How to sell online

First published on 17 of December 2018 • Updated 17 of December 2018

Group of friends buying things on the internet

Selling online enables even a small business to reach a large market, even an international market. However, just putting your products or services online is no longer enough to get noticed. The online marketplace is a hugely busy space, so you need to keep pace with the competition and stand out, with an online store that is quick and easy to use. Here’s how to get started in the world of digital commerce.

If you're branching out into selling online, talk to your accountant about the implications for the rest of your business.

How can you sell products online?

There are two main ways of selling products or services online:

  1. Through a third party site
  2. On your own website

Third-party sites enable you to sell your products without having to create your own online store – popular ones include eBay, Amazon and Etsy for products, while for services there are gig sites such as Fiverr. This form of ecommerce has other benefits too, as these sites are already well-known and receive a high footfall of traffic for you to attract. The downside can be that your products have a lot of competition in close proximity and may be difficult to find. Furthermore, customers will be interacting with the site’s brand rather than your own, so may tell people ‘I bought it on eBay’ rather than give you the publicity you deserve.

The other option is to create your own website and sell your products directly. This way you can build a positive user experience (UX) journey, which will help to retain customers, develop your brand and grow your business.

However, you don’t need to choose between one or the other – you can maintain your own online store but also sell through the big-name retailers. Some businesses start by selling products on both sites and then gradually switch over to their own as their customer base grows. Others maintain a foot in both camps – perhaps with a higher price on the third-party sites to encourage people to switch.

How to set up an online store

If you want to set up a website to sell either products or services, the first step is to get a domain name. You can purchase one through hosting companies or registers. This is the part of the URL that stays fixed when people are on your website, e.g. www.domainname.com, and it acts as an address for people to find you. Choose your domain name with care – it may or may not be suitable to use your company name (or your company name may be unavailable). A good tip is to think about what people seeking your products might type into search engines.

Next, choose a company to host your website – this is another service you’ll need to purchase. Shop around for the hosting service that’s right for you, and don’t just go for the cheapest option. As your business grows and attracts more customers, you’ll want to maximise speed and minimise faults and downtime, so don’t cut costs in this area. Also be sure to avoid shared hosting services, because you can’t control which sites are on the same server as yours, which may leave you vulnerable to security breaches.

You’ll also need an SSL certificate. This data file secures the connection between a visitor’s web browser and the web server hosting your site. This ensures your customers can use your site safely – a must if they are going to be making online payments.

Designing your online store

You can build your website and online store from templates that you can customise. Often these templates are available from hosting services, or you can buy them separately as software. Many sites exist to help you create professional-looking websites that don’t require any expert input, but if you don’t trust your own creativity then it always pays to seek help from someone with experience. Design errors can put customers off.

Some hosting services will offer to organise all of these services for you with a single package, though they may cost a little more.

How to take payments through your own website

Now you need to set up an internet merchant account, which you can do through most banks. With these accounts, the money from the customer goes to the bank first, proving an extra security measure.

You’ll then be able to use a payment service provider, which will provide the software to take the payment. There are lots of options around, so think about what is best for your customers. The rule of thumb is that the more payment options you have available (e.g. credit cards, debit cards, Paypal, Square, Google Pay) the more likely customers are to buy.

Be sure to seek legal advice when you own an ecommerce website, as there is a lot of regulation you need to comply with.

What is the best way to ship items?

Selling your products is only one step of the process. You now need to make sure that they reach your customers quickly and safely, and that this doesn’t add too much to your running costs.

You can either add shipping costs or build them in, though these fees are generally expected as add-ons these days. A good marketing tactic is to have a price threshold for free delivery, so that customers who spend over a certain amount save on postage and packing. You can get plenty of extra sales this way.

Aim to give each customer an expected delivery date and a tracking option (if possible). Buying online can still feel more risky than buying on the High Street, so do anything you can to improve and smooth their experience.

Think ahead. Will you be able to keep up with demand during the most busy times? For example, you might want to hire extra help during the Christmas season if you expect sales to rocket. Postage can take a lot longer at this time too, so build extra slack into your systems and manage customer expectations.

Provide customer services and support

From time to time your customers will want to get in touch about items they’ve purchased, or ask about purchases they are considering. The more you can engage with people in this way, the better. There are a few ways you can offer this support:

  • Private message form
  • Email address
  • Phone number
  • Live chat function

You may use a number of these in combination, as each has its own pros and cons (be aware that publishing your email address and phone number can lead to spam – it’s best to embed them in a graphic so that web bots can’t read them).

It’s important to keep all lines of communication open to help build positive relationships with your customers, so get help with this if you don’t have the time to manage it yourself. To minimise trivial enquiries, have a page of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and perhaps a customer forum so that customers can inform each other. Be sure to monitor this, though, and handle any negative feedback well.

Finally, have a complaints procedure in place, as this can help you ensure you’re compliant with consumer rights legislation.

Should I have customer reviews on my site?

Reviews can be a great way of attracting more customers and improving SEO (search-engine optimisation, which affects how highly you’re ranked by Google and other searches). Keep reviews authentic and resist the temptation to edit a bad review, unless they’re being offensive or malicious.

Plenty of software is available online for adding review facilities to your site. Although poor reviews can be damaging, in the long run they can help you improve your business by providing feedback on what you’re doing wrong. Furthermore, if you can deal successfully with an unsatisfied customer and leave them satisfied, they should become a great advocate for your business. Don’t resent bad reviews – act on them.

Is your site performing well?

Your site is an instrument for getting business, so it needs to do exactly that. Use a tool such as Google Analytics to track how many people are visiting your site and how many of these visits convert into sales. You can also look at where they are clicking on your pages – this can help you check that the design of your site is effective and easy to follow, and that people are able to find what they are looking for.

Keep checking these stats all the time, because you may find that tweaking information, images or processes makes your site more effective at driving sales.

How can you promote your site?

The most important thing of all is that customers can find your website. There are unimaginable numbers of websites out there, so you need to have a digital strategy in place to make sure yours is seen. From social media and online advertising to SEO tactics and email marketing, there are many ways to encourage engagement with your site. In this hotly contested area, it can be good to seek help from people with the necessary expertise.

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