Series Overview — How do I build an online store?
These and many other questions are asked by every business owner, once they have decided to set up their own ecommerce website or online store.
You are probably asking yourself:
- What domain name should I pick?
- What is an online store?
- How do I install a shopping cart?
- What is a merchant account?
As a business owner you may be very familiar with your range of products and services and how to work with your clients. Transferring this knowledge to create a working online store can be a challenging task though . Whilst the process of building your own online store is getting considerably easier, there are still a number of business and technical decisions that have to be made to ensure that your venture into the world of online ecommerce is successful.
These tutorials have been created to provide the small business owner with all the information needed to establish a successful online store and ecommerce website.
The first step in getting your business online is to purchase and find the right domain name and web hosting plan.
This section will explain how to choose a domain name for your online business and what to look for when selecting a web hosting plan.
The heart of any online store is the shopping cart system that your customers will use to purchase from you.
This section will guide you how a shopping cart works and some of the most popular packages being used on the market today.
Regardless of what business you’re in there are a number of key design issues to consider before selling your products.
Learn more about selling your products in Part 3 of our series.
Part 1 — Plan your Online Store
The first step in getting your business online is to purchase a domain name and a web hosting plan.
Your domain name is simply an address on the Internet that your customers will use to access your web site or ecommerce store. It will also enable you to set up a company wide email service, allowing you to communicate more effectively with your customers and suppliers.
Domain names are grouped by their extension, with the most popular being .com or .com.au. There are many other extensions to choose from including .biz, .org and .info. You are not limited to the number of domains that you can purchase, but Australian domain name regulations do require a valid ABN or ACN to be provided before registration can be completed.
Selecting a domain name
Selecting a domain name for your business is easy, however there are a number of important decisions to consider. By selecting the right name for your online business you will be assured that your customers will be able to locate you quickly and easily.
Ideally your domain name will match your existing brand name. Although many people may use a search engine to locate your business online, it is still important to use a name that matches your existing business name. This will prevent confusion for your customers and help to create a consistent image across your other business materials including business cards and printed letterheads.
Purchasing your domain name
Your first step is to see what names are available to you. You can use the Fastdot domain name checking service to quickly determine what domains can be purchased for your company.
Selecting a domain name for your business is easy, however there are a number of important decisions to consider.
If a particular name is not available then you may wish to try a variation on that name, but remember to keep your customer’s in mind so the domain name is easy for them to remember and type in. Multiple domains can be purchased at the same time allowing you to cover different geographic regions that your business operates in, or specific products or services that you provide.
Renewing your domain name
A domain is renewed on a periodic basis. For .com.au domains this will be every two years, whilst for .com, .biz and .info this can be a selected period of 1 to 10 years depending on your business requirements. Domain renewal is managed automatically and provided that your contact details and email address are current your domain should renew without issue. If you no longer require the use of your domain simply request that the automatic renewal be disabled and it will expire on the final day of it’s current term. Keep in mind that your web site and email are tied to your domain and if your domain expires these services will no longer work.
What is a web hosting account?
Once you have selected a domain name you will need a place to establish your online store. A web hosting account is simply a way to provide space on the Internet for your business. Within the web hosting account you can store your own web site and email, and exchange files and other information easily between your customers and suppliers.
There are a number of hosting options to choose from, all of them providing the ability to host an ecommerce store but targeted to specific web development or business needs.
cPanel hosting plans provide you the ability to run a wide variety of popular e-commerce and shopping cart applications without the overhead of maintaining your own server. If you are working with a web developer to create a customised e-commerce site then a VPS Hosting plan will provide greater control and flexibility for both you and your development team. Large companies who operate across Australia or overseas will look towards establishing their hosting on a dedicated server giving them the ability to provide services to thousands of customers at any one time.
The most appealing aspect of a cPanel hosting plan is the range of popular eCommerce and shopping cart applications that are ready to install at a moment’s notice.
For many small to medium sized business starting out a cPanel hosting plan will provide them with a powerful and cost effective platform for establishing their first online store. A cPanel hosting plan is usually selected on the basis of the number of email addresses required the total storage required. If you find that at a later stage you need additional email accounts or space to store your web site then upgrading to a larger account can always be provided.
The most appealing aspect of a cPanel hosting plan is the range of popular e-commerce and shopping cart applications that are ready to install at a moment’s notice. There are no complicated manuals to read or instructions to follow, you simply log into your hosting control panel and with a single click install the required application.
Securing your online store
Creating trust between you and your customers online is an important part of running a successful ecommerce business. Your customers will want to feel reassured that any sensitive information they are providing you is safe and that all their transactions with your store are secure.
There are two key components to securing an online store, purchasing and installing an SSL Certificate and selecting a payment gateway provider.
Purchasing an SSL Certificate
An SSL Certificate is a security measure that protects sensitive information such as credit card details as they are being passed from your customer’s web browser to your online store.
