The events of 2020 (and now 2021) have had a profound impact on shopping behavior and the retail industry. Many businesses moved online for the first time or expanded their online presence. In fact, ecommerce share of the retail market increased as much in the first half of 2020 as in the last five years.
And it isn’t just small businesses undergoing a digital transformation. Survey data from McKinsey indicates that businesses globally have accelerated the digitization of customer interaction by about three years.
Even when physical retail stores are back to business as usual, the lasting effects of COVID-19 on retail sales will still loom large. If you have a physical store (or several), it may be time to bring your brick-and-mortar store into the world of online shopping. If you have an existing ecommerce store that hasn’t received enough love, now is a great time to make sure it’s a robust channel that can complement your offline brand as part of an omnichannel strategy.
You’ve probably noticed that there are dozens of SaaS products in the market claiming to ease your transition into ecommerce. But how do you navigate this experience and maximize your resources? How do you find the right tools and deploy them for maximum efficiency?
There are two major pieces to this approach:
This article will delve into these steps in detail, and you’ll learn how to build an online shop that can work together with your offline store perfectly as part of your overall retail strategy.
We’ll also look at how five ecommerce professionals were able to transition from brick-and-mortar to online shopping.
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There’s a lot of planning that goes into building a successful ecommerce website, which is why you shouldn’t rush into building your virtual storefront without first doing some strategic planning.
Before anything else, you need to answer the following questions:
For Tahnee Elliott, identifying and servicing her primary market was especially easy.
“Being in a college town, we have a lot of transient customers who go home during the summers and holidays,” she said.
“The primary objective of launching the online store was to give these customers a chance to buy our clothing while they were away from school for the summer.” Boston-based fashion brand Sara Campbell had to quickly pivot to add an online channel for the first time when COVID-19 caused their 26 brick-and-mortar locations to close. While initially concerned how their existing customer base would respond to the change, they were pleasantly surprised to find their audience was receptive to the new channel.
As Courtney Harris, Director of Operations at Sara Campbell recalls: “Upon launch, we received great results and feedback from existing customers that this had been something they were waiting for. The implementation and launch itself was also rather quick — our retail stores closed on March 17th, 2020, and we launched BigCommerce on March 26, 2020.”
Generally speaking, primary customers are going to be the ones who’ve already been consistently shopping at a brand’s brick-and-mortar store. This existing customer base is a major advantage, as businesses can get a running start with an audience that’s already interested in the brand.
Your ecommerce store will be able to have a larger reach than your physical presence, but it will likely appeal to much of the same customer base you’re used to serving in person. This is another reason, it’s important for your online and offline stores to work together as one clear integrated brand.
The next challenge is determining how to redirect focus to your online presence — and to do this, you need to pick a domain name where people can find you in the digital environment.
There are two ways you can go about picking your domain name:
Both approaches have their advantages. An SEO-driven domain name gives you a chance to:
The downside of choosing a new domain name is that you won’t be able to capitalize on the brand awareness you’ve developed with your brick-and-mortar business.
With that said, choosing the right SEO-friendly domain name can make it easier for your company to reach a larger audience — especially when combined with a site that’s been optimized for text and voice search.
When BigCommerce designer Tommy Ekstrand helped his father come up with an online marketplace for their brick-and-mortar paint store, they decided to go with a new domain name that was appealing to a wider audience.
“We ended up with an SEO-friendly version: US Paint Supply. We’ve owned the family name website since 1998, but that site is purely informational. The decision to go with a more SEO-friendly domain was to find something more universal across our selling area (U.S. target audience).”
Ultimately, if your online marketplace depends on organic traffic, you might want to drop your brick-and-mortar name in exchange for something more SEO-friendly.
While it can be more work in the beginning stages as you create more awareness around your digital brand, it can help your brand in the long run as your organic SEO ranking increases more quickly.
Ideally, your inventory or services should be strategically chosen to appeal to a broader audience — especially when you’re just starting out.
If you’ve got a wide selection of products to choose from in your brick-and-mortar store, we recommend narrowing your inventory down to approximately 100 of the best-selling items for your online marketplace.
“We started with offering tops, bottoms, shoes, dresses, and rompers,” said Tahnee.
“Of course, we added more as needed and reorganized so our list of categories and subcategories evolved based on demand and trends.”
