So, you’ve decided to launch an eCommerce store and sell your products online. Maybe you’re starting your first business and have something small in mind to test the waters. Or perhaps your business is already established with multiple outlets and you’re looking to add an online presence. Whatever stage of business you’re in, or whatever sector you’re in, launching an online store tends to raise some common questions. If you’re wondering where to start, keep reading for a checklist of some initial considerations.
This article has been written to provide an overview of the common topics most eCommerce retailers need to consider before selling online. It covers 4 core areas of interest:
- Store management
- Customer management
- Order management
- Post-sale & Aftercare
It flows in that order. Read in full if you are looking for a global view of an entire eCommerce operation or skip to the part that interests you most if you already have some knowledge and are just looking for some specifics.
The content here is meant as a starting point for your considerations. It will unlikely provide any definite answers to your particular project, my aim is to highlight the areas we, as an eCommerce development agency, believe you should be thinking about before starting any new eCommerce project.
Firstly, let's look at store management. It’s the obvious starting point and covers all the essentials of setting up your eCommerce store for product research and sales.
Arguably the most important part of any eCommerce store is the products it sells. It’s surprising how often product display is overlooked though. Unless you have an incredibly niche product on offer or you are already dominating a market, the chances are you will have competitors. It's hugely important therefore to present your products in the best possible light. If you don't, your potential customers will have no problem moving to a competitor's site to get the information they’re looking for before making a purchase.
How much product information do you have to offer your customers? Is it just the basics (Title, Description, Price) or do you have more? What will your customers want to know? What would help them understand your product better? Typically, the more information you can provide the better. Customers are doing more research than ever before ahead of purchase decisions, so providing what they want to know upfront will help them with their research (and stop them from looking elsewhere).
If you have a large amount of product information or your products have any kind of complexity to them, you might want to consider housing your data in a PIM system. This separates product information from eCommerce and brings a host of benefits (but is only really applicable to larger operations).
High-quality product photography is a must. Your customers will almost certainly want to see what they are buying, and likely from different angles. If you have the budget, investing in photography can be very worthwhile. The shots will be useful for your product pages but also for general marketing efforts.
Can your products be better presented via video? Will a demonstration or what's in the box video provide customers with more insight on what they’re buying? Can promotional videos uploaded to a different platform such as Youtube help direct customers to your product page?
If your products have any kind of technical specifications, it's highly likely your customers will find that useful when comparing with other products. How will you present this to them? Downloads can be useful to give the customer something they can take away with them, however, including specifications within the page can help with search engine ranking and allow customers to filter or sort products more easily.
Can you offer any kind of downloads to your customers that will help them either pre or post-purchase? Things like: user guides, warranty information, complimentary product guides, or offering any items in multiple languages can all be useful.
Do your products have multiple purchase options? Different colours, sizes, or accessories? What’s important for customers to be able to select before proceeding to checkout?
Are your products configurable in any way? For highly configurable products, users may need to go through a number of steps to build their preferred product before adding it to a cart. Even a slightly configurable product will require the user to make choices along the way, how can you make this easy for them?
How many products are you going to offer your customers? Categorisation of products is important so that users can easily find what they are looking for (or discover something they are not), this is especially true for larger ranges.
Will you need multiple layers of categories (that go several levels deep) or a single level (horizontal) category structure? Considering how your products will be categorised now and how that may change as you grow your product range will pay dividends later on (and avoid costly restructuring of your store).
Will customers find it easier to navigate your product range by filtering out unwanted results, using product attributes? If so, what attributes will be important to them? Does your product data already include these, or will it need to be enriched?
How often are you likely to want to update your product offering? Is it a seasonal range or the same all year round? Do you offer a fast turnaround product range that may be listed and sold in just a few days? Answering these questions will help inform your product management process.
The importance of inventory management changes depending on the business. We’ve built eCommerce stores where inventory must be updated often as it's vital users see an accurate number and are restricted from buying if no stock is available. In other projects, this is not nearly as important and users are free to purchase regardless of stock, as the business is capable of manufacturing to order.
In my experience, this is one area that differs the most on a project-by-project basis and you should consider what’s important to your business.
Is real-time inventory important?
