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E-commerce part 1: Setting up shop

‘Spend as little time as you need in order to get your store online and selling.’

We recently took a look at SA’s fast growing e-commerce industry, and the key trends shaping this emerging sector. For savvy entrepreneurs and small businesses looking to make a profit from what is shaping up to be a bustling marketplace, e-commerce is an attractive proposition. As local shoppers move online with increasing confidence, and digital natives grow up into working professionals with spare cash to burn, e-commerce revenues are on the up. 

In this three-part series, we take a look at the basic steps one needs to take – and the questions that need to be asked – in order to set up an online business and start trading.

Part 1: Setting up shop

Once you have your business plan in place, the first thing you will need is a great website equipped with all the necessary functionalities.

There are various options here, which will largely depend on your budget and how soon you want to be up and running. You can choose to hire a developer and build a platform from scratch – this may get expensive, tie you to that developer, and will likely take time. A popular option is to go the free, open source software route, drawing on existing solutions as building blocks – with or without the help of a developer. Examples include Magento (owned by eBay), and WooCommerce, a popular plugin designed for WordPress (the most widely used CMS platform). If that all sounds too complicated, you can choose a hosted/cloud based solution such as Shopify or BigCommerce, which removes all the admin for a small monthly fee. These solutions also allow you to be up and running within a day. 

As you begin setting up your e-commerce platform, it’s important to choose a payment gateway provider and begin working with them early on. Many of the popular e-commerce platform providers have established partnerships with payment gateways that make this process very straightforward. We will explore payment processes in more detail in the next part of this series.

Once the platform is up and running, along with a trusted and secure payment gateway, don’t wait – start selling.

“Spend as little time as you need in order to get your store online and selling,” says Mark Forrester, co-founder of WooThemes, which owns WooCommerce. “It doesn’t have to be perfect from day one… if your customer can purchase, you’ve got an online property which you can take to market and begin iterating on.”

Andy Higgins, MD at e-commerce company uAfrica.com, advises newcomers to shop on their store at the beginning.

“Test out your shopping process, from browsing or searching for a product to checkout and delivery of that product,” he says. “This gives you a clear understanding of the experience your customers will have and allows you to make changes to simplify the process.”

In addition, Forrester insists that it’s critical to measure everything from the start.

“This is something e-commerce stores don’t often take into account,” he adds. “Use tools such as Google Analytics (with e-commerce tracking enabled) and understand your customer from day one.”

According to Higgins, there are a few key elements that your website needs to have. These include:

  • Design – a simplistic approach to design is always best when starting out. Over time you can add in functionality and specific customisations. Make sure that the website is easy to navigate, that the colours harmonise, that there are no distracting advertisements or pop-ups. Use high-quality product images. Ensure that you have a search function and that it renders accurate results.
  • Mobile-friendly website – Over a third of website traffic is from mobile devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets), so it’s a necessity now to have a mobile-friendly website. Many platforms offer responsive themes, meaning the website adjusts to fit the device that is accessing it. 
  • Catalogue – Whether you are selling one product or thousands of products, give as much information as possible to your customer; have detailed product descriptions, indicate stock levels, use high quality images, make use of product recommendations and product reviews and ratings. 
  • Customer support – Always add as many forms of communication to your website as possible. A telephone number and an email address goes without saying, however, make sure there is someone available to answer the phone or at least returns the phone call in a timely manner. The same goes for email response times. Online chat is also a fantastic tool for customer support, because a customer can immediately speak to someone if they get stuck somewhere along the shopping process. The chances of a customer going back to complete their purchase greatly diminishes after having to wait for an email response.
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