Building great e-commerce websites

18th September 2019 / by Steve Dye

Online shopping

In today’s crowded Internet marketplace how do you build a successful online shopping site?

Let’s start with defining what a great e-commerce website is. Quite simply a great e-commerce website is one that works! One that achieves its full potential – exceeding its objectives and expectations and producing a real payback on the investment made in it. If you have a site like that then you can call it a great e-commerce site and no one could argue.

E-commerce websites represent a fantastic opportunity right now.

We Brits are in love with e-commerce – figures show that we have the 3rd largest e-commerce economy in the world. The recent UK government figures showed total UK e-commerce sales at £586 billion in 2017 with Business to Consumer or B2C online sales at £145.6 billion while Business to Business or B2B e-commerce sales were at £133.6 billion which meant that E-commerce accounted for a 16.5 percent share of total business turnover in the United Kingdom in 2017.

There are no signs of any slowing down – by 2021 it is expected that 93 percent of UK internet users will be engaged in online shopping. This would mean the UK will have the highest online shopping penetration rate in all of Europe.   (Source of All figures used above: statista) This means that it isn’t too late to join the e-commerce retail boom. It may be a crowded market but it is a market that is still growing extremely fast. But to compete successfully in it you are going to need a great e-commerce website!

Also the data shows that e-commerce isn’t just about the business to consumer (retail) market space. E-commerce plays a hugely valuable role in driving Business to Business sales too. So any company that wishes to stay competitive and ahead of their rivals should definitely look at developing an e-commerce strategy if they haven’t already done so. 

Given this background the immediate follow up question has to be “how do we build a successful e-commerce site?” We’ll answer that below. But first back to basics…

Shopping basket

What is an E-commerce site anyway?

An e-commerce website enables the site visitor to make a purchase via the internet (online). In simple terms an e-commerce website will have a front end and a back end. The front end is essentially the shop element where products and services are displayed with their prices along with other relevant information about the business. The backend (often called the e-commerce engine) handles all of the secure transaction processing and other related shop management processes as required e.g. stock control, discount voucher processing, vat and shipping cost calculations to name just a few.

It is estimated that there are at least 1 million e-commerce websites on the internet but the reality is that the vast majority of them are simply not reaching their potential. A well-researched study into this by R J Moore found that of the estimated 1million sites only about 10% of these were producing meaningful revenues and about half of all the e-commerce sites were sharing just 3% of the available e-commerce revenues. A lot of sites – not many successful ones!

So if you are going to invest in an e-commerce strategy how do you ensure your site can be successful?

How do you create a successful e-commerce site?

1. Understand your target audience.

This is a critical first step in creating a successful e-commerce website. If you don’t really understand who your target audience is then you are severely weakening your chances of successfully selling to them online. 

Those online retailers who truly do understand who they are selling to will be much more effective in structuring their website and positioning their products to address the needs and expectations of their site visitors and therefore stand a much greater chance of converting their site visitors into paying customers.

There is an exercise that we often do with our e-commerce clients to make sure that they really understand the audiences to whom they are looking to sell to online. It involves clearly defining who their target audience is and then breaking that audience down into various different sub groups aka ‘personas’. We then look at what each of these different personas would want to know or see at each stage of the decision making process. (We have developed a clear buying process framework to use here.) By doing this we can then be confident that the e-commerce website will have exactly the information that each ‘persona’ wants to see at every stage of the buying process. As a result, the chances of converting those site visitors into new customers is significantly increased.

2. Look and feel

Essentially this refers to what most people would call ‘Presentation’ – the graphical design – which should reflect and reinforce what your business is all about.

The way that your website presents to your audience and how it showcases the products or services that you are selling is also all part of the presentation element. In short your site should be compelling, instantly appealing to your target audience and drawing them in and encouraging them to start interacting with your site.

The graphical quality of your website must be outstanding as this reflects not just on the perceived quality of your products but also your whole business. So many times we see sites with really poor product images – grainy photos, poorly lit, with no regard to what is in the background. This not only presents your products badly but also gives a poor impression of your business – indicating a lack of attention to detail and quality, a ‘that will have do’ attitude.

Without doubt people are put off by poor presentation.

But presentation is more than just the look of the site – which is why we prefer to call it the Look and Feel element. As well as looking great the site should also seek to connect with your target audience on an emotional level – the website should make them feel something – e.g. excited, happy, safe, inspired. Of course it will depend on what you are selling as to what you want to make your site visitor feel – but as an example a home decorating site might want to make their site visitors feel inspired or motivated whereas a travel agency might want their audience to feel excited, adventurous etc. If you can connect with your audience at an emotional level you are far more likely to convert them from site visitors into paying customers.

Website usability and design

3. Usability and the User Experience

One of the main reasons why websites fail to achieve their potential or meet expectations is down to poor Usability. Usability is all about ensuring that the site visitor has a positive experience of your website every time. This means putting the requirements, expectations and objectives of your target audience at the heart of your website design and development. Delivering a positive user experience every time someone visits your site will make a significant difference to your conversion rates – and will ultimately determine whether your website is successful or not.

