America’s Depot, a new full-service office supply ecommerce store, has just launched.
Seems like a great time to talk about the challenges of online retail.
America’s Depot was designed by Tristan Pittard of TaGG Studios and implemented by Nathan Mills on the Magento platform. Magento claims to be the most popular ecommerce platform in the world, and I see no reason to disbelieve them. It’s an open source CMS big enough to handle lots of products.It’s used by companies like Samsung and The North Face.
It’s also known for being slow, complicated to work with, and expensive (though, since it’s open source, it’s possible to use it for free if you don’t want the support of the enterprise version). Their native search is terrible, too, but there are extensions to help with that — and with many other issues, too. We’d never use it for companies with just a few products, but it can be a good choice for serious retail.
This is a good example of the first challenge of ecommerce: the shopping cart. It used to be that everyone hated their ecommerce shopping carts, though there are now enough choices that we don’t hear this as much any more. We usually use WordPress for small-scale ecommerce, and have had great results with Shopp (check out Trout Fishing in America) and with WP Ecommerce (check out FreshPlans). I’ve worked with the CMS of osCommerce, Volusion, and I forget all the rest, and I think it’s fair to say that all of them have their quirks but they can all be figured out with determination. Web Appers reviews 15 of them if you want details, but your best bet is likely to be choosing the one your developer knows best.
Once you’ve chosen a platform, give yourself reasonable time to get all your products into the database. You may be able to upload much of your list, but remember that the descriptions you use affect your search success. Good, unique descriptions make a big difference to your success. Multiply the number of items you plan to offer by 3-5 minutes each, at least, and schedule time to get all the products into the online catalog.
It’s probably fair to say that the one sure thing about the second challenge of ecommerce — getting all your products into the catalog — is that it will take longer than you think it will.
The third challenge is fulfillment. America’s Depot is working with a business wholesaler, and they’re smart to do that. I’ve worked in the past with folks who thought they’d save money by packing up all the products and shipping them to customers themselves, but it usually didn’t work out that way. Unless warehousing and shipping is actually the center of your business, or you really have just a few products, it can easily cost you more to do it yourself.
If you’re planning to manage your own fulfillment, try it out before you make a firm decision. Determine all the costs, including packaging, postage, and the price of taking packages to the shipper or arranging for pickup. Pack up some imaginary orders and measure the time involved in doing so. Calculate the cost of keeping all your products on hand, or of arranging rush shipments to fill an order quickly.
Modern shoppers expect to get their stuff fast and they resent paying for shipping. They’re intolerant of out of stock items, too. Get a reputation for poor customer service, and you’ll be out of business fast. That’s why you have to figure it out before you launch your site. You may not get orders when you’re first launched — but you might. Screwing up your first few because you haven’t worked out the details is a sure recipe for failure.
Payment is the next issue to consider. PayPal and Google Cart offer ways to accept payment with little upfront cost, but the percentage of the payment that goes for fees is high, and some shoppers are still nervous about using these services or unwilling to set up accounts before shopping. You should plan to accept credit cards, and you must make sure that you have a secure means of doing so. We use Authorize.net and PayPal, but there are plenty of alternatives. Sitepoint has a list. Since there are laws governing this industry, you may be safe just choosing the cheapest option, but be sure to count all the extra fees. Consider whether you’ll need to accept American Express, whether you’ll ever want to accept physical cards (at a trade show, for example), and which services mesh well with your shopping cart solution.
Got all that sorted? You still need a great website and a good integrated online marketing plan if you intend to make money from your ecommerce venture. America’s Depot is using social media including blogging, a community service program, email marketing, ongoing SEO, and paid advertising. If your plan is “if build it, they will come,” you should do a bit more planning before you get started.
This list may seem daunting, but it’s much less complex — and less expensive –than building a physical store. Ecommerce is easier than IRL retail in many ways. Just don’t let that fact blind you to the real challenges of ecommerce.
November and December are peak times for ecommerce, no matter what you’re selling. People are in the mood to shop. This makes it a good time to take a look at your ecommerce site and make sure that everything is ready.
- Does your cart work? This sounds obvious, but we often find that site owners don’t realize when things are broken. If it’s been a while since you gave your cart a test run, do it now and make certain that everything is behaving as it should.
