Introduction

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E-commerce used to be an expensive and complex game, with lots of additional hardware and software that plugged in to your existing cash flow systems, often with less than awesome results. Happily in 2016, the field is awash with simple, elegant solutions that can transform your business capabilities by increasing sales, enabling access to your store for customers around the clock and offering your brand and services to an international market that never sleeps. The small business applications available today are agile, scalable, cheaper, more intuitive and designed not as a clunky add on, but as a seamless integration in existing systems.

With worldwide business to consumer e-commerce hitting 2 trillion dollars at the end of 2015, e-commerce is a critical tool for all small businesses. With big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) in early stages of productisation, many of these systems not only process payment, but also gather demographic information about your customers allowing a tightly nuanced view of behaviour. E-commerce is convenient for your business - but more importantly for your customers. Remember how tough it was to have to key in your pin before PayWave came along? Tiny shifts in human behaviour have a big impact on the ease transactions and the reduction in barriers to purchasing behaviour.

If your business is enabled to make things as simple and as easy as possible for customers on every platform you operate in, including bricks and mortar, revenue will flow. In fact convenience will trump many other things when in comes to online transactions, with ease overtaking price and product when it comes to actually converting the sale. The fewer clicks between your customer and their payment the better. In the online environment your business can be as competitive as any of the big name brands, if fact often more so. If you have strategically sorted your SEO, your Website and your social media and are utilising the power of all three, you may well be ahead of the game from less nimble bigger operators who are relying on name alone to convert customers.

Finding what's right for your business

If it’s time for you to get serious about implementing an e-commerce solution for your business, you need to understand first of all what your business needs. You might start by asking you (and your business) some questions to begin to narrow down the functionality required. Consider the following for what your business does:

  • What type of products are you selling?
  • How many products will you have online?
  • Do you need product variations like sizes and colours?
  • Where will you sell to? Australia-wide, international, local only?
  • Does your business have intense seasonal peaks in transactions?
  • How will you collect payment? Paypal or through your bank’s merchant facility?
  • How will you calculate shipping cost?
  • Do you want to package products, cross sell and up-sell or are you download and subscription based?
  • Is the store part of your online presence or is it your entire online presence?
  • What are your growth and scaling plans for the business in what timeframe?

To make e-commerce work for your business, you also have to think about the capacity that exists within in the business and who will be managing the system on the day to day. You need to make sure you purchase a system that align with the levels of skill available. If you are looking for a fully integrated solution, consider functionality and features in these areas:

  • Search engine optimisation
  • Social media integration
  • Blogs
  • Responsive, mobile-friendly design
  • Email newsletter integration
  • Accounting software integration

Pricing and support

Ultimately, the decision will often come down to price vs ROI, however, what you can afford to spend to buy and run e-commerce within your business needs to be considered against what it will cost you in sales to not have a customer friendly system. Other considerations to build into the actual cost to your business are things technical skills. Can you deploy and run the system with your existing staff? Will you therefore need to outsource any aspect of the project roll out and ongoing use. If so, account for that in your platform choice and the total cost of ownership. And when you compare the pricing arrangements of each option you consider, note the subscription periods, levels of service provided at each and always check for any cancellation fees or hidden costs that might be a nasty surprise.

Technology has brought a lot of benefits, but has also given business a reliance on 24/7 availability. If all you have to process payments is e-commerce, system downtime is a nightmare for small business, and you need to be confident that if and when problems arise, there is someone there to help you get back up and running as swiftly as possible. It’s important to look into the levels of support each vendor offers to determine the best fit for your business. Also consider the modes of support offered – phone or live chat, email only, support forums, webinars or forums. Choose the format that you feel most comfortable with the best suits you, your staff and business model.

Safe, smart, and point of sale

There are a few terms you need to understand when making the decisions about your e-commerce solution. System security is a valid consideration both for the business and the customers and you want to ensure that the system you choose has strong security features that enable safe payment over the internet. This is usually handled through cryptographic protocols like Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption that ensures private information sent through your website cannot be accessed by unauthorised people online, with 128 bits being the industry standard. Other important factors include backup and restore capabilities in case something goes awry.

There’s a whole list of features now available with e-commerce platforms to help small business market and sell their products and services. Choose the one most applicable to your needs. Select from options that are mobile-friendly, provide product comparison capability as well as customer reviews, special deals, abandoned cart functionality, gift certificates, social media connectivity, loyalty programs, live chat and multilingual support, integration with sellers such as Amazon and eBay. In the platforms discussed below, some of these options are evaluated.

You need to be clear on how each platform would integrate with your existing systems and how you want to run it plus the back-office capabilities needed to handle your distribution model, now and into the future. Another important factor is the choice of payment methods. You may want to start with credit card-only but may later need a payment gateway, so look for flexibility in your chosen platform.

