3 Essentials & 7 Desirable Elements For Any Successful E-Commerce Website
In these uncertain economic times starting a new business venture may seem daunting. For the average entrepreneur with average IT skills setting up an e-commerce venture can be bewildering. There are however many reasons why taking the plunge into online retail is a good idea. In terms of spending online there has been no recession over the previous decade. Each year online sales increase well beyond the growth level of the UK economy and there seems to be no end in site for this trend. Over the past 10 years thousands of new online businesses which sell both physical and digital products have launched selling their goods to one growing global marketplace.
By far the easiest way of starting selling online is to set up an eBay store but there are many reasons why this may not be a wise decision. Ebay, and its avaricious sister site Paypal, take a considerable chunk ‘off the top’ of any online purchase that can leave you with as little as 70% of the original purchase price. It is also a snake pit of competing sellers, many of them in China, who can produce and ship goods cheaper than you can send a small parcel via Royal Mail. You are beholden to eBay’s terms and conditions and they always side with the consumer over disputes on delivery and quality of items sold. You also have no way of amending or contradicting negative feedback which means you are not in control of your online reputation. Ebay may be a good way of testing the market for your products, to see if your price point is right and that there are customers out there. But it is not a platform for a medium or long term successful e-commerce venture.
Having set up and launched numerous e-commerce sites over the past 5 years I thought it would be a good idea to share my thoughts on how to go about it. There are no universal rules or website designs that guarantee your online shop will be successful but there are several general essentials and even desirable things which should not be ignored when creating an online store.
1. The Law
To run an effective online store and avoid possible legal action you need to know the law. There are a number of laws that apply to any online retail venture in the UK. These are –
- The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002
- The Data Protection Act 1998
- Consumer Contracts Regulations (previously the Distant Selling Regulations)
- ICO Cookie Law
The legal requirements of these laws are stated below.
The Electronic Commerce Directive states that –
- You must clearly display your website’s “terms and conditions”.
- You must provide clear information on a products price, tax and the cost of delivery.
- You must acknowledge all orders.
- You may refer to professional or trade schemes if applicable.
- You must display your business name, company registration number, your VAT number, your geographical address (a PO Box is not allowed) and other direct contact information such as email address and telephone number.
- You must define clearly any marketing offers and the conditions of these offers.
- If you send unsolicited emails you must identify these as being unsolicited.
- You must clearly identify any emails to customers which are of a commercial nature.
- You must always identify the sender of any electronic communication.
The Data Protection Act 1998 deal with the storage of personal details of your customers. The first step is to register your business and this can be done at http://ico.org.uk. If you are not registered and are in breach of the act, this will certainly have legal ramifications for you and your business. The act applies to a business of any size.
- You must only record data of a person what is pertinent to the needs of your business.
- All personal data must be held in a secure way and provided or removed upon request from the individual.
- Your terms and conditions on your website must indicate what you do with personal data and you must not then deviate from this.
- Data collected must not be taken out of the EU (even digitally via email) without permission from the individuals involved.
- You must therefore ensure that your terms and conditions specify whether data could be used by third party organisations outside the EU and provide guidance on how people can remove their data.
Importantly you must register under the Data Protection Act if you collect personal information including customers, employees or future customers.
The Distance Selling Act 2000 is aimed at consumer protection and is not applicable to transactions of a “business to business” nature.
- You must provide clear and concise information about your products before purchase.
- You must show clearly postage and packing costs.
- You must indicate whether VAT is included on the prices shown.
- All goods (excluding perishable and digital downloads) are subject to a 14 day returns period whereby a customer can cancel or return their order.
- Every order online must be followed by written communication (normally an email).
- Your terms and conditions must stipulate that a customer has a right to return goods for a full refund, other than return postage costs.
As you can see, there is quite a lot of red tape concerning online retail. If you are doing it yourself it is possible to get information and advice on numerous online forums for example – http://www.ukbusinessforums.co.uk/forums/e-commerce-forum.59/ The easier method is to engage a website design agency that can provide guidance and support in the set up of your venture.
2. Website Design
People usually decide very quickly whether they like a website or not, that’s why you should grab their interest in a matter of seconds upon their entry to the site; otherwise they will just find some other shop with a more attractive ‘look’. So design is paramount.