- Have you updated your featured products? Look back through previous analytics to see what kinds of products sell best at this time of year, do research to identify this season’s top trends, and make sure that all the items you’re featuring are actually available, and that they’re the latest models.
- Does your site need some spiffing up? Unless you make what you’re selling, your customers can buy the same items elsewhere. You have to make sure that they have a reason to buy from you: your site is filled with helpful information, you make it fun to shop, or they just like you and your company. If your site doesn’t look its best at this time of year, you may be missing out on significant sales, so fix it now.
A young cousin of mine asked how she could best set up an e-commerce site for her fledgling graphic design business. She’s planning to offer custom business cards for $100 a thousand, among other things. Like many new businesspeople, her goal is to keep her costs down while she sets up her business, and she can do all the design work herself, so she’s looking for the simplest option.
There are some questions you need to ask yourself when you want to get your feet wet with ecommerce:
- Do you have a brick and mortar store? A click and mortar operation certainly has an advantage. You can take credit cards and handle inventory through your current system, and you have staff to answer phone calls. Adding an online store can be very simple. However, the days when you could just list your products and tell visitors to call you and order are long gone. You’ll need a shopping cart and a secure way to take credit card information. If you use a stock catalog, the company that puts that together for you will probably have a stock website offer as well. Compare that option with the other options listed here to determine which is the best for your particular shop.
- Can you offer your stuff as a service instead of with a shopping cart? Some copywriters have ecommerce websites, so you can put that $1000 marketing kit into your basket and pick up a press release at the same time, but I just invoice my clients each month. My cousin can do the same; custom design work is a service as much as it is a product. As long as she makes it easy for clients to reach her, she can avoid the ecommerce dilemma entirely.
- Can you sell your stuff as an affiliate? Many of the items you might wish to sell can be done through affiliate marketing arrangements. Your profit on the items will be lower, but once you count the costs of the whole supply chain — getting the items, packing them and shipping them, handling the transactions — you may find it more practical to approach your selling in this way. While many people who do affiliate marketing earn very little, that may reflect the small investment required; many people do this on the level of a hobby and feel happy when they pick up $20.00. Approaching this kind of e-commerce just as you would if you manufactured the goods can get good results.
- Do you want a storefront? There are many choices for setting up an online store, from mass market solutions like Volusion to custom ones like Visual Cart. While you’ll choose the right one for you on the basis of cost, number of items you have to sell, and personal preference, none of these choices will do magic for you. You’ll still need optimization and marketing to succeed.
- Can you just add a cart to your website? If you plan to sell your items from your blog or your company website, you can simply add a PayPal button or a WordPress e-commerce plugin or a Google Checkout application. Be aware that all of these options require some technical skill. If you have a custom site, or are planning to have one, just ask your designer or developer to add one of these options for you. Cost and features vary considerably, and the overall effectiveness from the standpoint of design will depend on the skill of the person who implements it for you. If you’re using Adwords already, Google comes in very cheaply. PayPal gives customers the option of debiting payments directly from their bank accounts, and lets you do international transactions. Which of these — or comparable — solutions works best for you depends on the details of your business.
When you consider your options, consider scalability, too — that is, what will your next step be if you outgrow your first choice? Paying for more than you need at the beginning may or may not be a wise decision, depending how big your plans are, but you certainly don’t want to have a plan that will only work if you’re not successful.
Here’s the old site design:
The image of Barbara Steeps, “The Hog Lady,” is a favorite poster of hers, and she likes the happy excitement it shows. Unfortunately, this design doesn’t show visitors what this site is about or how to shop here.
It’s an ecommerce site, but visitors have to scroll waaay down in order to see a link or indeed any hint at all of the existence of a catalog. The content listed towns in which the client had previously had stores but now doesn’t, with just a quick mention of the online store and its contents — below the fold, for humans, and search engines would have to conclude that the list of towns was the important part.
Developer Carla Romere had pristine coding, and a well-built catalog, but the usability and search issues made this site unprofitable.
Here’s the new site:
Tom kept the poster, but added a subtle Razorback (subtlety’s important for licensing reasons, but it also gives a sophisticated air that I love) and a crowd scene that works perfectly with Barbara’s poster. The poster is set at a jaunty angle that highlights the navigation.