When choosing products to carry online, make sure to choose items which are:
Another great way to optimize your online inventory is by stocking it with products that are nationally popular. That way, you’re able to start out with an appeal to a wider audience (rather than only targeting specific segments of the market).
If you have a large catalog that you’re hoping to get launched or expanded quickly, you won’t have time to write product descriptions for potentially 100 plus items.
Besides, full-length descriptions aren’t something you exactly want to rush through.
Fortunately, you can quickly come up with a collection of meta descriptions and page titles to get your online marketplace operational in the meantime.
If your product happens to come in various sizes and colors, or if it’s important that your buyer knows its dimensions, add those details in the meta description.
Remember: Your page titles and meta descriptions aren’t supposed to be in-depth.
You just want to get something custom on the page that highlights what you’re retailing.
As you expand your site and make it a stronger sales channel, you can always revisit and refine your descriptions over time, expanding them after the site is up and running.
Using original photos rather than stock pictures can give you a much-needed SEO boost.
If you have a basic camera or smartphone, you can take professional-grade product photography for your store. All you need is a piece of white paper to use as a background.
“Original images and image descriptions helped us to rank far above other retailers using stock photos. Having alt tags on all images is absolutely necessary,” Tommy commented.
“Most of the time it’s just the product name and maybe “- Front” or “- Back” or “- Side.” Since I sell paint, some examples are ‘C2 LUXE Gallon in Satin’ and ‘C2 LUXE Quart in Eggshell.’”
If you’re working in an industry like fashion or design, you’ll need to schedule extra time to take quality product pictures — especially if your website involves models.
For Tahnee, who worked in an aesthetically-driven industry, taking pictures of inventory was one of the more time-consuming processes.
“Next step was taking quality product pictures, which required investing in quality equipment and sourcing: a camera, tripod, professional lights, professional background, models, learning how to edit pictures, and training an employee to help.Since we’re a clothing boutique, we’re heavy into visual aesthetics, which needed to reflect our branding.
Of course, I thought I had a great game plan but soon found out I needed a lot more training and equipment. Studying at night about photography, lighting, and modeling poses became a six-month undertaking.”
Also, regardless of your industry, you may want to consider purchasing photo editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom.
Combined with a good quality camera, these tools are essential for creating attention-grabbing, lucid images that help your website stand out.
The last thing your customers want is to watch their total cost skyrocket at the end of checkout. Consumers don’t like unexpected fees, which is something you want to be mindful of when setting your shipping costs and other fees.
We recommend going with a flat rate on shipping, as well as offering free or discounted shipping for customers who spend a certain amount of money.
In the case of Tommy and his father, they offered free shipping on orders over $100.
“This helps our conversion rate by setting up total cost expectations right away and removing surprise costs during checkout.
It also helps with organic advertising in SERPs (search engine results page) as a quick callout to “Free Shipping.” Consider a meta description that says ‘Free Shipping over $100’ at the end of it.”
Research shows online shoppers are often deterred by additional costs that pop up during checkout.
This method helped boost sales by giving the customer a clear idea of how much they’ll pay throughout the entire purchasing journey.
For Becky Sunseri, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Tin Pot Creamery, found it was especially important to make shipping costs a priority given the intricacies of delivering a perishable product like ice cream.
“When we first started shipping packages, we were just trying to make it work without a real plan in place,” explained Sunseri. “Having BigCommerce plugins that could help us calculate the shipping costs and print labels gave us so much control and made the process of trial and error much easier.” Here are some ways you can use shipping costs to drive sales and reduce abandoned carts on your website:
There are two things you should keep in mind when choosing your payment methods:
Your ecommerce platform will usually offer connections to a number of popular payment gateways. For example, BigCommerce provides 65 payment gateways integrations out-of-the-box serving more than 95 countries, as well as integrations for the most popular digital and mobile wallets.
Additionally, you will want your POS system to integrate easily with your online store. When it comes to maximizing convenience, there are a number of great options for POS systems for ecommerce including Vend, Heartland Retail, ConnectPOS and Square. These can be integrated into your digital marketplace in a couple of minutes and sync with your brick-and-mortar inventory and checkout.
Moreover, connecting your POS with your BigCommerce store allows you to see all of your sales metrics in a single dashboard. Keep track of sales performance, inventory and more across your online and offline channels without having to manage multiple tabs.
