If you have a corporate Web site but you don’t think it’s providing your company with a noticeable advantage over the competition’s sites, it may be time to allow your customers to start buying some or all of your products online.

Getting into e-commerce is a lot easier than it used to be — and probably cheaper than you thought. While the move is not without risk, using some emerging technologies to track and analyze your Web traffic and what it means (see this issue’s “By the Numbers” section on pay-per-click advertising) will dramatically lower the probability of a costly error in judgment and losing faith in the whole experience.

Getting started

Companies wanting to sell products online should start with a market evaluation. Check who your online competitors will be and, if possible, find out how well they’re doing online. If they’re losing money, will you be able to put a different spin on things so you’ll make money? It might also be a good idea to poll a set of your existing customers to find out if they would buy electronically from you if given the choice. If they are keen, get them to tell you which products they would buy this way. Above all, have a detailed and researched plan for selling online.

Another early step is to get your products and product SKUs organized in a clean and comprehensive spreadsheet. This file will list all products, categories, prices and descriptions. It may even include product pictures. This data will be required by a Web designer when putting together the applications behind the site.

You must also decide whether to outsource your design work or not. Outsourced Web design is often a good idea, as there are plenty of companies to choose from and rates vary widely. Plus, if something goes wrong and you have already paid for support, you don’t have to suddenly free up internal resources you can’t really spare in order to fix the problem. However, if you have your own Web guru, it may be possible to do all the work internally with third-party software for a lot less. Prices for Web design of a custom e-commerce site for a small- or medium-sized business often have a starting point between $3,000 and $5,000 and can go up exponentially; it all depends on the site’s complexity.

While a company is getting its back-end product data together and figuring out what products it wants to sell, the site designer can be developing the applications needed and deciding upon the look and feel of the site.

Stuart Starr, owner of Newbox Solutions, a Web design company based in Toronto, says his clients usually leave this part up to him, “though obviously it’s a back and forth process, where we would set up a test server and allow the client to view screen shots until they’re satisfied,” he says. Then Starr and his client will take the look and feel and integrate it into the application, which can be either from a third-party or built from scratch, depending on client needs and the project budget.

At some point a client must arrange a way to accept and process online payments. According to Starr, whatever company handles your offline merchant account often has approved payment gateways you can use for your e-commerce site. Generally speaking, any bank interfaces with firms such as Authorize.Net, Verisign and other payment processing companies.

It only takes a couple of days to set up the actual merchant account system on the Web site once the approvals come down from the bank, though the approvals themselves may take up to two weeks. But getting approvals is not complicated as long as all the customer-facing components of the site have been set up correctly. For example, you should define a refund policy, customer satisfaction policies and make some shipping decisions. Do you want to integrate your system with certain Canada Post services or use a courier company to ship your products?

Danger zones

Keep in mind that two of the most troublesome design areas of e-commerce sites can be the shopping cart and checkout applications.

Dmitri Rassadkine, project manager at ASF Design Inc., in Richmond Hill, Ont., says one of the biggest problems e-commerce-enabled sites experience is shopping cart abandonment. This happens when a site visitor places something in his shopping cart and starts the checkout process but never finishes it. It can often be blamed on an overcomplicated process or some other usability issue. Either of these can likely be solved with the addition of a progress bar at the top explaining how many and which steps remain in the checkout process at any given time.

Sometimes the marketing copy on the Web site is simply not convincing enough to put customers at ease about making a purchase. On rare occasions these concerns can be well founded, especially if sites do not enable actual secure transactions until the point when you type in your credit card number. This can potentially expose any other personal information already entered, says Rassadkine. “That’s not a very good idea,” he says. “For example, all our shopping carts are switching to HTTPS, which is a secure sell mode right at the moment when the customer clicks checkout. So everything’s encrypted and secure.”

But all the design and customization in the world isn’t going to help if there isn’t enough traffic going to your Web site. So make sure your market evaluation, Web marketing and sales plans are settled before embarking on any Web sales initiative. Without these, e-commerce is just a shot in the dark.

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