The same design works for the About Us page, which sports a picture of Barbara and her husband Bob with their vehicle — a common sight around town on game day.
I’ve given her some keyword-rich content, too, so people will be better able to find her online. With a bulleted list of the most popular searches in the category of Razorback merchandise, this new design will give clear signals to the search engines and also let visitors see at a glance that they’ve come to the right place to get those Razorback shower curtains and hog noses.
Don’t worry if you can’t figure out the point of this. If you’re not a Razorback fan, you just wouldn’t understand.
The point, for the purpose of this discussion, is that we’ve gotten an exciting new look, a clear purpose and call to action, and a site that should do great things for The Hoglady’s business. We’re going to have Josepha do a linkbuilding campaign, and Barbara is using a blog to showcase new product and Twitter to keep in touch with fellow Razorback fans. Both her blog and her Twitter link are readily visible on her main pages.
What made this project go so quickly?
- It’s not a complete redesign of the entire site — we didn’t touch the catalog — but just of the pages that make the most difference for search and conversions.
- The clients had a clear goal, and we developed a clear strategy for them from the beginning.
- Rosamond, Project Manager on this job, insisted that we have all the images and information before we began. That let the clients sit back and relax while Tom and I did the work.
Depending how fast the webmaster is, you might click on the pictures here and see the old site. Old or new, you’ll still get to hear the calling of the hogs, which might be an entertaining way to spend 15 seconds of your day.
Tom and I are working on a very fun e-commerce website right now. The owners are fun, their products are fun, the customers are fun, it’s just a fun project all around.
At the moment, the owners probably aren’t having any fun at all.
The reason is that as I tried out their website in the course of my basic research, I found that the user experience wasn’t what the owners expected.
- There’s no link to the catalog — or even any hint of the existence of a catalog –until way at the bottom of the page, where people would have to scroll to find it. And most don’t.
- Before you can shop, you have to fill out quite a long form. You can’t even check on shipping before you do this.
- When you click the button to put something in your shopping cart, you get a big notice warning you that the security certificate has expired.
- If you persevere in spite of that, you find that the payment information form has some odd features — the name of the company that does the processing is right above the place for shoppers to give their info, and the form is built differently from most credit card forms. Enough people are antsy about online security that the payment info section is just not the place to be creative. It should look and behave like all the other credit card forms the customers see every day.
- If you got to wondering about the company and wanted to contact them to find out what was going on, you would quickly discover that there was no contact information anywhere — not so much as a phone number.
We’re talking about a very unusable site, here.
The owners of the site were surprised by this. They had never tried it out.
Try out your site. See what happens when you try to find it, or try to shop there, or try to — well, whatever you want people to do at your site. How hard is it? How fun is it?
Are you surprised?
When you do online retail sales, your content may be primarily a catalog: pictures and brief descriptions of your products. People are coming to shop with you, after all, so they just need to see the goods. Your thoughts about your online presence may be mostly about your shopping cart.
But keyword-rich content can do wonders for your e-commerce business. Particularly if what you sell is a commodity — that is, people can buy the same things from many sellers — then you need to give your customers a reason to buy from you, not from someone else.
Providing a good shopping experience is part of that, of course. But don’t overlook the value of useful content in sending customers your way.
- Blogs can send you traffic. If people come to your blog for your valuable content, they’re likely to click through to shop as well. Obviously, your business should have a blog. But you can also benefit from content at independent blogs. Our educational site provides teachers with lesson plans, ideas for classroom themes, and useful links to other websites. It also provides links to my clients’ websites when they have something useful to the readers, and why shouldn’t it? This blog was second only to Google organic search in sending traffic to my educational supply store client, and it does a good job for other clients as well.
- Articles can send you traffic. Good, interesting articles at respectable article supply sites are often republished, increasing the influence of the links placed there. As with any use of content for marketing, the information has to be honest and useful. Answers to questions your customers ask you can be a great starting point for this type of article. If someone asked you, there are probably plenty of people asking Google. Providing the answer demonstrates your expertise and brings people who need your products to your website.
