7 Characteristics of a Successful e-Store
So you’ve launched your store (or are about to), but you really want to hit it out of the park. Great! With that kind of attitude, you probably will! In this article, I’ve condensed a lot of my experience and some eCommerce Best Practices from around the web to give you the top characteristics of a healthy, successful e-store.
So here we go! Sweet dreams are made of these:
Table of Contents
A successful e-store is timely. Prompt. Nimble. Whatever your synonym, your store should always be improving on its speed. This is the first and most important criterion because it spans the most aspects of your e-store. Wherever you can be quick, quick is what you must be.
- Your website. Keep your website intuitive and organized, keep your graphics optimized for quick load times, and keep an eye on your analytics. If your web host has a traffic cap, your success can eventually work against you; more traffic can mean slower page loads, especially if your CDN (Content Delivery Network) tapers your bandwidth as you reach your limit. Don’t buy a more copious plan than you can afford, but make sure you’re optimized for your current traffic, with extra wiggle room for growth.
- A poorly-organized website will discourage and distract your users before they make a purchase decision. Make it easy for your customers to find what they’re looking for. A Search tool is essential, but it is a backup plan. An intuitive, as-few-clicks-as-possible layout is Plan A. This does NOT mean you should cram everything onto your home page, however.
- Pave the way to your cash register. An easy checkout process can be managed with 1-page checkout, a fairly common feature among Shopping Cart providers.
- Customer Support section. As your business (or your products) grow in complexity, you will eventually need to meet a wider range of customer inquiries. An easily found and thorough self-help section can save your customers (and you) a lot of time. Many sites have a user forum, where customers may see FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) and their answers. And some sites curate a Knowledge Base full of these FAQs, as well as articles, how-tos, instruction manuals, and the like. Anticipate what your users may need and make it easy to find, whether it is your products or your assistance they require.
- Order confirmation emails. If a human does this job, they’ll get around to it eventually. But if your shopping cart supports auto-emails (and it should,) your response time approaches zero. The same goes for shipping notifications, which we’ll get to in a sec.
- Order fulfillment. If you have a surplus of inventory (rather than a made-to-order product) get it packed and ship it out just as soon as humanly possible. If you require manufacture time, do as much work ahead of time as you can. Create your basic components en masse, so that you can go from largest standard components to finished product in a flash. Continuously improve the efficiency of your assembly line and packing/shipping station.
- Shipping options. Get to know all of the shipping couriers available to you, and which of them can best handle your products. Don’t just go with the USPS simply because you like your mailman. Also, set up your cart to auto-send Order Shipped emails when your carrier scans in your package.
- Customer Support. Although none of these bullet points are any more important than others, you should treat this one as if it were. Respond to customer complaints absolutely as soon as you can. If an unhappy customer gets a quick and helpful reply, you stand a good chance of winning over your most challenging customer segment with one simple email. Answer quickly always, and affirmatively as often as you can (giving the customer the service they ask for, within reason.)
An estimated one-third of all Christmas holiday purchases in 2015 were made from a mobile device. That ratio has been steadily increasing every year. It might not yet be time for your business to spend money developing its own mobile app, but there’s no reason why your website can’t be optimized for mobile use, especially since an ever-increasing number of online shoppers are doing so from phones and tablets. You can’t afford to ignore your presentation on the mobile web.
If this is not your area of expertise, you’re not at all out of luck. Nearly every Web Builder and Shopping Cart provider these days is capable of setting up a mobile site to match your standard desktop site. But while any mobile presence is better than none, there is one web design practice that makes all others obsolete; it is known as Mobile Responsive Design (or simply Responsive design, for short).
Responsive Design is what makes your site look as clear, organized, and readable as it can be, no matter what size screen is viewing it. You can imagine how a simple blog, for example, could be great to read from your office chair and on a nice big screen, but if you were to simply shrink it down to the size of your 4″ smart phone, it would completely unreadable. Responsive websites detect the size of screen they are being displayed on, and automatically adjust all the elements — text, graphics, buttons, etc — to a size and layout that works for the screen real estate available to it.