Do users need to see an accurate number that's updated in real-time? If so, where is this number stored and how is it updated? You may need to consider integration to a robust PIM that can handle feeds from all your order channels. Thankfully, automating the updating of inventory based on products sold is a relatively simple task with a modern tech stack but this can be a drain on resources. If real-time is not essential, maybe an hourly or daily update will suffice.
Showing your stock numbers to customers
Allowing your customers to see the level of stock you hold on a particular product can be beneficial for a number of reasons.
- Firstly, it can give them confidence you are able to meet their required purchase amount
- Secondly, if stock is running low it can nudge users towards making a buying decision. The law of Scarcity tells us when humans believe something is in short supply, they will desire it more (Amazon is the king of using scarcity as a sales tactic).
You may of course not want to show users your stock levels. If you are a business that keeps a low level of stock, showing this may incline customers to think you cannot properly service them and push them away from a sale.
Updating inventory information
There are a number of ways to update your inventory information. Assuming you don't want to do it manually:
- CSV upload - The simplest and often first step is allowing a CSV (or Excel spreadsheet) upload. You can update your figures periodically, then import them to your store or other sales platform when needed.
- Data feed - You may have a data feed available from your software of choice. XML, JSON, or some other format. If you do, with modern eCommerce platforms it's typically a simple process to integrate these.
- Direct integration - For larger operations or if you have a sizable product range to update, it's likely you will be integrating with a different system such as an ERP or PIM. With modern systems, it's likely you’ll be using an API for this, for older technologies you may need to do some systems integration work to get things talking to each other nicely.
Cart & checkout
A cart & checkout is an integral piece of the eCommerce experience and it's where most users drop off and sales are lost. When designing an eCommerce store it's important to consider what you need from the cart and checkout and how your customers will interact with it.
The basics of an eCommerce checkout
There are 3 pieces to any checkout that you’ll almost certainly need customers to supply information for:
- Personal details
- Delivery or shipping address
- Payment details
Arguably you don't always need to collect personal details but it's common practice to at least collect someone's name when ordering. You will certainly need to know where to send the item though and want to collect their payment information.
Additional checkout information
On top of the basics, there are a number of other tasks you may want your checkout to perform so it's worth thinking through that ahead of development.
- Account creation - Will you only offer guest checkout or would you like customers to sign up with an account?
- Voucher redemption - Will you be offering discounts and require a place for users to redeem those?
- Upsells - You might want to tempt users with additional products that relate to what's in their basket
- Incentives - A common practice at checkout is to offer incentives of some kind to keep users moving forward
- Delivery options - Will you be using multiple carriers and need a way for customers to choose their preferred option?
- Payment options - Will you offer multiple payment methods to your users?
- Support options - How will you offer support to users if they have an issue?
A word of warning - there are lots of ways to add additional options into a store's checkout process but it's not always advisable to do so. The more complicated a checkout is, the more cart abandonment you will have. You should be looking to create a streamlined checkout experience and only add extras in where they are important to the products being sold and add real value.
Single-page checkouts became fashionable a few years ago under the assumption they would be quicker and easier for users (and thus lead to less abandonment). The idea being that instead of going through multiple pages to add your personal, delivery, payment, and any extra details, all that information is included on the same page (typically in some kind of accordion device). And in theory that's correct… However, there’s an ongoing debate as to the effectiveness of single-page checkouts with pros and cons either way.
As with anything of this nature, the general consensus when considering if a single-page or multi-page checkout is best, is typically… ‘it depends on the store’.
Arguments for a Single-page checkout:
- Offers a condensed, more efficient process
- Allows completion of sale without reloading the page
- Keeps the user focused on the task
- Is faster for the user
Arguments for a Multi-page checkout:
- Is less intimidating for the user
- Allows progress through the checkout to be better displayed to the user
- Allows for better analytical tracking
- Spreads page load resources over multiple steps
The typical eCommerce checkout process
Unless you are opting for a completely bespoke solution, it's likely you are using an eCommerce framework or pre-built platform of some kind. Which is also likely to offer a pre-defined set of steps to follow for implementing your checkout process:
- A user add items to their cart
- They can review their cart and make changes
- They proceed to checkout
- Input their details
- See a summary of their order
- Confirm their order
- See confirmation of the order
This is a tried and tested process that's used by millions of stores around the planet. It's highly recommended you don't mess with this too much. Most customers have mental models already in place of how an online checkout should work. We know where to look for product details, we have a good idea of where to expect different information to be available throughout the process. Every change you make that deviates from this process creates cognitive load for the user (and risks they abandon your cart and go elsewhere).