- Content on your own site can bring search traffic in. The content I write in support of people’s products often ends up higher for search than their websites, where they may have only that photo and description. I figure that’s okay, since visitors are likely to click through to the client’s website. However, making the descriptions on your website richer is likely to bring visitors to you directly. Add a recipe for your cooking ingredients, or a fashion tip for the clothing you’re selling, and you not only add value for your customers, but you also give the search engines something to sink their metaphorical teeth into.
Yet last week I wrote about a client who has had a 600% increase in online sales in the past year, with only a slight increase in traffic. And I currently have a client whose traffic is down slightly, even though they’ve moved to the front page of Google for their top keywords.
Increased traffic is good, but it’s not the only thing to look at. Here are some questions to ask when you think about your traffic:
- Are your visitors actually your customers? People visiting my website after typing in “internet service provider” probably aren’t looking for the kind of internet services I provide — they’re probably looking for an internet hosting company. Increasing their numbers isn’t going to do me much good. If your well-targeted traffic increases and your random traffic decreases, you can see improved results without much increased traffic.
- Are your visitors in your service area? International traffic is cool, but your lawn care service won’t benefit from it. If you only work with local customers, then you should ignore traffic from elsewhere and look for increases in your local area only.
- Are your visitors taking action? It can take some time for people to move from visiting to taking action, but if you see increasing traffic with no conversion over a long period, then you’re not getting the return on your investment that you need. This particular question can be hard to answer if you’re not an e-commerce site, but you’ll want to notice whether visitors move through your website the way you planned. Make sure that you’re taking into account those who visit online and then walk into your shop. And of course with Pay Per Click it’s all about conversions — if you’re paying for traffic and they’re not paying you, then increased traffic isn’t good.
- Are your visitors showing seasonal change? It’s essential to compare apples to apples, not to oranges. The client I mentioned earlier who has had a dip in traffic is seeing a normal seasonal downturn. The one who has had a huge increase in sales but slight increase in traffic is up 49% over last month — for Back to School — but only 12% over last year at the same time.
Increased organic traffic is never a bad thing online. You don’t pay for extra staff or higher electric bills from having visitors, even if they’re not from your service area or not taking action. Larger numbers of visitors can increase your chances of gaining organic links or of drawing the attention of people who will become your customers. And sometimes there’s a gap between when visitors find you and when they begin shopping with you or calling you.
But it’s important not to focus on that single metric without looking at the others.
A lot of the websites I’ve been working with lately have things that need to be moved. I’m advising one to get that “Download a Free Trial” button up where people can see it, another to put the name of the product in the Look at Me spot at the top of the page, a third to let their portfolio page show images to greater advantage.
“Get the goods into the shop window!” I seem to be saying a lot of the time.
But there is such a thing as having too much of your stuff in your shop window, too blatantly, and too fast.
Look at this homepage:
It has all these nice images — and just as many more below the fold — laid out rather like classified ads.
The effect is sort of overwhelming.
It’s hard to get any overall sense of the company from this: you can’t see the forest for the trees.
BruiseMD doesn’t have so many different products, but they’ve actually got their customers checking out from the home page.
Both these companies make products which are specialized and new to many people. It makes sense in these cases to let the homepage introduce the product, the company, the concept even — and then have the actual shopping going on at another page.
If you look at the navigation bars of these two pages, you’ll see that each actually has a “Products” page, and Sweetiques has a store as well. They’ve just let the e-commerce content creep out onto the homepage.
Make sure that your essential message is highly visible, as BruiseMD has. They have the name of their product and what it does right up in the upper left hand corner where the visitors’ eyes will naturally start reading their page. The “value proposition,” as my client in the financial sector puts it, should be clear and immediately visible.
But then consider a little subtlety. Invite your visitors in. Let them get to know you. Make it easy to shop, but don’t make the visitor feel that nothing else is going on at your website. (Check out “Friction at Your Website” for some further thoughts on this point.) Let the customers click to go to the catalog, mentally prepared to see all the goods.
The result will be a more upmarket look, a more useful site, and just as much shopping.
Friction is a key concept in transportation, but it’s also an important idea in commerce. Economist Thomas Friedman describes human contact during commerce as “friction.”
