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How Small Businesses Can Break into E-Commerce

E-commerceSmall businesses, especially those that have been around a while, are often reluctant to get into e-commerce. But today's consumers have come to expect the convenience of making purchases from their living room, in their pajamas, anytime they want. In other words, the pressure is on to have an online store, regardless of whether you have a brick-and-mortar one.

Still, the process is overwhelming. "There are so many variables -- SEO, social media, paid advertising, sponsors, e-commerce platforms," says Vincent Crewe, sales vice president at ACInks.com, a family-run, remanufactured ink company in Rio Rancho, N.M.. "It's a whirlwind if you have little experience with online retail."

Not knowing where to start often paralyzes companies. Here, experts share their tips on how to break into e-commerce:

Do your homework

You should never dive into a pool without looking first. It might be shallow, or worse, empty. The same is true for e-commerce. You have to do some research before you truly understand what you're jumping into. "Develop a list of your target audience and e-mail a survey (using a service such as Survey Monkey or Survey Gizmo) with questions that will give you insight into whether your idea has an audience and customers who will be willing to pay," writes Jeff Kear, owner/founder of Planning Pod in Denver, Col., in an e-mail. "Or you can use a service like AYTM.com that gives you survey software and access to its pool of respondents. But ask lots of questions before you spend lots of money."

Hire the right people

Technology intimidates a lot of people. The good news is that you don't have to face it alone. What you need to do is bring on at least one person, if not a team, with experience in e-commerce to help you. Thoroughly vet anyone you want to hire to be sure they have the necessary technical skills, will relate well to customers, and will get the job done to your satisfaction and on your timeline. "Even if your marketing team and other departments pitch in, you need a dedicated person," writes Tanner Agar, CEO of The Chef Shelf in Fort Worth, Texas. "The only thing harder than getting people to your site is getting them a second time if they had a bad experience."

Choose an e-commerce platform

Experts are divided on what tactic works best when it comes to e-commerce platforms. Some say you should use a service that provides you with an easy-to-use template to create your virtual store. It's fast and fairly simple to do. Others argue that you will eventually have to invest in a better platform, so why not just do it right from the start. But there's a third option to consider. "I believe the easiest way to break into e-commerce is to leverage the marketplaces that already have substantial SEO and SEM power such as eBay, Amazon, Rakuten, Sears, etc.," writes Michael Dardashtian, president of CarPartKings.com in Long Island, N.Y. "It will cost less to develop a solution that sells on these platforms, get you online faster, and will help you grow through previous sales rather than up front funding." You have to look at all the possible platforms and determine what works best with your business plan and goals. There is no one-size fits all solution.

Business Administration

Focus on traffic

There are many ways to grow traffic, some of which could have you spending a lot of money. But most experts agree that you don't need to go bankrupt to get clicks. Instead, you should come up with a well-rounded strategy. "On the acquisition side, an SEO strategy can be very effective, but often takes a long time to develop," writes Mike LaLonde, digital marketing consultant for Londes Digital Marketing in Rochester, N.Y. "Social media promotions, paid social ads, paid search ads, and paid placements on targeted websites can also be very effective and often take less time to develop."

Knowing your business well is the first step. "If you're in a more direct-to-consumer market, then focusing on local PR is great -- swap meets, Chamber of Commerce, etc. Traditional belly-to-belly marketing works just as well (if not better) for e-commerce," adds Rick Wilson, president of Miva Merchant in San Diego, Calif., in an e-mail. "Make sure you track your analytics and see where people are leaving your site. Maybe your shipping rates are too high or your payment page is confusing (or broken). Stay focused on usability, which helps with conversions."

Test your methods

You cannot focus on traffic to the exclusion of everything else. After all, even if you bring hordes of visitors to your site, you still might not sell a thing. For one, you need to be sure you're reaching the right audience. Then, you'll have to experiment to see what are the best ways to convert visitors into customers. "Use split testing tools like Optimizely, and test every last detail to see what maximizes your sales," writes Dan Stelter of the freelance copywriter and digital marketing consultant in Chicago. Make changes based on your testing and never rest on your laurels. E-commerce changes too quickly to allow for slacking (even just a little).

To succeed in online retail, you have to communicate what makes your product unique. "Offer better service, more variety, something special," writes Jim Miller, CEO and founder of JMX Brands and DutchCrafters in Sarasota, Fla. "Tell your story so that customers are buying a good experience, not just the product." Indeed, the key to success today -- both online and off -- is being a brand and not just a mere manufactured good or service.

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