Ecommerce and How to Sell Online in a Digital-First Economy.

Molly Gibson Kirby
21 minutes

In the blink of an eye, the future of commerce came upon us. Spoiler alert—it’s digital.

We knew it was coming for years and when it came, the world moved indoors. We’ve been told to stay at home and go out only for essentials. The impact on businesses was unimaginable only a few months ago.

If you’re considered to be an essential service, you’re now faced with the added stress of keeping your workplace and workforce healthy. If you’re not an essential service, you’re doing everything you can at home to keep your business moving forward. Others are unable to work at all, watching for signs that life may return to some semblance of normalcy.

Yet, while we’re staying home, we’re scrolling and buying things online. We’re buying everything from the obvious essentials, like food and clothing, to business services, such as coaching, counselling, and legal services. We’re doing this all without ever setting foot in an office or store.

If you’re worried what this means for the future of your company, it may be time to consider transitioning your business to online sales. (Already doing this? Take this opportunity to step it up a notch.)

Should you consider ecommerce?

Yes. Yes, you should.

Ecommerce around the world is rising at a fast pace. It accounts for more than three-quarters of overall retail growth and it’s estimated that 95% of all purchases will be made online by 2040. Ecommerce is opening the virtual door for a lot of entrepreneurs and innovative businesses.

A few obvious benefits of ecommerce include:

  • Having your business open 24/7
  • Expanding your market nationally or even internationally
  • Security during unprecedented times (like COVID-19) 

What is ecommerce?

When people think about ecommerce, they often picture Amazon. At first, Amazon can seem like the only way to shop online. In 2019, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the world’s largest retailer. Later, it became the world’s most valuable retailer. 

But, Amazon isn’t the only answer. There are lots of other ecommerce platforms to consider, allowing you to take advantage of online sales without using Amazon. By market share, the two most popular tools for selling online are Shopify and WooCommerce.

To create a powerful online portal for your business, you need to examine everything that goes into making a sale. In this article, we dive deep into an online storefront and what our experience has taught us about making ecommerce websites that convert leads into customers. We’ll start with choosing the right platform.

Ecommerce platform illustrations with logos for woocommerce, shopify, and amazon

Shopify vs. WooCommerce vs. Amazon.

Which platform should you choose?

First, consider your own technical skill, budget, and business plans. Does it need to be custom? Who will upload products? Who will manage content? How will you collect payments, ship products, and promote your business? Do you need to be in search engines or on social media?

Facebook surveyed online shoppers and found that 83% believe Instagram helps them discover new products and services. Based on information we’ve seen, we’d have to agree and the same goes for Pinterest too.

Once you’ve considered all of this, you’ll be ready to select a platform.

Shopify

Shopify ecommerce platform illustration on a webpage with a shopping cart button

Shopify may be one of the newest ecommerce options, but it has a lot of attention backing it. Founder Tobias Lutke made the news this year for donating 1,000,0001 trees. And then again for pivoting their charity foundation to solely help fight COVID-19. Shopify helps more than 600,000 businesses online including ecommerce titans like KYLIE and PEPSICO.

Shopify might be best thought of as an all-in-one ecommerce offering. It’s designed to be user-friendly and makes setting up an ecommerce website easy for do-it-yourselfers. Like WordPress, Shopify uses themes to control the design and layout of your shop and those themes are usually customizable.

Shopify Benefits

Shopify has a ton to offer and is a great choice if your business is built around ecommerce.

Hosted ecommerce software 

Shopify takes care of the technical maintenance of running a store for you. When you work with Shopify, your plan includes hosting and the necessary security certificates.

Quality support 24/7

Shopify’s customer support is another great feature. They are always available, quick to respond, and are effective at resolving issues. They also have local reps who can help you understand the features and benefits of the platform if you’re just getting started.

Multi-channel integration 

Shopify makes it easy to connect to various marketplaces and social networks. It was one of the first platforms allowing companies to connect and synchronize their online stores with Amazon. It also works with accounting software like Quickbooks and FreshBooks, and with inventory management software like TradeGecko.

Shopify Considerations

Sound too good to be true? Shopify doesn’t have many draw backs, but there are a few things to consider.

Need to know coding (maybe)

Shopify’s templating language is called Liquid, which is built in the programming language Ruby. It’s a lot less popular that WordPress, which is built using PHP. That means that while you can “customize” your theme fairly easily, it’s not particularly easy to create a “custom” theme. It also means that having a custom theme developed for your business, will likely cost more than it would with other platforms.

Not built for publishing

Shopify is built to do one thing and do it well and that’s sales online. It doesn’t however, sell in a vacuum. You’ll still need to drive customers to your store and often that involves content marketing and search engine optimization. Shopify isn’t a great platform for blogging and it’s not ideal if your online shop is only one aspect of your overall online business.

