Advice for Online Merchants

Introduction

So you want to open an online shop and get rich quick? Sorry to disappoint you. For the majority of merchants, the opening of the online shop is just the beginning of an ongoing business process which requires regular investments of time, energy and money in order to realize results.

This short article aims to give novice online merchants some pointers as to how to get the most from their online shop. I'll explore the following aspects:

  • Increasing visitor traffic to the online shop
  • Converting visitors to paying customers
  • Generating repeat and referral business

Increasing Visitor Traffic to Your Online Shop

Your first challenge after opening an online shop is to get visitors to come in and see it. And to do that, they first have to know about your shop, and then want to visit it. Just like a physical shop, you'll have to promote it, advertise it, shout about it.

There are many ways to do this:

  • Write about your shop on various online discussion forums. Be sure to include the web address of your shop in each posting so that readers can easily navigate to it.
  • Create accounts on Twitter, Facebook, the numerous blog sites etc. and write regular messages about what's happening in your shop, special offers you have running and new products. Add links from your website to these pages. The search engines will discover these and they will help improve the search ranking of your online shop.
  • Consider advertising with the search engines you think your customers will be using when they are searching online for products to buy. Carefully select the keywords for pay-per-click campaigns, and target markets so that you get the best return on your investment.
  • Traditional advertising media such as newspapers (and their websites), onine and paper-based business directories may also be appropriate depending on the generality of your product/service offering
  • Specialist publications may be more appropriate if your target market can be narrowed down to a well defined group who read certain magazines or industry/trade publications.
  • If you already have a physical shop, use that to promote your online shop. Make sure you have your website address on your printed till receipts, add signage to the interior of your shop and in the shop window to let shoppers know that they can buy online. Anyone calling to your physical shop when it is closed should be able to find out how to buy online from your shop signage.

In addition to advertising, it is important that your online shopping pages are search engine optimized. That is, that their structure, title, meta tags and content are geared not only for the human reader, but also for the search engine robots which will index your pages. For Vendexo shops much of this is automatically done for you, and, you can manually control the title value for your shop and the content of your shop and product descriptions (where you should ensure that keywords which your customers will key into search engines are mentioned and emphasized).

Remember the second part of what I said above: In addition to knowing about your online shop, they also have to want to visit it. The wording, graphics and overall presentation of your advertisements needs to draw the customers in. Make your message very clear: Is it the availability of a certain product, or a special offer price the main attraction? If so, make that aspect stand out.

As an extra incentive, you could include a discount coupon code with your advertisement which customers can use to get a percentage off when they buy online. You may want to have an expiration date on this to encourage the customer buy sooner rather than later. The delivery charge for online purchases can be significant, so if you can advertise free delivery for purchases over ... it can be a motivator.

Converting Online Visitors to Paying Customers

Once you have visitors to your online shop you need to:
  • Show them the products that they want to buy. Make it easy to navigate a large number of products by organising them into different categories and even subcategories if necessary.
  • If your shoppers are likely to be looking for certain brands of products, enable them to browse your goods by brand.
  • Price the products competitively
  • Use uploaded photographs and the detail description of each product to sell the product for you. These descriptions need to take the place of a knowledgeable and persuasive shop assistent in a physical shop. They should describe the main benefits and features of the product. Anticipate the questions that the customer may have and provide answers to them.
  • Very important: build trust. With online shopping you are asking the customer to pay up-front and receive the goods typically some days later. They have to trust that you are a genuine merchant who will dispatch what was ordered. Therefore it is essential that your shop appear professional, and that you give the right assurances to your customers. Establish a good reputation with your customers and see if previous customers will allow you to cite them as references for your good service levels.
  • Provide a Terms and Conditions section in which you describe the your payment conditions, returns policy and other guarantees. The law requires that you state the customer's rights, including the 7-day cooling off period, and the right to the repair, replacement or refund of faulty goods. A good reference is the Comsumer Agency's Guide to Shopping from Home and the European Consumer Centre's Shopping Online guide. By making the shopper clear as to his/her entitlements, you are removing the barriers which he/she may have to purchasing from you.
  • State your shop's privacy policy. That is, what data you collect from shop visitors and customers, how you use that data, and also how you won't use it.
  • A futher step to take in buildng trust with the customer is to provide a physical street address for your business, together with e-mail and telephone contact details. Without this, many potential customers will walk away.
  • Provide a description of the checkout process. If your shop redirects the shopper's browser to a payment services provider (such as PayPal, Realex Payments, WorldNetTPS etc.) to make the payment or to collect credit/debit card details then explain this to the customer so that they won't be surprised when then see this happening. Explain about the encrypted transmission of payment card details. If your shop does not actually see or store the card details then state that too. The customer may be happier to purchase from you if you don't actually see these. If the payment services provider is longer established, better known and with a more secure reputation than your online shop, the customer may prefer to enter their payment details on the payment service provider's website than on yours. So just explain this.

Getting Repeat and Referral Business

Many business grow due to repeat business from satisfied customers, who go on to refer the business to their friends, family and colleagues. This can be encouraged by the merchant. You can reward customers by giving them discount coupons for your online shop when they buy from you. The customers can then use these when buying again, or can pass them on to their acquaintances.

The above assumes that the customer has had a good experience buying from your online shop. It takes hard work on your part to ensure that this is the case. You need to keep your product prices (and stock levels, if applicable) accurate and up-to-date on the shopping pages. From browsing to buying, order processing, on-time delivery, dealing with queries and problems, handling returns and faulty goods, your customer needs to be satisfied that he/she is being treated fairly and with due respect and that his/her statutory rights are upheld.