How small and medium-sized businesses can crack ecommerce

We’re buying more online than ever before. Here’s how almost any business, however small, can reach exciting new markets by launching an ecommerce operation.
Small business owners sells his products online

Businesses which don't provide a way for goods to be purchased online risk missing out on sales

The pandemic and lockdown have turbo-charged ecommerce. With nearly a third of all sales in the UK now made online, according to government figures, if you’re running a small business you need to think about setting up an online shop and developing your ecommerce capability.

As shopping on the internet has increased rapidly over recent years, there are a range of apps and other options that can help small and medium-sized businesses to start selling on the internet quickly, easily and cost effectively.

Adapt an existing site, create your own ecommerce platform or go with one of the big providers?

If you don’t have a website already you can move straight into creating one that is ecommerce-enabled from the start. However, if you do have your own site, you might want to upgrade it with an online shopping function. This has the merit of familiarity for your existing customers and gives you more freedom to stick with your own, more distinctive site.

Services such as Shopify, BigCommerce, Squarespace and Wix offer one-stop-shop ecommerce platforms. As well as the website templates these serviesc can help with search engine optimisation (SEO) and marketing tools to help customers find you. Each also provide various services such as payment processing systems, dispatch for products and sales analytics so that you can see who has bought what when. Most small businesses can expect to pay somewhere between about £15 and £100 a month, depending on their size and the various services that they add to the basic package.

Simply going through one of the large, well known selling platforms such as Amazon or eBay will almost certainly be less expensive than having the technology adapted for your existing site. These platforms also make your new online retail presence easier to launch, and they offer a range of tools and apps that you can benefit from straightaway. Given that these huge online marketplaces have vast armies of regular users, you’ll have easy access to millions of potential customers. On the other hand, you’ll also be a small fish in a very big pond. With over two thirds of us now buying through our smartphones, you’ll also have to ensure that you’re catering for mcommerce customers.

Consider social selling

As part of your ecommerce strategy, you might want to consider social selling. As the name suggests, unlike social media marketing where you’re just raising awareness of your product or service, this involves selling directly through social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. With Facebook Shops you can set up an online store that works on both Facebook and Instagram.

This means that you can also sell your products through the chat functions on WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram and tag products during Facebook and Instagram live streams. This takes customers to a product ordering page. Marketplace, on the other hand, is the part of Facebook where people can buy and sell items. Both individuals and businesses can use it. It’s still important to have a marketing strategy on social media alongside your sales function. This involves posting content such as photographs, news and useful tips that are relevant to your target audience.

Photography and customer reviews

Whichever commerce routes you go down, you’ll need to make sure that your product looks good on the site. It’s essential to invest in some high-quality photography and styling here so that you grab a web browser’s attention and encourage them to explore. These days, nearly three quarters of us will check reviews before we buy online and so you’ll need to have a facility for your customers to leave feedback about your products and their buying experience. You should also be ready to answer any bad reviews or complaints.

Your images should also be able to show your product from different angles, alongside providing the factual details to give potential customers as much information as possible before they make a purchase. If what they’ve bought is not what they wanted not only could you be faced with expensive returns and refunds but you’ll have an unhappy customer who might well give you a bad review.

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A proper returns policy is essential

Think carefully about your returns policy. Recent research by card payment provider Paymentsense revealed that small businesses in the UK lost an average £15,600 a month because of what are called “serial refunders” last year, with January refunds up by 39 per cent year-on-year. With clothing and fashion, for instance, it’s increasingly said that the living room is the new changing room with more consumers ordering more clothes online than they intend to buy, trying items on then returning a large proportion.

It's important to be clear about your returns policy. Make sure that it’s simple, easy for customers to find and understand and that it sounds reasonable – friendly but fair. You can find returns policy wording and templates online but you’ll need to ensure that they’re relevant to your business. Depending on the product or service that you offer you should be clear on questions such as how long a customer has to start the returns process, how they should do it and what conditions returned items must be in.

How can customers get support?

As we all know, there’s nothing worse as a customer than being ignored and so you should ensure that it’s obvious on your ecommerce platform how and where customers can get support. FAQs are a good start, but you’ll also need to consider an email address that can be constantly monitored. The same is true of a phone number, although an increasing number of us prefer written contact. More sophisticated solutions can also provide “bots”, which use technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) to answer basic customer enquiries automatically.

Launching an ecommerce strategy might sound daunting but it’s never been easier with more intuitive, easily accessible solutions widely available. Think of it as a process of learning and evolving with constant tweaks an innovations, rather than a one-off action. If you’re passionate about your business and believe in what you do, then e-commerce is an essential next step.