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.
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.
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.
- Is the agency certified by a Government or broader business community service? If you’re in the U.S agencies such as the Better Business Bureau are a good bet, in Australia organisations such as QAssure are great way to validate the legitimacy of the agency you’re considering.
- Does the agency have a portfolio of work? When making long-term business decisions such as partnering with a digital agency, it’s important to see the quality of work the agency has been able to produce of late. Ask to see a few examples of similar sites to what you’re looking to build, and which clients the agency is currently working with to get a feel for the quality of service you’re likely to receive.
- Does the agency have both design and development staff? Often development-oriented agencies work with partner design agencies and visa-versa. This is something which is becoming increasingly common in the digital market. Remember in this instance you’re dealing with a primary contact, but you still need to vet the work of the secondary partner. In most cases the work you will receive in this scenario will be superior to dealing with a single agency because you’re dealing with two specialists, so it’s actually a strategy you may want to consider seeking out.
- Pricing: When you engage a digital agency, the way your services are priced can differ greatly. From Time and Materials (T&M) based pricing, to fixed price, to utilisation of pre-purchased hours; make sure you understand what options you have. Many agencies (including OSE) offer decreasing price model services for bulk purchase of hours which is something else you may want to enquire about. Overall, it's definitely worth getting a few quotes to at least undertake basic price comparison but also understand the pricing models being offered in the market.
- Ongoing support: You may be surprised to learn that some agencies will actually refuse to work with you after they deliver your initial engagement. This means that you’ll be left with a brand new e-commerce site that you’re now going to have to find another agency to support. Ouch! Vet the agencies long-term business practices and ask if they will undertake ongoing support and updates on a regular basis post your initial engagement.
- Consider app and web development skills: Chances are if you’re launching an e-commerce site you’re going to want to launch an app version of that site at some point. The best option in this scenario is to partner with an agency that builds both quality websites and mobile apps. Remember to check whether your agency has capability in both fields (because they’re not the same) before signing on the dotted line.
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!
When selecting a website host, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Has the host been around for while?
- If so, do they have a reputable name?
- Are they price competitive?
- If so, do they offer the services that I need? This should include checking if they offer Linux or Microsoft hosting services, a decent web control panel, SSL certificates, and email.
- Do they support services such as Google Apps?
- Do they have 24/7 phone support or just email based support?
- What’s their billing cycle? Can I get discounts for annual purchases?
- Can the service scale with me as I grow?
- Do they offer dedicated hosting services if I need them or just shared hosting?
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: One of the longest standing payment gateway companies, PayPal offer everything in the way of online sales. Easy to integrate, supported by every almost service in the market, PayPal is a great option for online retailers.
- Braintree: Owned by PayPal, Braintree is relatively new to the market and at the time of writing this article offer 1.75% transactions + $0.30 which is significantly cheaper than PayPal’s 2.4% + $0.30 transaction pricing model. Definitely an option to consider.
- Afterpay: This concept is taking the world by storm. Put simply Afterpay allows you to pay in instalments right from the checkout and is gaining momentum at a rate of knots. This may be an option for you if you’re selling higher priced goods.
- eWay: Australia’s best-known payment gateway eWay is a fantastic option if you’re looking for a strong local provider to support your business. eWay offer all the features a quality payments provider should and is certainly worth considering.
- The banks: Believe it or not but your local financial institutions do offer some really good value out there, but you have to be willing to read the fine print before committing. Often based on monthly subscription fees, banks can be a solid option for e-commerce retailers who like the security of having all their services in the one location.
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.
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:
- The overall project goals
- The roles and responsibilities of project stakeholders
- A technical breakdown of each element to be produced
- Milestones for delivery of each key project phase (including the milestone payment amount)
- Pricing of each element to be produced (including the type of pricing i.e. T&M and Fixed)
- Any assumptions
- Sign Off
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:
- Free shipping: It costs money to ship any product no matter how small. We recommend offering free shipping on orders above a certain amount where you can absorb this cost. This also encourages your customers to spend a little extra.
- Coupon codes: Offer these sparingly, but when you do make them count. We recommend emailing out coupon codes to your email database once a month with a limited time offer reducing your prices by a margin which still accounts for a small profit.
- Bulk discounts: Companies like Alibaba have built their organisations around bulk pricing. By offering discounts for purchasing more than a given amount of an item you can not only move more goods but open yourself up to a much wider customer base.
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.
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.
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:
- Start building your email database: Anyone who you can reasonably add to your email list that you would not consider you spamming them, do so. You have an obligation to email only those who would welcome hearing from you, so don’t buy an email list and blast out to a million inboxes. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you have a subscribe form on your site to build your list, and sign up to an email marketing service such as MailerLite which offers great value for money.
- Select your social accounts: My #1 tip here is to only sign up for social accounts which are relevant to your business…and not too many. You’re likely a small business at this stage, so make sure you don’t spread yourself too thin. Facebook is always a good bet if you’re keeping things lean.
- Check that your site shows up in Google: If you’re new to organic search marketing you’re going to want to sign up for Google Analytics and Google Search Console. These tools will help you determine if your site is showing up in Google, and for what keywords. They will also tell you if your customers can’t find certain content on your site.
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:
- Pre-paid hours: In this instance you can purchase a given amount of hours (i.e. 25 hours) which usually have a 12-month expiry period applied. This is a great way to take advantage of bulk purchase discounts and know that you’ve got access to 24/7 support for your online business.
- Monthly roll-over hours: Many e-commerce site owners choose to purchase a set amount of hours each month that they can use as needed. This could be 5, 10 or more hours. The benefit of this is that you’ll be saving a great deal of accounting headache and also begin to foster a culture of innovation in your business.
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!