Over the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the way Americans shop. Brick-and-mortar stores have faced closures and capacity limits, while consumers flocked to online shopping to avoid crowds in busy stores. By May 2020, more than 50% of Americans reported an increase in their online purchases, and even more said they made fewer trips to brick-and-mortar shops.
This shift may have been beneficial for some online retailers, but, when combined with more than a decade of upward trending e-commerce activity, it has become a threat to traditional business owners who haven’t yet invested in an online presence. Today, even as authorities lift restrictions and consumers slowly return to physical stores, many traditional small business owners may want to consider embracing e-commerce and setting up shop online.
Moving Your Business Online? Here’s What You Need To Know
If this all sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey, nearly 1 in 4 business owners have turned to online marketing platforms to sell their goods or services since the pandemic started in 2020. These tips can help you create a digital footprint for your business and tap into the growing audience of online shoppers.
1. Build a User-Friendly Website
Your website is your online storefront, and aside from a social media account, which we’ll touch on shortly, it may be one of the first direct interactions your company has with potential customers.
It’s certainly possible to build a website from scratch, but that can be time-consuming and costly. Fortunately, there are convenient options available to business owners who don’t want to build a site from scratch.
DIY E-Commerce Platforms: E-commerce software companies, like Squarespace and Shopify, make it easy to create and host your website by offering customizable templates that allow you to create a branded website for your products or services.
A website isn’t just a place to view products, however. Focusing on the customer journey, from first look to final purchase, will help you create a user-friendly, seamless experience that can help encourage transactions.
Affordable Website Development: Prefer to create your website from the ground up? Hiring someone can be costly, but there may be a more affordable route. Many colleges and universities enrich their digital design programs by connecting their students with businesses that need marketing collateral, including websites. The students gain an opportunity to build out their portfolios in exchange for work done for free or at a discounted rate.
2. Invest in Cybersecurity
In 2020, more than 37 billion records were compromised as a result of more than 3,932 publicly reported data breaches. An online presence, whether it’s a retail site or a team of remote workers, can leave your company and your customers vulnerable to similar attacks. That’s why investing in your website’s cybersecurity is vital.
The benefits of strong cybersecurity are twofold. Taking the right precautions decreases the risk of the financial fallout associated with a security breach. And, since a security breach can tarnish even the strongest brands, your efforts can cultivate a trusting relationship between your brand and your customers. Here are a few things you can do to shore up your cybersecurity:
- Only work with reputable third-party companies and e-commerce platforms that are transparent about their efforts to protect data.
- Adhere to and understand Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard, which offers insights on how merchants can protect the transaction-based data transfers.
- Consider adopting a cybersecurity policy and educate employees on how to avoid common cyberattacks.
- If you’re not using a third-party e-commerce web host (e.g., Shopify, Wix, Squarespace), purchase and install an SSL certificate (which moves a website from HTTP to the more secure HTTPS) from a valid certificate authority to protect customer data.
3. Reconsider Your Office Space
Pandemic safety precautions, including state and local mandates, have forced many employers to reconsider the workspace. According to a Gallup Poll, by the fourth quarter of 2020, 58% of U.S. employees reportedly worked remotely, and the first quarter of 2021 saw similar numbers. What does that mean for business owners? Should you downsize? Do you need a space at all?
As is the case with many business decisions, the answers depend on several factors, including your business model, long-term goals, customer profile, and employee needs.
Though the number of remote workers is still high, data suggests that nearly 15% of those workers have returned to the workplace, and the same Gallup Poll found that nearly 4 in 10 employees want to return to the office, if given the opportunity. Employee desires aside, there’s an argument that not all business activities can transpire as effectively online.
According to WSP, a globally recognized professional services firm, remote work and limited office interaction do have limitations. This is particularly true in situations where face-to-face interaction, collaboration, recruitment, and learning or training opportunities are important to your business.
The benefits and challenges of remote work, when paired with a transition to an online presence, can transform the purpose of your office space, but that doesn't mean you should get rid of it altogether. Selling property or ending a lease is finite, so before you make a major decision, evaluate your current and future needs as well as those of your customers and employees.
4. Develop a Social Media Presence
According to social media managing platform Hootsuite, 72% of the U.S. population is active on social media, and that number is expected to continue to grow. What’s more important is that 57% of consumers will follow a brand to learn more about its products or services, and 89% of those followers will make a purchase from that brand. That can make social media a valuable presence for brick-and-mortar as well as online stores.
Social media is a great way to create a relationship with existing and potential customers while expanding brand recognition. The best part is that you can take advantage of social media benefits without spending a penny.
You can start a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter account for free and begin building your online presence from Day One. As you grow your online presence, you can also choose to take advantage of paid social media ad services, social commerce opportunities, and sponsored posts, which can expand your audience.
The key to creating a successful online social media presence is understanding your audience and the platforms they prefer. For instance, if your focus is B2B customers or professionals, LinkedIn may offer a more targeted audience than Instagram. Conversely, Facebook, which is the world’s largest social media platform, may be a better option if your goal is to reach a large and diverse audience.
5. Research Financing Options
Adding an online presence or shifting your business online can lead to increased revenue, but there are costs associated with the move. Website design, particularly out-of-box options like Shopify, do come with a price tag, and if you’re starting from the ground up, you’ll need to pay for site creation, hosting, and potentially a skilled professional to maintain and manage your site. Depending on the scale of your business, customer service needs and social media responsibilities can also create additional costs.
If you need financing to cover additional everyday expenses, like added payroll or increased inventory, working capital loans can help. Traditional loans through banks can be a reliable and affordable starting place. However, there are also plenty of online lenders that can offer eligible borrowers quick and easy access to funds, but often at a higher rate. Always compare business lender rates and terms before choosing a lender.
6. Learn SEO Strategies
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a marketing strategy that helps your website become more visible in search engine results. There are many facets to SEO — and your business may benefit from a professional, paid SEO service in the future — but if your budget is slim or you want to get started on your own, there are plenty of things you can do without adding to your expenses.
Keyword research, a cornerstone of SEO, can help you select the right terms to drive traffic for your site. As you build out your website and add content (e.g., product descriptions, about pages, homepage content), leverage free keyword research tools like Google Ads. It’s also a good idea to use those keywords to build clean, concise title tags, or the HTML title of a page, which shows up as the clickable page title in search results.
Finally, another free and easy SEO tactic is to set up a Google My Business account. The information you provide will make it more likely that customers will see your shop in search results. For instance, if you own a coffee shop in downtown Houston and a traveler completes an online search for “coffee in downtown Houston,” a completed Google profile means your business may show up higher in the search results, giving you a chance at increased business.
SEO can seem overwhelming, but there are plenty of great resources available for free. Sites like Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Land, and Google’s Search Central offer helpful resources for beginners.
Shifting your business online can help you expand your audience, decrease overhead costs and become more competitive in your market space. The process can be daunting, but the tips above will help you create a solid foundation and create a smooth transition from a brick-and-mortar existence to one that spans both the digital and physical world.