How to move your business online or setup online business

Simple steps you can use to set up any type of business online.

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The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on businesses, with many closing their physical doors. As well as the support options available to businesses affected by the current situation, there are also opportunities for people to open virtual doors to an online business.

While technology has made it easier for almost any business to get setup online, there are also options for people with limited tech skills. In this guide, we walk you through the basic steps anyone can take to create an online platform for your business – whether it is established or brand new.

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9 steps to get your business online

1. Choose a platform for your business

This will be your main point of contact with customers online and often depends on the type of business. For example, if you're selling homemade or retail items, you might be able to simply set up a store on eBay, Etsy, Amazon or another established marketplace.

Your online platform — whether you decide to create your own website or opt for a third-party marketplace — is your main point of contact with online customers. And the best platform for your store depends entirely on your needs.

If you want to move your hospitality business online, you could look at partnerships with delivery or ordering services like Uber Eats, Menulog or Skip.

If you are selling items with a robust inventory (e.g. retailer goods) may need an e-commerce platform with comprehensive product pages, like Shopify. Smaller retailers with a few handfuls of products may prefer a simpler platform, like Squarespace.

If you need a place to start, explore some of the following e-commerce platforms to see what each has to offer:

  • 3dcart
  • BigCommerce
  • Helcim
  • Shopify
  • Square

The provider you select should be able to track both in-person and online inventory from a single integrated dashboard. The good news is that many platforms, including Shopify and Square, offer this feature. Finding the right platform for your business may take some digging, but don't rush the process. Building an online storefront takes time and you want to make sure you can commit to the provider you choose.

Already have a website?

If your business has a website, start selling online by installing a shopping cart plugin. If you run a self-hosted website on WordPress, consider WooCommerce: a plugin exclusively for WordPress that allows you to accept online payments, manage inventory and analyze sales trends. Or explore Ecwid's offerings: a shopping cart widget that allows you to list and sell products on an existing website.

Read our guide on building your own website.

I don't want to start a whole new store from scratch. What are my alternatives?

Building an online store from the ground up can take time. If you'd prefer to hit the ground running on an established platform, consider an online marketplace like Amazon, eBay or Etsy.

The benefit of setting up shop on an online marketplace is the integrated visibility and audience reach these platforms provide. But competition on these marketplaces can be fierce and you'll have far less control over how your products are marketed and displayed.

If you want to start an online store but lack the time or technical skills, consider a platform that offers a website setup service, like Stripe. For a one-time fee of $500, Stripe sets up your website for you.

2. Design your online store

After you select your e-commerce platform, start customising your online storefront. Most providers offer 10 or so website themes to choose from, but this varies by platform.

When selecting a theme, look for something that matches your established brand identity. Many website themes are free, but if you're interested in niche features or design options, you may need to tack on $50 to $100 for a premium theme. Alternatively you can find a designer.

Once you've selected a theme, you're ready to start loading products.

3. Load your product

Creating high-quality product pages is integral to the success of your online store. Smaller stores may prefer to enter their products one by one, while bigger retailers may prefer to upload inventory spreadsheets, customizing each entry with product descriptions, SKUs and prices.

Each product listing should include:

  • Product title
  • Product description
  • Product photo
  • Shipping information
  • Sizing information if needed

When it comes to product pages, quality matters. Polished, professional pages increase your store's legitimacy and help keep online shoppers on the page. High-quality photos help customers engage with the product. And clear, well-written descriptions are crucial for anyone with accessibility needs.

While it's not a necessity, adding a customer review section can powerfully impact your conversion rate. Ask happy customers to leave feedback on their purchases to begin building a positive reputation for each product.

4. Set prices accurately

While it may be tempting to continue using the pricing structure you had in place for your brick-and-mortar store, there are factors to consider when you're setting pricing for your online store. For example, how will packaging and shipping costs affect your overhead? How is the price of the e-commerce platform and any third-party applications affecting your cost to do business? Factor those costs into your product prices.

Conduct market research to compare the prices of similar products. Price to compete while remaining profitable. It's a challenging balance to strike, but seeing how your competitors price their products can help give you an idea of what price range to aim for.

5. Set up your checkout cart

Payment processing is essential for online businesses — without it you can't accept online payments. Luckily, most e-commerce platforms come with built-in processing and merchant accounts, so you won't need to source these from a third-party. Notable exceptions include 3dcart and Xcart — both require you to set up your own payment gateway through a third party before you can begin accepting payments.

6. Set up email notifications

Build rapport with your customers — even if you're online. Outgoing emails can help you build trust and increase engagement.

Here are a few email templates to consider:

  • Abandoned cart email. Prompt customers to return to your site and complete a sale with automated abandoned cart emails that remind them of the items they left in their shopping cart.
  • Confirmation email. Let your customers know you've received their order with a confirmation email. This email should include pertinent information about their order, including their order number, price and order status.
  • Delivery email. Keep customers informed of where their order is in the delivery process with shipment and delivery emails.
  • Product review email. Ask customers to leave feedback on what they've purchased with a link back to your online store.

