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We have a growing industry that builds upon the dreams of small web shop owners thinking they can build the next Amazon. That’s about to change.
But the truth is very few of them will ever become self sustainable. Very few will go beyond small web shops. Even well funded startups can crush and burn (Fab for example burned through more than $300 million until calling it quits).
I find it hard to believe that there is a future for the small web shop. Just like web pages today or the Gopher protocol in the past, one day the small web shop will be gone and something else will take its place.
Here are a few things that will be either causes of reactions to this change in digital commerce:
Think of these increasingly influential outlets as the shopping mall for the next century. The likes of Ebay, Amazon and even Walmart will become larger marketplaces catering for both more consumers AND more suppliers / vendors.
In the (near) future ecommerce entrepreneurs will find that the window of opportunity previously open will close and consumers will increasingly rely on larger marketplaces for better prices and more diversity.
Think of it in offline terms. There are little if any incentives in opening a small store in a mostly un-visited area. A better approach is to open your store in an already trafficked shopping mall. Amazon for example caters to sellers and offers a marketplace, fulfillment services and marketing options.
The takeaway is simple: if you can’t build your shop into a shopping mall, you’d better join one or do something else.
We live in a time where a more educated consumer switched from “buy more” to “buy better” and the advertising agency was replaced by Google and Facebook. Creatives are now replaced by algorithms and data.
There is an abundance of digital tools, digital experts, digital know-how (maybe some can be found on this blog also) providing “support” to small web shop owners. The fact is, very few shops are really going to make it to an actual profitable business. Along the way, however, they will pay developers, designers, marketers, ads, copywriters, SEO experts, content experts, photographers. They will buy subscriptions to dozens of cloud applications that brag about the latest success story and they will try to figure out what the hell the numbers in their analytics app are saying.
In the end they will see the problem and the solution lies within one aspect. Size. You may write the best content, have the best designed Magento or Shopify theme. In the end you can’t compete with Amazon. Size does matter.
As the small web shop will start fading away, a new breed of entrepreneurs will show up. The manufacturers. With so many options for cheap production, distribution and marketing the only thing that’s missing is but the great product one passionate entrepreneur can come up with.
There will be little place for small commerce entrepreneurship. But that doesn’t mean consumers will buy less. They will buy better and they will buy from more. We are witnessing a rising trend of small manufacturers popping up with amazing models. A very fun example is the the Dollar Shave Club, a startup that’s manufacturing personal care products for men. The Dollar Shave Club takes on the large companies such as Gillette in a very straightforward way.
So about the death of the small web shop… It’s coming but don’t hold your breath. There are many vested interests in the small webshop industry.
First there are the startup owners that still believe their small web shop has a future in its present form. Then there are the billions of dollars that have been poured by VC’s in web shop apps and marketing tools.
Plus there is a (still) growing literature that tells anyone with a few bucks and a dream that they can be the next Jeff Bezos. What they don’t tell them is that the world has place for only one Jeff Bezos but plenty of open slots for other success stories. Just not one involving a small web shop.
We are at the peak of our civilization in terms of economic development, social cooperation and global communication. Though conflicts still arise and will probably exist for the foreseeable future, we are witnessing a historic moment: for good and for bad we are on top of our game.
This change has been made possible by a lot of factors including recent destructive conflicts and potential conflicts (nuclear destruction), improvements in communication technology, improvements in transportation and more.
But if we were to point out a specific factor in the emergence of this globalized society, that must be the fast evolution of organizational management tools and techniques.
Whether we are talking about multinational corporations, governmental or military organizations, they have all evolved due to technological and know-how management advancements.
Companies can now grow bigger than ever and governments extend their influence farther. Military organizations are now stronger and can perform better than ever in terms of logistics and operational management. According to prof. J. Bradford DeLong from UC Berkley, the estimated GWP (Gross World Product) is at its highest and growing the fastest:
So basically we are working better, faster, more productive and yet it seems the world stumbles from one financial crisis to another. Many theories have been put forward regarding as why this happens. These theories range from pure economic theory to sociology, psychology, geopolitics and more. Don’t be fooled – we don’t for sure know why this happens. It’s a paradox that we are more productive, fare better in terms of conflicts and have a more connected world and still we deal with inequity and financial strains in the form of huge debt.
But there is hope. Whenever humankind dealt with seemingly insurmountably issues, we appealed to metaphors to change our perspective. The metaphor I’m proposing today is the computer hardware – software ensemble as a way of thinking of human organizations.
In this metaphor we have the human nature and human nature as the hardware and management acting as the software. With a combination of these two we were able to reach our present position.
Most of management theory and lingo are adapted from military procedures. As the military has been the single most enduring form of human organization throughout history (seconded only by religious organizations), it seemed logical to approach civil management in a similar way. The largest companies known are organized and behave just like armies. Top down command with intel going upstream and orders going downstream. The multinational companies “conquer” markets, “target” customers and “secure” market share.
As companies need effectiveness to stay profitable, strategy is designed by a small group of people (the board of directors) and implemented top-down by an executive staff. To do so – the executive staff uses company process design and procedures that are followed by those lower on the hierarchy.
This same principle was also used in the beginnings of computer programming. Programs were fed into computers to compute differential equations for things such as the trajectory of a shell, a blast radius or weather predictions. These programs were fed into a general purpose machinery (the computer) and based on these instructions computations would be made.
But as the computer industry grew, so did the computers’ capacity to run programs. With the digital revolution computers became more than simplistic machinery built to output specific data. Programs could be now written to answer mathematical questions but also to output imagery, sounds, allow users to play games and more.
To make this possible, a new paradigm in computer programming changed the way programs were written. Instead of the previous functional (procedural) programming, the concept of building a program started working with the concept of “objects”.
Technically, objects are a collection of data and functions. Conceptually they are the bridge between machine processing and human conceptual thinking. We are able to tell a fork from a spoon and still see the resemblance between those because we think in terms of “objects”. Previously programs were working mostly on concepts of functions. Simply put: If this, than that.
That made writing complex programs extremely hard. It also made maintenance even harder. Without becoming too technical, OOP (object oriented programming) allowed for even more complex programs to appear and made it easier for software teams to build, update and maintain these programs.
The difference, if you will, for those programs is the difference between the old DOS versions and today’s Windows OS or Apple’s iOS. It’s worlds apart and today we are in a DOS world trying to build video games.
