Online Stores, and 10 Questions to Ask When Building One

Online stores are fast becoming more than a simple way to shop. they're becoming the first (and often …

Online stores are fast becoming more than a simple way to shop, they’re becoming the first (and often only) way consumers shop.  If you’ve already had the experience of selling goods in a physical (“bricks and mortar”) business but you have yet to expand into the online world of online stores, you’re missing a sizeable market that isn’t defined by your local geography but like any expansion, has risks that you’ll first want to understand.

Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot of questions by people venturing into online sales for the first time and here are 10 questions that I believe every store owner should ask before opening an online store:

How important is the look of my online store?

With the success of big box retailers, and online mega stores such as Amazon online, the look of an online store has evolved to contain some very well defined features, so while it’s key that your website look and feel like your own business branding, the overall site design is often fairly consistent with the shopping experience of all online stores. You should have for example, a checkout page, and a shopping cart in the primary navigation, privacy and shipping details in the secondary menus, and clear product photos throughout your site.

Your unique colours, logo, branding, and photos will be key to making your eCommerce website look unique to your business. The overall design of your eCommerce website is handled with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to ensure your website looks great on desktop machines, as well an mobile and tablet devices.

The website makes use of fairly accepted eCommerce design principles to help shoppers quickly find and purchase products without distracting visitors with complex branding or unique navigation. Likewise, your business eCommerce website should focus on selling product with a clean, easy to navigate website.

If you’re looking for more tips for marketing your website, here are some of my recent marketing posts:

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How much detail should I put into each product?

Unlike your retail store, customers don’t get to physically touch the products to determine if it’s what they’re looking for, so quality photographs and clear text are the next best thing.  As part of my eCommerce design services, I offer product photography services for our clients, but if you’re going to do it yourself take the time to use a great camera and photograph the product against a neutral background, as well as some showing the item(s) in context to give people an idea of size, weight, colour, etc.

Product descriptions should be short, but detailed rich. Remember to evoke an emotion and describe the produce uses, or defining details.

How do I accept online payments?

The fastest way for businesses to accept payments online is with PayPal, they’re a respected online payment gateway and have an introductory service which takes 2.9% and 30¢ per transaction for secure online payments. While these changes can add up for small merchants, they are often lower than a dedicated payment processor.

PayPal Pro,, and Stripe are excellent payment gateway providers which, unlike PayPal Standard, allow shoppers to stay on your website during the entire payment process and helps to reinforce your business image. While you’re not storing client credit details online, there are however security concerns which require your store to have an SSL certificate (~$100 per year) before accepting these payment methods.

How are shipping costs determined?

A good eCommerce solution should be able to handle multiple means of calculating shipping, from free, or fixed shipping, to real time calculators which will fetch data from popular shipping companies such as Canada Post, and UPS.

What about customer service?

Responding to customer enquiries quickly, even if you don’t have the full answer for them, is often the most effective way to win the support and loyalty of busy online shoppers. Remember, unlike retail stores, the visitor has seconds to make a decision to try elsewhere if they’re not convinced you have the right option.

I recommend using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool as part of your eCommerce solution to help keep all client information and chats in a single place for easy searching and followups. These days, tying that CRM solution to an on staff phone, and monitoring social media channels for online enquiries is also key to ensuring your business stays on top of customer questions.

How do I handle returns?

Returns are one of the biggest headaches for all retailers, online as well as in the real world and it’s best to effectively communicate with your customers prior to their purchase what your return policies are, and inform them of any restocking fees. It’s also vital to communicate effectively with the client throughout the return process, to let them know that you’re taking care of their concerns.

Should I allow reviews?

It’s always a risk to let customers leave reviews on products, but if you’re confident in your inventory, and keen to build your business, online reviews offer a trusted third party source for shippers to gain confidence, not only in the product, but in your store’s ability to serve them.

Remember to have a clear Terms of Use policy that outlines how your reviews are collected, as well as a Privacy Policy that’ll allow you to collect their details within your government’s regulations.

How much should an eCommerce website cost?

I’m a big believer is starting small when it comes to eCommerce websites, and building larger once your site proves that it will generate both the traffic, and the profit to warrant more investment. eCommerce websites can start for as little as $1,500 and average about $10,000 to build a quality started website for a small to medium sized store.

How do we generate visitors?

eCommerce traffic is vital to the success of an online store, the more traffic generated, the more changes that you’ll have to sell products to consumers. Creating a marketing campaign for your online store is about generating awareness both online and off. Place your website address in the footer of your email, and on your real world promotional materials, link to your store from your primary site, and send out newsletters to your clients.

Successful social media campaigns designed to generate shares and likes with daily updates to popular services such as Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube are all great ways to increase your online success, as well as optimizing your website for organic traffic with search engine optimization.

How can you tell if it’s working?

The easiest answer of course is, “are you selling enough product” but using Google Analytics and inline tracking tools to determine where your visitors are coming from, and how much money they’re spending on your website is the best means to determine your success rate.