It’s never been easier to start an online store… and it’s never been harder to turn a profit in e-commerce. Below are some e-commerce tips that might help you get started.
There’s no surefire way to estimate the size of the online retailing market, but experts think there are more than 20 million websites offering some kind of product or service on the internet. Conversely, only around 110,000 of them – representing less than one half of one percent – are earning any measurable income at all. And just to be clear, the bar for that metric was set so low that businesses with $1,000 in annual sales qualify.
Those two figures, side by side, do a good job of explaining the challenges faced by marketers today. Adding a shopping cart and a few products to your website is easy. In fact, you can set up a fully featured online store within just a few days. But bringing in customers, convincing them to buy, and building that initial success into a profitable business model is more difficult than most businesspeople think. And, it’s getting harder every day because of increased competition.
Things aren’t hopeless, though. Whether you already have an online store or are looking to get your venture off the ground, turning a monthly profit is largely a matter of refining your approach to stand out with customers. In this article, we’re going to share some practical and proven tips you can use to give your online store a big boost starting today. Let’s get started…
Be Everything to No One
There used to be a time, before the invention of shopping malls and big-box retailers, when people used to do their shopping at local general stores. Then, catalogs came along, followed by specialty shops and retail destinations. Eventually, online stores made their way into the world and virtually anything you could imagine was available with the click of a mouse.
At each step in this process, niches got smaller because choices became more numerous. Once malls came along, for instance, you no longer had to settle for the clothing carried at a department store because there were half a dozen shops carrying different styles and sizes. Instead of buying all your groceries at the closest market, you could get imported, organic, or specialty ethnic foods by going a few miles farther down the street.
The point to be made here is that retailing keeps getting more and more segmented. If you don’t know who your best customers are, and exactly what they want from you, you’re going to lose out to another retailer with a tighter focus. There simply isn’t space to be everything to everyone; so, to bring some clarity to your messaging and business model, you have to drill down into your most profitable areas.
Remember, there are literally tens of millions of places for people to shop online. What are you offering your customers that no one else can? Until you can answer that question definitively, you don’t have the building blocks of a successful e-commerce website.
Garbage in, Garbage Out
It is an absolute truism that an online store can’t have sales without having traffic first. In the offline retailing world, you can’t ring a cash register before someone walks in your front door and peruses your aisles. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most e-commerce entrepreneurs prioritize customer acquisition over all else.
Unfortunately, they tend to do it in a clumsy way. That’s because they focus on the big picture without paying attention to the details. For instance, you may already be aware that 93% of all online purchases begin with a search engine query. But that doesn’t mean you should rush out to place PPC ads on the keywords that get the most traffic, or to invest thousands and thousands into organic SEO.
Instead, a careful review of your strategy should include questions like:
- Are you targeting the right buyers through pay-per-click, SEO, and social media?
- What makes you think a searcher or prospect makes a good fit for your business? How can you be sure they plan to make a purchase instead of simply gathering information?
- How likely is it that multiple people will be involved in the buying decision, and what do those different groups of buyers care about?
- What are the costs of your customer acquisition strategy compared to the ROI you’re getting?
There is an old axiom in computer programming that reminds us of the “garbage in, garbage out” principle. If you’re bringing traffic to your online store, but it’s not the right traffic, then you’re always going to struggle to get sales regardless of what the raw visitor stats look like.
Capture More Prospects
Given the cost and effort involved in bringing targeted web traffic to your website, doesn’t it make sense to give yourself multiple chances to convert those visitors into buyers?
The competitive nature of e-commerce in 2017 and the budget consciousness that has become popular both mean that shoppers are likely to look at multiple stores before making a decision. In fact, they may devote a bit of time to research, consideration, and planning before they finalize the sale. If you can keep them coming back to your e-commerce site, or interacting with your brand, they are more likely to ultimately decide to buy from you.
