Selling online: how to set up an ecommerce presence

Want to make a living virtually? Benjamin Salisbury gives you a practical overview of the steps and considerations to getting your products or services online.

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Whatever type of startup business you run, it will benefit from an online presence.

Consumers increasingly want to transact online, whether by ordering a plumber or buying a car. Research from September 2023 found 64% of car buyers would conduct most of their research online.

The UK is one of the most developed markets for ecommerce. In 2021, according to Statista, more than 80% of people in the U.K. purchased at least one product online. In June 2023, the ONS found 27.3% of all retail sales in the UK were made online. 

What is an ecommerce site?

Ecommerce is the online exchange of goods and services. It requires the transfer of funds and data over the internet. Ecommerce sites need a method to manage payments and deliver goods to customers.

Ecommerce sites can be an extension of a business’s physical presence or operate as a standalone business. There are four main types:

  • Business to consumer (B2C), the most common ecommerce model, where a business sells directly to consumers.
  • Business to business (B2B), when businesses sell to other businesses, for instance software as a service (SaaS) sales, such as property technology tools.
  • Consumer to consumer (C2C) sales, like eBay, where consumers list products and sell directly to other consumers. These marketplaces often charge commission.
  • Consumer to business (C2B) sales. For instance, a freelance photographer selling photos to companies to promote their business on social media.

Why do you need an ecommerce site?

An ecommerce site is the storefront for your customers. Online consumers increasingly want to research, compare and eventually buy products. Ecommerce sites allow consumers to find your business, its products and consider whether to buy from you.

For non-retail businesses, an online presence is even more important. The latest ONS data shows 93.5% of non-retail purchases are made online. B2B buyers expect the same experience as consumers, to search, compare and make a purchase online.

What are ecommerce customers looking for?

Ecommerce customers want fast and reliable delivery options. This can include collecting items from delivery points like Amazon Hub Lockers.

They want ecommerce sites optimized for smartphones as well as PCs. The proportion of online purchases made using mobile devices continues to increase. June 2023 research from Statista, put the number of UK contactless mobile payment users at 11.8 million.

Consumers demand fast response times from ecommerce sites. They want pages to load quickly and no payment glitches and to know transactions are secure.

Ecommerce customers prioritize fair, accurate and transparent pricing. If consumers can quickly compare prices, your startup will complete more sales.

Reputation is another key factor for ecommerce. Positive TrustPilot scores illustrate your business is reputable, trustworthy and customer focused. Data from Statista found over 90% of UK consumers avoid buying from a business below a 4-star rating. 

How do you promote it?

Ecommerce retailing works in tandem with online advertising. Startups can pay web search platforms like Google for advertise services.

Another option is organic search, via targeted keywords or search engine optimization (SEO). This is cheaper but can be less effective. 

Marketing campaigns via social media channels is one strategy to promote ecommerce businesses. Build follower numbers, likes and interactions. Launch specific campaigns and promotions on these platforms to gain traction with an online audience.

Some products use online ‘influencers’ to endorse or promote a product. As online advertising has developed, more strategic options have become available.

Most ecommerce businesses will mix options to suit the products and services they sell, their target audience and budgets. 

How do you build an ecommerce presence?

Once your ecommerce business model is defined, decide how to ship products. This is key for customer satisfaction. You can ship directly to consumers or use dropshipping, which involves setting up a storefront for customers to pay you directly.

You could select an established ecommerce platform to host your website. Popular options include, Shopify, an SaaS platform that includes add-on tools and services to customize your ecommerce presence. Wix uses a drag-and-drop method for building a website. Most offer a short, free trial to try before you commit.

When building a website or adding ecommerce capabilities, use templates to make it easier to set up and build a basic ecommerce presence without having to employ a web developer.

What do you need on it?

The main elements include a homepage, category and product pages, contact information, a shopping cart and transaction checkout page, an integrated search engine, legal information, T&C’s, data and privacy policies.

Use a range of content and images to attract customers. The product pages are vital. Ensure product descriptions are consistent to help consumers find what they are looking for. Some ecommerce packages include in-built content management systems to create new content, web product pages and blogs to promote your products.

If you sell many products, include separate pages for different categories. Provide filters so consumers can search for items by product type, brand, colour or price.

Effective shipping and payment methods provide customers with reliable, accurate and convenient customer service and risk-free transactions. Stock lists should match what you offer on your website. A common problem for online consumers is products being unavailable, despite finding it through a search that takes them to your website.

How does it work?

Ecommerce websites connect buyers and sellers through a connection between website and server host.

The customer pays for the product using one of the payment options available. The ecommerce platform receives the order, payment is processed and the order approved. The customer is notified that the order has been approved, is sent shipping and tracking information and the item is finally dispatched.

How much does it cost to build an ecommerce site?

This depends on whether you do it in-house, outsource or choose a mix of methods to set up your ecommerce presence.