There are plugins (such as WP Shopify) that will bridge the gap between a publishing platform an ecommerce store. It also allows you to custom build the ecommerce section of your site to match your brand and stand out.

Search engine-friendly, not search engine optimized

A personal pet peeve of mine is when platforms refer to themselves as search engine optimized rather than search engine-friendly. SEO is more than just title tags and meta descriptions, it means having to provide great content that offers value to online visitors. Shopify isn’t built to showcase content the way other publishing platforms are.

Shopify has a monthly-fee 

There are three different levels of Shopify to choose from. The basic Shopify is $29 USD/month. This includes all the basics for starting a new business. The second level is simply called Shopify. It is everything you need for a growing business and costs $79 USD/month. The final level is calling Advanced Shopify. This level includes advanced features for scaling your business and costs $299 USD/month.

You don’t own it. Like and proprietary software, if you get started with Shopify, you’re stuck with their platform and fees forever (or at least until you build a new website).

Shopify Sidenotes

We love Shopify and think it’s a great platform for ecommerce-first businesses. Our favourite themes to use come from Out of the Sandbox (https://outofthesandbox.com).

WooCommerce

WooCommerce platform illustration

Next up in the ecommerce platform comparison is WooCommerce. It’s a customizable, open-source ecommerce platform built on WordPress. It’s also owned and operated by the same organization that created WordPress, which is called Automattic Inc.

You can add the WooCommerce plugin to any WordPress website and set up your online store right away. With WooCommerce, you receive secure payments, shipping options, and more, for free. 

Since it’s simply a plugin, this ecommerce option is for you if you already have a WordPress website. It can take any website and turn it into an online store.

Benefits of WooCommerce

WooCommerce has a ton of benefits too.

Limitless customization 

Since WooCommerce is an open-source platform, the code is available. This means customization is full of possibilities. You can create a store with an incredible brand personality to make sure your customers enjoy your full shopping experience.

WooThemes

Another benefit that people love about WooCommerce is the WooThemes. These mobile-responsive WordPress themes exist for WooCommerce. This helps developers create the shop section on your website and allows them to customize to match a company’s brand.

Powerful SEO

When you work with WooCommerce, you gain access to WordPress’ publishing platform. This gives businesses the ability to dig deep and improve their metadata. Experienced agencies will update this and offer monthly SEO updates to ensure that the company is receiving the SEO power they deserve.

Considerations of WooCommerce

Not without drawbacks…

Customer support

Unlike Shopify, WooCommerce doesn’t provide phone support. In many cases, they don’t provide support at all. It’s a much more hands-off approach than Shopify.

This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds though as WordPress and WooCommerce are by far the most popular platforms in the world. This means there is a huge community of designers and developers able to help if you need it.

The cost of selling on WooCommerce 

While WooCommerce is a free plugin, there will still be some costs associated with this option for selling online. You’ll need hosting and good hosting starts at around $30 a month.

WooCommerce Sidenotes: WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org.

In the interest of a fair comparison between WooCommerce and Shopify, it’s worth mentioning that WooCommerce comes in two flavours. The one we’re describing here is a customizable, open-source platform for self-hosted websites known to developers as WordPress-dot-org.

However, WordPress also comes in a fully-managed, plan-based service known as WordPress-dot-com. In many ways, this version is more like Shopify in that you don’t have to worry about hosting, upgrades, and maintenance. Plus, you get the added benefit of WordPress’ publishing platform. Plus, and unlike Shopify, it’s also a bit more future proof as you can easily migrate away from WordPress’ network if you choose to do so in the future.

Amazon 

illustration of a website page with amazon.ca in the search bar, with a purple background

The final ecommerce platform to consider is Amazon, the massive online retailer. 

This platform allows individuals and businesses to sell and display products for sale online. Amazon offers software and infrastructure solutions for businesses looking to expand their business to ecommerce. 

This mega platform has taken a low-profit margin approach to new product offers to capture market share. Amazon has storefront websites in over a dozen different countries and sells to nearly every country in the world. 

The cost of selling on Amazon

Amazon has different selling plans available. For the individual plan, your company will be paying $0.99 every time you sell an item. For the professional plan, a company pays a base fee of $39.99 a month, no matter how many items are sold.

When you sell with Amazon, the platform also collects a referral fee for each sale. It’s a percentage of the total transaction and varies by which product category it is. Fees range from 8-15%.

Then, you have shipping and fulfillment fees. If you ship yourself, you’re paying the same as you would normally. You can also ship your materials to an Amazon fulfillment centre and they will take care of shipping, for an added cost.

Amazon Sidenotes

For most businesses, selling on Amazon does not preclude selling on their own website. In fact, both Shopify and WooCommerce have excellent tools to synchronize your online inventory with Amazon and take advantage of their platform.