Usability will help to map out all the possible user journeys through the site and will also determine how and where you use your key calls to action to drive conversions. The Usability element works in conjunction with the look and feel of the site and should inform all decisions about site structure and layout. As users we have no patience with sites that are poorly laid out, confusing or difficult to use even though they may look great graphically.  Making your site visitors work hard to find what they want is a real conversion killer.

4. Security

A successful e-commerce website will need to address the issue of security from two viewpoints – the customer and the business. Online fraud is a massive issue and it is growing as e-commerce transactions increase. We will never know the true losses to online fraud as so much goes unrecorded. But figures quoted by Ravelin – a provider fraud detection services – estimated that over £250 million was lost to online payment fraud by UK retailer websites in 2018, up by 27% from 2017.

Clearly the issue of online fraud must be a key consideration for any e-commerce based business. There are many things that can be done to combat fraud and to defend the site against credit card fraud. Not understanding the seriousness of this threat could make an otherwise successful e-commerce business, fail.

On the other side of the coin your site visitors are also concerned with online security. They will want to be reassured as to the trustworthiness of your site. They will need to have no doubts about the trustworthiness and the integrity of the site and that if they place an online order their card details will be kept safe and the transaction will be securely handled. Also they will want to have no concerns about their purchases being delivered.

Great e-commerce websites understand these concerns and ensure that all the necessary reassuring information; certifications, approvals, guarantees and endorsements, privacy policies, refund processes etc. are on the site and easily found in the places where you would expect to find them.

5. Site speed

Speed plays a really important role in making a successful e-commerce site – ignoring or being unaware of your sites performance in this regard would be a serious error and it definitely will impact on sales.

Sites that are slow to load and use are increasingly being rejected by users who have high expectations and rapidly diminishing levels of patience. In fact the critical figure is just over 3 seconds. If a site hasn’t loaded by then, large numbers of people will abandon and try another site. If you want examples of the importance of site speed to the success, or otherwise, of e-commerce websites here is one from Nordstrom a major US fashion retailer – they saw online sales fall by 11% when their website response time slowed by just half a second! Conversely office supplies retailer Staples saw online sales increase by 10% when their website speed increased by just 1 second. (Source BBC)

Quite clearly it is critical to ensure site performance is a fast as it can possibly be. There are many things that can be done – but often aren’t – to increase site load speeds, either in the actual  design of the site itself or the hosting environment.  The successful e-commerce sites will pay very close attention to this.

6. Getting found

We often speak to potential new clients for our e-commerce website design services who have allocated a sufficient budget for the design and build of their new site but have allocated nothing for the online marketing and promotion of the site. 

Digital marketing

Online promotion of your e-commerce website will be a fundamental factor in determining success or failure. Having a really well designed site that ticks all of the boxes above is no guarantee of success. Unless you can get the right levels of traffic to the new site – and the right type of traffic – then no matter how good your website it will not be successful.

Even as your website is being built you also need to be developing a strategy for getting the new site found by your target audience online. The good news is that there are many ways to achieve this objective – the less good news is that it will undoubtedly cost money and time to achieve it. Also please be aware you just cannot do this on the cheap unless you are prepared to do most of the work yourself – and to do that you really need to have a good understanding of what you need to do and why.

The options you have for getting your site found online by the right audience (i.e. people who will actually buy from you) pretty much fall into three categories;

  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) which focusses on organic search
  • Paid Search – such as Google Ads
  • Social Media Marketing

Depending on the target audiences you are trying to reach will determine which approach is best for your business – it may well be a blend of all of these. But the bottom line is you will need to do something to pull that traffic to your site. Once this is happening and you have a viable amount of traffic hitting your site then you will have achieved phase one. Phase two is all about getting that traffic to convert. If you have implemented the other points listed above in this article then your conversion rates should be great. If not then all the hard work and investment made in driving traffic to your site will not deliver the returns you should be enjoying at this point.

7. Analytics

Understanding how your site is performing is really important if you want gain the maximum benefit from your website. At Pink-Fish Associates we are always surprised at how little attention many e-commerce site owners pay to understanding their site’s metrics.

Google provides an excellent free tool for doing just this but very few small businesses really take advantage of it and use it effectively. In our experience this is typically doem to lack of knowledge about what is available and also about how to interpret the data along with a lack of time to change that position. This might well change if they realised just what dramatic gains could be waiting there undiscovered. We offer a business analysis service – largely based on Analytics – and the improvements in website performances that we have been able to deliver through this are often amazing. Typically we uncover opportunities to boost sales and increase profits. One example was increasing mobile sales by 23%. Another example increased overall revenue by 37%.  The data required to give meaningful insights into the performance of your e-commerce website is freely available – yet so few businesses ever use it effectively. If you want to ensure that you get the very best results out of your e-commerce website then data analysis will help you to do just that.

So there you have it – in our opinion if you want to create a great e-commerce website these are the seven key things that you need to pay attention to. It won’t be easy and there will be many temptations along the way to cut corners and costs but in truth you can’t short circuit success. If you truly want a great e-commerce website you need to do it right from day one. The ultimate question to answer is ‘do you want a successful e-commerce business or a just be the 500,001st mediocre online shopping site?’

At Pink Fish Associates we have helped scores of businesses to achieve success with their e-commerce websites. We have the expertise and experience to design, build and market online shops turning over hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.

If you would like help to develop and grow your e-commerce website please contact us today. We would be delighted to hear from you.

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