Though it may seem strange to use software development lingo when it comes to managing organizations – it makes sense in the metaphor proposed earlier. Human organizations (the hardware) may yield a lot more than they do today. As robotics may soon take over menial jobs, they have to.
The problem does not lie in the hardware (human intellect, creativity and production) but rather in software (the ability to manage this creativity and productivity).
We are not fit to deal with this level of complexity in the way we do today. Think about the basic organizational challenges. They are not production or infrastructure related, but rather human complexity related. Someone from the headquarters of Uber may devise an absolutely brilliant software and business model, but they still have to deal in terms of organizational management with the fact that Paris taxi drivers hate competition. And the fact that the french government will not allow the company to function without the right permits.
To make such a global organization work, there have to be some type of new management technique in place. One that can use the managerial basics but still be able to develop specific procedures to handle cultural differences.
That’s exactly what OOP (object oriented programming) works for. Handling complexity through object manipulation.
So how would such an organization look like?
To help you glimpse into the structure of a potential OOO (Object Oriented Organization) I will use the basic characteristics of a software object and translate those into organizational concepts:
The term (data) encapsulation points to objects being self-contained in terms of both data and functions. The object keeps the data and functions protected from outside (potentially harmful) interventions.
If you’d like to think of objects in terms of organizational objects I’d advise you to look beyond the usual “department” paradigm and rather into specific teams. Think of the product design team at Apple. That is an organizational object, that stores both specific data (things such as product specifications and test results) and functions (builds product demos, designs usable products etc.).
The organizational object could, in theory be self sufficient and usable in any part of the organization or even within external organizations.
The idea of polymorphism may seem complicated but it actually solves a lot of complexity issues. Simply put, it allows for contextual responses.
Take the previous Apple design team for example. If the iPhone development team were to ask it for a design it would probably forward the team the specs they are working on and receive a few sets of product designs. If the iMac team would ask for a new design, they would also forward the iMac specs. They will however, receive another type of design, one fit for their product.
The idea of polymorphism, in the organizational sense is that decisions based on context would happen within the design team object. Both the iPhone and the iMac team, or any other product design team could ask for a product design and receive something that’s fit for that specific product.
But let’s take that a little further: what happens if the marketing team needs a specific page covering the new iPhone. Wouldn’t the product design team be the one best fit to output such a page? Probably so, but some upgrades may be needed and this is where the third object oriented organization principle comes in:
This term shows that one object can be the prototype for another object. In our example we need Apple’s product design team “upgraded”. So far they have been doing product design so they may not be able to output iPhone’s webpage so well.
By building on their expertise, we may assign a new member to the team, a member that is specialized in designing web pages. By working with his or her team peers we will have built a new organizational object on top of the previous one. The marketing team will request a specific design, by forwarding some specifications. At this point all three external teams (iPhone product development, iMac product development and marketing) have basically done the same thing: asked for design-related work, by forwarding specifications to the the design organizational object. The work was done within the object and results were output successfully.
Notice also that there is no absolute need for management. Objects interact with one another thus leaving management in charge of developing these organizational objects and the overall purpose of the company.
The one big reason is complexity management. We have not put a man on the moon using the abacus. We have upgraded our tools to reach further. Object oriented organizations can be a new breed of organizations in different sectors where effectiveness rather than hierarchy is important. These areas can range from business to NGO’s to governmental agencies to banking and more.
Basically each organization that deals in large numbers of either employees or “customers” can benefit from a networked object oriented organization approach.
Why do that? Think about how today’s concept of having a job feels. Most employees report their bosses are awful. But it’s not that simple – it’s not that the boss just wakes up one day and thinks … “hey, I’m going to act terrible to my fellow colleagues”. Today’s managerial concepts and techniques are outdated and provide managers with poor tools.
This results in “less than perfect” working conditions, poor performance, organizational ineffectiveness and overall social tensions. With our current management system the world has grown more productive yet more indebted. Productivity has risen yet poverty stayed the same or increased.
The fact is we need a new type of leadership and chances are this too is a human problem with a software solution.
I’ve put together a slideshare presentation regarding omnichannel retail. It focuses on the events that lead to the adoption of omnichannel, the challenges and several ideas that will help you understand the concept.
As you know, a disastrous 7.8 magnitude earthquake has hit Nepal. The earthquake claimed the lives of thousands and left many more wounded or without shelter. In an effort to bring relief to the area many nations, individuals and global companies joined hands.
Among these were global logistics companies DHL, FedEx and UPS. Since disaster hit, they have been providing logistics support, know-how and even funds.
Their humanitarian efforts are worth recognition and their philanthropic commitments need to be known:
DHL Group responded in just 48 hours after the tragedy. Their Disaster Response Team was deployed on the scenes to help with incoming international aid and provide logistics support in distributing goods.
FedEx was also among the first to provide support to disaster relief agencies. Their efforts included assessing needs, shipping water treatment systems from Water Missions, water chlorinators and large water tanks, thus providing fresh water for up to 70,000 people per day. FedEx soon followed with logistics support for medical treatment, serving 10 000 people per day.
Last but certainly not least, The UPS Foundation committed to providing both logistics support and $500 000 in funds to aid recovery efforts. The foundation, acting as the philanthropic arm of UPS, provided these funds to “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to secure shelter supplies and solar lanterns as well as to The World Food Programme for emergency food assistance such as high energy biscuits, and to CARE for the purchase of supply kits including tarps, blankets, jerry cans and toiletries.”
These efforts show just how important logistics support can be in helping those in suffering, especially in such times of distress.
The term “robot” essentially means “worker”. It was coined by Czech author Karel Čapek in his science fiction work R.U.R. and since then it has become the standard term to define semi-autonomous machines.
It really is hard to define what we actually think of when we say robot. It may be an anthropomorphic fun figure such as Honda’s Asimo or a somewhat creepier animal version of it, such as Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog.
But it can also be a simpler and more applied machinery. Robots can be built to handle some of the most menial and repetitive tasks, including those that have to do with ecommerce fulfillment.
In terms of operations, fulfillment means everything that has to do with getting ordered merchandise to the customer. It includes picking and packing and let’s face it – it’s boring and repetitive. The robots below do just these things. Robots, unlike people, require no pay and are available 24/7. Whether using robots is effective or not, moral or not, it’s up to you to decide. But no matter your view on the subject, you have to admit they look awesome.