If you have reasonable IT skills you can make a good job of it yourself. It may take you about a week but using a base platform like Joomla or WordPress, which are free, you can purchase e-commerce themes from places like http://themeforest.net/category/wordpress/ecommerce or http://www.templatemonster.com/ecommerce-templates.php#gref for about £50. These themes have been professionally designed, so look great. All you have to do is insert your own pictures, text, and products add a few free plugins and you have a professional looking site. These platforms enable you to use near enough any payment gateways you want, some of which take a small monthly fee or as little as 1% off the top. WordPress and Joomla come with great functionality and by using free SEO plugins like Yoast you can get great SEO results. You will of course need to purchase a domain name and hosting that supports https protocols and can provide SSL certificates but the total cost of this should be no more than around £100 per annum.
If you have little or no IT skills or do not have the time then there are really two options for you. The first is to engage a website design agency to take the strain. This can cost a considerable amount so shop around and find an agency that offers what you want at a reasonable cost. An agency should be able to set up your site and provide you with ongoing technical support until you are in a position to take control of your site for good. The second option is using a system like Wix or Foursquare which offer simple drag and drop interfaces enabling you to set up a professional-ish looking store in a few hours with payment gateways and your own domain name. Again there are considerable problems with starting off in this way. They market themselves as cheap and effective but this is far from the truth. A basic brochure style site may cost you as little as £5 a month, but as soon as you want to add functionality to your site the costs rise considerably and they go up year after year. Again their platforms are closed eco-systems, like eBay, and you are tied in to their payment gateways. These again take a considerable slice off the top of any online purchase. All of them lack effective SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) which means you will frequently be on page 3 or lower of any google search. So you end up paying a considerably monthly fee for very little online traffic. Entrepreneurs who are tempted by this method frequently become disillusioned with e-commerce and give up, never to return.
3. Establishing Trust
Complying with the law and having the required information easily accessible to potential customers is the first step. People watch what they spend on; so it’s only natural to expect that they want to know everything there is to know about the product they’re going to buy, the purchase process, payment methods, the delivery service, warranties etc, that will help them secure a decision and commit to a transaction. So, make sure that you have linked to the appropriate pages from your home page.
Testimonials from satisfied customers are also a valuable tool in the retailers arsenal. If the people who gave you the testimonials are willing, identify them clearly and provide links to them so cautious potential customers can verify your products or services with honest existing customers. This can have the added benefit of turning your existing customers into selling agents.
Positive social media communications between your business and customers can also be displayed in a feed on your website. Links to your social media activity can help build your online reputation. Social platforms like Facebook can be utilised for maintaining relationships with existing clients. Twitter can be great in broadcasting your products and services to the millions of active social media users. Essentially social media can build your reputation and bring increased traffic to your site so it is a must for anyone establishing a new e-commerce venture.
Membership of trade bodies also add weight to your reputation. Displaying their logo with a link to show your membership details is particularly useful if your selling a service.
Trustmarks show a security guarantee by an external party indicating that it is safe to shop on the site. Some of these trustmarks come from Network solutions, McAfee, Verisign, and GeoTrust. Such accreditation certificates give customers a sense of security and gives them confidence in sharing their private information. Visitors would be more inclined to make a purchase if they know that their payment details are safe from prying eyes.
After you have the essentials sorted you may want to consider the following features that can help you to improve your online store’s usability and increase its profitability.
1. Understand that the main goal of an e-Commerce site is to sell!
Make Your Online Shop Sell! It sounds strange but there are many stores which are designed without a thought on making a sale. You site should not just look cool, it should put your products front and centre. Make it easy for your customers to buy your products. Place ‘Buy Now’ buttons in various places on your homepage and make sure you put your best products first on the page. Show the advantages of your products. Bullet pointed lists or infographics are a great way to quickly establish your unique selling points. Up-selling and cross-selling can be easily implemented on many e-commerce platforms so should be used where possible to increase sales and profits.
Having a clearly structure ‘shop’ page with a list of product categories or a grid of popular products is the perfect thing to help your online store. Special deals and new arrivals are also good to coax the common web surfers to buy. You probably know that there is a huge chunk of online surfers who don’t know what they want exactly; they just want to hang around. Your goal as an online seller is to tap into that market and show them what they are missing out on.
2. Offers, Value and Free Shipping
Many online shoppers are there because they know they can get things cheaper online. And nothing attracts them better and faster than shopping deals. Millions of people go gaga during sales and discounted periods, and buy anything at slashed prices just because it’s on sale. Traditional ‘bricks & mortar’ retailers know this and that is why they have some many ‘sales’. So make sure you offer your potential clients value. If you have a price point below your competitors, be they online or traditional, shout about it. Put your offers right in the face of the potential customer. It makes sense to position eye-catching banners with discount offers on the upper part of the home page of an online store.
