eCommerce is fun. I ran a small online greeting card shop with my wife for 5 years and (if it were possible) I would love to be still doing it. But getting started in eCommerce can get overwhelming with all the options available. Rather than getting lost in the nitty-gritty of the software I’d like to cover the basics. The questions we all should be asking ourselves when first thinking of selling online.
Should I Invest In ECommerce Software?
You will have seen the marketing…. get a shop online in hours for almost nothing! It’s all true and appealing, but of course, only half the story. Making a profit with ecommerce nearly always takes some research and commitment. If you’re thinking of putting a few products online to see how it goes, you probably should not be considering your own ecommerce software yet. The odds are against you unless you already know how you will get visitors and that the shopping experience will convert to sales.
As a first step to selling online it is worth checking whether there are marketplaces (such as Amazon, Ebay or Etsy) that are suitable for your products. These platforms have the traffic, credibility with buyers and a polished user experience. Nothing stops you from promoting your products on your own site as well. Even if this holds no interest it can’t do any harm to check the potential competition and see whether there is an additional selling outlet for you.
Next up are services like e-junkie and PayPal. Here you can embed code around products on an existing site and let them take care of the cart and payments for you. Usually an easy and quick job. If your products and strategy is simple this could be a good option. You only pay for what you need and can change service providers with relative ease.
The restrictions are that you can’t fully brand the shopping experience and only have basic ecommerce functionality. For example they probably won’t be able to handle product variations (size, colour, etc), product searches, wish lists, discounts, and automatic email list building and so on. If you think you are going to need a more complete ecommerce solution the next question has to be…
Hosted Or Self-Hosted ECommerce?
There’s no shortage of hosted ecommerce services. Two of the best known and respected are Shopify and Big Commerce. These can be integrated into an existing site, but if you are only running a shop they should be all you need. If you want to get up and running fast and have someone else to take care of the maintenance, security and hosting issues this could be the best option.
The downside here is you are renting. Your business is in their hands. Should you not like their price changes, restrictions or service you are free to leave, but you start all over again. That’s not so easy when they have your customer’s purchase history and you have spent months putting up hundreds of products. If going this route it pays to do your research and think about what you may need in the future. Many businesses outgrow the functionality or design options these services offer. Also be aware that monthly charges are quoted based on moderate traffic. With some services the costs, should you have a success, could leave you regretting your choice.
The world’s most popular self hosted platform is WooCommerce (a plugin for WordPress). In a very short time it overtook the long-standing popularity of Magento. Both are open source projects that are free to download and use as you like. Both make money by selling add ons or extensions for their platforms. Magento is often considered the more serious ecommerce platform for enterprise level shops as it was built for that purpose. WooCommerce was built around WordPress. It’s debatable whether Magento has any real advantages for large scale projects, but this is a moot point to the majority. WooCommerce is both shopkeeper and developer friendly and has allowed more small to medium business to own their own ecommerce solution than ever before.
The downside with all self hosting solutions is the maintenance and development costs. You need to be PCI compliant if taking payment directly on your site. You will need an SSL certificate to reassure customers who look for the green padlock. You will most likely need some extensions that come with annual fees or/and will need regular maintenance to stay secure and updated without issue.
Let’s assume you are interested in Woocommerce and dig a little deeper
What’s Great About WooCommerce?
For some it’s that it makes it possible for non developers to create a feature rich shop for free or small costs. There’s a steep learning curve in getting it running and there will be some time consuming issues maintaining it, but if working to the defaults anyone can get started.
Developers on the other hand like it because it’s relatively easy to extend to their clients requirements. Additionally there is an ever growing number of paid and free extensions available for it. If you need to take paid bookings, run a subscription model or plan a membership site there’s an extension for it …. and almost anything else you can think of.
The standard features are impressive on their own
- It comes bundled with PayPal (for accepting credit card and PayPal account payments), BACS, and cash on delivery for accepting payments.
- It has reliable stocktaking, the ability to taxes according to location and block countries you don’t want to sell to
- It has the ability to automatically generate customer accounts and there are some basic shipping options.
Above all the Shopkeeper interface is user friendly. I have been using WooCommerce since it’s launch in 2011 and even my 70 year old mother-in-law who does not use the net was able to process customer orders. It also keeps getting better all the time.
What Are The Pitfalls With WooCommerce?
The folks at WooThemes (now acquired by the WordPress founder’s company Automattic) knew that most will want to do more with it. Most businesses will need to pay a developer to style their site (or buy add-ons to their free theme) and most will need purchase extensions that need renewing yearly. Of course, there are many free or cheaper alternatives to those sold via WooCommerce, but you would need to pick them wisely. Free and cheap has often disappeared and left me stranded.
This is not a negative. It can be said of Magento and other solutions. Make no mistake, WooCommerce is an advanced platform offering enterprise level functionality that previously would have been out of the budget of most businesses. For those serious about eCommerce I can’t recommend WooCommerce enough, but you need to think exactly what functionality you need and about getting maintenance support. There’s many maintenance services around. I even provide a Care Plan for clients. They become particularly helpful when WooCommerce has it’s major feature update (twice a year) and sites become vulnerable to breaking.
The Big One… What’s My Competition?
Overall, the consumer demand for eCommerce is growing, yet new online shops are often disappointed by sales. Hosted eCommerce services, like most DIY website solutions, know this. They know their customers will have low traffic and will be low cost to host. The reason is… most small businesses go on line with only hope in the hearts. They don’t know how to do online Competitive Analysis and Search Engine Optimization. Of course, they look at who’s offering similar products online, but don’t run the actual search numbers.
If your success depends on search engines to deliver customers you’ll need to know:
- What Keywords (search terms) potential customers are using.
- The volume of these searches.
- The ranking of online competition for those searches and where you could reasonably expect to appear in those ranking.
I will be talking about this more (using my old business as an example), but for now know there’s a heap of resources on online. Moz.com has a great SEO blog and free tools to assess the authority of your competition. The Google Keyword Planner will get you the actual numbers of searches. The two together can provide some powerful competitor analysis. Certainly, it’s not something you can learn overnight and often it’s better to pay someone with experience, but it is one of most important steps in planning to sell online.
Over to you… what are your ecommerce plans? Is it intended to be your primary source of income or, like me, a part time venture to test a few theories and boost your income?
I build websites at WP Corner Shop and travel. I also co-host a weekly WordPress podcast called WP Builds and make YouTube videos.
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