In order to accept online payments for your eCommerce store, you need to use a payment provider which will incur additional charges (typically a percentage of each transaction). Accepting payments over the internet comes with a lot of responsibility. Keeping customer's payment details secure and protecting them and yourself from fraud is no easy task. Thankfully, the digital payments eco-system is set up to do a lot of the hard work for you.
If you choose a trusted provider and integrate properly, you never store customers' payment details or handle any of the verification processes, the provider will do all that for you and handle the necessary checks and payment transfers. If you are using a popular eCommerce framework, it's likely that your payment provider of choice is already supported. The payments space however is developing all the time and there are various options to consider.
Traditional payment providers
When we talk about traditional payment providers, what we typically mean are the big guys that arose to support online payments in the early days of the internet. They are often linked to institutional banks or corporations and tend to have physical (real-world) EPOS partners.
They are often the hardest to integrate (from a development perspective) as they are slow to evolve and have less pressure to keep up with modern technology trends. What you do get with these though is a solid infrastructure backed up with decades of experience in the payments space.
Modern (or challenger) payment providers
The payments space has evolved considerably in recent years and there are a growing new breed of payment providers that offer superior user and development experiences. Typically designed and developed for digital-first, these technology-focused companies work hard to make it really easy to add them to your store and create slick and fast payment experiences for your customers.
Modern providers are seen as challengers to the traditional options. They will work hard to make things easier for you and are typically much more agile in their approach to new trends and technologies.
Additional payment providers
There are also other payment models to consider which your customers will likely be familiar with and may even expect to see.
Paypal is widely recognised and used all over the world. In 2019, 49% of shoppers reported using Paypal regularly (making it the most used online payment method).
Klarna is a new player in the payment space which allows users to spread the cost of their purchase over installments. This is becoming popular in certain sectors. The advantage Klarna offers retailers is by taking all the risk of non-payment (the retailer receives payment from Klarna and they take responsibility for collecting installments from the purchaser).
Payment provider fees
All payment providers charge a fee for using their service, typically a percentage of each transaction and sometimes including additional monthly costs. They are all different and there are often scaling solutions (fee percentages based on the value or volume of transactions). It's recommended to review your options ahead of making any choices as the provider you choose will effect your bottom line over time.
Search Engine Optimisation
SEO for eCommerce is an important part of making sure your products are found by potential customers. When customers search for; a specific product, type of product range, or problem to solve, you want your web pages to feature as high in the search results as possible so you get the sale. Search Engine Optimisation is a huge topic with far too many factors to go into in any great detail in this article. There are however a few top-level factors to begin thinking about.
The first thing you need to consider is who are you up against? Are the products you’re hoping to sell available in many other stores? Can customers find an exact match in a few clicks? Or maybe you have the only product of its kind to offer, but there are variations on offer elsewhere?
If you are selling a truly unique product that happens to be in high demand then you are one of the lucky few. More likely you have competitors offering similar products. Understanding your market is the first step in setting out an SEO strategy that will drive customers to your store.
Technical SEO is the term that describes making sure your web pages are complete and free from errors (also that they load fast). Search engines like Google crave information and will scan your pages to pick up details that help them understand what your page is offering to readers. They like that information to be in certain formats and easily found. Different eCommerce platforms are better at providing this out of the box and often some development work is required to get this right. If technical SEO is really important to you, speak to us about the new breed of eCommerce tools available that are designed to complement best SEO practices.
On-page SEO is what we do to a page to enrich the content that users are searching for. Search engines want to provide good quality results to users, so good quality web pages tend to rise to the top of the rankings. There are many ways to improve a web page but the basics for eCommerce are:
- Use easy to understand product titles and labels
- Provide well-written product descriptions
- Describe what problem your product solves
- Provide additional product information where applicable (sizes, formats, variants, specifications)
- Use high-quality product photography (and video if you can)
- Include additional resources for download if you have them
- Include social proof
- Authority badges (your accreditations)
Off-page SEO is the work you do away from your site that drives traffic to it and increases your page authority. In a general sense, the more links you have pointing to your site, the more search engines will think of you as an authority on that topic and give you a higher ranking. There is a lot more to it than that though… If you are in a competitive market and off-page SEO is going to be important to you, I would advise getting a professional SEO specialist involved to discuss the best approach.