An ecommerce product like Shopify, includes the essential elements required to set up an ecommerce store, ship products and process payments. For a UK startup, it currently costs £25 a month. There are alternative options for a similar price. This provides a fully functioning ecommerce website, set up in a few hours. Plug-in tools and products are available to add extra functionality.

Building your own basic ecommerce website to sell online can cost very little. WordPress templates are free and easy to use. You can always pay a website developer more later to add extra functionality and features.

If you don’t use an ecommerce product, you will need to source shipping and payment services. The costs and reliability of these options vary. The payment method should connect to your business bank account. A large proportion of UK consumers use digital wallets such as Apple or Google Pay. These connect with most payment options. Amazon Business is a popular payment service for B2B customers.

Compliance and security

When running an ecommerce site, you need to follow rules covering compliance, data and the sale of dangerous or unsafe goods. Despite Brexit, many EU rules remain relevant and cover UK businesses.

The EU Digital Services Act helps businesses sell across borders and protects consumers in the EU. It aims to establish transparent and accountable frameworks for selling goods and services online. Its rules apply to almost all UK businesses who sell to consumers in the EU or who transmit, store, or host information online. 

GDPR and data and privacy rules that apply to other aspects of running a business also apply to ecommerce transactions. Rules from the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) are relevant in the UK and provide guidance and new rules for product safety in the UK.

Conclusion

Startups benefit from ecommerce capability. It is relatively easy and cheap to set up a basic ecommerce site that allows your business to sell to a wider audience, including internationally.

There are many options for setting up an ecommerce site. Accurate and reliable content, pricing and distribution is vital, as well as effective ways to promote selling through social media or SEO. 

Case study – Dubs Universe

Stuart Davis, 44, decided to set up a new business after losing his job during COVID. The children’s footwear business was set up primarily as an ecommerce business. The inspiration came from the problem – as any parent will know – of constantly having to replace kids’ shoes as they outgrow them.

He felt ecommerce was the best option to reach the widest audience. He had no retail background and no idea how to operate a bricks and mortar business.

His premise was that everyone has a mobile optimised for online access and the UX for shopping is easier. His customers, time-poor parents, needed an easy way to buy products via a stress-free experience.

Stuart did his research, checked out WordPress and Wix but opted for Shopify, an out of the box, plug and play option for his ecommerce website. “I couldn’t believe how easy it was,” he said. “The back end was all there.”

His main tip for other startups is not to be afraid to ask for help. There is plenty of free advice out there, He got help from other users and also Shopify themselves on occasions.

Dubs Universe is a fast-growing sideline. Currently Stuart is still working full-time as well as being a parent and husband. His aim is to make this, his dream business, his main occupation.

Dubs Universe is a sustainable business and its backbone is its circularity. He manufactures the shoes himself from plastic bottles and the soles are made from refined sugar cane. It is an expensive manufacturing process. Prices are similar to shoes sold by M&S and Nike.

In the last week he agreed a deal with Continue to become a resale partner and hopes to introduce this to the website in the next few weeks. 

The way it will work is once kids outgrow their shoes, they can be resold through Continue. The site will eventually operate a product recall function as an incentive to customers and then refurbish and resell them as a ‘pre-loved’ shoe.

At the ecommerce checkout, there will be a button asking if the user has ‘the Continue app.’ The code on the site links to the app and when the user is ready to sell, they can add it into the marketplace.

Pros of an ecommerce presence
  • Create a virtual storefront for your customers
  • Reach a wider, international audience, attract customers from anywhere
  • Reduce operating costs: An ecommerce store still has costs, but they are typically far lower than a physical premises
  • The ability to expand an ecommerce business digitally, rather than have to move into a bigger (and more expensive) premises.
  • Customer marketing strategies can improve by using the data services ecommerce plug-ins provide.
  • Increased flexibility by being able to offer a wider range of products and services
  • 24/7 sales. There is no need to close, customers can buy whenever they want regardless of location or time zone.
Cons of an ecommerce presence
  • Shipping and distribution costs add another layer of expense and can be unreliable leading to poor customer satisfaction
  • More returns as customers don’t have the opportunity to see or try the product, particularly with clothes and similar products
  • Technical issues: Ecommerce websites rely on technology which can go wrong. Crashed websites, low bandwidth and cyber security issues are all factors that can cause your business to cease trading, even for a short time.
  • Data security concerns: Ecommerce websites store customers personal and payment information. If your site is hacked, hackers can acquire this data and this can damage a business’s reputation.
  • No contact with customers. For some business owners, this can be one reason they run a business, to interact with customers. Ecommerce limits this.
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Benjamin Salisbury - business journalist

Benjamin Salisbury is an experienced writer, editor and journalist who has worked for national newspapers, leading consumer websites like This Is Money and MoneySavingExpert.com, business analysts including Environment Analyst, AIM Group and written articles for professional bodies and financial companies. He covers news, personal finance, business, startups and property.

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