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.
Building a brand for the online store
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:
- domain names (preferably a dot com domain – they are still most likely to catch on)
- social media accounts (check for the chosen name on twitter/facebook/instagram etc. Not all may be available but try to register your brand on the most important social networks)
- mobile apps (check to see if any app using the name you’ve covered is published on either iOS, Android or Windows mobile. The future is mobile so your brand should be too.)
- any other areas where your brand could be present and there is a potential brand conflict
3. Visual identity
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:
- company fonts (used in graphic design)
- secondary colors (a special color palette used separately from those in the logo)
- imagery (the types of images used to convey marketing messages)
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.
4. Brand implementation
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:
- Your call-center support: this is the voice of your company. It needs to reflect your brand’s personality and keep customers happy and coming back.
- The package: the way your package looks and feels is a great way to showcase your brand and build an emotional connection to the customer receiving and opening the package.
- Your web-store: we will get into more detail about the way your web store reflects your brand but rest assured: this is the place your customers will be spending the most time on so you need to make it yours. The webstore needs to reflects your brand personality and your visual identity.
- Social media: your personality and visual identity will go beyond your online store. The most common areas you will need to be present are social media outlets. For example check out these companies shining on Instagram.
(Examples of Amazon using its brand on different supports)
Implementing the web store software
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:
- choosing the right software for your store
- finding technical support in implementing the software
- adapting the software to match your brand identity
- connecting payment gateways and shipping partners
- adding products and content to the online store
- training the team in using the online store
Choosing the right software for your store
Ecommerce applications are usually targeted at two types of users
- small and medium retailers (such as yourself)
- large retailers
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.
No 1: Magento
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:
- the number of features aimed at web stores that have passed the startup phase
- enhanced sales, online payment, returns and customer info features
- ability to customize and extend beyond the standard installation
- ability to handle large number of orders, if optimized
There are however, some caveats:
- you will need experienced developers to handle customization and/or extensions
- increased server costs due to increased requirements
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.
No. 2: Prestashop
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.
- easy to install and setup
- you can start your store without any technical know-how (with the cloud solution)
- has great warehouse and suppliers management applications
- development costs are lower, due to having rather simple technical requirements
- hardware requirements are lower, resulting in great performance and lower server costs
- it may not be the right solution after you go beyond being a startup and you’ll have to move up
- smaller developer community
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.
- cloud solution: data is always safe, you can access it from anywhere
- extremely easy to setup without technical know-how
- you can extend your shop through third party apps and visual themes
- can work both for online and offline sales
- not so easy to extend beyond core features. The solution can be extended through separate apps
- the development and designer community is still rather small
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.
No. 4: WordPress
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 othersmake 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.
- huge user base, very popular application
- a large variety of themes and plugins (almost 29 000 plugins up to date)
- a large number of developers
- easy to set up and manage
- a large knowledge base
- many themes designed specifically for ecommerce
- not built specifically for ecommerce
- only the hosted version can be used as an ecommerce application
- not many operational tools (such as inventory management, complex customer service etc)
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 )
Finding technical support and customizing the ecommerce software
For all those solutions above, you will most likely need two types of support:
- implementing and extending the applications: you will need to look for developers
- adapting the standard layout for your own needs: you will need to look for web designers
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.
Using themes and plugins to improve your online store
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:
- ThemeForest.net (Features themes for all major ecommerce solutions)
- TemplateMonster.com (Features themes for all major ecommerce solutions)
- Shopify Themes and Apps
- Prestashop Themes and Modules
- Magento Themes and Extensions
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:
- implementing the basic software package
- implementing the chosen theme
- optimizing the theme or building one from the ground up to be the right fit for your brand
- implement the right modules (say a special CRM module to handle customer information storage better)
- implement payment gateways so you can process order payments
- integrate with shipping partners so there few to no shipping errors
Once the process is complete you will have an up and running online store, without any products or any type of content.
Adding the content to your online store
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.
Training the team in using ecommerce software
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:
- product management
- customer relationship management
- order management
- order fulfillment
- inventory and warehouse management
- marketing and PR
- financial management
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.