Online stores aren’t just for huge companies like Best Buy and Amazon. Small businesses worldwide have discovered the advantages of opening an online store to sell their products. In fact, anyone can sell online, even a one-person business operating out of a home. With the proper tools at your disposal, you can sell anything, from artwork to digital downloads to appliances to car parts — and online, you can reach a much wider audience for your products.
Of course, there are risks involved, just as there are with starting any business. In the world of selling online, the main risk in most people’s minds is whether their store will produce enough sales to justify the time and expense. Many online sellers struggle with all types of issues, from inventory tracking to design and programming. The idea of problems like these is at the core of most people’s hesitation to venture into eCommerce.
It’s very possible to run an online store without undue difficulty, and even to build it into an eCommerce version of that super-popular neighborhood corner store that everyone prefers over the big box retailers. Except, rather than just your neighborhood, you’ll have the whole Internet to sell to.
To reach its maximum potential, there are certain features that your online store needs. Some of these features affect the customer experience, while others are more behind-the-scenes and affect your capability to effectively run your store and attract new shoppers. Here are 10 features to consider.
1. Reliable hosting
You can’t make sales or attract customers if your online store is constantly offline. All it takes is a few hours of downtime to cost you thousands of dollars in sales.
It’s best to use a hosted eCommerce platform rather than installing software on your own or a third party server. With a hosted eCommerce solution, your server and software are supported by the same company. This makes it a lot quicker to track down any issues that do arise.
2. Thorough branding
With your online store, you’re trying to build a brand. You want to be immediately recognizable to everyone who has shopped with you before — and even those who haven’t. Branding is a vital part of entering the public consciousness. The ability to fully customize and brand your website to meet the image of your brand is crucial to your success.
3. Your own domain name
Don’t underestimate the power of a domain name. You need one of your very own, as it will make your store much easier to find and help you with search engine rankings. You won’t get the same results if you’re on a subdomain of a larger site, for example.
It’s also important that your eCommerce software lets your customers check out while still under your domain name rather than redirecting them for the checkout process. In the minds of many customers, the redirect makes you seem less professional.
4. Search engine optimization
SEO has several facets that you’ll need to cover. HTML meta tags like page titles, image alt tags, and h1 heading usage all have bearing on your search engine rankings. The content on your pages is also extremely important, and you must always follow SEO best practices.
An SEO-friendly eCommerce platform will provide you with a quick way to edit these attributes without having to dig through code and make the addition of blogs or pages for written content easy for you as well.
5. Multiple ways to pay
Despite the prevalence of online shopping, half of all eCommerce customers are still anxious about making a purchase online. The news is constantly presenting us with stories about identity theft, hacking, and fraud. Some customers may only trust one particular payment option. Others may refuse to use a specific payment method, regardless of its overall popularity.
As an online store owner, you need to make the buying decision as easy as possible for your customers, and that includes giving them a choice of payment options. You’ll need to integrate your store with any payment gateway you use, but good eCommerce software has multiple integrations built in — the more, the better.
6. Integration with accounting software
Accounting is often viewed as an enormous hassle, and a stressful one at that. Improper accounting can lead to auditing and worse, so with the added pressure of doing it correctly, accounting can quickly become the most dreaded part of running your business.
Thankfully, software like QuickBooks, NetSuite and others can vastly simplify the process for you. There’s still another step to take, though, and that’s a direct integration with your eCommerce software so the accounting data is automatically available. This is a feature to watch out for in an eCommerce platform because it will smooth out the accounting process significantly.
7. Analytics and reporting
Reports are the only way you can learn which of your products are selling and which strategies are effective. With this data at your fingertips, you’ll know which of your marketing campaigns are performing well. With Google Analytics, you can identify your sources of traffic and use the information to find more customers. You need to be able to view reports and analytics in an organized way through your store’s dashboard. There are no exceptions.
8. A customer relationship manager
A CRM allows you to keep all your customer interactions on record in an organized manner. This will help you maintain good relationships with them, building loyalty. It costs far more to get a new customer than to keep an old one, so return customers are vital to your success.
9. Simple navigation
The customer must be able to view their cart from any page on your site, and your products and categories must be easy to navigate. Placing a visible shopping cart in your store’s sidebar is a good strategy. For products and categories, make it easy for the customer to move between your store’s pages by providing breadcrumb links and organizing your categories and sub-categories in a sensible way.
10. Real-time shipping
Surprise shipping costs are one of the top reasons behind cart abandonment (i.e. a customer puts items in their cart but never finishes the purchase). Real-time shipping updates instantly, preventing the customer from being shocked at the last minute by the additional cost.
A good eCommerce platform integrates with multiple shipping carriers like UPS, FedEx and USPS to provide real-time shipping information and tracking numbers as well.
It’s important to evaluate the eCommerce platform you want to use before you commit to it. You don’t want to discover, only after setting up everything else, that a critical feature is missing. That will require you to fill the gap with expensive custom programming. Doing some research ahead of time will save you a lot of time and trouble and will allow you to focus more of your energy on your business. Thousands of small businesses prosper through their online stores, and if you arm yourself with knowledge and forethought, new heights of success are that much closer for you.
Gonzalo Gil is the founder and CEO of 3dcart. In 1996 he incorporated Infomart 2000, and in 2001 he single-handedly conceived and developed 3dcart version 1.0 as an affordable and highly customized shopping cart solution. Today, he is largely responsible for the vision and day-to-day operations of 3dcart.
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