The easiest way to convince them to engage with you if they don’t make an initial purchase is by having them subscribe to your email newsletter. Getting potential buyers to follow you on their favorite social media platform is a good consolation prize, too. Neither is as valuable as a sale today, but either is better than nothing – especially when you consider the money you spent bringing the visitor to your website in the first place.
There are multiple incentives you can dangle in front of visitors to convince them to stay in touch. Buying guides, coupon codes, and special offers are all valuable in this regard. Each one can be used to build your list first, and then boost revenue instantly with time-sensitive discounts or promotions later.
Make the Buying Decision Easier
As important as the structure and marketing of your e-commerce website may be, the reality is that sales aren’t made through PPC ads or search engine results. They only occur when the right visitor shows up at the right landing page and sees something they just can’t pass up.
Your job as an entrepreneur is to make the buying decision as easy as possible for them. Use high-quality product photos with rich detail to show off the features of what you have. Make sure options for size, color, and shipping are simple to locate and understand. Include features that let shoppers zoom in, rotate the product, or watch a demonstration video if needed.
For instance, when we, at Avex Designs, helped KITH, the New York City fashion brand, launch their new Shopify website, we focused on high resolution photos of products and lifestyle shots. This really filled out the minimal feel of the website, allowing the customer to see all of the details of the products. We also made sure to enhance the user’s experience by making it easy to view product details and descriptions. When a product is sold out, the customer can enter their contact information to receive an alert when the product is back in-stock. Little experience enhancements like this can really keep customers coming back.
Pay close attention to your product descriptions, as well. These should show off the benefits and technical specs of every item in your store. To the degree that it’s possible, you should have marketing copy that’s generated in-house, with reviews and buying tips that are aimed specifically at your market. These give you more search engine visibility (since your content isn’t duplicated from a competitor or manufacturer), and also make your online store more usable and relevant for your target audience.
These are small tweaks, but they add up to a more straightforward buying experience for the shopper. You want to remove every obstacle between their desire and a finished order, so why not make your products as appealing as possible?
Make an Offer They Can’t Refuse
For the last several years, many of our e-commerce clients have begun using tripwires in their online stores. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it’s similar to the old-school retail strategy of bringing in customers through a “loss leader.”
In essence, it means you have something in your online store that you sell for a very low price (usually between $10 and $20). It could be digital, but physical products that can be sold and shipped inexpensively work best. Most importantly, they have to have real value to the customer and represent something of your brand or value proposition.
Tripwires work wonders because they give shoppers a very low-commitment way to take your store and products for a test drive. Just as critically, they allow you to monetize your traffic almost instantly, and to separate your core group of buyers from “leads” that might not ever turn into accounts.
Look to see if you have something in your store that can be sold at a big discount so you can entice more people to give your shop a try. Or, try to create something new that will be attractive to the kinds of buyers you’re looking for. When you find your tripwire, you’ll have something you can promote on your store, over email, and through your social media accounts. Even better, you’ll have a source of revenue that tells you which parts of your list are actually worth the most.
Earn Your Street Cred
An e-commerce industry survey suggests that more than two-thirds of all shopping carts are abandoned before a sale has been completed. That amounts to billions in lost revenue for online stores across the U.S. each and every year.
There are lots of reasons a shopper might decide to give up before placing an order, of course, and some (like a lack of funds or real interest) have little or nothing to do with your website. However, there are some steps you can take to turn more of those visits into completed sales. And, they mostly amount to boosting your credibility and making customers feel less afraid of buying from you for the first time:
- Create an e-commerce website that looks credible. Pay attention to the details of design, grammar, and layout. Make your store look like the one that people can trust.
- If you have money-back guarantees, Better Business Bureau accreditations, and other trust indicators, put them in prominent places. Make sure buyers know it’s safe to share their personal and financial information with your business.
- Develop a strong online reputation. Fifty-five percent of shoppers say that reviews are important to their buying decisions. Make sure people are saying good things about your store and your products.
