E-commerce: purchasing and selling online

Small businesses that are considering purchasing or selling online will find this a useful resource to help them identify and select appropriate e-commerce options. Tips and strategies for attracting and keeping online customers are also presented. While the booklet focuses on selling online via your own website, other options for purchasing and selling online are highlighted such as e-marketplaces and online auctions.

What is e-commerce?

E-commerce refers to the process of buying or selling products or services over the Internet. Online shopping is becoming increasingly popular because of speed and ease of use for customers.

E-commerce activities such as selling online can be directed at consumers or other businesses. Business to Consumer (B2C) involves the online sales of goods, services and provision of information directly to consumers. Business to Business (B2B) refers to the online selling of products, services, or information between businesses.

Why e-commerce for small businesses?

Selling online can help your business reach new markets and increase your sales and revenues. If you are interested in selling to other businesses, you can use the Internet to find sales leads, announce calls for tender and offer products for sale either through your own website or through an e-marketplace site.

Searching for products and services online can save you time and money by allowing you to find the best prices without having to do all the legwork. You can use the Internet to find new suppliers, post buying requests or search for products and services. Online trading networks can also be used to support efficient information exchange between buyers and sellers.

Benefits of B2B e-commerce solutions

  • Purchasing supplies – By creating an online account for your business with supply stores you can purchase office supplies and equipment online and save time and money by automating the purchasing process.
  • Purchasing direct materials – These are materials that go into the production or manufacturing of your products. Establishing a relationship with a vendor and purchasing online may help reduce costs.
  • Selling products or services to new vendors – Having an online e-commerce presence opens up more opportunities to extend your reach and gather new vendors beyond your bricks and mortar offerings.
  • Leveraging your existing web presence – If you already have B2C operations, you can extend them to business clientele – perhaps by providing private areas for special pricing, delivery options, etc. However, this additional functionality is not trivial and could require rebuilding your online store at a significant cost.

Benefits of B2C e-commerce solutions

  • Better customer service – Businesses can transact directly with their customers 24/7.
  • Elimination of intermediaries – Businesses, particularly manufacturers, can offer lower and more affordable goods to consumers by selling products directly, eliminating distributors and retailers that add to the cost of the products.
  • Flexibility in pricing – Price tags can be adjusted easily and instantly, benefitting the business and the customer. You also have the ability to strategically cross-sell, discount, and provide coupons and other online/offline specials.
  • Professional image – Even if you have a small business, your e-commerce site can enhance your reputation by projecting a larger picture and allowing you to compete on a level playing field.
  • Extended reach – Opening up an online storefront can effectively extend your presence to a great number of prospects, particularly those unable to access your local bricks and mortar store.

Planning for e-commerce

Moving your sales operations online requires that you look at your business needs and information technology (IT) requirements and the options available to you in order to formulate an e-commerce implementation and fulfilment strategy. Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Is e-commerce really the right option for my business? If so, why?
  2. Who are my competitors online and how well established are they?
  3. Can my existing business system processes in my bricks and mortar storefront be brought online? How do I integrate them?
  4. What do I need the website to do – i.e. are there straightforward categories and sub-categories or do I need additional functionality?
  5. Do I need the shopping cart to be able to do anything beyond taking payments?
  6. What resources or knowledge base do I need to set up an online store?
  7. How will I drive traffic to my online store?

Setting goals and objectives

Goal setting examples Examples of objectives
Use Internet to expand business
  • Within 60 days, be able to communicate my company name, its benefits, prices, customer list, products and services to new prospects.
Expand sales outside local area
  • Build international presence by creating listings in international directories within 6 months.
  • Create national sales affiliate teams to help promote e-commerce website within 45 days.
Sell $xxxx per month to existing clients
  • Design a cross-sell program and referral reward program to existing clients, assess in 9 months.
Reduce direct marketing expenses from flyer distribution and promo catalogues
  • Introduce last minute alert program through text messaging or email campaigns.
Enhance customer service
  • Implement a live chat service from the e-commerce site to be accessible 24/7.

Choosing a web developer vs. do-it-yourself (DIY) options

Should you choose to work with a web developer or try to create your own e-commerce enabled website? For those just starting out in business with a limited budget, there are many site builders (for example, Shopify www.shopify.ca, Canada Cart www.canadacart.ca) that allow you to create a storefront to sell your items online, to set up security for credit card transactions, and to outsource shipping. As your business needs grow, you may want to consider hiring a professional to take you to the next level.

Either way, you need to do some research before you invest your time and money in e-commerce. These are basically the same things to consider if you were planning to start a bricks and mortar store and they are equally important in the virtual world.

  • Research your site builder or developer choice options.
  • Complete a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis of your marketplace/industry, both on and offline.
  • Conduct a marketplace analysis – Who are your customers and competitors?
  • Consider marketing and sales strategies – How suitable is your product or service to Internet marketing?

The purpose, style, scope, domain name, hosting and security of your website are all areas to think about when planning e-commerce. Understand all that is involved in developing an e-commerce online presence and the timing for each step along the way. Here are some items to consider:

  • Evaluation and metrics: Determine in advance what metrics and method of evaluation you plan on implementing.
  • Logistics: Develop pricing, payment choices, delivery choices and return policies.
  • Review and update: Set some review dates; schedule in regular updates to keep your site fresh and current. Always address visitor needs.
  • Upfront costs: Understand what upfront costs are involved in order to start selling online, whether that is to buy a program or have a developer customize one for you.
  • Ongoing costs: Be aware of ongoing costs, including those related to cost of goods sold, shipping, hosting, charge backs, web maintenance and site updates.

See Creating a Dynamic Web Presence booklet for more on developing an effective website.

Selling online using your own website – Setting up an online store

This section describes what is involved in selling online vis-à-vis your own website. In order to process an online sales transaction three things are needed:

  1. Shopping cart
  2. Secure server
  3. Payment processing

These three requirements are described in more detail below.

1. Shopping carts

Shopping cart software keeps track of what the user selects to buy from the website before proceeding to the “checkout”. An online shopping cart consists of three parts:

  • Product catalogue
  • Shopping list
  • Checkout system

The product catalogue is made up of all the information needed to present any product to the customer and to complete a sales transaction online. Information to be included in the product database generally includes the price, identification number (SKU), image or other multi-media information, product options or choices.

shopping list (i.e. list of selected products) allows users to track the items they want to purchase. A shopping cart image is generally used to show what items the shopper has selected for purchase. In order for the shopping cart to function properly, the user’s computer must be set to allow “cookies”.

The checkout system allows customers to select products by clicking an “add items to cart” button and then enables them to pay for these products.

2. Secure server

The secure server helps provide protection against the loss or modification of personal information. Secure Socket Layer (SSL) is the most commonly used technology for secure online transactions. SSL encrypts (or codes) all data between the shop’s server and the customer’s computer. This makes it very difficult for third parties to decode any information exchanged such as credit card numbers.

The following diagram shows how a secure server can protect information passed between the consumer and the merchant.

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