Creating Your First E-Commerce Site: 13 Top Tips for Success

Last year e-commerce retail sales reached $1.95 trillion worldwide. With these figures set to surpass $4 trillion in 2020, e-commerce is certainly alive and well. Just take a look at the Google Trends data for the last 5 years. E-commerce is maintaining very strong search volume online and is no way slowing down.

Google Trends Data: E-Commerce search volumes for the past 5 years worldwide

With this in mind, you need to differentiate yourself online as an e-commerce retailer, especially if you’re new to the field. Because your competition will likely have more experience than you due to their time in the industry, a great way to catch them by surprise is by implementing an e-commerce site which your customers will keep coming back to.

E-commerce is a fantastic way to earn a living, however the trick is to ensure you’re spending your time and cash in the best possible way if you’re going to be successful. It’s true, anyone can make money online as an e-commerce retailer, not just the ‘big guys’ out there. So let's get started!

In this guide we’ll help you position your e-commerce business for success. From developing your first e-commerce site, to selecting and setting up a payment gateway, to partnering with a digital agency, to customer support; we’ll help you launch an e-commerce business that stands out from the crowd.

1. Start by finding examples of e-commerce websites you like

The first thing a digital agency will ask you in a ‘meet and greet’ is if you have a few examples of some websites you like and for you to explain why you think those sites are good examples. This usually means 4 or 5 sites so the agency can narrow in on what you’re looking for and communicate your requirements effectively to their UX and development specialists.

When researching sites, we suggest visiting some of the major sites you frequent first and looking at what they do well. Don’t be surprised if you see some things which they can improve on. After all, websites are a work in progress no matter what the size, and remember the more sites you review the more you’ll learn.

We also suggest checking out a handful of your competitor’s sites and some smaller retailers who run successful boutique online stores. It’s important to understand the full breadth of e-commerce sites out there before creating your first site, as this will reduce any misunderstandings of what you can afford to deliver in your first attempt (i.e. your Minimum Viable Product - MVP), and where you can garner real value.

Amazon.com e-commerce website - A great example of a successful e-commerce site

2. Partnering with the ‘right’ e-commerce development agency for you

Developing an e-commerce site that really stands out from the crowd requires careful planning, strong development and design skills, and a commitment to a marketing strategy that supports your online venture. This is why partnering with a digital agency that suits your long-term goals is so important.

When selecting an e-commerce partner we recommend asking the following questions prior to making your choice.

3. Search online for e-commerce hosting companies

Selecting a hosting provider for your e-commerce site is an easy task, however for those new to the digital landscape this can seem a little overwhelming due to the vast number of hosts online. Just do a Google search and you’ll literally come up with millions of results!

Google search results for 'website hosting company' as a phrase

When selecting a website host, you should ask yourself the following questions:

If you can get clear cut answers to the above questions this will really help you make a solid choice when selecting a web host. When we provision hosting for our clients we tend to offer Amazon Web Services for enterprise clients looking to scale their businesses, and services such as GoDaddy for smaller sites as they offer terrific value for money.

4. Selecting an e-commerce platform

Selecting an e-commerce platform is a vital step in the process of becoming a successful online retailer. Just like selecting a CMS, you don’t want to be tied to an e-commerce platform that can’t support your development requirements over time. There’s nothing worse than being told that you simply can’t implement a feature on your site because your software won’t allow it, hence researching your e-commerce platform is one of the most important stages in beginning your online venture.

To help you make an informed decision about which e-commerce platform is right for you, please find below a list of “enterprise” and “SME” e-commerce platforms we recommend considering for your first e-commerce site.

Enterprise e-commerce platforms:

SME e-commerce platforms:

Of the above e-commerce platforms, OSE recommend Magento as our solution of choice due to the vast number of platform features and ease of implementation.

Magento e-commerce platform Admin Panel

5. Making your payment gateway work for you

Every e-commerce store needs a payment gateway, and there’s certainly no shortage of options to choose from. So how do you know which one’s right for you?

We recommend asking yourself these questions before selecting your payment gateway:

  1. Does the payment gateway have a local presence? This can be really important if you feel you’d like to be able to get on the phone with your payment gateway provider during local business hours for trouble shooting.
  2. Does the payment gateway provider offer services in your local currency? You many be surprised to learn that many payment gateway providers only sell in USD and do not support local currencies. This can be frustrating to your customers, so make sure you can list items in your local currency.
  3. Does the payment gateway integrate with your shopping cart? The majority of the e-commerce platforms we’ve listed above have widespread support for payment gateway integrations and in many cases come with connectors right out-of-the-box. However, don’t get caught, as this can mean you may have to build a custom integration at significant extra cost to ensure your payment gateway works with your e-commerce platform.
  4. Evaluate the cost of doing business: Payment gateways all charge different fees. From transactional based pricing, to monthly subscriptions, to annual discount opportunities, even fees for removing your own money! Make sure you compare pricing across the gateways you’re considering. This can save you a lot in the long run.
  5. Transaction limit discounts: Many e-commerce retailers often miss out on significant savings because they chose a payment gateway provider that does not support transactional limit discounts. If you’re going to be putting through volume sales, look out for this feature.
  6. Consider the features of your gateway: Does your gateway support bundle purchases, payment buttons, recurring payments, and discounts? Chance are they do, but remember to double check these just in case.

Which payment gateways do we recommend?

OSE have worked with a number of different payment gateway providers on e-commerce sites for our clients. Below are a few options to consider:

PayPal mobile payment gateway

6. Designing your sitemap and workflow

Spending time mapping out your site pages and the way they interconnect is one of the most valuable processes you can implement when building a website, and an e-commerce site is no exception.

