screens of laptop, phone and tablet open to online shopping website
Ensuring that your website is consistent with your business's image and can scale with your success are two main points to consider when opening an online store. — Getty Images/milindri

While the majority of customers still prefer to shop in-store, e-commerce is on the rise. The average consumer spends more than $1,700 per year on online shopping, a number that’s continuing to rise.

The convenience, affordability and ability to compare prices with ease has led more and more customers to visit e-commerce sites before heading to a brick-and-mortar location. If your small business doesn’t have an online store, you could be missing out on sales.

Not sure where to start? Here’s how to build an online store.

Find your niche

Some merchants start online, while others decide to add an online presence to their brick-and-mortar storefront. Either way, the key to the success of your online store lies in finding a niche. What products can you sell that big-box retailers like Amazon and eBay aren’t already offering at low prices?

[Read more: Looking to Get Your Brand Discovered? Why a Niche Online Marketplace Might Be For You]

You want to sell a product that people are looking for, but you don’t want to get crowded out by competitors. That might mean assessing your inventory and selecting only a few products or a single line of products to sell on your e-commerce site.

Perform some basic keyword research to make sure customers are looking for what you’re selling. Many business owners start by offering the products that sell best in-store — which is a great option if you’re already running a physical location.

Select an e-commerce platform

When you know what you have to offer, select the best platform for setting up your online store. There are many options out there, and these are some of the most popular e-commerce hosting sites:

These platforms offer templates to make it simple to set up your site. Look for an e-commerce platform that is within your budget (expect to pay $3.50 - $250 per month), easy to use, mobile-friendly, fast and can be scaled if your business goes viral. Many e-commerce hosts will also offer a way to buy your own domain name. If you’re not hosting your online store on an existing website, you will need to purchase a URL unique to your business.

There are two things you need to be able to accept payments for items on your online store: a payment gateway and a merchant account.

Design your online store

The design of your store is more important than you might expect. Research from Square shows that if your site design does not make it easy for the customer to navigate, it can negatively impact your sales. Don’t overcrowd your product pages, and make your fonts easy to read. The online store should carry over your branding from the in-store experience and/or your online marketing channels, so establish a consistent color scheme and use your logo on your online store’s landing page to ensure a smooth customer experience.

Start by taking photos of the products you are going to sell online. Make sure the photos are of high quality and well-lit. The templates you use can provide guidelines as to what size photos you need and the type of photo file they can handle. Pay attention to those guidelines to keep your page running quickly and mobile-friendly.

Prepare to accept payments

There are two things you need to be able to accept payments for items on your online store: a payment gateway and a merchant account. A payment gateway plugs into your e-commerce platform in order to authorize online transactions. It’s basically the middleman between your bank and the customer’s credit or debit card. Payment gateways you may have heard of include PayPal, Stripe, and Square.

A merchant account is a bank account that lets you accept credit card and debit card payments, as well as many mobile payment options like Apple Pay. If you have a storefront, it’s likely you have a merchant account already. If you don’t have one, and you want to accept credit card payments, you must open a merchant account.

[Read: 5 Ways Your Business Can Accept Payments]

Many, if not most, of the e-commerce hosts like Shopify and Wix will coach you through setting up your payment gateway and linking it to your merchant account. Be aware that you may need to fill out some forms and pay a fee to begin accepting payments through your online store.

Start marketing your store

Now that you’re ready to start selling, it’s time to reach out to your customers. Start by using your existing channels to spread the word that your online store is live. This includes email, social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter, and on your website’s home page, if you have one.

[Read: A Simple Guide to Selling on Social Media]

If you have a physical location, one way to let customers know about your online store is to run a promotion. For example, customers who bring in a digital receipt from your online store can take 10% off their next purchase. If you don’t have an IRL store, use the promo tactic in an email campaign. By signing up to receive your newsletter, for example, customers can get a coupon code for your e-commerce site. Look for seamless ways to link your various customer touch points and build profitability quickly.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published September 20, 2019