Core web vitals
If SEO is important to you, you may have heard of Core web vitals. It’s Google's big initiative in 2021 designed at improving user experience across the web. This article is not the place to delve into the specifics of exactly what Core web vitals are, but in essence, they are some of the primary ranking factors Google is now using to determine where your page should appear in search results, and it's all about user experience.
Google is very good at understanding how a web page will appear to users on different devices and in different situations. They look at things like page load speed, font size, image resolution, colour contrast, and much much more. Essentially though, if a web page provides a great user experience, Google will give it a higher score than a competing page that does not.
Promotions and offers
Promotions can be an effective way of enticing customers to your store and most eCommerce platforms offer promotion management out the box (or make it quite easy to set up). It can be tempting to go a little overboard with offers when you first start out but we would advise caution. Too many offers can be confusing to users who end up getting frustrated and go elsewhere. If you want to experiment with promotional discounts, start with one and make sure it's relevant to your product/customer base.
Some ideas for promotional offers:
- Free shipping on products or certain ranges
- Free shipping over a certain value spent
- Buy one get one free (BOGOF)
- Bundle deals (package items together for an overall discount)
- Volume deals (offer a discount over a certain amount of items purchased)
- Value deals (offer a discount over a certain amount of spend)
- Seasonal offers
- Limited time offers (countdown to deal end)
- Discount on your first order
- Cross-sells (discount on similar related items)
- Coupon based discount (discount with a coupon code)
- Loyalty programs
Have you thought about where your customers are going to come from? I mean really thought it through? Existing businesses will already have a customer pipeline used to buying through certain channels (that may be very different from eCommerce). New businesses will be starting from scratch. Neither will generate online sales from day one just by launching a new store.
The customer journey starts well before someone lands on your website and could last minutes or months. It also may involve multiple touch-points, devices, mediums and experiences. It's different for every sector, product, and price-point and should be considered carefully.
If you’re interested in learning how to identify your customer journey, you can read about that here.
A channel in this context is any customer-facing endpoint to your sales. Some examples of different channels are:
- An eCommerce store
- A mobile app
- An Amazon store
- An Ebay store
- A Facebook page
- An Instagram account
- An email inbox
- In-store promotions
Will you be selling across multiple channels? Which ones? How will you ensure your brand, messaging, product information and pricing is consistent across all your channels?
Customers often channel hop whilst doing their product research. They may be triggered to look into a certain product when in-store or browsing Facebook. Then they might look up the item on Amazon to check out the reviews. When they get home they do a deeper dive on the product's main website to look over the specifics before searching a few different marketplaces to see where the best price is available. You may be only interested in one channel initially, but eventually, you’ll want to expand so planning ahead for consistency is advised.
Customer account creation
Unless you’re selling a specific single product that will last forever, you’ll likely be interested in repeat business and want to offer your customers the opportunity to create an account. Having an account means customers can save their details and more quickly proceed with checkout on their next visit. They can also access additional features like viewing their order history and tracking deliveries. It also means you have more direct access and can market to them more easily.
Customer Record Management (CRM)
How will you manage your customer records? Do you have an existing CRM you’ll need to integrate with a new store? Is this just for record-keeping or will you be actively marketing to your customers with campaigns that need to be monitored? Depending on the number of customers you expect and the level to which you plan to communicate with them, you will need to consider how and where to store this information.
If you operate at all within the European Union or Great Britain, you need to comply with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) for handling personal data. This will mean using software and hosting infrastructure that supports a certain level of security as well as ensuring your processes comply with the regulations. This is an important one not to be skipped!
Managing orders through your eCommerce store is clearly of huge importance. If you’re just starting out you might only be expecting a few orders and it's likely whatever platform you use will handle those no problem. You’ll get an email notification when a new order is made and you’ll be able to reference the internal order reporting to ensure none have been missed. The admin on this will be light.
