From bricks to bytes

Most people think of themselves as something else before they think of themselves as a Web retailer, especially those who start their business in the physical world and then move online. This can make a transition to online retailing tricky. However, with a bit of forethought and planning, the transition to e-retailing can be a robust complement to your offline efforts.

First, identify the right Web system for your specific needs. What are your goals for the Web store? How much traffic will it need to handle? How much functionality do you need? The best way to determine this is to spend some time surfing other online stores to see how they work.

Some e-stores show multiple images and support zooming on images. Different shopping carts allow for gift wrap choices or shipments to multiple addresses. Make three lists of functionality for your site: have to have, nice to have and a wish list. This will help your Web vendor determine which system will be the best fit for your e-store.

The second consideration is to determine how you’re going to approach processing payments. There are several options. PayPal or Google Checkout gateways are easy options for low-volume online sales. You can process payments manually through your physical store’s POS system. This might be sufficient if you’re only processing a few payments per week, but it leaves significant room for error and isn’t particularly secure. Plus, you will still need an SSL certificate for your Web site to accept the customer’s private information. (Used primarily for e-commerce Web sites, SSL certificates can confirm the identity of your site and enables you to encrypt private information – such as credit card numbers – transmitted over the Internet.)

Finally, you can include a gateway on your site to process credit card payments directly online. Sophisticated systems will provide seamless, real-time processing and verification.

A further consideration for processing payments online is how you will move sales information from the e-store to your current accounting system. Does your online system need to sync with QuickBooks or another accounting program? If it does, you can either start with a Web system that will integrate with QuickBooks or your Web developer can find a module that connects the two systems. Custom programming can be very expensive.

Consider your time

The next consideration seems simple, but it can throw a serious wrench into a well-planned transition. Where will the product pictures and descriptions that populate the store come from? What detail information will you provide for each item? A distributor may have product pictures and descriptions you can use, but do they fit the style and tone of your business? Are photographs good quality and enticing? No matter what you’re selling, your pictures and item descriptions should be beautiful, clear and high quality.

If you’re pulling from more than one distributor, are the pictures and descriptions consistent enough to use together? If you don’t like what you’re getting from the manufacturer or distributor, are you going to write engaging descriptions for all the products in your online store? Will you take photographs of the items or hire a photographer to do it for you?

This can be a time-consuming step, depending on how many items you have in your online store. Plan now for either your time to do the job or the expense of paying someone else to do it for you.

Building and launching the site are only the first steps. Who will take the time to keep the site up to date and fresh? This can mean anything from changing the featured items on your home page to regularly changing the products you sell based on the seasons. This could be a weekly or monthly task, depending in large part on what you are selling.

Be honest about how much time you have to invest on an ongoing basis. If you don’t have the time, you must plan for the expense of hiring someone else to help you. This could be as formal as engaging your Web provider to do ongoing maintenance or as simple as paying a friend or colleague to update the information regularly.

The final consideration for moving your physical store online is promoting the site. Once your Web site is launched, it must be promoted strategically and consistently. Too many times companies adopt an online philosophy something akin to, “If you build it, they will come.” Unfortunately, that only worked once in a Midwestern cornfield, and even there everyone thought Kevin Costner was nuts.

A better strategy would be to include it in all your offline promotions, including business cards, flyers, in-store signage and any print materials or advertisements. Run special promotions to drive visitors to your online store. Create a search engine marketing campaign on Facebook or any of the search engines. Run sales with special Web-only components.

Taking these five strategies under consideration, the transition from bricks to bytes can be smooth — and your e-store can become a valuable complement to your offline business strategy.

Richie O’Brien, owner of Mirror Lake Interactive, a Lakes Region-based Web development firm that specializes in e-commerce, can be reached at