The good news is that tax compliance has never been easier with the help of programs like:
You also want to make sure that your customers’ information is protected from data breaches. This can be done by adding an SSL certificate to your website. BigCommerce offers free SSL certificates to all digital stores regardless of service plan and can easily walk you through the process of securing your digital marketplace.
“This is when I got into the other details of setting up an online store, including taxes – we use Avalara – importing products, and installing an SSL,” said Tommy.
“This is all standard stuff and the BigCommerce backend walks you through these.”
Unless your brick-and-mortar store is already a nationally recognized brand, you’re going to need to spend time building relationships with your customers.
One way to build trust between you and your shoppers is by being upfront about your shipping and refund policies.
When asked about ways to improve customer service and work more efficiently, Tommy mentioned the importance of linking to shipping and refund-related FAQs in his emails.
“By providing links in emails, we were able to prevent additional contacts through our customer support channels.
Typical questions were ‘What does this status mean’ or ‘When is my order going to ship’ or ‘I need to return this,’ so making sure that those things are right up front in their emails they receive helps to deflect that stuff. It saves us time and cuts service costs in the long-run.”
For many customers, returning online purchases can feel like a hassle.
Coming up with a refund policy that makes returns more efficient is an important step towards building customer loyalty and increasing conversion rates.
BigCommerce offers a Return Request feature, which gives customers a return shipping label when they complete a return request online.
When asked about her return policy at T.C. Elli’s, Tahnee had this to say:
“We wanted our brick-and-mortar return policy to be reflected online as well. BigCommerce offered a Return Request option which worked great for us!
Customers would need to complete a return request in order to receive a return shipping label from us. This way, we could confirm the item wasn’t past the 20-day return window.”
Another way to make shipping more convenient is to use reusable boxes.
Eco-friendly packaging company, Ecoenclose, has solved this problem by creating resealable boxes. This lets customers return their purchases in the same box they received.
Taking a more practical approach, Rohan Moore believes that good shipping starts with inventory management.
“For most retail products, warehouses are best organized with stacks of picking bins that can be numbered and labeled, so you know what’s where when fulfilling orders.
I’d recommend adopting these principles early, even if your ‘warehouse’ is a cupboard under the stairs.”
After your website is up and running, it’s time to build upon the framework you created in the days leading up to your store launch.
This is where you’ll start to focus on the aesthetics of your site, as well as continue the ongoing process of building good SEO content.
Unless you’re in a field like design or fashion, you don’t need to have an overly flashy website, as long as it has a clean, easy-to-use customer experience.
With that said, you don’t want to neglect your website design completely—it still needs to look professional.
BigCommerce makes it easy to customize your storefront with Page Builder. This drag-and-drop visual editing tool allows you to seamlessly create and edit any pages on your website with no coding required. Page Builder can help your store get up and running faster and enable you to create tailored pages that support your brand’s offline presence as well. After publishing, you can continue to make quick changes to your online storefront.
If you have more specific custom needs, you can also use an agency to achieve the exact look and feel you’re going for.
One aspect you really need to focus on is mobile responsiveness.
In today’s market, it’s absolutely essential for your ecommerce site to be mobile responsive. If not, you run the risk of turning away new and returning customers.
Look at ways you can improve your website’s design and improve user experience (UX).
Customers buy online for convenience, so it’s only natural that your website should be designed to make the shopping experience as convenient as possible.
A good customer service policy doubles as an effective conversion strategy.
For this reason, Rohan recommends launching your website with a ticketing system in place.
“Similarly with customer services, you’ll get in a mess with customer queries over orders and returns without a formal ticketing system. Integrate one from the outset — don’t believe that an organized inbox will suffice.”
Here are some other ways you can increase conversions through design optimization:
Now that all the heavy work is out of the way, it’s time to start improving your product descriptions.
While your meta descriptions did a fine job directing traffic to your website, there’s nothing more effective than a rich product description that captures the visitor’s attention to increase organic traffic — especially when the right keywords are used.
“Product descriptions were fairly straightforward and simple until we discovered that keyword-rich descriptions benefited the customer in their buying journey,” suggested Tahnee.
“It decreased the number of customer service phone calls and emails, which were few and far between at first but gradually ramped up in 2014 and 2015.”
But there’s more to effective product descriptions than good SEO. You also want to summarize your products in a way that connects with your customers.
Developing SEO-driven content isn’t something you do once off — it’s an ongoing process.
