In 1991, e-commerce was truly unleashed on the web, causing the retail industry to experience an unprecedented breakthrough. Since then, e-commerce has skyrocketed and retail has continued to expand as innovations in mobile technology strengthen the bond between retailer and consumer. Obviously, selling is the core function of all retail businesses; however, sometimes doing so can be challenging.
Making the sale requires communicating your product’s ability to fulfill a prospective customer’s need. Traditionally, a clerk or in-store salesperson would do this job; now, things are somewhat altered. The salesperson still exists, but now they have help in the guise of technology. Over the years, the growth of online entities like Amazon, Paypal, Google and other giants of the industry have helped push the e-commerce portion of retail sales to 16.9% (nearly $40 billion) in 2013. This year, the growth will continue as even more new technologies are introduced.
E-Commerce could not be what it is without the website. Websites have evolved over the years from what was essentially an online brochure to what is now a fully functional, figurative storefront. In fact, with the growth of technology that allows consumers to virtually try on clothing before making a purchase, it’s increasingly the case that a website provides almost everything that the consumer could experience in an actual store. Even so, there are a few unique needs that you should know when building a retail focused website.
The first thing any business owner or organization should understand about retail online is the need for security and functional reliability. The website must be fully functional and offer secure transactions. This is non-negotiable; not only is the media full of stories concerning hacked and stolen customer data, it is also your responsibility as a business owner to protect your customers. People are distrustful when visiting a new site, and rightfully so. A poorly functioning site or one that seems suspicious will cause a visitor to leave immediately; those business owners hoping to take part in e-commerce must ensure that the site is secure and worthy of customers’ trust.
Website hosting is the key to security and functionality. While there are plenty of inexpensive hosting plans with various companies, those are more suited for small informational websites or personal résumé sites, not for e-commerce. When ones takes into account that 50% of conversions are lost if a website takes longer than seven seconds to load, it seems far more prudent to opt for the all-inclusive web hosting plan. If you plan on offering a wide range of products, it may even be a better idea to look into a dedicated web-hosting server.
Secondly, a website must be managed. Content management software controls the functionality of a website and the proper presentation of the retail products; flexibility and operational integration must be in place from the beginning to ensure smooth functioning. Otherwise, actions such as changing or updating products may become difficult or impossible. Without integration, you may not be able to tie inventory to your physical store operations.
Web content management platforms, like web hosting, offer different levels of operation depending upon the price. Some are free or low-cost and are streamlined for entry-level users. Third-party plug-ins allow for expansion in these instances. Other platforms are tiered and provide templates that allow the business owner to upload images and product information on a limited basis. Finally, there are the all-in-one management software programs that offer a core system with the ability to upgrade from a suite of add-ons when necessary. At this level, business owners and retail companies can offer customers a pleasant, user-friendly experience.
Presentation and interface mean a great deal when building an online retail presence. Though they are usually considered part of marketing, visuals receive the most focus; after all, a great experience on a beautiful site is more likely to be shared by users than a decent experience on a lackluster one. Disappointingly, visuals rarely achieve the intended results. This may result from a lack of knowledge in functional design, but is probably more a result of design by committee. Design, presentation and message must form a cohesive story; otherwise, users may at best be confused and at worst will lose their trust in the site and the conversion rate drops. From color palette to imagery to the calls to action, every on-page element must support the story, which is of course the product presented. This is why it is often useful to hire a web designer or design company with a large, diverse portfolio- that portfolio serves as evidence that the company is knowledgeable and their work is effective.
One way to get an idea of how your website should look is to visit some highly trafficked sites to see how they present their line of products. There is no copyright on layout; in fact, the more familiar your website feels to a visitor, the more likely they will opt to make a purchase. Online retail continues to grow and can be an effective manner of increasing a company’s bottom line. Whether your company already has a website or is planning to get one, focus on these few key elements to help the site evolve from a static brochure into a fully active and successful retail outlet.
Brian Mell is the digital marketing manager for BannerView.com, developers of BannerOS, the software that helps companies turn their websites into powerful business tools. As Digital Marketing Manager, Brian’s responsibility covers the multitude of online marketing elements associated with the company’s online presence including SEO, SEM, content and social media marketing strategies.