My First E-Commerce Site – 5 Helpful Hints

November 24th, 2010 - Posted by Steve Marks to Web Development.

As Baz Lurhmann once famously sang, “Do one thing everyday that scares you”. Ok, well maybe this wasn’t exactly a day’s task and it certainly wasn’t a fear that was ruining my day-to-day life, but building an e-commerce site had never been at the top of my to-do list. Maybe being keen to shrug it off was the result of actually having to deal with people’s hard earned cash, the consequences if something was to go wrong, or maybe in my head I had visions of online stores just being too big of a job for a single developer.

Either way, I had some spare time on my hands recently and decided to set up my own little e-commerce store to prove myself wrong and see how easy (or hard) it would be to actually make money through a startup site. Let me give you a brief overview of the site as it stands at the moment:

  • The site is built from scratch with the only assistance being from the PHP framework CodeIgniter. There were other alternative routes I could have gone down here such as off-the-shelf packages but I’ll discuss these below.
  • It’s been running now for a little over 3 months and offers around 2,000 products.
  • I get approximately 20 visitors to the site a day and on average 1-2 sales per week. This is a result of organic, free traffic as I have done no advertising or marketing to promote the site.

So it’s not the next Amazon, agreed. But remember I am only doing this a couple of hours a day, it is only a project, and apart from the purchasing of the domain (a whole £2.99) I have spent no money on building or promoting the site in anway.

My 5 Top Tips To You

I’m veering a little off topic here… Although I’d love to bore you with my bounce rates and gross profits, what I wanted to share with you is my findings during this little experiment. What would I change if I was to start over again and was it all worth it? So here goes…

1. Laying the Foundations

The most important factor in my eyes is the platform that the site is built on and, depending on how much you’ve got to spend, your development skills, the time available and the types of products that you will be offering, this may differ. I say this is most important because once you start adding products and receiving orders it will be very difficult to migrate to a new system. Make sure the option you go for has all the features you require and even try to see into the future; will you require discount codes, promotional offers or multi-language functionality?

There are off-the-shelf applications available such as JShop, Magento and OSCommerce, designed to make setting up an e-commerce as simple and as manageable as can be. By no means would I say to anyone not to use these, however I decided to opt-out of using one of these systems for the following reasons:

a) They required learning a new templating system. Not a massive disadvantage but I could see it taking a long time to learn any new coding methods and get the site looking exactly how I wanted.

b) Functionality limitations. I’m sure the software readily available can do 99% of the tasks I required but I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to software. It comforts me to know that if something can’t be achieved then a few hours of development will solve this. It would be too difficult and time consuming to adapt a pre-existing system if I didn’t know what I was looking for. Compare my site which contains 12 database tables to Magento which has over 250. I know which one I’d rather dive into head first and start making changes.

Like I said above I am in no way trying to deter people from downloading and using these packages. I had a lot of time on my hands so decided to go for the more bespoke option. Were I to have deadlines and limited requirements I probably would have gone for JShop due to it’s simplicity and ease-of-use.

2. Tracking Your Visitors

How many visitors are you getting? Where are they coming from? What are the most popular pages on your site? These questions and more can all be answered by installing an analytics package on your site to track your users movements. I’ve used Google Analytics for my site due it being free (my favourite word) and my existing knowledge of it’s functionality. The amount of reports you can generate is somewhat overwhelming so take some time to know the most important ones and what all the stats mean. Setting up a goal on the checkout process is also incredibly useful for converting sales.

3. Study The Competition

Find a range of websites offering the same products and/or services as you and study what they do differently. Promotions, cheaper prices, delivery charges and the range of products they offer to name a few could all effect whether a potential customer buys from their site or yours.

Competing with existing sites that have been around for a couple of decades can be tough so maybe try and find your niche. Perhaps you could offer free delivery, or target users in a particular part of the country.

4. Get your products on Google Products (Previously known as Froogle)

There are lots of price comparison sites around (Amazon, Kelkoo, PriceRunner etc) that allow a customer to see the same product from lots of suppliers and compare them to each other. Most of these charge a fee if you want to list your products, however Google Products is free. After signing up for a merchant account you’ll be able to setup automated data feeds (or you can manually submit your products) and access reports to view the amount of impressions and click-throughs each product has had.

If you do start displaying your products on Google it is worth noting that the items shown following a search are given a ranking similar to what a normal website might. Try and make the product title and description as unique as you can. Simply copying a description from the manufacturer that has been used hundreds of times already by competitors will not do you any good.

5. Be Patient

For the first days when my site was launched I was checking my analytics account every hour and performing searches on Google to try and find my site at every available moment. The only thing this did was make me annoyed at seeing no visitors and downhearted following the amount time I’d just spent building the site.

These things take time so just relax. It took almost two weeks for my site to show in search engine results and almost three weeks for traffic to start building, let alone buying. When you least expect it that first sale will drop in and it will feel like all your hard work has paid off. Trust me, it’s a great feeling!

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 at 8:13 pm by +Steve Marks and is filed under Web Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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