Not longer than two months ago, Fetch Robotics was non-existent as a company. Than they’ve got $3 million in founding and started working on a mysterious warehouse robotics project.
Today they’ve unveiled not one, but two robots aimed at helping warehouse staff make it through the long corridors. Their names are Fetch and Freight. Below is Freight, my favorite, a little guy following around picking staff and going back to base when orders are finished picking:
You would think that farming and ecommerce fulfillment don’t have too much in common. Maybe they don’t but they do have the Omniveyor robots from Harvest. The company was founded by former iRobot executives, the company that brought you house cleaning wonder-robot Rumba.
The company developed a fulfillment robot, called TM-100, which will be available spring 2016. Here’s TM-100 in action:
In 2012 Amazon paid $775 million for Kiva Systems, a Seattle based company manufacturing warehouse robots.
In just two years Amazon has fully digested the technology and now has 15 000 Kiva robots doing the picking and packing job twice as fast as humans could. Inventory moves twice as fast and products are delivered to packing stations in just under 15 minutes, faster than any human could.
Here are the little Kiva robots plotting to take over the world, while picking orders:
A very important part of retailing is pricing and the most important part of pricing is the cost. To get a complete view of how much a product would cost, retailers think in terms of net landed cost.
The net landed cost is the sum of costs associated with manufacturing and distribution. When thinking in terms of net landed cost you have a better chance of understanding your total cost.
A common fallacy is thinking of costs just in terms of manufacturing, either from a purchase only point of view (how much you pay your supplier for a given product) or a more inclusive manufacturing point of view. The manufacturing point of view assumes that even if you are not manufacturing the product yourself, you still have the liberty to choose another supplier or change merchandising altogether.
The most important advancements in retail, in terms of supply and cost effectiveness, have focused largely on manufacturing costs in the past decades. This has lead to increasingly efficient production lines, a more competitive manufacturing market, shifting manufacturing overseas and many others.
This manufacturing improvement trend has had beneficial results on the customers life through more accessible, more diversified merchandise. It also meant companies managed to sell more, to more people. Companies such as Walmart have grown to their existing magnitude thanks to a wide network of suppliers, providing them with products manufactured at the best possible cost.
As retailers improved on the manufacturing, there was one part that has been left mostly untouched. That was the distribution. Distribution costs have decreased but not dropped.
To get a better view of why, get a glimpse of what are the factors that weigh in the distribution costs basket. Here you have costs associated with getting a product from the manufacturer to the customer. This includes freight, stocking, customs, costs associated with store development and maintenance, marketing costs, customer support and others. This is a very large area and a lot of work to be done.
Today, distribution is changing, and it’s changing fast. As a result, the associated costs will follow.
At the forefront of this change we have several factors, one of which is omnichannel, another being technology and the third being data. This is how they weigh in and these are the areas that will be soon transformed:
Logistics have not been fully transformed by technology. For example, freight has been virtually unchanged in the past decades. Think about it this way: cargo ships are still loaded after excel files are checked, faxes are sent and handshakes seal deals. For a large part, the industry is archaic and it’s but a question of time until it will be transformed. There is a lot of room for disruption and companies such as Freightos have challenged the status-quo and promise 10-17x ROI. In weeks.
And it’s not just freight. Fleets of small vans contractors have taken up the Uber model and are now roaming the streets of Hong Kong to deliver goods the likes of DHL and UPS can’t.
Omnichannel makes possible and desirable a few things the previous retail models couldn’t. First of all it allows for a better inventory transparency and improved shipping effectiveness.
Customers that would otherwise expect orders placed online to be shipped at home with the respective costs and operational challenges, can now just pick up orders in store. Or better yet, they can have the closest store ship these items at home, instead of mixing the order in a large, central warehouse.
Omnichannel also makes possible having just a limited number of products in store and keep the most either in the warehouse to be shipped when convenient or with a supplier. By reducing store footprint companies can reduce fixed costs associated with marketing and distribution of products, thus decreasing costs.
And it’s not just these, the many aspects of omnichannel retail all converge to a decrease in distribution costs and more efficient ways to handle product demand.
John Wanamaker was a retail innovator. He is credited with the fixed price and money back guarantee marketing concepts. Wanamaker was one of the pioneers of the department store and loved advertising. He is also credited with the famous saying :
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Good thing that was more than a century ago.Marketing is now changing rapidly and unfortunately for some advertising agencies, long gone are the days when the Mad Men of advertising charged millions for concepts that could or could not work.
With the rise of digital commerce and omnichannel retail and the smartphone to bridge the gaps, data is all around. Marketing is now data driven and the half of budget Wanamaker complained about can now be easily tracked. Companies such as Macy’s are investing heavily in omnichannel policies and marketing. The results are clear. While their competition is diving, Macy’s business is on the rise.
Advertising is data driven and marketing costs are constantly improving.
By improving distribution and decreasing distribution costs we have two very important things happening. The first is that companies engaged in improving this area will be more profitable and more inclined to continue on this path.
The second thing is that lower distribution costs mean better prices for the consumers, therefore an improved appetite for consumption. Improved profitability and decreased prices – these are two very strong forces that will shape tomorrow’s retail. And it’s happening today.
Adobe and Econsultancy recently released their 2015 Digital Trends report and data shows some really interesting insights. The report is a result of interviewing almost 6000 marketing, digital and ecommerce professionals. The general consensus is that marketing is moving fast and content, personalization, mobile and omnichannel will be key aspects to maintaining a relevant connection to consumers.
Among other facts, the report shows an emergent need to understand customers journeys across multiple channels and a need to insure consistency across these channels. 97% of all respondents pointed to having a clear understanding of customer journeys across channels as being either very important or quite important. Content consistency across channels is also a key priority for 96% of all respondents. 66% of marketing, digital and ecommerce professionals list content consistency as being very important and 30% list it as quite important.
Because omnichannel success is usually a result of strategy and team effort, the report shows training teams in new techniques, channels and disciplines is very important and quite important for 95% of the professionals surveyed.
As the customer is getting more and more empowered by digital technology, results show that some aspects of marketing and retailing will become highly popular in the next 5 years. The most exciting for those surveyed are:
Overall, the report paints a very optimistic picture for omnichannel followers and professionals. 67% of those surveyed agree that omnichannel personalization will become a reality in 2015.