What if you’re expecting a high volume of orders though? At some point, managing orders through your email is going to become inefficient and you’ll need to consider scaling up your processes and/or technology. There are different ways to approach order management at scale. Perhaps your business has an ERP in place already which you can integrate with, or you may want to consider a specific logistics integration, or tying in any number of platforms across CRM, PIM, MDM, etc… There is no right answer to how you should approach it, it all depends on the business case. From our experience though, it is best to start with your existing processes and develop from there.
There are some areas worth considering initially that will help you plan how you will manage orders moving forward.
Average order value
What is your average order value likely to be? Are you selling high-volume low-cost products or big-ticket items? Typically the higher value your items are, the more customer care you can expect to offer (and the more access you will need to customer-specific order information).
Estimated volume of orders
How many orders are you expecting on a daily/weekly/monthly basis? And are those seasonal with peaks and troughs through the year? Knowing your estimated order value and volume will give you a budget to work from for development. Generally, a higher volume of orders will mean your processes need to be tighter and more efficient.
Order management software
Do you already use software in your business to manage orders elsewhere? Is this compatible with your eCommerce platform of choice? You may need a developer to answer that question (feel free to reach out to us on that). If you have one or more people in the business whose sole responsibility is to manage orders, they are likely to want some dedicated software to help them in their role.
What does your order fulfillment process look like? Do you have one yet? If not, stop and write one out (even if it's just a sketch on a piece of paper). You’d be surprised how much visualising your fulfillment process will help you understand where the gaps (and missed opportunities) are.
If you operate a warehouse (and have a dedicated team working there), how will they be notified of new orders? And how will they update order statuses to say they’ve been shipped or flag a problem? This ties in with your order fulfillment but is a vital piece. If you get warehousing wrong, you’ll end up with missed orders and unhappy customers.
Post-sale & Aftercare
Once you start receiving orders, there are a number of important elements integral to the completion of the sales process and the healthy running of an eCommerce store.
Shipping your products to customers is often one of the overlooked areas of developing an eCommerce store and in our experience can get quite complicated quite quickly. There are a number of variables that effect the cost of shipping so understanding these early on will help you plan your approach.
The types of questions you will need to answer are:
- Which carrier (or delivery company) do you plan to use?
- Will you be using multiple carriers?
- Would you like to offer your customers the chance to choose their preferred carrier?
- Would you like to offer your customers the chance to choose delivery options (ie next day, recorded, 7 days, etc)?
- Are your products all different sizes/weights (this will effect the price you pay)?
- Will your products ship in standard parcels or do you need to offer palettes as well?
- Where are you offering shipping to (local area, countrywide, global)?
Once you understand these, you can begin to put some rules around your shipping.
- You might want to set a standard price for deliveries on all orders (or offer free shipping and include the cost you pay in the product cost).
- You may want to set banded pricing (orders up to a certain amount cost X, over that cost Y).
- You also have the option to calculate shipping costs at the point of checkout, based on product value, weight, overall basket price, etc.
As you can see, complexity seeps into shipping management quite easily. If you are just starting out we recommend using one of the larger recognised delivery companies and trying to standardise your fees wherever you can. If you must deal with some kind of complexity in your shipping fees, most established couriers have tools available to help you calculate costs and typically will integrate (either directly or via third-party) with the more established eCommerce platforms, meaning you can offer your customers choice around deliveries with relative ease.
If you are using an established courier, you should have the ability to offer order tracking to your customers. If you can, you should absolutely offer this. Studies have shown knowing where a parcel is in the order chain reduces anxiety in customers. It's also very easy to do now. Typically the courier will supply you with a tracking code and you just need to pass that on to your customer and let them know where to type it in (a link to a web page).
The code is generated at the time of creating the order (with the courier), so larger organisations will want to think about how they add this into their workflow and automate passing this to the customer.
It's also possible to integrate this into your eCommerce store so it feels like it comes from your brand. For most operations though, using the couriers tracking web page works just fine and customers understand they are dealing with a third-party delivery company.
