Just in case you hadn’t heard, the Internet is coming. The truth is, the Internet is here and it’s already affecting everything we do from our mobile phones, our friendships, the way we learn, watch TV, listen to music to how we’re educated.
Now it’s time for our businesses to be affected too. In fact, your business is already being affected either by your action in the digital revolution or lack thereof. If you’re an individual and have had that one idea that you wished you could sell to the masses, then your world is about to open up wide.
Commerce has changed. At the very least commerce shifted somewhat from a face-to-face experience involving human beings exclusively to one that occurs online while the customer sits comfortably at home or work and clicks around your website looking to buy something you’re selling.
A new form of commerce is already going mainstream and it’s called e-commerce. Trust me when I say this: Your customers are looking for what you’re selling and if you aren’t online to offer it to them they’re going to find it somewhere else.
David Perel, co-founder of Obox, a wordpress theme company and SalesGenius, a trend tracking company, says that an online store was the best way for him and his brother and co-founder, Marc, to gain exposure for their talents: “My brother and I are really good at what we do – web design and development – but we’re not great salesmen. So the best way to get our products out there was with a great e-commerce site.”
There are some among us who didn’t hesitate and created online stores that are generating revenue and will soon be huge. There are others who sell their digital goods online, their eBooks, stickers, clothing, pet food, website themes, kitchen accessories and everything in between.
Is it right for you?
When considering online commerce it’s important to think about the value of selling online for your business, product or service. Sometimes being online for the sake of it can do more damage than good. For example, if you’re selling something online but your payment process is broken, your customer will get irritated with you and probably never return.
Be sure to understand the reason for entering the realm of digital commerce carefully. This isn’t a case of dive in headfirst and learn to swim on the way towards the water. You’ll probably drown in all the nuanced complications that arise as you progress if you don’t prepare effectively.
For Luke Jedeikin, one of the founders of Superbalist.com (previously Citymob.co.za), starting an online store and selling other people’s products was a simpler proposition conceptually than doing it in real life.
“Build a webstore and find existing real world products to sell from it. As opposed to, build a webstore and build a digital product. We actually started selling coupons during the group buying storm but moved to physical products after the first year or so,” he says.
Some people will tell you that getting started is difficult, others will blame payment processes, design, the government, banks, technology or fulfilment for the difficult time South Africans have when setting up an online store. But there’s no good reason to avoid online commerce and there are many resources and tools to assist you along the way.
Choosing a platform
Choosing the correct platform for your needs can be a difficult task. As with anything, the first step is always the most overwhelming and this is no different. The biggest question on most people’s minds is “Where do I start?”
There are many options that you can choose from. The criteria you use to get started on your online shop should look something like this:
- How much money do I want to spend building?
- How big is my product list?
- Do I need people to pay me immediately using a credit card?
- Do I need to support recurring credit card payments?
- What countries will I operate in?
- Is my product virtual (digital download) or physical (delivered by a courier company)?
Each question is important and can lead you down a rabbit hole of confusion. Fortunately, most of the services out there will walk you through all of the solutions when you sign up.
Here’s a list of services that you can visit right now to evaluate, investigate and figure out which is best for your needs.
WordPress + WooCommerce
WordPress is a free to use platform that you’ll need to instal and host yourself to operate a WooCommerce store. There is a fair amount of knowledge to acquire in order to become an expert in using WooCommerce, but it’s the first choice of over 500 000 stores around the world and is a South African company. Online tutorials, walkthroughs, a forum and lots of Googling will help to get to grips with the platform.
I chose to use WooCommerce to set up my online store where I sell socks (www.nicsocks.com). The reasons for using this platform were simple; I found it easy to set up and it was free. I took photos of my products using my phone, uploaded them, added a price and began to sell. The cost of expanding happened after launch but this is standard practice for free platforms. They allow for growth if you’re happy to pay for it.
Courtenay Farquharson, an entrepreneur who founded www.petheaven.co.za, an online company that delivers dog food to owners around South Africa, chose Magento because it’s free and well supported: “I was looking for something free that would allow me to expand. Magento simply seemed to be the most supported software out there. I also liked the fact that I could write modules and extend it if need be and it came with hundreds of various themes for me to choose from.”