Some potential clients are attracted by free shipping. You are now selling to the world, not just to the local market, so you should take the shipping costs into account. To save yourself from unwarranted shipping expenditure, adjust the minimum order price to include shipping costs. A minimum price limitation is acceptable and understood by nearly all who shop online.
3. Shopping Cart, Login Box and Search Box
The shopping cart, login tab and search box features are usually placed at the top of the menu on most eCommerce sites. The most popular shopping cart icon is a simple trolley or basket so it makes sense to choose something similar for your site. Many stores also provide their customers with private accounts where it’s possible to check all their previous and current orders. Please be aware that this functionality is covered by the legal framework mentioned above.
Every customer who signs up can choose a personal login and password for further access. Besides, owners of such accounts can receive special discount offers from the store owners and participate in different promotions or sales.
If you deal with a large online store that has a wide choice of goods then the search box is a must-have. This will also prove popular with customers who demand a specific product that they just need to locate from your online store to make their order.
4. Payment Systems
eCommerce websites deal with many customers from all over the world and they each have their own preferred payment system. Moreover, there may be technical limitations to a payment method or option, and that’s why it would be better to clarify payment options in advance. For instance, some eCommerce websites don’t accept international credit cards. Others require the customer billing address and the delivery address to be in the same country as the official store’s location.
Online stores commonly use payment gateways to process credit and debit cards. But can also utilise gift vouchers, cash on delivery, PayPal, etc as payment systems. You can easily find these payment icons at the footer of most sites. Payment details should be displayed on the home page in plain sight.
4. Latest news and most popular products
If you are using WordPress as the base of your e-commerce site utilise its inbuilt blogging system to create a news feed. You can blog about your new products, product/service developments, upcoming events or sales. Basically blog about anything your buyers should know about. It is good practise to have a dedicated blog page but you should also consider having your latest posts show up on your homepage. Recurring customers will more likely look through your new news items rather than spend half an hour browsing through your full inventory for something new.
Spreading the word is also important. Just posting new posts on your site or ‘blogging’ will only garner the attention of visitors to your website. Consider using plugins like WP to Twitter that will automatically tweet new blog posts to your twitter account, this will generate much more interest on social media, gain you followers and draw traffic to your site. You can further utilise social media automation tools like IFTTT to spread the word to other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest getting you much more bang for your buck!
5. Social Media Activity
As mentioned above social media is becoming increasingly important to e-commerce. It’s said that almost 20% of online purchases are accomplished after surfing through social media sites. People are inclined to take in public opinion. Social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are the best, if not fastest, source to get the information you need on just about everything. Moreover, social media accounts bring excellent opportunities for self-promotion: online communities can help to identify the most active and influential customers, or find new ones who are not familiar with the web store yet. For online shops, it’s a good channel to keep customers abreast of the latest news, or special deals which are oriented towards Facebook or Twitter followers only.
Frequently Asked Questions are not obligatory for an online store but can help customers make an informed purchase. It can help visitors to your site in purchasing something that they may not be familiar with. Your FAQ section should be informed by your correspondence with potential customers. If, for example, you get an email asking wither your product is suitable for indoor or outdoor use reply to them and then add it to your FAQs. That way you save time in the future and help your customers make informed purchasing decisions.
7. Online chats
Online shopping can have its drawbacks, some customers would more likely prefer to have someone they can communicate with about a particular product and service. Providing this device will increase sales. As a retailer you will want to provide clear and concise information about any given product or service on your website. This means that you cannot, an should not, provide all the information about your products/services online. Doing so would be onerous to the business owner and provide too much information to your competition. There are systems that can help you communicate with your potential online client base. Services like talk.to provide a simple web based solution enabling you to communicate directly with potential clients browsing your site. You simply sign up for a free account and embed a small code in your site and you have a small chat box appear on your site in the bottom corner. You can interact freely with visitors to your site and answer any pertinent questions. A great function of these systems is that it logs the visitors IP addresses so you can quickly check that it is a genuine enquiry and not your completion fishing for useful information. For an example of one such system feel free to visit my site at http://www.helioswebdesign.co.uk and start up a chat!
I hope that the tips above will help make your online website the perfect go-to page for potential buyers. If you have other ideas that would be helpful, be sure to get in touch and I will add them to this article.
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Best Budget UK Based Shared Hosting Provider
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*A relatively new type of hosting, ‘Cloud Hosting’ has emerged in recent years. I will write another article on this subject and or amend this article when I have firmed up my thoughts on this development.