What Makes a Successful e-Commerce Site?

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If one wants to explore the history of e-commerce, it will most likely point to eBay. While the web was still fairly young and many companies still were not hooked up to the internet, e-commerce was basically unheard of, especially for business to consumer usage. That was, of course, the dark ages of 1995. Since then, e-commerce sites have been killing retail stores all over the world. THAT is a power that any company can use for success!

A short and amusing history of eBay, found on the often-maligned Wikipedia says:

The online auction website was founded as AuctionWeb in San Jose, California, on September 5, 1995, by French-born Iranian-American computer programmer Pierre Omidyar (born on June 21, 1967) as part of a larger personal site that included, among other things, Omidyar’s own tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Ebola virus. One of the first items sold on eBay was a broken laser pointer for $14.83. Astonished, Omidyar contacted the winning bidder to ask if he understood that the laser pointer was broken. In his responding email, the buyer explained: “I’m a collector of broken laser pointers.”

The frequently repeated story that eBay was founded to help Omidyar’s fiancée trade Pez candy dispensers was fabricated by a public relations manager in 1997 to interest the media, which were not interested in the company’s previous explanation about wanting to create a “perfect market”. This was revealed in Adam Cohen’s 2002 book, The Perfect Store, and confirmed by eBay.

Chris Agarpao was hired as eBay’s first employee and Jeffrey Skoll was hired as the first president of the company in early 1996. In November 1996, eBay entered into its first third-party licensing deal, with a company called Electronic Travel Auction to use SmartMarket Technology to sell plane tickets and other travel products.

Growth was phenomenal; in January 1997 the site hosted 2,000,000 auctions, compared with 250,000 during the whole of 1996. The company officially changed the name of its service from AuctionWeb to eBay in September 1997. Originally, the site belonged to Echo Bay Technology Group, Omidyar’s consulting firm. Omidyar had tried to register the domain name echobay.com, but found it already taken by the Echo Bay Mines, a gold mining company, so he shortened it to his second choice, eBay.com.

In 1997, the company received $6.7 million in funding from the venture capital firm Benchmark Capital.

Obviously, if you can sell a broken laser-pointer, you can sell anything, and eBay did.

It wasn’t long before ebay started setting up “seller stores” which allowed “power sellers” to list items for sale without auction dates, instead, advertising items until they were sold.

Even designers and artists found they could set up eBay stores to sell their art and crafts. People started selling T-shirts of their own designs, greeting cards, stationery and any other creative pieces that were not necessarily mass-produced items. Etsy.com popped up a few years ago, building on that need for creative people to be able to use e-commerce for increasing sales to a wider audience. Ebay, indeed, has a model that was used by many e-commerce sites. Now, it seems other sites are influencing eBay.

Change to Meet the Evolving Consumer and Web

Recently, ebay has undergone some changes. Seventeen years later, an eternity for the internet, ebay has updated its logo and site model. Writer Harrison Weber, in his article appearing on thenextweb.com imparts:

Today at its “Future of Shopping” event in New York, eBay has announced a redesigned site and a new Pinterest-like product Feed, as well as the public debut of eBay Now in San Francisco with NY coming soon.

eBay’s newly refreshed site certainly feels cleaner than ever before, with refinements to the company’s search, product and checkout pages, but the overall experience should not be different enough to confuse users. eBay’s new Pinterest-like feed, however, is a completely different animal, and despite being downplayed, reflects an interesting bet on Pinterest’s discovery model, with the hopes of merging discovery with actual purchase intent.

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The new Feed is rolling out in the US over the next 100 days, but you can activate it now by visiting www.eBay.com/feed. Users of the Feed can make their own feeds and follow other feeds — and if that doesn’t sound suspiciously like a Pinterest Board, I don’t know what does.

“eBay’s new Pinterest-like feed.” This is not the first time Pinterest’s design model has come up with e-commerce. Many e-commerce sites have found that not only the larger images, sometimes using the algorithms of consumers past visits/purchases, help increase sales but the model helps with sharing those images across all social media sites.

