The ubiquity, democracy and power of the internet has enabled millions of people across the globe to enter the ecommerce marketplace, either as a consumer or a retailer. However, accessibility doesn't guarantee success and competition has never been so tough, so here are five top tips to give your ecommerce site the best possible chance of success.
Consumers are smart; consumers are savvy. More so every day. The average customer is capable of comparing prices online in very little time and stats show there is very little brand loyalty. The products you have listed on your site must be competitively priced in order to compete with other ecommerce sites. Unless you are selling a unique product, this should be a priority.
People expect an easy-to-navigate, mobile-friendly site in order to purchase their products. The key word here is expect. Online customers are presented with a plethora of consumer engaging sites that utilise call-to-action buttons, SEO-friendly content and tactically placed advertisements, none of which take away from the overall usability of the site. Quick, convenient and aesthetically pleasing should be your principle boxes to tick.
This is an obvious priority, but an interesting insight. Most products on the high street are priced between 70-80% above their production or purchase costs. This varies between product and marketplace, but ecommerce, as a general rule, is no different. Without the need to store products or pay for distribution (unless you do intend to do this), your costs are automatically lower. Understanding exactly what your costs are, your margins and thus your profit (creating a proper business plan helps crystalise this) is maximised. Every penny counts.
Unlike a shop, where the customer's experience is determined by the store aesthetics and shop staff, convenience and neutrality win the day in ecommerce. An essential aspect of this is quick loading times and engaging call-to-action buttons. A customer will lose interest quickly in your site if the page loading times are long. Customers expect a speedy website that isn't slowed down by dated tech. Time is money.
The customer is always right and engaging with them, either with complaints or requests for further information, is absolutely crucial. Don't leave them hanging on. Angry customers can easily spread bad reviews and negative comments online that dissuade potential customers. Remaining professional and friendly in the public's eye will control those negative reviews. Even bad can be spun positively if you deal with it quickly, efficiently and solve their problem or answer their query.
Alternative finance is fast becoming the go-to place for business loans, especially as there are so many options to choose from. A host of alternative lenders that provide invoice discounting, merchant cash advances, peer-to-peer lending, crowdfunding and online business loans have been popping up over the last few years offering their services to SMEs and investors, mainly because banks have turned these businesses away.
Since the recession, banks have become stricter with their lending and this has made it more difficult for small businesses to acquire much needed funding. Whether the finance is for company expansion, 'plugging a gap' or for future investment, alternative finance providers have been giving what businesses want: capital to grow.
While this type of lending can be a great solution, it's wise to look at all the risks - especially what might happen further down the line. The FCA recently revealed it was concerned with how certain crowdfunding websites presented information on risk, indicating there was an aspect of 'unrealism' and that perhaps these websites were being too optimistic in their wording.
If the borrower were to become insolvent, this could create a number of problems, not only for the directors and alternative lender or investor, but also for the insurer who underwrites the loan. The director of the insolvent company could also be personally liable for the business debt if they agreed to a personal guarantee with the alternative lender.
A personal guarantee (PG) is where an individual has guaranteed personally the amount owed will be paid back. This sounds obvious, but in many cases company directors have made PGs with a lender believing that because they've borrowed the money for the company, the debt would disappear if the company went bust. Of course, this is not the case.
When assessing a company for risk, you should bear in mind in that the company could have borrowed from multiple alternative lenders to pay back historic debts at high levels of interest. The issue is, of course, that traditional forms of company monitoring, such as payment trends, might be less effective if companies are just borrowing to pay suppliers. There is no register of personal guarantees and they do not appear on any credit check. In effect, lenders and suppliers will need to take the directors at their word.
A number of insolvent businesses we've seen have had at least three or four loans from alternative lenders. Is there a false sense of security due to the possible over-valuation of a personal guarantee?
Many lenders have underwritten their debts with an insurance company. Do these insurance companies realise that personal guarantees are being given out left, right and centre? The risk is if some businesses turn sour, the costs of insuring their debts will increase.
In another twist, it is now possible for companies to insure their personal guarantee. This means the insurer could be insuring both the borrower and the lender. If there is a sudden shock to the economy, such factors may well amplify the consequences, as everyone realises that the risk is not spread across the system.
The government will always want to protect the investor in the peer-to-peer lending system because they are not deemed as sophisticated investors. From April this year, peer to peer lending became regulated by the FCA, which will offer some protection to both the investor and lender. However, anyone over the age of 18 is still free to gamble, resulting in a strong pool of available money.
It is important that business owners are aware of the risks and don't just use alternative finance as a sticking plaster over the real problem. The business may not be viable or the business structure could fundamentally need to change.
Copyright © 2015 Keith Steven, managing director of KSA Group. He has been rescuing and turning around businesses for more than 20 years, working with firms in every industry. He is author of the site www.companyrescue.co.uk.
If you've decided to pay to have a website built for your business, it's important to choose an agency that will listen to your needs, involve you in the planning and then produce a website that exceeds your expectations and attracts new customers. You'll be entrusting them with your brand, so you must choose a professional and well-established team.
It can be quite overwhelming selecting which agency to use, because there are so many to choose from. However, here are six key questions you need to ask prospective suppliers.
A good agency will discuss your exact requirements before sending you a written proposal with a quote for the work and an outline of what's included. Ideally the proposal will be sent with terms and conditions.
You should fully understand what is and isn't included before you make any payments or agreements. Check the following:
It's likely that you'll be required to supply all content and images for your website, however a professional agency will be able to help with content or buying stock images if required. You should talk to them about this during the initial discussions to ensure that they include it in the proposal.
A well-established agency should have an impressive website that includes a portfolio of their projects. Check out other websites they've created to get a better idea about the quality of their work.