You can download the full report at here.
Welcome to part 4 of the complete guide to starting your online store. So far we've covered the basics of planning, registering your business and finding suppliers. Last but not least we've discovered the importance of developing your fulfillment operations.
By now you have an idea of what your online store will pe selling, you already have some pretty sweet deals in place with your suppliers and the fulfillment team is hopefully ready to process and ship the orders. But wait: you have no actual store. So let's get started with building a brand for your company, finding the right software for your web store and adding products and content to it.
What is a brand? Is it a name? Is it a nice logo that people like and recognize?
I will not get academic on you and I will try to cut beyond all the buzzwords you might encounter when building your brand.
The brand is all those mentioned above and more. The name, the logo, the colors and everything else is there to remind your customers of how much they like you and why. The brand is that feeling you get when you think of someone. You don't know whether it's the clothes, the color of their hair, their personality or anything else. You just feel in some particular way about that person. That's the brand. The way people feel about your company.
Now, to build a brand you need some special ingredients. Some are easy to come by and some are harder. However, once you got that main ingredient on the table, the others will be easier to implement. Here they are, ordered by their importance:
This is "who" your company is. You have to decide right from the start what type of personality you will be showing to the world. Are you young and enthusiastic or maybe mature and conservative?
What does your company stand for, except for … you know … selling stuff? What is your purpose for being in the market? You have to answer these questions and maybe more to find out what is the right personality for your brand. Remember – people will most likely never meet you or any of your team members in person so you have to focus on sending out the right message in the digital world.
One of the best use cases of building a great brand personality is Warby Parker. The company designs, manufactures and sells beautiful eyewear at an affordable price. Not only that but sales fuel its humanitarian efforts in providing developing countries with quality eyewear and means for individuals to self-sustain.
They have an extensive section in telling people WHO Warby Parker is and why they're a great fit for society. Branding goes beyond just commercial info and showcasing the products. It projects an image and a personality so customers can have the feeling of actually interacting with a real person. A great one, that is.
Shakespeare said "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". Things are what they are. The names are secondary. Once you know what your online store stands for, once you know what your brand's personality is, you can put a name on it.
For example, Jeff Bezos named its famous company Amazon because Amazon is the largest river by drainage. He envisioned the largest store in the world right from the beginning and named it accordingly.
The name you will be choosing is extremely important. Out of all the other components in building an online store brand, this one is the one most likely to turn into a real asset. Your brand personality may change, so could colors, shapes and slogans. But your name has to stay the same. The reason is the Internet is built this way. Web pages get bookmarked, indexed and remembered by their name.
Amazon for example changed its personality and graphic cues throughout its history. But the name stayed the same. So did all other brands that managed to catch the customer's attention.
When choosing a name for your online store do check for available:
Once you've designed and presented your online store's personality, you need to code this personality through visual cues.
The brain perceives images faster than sound and letters. Images deliver powerful messages almost instantly whereas sound and text take longer to be perceived.
That's why companies compact their messages in some iconic combinations of symbols, colors and letters: logos. The logo is the basis to building your store's visual identity. We use symbols because our brains are wired to connect shapes to meaning. Color is usually added to further identify a given company. For example you probably don't remember what's the exact shape of the Coca-Cola logo, but you do remember the red-white combination.
Once the basics of visual identity (shapes and colors) are set, more elements are usually added to the list of brand identifiers:
Once the visual identity is set, it will be communicated through a brand manual, or brand usage guidelines collection. You can have a look at Amazon's brand manual here to get a feeling of what you can incorporate in your visual identity.
Once you've got all those above ready, you can begin expanding your brand to other areas. There are two large areas your brand needs to shine in, and they are independent from one another:
1. Within the company: what does your brand mean for your team? What is the message you are sending to your employees? For example Zappos strongly supports handling customer service in the best way possible. Zappos customer service went so far as to register a 9h and 37 minutes call with a customer that needed support on choosing the right shoes.
The brand can be implemented within the company through signage (remember the large company logos in call-centers or warehouses), company communication but mostly through the culture the company will build.
2. Outside the company: Your brand will meet your customers. There are some very important touch points you will need to keep in check and see how the customer perceives your online store:
(Examples of Amazon using its brand on different supports)
When everything is in place and you have your brand ready to go out and face the customers, it's time to build the online store.
To do so you will have to go through:
Ecommerce applications are usually targeted at two types of users
I will not get into too much details regarding what large retailers use but if you want too, you can check them out here.
Instead, I will focus on guiding you through the four most popular options for small and medium retailers. In the end, you will have to decide which one is best for you.
Before I go any further I would like you to have a look at this chart from Google Trends showing how many searches for each of these applications have been registered in the past. This is a great way to see how popular each of them is and what could you expect in the future.
The graph above shows how the four most popular solutions for ecommerce have evolved throughout the years in terms of Google searches. You can see Magento at the top, Prestashop right beneath it, WordPress ecommerce at the bottom and Shopify growing like crazy. Let's have a look at what ech of these tools has to offer.
Magento is owned by Ebay Inc and works as an open-source application. It first hit the digital shelves in 2001 so it packs quite a lot of experience.
It is estimated that roughly 250 000 stores are now powered by Magento. It is usually used by medium sized retailers because of these reasons:
There are however, some cons:
Long story short: Magento is fit for medium to larger retailers. It is usually installed on your own hardware (server) so beyond development costs you will also need to take into account hosting costs. Development and server costs usually top everyone else on this list. However, it makes up in stability and features what it lacks in cost structure.
There are now more than 200 000 stores using Prestashop. The company started in France and is now a global player that aims for Magento's spot. Unlike Magento, it can be used both as a hosted solution (on your own server) or as a cloud solution (where you pay a standard monthly fee for the right to use it).
It's easier to find developers that can handle Prestashop's structure so development costs could be lower. It's targeted at smaller retailers (usually startups) and you can read a full review here.
All in all Prestashop is a great choice for small to medium online stores so it's definitely worth checking it out. It may not get you to $1 billion in sales but performs great for startups. It's highly customizable and easy to manage.
Shopify is the great challenger on this list. It works great for small startups, you can start using right away, its pricing structure is great and you get tons of apps you can use on your store. It is the fastest growing solution right now and it is used by 150 000 online stores.
