As an e-commerce web designer, it is my job not only to build a great e-commerce site for my clients, but guide them through what is required to get one up and running, and what it takes to make money with one. Like anything else, it's simple when you know what you're doing, daunting when you don't. Here are a few things you should know before starting up an e-commerce site.
1. What are you selling? This is the most important ingredient for your success online. Your product(s) will dictate the tone of your website, as well as it's success. It is a combination of knowing your market, your price point and your competition, both online and off. You must know before you start who your market is, will they buy your product at all, and what your price should be. If your product is something that has never been seen before, make sure it fills a need, and do the research for popular keywords before you name the site, or even the product. If the product is well known and sold by other websites, you have to convince your visitors that your company has the best price, warranty, reputation, shipping or whatever it is that will make them buy from you above your competition. This can be done with some psychology, good pricing and making the sale as easy as possible.
2. How will your take payments? If you have a business that takes credit cards, you can sometimes use your existing merchant services for your online store; but it may not be the most cost effective option. For those who don't even know what Merchant Services means, don't worry; between PayPal and Authorize.Net, you'll cover all the bases, and won't lose your shirt to fees. PayPal is free to get a merchant account, and their transaction fees are reasonable. The only drawback is that the checkout process for PayPal makes it look like they need a PayPal account to pay for your products, even when they don't. Authorize.Net is one of the largest merchant processors in the country, and allows you to take credit card numbers right on your website. Best advice: Get both! People who already have PayPal accounts will prefer to pay that way due to ease of use; shoppers that don't will break out their credit cards right then and there.
3. How will you ship your products? I meet a lot of business owners that get a daily visit from UPS or FedEx and assume that they will simply ship with them. But the reality is that they may already be wasting a lot of money in shipping by ignoring the Postal Service. USPS has some of the best rates for shipping in the US, and their flat rate box programs trounce the competition (if your products fit). Contrary to popular belief, USPS does offer tracking, as well as insurance for lost or stolen packages. Many small businesses online as well as ebay sellers use USPS religiously. If you find that UPS or FedEx is a better fit for you, great; just make sure to explore your options and keep your mind open in the future.
4. How will I market my website? Marketing is the most important aspect of any website, more so for e-commerce sites. Statistics show that 85% of traffic to your site will come from the search engines, and Google has up to 80% of that market. You can start with SEO, but that takes time. You can use Pay Per Click programs like Google Adwords to jump start your traffic, but that can get expensive. The best advise is to do SEO and Adwords, but not to count on them for all your traffic. Use other mediums like print ads, phone book ads, billboards and magazine ads to advertise your new website, and keep the ads in there for a few month / issues - many consumers will check to make sure you're in there a few times before they will buy from you.
4a. How do I market Online? SEO and Internet Marketing has to be considered before you buy anything, including your domain name. First step is Keyword Research, to find out how many people per month are even looking for your product or service. Example: If you are selling makeup or other beauty products, don't buy a domain like Debbiescompany.com, find your niche market and choose the hottest keywords to put in your domain name, like DebbiesEyeCream.com. Your domain name does NOT have to match your corporate name, but it does have to be found easily.
5. How much work is involved running an e-commerce site? Some people think that an e-commerce website will run itself; others that it will dominate their lives. Reality is somewhere in the middle, but the software you choose to base your website in is paramount. After using and trying many different shopping cart systems out there, from Zen Cart / OSCommerce to Microsoft SC, I've found that Virtuemart is the best software to use for it's ease of use for both buyers and sellers. While every shopping cart solution has it's own great features, the one that stands out about Virtuemart is that it is runs in Joomla CMS. Joomla is an award winning Content Managed Site system that is open source, is easy to add / edit content, and has great automated SEO systems that work for both the CMS and Virtuemart. This will significantly reduce the hours you'll spend getting your products online, and increase traffic from the search engines. Running the day to day operations efficiently is key - if you only get a few orders a day and you're happy with that, then packing, shipping and customer service won't take up too much of your time. But if you want to sell a few dozen orders per day, you better get your shipping systems down pat, create an RMA procedure to follow, and get ready to hire a few employees if you don't have them already.
The Secret to Success: Model your company after McDonalds. McDonalds is famous for creating systems to make hamburgers and fries taste the same no matter what store you buy them from, then hiring people to run the systems. Use trial and error to create set procedures for every aspect of your store, from putting products up to charging the client to shipping it out and handling returns. Write it all down in an Operations Manual and then train your personnel from that manual. As you grow, ask for feedback from your workers to make your procedures better and more efficient.
Most important - hire a web designer that understands not only web design and marketing, but who can guide you through all the nuances of the points above.