We have already covered this topic at Merchant Maverick, so I’ll keep it short here. But be sure to check out our What is Responsive Design article for a closer look.
Good Product Photography
It’s all too easy to try to tackle this yourself in an attempt to save the money it would take to outsource it. After all, as a small business owner, you know you’ve had to “wear all the hats” at times. But consider this: The first impression online customers get of your products is from the images on your website, and you might not get the opportunity to make another impression if your photos don’t match the quality of your product.
This is especially the case with online stores. In a physical store, a new customer can walk in, handle your products, maybe even try out a demo, and absolutely know the quality of your product. But an online shopper does not have this opportunity. They rely mainly on two things: photos and reviews. Fail at either one and the potential customer will surf away and never return. Even a great product with poor photos won’t get a second glance.
The higher the quality of your product, the higher quality photos it will require.
Just because your neighbor or nephew has a nice camera, that doesn’t make them a photographer. The chances are very, very good that if you can pay someone in cookies, they’ll get the better end of that deal.
Do a bit of online digging to find a local photographer. An online portfolio which specifically includes examples of their Product Photography is fantastic to find, but even if this is not a part of their portfolio, that shouldn’t strike them from your list of candidates. If you’re impressed with their wedding photos, for example, they’ll likely devote the same professionalism to your products.
Well-crafted Web Copy
Like the aforementioned product photography, unprofessional written content on your website can really harm you. Remember, “good enough” is neither good nor enough; not when it comes to your business or your livelihood. You need solid web copy A) to get your website optimized for search engines, B) to create a seamless ‘voice’ across every page which conveys the personality of your brand, C) to get marketable product descriptions for your products. Online shoppers will see your products, check out your reviews, and if those impress, read what you have to say about your products before they purchase.
You don’t necessarily have to sign a contract with a high-end marketing firm to get excellent web copy. If your budget is conducive to that, then by all means, go for it! You’ll get an array of services which may really propel you forward. But even if your budget is a little tighter, there is no shortage of good freelancers in the market. There are so many, in fact, that there are dozens of disparate websites devoted to connecting freelancers to businesses of all sizes.
Personally, I like working with freelancers who I can meet in person. It’s useful to see not only the proof of their written work but how they conduct themselves. I’ll start a conversation in which I can get a feel for their peripheral knowledge and experience so I can understand the scope of their capability. This helps to know whether the candidate is best for a single project, or perhaps if they can be relied upon for ongoing work. If given the choice, we’d all rather do business with people we have trusted and verified, rather than take a risk on a new lead.
But that is not always possible. If you do an online search for “hiring freelance writers” or something similar, you will see many of the aforementioned websites, and may even get local resources which are worth trying out. Most of these websites do the work of vetting their freelancers for you, and some also have their own editorial services. I rarely recommend using these ‘in-house’ editors, because they are on the pricey side, and may or may not edit with the specifics of your business in mind.
Calls to Action
This one is a bit of a psychological trick, but it is proven effective. If you offer a quick way for your web traffic to ‘buy in’ to your business, the chances leap drastically that they will convert to a sale. This buy-in action can be as simple as signing up for your newsletter, entering their email address to receive an instant first-time-visitor coupon, or merely continuing on to the subsequent page to resume browsing.
I strongly recommend keeping this call to action as simple and non-invasive as you can. Often, when I go to a new website and start browsing, a pop-up intrudes over the whole screen, forcing me to either sign up to their spamming list or just close the browser window. I’ll let you guess which one I usually do…
Everyone likes a sale. We like knowing that we got what we wanted, and got it for less than what was “normal.” Finding a good sale makes us more inclined to buy; the mere existence of a ‘good deal’ give us the sense that it was Us vs The Man, and we won. Jumping on a sale stimulates the same parts of the brain that light up when scoring in competitive sports.