Not only that but the company is really well funded. It recently received $100 million in venture capital and now it aims to work as a cloud platform for both online and offline small sellers. Although it started as an online store solution, it now works for offline retailers through its Shopify POS solution.
The fact is Shopify is the most promising solution on this list. It is well funded so it probably won't close shop any time soon, it is the fastest growing and its app and themes ecosystem makes it perfect for the ecommerce entrepreneur. You may need to switch to another solution once you go big but until then – everything works just great.
Although WordPress is not technically an ecommerce application, it evolved beyond its blog youth and its content management adulthood. Using ecommerce themes such as these, shop owners can easily extend WordPress beyond content management.
What WordPress lacks in native ecommerce support it more than makes up in developer community, theme and plugins support. At the moment 74.6 million websites rely on WordPress. Out of this huge figure more than 50% are self hosted.
There are 40 translations for WordPress and WordPress.com receives more traffic than Amazon. These facts and others make WordPress quite a great platform for shop owners just starting up.
Unlike other ecommerce applications that are built with commerce processes in mind, WordPress is great at managing content. Products can be described in so many ways and content can be easily published. This does wonders for search engine optimization and communicating with your audience.
Oh, and remember that figure above? Check out the difference in searches on the term "wordpress" only, as opposed to the other applications:
That blue line up there, dwarfing all others, is WordPress. It has a huge user base and these users can turn their blogs into online stores.
Wordpress is a great way to get your store off the ground quickly and at a low cost. But if you want something more, you will probably need to look into other solutions.
( A visual comparison between Magento, Prestashop, Shopify and WordPress for ecommerce )
For all those solutions above, you will most likely need two types of support:
To do so, you will need to find talented and effective designers and developers on established online marketplaces. The freelancing marketplaces are pretty straightforward. Think of EBay for digital jobs. You post the requirements and freelancers will bid for your online store requirements. There are dozens of places to find designers and developers for hire but some really stand out:
Elance.com is one of the oldest and most popular places to find great programmers and designers from all over the world. There are currently 260 000 programmers and 190 000 designers listed on Elance.
Guru was founded in 2001 by Inder Guglani and now boasts more than 1.5 million members worldwide and $200 million worth of freelancing jobs processed through the marketplace.
Smashing is a very influent online magazine for designers and developers alike. As talent naturally gravitates around other talented people, this community jobs site is a great place to find those great freelancers to get your online store up and running.
All of the ecommerce software solutions listed in this post rely on themes and plugins to customize the layout and improve the functionality of your online store.
Both themes and plugins are offered by their respective developers either free or for a premium. You can think of plugins and themes as building blocks that you can attach to your online store and get it to either look or behave better.
You can find plugins and themes on special marketplaces as well as developer's plugin shops.
The best places to look for themes and plugins are the following:
When you've chosen the application you are going to use to manage your online store, contracted the right developers and designers and chosen the appropriate theme and plugins, you're ready to implement your online store. If everything is set so far, the freelancers you've contracted will know what to do. The overall process will be, in a simplified manner, the following:
Once the process is complete you will have an up and running online store, without any products or any type of content.
Content is any text, image or rich media that you will be hosting on your online store. As a startup, great content can mean great sales. There are two converging reasons for this.
The first reason is search engine optimization. Many of the people that will be visiting your online store and hopefully buying, come via search engines. You probably know a bit about how Google works, you may have heard a thing or two about search engine optimization but the fact is content is king. Great content is better indexed by search engines and can provide you with visitors you can turn into customers.
The second reason you should pay great attention to content is the customer. The customer needs to get as much information on your products and on your company as possible. Upload beautiful images, write extensive product presentations and say everything you can about your company.
And go beyond …
Here you'll find three great strategies to conquer your market with content. Explain your customers how to use the products. Showcase the lifestyle around your products and brand. The more content you will be pushing towards your customers, the more credible your brand and online store will be.
When you've added all the products and the relevant content, don't stop there. Optimize your product descriptions constantly. Start a blog and get people to send you their stories. Content is king and it will stay like this for a long time.
Once everything is ready to go live, you still need to do one thing: train the team. Segment your fellow team members and train them according to their responsibilities. For example order management personnel won't be handling product information so there's no point in showing them how to use these features.
The main areas where you will find features that team members need to learn using are:
Most of the ecommerce applications have their usage guidelines either online or can be provided to you when required.
So training should be done according to responsibilities, it should be done in an interactive manner and team members should be provided with a form of software manual or written guidelines.
Once the online store is set up and reflects your brand, the products are all online and the team members are familiar with the ecommerce software, you are ready to go live!
Wow – we've covered a lot of ground and by now you should be ready to have your store online. But there's one last chapter to our journey. Meet me next week on the final part of this guide, covering marketing, extending sales channels, testing and fine tuning.
So you've got this far. Starting an Online Store is a lot easier when you've got the right info and this is the place where you can find it. It takes a lot of drive do get through Part 1 and Part 2 of this guide, so good for you!
During this part of the guide, you'll get a better understanding of what fulfillment means and how to build a company that can effectively manage orders and ship the right products to the customer.
Good, good fulfillment. Yeah! But wait …
Good question! Although the term fulfillment is used quite a lot, not everyone has a clear grasp on the whole idea. I mean – why fulfillment? Well, it's actually a pretty simple concept. Order fulfillment is anything that has to do with fulfilling your promise to the customer. That promise is you're going to ship the products they've purchased, those products are going to be in good condition and they will arrive as soon as possible.
Fulfillment also covers the reverse process (also called reverse logistics). That means getting merchandise back from the customer. That type of operations happen:
So basically when your ecommerce business is fulfilling an order, it is actually making good on its promise to deliver merchandise in the best way possible. Although the concept is not that really hard to grasp, making it happen is a little bit harder.
In order to make sure your fulfillment operations you'll have to look for the answer to four very important questions:
Fulfillment is probably the most complex and tedious part of ecommerce. It is also the one thing that is the least talked about in terms of ecommerce. It's not flashy and it's not cool. It's complex, involves a lot of tweaking and a lot of work to getting it right. While most ecommerce guides will point out to the importance of picking the right shade of orange for the "Buy now" button, few will speak of how important fulfillment is.
