10 Tips for Selling Products Online

A user-friendly and secure website is key to drawing in and keeping loyal customers.
A user-friendly and secure website is key to drawing in and keeping loyal customers.
OlegSirenko/iStock/Thinkstock

Congratulations! You've finally realized your dream and launched that online store. Whether you're selling trinkets, tchotchkes, tea towels or tools, it's been a long road getting to this point. Obtaining funding, buying inventory, designing the site, buying ads, spreading the word — all that's behind you now. The hard work is done, and today you're just going to sit back, relax and watch the orders roll in.

Well, not so fast. You might have done a bang-up job on that site, but are you sure you're providing an absolutely seamless experience? Are the "right people" finding you? Even if you've succeeded in your efforts to drive traffic, your viewers might not be making purchases. It could be that they're not interested, or maybe oversights or glitches are making the site hard to navigate. It could be because your URL is hard to remember, or you're not responding to customer complaints soon enough, or you're not connecting with your audience on social media. Being an online store owner is a tough job, so take a few minutes while you're in that lounge chair to read our tips on how to boost your sales.

10: Find Your People

Setting up a brand-spanking-new online store and stocking it with the most amazing products doesn't mean automatic customers. People aren't going to flock to your store just because it exists — you have to seek them out and reel them in. We assume you know who "your people" are and where they like to hang out online. You wouldn't have set up shop before doing your research and identifying your target market, right? All the marketing and advertising in the world won't help a bit if you're not targeting the right crowd.

So before you launch your store, you need to figure out a way to reach your people and make them interested. The social-media route is a no-brainer — it's free and extremely effective — but you can also try more traditional methods like paid ads (if the ads are in places that your target audience will actually see). Search-engine optimization is a must, too. Once you've found your people and they've found you, the hard work is just starting. Now the trick is making them loyal customers.

9: Get Your Site Right

Many of us don't have much patience for anything online that's even the tiniest bit sluggish or difficult. If we encounter a clunky user interface, broken links, slow downloads or a dysfunctional shopping cart, we'll cut and run, no questions asked. If you have an online store, you can't afford to lose customers this way. Your site should have a clean design, be glitch-free and have an intuitive flow. You also can't afford to lose smartphone customers, so optimizing for mobile screens is essential.

But no matter how slick and user-friendly your store is, if people have a hard time remembering its name, you'll have a hard time generating traffic. One of your first considerations when starting an online store — after you've come up with a name — is to nail down your URL. If the actual name of the company is available, congratulations! No thinking involved. But if it's already taken, you might have a tough decision to make. Find the most succinct and memorable URL possible. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but it could make or break your business.

8: Find an E-commerce System

This is probably the most important part of making your site appealing to customers. All of your pretty design work will go to waste if you don't have a good e-commerce system in place. Faced with a checkout process that's difficult to navigate or seems insecure, customers will abandon their carts and head to greener pastures.

So how do you go about figuring out which e-commerce system is right for your store? It has to fit your needs (and budget) and also be comfortable for your customers. If you'd rather not deal with setting up the infrastructure to accept credit cards (and you're sure your customers will be OK with this), you can use a third party like PayPal to process your payments. You can do this in conjunction with a shopping-cart system of your choice or through a site in an online marketplace. The next level up would be to do everything on your own. It is an investment to spring for shopping-cart software and a merchant account that allows you to process credit cards, but it gives you much more control over the whole system. Just make sure it's something you can handle and that it's a good fit for you and your customers.

If a full e-commerce system is too complicated or expensive for your needs right now, your best bet could be on the next page.

7: Join an Online Marketplace

If you're just starting out and don't have much technical know-how or budget, consider setting up shop in an online marketplace. Attaching yourself to a known brand like Etsy, eBay or Amazon can relieve some stress — you'll have an instant audience and it won't feel so much like starting from scratch. Site design, e-commerce software, shopping cart, inventory management — all (or most) of the hard stuff is done for you, and there's built-in customer support. This option isn't free, of course, but it'll probably add up to less than what you'll shell out to set things up on your own.

One downside to having a space in an online marketplace is that you won't have as much control over design and thus your brand. Customer communication might be restricted, and you'll have to learn the ins and outs of the marketplace's software. Most marketplaces take a percentage of each sale, so that's another consideration. And you might not enjoy trying to stand out in a crowd of your direct competition.

6: Secure Your Site

Let's assume that you've done everything right with your online store. You have a beautiful, easy-to-navigate site and well-priced products, and the customers are streaming in. But they're not buying your products — they're putting items into their carts, then bailing when they reach the payment information page. You can't figure out what the problem could be. Turns out you've neglected one absolutely essential step: getting an SSL certificate.

An SSL (secure socket layer) certificate is the key to protecting your customers' payment information —and preventing your site from cyberattackers. It encrypts the sections of your site that collect sensitive information, rendering it useless to unauthorized parties. This gives your site instant credibility and allows your customers to feel safe giving you their information. Educated consumers know how to tell when a page is secure: There will be a padlock symbol to the left of the URL, and the URL will start with "https" instead of "http." In the absence of those hallmarks, most people will assume the worst and won't waste any time clicking away.