Most creative agencies will have testimonials on their website and they may even feature on review sites. Read these. You could even ask if it's possible to speak to a previous client to ask about their experiences.
You need to ask how long it will take for the design and build process, because you must ensure this is in line with your needs. Any time frames given will depend largely on your cooperation with regards to discussing design and functionality, as well as your supplying photos and content when required. The web designer may need to contact you during the development stage, so it's essential that you provide feedback promptly to avoid delays with launch.
You should trust your instincts and think about your first impressions of the agency. Bear in mind that you may be working with them for many weeks during the website design and build process, and possibly many months and years afterwards if they assist you with ongoing web maintenance and development. So, you'll need to have a good working relationship with them. Here are some questions that you should ask yourself:
If your business has unwanted technology and gadgets to get rid of, there's a new option for you to try: you can now trade them in at Argos stores
The retail giant claims this is the first initiative of its type offered by a generalist UK retailer. And it says it'll give you on the spot quotes for your old tablets and smart phones.
If you're happy with what they offer, you can have the amount credited to an Argos gift card, which you can then spend on anything in the company's famous catalogue.
Argos, in partnership with circular economy experts WRAP, has introduced the new service at all its 788 UK stores.
The programme aims to give customers an easy way to realise the value of unwanted gadgets, while also helping the high street store to build customer loyalty and brand value.
This new service is the result of the EU Life+ funded REBus project which, led by WRAP, helps companies implement resource-efficient business models. It's all about the circular economy, where products, and their materials, stay in use for longer.
WRAP's research estimates that UK householders have unused electrical equipment worth around £1bn. That's a huge number of gadgets and appliances sitting idle, so it's no surprise that two-thirds of people surveyed said they'd be willing to trade in tech products with reputable retailers.
Gadgets traded in at Argos are sent away and securely wiped. They then get refurbished and resold.
"As a leading technology retailer we know that our customers are looking for solutions to responsibly dispose of unwanted gadgets when they replace or trade-up devices," explains Amy Whidburn, head of corporate responsibility at Argos.
"Depending on the response from customers, we may extend the scheme to include other electrical items in the future, such as camera, sat-navs or laptops."
The scheme could be a convenient way to make use of any abandoned gadgets in your business. What's lurking in your drawers and cupboards?
In a fiercely competitive market you must seize every opportunity to attract new business. At the first point of contact with a prospective client, it's important to demonstrate that your business has a credible offering that stands out above the competition. Regardless of how you decide to attract online traffic, that first point of contact is usually one of the key landing pages of your website. You need to follow a number of rules to ensure these pages are as effective as possible.
The design of your landing page makes an instant impression. Elements such as colour, layout, typography and imagery all register in the brain before the visitor has time to read and interpret your content. They will make a judgement almost immediately. Good design instills trust and confidence, so a positive impression will affect how they perceive future dealings with your business. It's important not to compromise on design.
The copy on your landing page should support your engaging headline and any illustrations must be relevant. Avoid any visual 'padding' that doesn't really add anything. If done well, infrographics can become highly sharable content. Most people won't read every word; they skim pages for keywords. Subheadings should relate to the headline and clearly indicate what the section underneath contains.
For customers to be prepared to reveal their personal and financial details for a transaction, you must create trust and confidence in your business. Certificates demonstrating that you subscribe to web security schemes, such as VeriSign, will help to allay concerns, as will third-party testimonials and awards. Additionally, careful attention to grammar and spelling is crucial.
Usually a link that encourages the user to click-through, your call to action (CTA) should be impossible to miss. Telling the user exactly what they need to do next is the most effective way to generate a conversion. Always keep your CTA highly visible and adjacent to the reader's focus. Test different versions to identity which ones deliver the best results.
The easier your website it is to use, the more people will use it. Intuitive design means that when a user sees it, they know exactly what to do. The less a person has to do to reach their goal, the more likely they are to complete the task. Your website can be one of the most effective selling tools at your disposal. By taking the opportunity to make the right first impression, a good landing page can help to give your sales a welcome boost.
Running your own sole trader business doesn't necessarily mean having to do everything yourself, and it's important to think carefully about how and when to call on the help and expertise of others. Here are some areas for which you might want to make use of a helping hand…
For lots of new business, marketing can be one of the more fun tasks. Creative promotion might seem like one of those areas you can do yourself; choose a logo, build your own website, stay active on Twitter, etc. And then before long other concerns seem more pressing, and you realise that common sense and enthusiasm only get you so far. Having someone keep an eye on your online (and offline) marketing each week – beyond the 'honeymoon period' – could prove vital to your success and momentum.
Here's a question. Do you know the difference between bookkeeping and accounting? The first refers to your day-to-day entering of incomings and outgoings; the second uses this information to build a more complex picture of your business's financial status and prospects.
You may have learned some key number-crunching skills already, but that still might not mean you're the best person for the job. An external expert may not care as deeply about your business as you, but in a funny way this can be good. Having someone keep track of the figures in a dispassionate way can help you to stay on course.
In the early stages, you might not be able to imagine how or why your business would face any legal problems. But there's an awful lot to keep an eye on – from employees' rights to health and safety. Having a supportive point of contact for legal advice and assistance is something you'll probably never regret.
This one is more about the psychology of it all. Yes, you're probably able to keep your place of work clean and tidy. And yes, you might be able to do this every day or two. But cleaning is another way in which your life and your business can start to feel like the same thing – and not in a good way. Arriving at a pre-cleaned place of work is one of those little extras that could make all the difference to your state of mind as an impossibly busy sole trader.
Copyright © 2015 Joseph O'Brien, who writes on business topics for Bookcheck.