In the beginning, focus on inbound marketing techniques:
A large part of what makes ecommerce websites successful is the content. You want to always have fresh, meaningful content that benefits your readers in one way or another.
Here are some ways you can create content that adds value to your site:
Also, if you ever get any questions related to a specific product, consider adding the question and answer in your FAQ page or as part of a product description. This will help direct more traffic to your site from people looking for specific products.
Google Search Console (GSC) lets you compare a list of keywords on your site with a list of keywords users commonly search for, as well as see just how many impressions your keywords are getting.
To do this, simply:
From there, you’ll be presented with a ranked list of keywords and phrases which helps you see how well your keywords are performing.
When asked about increasing keywords impressions, Tommy had this to say:
“Know that moving from position 50 up to 10 or even 20 is going to be extremely difficult. Consider paying for these (AdWords) if you know they’ll convert.”
There are a number of other third-party tools that can help your business grow. However, Rohan warns against new businesses depending heavily on marketing and management tools.
“There is an ever-growing catalogue of SaaS products on the market, often promising solutions to growth and conversion that all e-com store owners are anxious to enhance.
It’s not a mistake to see e-com as an opportunity to expand sales without property costs, but SaaS is undoubtedly the new rent.”
When asked what tools he felt new online businesses should rely on, Rohan had this to say:
“To avoid the digital rent doing to the profitability of your website what your property rent already does to your bricks-and-mortar profitability, limit those SaaS subscriptions to three core products: your shopping cart, your warehouse management system, and your online customer services ticketing system.”
The benefit of GSC’s keyword is that it helps you get a better idea of the type of keywords and phrases potential customers are searching for.
You can then incorporate this information into your titles, product descriptions, meta descriptions and image tags for an added SEO boost.
You can even change product names and URL addresses to fit these keywords — just remember to implement a 301 redirect.
Outbound marketing still plays an important role in generating brand awareness and engaging with customers.
Here are some tools to help you reach out to loyal and prospective customers:
When asked what he suggests new businesses spend their marketing budget on, Rohan placed value in marketing tools over outsourcing.
“Many fledgling (and some established) online businesses are enticed, for every £100 they spend in digital marketing, to pay another £100 to be told how to spend it.
Taking the wheel and spending all £200 on actual marketing will give you both results and experience that will form the backbone of your longer-term strategy.”
As you may have guessed, conversion rates is a topic that is constantly featured throughout this guide.
Converting visitors into loyal customers is how you’re going to grow your businesses, and it’s something that needs to be in the forefront of your mind as you design your website, interact with customers and come up with a solid marketing strategy.
Here’s how you can increase conversions while marketing your ecommerce site:
Minimize your website loading time. More than half your visitors will leave your website if it takes longer than three seconds to load. Prevent this from happening by optimizing your site for speed.
You already have a successful offline business that is earning customers. This can be a useful level in helping to drive traffic to your online business as well. When you’re combining online and offline marketing efforts, it’s important to make sure your graphics and messaging are consistent, so your campaign does not come across as disjointed. You need all of your systems and data to be activated and intertwined to truly have an omnichannel, seamless customer experience.
Courtney Harris describes how Sara Campbell made marketing an important aspect of their newly created online channel. “Our first priority has been engaging with our customers through new and improved marketing campaigns and promotions,” said Harris. “BigCommerce has helped us with executing these promotions and allowing our online shoppers to complete a purchase while having an easy, excellent experience.”
Here are some suggestions for using offline marketing tactics to engage your online customers:
There’s a lot of work that goes into launching an ecommerce site that accompanies your brick-and-mortar store. But you can help make your launch go as smoothly as possible by remembering the following tips:
Ecommerce is continuing to expand its retail market share at a rapid rate, and that trend is likely to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. Investing in a digital commerce strategy as a key part of your brick-and-mortar business will help future-proof your brand for whatever happens next.
If you’re interested in learning more about creating (or replatforming) an online store to support your overall retail strategy, learn more about how BigCommerce is making the offline to online experience easier.
In order to run an online store, you first need a domain name and web hosting. If you don’t want to build the website yourself, you will need a content management system or ecommerce platform on which to build it. Some ecommerce platforms will provide hosting as part of the package. Additionally, you will need payment gateways to collect payment for products and some type of shipping and fulfillment plan for delivering items to customers.
