According to Bloomberg.com, “online sales are expected to surge 45 percent to $327 billion in the U.S. in 2016, according to Forrester Research.” So what does that mean for you as a brick and mortar business? It means you have to get online, or you could be missing out on potential sales. Maybe you already know this, but you were unsure of how to get started. We were in that same boat nearly seven years ago, but we did our research and are seeing the benefits of this decision. As a small business, we wanted to share our experiences of growing our online brand in hopes that it will help others do the same.

online shopping trends
photo credit: sevenfloorsdown via photopin cc

Creating the Website

When we began building our website back in 2006 we had no clue what was involved. It took us nearly a year to create a website we were happy with, and we are still making improvements. Here are some of the lessons we learned while building a website.

1. Hire Someone – If you’re not a tech genius, you should hire an outside company to help you build your site. There is a lot of coding and development work that is involved when creating a good quality website, and doing it yourself can be time consuming and frustrating. In the end, you will constantly be making updates to your site to make it the best possible version it can be for customers. So if you have a team to work on these improvements, it can free up your time to do other important things, like running your business.

2. Create Your Website For Your Customers – While creating your new ecommerce website, you should always keep one thing in mind: the customer. I know you will find a bunch of articles out there stating that building an optimized site for SEO is the best way to go. That may have been the case last year, but with Google’s ever changing Panda and Penguin updates, they may begin to penalize your site if you are too focused on ranking and not on your customers.

3. Don’t Over Optimize – Over optimizing can mean using keywords that you wish to rank for in search engines over and over again throughout your site. This not only makes your site look spammy to search engines but it annoys your customers. You should use keywords that you wish to rank for in search engines, but only when they seem natural. If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.

4. Install Google Analytics – Once you have your site up and ready to go, make sure you integrate it with Google Analytics. This is how you will track your online conversions, website visits and even your social interaction. It’s simple to install and the information you receive will help you with your marketing plan.

5. Get a Blog – This is the easiest way to help with those search engine rankings. Your blog is the place to create good quality content that people will want to read and share with others. You can create a blog via WordPress.com.

Maintaining the Website

Now that you have your website created, it’s time to make sure your products are properly displayed and optimized.

1. Product Descriptions – Now you may be tempted to use the generic product descriptions that the manufacturer has on their website. Don’t! This will hurt your ranking in Google due to what they call duplicate content. Google likes to see original content and if you and 100 other sites have the same product description, your rankings will suffer. So take the time and create unique product descriptions for each item. This is also a good time to use some (not all) keywords. Don’t stuff the whole descriptions with keywords, but one is fine.

2. Quality Photos – Taking good quality photos of your products is the best way for customers to see what they are purchasing. If you have the resources, you should consider taking photos of the products in house. This way you can shoot every angle, giving customers a detailed look at the products. This will also help your products look different from competitors selling the same items from the same manufacturer.

3. Optimize Products – Now I know I said earlier not to over optimize your website, but some optimization is needed. When you are uploading new products to your site, make sure you are adding proper Meta titles and Meta descriptions. This is the text that will show up in search results when a customer Googles a phrase. This is different from your product description in that there is a recommended word limit. If you make the text too long, search engines will cut it off.

  • Meta Title: 65 – 70 Characters
  • Meta Description: 140 Characters

Promoting the Website

Now that you have a full functioning site, it’s time to get some customers. This should be easy if you already have a strong following at your retail stores.

1. Promote in Store – The easiest way to get customers to your site is to tell current customers about your site. Create bag stuffers letting customers know they can now find their favorite items online.

**Bonus Tip – Ask customers for their emails during check out for news letter and coupon sign ups. This will help you build an email database of customers to email with your latest offers and promotions.

2. Online Promotions – Create coupon codes and submit them to coupon websites like Retailmenot.com & Coupons.com. These can be site wide discounts or promotions on specific products.

3. Local Traffic – One way to make sure that customers will find you is by adding your site to online directories like Google, Yahoo, Yelp, and Mapquest. Now since you already have a retail store, you may already have a listing on the site. You can ask to claim the listing and add a link to your website.

4. Get Social – If you don’t have your business on social media, you better get started. Social media is a great way for current customers to help promote your business. The four main social media sites your business should be on is Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google +. Don’t forget to offer discounts to customers who like/follow your page. You should also include these social media widgets on your website so customers can easily connect with you.

5. Become an Expert – Nobody knows your business better then you, so why not share your expertise. Find blogs and websites within the same industry and guest post on their site. Offer quality unique content to these sites and distinguish yourself as an expert. For example, if you sell baked goods, you can reach out to food blogs and share recipes and tips. You can also engage in conversation via blog comments. Offer websites your advice on a topic. Don’t do this just to add a link or promote your product, but instead offer something of value to readers.

Now we can’t guarantee that if you follow these steps you will have automatic success in the online market, but it’s a start. You may find that some of these tips work better than others. It all depends on the type of business you have and what your customers like. That’s the secret to all of this: Benefit your customers, and in turn, your website will benefit.

Company Bio: JAM Paper & Envelope is a paper goods retailer located in New York City and an online store at www.jampaper.com. With more than 50 years in the paper business JAM provides customers with all their paper needs. Check out their blog for the latest news, coupons and crafts.

About the Author: The article is written by Andrew Jacobs, COO of JAM Paper.