How to set up an online shopping presence

As the lucrative Black Friday and Christmas online sales season approaches, John Cradden outlines ways a business can set up an online store.

If you’re in the retail business but don’t have an online shopping presence, it’s not too late to quickly add an e-commerce arm to your business and really capitalise on the lucrative Christmas season, including Black Friday/Cyber Monday.

Setting up an online shop can seem like a huge task – not to mention a difficult one to get 100% right – but the chances are you can’t afford not to make an effort.

“There’s a higher expectation among consumers that even the smallest businesses should be able to trade online – and that the user experience should be a good one”

According to the Central Statistics Office, 41% of SMEs were engaged in e-commerce sales in 2022.

This appears to show strong growth on the previous year, as a survey by the European Commission put the proportion of Irish SMEs selling online at 32% in 2021. That study also highlighted how 27% of total turnover for SMEs is derived from online sales — more than double the EU average of 12%.

Excellence is now a given

To add to the daunting nature of the challenge in setting up an online presence, there’s also a higher expectation among consumers that even the smallest businesses should be able to trade online – and that the user experience should be a good one.

A recent study jointly published by .IE (the national registry for .ie domain names) and Retail Excellence Ireland found that SMEs are falling behind expectations in terms of user experience.

Of the 46% of SMEs who had the cart functionality on their website that enabled them to sell online, just 14% had a live chat facility (which consumers love, according to international studies), while only 18% had customer reviews (another feature proven to make a customer more likely to purchase).

The good news is that you can set up an online shop and start selling in a matter of days, thanks to a range of e-commerce solutions that can do most of the work for you. This includes enabling features like customers reviews and even live chat.

Setting up your website

A critical question at the start of any effort to set up on an online presence is whether you to choose to use your existing website or create a new website purpose built for selling online.

Choosing to set up a standalone site gives you the option of adopting an online selling platform, such as those available from Shopify, Weebly and Adobe Commerce (formerly Magento). These platforms can guide you through the process, and allow you to pick and choose your theme and whichever e-commerce functions you want.

With these platforms there’s also the flexibility to add your own code to further customise your website. This is great if you have access to IT expertise within your firm, but it’s worth speaking to a freelance developer to get a sense of what is possible, how long it would take and how much it might cost.

If you choose to use your own website, there are many e-commerce add-on shopping cart options, including PayPal, ProductCart, CubeCart and Adobe Muse. Do note, however, that these solutions don’t do the payment processing – they only enable you to browse items, make multiple selections and review any shipping, taxes and any other additional costs upfront.

Selecting a payment provider

When choosing a payment provider, the Digital Marketing Institute recommends taking time to balance user experience and security issues. For example, providing a payment form on your site and posting the details on your server can create a seamless user experience but it’s the least secure method, so you may need to take additional – and expensive – security precautions to ensure you comply with global security standards, such as those set by the PCI (Payment Card Industry) Security Standards Council.

Other options include channelling payment details through a secure iFrame on a page within your website, using a hosted payment page, sending payment details from a payment form to a secure payment gateway, such as Stripe.

Consider selling through marketplaces

You could also consider selling through marketplaces like eBay, Amazon or Etsy. With their name recognition and credibility, you can benefit from the scale of the online presence of these marketplaces and potentially get your products in front of millions of customers searching specifically for your products or product types.

There are disadvantages, too, of course, notes the Digital Marketing Institute. They can be expensive for a start, and may also restrict the products you want to sell, limit your branding opportunities, and set the terms for how you communicate with your customers.

Organise shipping options

Whether you choose to use a marketplace or set up your own website or bolt on some e-commerce functionality, shipping options 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?

John Cradden
John Cradden is an experienced business and personal finance journalist and financial wellbeing content designer.