Evolving Brick and Mortar: Five Steps to Start an Online Business
Amidst continuing waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, traditionally brick and mortar stores have been called on to establish a robust and functional online presence. As brick and mortar traffic remains low for the foreseeable future, moving to an ecommerce model—where possible—is critical for many businesses and industries to stay afloat.
Online, however, brick and mortar businesses lose their advantage of “location, location, location.” When a customer can easily close a tab and choose someone else, your online business needs to be strong in every way to attract and keep customers.
Whether shifting to ecommerce represents beefing up a minor part of your business or venturing online for the first time, here are five important considerations to start an online business.
- Find a professional web design partner
There are many cheap and fast ways to get a website up and running, and many robust content management systems (WordPress and Squarespace are two examples of a CMS) that help businesses design a website. But if you are ramping up quickly and planning to lean heavily on your website for ecommerce in particular (that is, customers will be shopping on your website rather than just getting information about your business), we recommend partnering with a professional web designer.
A professional designer will help to both create a solid, functional website that can do what you need it to do, and also to make it clean, attractive, and compelling. In short, a good web designer will help you convince your site visitors to choose you, and then make it very easy for them to do so. Depending on your business, you may be able to maintain many elements of the site on your own, but freeing yourself up for other critical elements of pivoting your business and kicking your online store off right is worth the investment.
- Integrate ecommerce and payment
Integrating payment processing makes for a seamless online shopping experience for your customers and clients. This includes a high-quality and secure shopping cart experience and immediate payment for goods and services through a seamless online portal that accepts major forms of payment.
You may choose an online ecommerce platform like Shopify, or utilize an option through your CMS. There are a number of WordPress payment plugins available that utilize well-known payment processors Stripe or PayPal. Wix Payments and Squarespace’s payment system are integrated into those CMSes as well. If you partner with a web designer, as above, they may get you set up on one of these simple-to-manage systems for ongoing ease.
- Target your inventory
As you launch, you may want to consider opening your online store just featuring items with the broadest appeal. Review your most recent seasonal sales data if you need help determining what to include at the start. Once you launch strong and you’ve worked out the kinks of your online store, you can begin adding back in specialty and niche items that don’t make up the bulk of your sales.
- Consider fulfillment options
When a customer shops in your store, they walk out with something in their hand and your work is (mostly) done. When that same customer shops online, you now have to figure out how to get your product to them.
One of the biggest questions you’ll have to answer is whether your business and supply chain best lends itself to inventory management or drop shipping directly from the manufacturer to the customer. The latter requires less capital investment and less concern about storage and shipping logistics, but it does require greater software integration with the maker, along with trust and communication to expedite order processing. If value-added services are in play, or bundling products from multiple suppliers is necessary, then a third-party fulfillment center or logistical partner will be crucial.
The infrastructure for packaging and distribution for an ecommerce business is substantial, and there’s no single right answer. Determining which options suit your particular industry and business the best will require research and analysis over the short- and long-term to maximize efficiency and customer responsiveness.
- Invest in marketing
Unless you get the word out about the new ways you’re doing business, your old customers won’t know and no new ones are just going to stumble upon you. Marketing your online business doesn’t have to involve an expensive professional campaign, but you do need to find ways to let your current customers and prospects in your target audience know what you have to offer.
Once you’ve got a high-quality online store that’s ready to hit the gas, you will gain awareness and drive traffic to your website through these four digital marketing tactics:
- Social media posts and promotions (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn)
- Search engine optimization (“good” SEO helps your website appear higher up in organic—or unpaid—web search results)
- Email campaigns
- Content marketing (such as blogs and videos, which can be shared easily on social media and in email campaigns)
Because customers will likely continue their online purchasing habits through the long recovery and even once the pandemic has fully passed, moving your brick and mortar business online is worth doing well for the long-term health of your company. By doing your homework first, investing in a high-quality website and fulfillment model, and getting the word out, you’ll be giving your online business a critical foundation for success.