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How do you create an online retail store?

The internet is an incredibly enticing sales channel for retailers. Last year, it was responsible for an estimated $18.9 billion worth of sales in Australia alone. This year, online sales are forecast to reach at least $20 billion. If you already have a bricks-and-mortar store, it is only natural to look for ways of tapping into such a successful channel.

After all, how hard could it be? You buy one of the popular web development applications or approach your local web designer, build a site listing all your products and the customers will come. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. On the contrary, it actually doesn’t have to be difficult either. A successful online presence requires planning and vision. There’s also the need to make sure that any online activity is complementary (rather than detrimental) to your brand or any existing sales channels.

Before making the leap into ecommerce and internet sales, there are a few important things to consider.

1.  Your customers are already online

In the early days, much of the talk about the internet focused on the youth and young adult markets as these age groups were the most active online users. Much has changed since then and in 2008 the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s report, Australia in the Digital Economy, stated that: “A majority of all age groups are using the internet; all except those aged over 70 years.”

More recently, the 2010 Internet and Technology Report published by Nielsen, one of Australia’s leading internet research analyst firms, noted that internet users aged over 50 now spend almost as much time online as they do watching television, illustrating that just about anyone who can shop is a potential online customer.

With such a large audience, the online environment has quickly become a key purchasing influencer. Research conducted by The Australian Centre for Retail Studies and Google in 2008, showed that half of Australian consumers go online to determine what to buy and from where, in other words to pre-shop, prior to going into store to buy. Covering consumer electronics, entertainment and computers, a quarter of the shoppers nominated online as their most crucial research tool, well ahead of other media.

Regardless of the age group or demographic that you are targeting, you’re likely to find that many of your existing and prospective customers are experienced online users. If you can attract them to your site and, most importantly, if you can deliver an engaging experience that will keep them coming back, the potential return on your online investment can be a significant contribution to your bottom line.

[Next: Know your market]

2. Know your market

Begin by identifying exactly what you will be selling and who you are targeting. Ideally you should give some thought to all of the following:

  • Will you feature your entire inventory or just a smaller selection of your products and offers via the internet?
  • What kind of customer do you want to attract, and what content is going to engage them?
  • Will the consumers come from your local area, across Australia or are you hoping to attract an international clientele?
  • How will you market the site?
  • What kind of investment are you willing to make to get the site up and running?

Once you are clear on what you want to achieve and who you’ll be selling to, it’s time to turn to the mechanics such as what the site will say and how it will operate.

3. Content is king

Just as in any other form of communication, your words, phrases, tone and look are crucial to developing a rapport with prospective customers. Map out what you want to say. Will the site focus on product information and sales or do you need to incorporate a support section? Do you have the staff resources to offer instant messaging or chat provisions on the site? What kind of experience do you want for your websites users? Questions such as these will help to determine the content and the platform that the site is built on. Try to imagine yourself in the mind of your consumers and think about what information you would want to find easily on your website.

One key factor to remember about the online medium is that the words, phrases, reviews, videos and overall user experience you deliver on your website will dictate how easily visitors find your site when using search engines such as Google. With an estimated 75 percent of retail traffic being driven by search engines, housing the right content is essential. At the bare minimum, create a list of key words used by your customers to describe or name your products and make sure they are incorporated into the site. Better yet, have a good look online for as many tips and tricks you can find with regards to search engine marketing (SEM).

[Next: Make it easy for your customers to reach you online]

4. Make it easy

Online consumers are impatient so if a site is difficult to navigate, buttons are hard to find or information is too difficult to identify, your prospects will simply click on to the next potential retailer.

There are numerous tools that you can employ to entice and engage consumers, including wish lists and product selectors. Appropriate use of rich media can make a world of difference when compared to static photographs. If feasible, invite customers to provide reviews of products they’ve bought. Not only will this make the users experience easier more functional and more enjoyable, it will also build on your content and heighten your discoverability in search engine results.

5.  Managing sales

Establishing an online sales capability can be as simple or as complex as you like. Some sites provide product information and request that orders be made by phone, fax or email.  Others have integrated order forms complete with automated inventory checks and receipting.

The solution that’s right for your business will depend on a range of factors such as budget, the importance of speed and convenience to your customers, and the degree of consultation required when taking a typical order.

If you decide to offer online ordering capabilities, you’ll need to find an ecommerce software engine to provide facilities such as the shopping cart, an online payments gateway and potentially, to help manage the content on your site. Make sure that you also incorporate secure payment options such as via Verisign or PayPal.

[Next: What to do after the sale]

6. After the sale

After all the effort that’s gone into building your business reputation and to develop a loyal clientele for your physical store, don’t put it at risk with a second-rate online presence. Make sure you have a distribution and fulfillment plan to handle website queries, inventory and payments.

Look at ways to ensure that the physical store doesn’t sell your last 30cm blue glass vase just after you received an online order for the same product. Maintain the site so that information is valid, up-to-date and useful. Always make sure that your online customers are treated just as well as your bricks-and-mortar store visitors. Remember that the reason people will buy your products and services online is because it is supposed to be more convenient. Deliver a first-rate experience and you can be assured they will come back again.

A final word

Online retailing can open up a whole new audience for your products, improving revenue without dramatically increasing your fixed costs. It provides greater flexibility in the way that customers can interact with your organisation, improving service levels and customer satisfaction.

Leading research tells us that the introduction of multiple channels is also likely to lead to an increase in spend from existing customers. With the right planning, there are significant gains to be had in expanding retail sales activities into the online environment.

–Paul Marshall is executive general manager of Salmat Digital

online: www.salmat.com.au

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Paul Marshall

Paul Marshall

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