Shopify is definitely one of the most well-known online commerce platforms in the world. It’s well supported globally as well as in South Africa and is fast and easy to use.
If you’re a company that requires a lot of functionality that doesn’t come standard in any of these free platforms, then you’re probably going to require an online store that is built especially for your needs.
Beware, this route can become a black hole of expense and is not for the faint hearted or the under-prepared. Be sure to evaluate the partner you choose to build your store and be sure to find out about ongoing monthly costs to maintain your site, get access to the core platform and what would be required if you were to leave the partner.
Once you’ve had a look at your platform choices it’s important to understand what kind of payments you will need to support.
Are you selling a single product online? Is this product a once-off purchase or does it require a monthly recurring payment (similar to a magazine subscription)? Are your customers in South Africa or abroad?
Let’s consider the various scenarios and problems that may occur:
- First you can ask your customers to do an electronic bank transfer into your bank account. For this option it’s probably a good idea to get a business account at your bank. These are fairly easy to acquire and your bank should be happy to assist.
- You could also support credit card billing in your store. This option has become increasingly simple as most of the e-commerce platforms support various payment providers such as Payfast, Paypal or PayU. WooCommerce will even walk you through setting up and installing the various payment providers they support.
A word of caution about using Paypal. As of yet Paypal does not support the South African Rand as a currency. This means that your local customers will checkout and see dollars as opposed to rands in their baskets. This is not a major problem and many stores happily do this, but be aware of it nonetheless.
“Our products are sold in dollars which proved a huge challenge when setting up our payment gateway. We use 2checkout, which is based internationally, but sends payments to us once a week. The downside is they charge a lot per transaction but currently it’s the only way to sell our products to a massive international customer base,” says Obox’s David Perel.
- The other option for payments that is often overlooked by small businesses is cash on delivery. This option is available to you if you or a staff member are doing the deliveries for your online orders. You arrive at your customer’s door with the product and they pay you in cash. Simple and effective.
Take note: A red herring in this entire process is that sometimes you will be required to have a merchant account to support some of the payment options. While your bank will tell you that this is a quick and painless process, my bank made it extremely difficult for me and the process took over six months to complete.
At NicSocks my biggest issue isn’t platform, technology or payment providers. My biggest challenge is customer acquisition. South Africa is a very young online shopping market. There aren’t that many people who shop online using their credit cards or any other payment mechanism for that matter. Those who do shop online mostly shop at trusted sites with a history and shy away from young upstarts whom they feel may expose them to unnecessary fraud or risk.
This leaves small online stores with a major challenge: Marketing and promotion.
Almost all of the e-commerce products out there will help your store appear in search engines like Google and Bing. They’ll also optimise your content for these search engines (this is known as Search Engine Optimisation or SEO) so there’s no need to focus too heavily on this in the very beginning but this needs to become a focus as you grow.
Superbalist.com co-founder, Luke Jedeikin feels strongly about email as a key to their online traffic: “Email brings us around 90% of our traffic. SEO, Google, and social media brings the rest. We’re focusing heavily on lessening our reliance on email.”
Social media marketing is also extremely valuable to niche online stores. Building content that people want to consume and share with their friends can really boost sales and drive loyalty. Make sure you have a Facebook page, an active Twitter account so that you can respond to customers in real time and if you’re a visually driven brand or product be sure to make use of Pinterest for a further push.
Generally speaking the time is right to enter into the online space and provide your customers with a place to buy your products. The South African online e-commerce market is expanding rapidly and if you wait too long you’ll be left playing catch up to your competitors.
However, there are areas of concern right now to be mindful of. Be sure to choose the right fulfilment partner. Shipping is a sensitive issue in South Africa and if you charge your customers too much to deliver your product and fulfil their order you’ll lose them at the point of payment.
Access to Internet and the devices being used to access your specific shop online can become problematic for stores that aren’t optimised for multiple devices.
Be sure to consider who your target market is, where they are browsing and if they even have access to the Internet at all.
Fighting for consumers’ attention should be your priority. Be different, stand out and try to maintain their attention long enough to get them to buy something from you. For this you’ll need a few simple things: A great product, a visually appealing but simple website that promotes spending and finally, amazing customer service.
An online store is simply another way to get feet through your now virtual door and sell your amazing product. Keep it simple and dive in.