Tools such as slickplan or WriteMaps are great for mapping out your site structure, and also let you perform analysis on your existing Google Analytics data if you’re extending your site with an e-commerce store.

These tools are particular useful because they give you a visual representation of your entire site layout, so if anything looks disjointed, doesn’t flow well, or leaves your customers having to click too many times to make a purchase you’ll eliminate it with these tools.

Sitemap built with WriteMaps

7. Building a project plan

Unfortunately, one of the biggest mistakes agencies and customers make when starting an engagement is not spending enough time documenting the parameters of a project. This is the #1 cause of tension between agencies and customers and in some cases can lead to legal disputes.

When looking to undertake a digital project, we recommend developing a project plan which clearly documents all elements of your project with your agency prior to commencement. This should include at a minimum:

This item is really important, so if you’re asked to pay for it by your agency you shouldn’t worry too much as this will remove a great deal of risk from your engagement and is extremely valuable long-term. You don’t want to be left with no leg to stand on if your project goes sour, hence we strongly recommend producing a project plan.

8. Free shipping, coupon codes and bulk discounts

If you’re an online shopper, you’ll know that one of the most important factors which influence whether you make a purchase is if the e-commerce retailer you’re dealing with offers free shipping, coupon codes and bulk discounts.

This can make or break your e-commerce store and customers these days want to feel like they’re getting a deal. For each of these items, we recommend the following:

Below we’ve included a screenshot of GoDaddy’s checkout page. If you’ve ever purchased something from GoDaddy, you’ll know that just about everything they sell is discounted. Take a look at their site or sign up for their mailing list. They have some great ideas for e-commerce new-comers.

GoDaddy e-commerce checkout page

9. Signing off on mock-ups

When designing your e-commerce store your web design partner will (should) present you with screen mock-ups for smartphone, tablet and desktop devices. This is done so you can see what your site will look like on each of these devices, and is a crucial step to ensuring that the flow of your e-commerce site works.

Responsive web design is the technique that your agency will use to design your site which calculates the screen size your site is being shown on, and either resizes or hides elements to suit. It’s an extremely common technique which has been used by web developers for some time now and will save you having to build a separate site for each platform.

In general, your agency will present these mock-ups using a service such as InVision. Services such as this are widely used because they allow a certain level of functionality to be shown across your mock-ups. Examples of this include click throughs and interactive menus. The other major benefit is both you and your partner agency can collaborate on your mock-ups by leaving comments in the exact place where changes need to be made.

inVision screen design mockups

10. What to expect from your development phase

The development phase in any website project runs the same at most agencies. First you’ll be assigned a project manager, senior developer, and UX designer. These people are your team with your central point of contact being your project manager.

Your project manager will work with you to establish a timeline for delivery, showcase progress, provide regular updates, address any change requests you’re looking to make, and is also your point of contact for financial management and scope creep.

Your development phase should take somewhere between a few weeks to a few months depending on the size of your site. If your development phase starts to run over time, this is when you should start asking questions. If you get the feeling your partner agency is putting you at the bottom of their list, or running into trouble developing your service, you need to speak up. As difficult as these conversations can be, you are the customer and have every right to ask what’s going on with your project and when you’re going to receive a working version of your product for review.

11. Product warranties and testing

The digital development industry as a general rule offer a 30-day product development warranty on all work from sign off. If your partner agency does not include a clause such as this in your contract, ask them what their warranty period is and get them to update your contract so both parties are protected.

30-day warranties are recognised as a fair and reasonable period to find any defects in works and provide both the customer and agency with a level of financial protection. This allows for you to find any bugs that were missed in testing and get them fixed without incurring a charge.

Testing of your e-commerce site in relation to what was specified in your project plan is incredibly important. You need to perform a ‘side-by-side’  type analysis process which directly compares the end-product you’re being presented with against what you agreed to pay for. This is a simple concept in theory, however due to the technical nature of developing websites can cause issues, so make sure that you work on your communication throughout your project to ensure that surprises don’t popup at the the last minute.

When you think you’re ready to sign off on your product, double-check this just to be sure. This is when your warranty period will begin, and you need to make sure you’re happy with what you’ve been delivered. We recommend getting someone who hasn’t used your product before to take a look at it. Generally outside parties are great at noticing things you may miss because they’ll be looking at your product with ‘fresh eyes’.

12.Launching your site

Launching your site is one of the most exciting times in your e-commerce journey, but you want to get it right. Your agency by now will have worked extremely hard to get you a finished product, but unless you’ve provisioned for some marketing budget this is where they will hand things over to you.

The best site in the world is no good unless people know about it, so you’re going to want to do a few things to make sure the word get’s out. Some examples include:

Mailerlite email marketing software for e-commerce retailers

13. Customer support and ongoing maintenance

If you’re going to be successful as an e-commerce retailer, your going to want to be updating your site with new content and features on a regular basis to stay relevant.

Your e-commerce platform will allow you to add products, but you’re going to want to develop a strong ongoing relationship with your partner agency to implement new site areas features your customers are going to want to use as well.

The best way to do this is by purchasing support hours as outlined below:

Conclusion

Launching your first e-commerce site can be a daunting process, but it’s also an extremely exciting time in any entrepreneurs’ life. The above tips will guide you through the typical things you should expect and provide you with some great insights into what will set you apart from the competition as you grow your business over time.

E-commerce as an industry is growing by the day at a rapid pace because everyone’s online and it’s super-convenient to make purchases this way. Make sure when building your e-commerce site that it is affordably priced, up-to-the-minute, works well on all devices and your customers will return the good will in the form of multiple purchases from you!

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