More than 2 billion people shop online worldwide, and that number is only growing. In the U.S., many of those shoppers are eager to support small businesses, and women-owned businesses may be in a unique position to capitalize. For example, more than 80 percent of Etsy sellers identify as female.

Focusing on these five areas can help you stand out from the crowd and may help you win customers online.

1. Be thoughtful about how you sell 

Be strategic about how you choose to sell online: Do you want a direct-to-consumer site or would selling via a third-party platform like Etsy make more sense? The former allows for more control but with the latter, some of the legwork is done for you. 
 
If you choose to create your own site, consider using a template-driven platform that’s designed with e-commerce in mind, such as Shopify (Wix and Squarespace also have e-commerce–specific templates). This can give you access to back-end systems that can help you manage your business. As you think through how you’ll sell online, consider how many SKUs you have and if you’ll need to manage inventory, how the site processes payments, and whether the site has features or plug-ins that can help you grow (like a chatbot).

If you prefer to sell your products via a third-party site, consider how you’ll market your products to stand out — more on that later.
 

2. Think “mobile first” 

A big chunk of online shopping these days is done via our smartphone. 
 
Thinking “mobile first” just means you should prioritize what your website looks like (and how it functions) on a smartphone or tablet. Third-party sellers often do this work for you, and template-based website services usually give you the option to preview how your site will look on a mobile platform.

  Tip  

Don’t just preview your site. Test the experience. Browse and shop your own site using your phone to make sure the process works.

3. Build operations that support your online business  

It’s important to make sure you have the operations in place to support your business. You may need to spend some time estimating how much inventory you want to keep on hand so you can fill orders quickly but aren’t stuck with a surplus that doesn’t sell. 

If you’re online only, this is especially important, as you’ll need to figure out where you store orders and fulfill inventory. 

Be sure to work shipping into your operations model. These days, people tend to expect quick and low-cost shipping, so focus on creating realistic customer expectations.

  Tip  

Since forecasting is challenging, consider a pricing strategy that gives you flexibility if things don’t sell. Can you mark down excess inventory without taking a loss?

4. Market yourself

Word of mouth is a powerful form of marketing. This gets translated — even magnified — when you sell online. Research from Northwestern University shows displaying reviews on your website may increase conversions by 270 percent. Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers also found that negative reviews aren’t necessarily bad: they help make the positive reviews more credible.

Next, think about how people might discover your store online. Search engine optimization (SEO) is one way to do this. This means including words and phrases on your site that will make you more likely to appear when a customer searches for products similar to what you sell. This can be a complex process to master, so you may want to spend some time researching ideas based on your specific business. Sites like Shopify offer guides for their users. You can also hire a consultant to review your website to ensure it’s optimized.

Social media is another great way for people to discover your business. Create an account on whichever platforms you think your customers are most likely to use. Then, decide your social media’s primary purpose: to display new products, share expertise, raise awareness, or so on. From there, you can explore whether it makes sense to pay to promote your content. You might even consider partnerships with “influencers” (people who have a lot of followers) who may plug your product in exchange for free trials or a fee.

  Tip  

Narrow down your online marketing efforts by asking your (ideal) customers how they shop online.

5. Don’t forget about customer service

When you aren’t face to face, customer service can take on added importance. Small steps, like responding to any negative reviews or posts, can go a long way. 
 
You could even take it a step further and add a chatbot feature to respond to frequently asked questions. While it may seem impersonal, data shows millennials in particular like this type of feature.

  Tip  

Open a separate communal email account for customer service and train your employees on how to respond. The goal is to ensure no questions fall through the cracks unanswered.
Building a successful online business is about so much more than a website. From operations to effective customer service, these five things can help set your business apart from the crowd. When in doubt, think about your ideal customer and build the site that he or she would want.

Sources: Northwestern, 2017; Shopify

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