Topic overview

Sell online

Sell online

Setting up an ecommerce website so your business can sell online can be straightforward and very beneficial to your company. Many long-established brands have successfully developed an ecommerce operation after selling via retail outlets for many years; more recent start-ups have been able to take advantage of selling online from day one.

Why sell online?

Even if you already have a company website, you could see lots of benefits from setting up an ecommerce website to sell online:

  • Find new customers. Building an ecommerce site can make it easier for customers to find you.
  • Widen your reach. An online shop allows you to take orders from around the world, not just your local area.
  • Boost profits. Your new customers should increase profits - especially as ecommerce overheads tend to be low.

However, building an ecommerce website isn't without problems. Although you can take security precautions, there is a risk of fraud. You also need to establish how your online operation fits with other sales channels. For instance, are you going to charge the same prices online as you do in-store?

Remember to abide by relevant regulations too, like distance selling and data protection rules.

Web shop components

In order to create a successful ecommerce website, you need to take care of these key areas:

  • Your product catalogue, so you can display what you sell to customers.
  • Payment processing, to accept payments online, usually by credit card.
  • A way to handle enquiries, so you can deal with questions.
  • Stock control. You might want to display stock levels online.
  • Fulfilment and returns. Shipping items can take a lot of effort.

Not all of these functions can be performed by an ecommerce system. For instance, you need to ensure you have adequate staff and procedures in place to handle enquiries, shipping and returns.

There are three main ways to build your ecommerce website:

  • Use a marketplace. Sites like eBay and Amazon offer marketplaces where you can sell online. Because the marketplace takes care of all the important online shopping functions, it's easy to get started. You also benefit from being visible on a popular marketplace site. However, marketplaces lack flexibility and can be expensive, because they take a cut of every sale.
  • Use an ecommerce service. Usually offered by web hosting companies, these packages include everything you need to start selling online. Think of them as a web shop in a box. You just pick a template for your website and add information about your products. They cost from as little as £15 per month and are a good way to get started if you don't already have a website.
  • Use a shopping cart system. Most shopping cart systems are designed to add online shopping functions to an existing website. They offer lots of flexibility and allow you to build an entirely customised web shop. However, they take longer to set up and are typically more expensive. You might pay £15 per month for a package from a company like SellerDeck.

When evaluating these options, consider how well-suited they are to the type and volume of products you sell. In particular, some marketplaces and ecommerce services restrict the number of items you can offer for sale.

Your existing website will also be a key factor. If you have a website already and want to add an online shop to it, a shopping cart system is the best way to do this. If you opt for a marketplace or ecommerce service, you may have to set up a separate online shop and direct customers there.

Get the right web hosting

No matter how you decide to build your website, it's important your web hosting - which allows you to publish your ecommerce site - is reliable. In other words, your online shop is only as good as its capability to handle peak traffic (for example, in the run up to Christmas). A slow or unresponsive site will mean potential customers will go elsewhere. Slow or unreliable hosting can also adversely affect how your site ranks with search engines like Google.

However, it's often important to keep costs low - especially if you're just starting out with your online shop. To balance performance with cost, look for:

  • A web hosting company that treats ecommerce as a core part of its business - not as an afterthought.
  • Flexible packages that can be upgraded or downgraded easily as the number of visitors to your website rises or falls.
  • A hosting company based in the same country as your target audience. This ensures a faster-loading site and is good for local search engine rankings.
  • A good level of support, with a service level agreement guaranteeing a certain response time in the event of problems.

Processing ecommerce payments

Your online shop needs to be able to process payments so people can actually buy from you online. If you buy a ready hosted package, payment processing will probably be included. If not, you'll need to find a payment service provider (PSP).

These include services like PayPal, SellerDeck and WorldPay. Most offer similar features, but check the level of fraud protection and how well the service can be integrated with your own online shop.

It's a good idea to get started with a service customers recognise, like PayPal. However, they often charge high processing fees - typically 4% of every transaction for smaller online retailers. As these costs mount up, you'll want to look at more cost-effective services.

You'll also need to make sure your online shop complies with the UK's strict rules for handling credit card data. These are called the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard - PCI-DSS for short. As you long as you process payments through a PSP, it's easy to stay compliant - you never actually see any of your customers' payment details, so compliance is the PSP's problem, not yours.

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