Why do you need an SSL Certificate? The main benefit is that it increases trust and brand reputation thereby encouraging customers to purchase from your online store.
When your customer arrives to the checkout in your online store their web browser will look to see that a valid SSL Certificate has been issued against the store’s domain name. If the SSL Certificate has been installed correctly the customer will see the web address change from “http” to “https” and a yellow lock will appear in the bottom right hand corner of the browser. Any information contained within the order will now be encrypted as it makes its way to your online store.
There are two main points to consider when purchasing an SSL Certificate, the level of encryption and the certification standard. 256-bit is considered the industry standard and is used across all modern e-commerce web sites today. The certification standard is managed by the company issuing the SSL Certificate, called a Certificate Authority (CA). They take on the responsibility of verifying that the business requesting the SSL Certificate is legitimate. Your web host provider will most likely be purchasing an SSL Certificate on your behalf from a reputable CA such as GeoTrust. Purchasing and installing SSL Certificate is easy and many web hosting plans provide the certificate as part of a single package.
Selecting a payment gateway provider
Once an order has been received online you will need to authorize the payments between you and your customer’s bank account.
Much like a point of sale (POS) terminal in a physical store a payment gateway authorises payments online allowing each bank or financial institution the ability to approve the transaction and complete the transfer of funds between both each party.
An Internet merchant account is first created by your bank. The merchant ID that is associated with this account will allow other banks and credit card companies to identify your business and process payments for you.
The next step is create an account with a payment gateway service provider. Charges will vary between providers with some opting for a per transaction charge, or a flat monthly fee. With the account configured the payment gateway provider will provide you with the necessary information how to integrate their services with your online store. Additional services such as online reporting may be provided allowing you to review and correlate all your online transactions and sales activity.
Part 2 — Building your Online Store
The heart of any online store is the shopping cart system that your customers will use to purchase goods and services from you. A shopping cart is like having an electronic storefront, where your customers can browse the variety of products on offer, place the required goods into a cart for purchasing and then finally proceed to a checkout where payment and delivery is finalised.
The heart of any online store is the shopping cart system that your customers will use to purchase goods and services from you.
Shopping Cart Features
There are literally dozens of different packages all catering to a variety of needs. There are however some key features that you should consider when selecting a shopping cart that will encourage your customers to return.
Although using a credit card is by far the most popular payment method you should consider alternative payment methods such as Paypal, direct bank transfer, cheque or cash on delivery to help generate sales from those customers who are not yet ready to use their credit card online.
Debit cards are another credit card payment processing technology to access funds directly from the card holder’s transaction account. This is generally used as an alternative to EFTPOS or ATM cards, which cannot be used online because they require a PIN.If you have a credit card processing facility on your website you can usually accept debit cards without making any changes.
Cheques and money orders have become increasingly rare as payment methods for online transactions because of the time taken to send, receive and process the payment. As for direct deposit payments, you should ensure all payers include some reference with cheques or money orders to help you identify the transaction. Exercise the same caution you would use when accepting cheques in offline transactions.
Most visitors to your online store will want to either browse or search for items when they arrive.
Browsing allows a customer to view product lines along very specific categories such as by price, brand, size or colour.
Consider how flexible your shopping cart will be, how products will be viewed and how powerful the search function is…
A search function will allow someone to find an item directly, something that is particularly popular with people using their mobile phone as they find it quicker than navigating a traditional menu.
Consider how flexible your shopping cart will be, how products will be viewed and how powerful the search function is as it will have a direct impact on how your customers purchase products from your store.
One Step Checkout
Even the most experienced online shoppers can find the checkout process time consuming and confusing. A one step or single click checkout process is ideal as it reduces the amount of typing and mouse clicks required to complete an order.
Customers who have previously purchased items from you will also appreciate the ability to use previously stored billing and payment information thus saving them even more time. Some shopping cart packages may not provide this feature out of the box, but additional plugins or extensions may be purchased to provide this functionality.
Managing inventory is a common feature across all shopping carts, but being able to provide real-time feedback will save a great deal of frustration for your customers. Nobody wants to spend time making their selection and proceeding through the checkout process only to find that the desired item is out of stock. Look to using a shopping cart that manages your inventory in real-time to ensure that your customer’s only order products that are available to them.
Product reviews by other customers can have a very positive impact on how people will purchase items from your store. “Word of mouth” advertising from previous customers is a powerful form of marketing for business and will generate a level of trust and transparency that future customers will appreciate when approaching your store for the first time.
Product reviews by other customers can have a very positive impact on how people will purchase items from your store.
Your customers will need feedback after the order has been completed and be able to access a members area to view account details and order information.
Order confirmation, shipping information and ongoing status updates related to the order should be provided automatically via email, and the associated members area should allow customers to raise enquiries about their current order.
