Business Essentials

How to prepare your business for online sales - Brought to you by NatWest

How to prepare your business for online sales - Brought to you by NatWest

Monday, 17 June 2019

Taking a leap into the world of selling products online need not be a daunting task. Experts share their best tips on getting your SME ready for online sales.


The thriving world of e-commerce continues to set the pace in retail. Customers are demanding the flexibility to shop on their own terms: when they want, how they want, wherever they happen to be.

Online retail sales in the UK grew 19% year on year in May, equating to a 16.9% year-to-date growth rate, according to the latest IMRG Capgemini Sales Index for June 2018 – and the highest year-on-year increase for May since 2010.


M-commerce, or mobile sales, is particularly buoyant. Market research company Forrester predicts: “European retail sales via mobile will more than double by 2021, growing at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 22%. And mobile will influence nearly 20% of offline European retail sales at some point in the customer journey in 2018.”


The SME Growth Tracker report found that 88% of British companies were planning to sell their products online by the end of this year – up from the 64% that do so currently. We talk to e-commerce experts about how SMEs can set about taking advantage of this sales channel.


Clarify your business strategy

Understanding whether e-commerce is right for the business is a good starting point.

“There are certain companies that wouldn’t need to do it – for example, a small independent shop that’s servicing a local community,” says Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director for online retail association IMRG. “[They] understand the local demographic, they understand what they need and are doing that really well. It’s a viable business model for them.


“The first thing to consider is do you need to [sell online] and is this something that you can support,” he says. “If you can do it – and you can do it well – then it’s a great way to open up the geography, but it’s not something that you can just ace immediately.”


Conduct solid research and planning

For Mulcahy, it comes down to thorough research and planning, including understanding the competition. “The useful thing about research is that it’s free. There are people that write blogs on all this stuff. You’ve just got to use that resource as much as you can before you start.”


Clare Haines, founder and director of Lingerie Outlet Store, agrees: “Research what’s out there; think about the products that you’ve got to post and how you’re going to store them, too.”


Get clear on the figures

Knowing the cost of selling online is also an essential part of the mix. “It’s important to have a really clear financial model: what price will you be able to charge and what costs are you going to incur?” says Aron Gelbard, co-founder and CEO of flower delivery business Bloom & Wild. He cites delivery charges, payment transaction fees, platform fees, refunds and product replacements among the costs to be considered.


Take advantage of ready-made tools

Deciding how you’re going to sell online requires careful forethought. “There are some very good platforms nowadays, like Shopify. It allows you to do more yourself and get a basic website up and running,” says Gelbard, who highlights the fact that most of these platforms are also mobile-ready.


“If you want a customer to buy from you, you’ve got to make it as easy as possible for them. Be as flexible as you can”


James Mitchell, founder and MD, SportsBikeShop


Amazon, eBay, and notonthehighstreet are among some of the other options that are open to SMEs. “It’s a good place to get your experience but where you take your own business is on your own website,” Haines says. “We do sell on those marketplaces [Amazon and eBay] now but, for us, it’s all about our website.”


Haines stresses due diligence when outsourcing website development services – alongside the need to invest significant time, money and resource. And Gelbard says: “We really underestimated the importance of technology. It’s taken us a lot of time and money but we now have quite a big tech team to keep that as a source of advantage. Having someone who’s part of your team who understands the technology, and can help you navigate that, is really valuable.”


Hone product descriptions and photography

Successful online selling is supported by crafting strong product descriptions, and using the right imagery. “We shot a lot of our own photography because it’s a way of differentiating yourself,” says James Mitchell, founder and MD of motorcycle clothing and parts retailer SportsBikeShop, who sells on eBay alongside the main website. “Keep the information clear about your products, your services, how you’re going to deliver it, what you’ll do if something goes wrong. If you communicate all this to your customer it gives you an advantage,” says Mitchell. “Don’t ever leave a question unanswered on your products or your information, because anything like that becomes a barrier.”


Create outstanding customer service

The customer experience online should be just as seamless as offline. “If you want a customer to buy from you, you’ve got to make it as easy as possible for them: different payment methods, different shipping methods – be as flexible as you can,” says Mitchell.


And while it’s best to have a telephone number visible on the website, an email address can also work well. “In the first instance, you can reply to the emails yourself and then if you’ve got another member of staff they could help with this,” says Gelbard. “Email makes it manageable because you can ringfence time each day to reply to emails online.”


Build trust with customers

Nearly two thirds (65%) of UK shoppers look to reviews from other customers as an important part of their pre-purchase decision-making process, found Episerver, which creates cloud-based digital commerce software for businesses.


Mitchell advises that companies should collect customer reviews from day one. “You’ve got to build online reviews first before customers are going to trust you. It’s going to be slow to start with; you might have to offer incentives to get the ball going. This is a long-term thing. You’ve got to invest everything you can in it.”


Treat it as an organic process

Starting an e-commerce website is not a ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ event; it’s an organic process, says Haines, who stresses the importance of reinvesting in the website on a regular basis. “It’s down to research, communicating what you want, and not rushing.”

“It’s not something you can do once and then leave it,” says Mitchell. “It’s got to become an integral part of the business plan.”


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