E-commerce in the United States soared as the pandemic made online shopping more attractive. In 2020, online shopping was 14 percent of total retail sales in the United States in Q4 2020, up from 11.3% of retail sales in Q4 2019. The year-over-year growth rate in e-commerce adoption nearly doubled compared to 2019.
While online shopping continues to grow in popularity, there are several ways for a business to join this opportunity. Fortunately, a brick-and-mortar business does not need to create its own software or warehouses. Instead, there are existing solutions that a business can use to sell products or services online.
Use the tips in this article as a resource to enhance your online shopping offering depending on your area of greatest need.
Leverage an e-commerce market: A faster way to get started.
Rather than building online shopping infrastructure from scratch, a business can use an existing e-commerce market. There are a variety of e-commerce market providers. Each one has different features, pricing and market presence. To start your research, consider these options.
- Amazon. A business can sell its products through Amazon in several ways, including the Fulfilled By Amazon (FBA) model. There are a variety of fees involved with using Amazon, such as the professional plan ($39.99 per month). Amazon has a large customer base—over 300 million active customer accounts, so businesses that sell physical products may find Amazon to be an appealing e-commerce option.
- Etsy. This e-commerce market is known for offering handmade and craft products such as jewelry, artwork and home decorations. As with Amazon, multiple fees apply when selling on Etsy, including a per-listing fee of $0.20. Etsy has more than 40 million active buyers.
- Walmart. The global retail business now offers Walmart Marketplace, an online platform to sell products. The pricing approach is per item rather than a set monthly fee: “There are no setup, subscription or monthly fees. We simply deduct a reasonable referral fee once a sale occurs on our site.”
Aside from these large marketplaces, there is a variety of industry-specific e-commerce markets. For example, Threadless.com sells T-shirts, clothing and accessories. Businesses can sell their products through Threadless using the “Sell Your Art” option. Carefully review fees and services provided with an e-commerce market before signing up.
There are drawbacks to selling products on another company’s platform. For example, there is no direct connection to the customer in some cases. That is a drawback because it may be challenging to follow up with the customer to offer them other products and services. In addition, there is some operational overhead to take the time to understand the platform’s policies and procedures.
E-commerce growth option: Become an online retailer.
For a business that wants more flexibility and control over how its products are sold online, consider becoming an online retailer. This option has become easier over the past few years. Providing a comprehensive overview of how to set up an online retailer is beyond this article’s scope. However, exploring the resources and features offered by the following software providers offers a starting point. Note that some technical skills are required to use these software tools.
Note: We selected these three platforms because they have a significant number of users and a reasonably broad set of features.
- Shopify. This company helps businesses offer online shopping. As of 2021, more than one million businesses are using Shopify. The cost to use Shopify starts at $29 per month. Shopify is also built to support more than 100 currencies, which is helpful for a business that sells internationally. In addition, Shopify offers features to make it easier for a business to fulfill and promote online shopping orders, such as label printing, discount codes and gift cards.
- BigCommerce. More than 90,000 stores use the online retailer platform. BigCommerce pricing starts at $29.95 per month. BigCommerce features of note include support for Apple Pay, Google Pay and Amazon Pay. Like Shopify, BigCommerce offers a gift card option. Further, BigCommerce connects to Facebook and Instagram so a business can more easily promote online shopping.
- WooCommerce. Millions of websites use this online shopping system. In comparison to the other tools mentioned, WooCommerce software is free. However, a business using the software will need to pay for other internet expenses such as hosting and domain fees. WooCommerce estimates that a business could get started with the platform for approximately $1,000. The actual expense depends on various factors, such as the degree of customization a business chooses for its website.
Customer service: A way to the shopping experience.
What happens when a customer has questions about their online shopping? Giving customers the option to make a phone call to your business can be helpful. For instance, a customer may want to know if an order can be customized with specific colors or sizes. A short phone call with customer service is one way to address those questions.
Product returns and support may need a different approach to customer service communication. For example, a customer may receive a product that requires assembly. A video conference call with a company’s customer service representative could save time compared to a phone call in that scenario.
By having the option to get all of their questions answered, buyers may feel more comfortable making additional purchases in the future. In addition, some industry research suggests that customers prefer to speak to a small business by phone.
Other customers might prefer text and direct messaging as a way to get answers to their questions. An estimated 70 percent of businesses already use texting to stay in touch with customers. There’s a good reason for text messaging popularity. The vast majority—more than 90%—of text messages are read within three minutes of being received.
Weigh each situation to determine whether a text message or a phone call is needed. For example, an automated notification to a customer that their order has been shipped suits text messaging well. However, if a customer has a more complex question about their account or charges, a phone call with a trained customer service representative may be a better option.
Deciding on an e-commerce growth strategy.
E-commerce growth may not apply to every business type. For instance, a business that provides complex consulting services may not provide an e-commerce website. For example, there is no buy button on Deloitte’s website (Deloitte is a global accounting and consulting firm). In those situations, it may be more helpful to organize a website for lead generation and encourage potential customers to contact you for more information. In addition, a business may be focused on other priorities, such as hiring and training staff. In that case, taking on an additional project like setting up online shopping might be overwhelming.
If a business does have the capacity and interest to use online shopping, use the tools and resources outlined here to get started.