Unless your products are very low value or one-time use with very little that can go wrong with them, you’ll almost certainly need to deal with support issues at some point. Customers are quick to reach out when they have an issue and you’ll want to be able to deal with these efficiently. Having a contact form on your site or suggested forms of communication (phone, email, social media) is important. As you scale though, this will become burdensome and you might want to look at ways you help the customer find the answer to their own questions. Some options to consider are:
- Downloadable assets - user guides, support manuals, specifications, getting started guides
- FAQs - A section where you list your most common questions
- Video content, or links to a Youtube channel with your content on
- Links to your policies/terms and conditions
- Links to third parties (such as your courier company)
Managing returns & Cancellations
Managing returns and cancellations within eCommerce is a part of doing business. Inevitably at some point, you will need to be able to refund a customer and likely take a return of a product. The importance of this will depend on your business.
We’ve seen a huge increase in returns within the fashion sector over the last 18 months with retailers dealing with Covid. It's now an expected part of the buying process for customers to be able to purchase an item and send it back easily if it doesn't fit (with customers often buying multiple sizes of a garment in one purchase).
Low-cost or perishable items like food and drink will likely receive fewer return requests, but they will happen. One practice that we’ve identified as becoming more common with retailers is to just provide a no-questions-asked refund, and not deal with the actual return of the product (this seems to be popular and on the rise for retailers dealing predominantly with drop-shipping).
For higher ticket items, you will almost certainly want to receive the goods back to inspect them before refunding the customers (so you’ll need a process in place to deal with this).
Payment providers are used to dealing with refunds and they make it as easy as they can for you. It's also built into almost all eCommerce platforms. You may not think it will come up much for your particular store but having a strategy in place for when it does is vital. The more efficiently you can deal with complaints and refunds, the more likely you will be to hold on to that customer for future sales.
So if you’ve read this far, fantastic! You’re clearly dedicated to launching your first eCommerce store and are diligent enough to make sure you understand all the core factors to launching a successful online shop. Grouping the essentials into the above categories (Store management, Customer management, Order management, Post-sale & Aftercare) is a good way to make the initial planning a little easier, but there are other items you may need to consider too.
Are you planning on selling in multiple countries or to different markets? Two key things to consider are language and currency. Multi-lingual eCommerce is fairly easy to achieve using modern platforms (most CMS’s these days offer some kind of multi-lingual support). Multi-currency needs a little more thought as you may want to work with multiple payment providers. There are solutions available, you just need to research and understand what works best for your use case.
Aside from those, there are some international complexities that may come up around units and measurements. The US and Canada tend to use Imperial measurements in their product specifications whilst the rest of the world uses the Metric system. This has implications for product markup & postal delivery.
And there's a bunch of other things that may come up when operating in different countries:
- Paper sizes
- Regulatory requirements
- Legal restrictions
- And more…
Are your products seasonal? Will you likely sell more in certain parts of the year? If so, how long do those sales require to ramp up? You may need to plan weeks or months ahead to get your products ready to sell at the right time to hit demand. Or you may cycle through certain promotions periodically and bring different products to the front of your store as required.
Make sure you get your legal terms in place. Things like:
- Terms & Conditions of sale
- Privacy Policies
- Returns Policies
- Sector-specific compliance regulations
Hosting, Infrastructure & Security
If you’re using a hosted solution like Shopify or Big Commerce then you won't need to worry about hosting. If not, your store will need to be hosted somewhere on a secure server so your customers can access it.
With hosting you get what you pay for. I would advise you not to go for the cheapest option, you will likely end up regretting it. If you’re working with an eCommerce development agency, they will support you with this. Your hosting costs will scale with your business. The more people viewing your site the higher resources are needed to keep it running. So, expect to pay less early on and have that increase as your store becomes more popular.
Wow, that was a monster post! Thanks for reading if you got this far, I hope you’ve gained something valuable from it. When I started writing this article, my aim was to provide a useful place I could point people to that answers the common questions we receive when scoping out a new eCommerce project.
These are the talking points we have in mind when looking to understand a retailer's business requirements. It’s not an exhausted list though, there’s more… Much more in fact. Make no mistake, eCommerce store design & development is a big topic with many factors that can go off on different tangents. It can get very complex, quite quickly. Whoever you work with on your project will need to understand what’s important to you and your store and the more information you can give them up-front the better.
I hope I’ve given you enough to get started thinking about these topics. Please share this article with anyone you feel might benefit and get in touch if you have any questions about our content.
Ecommerce developers - have I missed anything? Let me know through the usual channels.