The easy, grid-like layout of Pinterest is catching on with other sites for its clean design.

Fab.com, the “register-before-you-see-anything” e-commerce site, has drawn together the best lessons of internet e-commerce sites. Firstly, daily email specials are sent to registered members, also using large, Pinterest-like images. Linked to the Fab site, consumers can see the items upon which they clicked or navigate to other items throughout the site easily and enjoy the large images, laid out almost like a museum.

Fab’s site. Again, clean design, large images and information. It also has pop-up share buttons for consumer-driven marketing.

Easy, bold and engaging. These are three basics that any e-commerce site should have at its core.

Freshness Keeps the Customer Coming Back

Customers who bought one item from you are more than likely to buy more. So how many times will they return to see the same products/services?

Dale Traxler writes an interesting article on keeping your e-commerce site fresh: 10 Tips to Freshen Your Ecommerce Site.

He includes the following tips, which you’ll note, reflects what is being done in successful e-commerce sites, as is eBay with their new redesign.

Clean up the site weekly. Assign someone to go through the home page, category pages, shopping cart, any other parts of your store where content might be changeable. Clear our old promotions and seasonal content. Make sure there are no missing images. Look at customer product reviews to make sure postings are appropriate. Make sure you don’t have featured products that are out of stock.

Feature new products. Consumers want new products. Make sure you launch new items, and then tell your visitors about them. Create categories that feature new items. Move new items to the top of your product listings. Write a blog post about them.

Rotate your promotions. If you feature daily, weekly or seasonal specials, rotate them regularly. In my previous online jewelry stores, our “sale” pages were among the most trafficked. They were the first place many visitors went. If visitors see the same promotions week after week, they stop noticing them at all.

Experiment with different navigation. When you set up your store, you probably did some level of testing on how people were interacting with your website. When is the last time you did that? Look at your analytics and see what paths people are following. If you have categories that are not drawing attention, but you want people there, then set up an easier path. Likewise, if people are not using a link, get rid of it and try a new one.

Change your theme. With many modern shopping carts, it is easy to “reskin” your site with a different color theme or background. Give it try. It can give your entire store a new look without a lot of investment. Try a red and green theme at Christmas, and gold and brown one for the fall. Even putting some more theme-oriented images throughout the store will add some freshness.

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Be competitive. Pick your top five competitors and review their stores at least weekly. You may find one offering a 50-percent off sale, or a 2-for-1 deal on your best selling products. You may not decide to match the offer, but you should at least be aware of it and be prepared to modify your promotions or featured items.

Be aware of design trends. Web design changes continually. It used to be that three columns of category images on your home page were standard. Top and left navigation was required. Not any more. For many retail sites, minimalist is in. White space is good. Huge rotating product banners are now common. Product videos are becoming mandatory in some retail segments. When you shop online, note the things you like and incorporate them in your wish list for your next redesign. Investigate the amazing capabilities of CSS3 and HTML5. Your site may look dated if you don’t keep up.

Post fresh content. If you maintain a blog — or post to social media sites — add new content regularly. Make sure you monitor posts and communications from customers and prospects, and respond to them quickly.

Maintain your inventory stock messaging. Nothing annoys me more than a store where the majority of items are “out of stock”. You may give a store the benefit of the doubt, but in most cases it’s just being lazy. If you know items are going to be out of stock for more than a day or two, hide them.

Do a complete redesign every three-to-five years. It should be more often in certain competitive and trendy industries. Design is trendy. If your website is more than five years old without a redesign, chances are your store looks pretty old, which affects visitors view of it.

Search Criteria

Writer Graham Charlton goes over tips for increasing the ease and effectiveness of search functions on sites in his article, Site search for e-commerce: 13 best practice tips.

His reasoning starts with the following basics:

Improved sales. Effective site search means better usability, so customers can find things more quickly. This can translate into higher sales, as customers who find what they are looking for easily are more likely to make a purchase, while site search also offers opportunities for merchandising.

Higher conversion rates. More intuitive search and navigation means higher conversion rates.

Increased site usage. A better user experience means that customers are more likely to spend more time on the site, and can boost the number of registrations and return visits.