You drive up to the gas pump, slide your card, pump your gas, take your receipt from the machine, and drive off. No human contact, just the essentials of the transaction. Compared with having someone come out to your car and ask what you want, fill your gas tank, clean your windshield, accept payment, take it inside to complete the transaction, bring your your change or a bill to sign, exchange some concluding pleasantries — well, the friction slows the transaction down, doesn’t it?
You can find the same contrast at websites. One e-commerce site may give you an opportunity to arrive signed in, select items from your past purchase list, and be out of there with a click or two. Another may tempt you with special offers, include a blog and tips and a community to chat in, and generally be a virtual hangout.
Do you want a smooth transaction at your website, or do you want some friction?
- What are you selling? If you have a commodity for sale, something that people need and will buy anywhere they can get it cheaply and easily, then you don’t want friction. You want to get that car insurance, battery, or hotel reservation into the consumer’s virtual hands as fast and painlessly as possible. If you’re selling an experience, or something that people have to think about for awhile before committing to, then you need some friction.
- Can you upsell? Maybe your customers arrive with something basic in mind — a packet of green tea — but could be persuaded to hang around. Offer some recipes and health information, and they might add some matcha and mochi bites to the order.
- Don’t forget the basics. I visited the website of a local bookstore last night in the city where I’m visiting. There’s a lot at that website — book lists, history, events… I may go back and read it sometime. It made the store look interesting to me, and might be something that keeps the regulars coming back. However, I wanted to go to the bookstore. Hours. location, maybe a phone number would have been handy for me. In this case, the friction could have prevented me from visiting the bookstore, and I walked out (once I found the place) with a dozen books. Basic info above the fold would have been a smart choice.
As with so many other issues of web design and web content, it comes down to usability. Figure out what your customers want to be able to accomplish without friction: getting your contact information, making simple repeated purchases, checking their accounts. Make those things easy.
Then offer a bit of community, a bit of opportunity for play or learning — a bit of friction.
The problem here is the common one of imagining our visitors coming to our website and experiencing it just as we planned it. They’ll start at our homepage, we figure, then read all the information about our company and all the details about our products, and then, having seen everything we have for them, they’ll make a considered decision about the best button to click on. They’ll go over to our Call to Action page, of course, be called, and take that action.
This isn’t actually how it works.
Consider this web page. You are seeing the entire call to action for the page: “close.”
If you click on that button (and, yes, it is a clickable button, the only one, down at the bottom of the page where people must scroll down to find it — that’s another problem entirely), the page simply closes.
There is a page at this website that explains how to order. You are supposed to call the company, having perused the list of goodies on offer, and tell them what you want. You were supposed to have gotten to this list by clicking a button and having this page pop up. That way, when you click on “close,” you’ll return to the “how to order” page.
Google Analytics tells us that a quarter of the people who make it to this page got there first. It was their landing page. They were searching, perhaps, for some nice pig spleens, they found this page, they thought five spleens for $65 was a good price, and they were set to order — but there is no contact information on this page, no navigation, and no way to buy that pig spleen.
Compare with this page:
These handy buttons are on each page, in the same place every time. Wherever I land in this website, I am invited to contact the company and to invite my friends to check out the website.
I am much more likely to get a fishing trip than a pig spleen.
Here’s one more example.
This website offers different calls to action on different pages. The page shown, which is for individuals, should get a different group of visitors from the page for corporate visitors. There is, therefore, a different call to action.
If we look at the first, highly unsuccessful page and compare it with the other two, we can find a simple rule for the call to action on a website: there should be one. On every page. Where people can find it.
The client who wants a “call to action” page won’t get one. She’ll get something much more effective.
As consumers, we have a lot of things about prices in our heads. We have some price points stored, for one thing. These vary from one person to another, and one community to another, but they’re surprisingly fixed for each of us.
For example, in my neighborhood, $15 is the price of a birthday gift for a kid’s birthday party. When we go shopping for that kind of thing, we pretty much just look at items in that price range.
It’s almost a definition: the price of a sandwich is $6.00, the price of a haircut is $30… It’s not that we don’t know, if these are our definitions, that 99 cent sandwiches and $200 haircuts exist. They’re exceptions to our rule, though, and we’re less likely to consider them than people whose schemata for the world include the price of a sandwich is 99 cents and the price of a haircut is $200.