Just to get a glimpse of how important fulfillment is – think of your car. While having the right color and the right type of leather is important, the car won't start without an engine. Fulfillment is the engine that keeps ecommerce going.
There are just five basic steps in fulfilling ecommerce orders. Four of them are mandatory and one is optional. Hopefully you will cover this last step as few times as possible. These five very important steps are:
Overview of the Fulfillment Process (including returns)
Customers will place the orders through one of your sales channels. It may be your online store, on the phone or through a mobile application or a pop-up store.
There is a great variety of order management software out there and later on on this guide will get through some of them. It matters less what you will be choosing later on. What matters from a fulfillment standpoint is what the order info should contain. Here is the minimal information you will be needing:
Most of the time, you will be receiving more info from your order management tool but these are the essential blocks of information to keep in mind.
Before moving on to the actual order fulfillment bullet points I have to make a point. You don't HAVE to fulfill the orders yourself. Some companies outsource their fulfillment to other companies. My advice is you should keep most of your fulfillment operations within your company. You won't be able to ship products across the globe but you can pick, pack and carefully wrap orders for your customers.
When medium and large online stores are fighting each other over consumer mind share, we only see the marketing and superficial aspect of this battles. But the fact is, underneath all this visible struggles, the real battles are won in the warehouse. Your real chance for success stands in picking, packing and shipping the right products, within the timeframe you've promised.
It may seem hard to handle fulfillment operations and it sure is. But because it is hard, you have to master it before the competition does. Walmart and Amazon, two of the largest retailers in the world, are also two of the best supply chains in the world. It's not that these companies have developed spectacular fulfillment operations because of their huge sales but the other way around.
Glad we've got that out of the way. Now – what's the best way you can receive products in your inventory?
It all starts with an order to your supplier. It is usually called a "Purchase Order" as you are placing an order to purchase products. We will assume that you have already set up an agreement with your suppliers and they will ship the products. You will probably pay as you place your order, when the order arrives or at a given time after the order has arrived, if you have agreed as such with your supplier.
Once the products have arrived at your warehouse you will need to:
( Basic check list when receiving products from the supplier )
Placing the products in the inventory is a very important part in receiving the products. The better you keep track of where the products are, the less time and effort you will need when picking and packing the products.
When placing the products in storage you need to keep in mind some very important aspects:
Hopefully at this point you have managed to get the products in your inventory, they are correctly marked and stored and you are ready to pick said products for the orders you are going to be shipping.
Once you have the products in the inventory and orders are coming in, it's time to process these orders.
Order processing is split between four main areas:
Picking is probably the most time consuming part of order processing. It also gets a lot more complicated as your business grows and it may be prone to errors. Having more products in your inventory will increase the complexity of picking the right products in the fastest way possible.
If you've managed to place the products in the right spots (as stated in the step above – receiving products) your chances of correctly processing orders increase big time. The reason is it will be easier for picking staff to move fast through the aisles and pick the right products.
To have a streamlined picking process that works just as well with 10 orders per day or 1000 orders per day you have to decrease the chances for errors. To do so, your picking staff will cycle through these steps:
( A basic example for a picking list )
Packing is the next step in the fulfillment operation. Once the products have been picked from the corresponding aisle, shelf or bin, they are sent to the packing station where they will be split into orders and prepared for shipping.
The packing operation is usually split into these further steps:
Once the products are placed in the right package, a quality control station will check for any errors that may happen.
Quality control personnel will usually check for one of the following errors that may appear:
Once the products have been picked, packed and quality control made sure there were no errors in the order management process, the package is ready for shipping.
Online stores usually partner with one or more shipping companies to deliver the goods. The shipping station will check the package weight and direct it to the right shipping partner.
Most shipping companies will provide you with a general framework on how to handle packing and preparing for shipping. Here are the most popular ones:
When these companies (and others) will charge you for their shipping services they will take into account some (or all) of the following variables:
Once the orders are picked by the shipping company, the order status is constantly updated so customers and the online store knows where the packages are at the moment.
When the products are delivered the status is updated and the order is confirmed. After this point the product is in the customer's ownership and any reverse process wil be treated as a return.
Oh, returns – can't live with them, can't live without them. Just kidding. A clear and friendly return policy is what sets the likes of Zappos.com apart from the competition. They will let you return the products you've purchased within 365 days, free of charge and as their return centers will check the products you will be credited within 7 days with the money you've spent.
Ecommerce customers love a great return policy and you need to be ready to handle one. The logistics involved in such a return process are usually dubbed reverse logistics. This means you will reverse the steps mentioned above.
Basically you will unship the products, unpack, unpick and un-order everything.
If you offer free shipping, you will have to handle the shipping costs from the customer to your return center (for small and medium companies, the return centers are the same as the fulfillment facilities).
Now, the big problem when getting information on handling returns is that most of the resources out there are either
What will follow will hopefully be a bit more relevant and a bit less boring. The big idea you have to keep in mind is returns are the reverse process of everything you have read so far.
You will have to tailor the following concepts to your specific company structure, accounting, IT systems and processes.
That being said there are three main areas you need to focus:
There are usually three main options to do this:
Once the products are back at the fulfillment center you will have to get them back into inventory. The process is similar to what you would do if you were to receive goods from your supplier. The main differences are:
Once the products have been checked and returned to the inventory, you will need to issue a refund to the customer and inform said customer of these changes.
And … that's it.
It may seem complicated right now but keep in mind that thousands of online store owners are doing all these things. Now that you've got the basics, you will be able to deal with most of the operation challenges you will face. If there is anything else you need to know – just ask in the comments sections bellow.
This concludes this part of this guide. This is probably the hardest and the most important part of making your store run smooth. It involves many operations, usually lots of people and it needs to be built in such a way that it will easily scale when your company is growing at double digits.
Next week we will focus on branding, designing and choosing an ecommerce platform for your online store. See you soon!
Last week we've covered the basics of starting your online store. We've talked about choosing your market and your particular niche, We've covered the main questions you need to figure out before you start building your actual store. Finally we went through the main business models and scanned some of the most innovative and interesting implementations in B2C (business to consumer) ecommerce.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's turn your idea into a real store. This part of the "Starting an Online Store" guide will show you how to register your business and how to build the operational basics for your store. At the end of part two of this guide you'll know how to find the right ecommerce suppliers, integrate your business with said suppliers and set the prices for your products.