All of these facilities help to build trust with your customers and ensures that they are getting timely feedback about the order and delivery process. Ideally a shopping cart will give you a great level of control over this feedback mechanism and allow you to manage existing customer accounts with detailed reports on their current and previous purchasing history.
Shopping Cart Packages
In this introductory overview on how to setup your own online store it would be hard to review every shopping cart package available. There are a great number of packages, many targeted towards both small and large businesses with their own level of complexity in installation and configuration.
In this section we will outline the benefits of three very popular shopping carts, Magento, OpenCart and WooCommerce for WordPress.
Magento is a very popular and powerful shopping cart system that is available in either a community (open source) or enterprise version (paid). The enterprise version comes advanced content management, security and technical support options that many small businesses might want to forgo paying for.
In terms of a features and configuration Magento provides far more than its rivals and if you are quite tech savvy you may find it fairly easy to create your own customised installation within a matter of days. To harness all of it’s power however will require you seeking the assistance of an experienced web developer or digital agency.
Another aspect of Magento that would need to be considered are the hosting requirements. Because it’s complexity it will potentially take up a lot in the way of resources to run, particularly as the traffic to your website increases. If you are planning on running a very large store then we would recommend running your Magento installation on either a VPS or Dedicated server.
In terms of a features and configuration Magento provides far more than its rivals…
Like Magento, OpenCart is another open source shopping cart system. There are no commercial licensing options and support from the developers is limited to direct bug fixes, but there there is vibrant support community willing to help new users.
Although not as large in scope as Magneto in its feature set it is still however a very robust and powerful platform for developing an ecommerce web site. Many consider OpenCart to be easier to install and configure than Magento, although for more specific customisations you would still be recommended to work with an experienced web developer familiar with the product.
It’s in the area of customisation that OpenCart may fall short in comparison to Magento. The templating system used to control the look and feel of the store is less customisable than Magento and there are certain constraints on how custom addresses are handled for search engine optimisation. Many first time users of OpenCart report that the pre-installed options for controlling the behaviour of the shopping cart are also limiting.
There is however a benefit to these restraints in that it provides an easier environment to work in particularly for a small business owners who are new to ecommerce. Magento’s complex feature set and level of control can be overwhelming, particularly when attempting to create an ecommerce site for the first time.
WooCommerce is not a standalone shopping cart system, but a free ecommerce extension for the popular blogging/content management platform WordPress.
WordPress is considered to be a very easy and intuitive system for managing a web site and this is perhaps the most appealing aspect of using WooCommerce because it shares the same familiar administrative interface as WordPress itself
All the standard options for managing a large online store are provided including inventory, tax, shipping, email notifications and payment gateway integration. The product is well documented with support guides and numerous tutorials. As WordPress itself is an extremely popular and established website creation platform the likelihood of finding an established web development firm or digital agency that works with WordPress is high.
In terms of visual appearance WooCommerce relies upon the underlying WordPress theme. These themes are simply templates that control the appearance of a WordPress blog or website.For the most part WooCommerce will integrate very well with the current theme of your choice, but not in every case. You can either look to purchasing a compatible theme, such as the ones provided by WooCommerce, or seek assistance from your web developer to create or adjust your current theme to work with the shopping cart.
Part 3 — Selling Products
Regardless of what business you are in and the target audience you are trying to reach there are a number of key issues that revolve around the design of the site, the content and the navigation that need to be considered when putting together an online shopping cart.
The design isn’t just about simply showing the customer what they’ll be purchasing, but rather having high quality and creative imagery to help represent the product.
Navigation should make it as easy as possible for customers to find what they want, and get to the relevant product page as quickly as possible.
Like navigation, your web site content should be well organized and structured. This will make the web site easier for you to develop and maintain over time. An online shop can become very content heavy very quickly, so it’s best to be incredibly organized as this will translate into a great user experience for your customers.
Show your customers where they are at all times, particularly in the checkout process. When completing the order show the number the steps of involved and what step they are currently on.
Navigation elements should be prominent and easy to understand. If your customers are not able to distinguish important elements of your site apart from the rest of the design they will become frustrated and may leave your site before even ordering anything.
In the checkout screen provide a contact phone number. Not all customers are comfortable or familiar with ordering online and if they get stuck or want to ask a question then providing a direct phone number will provide them some assurance that help is always available.
Even if the customer does not go ahead with an order, always provide the option to save the contents of the shopping cart. People use shopping carts to form lists of potential purchases and many will appreciate the ability to return to your store at a later point and review the list of goods they have generated. Companies like eBay and Amazon have used this technique to great effect.
Updating the cart
When a customer is finalising their purchase in the checkout allow them to easily modify existing items selected in the cart. At no point the should the customer have to leave the checkout to change some aspect of their order.
Product thumbnails are a common site within an online store but consider putting them into the checkout screen as well so that customers can confirm exactly what they are purchasing before they complete the order.