That’s the bare minimum though. For customers to feel secure on your site, you will also need an SSL certificate. To facilitate organization between your offline and online inventory, you may also want to integrate to your POS system and have an inventory management system or warehouse management system. You may also want to include marketing tools and SEO to help potential customers better find your site.
For all practical purposes, the answer is yes. If you have a background in web development and design (or a team devoted to it), you can potentially build your own ecommerce site from scratch. However, given the many options available in the market today, it will likely save you a great deal of time and money to use a solution tailored for ecommerce already. Many existing platforms still provide a lot of room to customize to meet your needs.
There are a number of questions to consider when you are choosing an ecommerce platform. You will need to consider hosting and if you want it to be included with your platform or find your own hosting provider. You will also need to consider your development resources and how much maintenance you are prepared to do, versus how much you would prefer to have done for you. You also need to look at how the ecommerce platform will integrate with existing technologies you use and rely on (like your POS system or inventory management system). And of course, you will want to look at the cost. This should include the total cost of ownership for the platform — so consider not just the fees for using the platform but also the apps you will need to achieve everything you need for your store.
One of the most important things to consider when choosing an ecommerce platform (or building your own site) is to make sure you can integrate it with your point of sale system. An in-store POS system that can integrate with your ecommerce platform can help you easily sync the two for easier inventory management and tax collection.
Before you choose an ecommerce platform, you will want to make sure it can integrate with your existing POS system (assuming you have one and are happy with it). This can save you a lot of trouble in the long run when it comes to inventory management across channels. Setting up your POS system to integrate with your ecommerce platform will depend on the solutions you’re using. It may be an easy self-service task or you may require support from a customer service representative.
Whether or not you use the same name for your ecommerce store and brick and mortar store(s) will depend on a number of factors including: how well-known your offline brand is, how SEO friendly your name is, etc.
There can be a lot of value in keeping the same name if a lot of people know it and associate it with your industry. However, if your name isn’t well known and doesn’t immediately draw a connection to what you sell, then you might want to choose a name that is more likely to capture search traffic.
Traditionally, brick and mortar retail was thought to provide the white glove customer experience with sales people in person to answer questions, colorful displays and an opportunity to experience the merchandise in person. Online retail was then valued strictly for its convenience. Customers could purchase something and have it sent directly to their home, without needing to go to the store.
However, as digital commerce has grown, it has also changed with what customers expect from it. Today, customers want a more personalized, heightened experience from online shopping. You can find ways to make your online and offline experiences work in tandem. Provide helpful customer service by answering questions quickly. You can also supply a FAQs page that answers common queries that both online and offline customers often have. Provide clear descriptions, images or even videos of the merchandise from multiple angles to make it easier for customers to understand what they’re buying. Also make sure your brand story carries through your online store just as it does your offline one.
There are a number of ways to drive traffic to your online store. One is to leverage your existing customer base. If you have an email list or a following on social media, make sure to let them know you have launched or revamped your site. You can also offer incentives to help loyal customers to spread the word on their own networks. Beyond these measures, you can increase organic traffic to your store though a strong SEO and content strategy. Keep in mind, this will take some time to build and see results from.
Getting traffic to your website is one thing, but all the site visitors in the world won’t matter if they don’t convert into customers. You can increase your conversion rates by providing a seamless customer experience. Make it easy for customers to find what they need. Create as little friction as possible during the checkout process. Provide payment and shipping options so customers will be able to choose the one that works best for them. Also, consider setting up cart abandonment emails to reach customers that got distracted before finishing the purchase.
While your online store will have a much larger geographic reach than your physical locations, that doesn’t mean that visitors to your site might not potentially be able to visit your local businesses in their area. To help drive traffic to your physical store, you can advertise events on your website, feature in-store specials or other special offers for customers who come to see you in person. You can also offer BOPIS or click and collect options at checkout. The increased foot traffic when customers come in to pick up their items may increase your sales.
BOPIS, an acronym for Buy-Online-Pickup-in-Store, and BORIS, Buy-Online-Return-in-Store, are two ways you can leverage your online and offline stores to provide a better overall customer experience. BOPIS allows customers who live near a location of your store to save on shipping. Unless, they pick up their order curbside, it also brings them into your physical store where they might buy additional items. BORIS also provides added convenience as the customer can get their return processed faster and save a trip to the post office. It also gives them an option to shop for other items they might want to exchange the returned item for.