- Streamline the checkout process so customers aren’t hit with surprise charges or terms right before they finish an order. Let them know prices and availability upfront so they don’t feel like they are being tricked later.
Online stores with the right look and good street cred get all the business. If your website seems a bit sketchy, you can’t be surprised when customers refuse to trust you.
Take the Test
You shouldn’t just be in competition with your competitors, but also yourself. By that, we mean you need to continually test every element of your online store – and particularly search terms, pay-per-click ads, product page elements, and special offers – to see which messages or ideas generate the biggest response.
No matter how well you know your market, or how much research you’ve done, you’re bound to be surprised by what you get (or don’t get) from some of your campaigns. Coupons and landing pages that you think are can’t-miss ideas will fall flat; promotions that you consider to be one-time throwaways will become big hits. And, segments of the market that you count on or write off will buy in ways you don’t anticipate.
The only way to separate meaningful trends from the “noise” of everyday business is by testing and studying your web analytics. The answers you’re looking for can be found in costs and conversion rates, but only if you’re willing to experiment with your assumptions and try new ideas.
Keep the Register Ringing
In the end, e-commerce is all about profits. That means increasing sales and decreasing prices. The easiest way to do both is by getting each customer who comes to your store to place a bigger order.
That’s common sense, but you would be amazed at how often online retailers miss the opportunity to give their bottom line a big bump. They do everything needed to win new business, but don’t think about cross-selling, up selling, or offering volume discounts. And, they fail to bring existing customers back to the store again and again.
Let’s quickly examine these one at a time:
- Cross-sell opportunities occur when a buyer places one item in their shopping cart and is presented with the chance to buy something that’s related. An obvious example here might be for a chair that goes with a desk, or a sweater that matches a pair of jeans. Because the two products have a logical connection, customers might appreciate the chance to get both at once.
- Upsell products are similar, but typically add something to the original purchase. We’ve all been offered warranty plans when purchasing electronics, for instance, or asked if we’d like to get dessert or extra portions along with our meal. These upsell opportunities are usually small and convenient, but can add a lot to a retailer’s bottom line.
- Volume discounts can be offered when a customer buys a large quantity of something, signs up for a regular subscription, or just places a bigger overall order. In each case, you are tempting them to spend more money with a lower rate. It’s a win-win solution since they save money and you have reduced shipping and processing costs.
When someone has come to your online store, and then decided they like your marketing and trust you enough to make a purchase, why not give them a chance to add a little more and make it a better deal? From special values to impulse buys, these additional offers can really go a long way toward keeping the cash register ringing, virtually speaking.
Get Out of the Way
Web analytics and UX (user experience) monitoring are underrated parts of the e-commerce process. That’s because they don’t just allow you to understand who is coming to your website and what they’re doing, but also to look for opportunities to get out of your own way.
We already mentioned before that a high percentage of shopping carts are abandoned, and certainly many times more customers are lost to online retailers before they ever reach the point of seeing a checkout screen. That’s because confusing layouts, cluttered pages, poor search features, missing product details, and other everyday blunders can kill a sales opportunity before it ever makes its way to completion.
The only reliable way to find these bottlenecks on your e-commerce site after it has been finished and launched is to study the flow of traffic on your website. Using tools like statistics and heat maps, savvy marketers can figure out what customers do and don’t like about the shopping experience they have to offer. Your online store won’t ever be perfect, and there is always going to be room for improvement. Your job is to be aware of both of those facts and make sure you don’t get in the way of your own success.
Start Making the Most of Your Online Store
It would be nice if you could put your e-commerce site online, run a few ads, and watch the orders come pouring in, but that’s not going to be a reality for most of us. But, the potential to earn money month after month with a successful online store is still there.
In fact, with a growing majority of the public willing to buy products online – and even through smartphones and tablets – e-commerce is becoming more profitable for the entrepreneurs who know how to take advantage and get ahead of the competition. Are you going to be one of them?
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.