We also have information about how prices are presented on websites. If it’s a good price, then it’ll be in large numbers on the homepage: ONLY $9.95! If it’s on its own separate pricing page, then we’re looking at a moderate price. If there are no prices anywhere on the website, then we’re in “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” territory.
One of my clients has a problem with this issue. She has one product essentially, with two different delivery systems. One option is $24.95. To me, that’s the price of a haircut, a pizza, a book. If I’m convinced that I need the item, I’ll just click on it and buy. The other option is $600 plus a per-use fee. $600, to me, is a month’s groceries for a family, a modest vacation, a nice software package. I’m not going to click on that and buy it just like that. I’d want more information.
Here’s the problem: the website currently gives the same user experience for both options. The prospective buyer goes to a contact form. Fill it out, a salesperson will call.
If I’m going for the $24.95 option, I don’t expect a sales call. The possibility of a sales call, in fact, will cause me not to buy it. I don’t expect a personal pitch and a cup of coffee every time I buy a book. If I have to fill out a contact form in order to buy something at that price, I suspect that there’s more to it — a forceful upsell, a pricey subscription, modeling school?
But if I’m going to invest $600 and then also pay a per-use fee, I figure I deserve that cup of coffee. I have questions to ask the salesperson.
The solution is two different paths for the two different prices.
I’m working on a non-profit website that has a similar situation. Visitors are asked to enjoy lots of wonderful resources for free. They’re also asked, if they want to help keep those resources free, to consider contributing to the project in a number of different ways: become a fan on Facebook, give $5 a month, sponsor a book to the tune of $54,000.
You don’t have to woo people much to link to your excellent resource. You have to impress them a whole lot to contribute what some people would define as the price of a year’s work. You don’t want to alarm the casual visitor with a donation request like that. Neither do you want to make it difficult for the enthusiastic donor to offer that significant donation.
One of the designers I’m currently working with,Tom, sent me a link to an ecommerce site that finesses the whole question of price by leaving that information out — but also describes the product as “affordable.” Oh yeah? Yet the website that Tom and I are working on says nothing about price. It’s about custom-developed software. Visitors won’t expect such a product/service to be the equivalent of a sandwich or a haircut, even if it’s affordable custom-developed software. Nor will they expect to be able to put such a thing into a shopping basket with a click.
Check your website with this in mind. Does the mechanism you offer your visitors jibe with the mental set-up they have for your product and its pricing? Does the path fit the level of investment you’re asking for?
A number of my clients are artists and craftspeople: jewelers, writers, musicians, and the like. For working artists, the internet can be a great blessing, creating entirely new venues in which they can sell their creations without renting space or traveling to the next show or fair.
The question is: how can you get that web presence? Here are your basic options:
- You can sell things from an information site. This can be a casual mention of what you have to sell on your free blog or MySpace page, or it can be a professionally designed website. The “information” part means that you don’t have a shopping cart, and people have to buy things either by contacting you directly or by going to some other site to shop. An example of an information site is my website, where you are now. People wanting to sell their wares in this way often link to Amazon.com (for writers and musicians, largely), Cafe Press, Etsy, or some other website where transactions can take place.
- You can sell things at a marketplace. Etsy seems to be the most popular of these, but there are lots of others (one of the many lists of Etsy alternatives for craftspeople and graphic artists can be found at Psilology’s blog). Lulu.com is one of the options for writers and musicians. The idea here is that you can sell things directly from the site, without the upfront investment of creating your own ecommerce site.
- You can create your own ecommerce site. Volusion and VisualCart are a couple of places that will set sites up for you, but you can also create your own site and install a shopping cart using software and templates. The thing that makes it an ecommerce site is that people can buy things there, directly.
One of the first things people consider when choosing among these options is price. You may be thinking that the three choices above are listed in order of price. That can be true, if we consider only the upfront price. That is, your Facebook page is free, and it costs you nothing to say, “So and so is making scarves. Message me if you want to buy one!” It costs a little bit to set yourself up in a marketplace, including listing fees or transaction fees or things of that nature. And making yourself an ecommerce site is going to cost something, even if you use a free service and pay only for your domain name.
