial and legal aspects underway, this is a really exciting time to get your creative juices flowing. At this time you’ll need to start thinking about putting together the pages of your site and creating your content.

Initially you should publish a landing page at your domain name. This can be a simple “coming soon” announcement to encourage potential customers to sign up to a mailing list so you can keep in touch.

This is also a good time to submit your site to the search engines. This means they’ll include your domain (URL) in their index (a search engines list of web pages) and then spider (a programme that searches your site and creates entries for your site to be found on search engines) the rest of your site more quickly once you are ready to publish it fully. For a wide range of tips and tricks on optimising your website, download our free SEO toolkit for start up businesses.

While everyone is checking out your ‘coming soon’ page, you can get back to building the store behind the scenes. Start by gathering all the content and imagery you have together. This will help you to see what you have, what you will need and allow you to map out your website.

The most important page of your site will be your homepage, this will be the first thing that most website visitors will see and it should represent you and your business.

Consider your website’s goal and ensure that an appropriate call to action is in place. You’ll want to draw customers into your store so showcasing your profitable and popular products/services here could be key to your success.

Display your business information and terms and conditions

In the UK, any business selling online (or not in a face-to-face capacity) is governed by legislation known as the Distance Selling Regulations. This is in place to protect consumers and set out how businesses should treat their customers.

It’s important to review this legislation and include the necessary sales information on your site. Leaving things unsaid means that the default position from the legislation will apply. For example, if a customer changes their mind about a purchase and wishes to return it to you, if you haven’t stipulated within your returns policy that you expect the customer to return it at their own cost, they do not need to do so and can therefore ask the business to pay for this.

Alongside your terms and conditions, ensure you are including the required information. This includes your business name, address and email contact, delivery costs, cancellation and returns policy.

Any card processing company you wish to use will also perform checks to ensure you are meeting the current requirements and displaying all the necessary information. Aside from these legal checks, being clear and transparent with visitors to your site will not only reduce the likelihood of problems and complaints, it will also improve the customer’s overall buying experience.

Create have one mission: To make building your website and online shop easy! As a Start Up Loan recipient you can access an exclusive business offer with them and build your own website and online store for £5 a year.

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