10 questions to ask when setting up an online store

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If your business sells goods in a physical store but not online, you could be missing out on an incredible revenue-generating opportunity. U.S. online retail sales grew 12.6% to $176.2 billion in 2010, and are expected to reach $278.9 billion by 2015, according to Forrester Research, a market and technology research based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Is your business ready to reap some of those online sales? Launching an online store can be difficult for small businesses, which are often short on time, budget and staff. But e-commerce vendors can help make building and maintaining an online store relatively easy and affordable.

Here are 10 important questions to ask yourself when setting up your company’s first online store:

1. How can I start building my online store?
If you can’t afford to hire someone to build a custom online store, don’t worry. There are plenty of e-commerce providers that can help you set one up quickly. “They can take the hassle and headache of hard coding, hosting and maintaining on your own server out of the online store equation,” says Julian Barkat, Director of Ecommerce and Marketing online at Eggs to Apples, a Philadelphia-based digital marketing agency. .

Companies like Bigcommerce, Shopify, Goodsie, Jumpseller, and Volusion let you design the overall look, feel, and functionality of your online store. They also allow you to upload your product catalog, set up customer shopping carts, securely accept payments, and manage order fulfillment. These services securely host your online store on their own servers. You can link to your online store from your main business website.

E-commerce services such as these usually require some basic initial setup work on your part. For example, with Shopify, you choose a storefront layout from a set of templates and customize your fonts, overall color palette, and product image sizes. Shopify users can also upload their own custom branded logos and backgrounds.

Prices for these services range from around $10 to $700 per month, largely depending on how many products you sell and the amount and types of services provided.

2. How can I best customize the overall look of my online store?
In most cases, if your business already has a website, your e-commerce site should mirror your existing online appearance, including your logos and color schemes. If you don’t have a business website, choose background and accent colors for your e-commerce site that complement your logo.

Most design templates from eCommerce vendors come with pre-made theme settings that don’t require HTML or CSS knowledge to customize. So, it should be relatively easy to upload your logo and product images and add banners, slideshows and more.

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3. What type of payment system should I use?
Barkat recommends PayPal when you’re just starting out. This is mainly because the third-party processor is so widely known as a secure system for accepting payments online.

While there’s no sign-up or flat monthly fee for PayPal’s basic service, Barkat warns that PayPal’s selling fees “can really add up quickly.” PayPal sellers pay a 2.9% transaction fee on the total sale amount, plus a 30 cent fee per transaction.

Authorize.net is another popular payment processing solution recommended by Barkat. The processor charges a setup fee of $99, plus a monthly fee of $20 and 10 cents per transaction.

Still, many shoppers prefer to pay for their online purchases with their own credit cards rather than using PayPal or other third-party payment processors. You can get a merchant account with every credit card company. Many charge a fee per transaction ranging from 20 to 50 cents, plus a percentage of the total purchase amount. Some also charge monthly, quarterly and annual fees.

4. How will I handle customer service?
To effectively address customer concerns, you can choose an e-commerce provider that gives you access to a reliable customer relationship management (CRM) tool. Most major e-commerce providers offer CRM options, sometimes for an additional fee of around $25 to $75 per month.

CRM tools document, streamline and structure the many ways merchants interact with customers in one central place, including customer contact information, recent purchases, complaints and pending orders.

Heather Peterson, founder of Girl Charlee Inc., an online retailer and wholesaler based in Signal Hill, Calif., suggests getting a dedicated toll-free customer service number. Another option is to set up live chat in your online store, she says, but only if you can use it 24/7, which is what online shoppers expect.

5. How do I determine shipping costs?
It’s often easier and more accurate to leave the exact shipping cost calculations – for both you and your customer – to the carrier you use. Major carriers will calculate shipping costs for you for free, and most major e-commerce providers allow you to build these costs into the checkout section of your store.

On the other hand, you might want to consider offering free shipping, at least for orders over a certain amount. If your direct competitors offer free shipping, Peterson suggests considering that too, if you can afford it.

6. How can I create the best product images and descriptions?
“Online shoppers don’t see, touch, smell or smell your product,” Barkat says. The best thing to do is therefore a sharp and clear image of the product. While he says you shouldn’t completely cut corners on photography, you don’t need to hire a professional to get high-quality images. But you need to use “a 16-megapixel DSLR camera, decent lighting and a softbox,” he advises. A photo lightbox is a tent-like container with several bulbs directed into its interior that photography professionals often use to create well-lit images of objects.

Peterson says written product descriptions should be short, but rich with enough interesting details to pique customers’ interest. “Try to use compelling adjectives and phrases that evoke emotion when someone reads your description,” she says, “without getting too carried away or taking up too much space.” In addition to listing price, you may want to include product uses, dimensions, and other defining features.

7. Should I allow customer reviews and social sharing?
Giving customers the chance to comment on your products and leave ratings can help build their trust in your store, says Peterson. Positive reviews and shares on social media could lead to increased sales, but there is also a risk of negative comments. Several major e-commerce services offer customer review options that allow you to respond to spam comments or delete them.

Although Peterson has not yet enabled customer reviews in its online store, it has allowed customers to “like” its products on Facebook, “pin” images of them to their Pinterest pages and Email images and brief descriptions directly from product listings.

8. How will I start attracting buyers?
Once your store is up and running, spread the word online and offline. Placing links to your store’s web address on your main business website and in your email newsletter campaigns would be a great start. Peterson also recommends creating Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube accounts representing your online store. Updating your business social media sites several times a day can drive traffic to your store by drawing attention to daily deals and other promotions.

It’s also a good idea to choose an e-commerce provider that automatically uses search engine optimization (SEO) for your store content. SEO tactics can help your store rank higher in search results on Google, Bing, and Yahoo.

9. How should I handle returns?
Each store must handle returned items. Check that your e-commerce provider provides built-in tools that allow you to quickly and easily replace merchandise or refund purchase prices, restock your inventory, and email customers about the status of their return.

10. How can I track the success of my store?
Try to select an e-commerce vendor that offers free self-service analytics, often powered by Google Analytics, and other reporting tools to help you track your store’s performance over time. These can tell you how many people visit your store and how often, where they live and how they found you. They can also show you which websites drive the most traffic to your store and which products customers view and buy the most and least often.

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