Note: This part of the guide is intended to work as a guide mainly for readers in the US. That's why some of the acronyms and type of companies you'll find in here are going to be aimed at those of you registering your business in the US. If you are registering your business elsewhere please leave a comment as to where you intend to register your business and I will try to get back to you with more info.
That being set, most of the information you'll be reading here is in essence applicable in other countries or regions. Even though business structures may have different names and have slightly different usage in different parts of the world, their purpose remains pretty much the same, as globalization tends to level the playing field.
Sure, planning and building your business is a great way to spend your time and effort. But you also need to work as a legal entity.
There are basically two ways you can register your business:
You can start as a Sole Proprietorship (the most popular type of business for ecommerce entrepreneurs) and move to other forms of businesses as your chances of success increase.
If you are the sole owner of an online business, the Sole Proprietorship (also known as DBA – "Doing Business As") is the easiest form to register and manage your business. It actually works as an alias for the individual doing the business. Because of this, the owner is personally liable for the company. That means that all debt is imputable to the owner. However, as Sole Proprietorships are usually low-liability businesses, a lot of startups work under this type of legal entity.
The second big option in starting an un-incorporated business is the General Partnership. In Partnerships, more individuals get together to start some kind of business. Just like the Sole Proprietorship, Partnerships are easy to set up and manage and because partners share equal control on the company, the liability and profits are also shared.
Like I've mentioned above, the second category of companies falls under the "corporate" model. When you're incorporating your company you don't become a corporate behomoth and you don't automatically get billions in revenue, as you'd expect. It just means you're operating under a different set of rules. Plus you get to do a lot more paperwork and pay some extra taxes.
Pros of incorporating the business
The most important reasons to incorporate your company as an entrepreneur are liability protection and documenting deals with partners.
By far liability protection is the most important reason to incorporate your company. Under a corporate structure, your business is treated as a separate legal entity. If things go awry in your business (and sometimes they do) the company is liable for paying all debtors, not you. That, of course, if you have been operating your business in a legal manner.
Basically, registering as a corporation will keep your assets (house, car, golf clubs) protected from any issue that might arise operating the business.
The second important reason to incorporate your company is documenting a business deal with partners. Whether you are raising money from investors or selling shares in your company, you need a corporate structure to do this.
Cons of incorporating the business
You may hear other reasons why you should incorporate your company, things such as tax benefits, business credit and transferable ownership. But don't rush to register your corporation just yet. Most entrepreneurs are doing just great running un-incorporated business in the beginning. Tax benefits are usually tangible when your company is already successful enough. So if you are just a startup, you can probably forget about tax benefits.
Building business credit means companies are evaluated independently from their owners but that doesn't necessarily have to be a good thing. If you are a startup with no cash in the bank, no sales and no clear plan, that fresh business credit won't be of help much.
Finally, saying an incorporated company is a lot easier to transfer to other individuals or companies leaves out a very important aspect. Before transfering your company (hopefully selling it for lots of cash) you need to build this company. So again – this won't help you that much either.
But the biggest disadvantage small businesses that incorporate have to face is paperwork. Lots of paperwork. You will have to fill in state reports, organize annual meeting and deal with involved bureaucracy.
Then there's the fees. You'll be paying fees for legal council, tax filling and others. Professional help is not cheap. Plus you get the minimum franchise taxes and others. These amount to thousands of dollars in fees, which is a bit much for small business owners.
So incorporating a company is no easy feat. Or better said – it's not easy to manage an incorporated company if you are a small business owner.
But if you do find yourself in need of incorporating the business, here are the most important type of corporations you can choose:
You have probably heard one thing or two about LLC (Limited Liability Company). It's the most popular form of business among small and medium businesses, including online store owners. It combines what is called pass-through taxation for its members with the limited liability corporations provide.
Although not technically a corporation, it is a great choice for those that want to join a limited liability partnership. It basically works as partnership or sole proprietorship in terms of taxation. This means the owners (called members) pay taxes on the LLC's profit directly. The company doesn't fill taxes separately, which makes things a lot easier to manage.
This types of businesses are actually pretty young as a commercial concept. The LLC structure was first formed in 1977 and now it's accepted in all US states and a throughout most of the world.
At the heart of LLC stands the "Operating Agreement", a document signed by all members, setting the rules under which the company will be managed. It covers things such as profits sharing, company management, adding or removing members and more.
The LLC is the most popular choice in the world right now for forming partnership, usually chosen by groups of up to 5 members.
Although starting and managing a LLC is less complicated than a corporation, it is still more complicated than starting and managing a sole proprietorship or a partnership. You will probably have to hire a legal counselor to help you with the set up and operating the company.
The Regular Corporation is … well … the corporation. A company organized as a corporation is a separate legal entity from its owners (called shareholders). The company can thus protect owners from liability issues or company debt.
The corporation provides advantages such as:
Once the corporation is set up, it will pay taxes separately from its owners. This can lead to double taxation as companies are taxed on profits and once those profits are distributed, shareholders will also have to pay income taxes. The double taxation problem is solved by incorporating as a S Corporation (see below).
Corporations are not necessarily ran by its owners. The shareholders own company stock. This gives them the ability to elect Directors, organized under a board of directors. Once this board of directors is set up, they appoint Officers (CEO – Chief Executive Office, CFO – Chief Financial Officer etc.), which are the people that actually run the company on a daily baisis. Of course, if you own 100% of stock, you can appoint yourself as the one and only director, be the officer and run the company.
On the other hand, if your company will be owned by more individuals, the Board of Directors and the Officers will run the company. Both the Board of Directors and The Officers have to abide to an internal company document called "Corporate Bylaws". This document sets the rules on operating the company and can be extended or modified as the company evolves.
The Corporation is a lot more formal than the LLC and of course, the Partnership or the Sole Proprietorship. The records have to be carefully maintained, there is a mandatory yearly Directors and Shareholders meeting and every decision has to be documented and reported.
Although the corporation is harder to form and maintain, it is the oldest and most reputable form of business organization.
When registering as a corporation, you should take into account the S-Corporation. By filling in the appropriate tax election form to the Internal Revenue Service, the company will be taxed as a Sole Proprietorship or a Partnership.
The main advantage for you and your partners is that income and profit is passed through to the shareholders, thus solving the double taxation problem mentioned above.
