It seems to me that we’ve reached a point where small businesses all over the UK are realising that if they don’t get online, they’re about to be left behind. They might survive on the high street for a while yet, but their competition is starting to sell online, and that slice of the pie is being munched at a scary rate!
I’ve written this article for anyone that wants to start selling online but doesn’t have a clue where to start, or how much to spend. Well, there’s a lot to it, but I’m here to help! To start us off, the big decision is at what level you want to dive in. When getting started in online sales (often called eCommerce), there are a range different levels, all with different costs, strengths and weaknesses. Let’s have a look through them all, and see what would suit you.
Existing eCommerce Marketplaces
The first level is using an existing marketplace, such as Amazon, eBay or Etsy. Generally these are really low-cost. Amazon, for example, doesn’t charge a regular fee for listing items on it’s shop – it just takes it’s cut when you make a sale. eBay does charge a monthly fee to have a listed shop, but you can also just list products for free as a normal user. If you’re serious about getting started in eCommerce though, you’ll want to pay the monthly fee (currently around £15) and create your branded presence.
One of the main benefits of this approach is that it’s a great way to test the demand for the products you’re planning to sell. There’s a really low cost to entry and you wont have to invest in a proper website, so if you discover that the competition is very fierce or the demand isn’t there then you haven’t wasted your money.
Next, using these platforms puts you right in front of the customer straight away. Imagine your market stall in that shopping centre – people come there anyway, and you can take advantage of all the customers just passing by.
Amazon sees millions of visitors every day, and eBay is the same. As soon as you list your product, it’s available to those customers, and they can find it just as easily as any other product on the system. You’re playing on Amazon and eBay’s popularity to sell your own products, and so it negates the need for marketing and promotion.
On the other hand, the downside of this is that you can easily be lost in the crowd. Many others will most likely be selling the same thing on both platforms. It’s a rare product indeed that you’re the exclusive supplier of. And prices are generally driven really low on Amazon and eBay, just because of the competition, so margins can be pretty low. Imagine that market stall again – you’re usually in with a whole load of other stalls. It’s hard to get noticed! Then again, if you match other supplier’s prices, or beat them, you can certainly attract customers to your stall, and easily test out your product range
A further disadvantage to using only these types of platforms is that you’re really not building your own platform for the future. That market stall is always temporary, it can move around, and it just doesn’t look as professional as the shops elsewhere in the shopping centre.
Because you’re piggy backing on Amazon, or others, you rely on them for sales. They could suddenly start to charge more, or they could shut off external suppliers altogether. It’s unlikely, but it could happen. In the long term, you want to build your own property, which loyal customers will keep coming back to. Amazon, eBay or Etsy do not provide this to any great extent.
Hosted eCommerce Platforms
The next level of online sales is the Hosted Shop. This is for those that want to set up their own eCommerce website, but, again, need a really low cost to entry.
The principle behind a hosted shop is this: one company sets up their own eCommerce website and uses that to host a very large network of shops. They take care of the technical side, the payments and the design, and you just rent space with them, managing only your own products and sales. One example of this type of company is Shopify.
Looking again at real-world equivalents, this is akin to you moving on up from your market stall and renting a real commercial space in that shopping centre, joining the ranks of the proper shops.
The big advantages of this approach are that these type of online shops are quick to set up, easy to configure and often quite cheap to run. That space you buy in the shopping centre will already be set up as a shop, so you can get in there quick!
The downside is that with this ease of entry, there comes a lot of standardization You wont have much room to maneuver in a shopping centre, after all. The shop will be set up in a certain way and you wont be able to change it. So, no chance for customised approaches, or tailoring the shop to your products – you have to take the hosted shop’s tools and use them, as best you can.
Also, the design of your shop can sometimes be a little limited on these platforms. You’ll have the option of choosing from a range of existing templates, all of which will look great no doubt, but they’ll still be generic. They also could be used by other shops, so you certainly wont be unique. You can normally add your logo in, change the colour scheme, so you can definitely get your branding in there, but it wont be as flexible as a system you own yourself.
Some platforms will allow you to use your own designs, but this is will add a great deal to the cost and generally will still come with some restrictions. You’ll need to employ a designer to create the look and feel, and then a developer to code it up for inclusion on your site. By the time you do that, sometimes it’s best to move to the next level, your own eCommerce system.
And lastly, it’s a similar problem to the market stall, you don’t own it. If the hosting company that you work with goes out of business, then your site goes down with them. Shopping centres come and shopping centres go, to the detriment of the poor shops inside. Relying on someone else comes with a big potential cost.
On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for letting someone else take care of the technical issues. You’ll never have to worry about crashes, down-time, upgrades, payment problems or anything else on a hosted eCommerce platform. That’ll all be taken care of for you, included in that monthly fee.
If you’re going to go for this type, Shopify is one of the best examples – check out Shopify here.