More Tips for Selling Products Online

Having a social media presence is essential when you’re growing an online business.
Having a social media presence is essential when you’re growing an online business.
DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

5: Have Amazing Customer Service

A major goal of any business is to retain customers and keep them happy, and everyone knows the best way to do that is through exceptional service. This is important everywhere but especially so in the online world, where it can take a disgruntled customer all of a few seconds to find one of your competitors. When your business is online, customers can contact you at any time, so you always have to be ready to respond in a friendly, efficient fashion.

Your website is the first place your customers will go for basic service information, so make sure it's easy to use. Clearly spell out your shipping procedures and return policy (which should be as flexible and low-cost as possible), and put contact information in a prominent spot. If you can, list a phone number where customers can talk to a real person — this gives an enormous sense of security and confidence in your business. Even if they don't ever call, it can be reassuring to know it's there. Slipping little gifts into shipments and sending thank-you notes is an effective way to lend a personal touch.

Another advantage of an online business is the ability to spring into action if a customer has a complaint. Disgruntled customers can also spring into action pretty quickly to write scathing reviews, so you have to make things right before that happens.

4: Act Fast

The speed at which things happen online can be both a blessing and a curse. If you act at the right moment, you could be on the forefront of something exciting. If you hesitate for a second, you could easily fall behind and be yesterday's news before you even realize what's happened. Online store proprietors have to walk this line every day.

Depending on your market, this can be a difficult task. Younger audiences — or ones that are intensely devoted to their niche — tend to be more demanding and fickle. If you're not totally up to date or immediately jumping on new trends, they might abandon you for the new kid on the block. That's another delicate balance: staying fresh without losing your brand identity. You certainly don't want to overhaul your site every other month, but you don't want things to get stale, either. The same goes for customer service. If you don't rectify a problem, pronto, you might be the target of a social-media firestorm.

3: Be Descriptive

We've all had the experience of being turned off by bad photos and vague product descriptions in an online store. If the item looks like it was photographed in someone's dark garage and there's no way to tell how big it is, why would you want to buy it? Don't let this happen to your site.

Taking and posting photos and writing detailed product descriptions can be a tedious, repetitive task. There's no way around it, though, and you have to focus on quality — please don't write a few basic words for each item and call it a day. The more information you can give, the better. If you can do it in an interesting way that showcases the voice of your brand, that's even better!

Another thing you absolutely can't "phone" in is your photos. A phone camera isn't going to cut it — if you want to look like the real deal (and we think you do), hire a photographer or invest in a good camera, and learn how to use it properly! Use plenty of clear, well-lit, high-resolution photos to show your products from all angles. That's the only way for customers to know exactly what they're getting.

2: Be a Social Butterfly

Building your brand and driving traffic to your site has become a whole lot easier with the explosion of social media. Being active on social media is now a central aspect of being an online entrepreneur. In some niches, it's the single most important and effective marketing effort you can make.

Your social media push can (and should) start even before you launch your site. Set up a Facebook page for your business, and post often about your progress. Start figuring out the influential tweeters and the Instagram trendsetters in your market — follow them, and try to make connections with them. Send them products. Reach out to bloggers. Post on Reddit about your store, and get a conversation started there. Start talking yourself up in any venue you can find, and hashtag away.

When you get the ball rolling, you'll find it's not just a one-way street. People will start posting and tweeting about you. Feature social-media sharing buttons prominently on your site. Once your store is open, encourage your customers to share their purchases. You might find that the social-media aspect of your business becomes all-consuming, but at least it's more fun than endlessly pitching the press — and a lot less expensive than paying for ads.

1: Build Your Brand

"Image is everything," said Andre Agassi in those '90s commercials for Canon, peering rakishly over his shades. We hate to be shallow, but this is still an important mantra in online selling. The large majority of your potential customers are going to form an instant opinion of you from the opening page of your site, so it has to be impeccable. People will be drawn in if your site is able to instantly communicate your brand and what's important to you.

The website is a permanent representation of your brand, but you need to stay true to this image in everything you do. Your job will be infinitely easier in so many ways if you're passionate about your products, and you have to broadcast that passion when you're building your brand. Use a consistent voice in all of your communications. Steady social media engagement and interaction with your customers will help you create a unique culture surrounding your brand. Once you have this, you'll find that things might start falling into place. Traffic will increase, and you'll have a stable of loyal customers who want to spread the word about you and your brand.

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Sources

  • Google. "The Small Business Online Marketing Guide." (April 14, 2015) http://static.googleusercontent.com/media/www.google.com/en/us/ads/pdfs/small_business_online_marketing_guide.pdf
  • Lazazzera, Richard. "What to Sell Online: 8 Strategies for Finding Your First Project." Shopify. (April 14, 2015) http://www.shopify.com/blog/12932121-what-to-sell-online-8-strategies-for-finding-your-first-product
  • McColl, Peggy. "Hidden Costs Behind Selling Products Online." Huffington Post. June 9, 2011. (April 14, 2015) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peggy-mccoll/hidden-costs-behind-selli_b_871805.html?
  • Stillwagon, Amanda. "Preparing to Sell Products Online: Steps in the Process." Small Business Trends. Dec. 12, 2014. (April 14, 2015) http://smallbiztrends.com/2014/12/preparing-to-sell-products-online.html