Even though you've solved the double taxation issue – you're still stuck with the paperwork and specific regulation, which can be a burden for online retail startups.
To wrap things up, here is a rundown of the main types of incorporated business structure you can choose, each with its own pros and cons:
Once you have decided on whether you're registering your business as a sole proprietorship or incorporating it you can check the specific regulations for your state here and start the registration process.
You've figured out your market, planned on how you'll build and run your store and what your business model is. You've registered your business and you are ready to go. Or are you?
Well hold on there, you still need to have those products you're selling. That means you need to source your merchandise from suppliers.
Generally speaking, suppliers are those businesses or individuals that are willing to supply you with products priced below end consumer value. Still a bit unclear? Well say you will be selling plain t-shirts. You know you can buy those t-shirts for $20 at the closest store. If you do buy t-shirts in that store, you will be buying them at end consumer value. You are the end consumer. Because you cannot price them at a higher level you are basically stuck with them – hence the "end" in end consumer.
What you need to do is go find yourself some suppliers that are willing to sell you those t-shirts for less than $20. Why would they do that, you say?
Remember the whole B2B business model? Some companies just work this way. They manufacture the products or sell them in bulk and let other companies sell directly to the end consumer.
( The basic operations needed to run your store )
When dealing with suppliers you have to be ready to make a commitment before they agree to do business with you. This commitment can come in many forms but usually it's one of the following:
Once you've made a deal with one or more suppliers you will be selling your products right on your store. When the orders start pouring in (or maybe just trickle in the beginning) you have to make sure customers receive the products they've paid for. This part is called "fulfillment" as in fulfilling your promise to send the product to the customer in exchange for the payment you have received.
Fulfillment means any task done inside or outside the company that assures the right products are shipped to the customer. Usually this means:
We will talk a lot more about fulfillment later on in this guide but for now I just wanted to give you an overview on the usual processes in handling orders and shipping products to the end consumer.
Fulfillment can be done either within your company, by the supplier or as a mix between the two. Let's have a look at these scenarios:
Usually, most online retailers (such as yourself) choose a combination between the two and maybe some other processes.
( The example below is illustrated in the figure above. Combining basic operatiosn with supplier drop-shipping. )
For example, let's say you partnered with two suppliers (see figure above). Supplier A will provide you with plain t-shirts. Supplier B brings in sneakers. After you start your store you receive two orders. Customer X is asking for 2 plain t-shirts. Customer Y is asking for a plain t-shirt and a pair of sneakers.
You will have to treat these orders differently. Order number one, the one where customer X paid for 2 plain t-shirts is forwarded to Supplier A and he will dropship these items and then invoice you for the products.
Order number two is a bit more complicated. You will have to ask supplier A to send you one plain t-shirt (if you don't already have it on your inventory) and Supplier B will send you a pair of sneakers. You will be invoiced on those products and once you have them in your warehouse you can pack and ship them to the customer.
You can also choose to work with external fulfillment services, such as Fulfillment by Amazon. These services relieve you of the burden of picking, packing and shipping your orders. For a cost.
By building and interlinking separate operations such as those mentioned above, you are actually building what is called a supply chain. The supply chain means any interlinked process that enables you to move products from the manufacturers or wholesalers to the consumer.
The supply chain is not a static structure. It can and it will change as your online store evolves. As you add new suppliers to your supply chain, your ability to distribute products to consumers will increase and so will your revenue. But speaking of adding suppliers to the supply chain …
Yeah, how DO you find suppliers for the online store? Now that you've got a sense of why you need suppliers, how to negotiate and deal with them, let's have a look at how to actually find them. When you're looking for merchandise suppliers you'll see that you have two big options when choosing, each with its pros and cons. These two options are domestic suppliers and overseas suppliers.
Assuming you are in the US, using domestic suppliers will be a very viable option but you should also consider the second. Overseas suppliers can be a great addition to your supply chain. They can be used when in need of additional product options or lower prices. Let's have a look at the pros and cons of using these two types of suppliers.
( Directories providing links to domestic US suppliers )
The most important thing you need to remember when dealing with overseas suppliers is that you have to be very, very careful. If you are inexperienced, you should ask for professional advice on how to get the best deals and protect yourself from fraud. Also – if you do find yourself in need of doing business with overseas suppliers, choose to contact those that provide a local sales office or agent or order using established marketplaces that provide escrow payment options.
( The most reliable services that connect you to B2B suppliers overseas )
Although the services mentioned above are a great way to find the right suppliers, you can also do your own digging and search for independent manufacturers or wholesalers.
There is no standard way of doing this but some tips may help you get closer to your ideal suppliers:
So hopefully you now know a thing or two about finding suppliers and you're going to get the best deal possible. Great! What's next? Oh, yeah, prices:
When it comes to pricing, you have two rather simple concepts to always keep in mind:
Basically, the prices of sold products have to cover the sum of these expenses. The bottom line is always the same: Profit = Revenue – Costs.
Your company will report a gross revenue by selling products. Profits come when you are selling enough merchandise, at the right price, to cover your costs.
Of course, it's a bit more complicated than this but you get the picture. You have to price your sold products where you can be profitable. However, prices need to stay competitive to the market. This means that there's a balance you have to keep. Prices should be big enough to keep you in business but small enough to be competitive with other online retailers.
1. Markup on cost means you add a certain percentage to he cost associated with the product. It is usually a standard percentage somewhere between 15% and 40%, enough to keep you profitable and your prices competitive.
The formula works like this:
Item cost + (Item cost x Markup Percentage) = Price
Say for example we are selling plain t-shirts, with a cost of $20. We've set the markup at 30%. The the price would be:
$20 (Item cost) + ($20 x 30%) = $26
2. Manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) is another way small businesses can set their prices in such a way that they are profitable but not too expensive. MSRP is the price the manufacturer recommends to resellers so they don't start price wars that can benefit no one. This type of price setting leaves out a lot of options for the online store owner and should not be a general rule in the long run.
Above are just two of the simpler ways prices can be set to attract the consumers. We will get into a lot more details in the "Marketing your store" part of this guide so stay tuned.
For now, this concludes part two of the "How to Start an Online Store" Complete Guide. Part three will focus on building your fulfillment operation (picking, packing, shipping and returns) and how to build a brand identity and the actual store front. See you soon!
Featured image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27017674@N06/8915361750
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