In fact, with all three of the options above, you have a wide range of price points available, from almost nothing to quite a lot. We’ll have to talk about that in another post, or you won’t be able to read this before you finish your coffee. Now, once you’ve gotten online, what continuing costs are there?
- Time Many of those who use the marketplace option spend a lot of time in social marketing, listing their items, and otherwise cultivating their presence online. Nothing wrong with that. Marketing takes time, and it can pay off, too. However, I have spoken with a number of people with sales of a couple hundred a month or less who spend hours each day working on these websites. By comparison, a successful ecommerce website is like having an employee out there selling your stuff for you. You can keep it in good shape in an hour a week, and spend your time creating your artwork.
- Money A good ecommerce site (and I’m defining “good” here as one that’s visible to searchers and which has a good conversion rate) will probably cost you something every month, sort of like a very small rent. It might cost you some money to hire someone like me, or for advertising. You might want to do email marketing, and doing that right costs something. To me, these things are opportunities which you may not have with the other types of websites, but if your goal is to spend as little as possible, then you might see these as unfortunate costs.
- Opportunity Some kinds of websites are more likely to do well in search than others. A successful page at Etsy will probably be higher in search than an equally successful page at a less well-known marketplace. A less well-known page at Etsy, however, can be very hard to find even if your visitors make it to the Etsy main page. They are very likely to give up and buy from your competitors. Some kinds of websites are also more likely to lead to purchases than others. An announcement on an information page that requires people to call you and send a check is less likely to get shoppers than a well-designed cart that takes credit cards. Many of the free or low-cost options for ecommerce are badly designed and irritating to shoppers. This may not deter your fans, but it will affect your sales with new customers.
In my conversations with artists, I’ve found people who were happily using each of these choices. The people with their own ecommerce sites are making the most money, a fact which shouldn’t surprise anyone. What’s more, those who have professional ecommerce sites are making the most money within that group. It’s clear that anyone intending to make a living with his or her creations should budget for a good quality, professionally hosted website, secure in the knowledge that it will pay for itself many times over (mine has, though since I sell services rather than goods, it’s an information site, not an ecommerce site). The cost of doing this is so small compared with the cost of opening a physical store that none of the options is truly expensive.
But not everyone intends to make a living in this way. For some of the people I’ve spoken with, the community feeling of the marketplaces — and the time spent hanging out there — is part of the appeal. If you work alone in your studio, then having some virtual colleagues can be nice.
For some, the do it yourself nature of selling things at a homemade information site is satisfying, and having a site that looks like a store (i.e., is easy to use) would feel like selling out.
As with so many other things in life, the best path to take depends entirely on where you want to end up.
I can give you some simple, clear advice, though:
- Buy your domain name. Even if you don’t feel ready to get online yet, you need to buy the domain name of your business, or your own name if your business doesn’t have some other name. My mother, to name just one example, failed to do this, someone else bought “her_name.com,” and now she would have to pay hundreds for it. You may not think you’re famous enough to have this problem, but it’s hard to predict the future. The age of your domain is also one of the things search engines consider in gauging your trustworthiness. It costs about $10 a year, so just go ahead and get that done. (If you don’t know how, I can help you.)
- Get online as soon as possible. Since you’re going to buy your domain name (you are, right?), you can start with something sort of makeshift and switch later to something that works better. When you get a more permanent site ready, you just tell your webmaster where to point, and there’s the new site at the old web address. Since the internet has replaced the phone book in most modern households in America, you are losing sales every single day that you do not have a web presence of some kind.
- Do the math. Before you choose one approach over another, figure out what your actual costs will be. If you’re selling an item for $10 which cost you $5 to produce and you pay a listing fee and a transaction fee,which together add up to 6% of your retail price, plus an annual or monthly subscription cost, and you also have packaging and shipping and the cost of the marketing materials you add to the package, then how fast do you have to produce the item to earn the lowest hourly wage you’re willing to accept (please include all required photographing, form-filling, and online schmoozing time in your calculation)? If you can’t even read that question, let alone answer it, then get some help with the figuring before you decide how you want to sell your goods.