This guide is not about what web platform to choose or how to develop your site. We are going to focus on what you should do before meeting with a web developer or agency to ensure that your website build goes smoothly and results in a website that truly meets your and your audience’s needs.
Identify Your Audience
This may seem obvious, but it’s extremely important. If you want your website to turn a profit you must understand who will be purchasing your products. You also need to be able to provide documented details about your customer base to the development team. The more details you can provide the better. The best way to start is by writing down audiences you are catering your business towards. Don’t just say “everyone”, because that is just not true. Generate a specific list of audiences you are targeting.
Website Audience Factors to Consider
- Age groups
- Consumer types (white collar, blue collar, specific industries, specific roles)
- What makes your customers happy with your products and services?
- What frustrations and pain-points have you heard from your customers?
Typical Customer Behavior
- How long is the sales cycle? Do they usually purchase immediately on your site or do they contact you and establish a long-term relationship and purchase somewhere down the line?
- What is the purchase profile? Do they usually purchase one core item (an area rug) or are they shopping for a collection of related items (themed party supplies)?
If you know who your audience is, you can speak their language. If your website speaks to a generic, unfocused audience, it will be less compelling and engaging for them.
Review Your Business Logistics
Gather details on the way your online business operates and the services you depend on to make that happen. Notice I mentioned your online business. If you have a retail storefront, you should not try to make your website operate like your physical location.
Below are some key topics to review and document. Coming into an e-commerce website project with this information will greatly benefit the final outcome.
Document how you want to collect funds from paying customers. Identify any new payment options you’d like to explore. Keep your payment options simple by only offering the best and most necessary options, otherwise, the checkout process will be too busy and complex. If you’re unsure whether or not to add a new payment option, survey your customers for their feedback.
Here are some of the online payment options.
Merchant Service Provider
This is a service traditionally offered by your bank or similar entity. Going through a merchant service provider allows collection via credit card or checking account. Merchant service providers use payment gateways like Authorize.net and First Data to help with payment processing.
Similar to merchant service providers, payment processors allow collection via credit or ACH Payments (checking accounts). These services are often web-based or mobile app-based and have very competitive rates. Stripe, Dwolla & Braintree are popular payment processors.
PayPal has a unique currency exchange system for individuals and businesses that can be accepted as a form of payment on your website. PayPal also offers credit card processing services.
Gift Cards / Store Credits
These can be valuable payment methods for generating more sales and providing enhanced customer service. Have a plan for dealing with these types of payment.
Purchase Orders, Money Orders, Personal Checks
While less common online, these are still valid payment options. If you do accept these payment methods make sure you document the details on how they are processed. Describe how they affect the order process or if they impact the way products are handled during purchasing or fulfillment.
Shipping has a large impact on your e-commerce business. Take the time to research your shipping options to understand how to optimally ship your products to customers.
Discuss acquiring negotiated rates with common shipping providers. This gives you a discount on shipping costs that you can pass along to your customers to make you more competitive in the online market.
Make sure you have accurate shipping data for your products. Weight is the most common specification you will need. In some cases dimension of a product can affect shipping prices and available carriers. Dimensions are especially important for oddly-shaped or over-sized products.
Optimize Your Shipping Process
Offer Free Shipping
Free shipping generates sales and increases customer retention. It's a successful and common strategy used by e-commerce stores if you can afford to offer it as an option. .
Simplify Shipping Options
Complex shipping rules get in the way of customer decision making. Make the checkout process as quick and easy as possible. Too many shipping options hinder the checkout process and can result in more frequent cart abandonment. Complex shipping options can also drive up the cost of development.
Take Advantage of Drop Shipping
If manufacturers will send the product directly from their warehouse, you can save on shipping costs and time. If you already use drop shipping, document the logistics and requirements. They can be complex and will likely impact your project's budget.
Document Your Shipping Rules
It will be important for your web development team to know about all of the rules that apply to the products you ship. Examples can be limitations on shipping to specific states or countries, shipping hazardous material fees, LTL shipping, etc...
The necessary evil of taxes can have a negative impact on your e-commerce business if not handled properly. Make sure you understand and document how taxes will work for your online store. You will likely have sales tax on products sold within your home state but there can be reasons for taxation in other states or countries. Don’t be surprised by some of the complexities that can come along with online selling and taxes. If you need to charge sales tax in several states, or if your home state has a complex tax code, then you might want to consider a service like Avalara to assist with keeping the calculations accurate.
Sales and Promotions
In the retail sphere, what good is a storefront without sales to get potential customers to walk in the door? The same applies for e-commerce stores. You need to have a plan for running regular online sales and promotions. If your sales are frequent and appealing enough, customers are encouraged to buy and check back with you often. Annual sales, holiday sales, returning customer sales, frequent buyer incentives, etc.… all help to attract customers and increase sales. Share your plans with your web developers so they can build in ways for you to manage sales and promotions on your website.
Clean Up Your Product Data
Clean product data is extremely important to the success of developing your new e-commerce website. We can’t overstate this enough. What does “clean product data” mean? It means clear, consistent product titles, thorough product descriptions, completed specification lists, well-organized and documented product attributes, and accurate pricing and shipping data. It means that the data in your current system is as complete as possible or that you have a spreadsheet of product information with as many details as possible. Most importantly it means consistent product data formatting and accuracy.
You can't start early enough on this task. In fact, you should be doing this now in some form. If you currently have an online store, ERP, or POS system you should already have good clean data to start with. If you have any of these systems in place and your product data is a mess it's time to get to work and start cleaning it up.
To take this one step further, you will want to develop technical specifications for products that are consistent and reliable. You’ve probably seen product pages with tabs or sections called “Product Features”, “Specifications” or “Technical Specifications” used for this purpose. Formatting is important, such as using bullet lists or tables instead of large blocks of text. If you have a series of products that share a common feature, make sure spelling and formatting is consistent across all products. This is important when migrating data to the new online store via spreadsheets or systems integration.
Clean, accurate product data saves time and decreases communication issues and development mistakes. This will save you a lot of money to give you a better return on your e-commerce website investment.
Be Prepared for Change
If you have a retail storefront, be ready to make some changes to your business when you add an online store. Many of the rules and logistics you use offline won't apply to doing business on the web. Be ready to integrate new processes and adapt to the fast-paced, ever-changing world of online selling.
If you already have an online store, then you‘re all set. Just kidding. Many current online stores are on old e-commerce systems or frameworks. Like any technology, e-commerce methods change quickly and new features and strategies are continually introduced to help attract more website visitors and sales.
Your marketing approach will also likely need some revision. Take a comprehensive look at your current marketing program and be ready to expand or change it completely.
System security is another fast-changing area. Online security for e-commerce is now more important than ever so make sure you’re working with a team that’s knowledgeable about and follows security best practices and builds in a secure environment.
Preparing these details before you approach an e-commerce website development agency will make the process go more smoothly and give you a better outcome. You’ll be better equipped to choose the best partner to build your site. You‘ll be more knowledgeable about your website needs as you go through the sales process. You and your development partner will both be more prepared for the website development process. And ultimately you’ll end up with a better e-commerce store that’s better equipped to give you the sales and success you’re looking for.