Selling online successfully.

Once the platform has been chosen, your business is ready to engage in a variety of activities that are required to be successful online.

90% of ecommerce startups fail within their first year, which means a company’s launch into online sales must be a thoughtful strategic process.

There are many common reasons why an ecommerce company may struggle. Three common reasons why leads don’t become customers are: 

  1. They don’t know how to use your website 
  2. Product value isn’t clear
  3. Navigation is difficult

Thankfully, the solution to solving these problems is easier than you think! We know that people enjoy instant gratification. This means that their expectations can be high. Especially online. 

We’ve found that there are three main ways to ensure that customers are happy with your store. 

Shipping options

Customers often abandon an online shopping cart when they get sticker shock after seeing how much their order costs with shipping. There are several ways to avoid scaring your customers with shipping costs.

The best option is to include shipping costs in the prices you put on the web. A simple “price includes shipping” mention will help leads know how much they can expect to pay for an item. 

The second way is to include free shipping promotions on your website. Sales and special holidays like Mother’s Day are great ways to gain new customers online. 

The third option is to make your current customers feel special. You can email customers free shipping codes throughout the year to encourage them to buy online. When you create happy customers, they’re more likely to purchase from you again and  encourage others to as well. 

Easy check-out process

Many online shoppers have short attention spans and will often abandon the checkout flow if it’s too complicated for them. 

To rectify this problem, the checkout needs to be as simple as possible. Having a guest check out option allows people a fast checkout without having to sign up for an account. Providing this option allows the customer to choose how they want to make their purchase. 

After that, there should only be two other stages. The first is to add their mailing address and payment information, and the second is to review the order before hitting “checkout”. 

Different payment methods

An illustration of different payment methods in a payment processing transaction

Web users aren’t always comfortable with putting in credit card information online. According to HubSpot, 84% of people will not make a purchase if they are dealing with an unsecured website. To improve conversions and build trust, your business can offer different payment methods. In addition to allowing for credit cards, adding a debit/credit option and PayPal option are great ways to make customers comfortable. 

In addition to payment methods, making your return policy generous will help alleviate any customer concerns with a product. 

Getting customers through the virtual door

While you may be used to getting customers walking by your storefront, it’s a different ball game online. Gone are the days of radio advertising and cold calls. Now, in order to reach new people, your business needs to be found online. 

Over 51% of smartphone users have discovered a new company or product while conducting a search on their phone. So, how exactly do you get found online? 

Advertising to web users 

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) or online advertising can amp up your traffic and funnel the right audience to your site. You won’t be left wondering if it’s working whether because with proper analytics in place, it’s easy to measure the success of SEM. 

Utilizing Google Ads increases your brand awareness, brings in qualified leads and has a higher return on investment. Google has many different ad options including shopping and search. 

Illustration of a search results page for photography drones, illustrating the power of optimized ecommerce advertising

When someone searches for your product or service on Google, you want your ad to show up first. This can be accomplished through education about your business and creating an optimal online campaign for your offerings. Some agencies have access to software that they pay for that shows what keywords competitors are ranking for and what keywords a business should be targeting and bidding on to help be seen online. 

Banner ads are always a great way to showcase products to likely purchasers. Visuals help make a sale, so if someone sees a display ad online several times while they’re scrolling through they will be reminded to purchase the item. 

And the final way to use online advertising is to market to those people who have already been on your website but clicked off. Sometimes, your customers need a little push. With only 2% of users converting on their first visit, a large amount of your traffic is left to be won over. Remarketing reminds them of what they are missing.

Getting technical with SEO 

Search engine optimization becomes more about the technical set than it does about content when it comes to ecommerce. 

If you work with our agency, Twirling Umbrellas, our team of developers and SEO Specialists are able to add technical SEO into every stage of the web development process. Technical SEO is crucial for improving your online store’s searchability. 

The structure of a website is the first key to technical SEO. It makes content easily accessible to visitors. Having different pages accessible by a small number of clicks is the best practice. The same thing goes for URLs. The structure of your URL should be clear and consistent.

Illustration of a website page with a well optimized permalink for SEO in contrast with a poorly formatted permalink

The second technical SEO piece is the sitemap. There are two different site map options: XML and HTML. Each type of sitemap has its own roles, strengths and weaknesses depending on the use of the site. 

For SEO, XML sitemaps serve as an invitation to crawl a URL. The XML is submitted to Google Search Console for continuous crawling by Search Engines.

The agency you choose will work with a specific type of sitemap and have their own reasons as to why they use it. 

The third technical SEO piece we’ll discuss is site speed. The speed of a page has been a ranking signal for a long time. It refers to the time it takes to display the content on the browser from the time the server receives the request. 