Periodically offering your goods at a reduced rate does not imply that you’re losing any profits. In fact, a good discount stimulates sales you might not have made otherwise. It is a win/win; your customers get the product they wanted and are happy with (which is in itself a huge win for you, as it encourages repeat business), but you, the business owner, also benefit. You get, at the very least, one more transaction, and at best, a cascade of new and loyal customers as the satisfied shopper recommends you to their friends.
These promotions can, and should, be tailored to your unique store and product. Thankfully, there are a myriad of options. It is recommended that you try several types of promotions to see how well they do. But before you consider which type of promotion to experiment with first, remind yourself of these three things:
- Your product. Does it lend itself well to upselling strategies, like adding accessories prior to checkout? Is recurring billing an option? What about a discount for bulk orders?
- Your customer demographic. What are their buying habits? Their average purchasing power? Their related interests? Which marketing methods will best reach them — social media, postal mailers, email newsletters, etc?
- The seasonal/cyclical nature of your business. If you’re selling swimsuits, November might not be the best time to promote your newest design. However, it may be the prime time to offer BOGO deals on last year’s products or to promote a referral partner which sells skiing gear.
There are too many kinds and variations of promotions to list here, but I won’t leave you without a jumpstart. Some of these will work for your business, others may not apply in your case. Here are a few of the most effective options:
- A discount for first-time signup to your email newsletter. This could be a dollar amount off the next purchase, or a percentage off of one full-priced item, for example.
- Free shipping. This could be across the board, for orders over a certain amount, or for referring a friend. Depending on your shipping costs, consider offering free expedited shipping. Your customers will love you.
- Upselling. “Users who bought X also bought Y,” or “Need a carrying case for the Widget you’re buying? Our specially designed WidgetCase comes in five colors.”
- BOGOs. Buy one/get one, buy one/get one half-off, buy five/get bonus gift. You get the picture.
- Threshold sales. This is a common promotion in stores which sell many different kinds of products. It looks like this: Buy $50, get 10% discount. Buy $100, get 25% discount, and so forth.
- Loyalty programs. This one requires a way to track your customers and their purchases, which may seem ambitious for a first-time entrepreneur. But there are software options which make the process much easier. Check out our top picks here.
- Email campaigns. This one is cheap, and once you have set it up and set it in motion, it’s easy. It also blends well with several of the above promotions. Apps like MailChimp and Constant Contact have this strategy down to an art, and they integrate with just about every eCommerce cart out there.
- Seasonal sales. Really? A store-wide sale because it is President’s Day weekend? Yep. Do it.
- Referral partners. These non-competing businesses can drive their outgoing traffic to you, and vice versa. This works especially well if your partners are in a related niche; you sell bread, they sell butter.
It’s always a good idea to test out these promotions to see how well they boost your sales- you may be surprised by the results. But once you find something that works, don’t stop experimenting. Do what works, but keep trying other options and refining your efforts. Your marketing strategy should be constantly evolving.
Promotions and marketing aren’t all about reducing the price of your goods. Sometimes it can be very effective to simply improve how you display your products. If your page has no real interactive content, consider adding a product carousel to your homepage. Highlight your best sellers, mention your currently running sales, and link to your latest blog. This header-style graphic will rotate through all of its content every few seconds, giving some life and motion to your home page.
It may seem as if becoming a seller on vaunted Amazon is just for the big dogs. But that is far from the truth. In fact, selling on Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest, and even Twitter, all at the same time, is within your reach.
The idea behind multi-channel selling is that each of these customer-facing storefronts are all just different facets of one store. Your orders, no matter where they originate, all show up in the same dashboard you’re already familiar with.
Nearly all of the leading Shopping Cart providers have this functionality, though you may need to upgrade your subscription. Multi-channel and Omni-channel storefronts are typically only offered from the mid-level to higher pricing tiers.
This may seem like a lot of new projects to tackle, but most of them are fairly easy to accomplish. And no one is saying you need to get them all done by the end of the week. Phase them in, outsource the work, or upgrade them as your budget allows. Keep a reasonable sense of urgency about them though, because they are all critical components of a successful e-store.