If your business has bricks and mortar operations like an actual store in parallel to your online presence, you’ll want to choose a platform with strong Point of Sale (PoS) functionality. Then use your online functionality to check out customers at your physical storefront like a virtual cash register – that may or may not use an actual cash drawer and printer for receipts. 

E-Commerce solution options: Top 3

There are a number of great e-commerce platforms that have the potential to take your business online. Like most offerings, there are a couple of gorillas that dominate the marketplace. In the case of technology and performance, where there is smoke there is fire with regard to high performance and ease of use. One thing you want in your e-commerce provider is longevity, and the security that they will be there and grow with your business, rather than disappear leaving you without service or support. 

The top three below represents an unendorsed exploration of the most prevalent platforms in the Australian market. Of those represented, Shopify is consistently reviewed as number one in service provision for e-commerce and is very much designed for small business. Bigcommerce is an Australian product, and is similarly a strong contender. Woocommerce is particularly good with Wordpress websites, and using their free plugin adds an e-commerce store. All of these solutions will work well with your business, but as always, the right solution is the one which resonates best with you.

BigCommerce

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This solution features impactful website templates with lots of user appeal. It also offers good customer support, great ready-to-use tools and strong social media capability. It integrates with commons apps like Xero, Freshbooks, MailChimp, Google Analytics, Ebay and Zopim (a live chat feature). Bigcommerce is fully cloud-based (web-hosted) eCommerce software. You only need a reliable internet connection and an updated browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari) to run it. Depending on your plan, Bigcommerce offers easy integration with over 40 payment processors. This includes commonly trusted gateways like PayPal Express Checkout,  Square, and Stripe. Paypal in particular has seen some advancements within Bigcommerce, including a more seamless payment experience. Their support is offered across myriad options including a resource centre, live chat, email and phone, as well as several merchant educations opportunities such as webinars, community forums and social media.

Shopify

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With a reputation for being one of the easiest e-commerce software solutions to use, Shopify is known for its performance. It can handle high volumes with its unlimited amount of bandwidth and features a great range of tools to help manage your social media presence. Shopify is feature rich. It’s also simple to use from a business perspective but more importantly from a customer perspective the carts are easy to use, resulting in less abandoned carts. 70+ payment gateways are supported including new currencies such as Bitcoin, and for global customers, taxes are calculated for all regions at checkout automatically, as is shipping. 

Shopify also offers decent CRM options and lots of support templates, and complete social media integration. All Shopify plans come with a fully functional 14 day trial with no setup or cancellation fees. While their plans are offered on a month-to-month basis, users can opt to subscribe for a 1-year contract, payable up front, for a 10% discount, or 20% for a 2-year contract. Shopify offers phone, email, and live chat support in addition to a whole slew of other resources, including a support centre, knowledge base, discussion forum and a Shopify ‘Experts’ page where you can find experienced professionals in design, marketing, development, and photography. It’s clear that Shopify puts time and effort into customer relationship development and support which is undoubtedly part of the reason it is such a widely used and highly regarded product.

WooCommerce

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If you have an existing online presence based on WordPress you may wish to consider WooCommerce, a free plug-in that adds e-commerce functionality to your Wordpress site. It’s user-friendly and suits businesses that have a small number of products. WooCommerce is an open source platform that is free to download. But since it runs best on a WooTheme, keep in mind that you may end up paying for a design template and other plug ins. If you are already hosting your own website, that expenditure will greatly reduce the cost of operating WooCommerce, be sure, however, to factor in other costs, such as integrating payment processors such as PayPal, and the add-ons your particular business might require. In reality it’s still likely to be cheaper than the other two cloud hosted services. WooCommerce is a lean product that has many additional plug ins, and because its Wordpress, is strongly optimised for SEO. Cart functionality is good with automated taxes and shipping, basic reporting and analytics. In terms of support WooCommerce does not maintain a dedicated support team, but instead users can access forums and online documentation. WooCommerce realistically is designed for existing Wordpress users, who will find it simple and compatible with the systems they know.

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The digital future

E-Commerce is no longer an aspirational ‘nice to have’, it’s a mandatory business tool that is essential to your customers being able to fully utilize your offerings at their leisure wherever they are located. The good news is that the options available are now well developed with several iterations in the market, and increasingly designed to be simple and seamlessly integrated into your digital toolset. Yes, there is a cost involved and needs to be factored into your budget. Deciding which option to use may be a good opportunity to review and update you whole suite of digital assets and brand, or it may be as simple as signing up, setting up, and hearing the virtual cash register ring.