The faster the page load time, the better it’s going to rank on searches. Before an ecommerce site launches, page speed should be tested. Our team of developers test a new website on various platforms like Google Page Speed, GTMetrix and Pingdom. Each platform ranks a site on different criteria. We focus on achieving a certain ranking and will work through different bugs to ensure those numbers are reached before launching. 

There are many other technical SEO strategies and pieces that can boost your Google presence. Some of these can happen once the site is launched and the business is signed onto an SEO contract.

Keeping your transactions safe and secure. 

Illustration of PayPal payment section for securely processing a transaction

Payment gateways online have never been so convenient. They have also never been a bigger target for online hackers. Shape Security reported that in 2018, 90% of total login attempts to online retailers’ websites were illegitimate hacking attempts. 

That’s why it’s important to understand the quality of your ecommerce payment gateways and how they help you fend off these attacks. 

A payment gateway is a merchant service that processes credit card payments for ecommerce sites. These gateways include PayPal, Apple Pay, Stripe and Square. It’s essentially your digital cash register. The gateway remains secure and convenient by:

Encryption

Between the user’s browser and the server of the retailer, a payment gateway encrypts data for exclusive use between the seller and the buyer. 

Request 

The authorization request occurs when a payment processor gets approval from a credit card company or financial institution to proceed with a transaction. 

Fulfillment 

When a payment gateway has the authorization, it allows the website and interface to proceed to the next action.

Not only does a payment gateway bring secure payment to your ecommerce store, it also screens orders, calculates the taxes associated with the transaction and uses geolocation for location-specific actions.

Stacking payment gateways allow customers to ensure that they will have a safer way to purchase from your business. Using a payment gateway that allows for Visa and Mastercard will cover most everyone. Adding Paypal as well will let those who don’t have a credit card to still purchase from your business. 

Ecommerce is more than just retail.

At this point, you could be tempted to think that ecommerce is only for retail. It isn’t. It’s a holistic approach to transitioning your business to a digital-first economy. It includes a thorough look at all of the tools you use for business and whether they can be adapted to an online format.

Although selling online and shipping out goods such as we’ve covered here is the most basic form, there are a lot of other ways to do business online. These tools are equally powerful for selling membership and subscriptions as they are t-shirts and toys. If your business is more service driven (such as is the case with our agency), you can still implement tools to sell and service your clients online.

This also happens to be a good segue into why you might consider working with agency too.

Working with a digital agency.

Taking ecommerce on by yourself isn’t an easy task. There are many moving parts like developing the sales integration, payment processing, taxes, and shipping information. Many of the tools are easy to use, but still demand time and energy you may not have to invest.

When you work with a digital agency to add ecommerce to your business, you’ll want to ensure you’re working with professionals who have experience selling products or services online. This isn’t just an online brochure, but an integral part of your business. They should know how each platform works and which is the best option for you. When you’re choosing the right agency, here are some questions to ask: 

  • What’s the agency’s experience with ecommerce?
  • What’s the agency’s experience with the platform you’ve chosen or what platform would they recommend (and why)?
  • How big is their team and what services (e.g. design, development, content, advertising, social media, and strategy) can they help with?
  • Do they specialize in digital marketing or do a little of everything?
  • Does your agency provide support and maintenance after launch?
  • Do you have experience with other companies in my industry?

In addition to asking these questions, the right agency will be able to provide you proposals promoting your business as well. While getting an ecommerce website is the number one priority, partnering with the right agency will allow your business to grow through these additional digital marketing avenues. 

Illustration of a web agency with ecommerce, website design and marketing specialists

One of the biggest benefits to an agency is ongoing support. An ongoing relationship with an agency gives you access to a range of skills, often with better results and a cost similar to that of hiring an additional employee to manage your shop.

Customers are surfing, not calling. Will you answer their … ugh … search?

As the world is transitioning to staying home for an unknown amount of time, brick and mortar stores are looking for ways to show up for their customers. The digital landscape is here to stay, which means online stores are the best place to sell. 

Making the leap may sound intimidating. But, through ecommerce efforts and partnering with the right agency for SEO and SEM, your business can stand out in a saturated digital crowd. 

The first step is to start. 

Reach out if you’re ready to begin your journey into ecommerce. Once you begin to market your new ecommerce integration, previous customers will be ready to jump online and support your business more than ever before. 

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If online is where your business belongs, reach out and let’s chat. We understand what is to be human and we focus on delivering killer digital experiences that facilitate connection, trust, and authenticity.

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WRITTEN BY

Molly is a journalist and content strategist who has worked in television, radio, print and online. She studied Radio Television Arts with a major in Broadcast Journalism at NSCC. Molly is certified through HubSpot’s Business Academy and has had her writing featured on Clutch.co.

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