Building From the Ground Up
The final level is to go the whole hog and build your very own shop! Imagine graduating from that shopping centre, finding a nice piece of land and designing your very own place. The possibilities are endless… You can tailor the aisles to best display the exact products you sell. You can use a checkout system that perfectly suits your requirements, making it easier for people to buy, and so generating far more sales. You can design it down to the last nut to meet your needs, and keep changing it over time as your products, customers and systems change.
Now, in the online context, this in itself comes with a few different options, so I’ll go through them all in order of potential cost.
Employing A Default Existing eCommerce System
There are a lot of shopping cart system out there, starting with a raft of free products and moving up to very expensive, industrial grade software. It doesn’t take too much effort for a good developer to grab one of these systems and deploy an online shop that belongs solely to you. When I say not too much effort, we’re still talking installation, configuration, testing, deployment and a whole lot of small tasks in between, so you’re still talking about a chunk of time. And good developers don’t tend to come cheap.
The first level in owning your own shop is to use one of these systems off-the-shelf, with the default template. We use Opencart quite extensively at Wild Trails Media. It’s an Open Source piece of software, so is free to use, and comes with a decent default template which can have logos added to it quite easily. This means that with just a few day’s work we can have a working shop up and running and ready to make sales.
The downside to this is that the default template is a little uninspiring, and it certainly isn’t unique. And that’s generally the same no matter what shopping cart system you use. You’ll see default Opencart front pages, for example, all around the web if you look hard enough. What you can do, though, to get around this, is spend a small amount of money (from $20 to low $hundreds) and buy a professional shopping cart template.
There are a number of shopping cart template retailers around the web. A template is simply a design that someone has created for a shopping cart system like Opencart, but instead of selling it to just one person, they’ve saved it as a template and released it to the public. Some of these templates are really good, some are really bad, but it’s likely you’ll find something you like if you look around.
Again, these aren’t unique – there will be others using the same template – but you can add logos, images and colour changes to disguise it somewhat, and it’ll certainly be more inspiring and less common than the default system template.
Employing a Designer to Create a Custom Design
Next up is using one of the aforementioned shopping cart platforms, but employing a designer to create a completely unique look and feel to your shop.
This is where you start to look like a professional outfit (although, with a designer, you can make some of the hosted platforms mentioned above look just as good). You can fully integrate your branding, and you can create a completely custom layout that suits your product range and categories. You can appeal directly to your ideal customer and most likely make far more sales and encourage customers to return to your shop.
This adds a fair chunk to the cost of your store. To create a design for a website, a designer needs to really understand your brand, your aims and your company message. Then they need to work closely with the developer to make sure that the design ties in with the functionality required to make the site work. Then, once the design is complete, the developer needs to turn that design into a website. They essentially need to code up a completely custom template based on that design, and make it work with the shopping cart system you’re using. This all amounts to many days of work, and certainly into multiple weeks.
But, for the long term, this is the minimum viable option, and is the level that most smaller online shops will run at. If you’re a smaller retailer it’s likely that you’ll never have to go beyond this. You can run happily at this level, making small customisations as you go to suit your products, sales and style.
Even if you’re a big retailer, this level could be for you. Magento is one of the most powerful open source systems and it’s used by companies like Nike, Paul Smith and the North Face. Magento is a huge step up from the likes of Opencart though, and that power makes for a far more complicated build, and so a much higher cost.
The downsides at this level start with just that, the cost – you’re looking at thousands for a simple Opencart store, and tens of thousands for a more complicated build with the likes of Magento.
And secondly, you’re still tied into a way of operating by using an existing shopping cart system. It might be that with Opencart, for example, you don’t like the way it handles special offers, and you’d prefer that you could have a different special offer price for each size of shoe. Because you own the shop, however, you can get around this by employing a developer to make customisations. They can change the programming and create extensions which add extra functionality. Again, though, this comes at a cost…
A Fully Bespoke Online Shop
Now we’re at the top level of eCommerce, the level that Amazon and eBay themselves operate at, along with many of the retailing giants that we see on the high street.
This level is often reached when a company starts with an existing eCommerce platform, such as Opencart or Magento, and then finds that they’re customising it so heavily to fit their products and process that they might as well build themselves something from scratch.
Now, as you’d imagine, this is a very expensive business. Building a new application from scratch takes months of a full development team’s time. And testing and maintenance then goes on top of that. Can you imagine how many developers are working at Amazon right now maintaining, updating and refining their platform?
But, this is the only way that a big eCommerce company can have complete control over how their shopping cart works. And when you’re making millions every day, you need that control.
I hope this has given you a good insight into the eCommerce life-cycle. You can jump on the ladder at any level, but most companies start at the bottom and just start climbing. When profits start to grow in your Amazon store, you can justify the expense of setting up a shop on Shopify, or jumping right to a default Opencart shop. You can adapt as you go, changing your design, adding functionality, and soon you’ll find yourself at the top, with a completely custom eCommerce shop making thousands every day.
Well, that’s the dream anyway. And why not!
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