Improved customer retention and loyalty. More loyalty as customers know they can find products more easily.

Improved branding. Improving user experience means more customer satisfaction, and a better customer journey compared to competitor websites.

Mr. Charlton goes on to offer examples of good and bad sites for search functions.

Make It Easy! 

Some of the coolest items in the universe but the site design has each one getting lost among the other.

On top of any consideration, keep the entire process easy and that means simplicity. Many e-commerce sites lose sales when a shopper becomes frustrated with the process.

Register.com posted the following article:

The 5 Habits of Highly Effective eCommerce Stores that sums up e-commerce considerations every seller should incorporate into their site:

Think like a consumer and put your products in more than one category. The online businesses that make their goods and services easy to find reap rewards in two ways: People purchase more and they experience greater overall satisfaction with the web site. Consider up sell and cross sell opportunities by offering products that make logical sense together. If you sell paintings and frames, show the frames that best complement the paintings. If you sell a line of products that have a wide range of prices, show the progression from the least expensive to the most expensive. Customers may choose to purchase the higher priced items if they’re presented as options.

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Keep it simple. Many people cite overly complicated navigation or too many pages in the purchase path as reasons they don’t complete their online sale or abandon their shopping cart. Successful eCommerce sites simplify the checkout process and display clear pricing and shipping information. They also post clear return policies and access to customer service. Putting your brick and mortar store’s phone number in a visible place on your Web site is a good idea. Studies suggest that consumers feel more confident knowing you’re just a phone call away if they have a question or if there’s a problem with their order.

A picture really is worth a thousand words, so use photos of your products and go easy on the text. Online usability studies suggest that people do not read; they scan. It’s 25% harder to read on the Web, so keep these guidelines in mind for optimum readability: Headlines should be 8 words or less, shoot for 9-12 words on a line (people don’t want to read across the entire screen), keep sentences short (15-20 words) and try to keep summaries under 30 words and hold paragraphs to 40-70 words. In this way you can maintain compelling product descriptions alongside your product offerings.

Market your site once it’s live. It’s not enough to just build a Web site. You need to make an effort to market and promote your Web site to new and existing customers. Collect email addresses on your site to help you keep in touch with customers and consider creating a newsletter. Seek links from other sites that complement yours. Optimize your site’s content for relevance and submit it to the major search engines. With ProStore, you’ve got an incredible built-in marketing opportunity in that you can promote your products to millions of eBay customers. Take advantage of this capability to reach a whole new set of customers.

Make payment processing easy. Online shoppers need a way to give you money online. That’s easy these days. You can accept credit card payments with either a PayPal account or an online merchant account. PayPal is ideal for anyone trying out the eCommerce waters since there’s less of an upfront commitment, but you may end up paying more per transaction. If you know from the beginning you’re going to have strong sales and lots of online transactions each month, you may want to consider setting up an online merchant account. The thing to note about PayPal is that both the buyer and the seller need a PayPal account, but that’s hardly a barrier to entry. It’s so easy to create a PayPal account that more than 96 million consumer accounts have been created at PayPal since it was founded in 1998 and it’s estimated that PayPal has a 24% share of all U.S. online payments.

Remember that e-commerce has cut into retail sales to the point some corporate entities have reduced or cut out their retail stores (i.e., Blockbuster, Toys ‘R’ Us and several booksellers that compete with Amazon.com). E-commerce can be used by multi-million dollar sales entities or for individuals who want to use the power of the internet to sell merchandise and services that would normally be done locally with limited potential. The sound tips shared in this article can certainly guide you to success!

Suggested reading:

6 Common Ecommerce Mistakes

6 Things Consumers Hate About Ecommerce Sites

10 Ways to ruin visitor experience on your website

20 of the very best E-Commerce web sites

Top image ©GL Stock Images

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One thought on “What Makes a Successful e-Commerce Site?

  1. Very good tips! When I shop I look for an easy to use site with great pictures and descriptions. The Pinterest like concept is perfect…gives you photos, info and synopsis! thanks!