7. Create a shipping and fulfillments process

There are a few ways you can go about shipping and the method that best fits your business depends on how involved you want to be in the process.

Buy online and pickup in-store

Local customers may appreciate the option to save on shipping costs and pick up their orders in-person. Be sure to notify customers of your business hours and when their order will be ready for pickup.

Ship it yourself

When you ship orders, you're responsible for all aspects of the shipping process, from purchasing the appropriate packaging materials to creating carrier slips and applying postage.

Use a shipping provider

Shipping services like ShipStation and Shippo can help you through the shipping process with discounted carrier rates, return shipping options — even scheduled package pickups from local carriers. To integrate a shipping service into your online store, compare providers your e-commerce platform integrates with. Be prepared to pay a per-package or monthly fee for the service.
Some popular shipping providers include:

  • Easyship
  • ShipBob
  • ShippingEasy
  • Shippo
  • ShipStation
Use a dropshipping or fulfilment service

Fulfillment services like Oberlo, Doba and SaleHoo take care of every part of the shipping process for you, including inventory storage. This option is typically the most expensive, but relieves you of storing, organizing and expediting order shipping on your own. Some dropshipping services even tackle returns and customer service.

8. Make a test purchase

Before marketing your website, make a test purchase to make sure everything's working properly. Confirm that you can navigate your online store, add products to your shopping cart and securely complete the checkout process. Ensure that follow-up emails you've set up are successfully delivered.

If something goes wrong, reach out to your e-commerce platform's support team. Tech support should help you troubleshoot the problem. Most platforms also offer online learning tools and forums, so check your provider's website to see if any other merchants have encountered a similar problem in the past.

9. Market your online store as open for business

There are a number of different ways to get the word out about your online store:

  • Email. Launch an email campaign to let your customers know you're online. Third-party email services like MailChimp can help automate the process, but you'll have to check which plugins are available with your e-commerce provider.
  • Social media. Use your brand's social media page to extend your reach, gain followers and spread the word about promotions and sales.
  • Blogs. Reach out to local bloggers and see if they'd be willing to mention your store in an upcoming blog post. Offer to send a free sample in exchange for a review.
  • Paid ads. Pay-per-click marketing can help drive traffic to your store in exchange for a fixed price per click.

What else do you need to look out for when moving your business online?

Get the right software and hardware

These are the items or elements that your business needs in order to function. So, if your business had audio or visual elements, this could mean getting a camera, high-quality microphone and some editing software. If you're setting up a graphic design business, might need to buy software like Photoshop or sign up to an online service like Canva. And if you're selling items, it could be packaging and postal supplies.

Sort your money for online payments

Consider how you want to manage your online payments. You can use things like online seller accounts if selling internationally. There also plenty of merchant services out there to help you manage payments.

Communicate with customers

It's crucial you let customers know how your business is changing before and after the transition. You could also offer an update during the move to online operations, depending on how long it takes.

This will help maintain your relationship with them. By sharing clear communication – and listening to feedback – you may even find that you build stronger relationships and loyalty with some customers. If you want some tips, the government's Business website has some useful information to help you get started.

Manage your employees remotely

If you've moved from an office to remote set ups, the main forms of communication between staff could change. Make sure you check in with all your staff and establish "best practice" approaches to staying in contact.

For example, you might want to check in each day or week by scheduling a video meeting, start using a workplace chat service or other collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams or Google Apps for Work.

Review your operational costs

These could change when you move from a brick-and-mortar setup to an online one. Aim to review costs so that you can reduce those you don't need and invest in any that you may be relying on more.

For more information, check out Finder's guide to setting your business up for remote work.

Inventory details

If you have a retail business, make sure you have quality images on the stock you want to sell online. The same goes for hospitality businesses if you've moved to pick-up and delivery only, with research showing visual elements can even have an impact on how food tastes. Bottom line? Having good pictures of whatever stock you're selling could lead to more sales.

Written descriptions are also important, as your customers won't be able to physically engage with whatever you're selling. They are also crucial for anyone with accessibility needs. So clear, well-written descriptions should be a key focus when you're setting your business up online.

How existing business relationships could help

As an established business, you'll already have relationships with suppliers and partners. These connections can help you switch to an online focus.

For example, if you have a retail or hospitality business, you could ask suppliers for high-quality images to put on your website (or other platforms you're using). Or, if you work with a partner that's already operating online, you could ask them for specific insights based on their relationship with your business.

It's also a good idea to let people know how your changes might affect the business relationship. For example, if you think you'll be using an existing courier service more, taking the time to talk to them about it could actually strengthen that relationship (and help keep customers happy).

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What types of businesses can go online?

Technology has made it easy for a whole range of different businesses to operate online. Some examples include:

  • Retail
  • Hospitality (pick-up and delivery)
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Public relations
  • Accounting
  • Software
  • Entertainment (streaming and shipping)
  • Education
  • Graphic design
  • Customer support centres

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