Key steps to building an e-commerce site

John Cradden shows how a business can build an e-commerce store and get selling.

When it comes to selling online, SMEs in Ireland certainly don’t fare too badly compared with those in other parts of the EU.

A European Commission report recently revealed that 32% of Irish SMEs sold online in 2021, with 18% selling across borders — well above the EU averages of 17% and 8% respectively.

“Many SMEs transformed rapidly because they had to, in order to salvage their business during the lockdowns”

It also highlighted how 27% of total turnover for SMEs is derived from online sales — more than double the EU average of 12%.

But if SMEs were perceived to be lagging behind other businesses and international retailers in embracing online shopping practices in recent years, a certain public health emergency has certainly helped turn trend firmly in the other direction.

Whether it was professional services firms consulting online, restaurants taking online orders or retailers pivoting to click and collect, many SMEs transformed rapidly because they had to, in order to salvage their business during the lockdowns.

A survey by the IE Domain Registry showed that since the Covid-19 crisis, consumers estimate that they have spent 53% of their online purchases with Irish SMEs compared with 47% with international retailers, with most of them doing so out of a sense of solidarity and a need to support Irish businesses.

However, without investing in online services to at least some degree over the next few years – using a multi-channel, bricks and clicks model –  there is a feeling that SMEs will miss a huge opportunity to take advantage of this consumer goodwill towards them amid the shift towards e-commerce.

If you’re thinking of taking those first steps towards adding an online selling operation to your business, the good news is that building an e-commerce site may be simpler than you think thanks to a range of e-commerce solutions that can do most of the work for you. But you still need to understand what’s offered and what your site needs. If you do enough research, you can make decisions that lead to a great site that grows and evolves with you in the years to come.

Here are a few pointers to building an e-commerce site that works for you.

1. Select your e-commerce platform

There are a huge number of e-commerce platforms upon which new businesses can choose to conduct their trade. You could use an open-source platform such as WooCommerce, or a SaaS (software as a service) platform like Shopify. Rather than set up your own online store, you could become a third-party seller using Amazon. You could also use Facebook Marketplace or Instagram in a similar way.

All of these have their advantages and disadvantages. The type of business you are involved in should have a strong bearing on the platform you choose to use. Other decisions like whether your data is hosted in the cloud or on servers in your own premises depends on what type of platform you choose and the size of your business, ultimately. SaaS solutions are usually hosted in the cloud, while open-source based technology will have its home in a server somewhere on your premises.

When choosing a platform, you’ll also need to rank the following in terms of how important they are to the customers’ experience of your e-commerce site:

  • Website performance – will it work consistently and efficiently?
  • Traffic capacity – can it handle the likely traffic it will experience and cope with demand as your business expands?
  • Mobile optimisation – will customers using mobile devices have as good an experience as those using laptops?
  • Secure payments and data – hugely important in this new era of GDPR awareness and the proliferation of scams and other cyber attacks.

2. Purchase a domain name

When it comes to choosing a domain name, there are a few simple, common-sense tips well worth following.

  • Avoid using names with ‘creative’ spellings or complex spellings, or hyphen, special characters or numbers in them. It must be easy to remember and type.
  • Don’t use generic names that are likely to used by other organisations with better SEO (search engine optimisation) rankings.
  • Use short names, ie. No more than 14 characters long so that it is easy for a customer to remember, but also easier to use from a marketing perspective.

3. Find a developer

Having no e-commerce experience in your business is not the problem it used to be thanks to all the external help available and DIY platforms that are easy to use. But let’s face it, you and any in-house IT people you employ are likely to be too busy to take responsibility for setting it all up.  Hiring a developer can reduce the chances of you making simple mistakes and just make the whole process less brain-taxing, particularly if you’re new to e-commerce. Just make sure they understand your vision and can build what you’re looking for within your budget.

4. Pick a template

Depending on what your developer recommends and the hosting platform you choose, you can choose some ready-built templates or themes for your e-commerce site, but think about the user experience i.e. things like ensuring that the customer can smoothly navigate to what they want. Consider also the style of the homepages, and make sure it reflects your brand to the extent that customers can figure out easily what type of business you are.  How much can you customise of the template, and how are your products displayed?

5. Add your products

Sounds simple in theory: add (high quality) product images and a good description. But it’s worth spending a bit of time to craft and refine your product description so that its optimised for SEO, and make sure they answer the five Ws – what, where, when, why and who-for. If you have a range of different product types, then add product categories so that users can find what they’re looking for easily. Adding featured items is a good way to lead your customers to popular items that make a good return for you.

6. Payment methods

Have a reasonable range of payment methods – the simpler the better – is essential. The bottom line here is that if customers find a method too complicated or unreliable, they will abandon their shopping cart, never to return. There are a wide range of potential solutions for this, so it’s well worth doing your research here to find the right package for your payment ‘gateway’, including making sure it meets data security standards.

7. Shipping options

This also requires a bit of thought. You’ll need to consider your fees – free shipping or fixed or variable fees – and your delivery suppliers. Also, options for international customers if you plan to items ship overseas will be a whole project in itself, not to mention things like import duty if you’re shipping outside of the EU. Will you be doing the packing or will you assign that to a third party?

8. Preview and quality testing

A successful launch means making sure everything on the site works as it should – a quality assurance checklist should include the following:

  • Do all the links work?
  • Does the checkout work?
  • Do payments process properly?
  • Do all the other functions work?
  • Does the site look good on mobile devices?
  • Have you tested the site on different browsers?
  • Are all the details – language, time zone, contact details – correct?
John Cradden
John Cradden is an experienced business and personal finance journalist and financial wellbeing content designer.