E-commerce for Small Businesses: A User’s Guide

For most of history, the process of buying and selling remained about the same. Customers visited businesses in person to make purchases, and companies kept all of their stock stored locally. However, the advent of the internet drastically changed retail for both consumers and business owners.

The Internet affected the way shoppers and businesses interact because more and more purchases are made online without ever visiting a physical storefront. Even when customers do visit a store in person, it’s usually after completing research online first. According to BusinessZone, 62 percent of consumers say they browse online before making an in-store purchase. It can be difficult for stores with no online presence to keep up, with online retailers offering deep discounts, fast shipping and cost comparisons.

Online shopping trends

This trend toward online shopping shows no sign of slowing down. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that web sales totaled $341.7 billion during 2015, an increase of 14.6 percent over 2014. This means that e-commerce accounted for more than 60 percent of total retail sales growth last year. For six years in a row, e-commerce sales have grown close to or exceeding 15 percent. Clearly, it has become critically important for small businesses to build a strong online marketing and e-commerce strategy.

Why Small Businesses Need E-commerce

E-commerce strategies are important for businesses of all sizes, because consumers now have multiple channels at their disposal when they shop. Those who shop in store can take their business online and vice versa. However, many small businesses have outdated e-commerce sites. When customers use online research to find nearby locations and product availability, small businesses may lose out to larger companies if they don’t have a solid online presence.

In addition, even consumers who prefer to shop in store can ultimately go the online route because it is the most convenient option. Inc. points out that data shows a “real value for businesses that embrace internet marketing and ecommerce to reach the large percentage of customers who are shopping online.”

E-commerce enables small businesses to keep pace with competitors while providing new sources of much-needed revenue as well. Because it’s relatively easy to set up an online store, small businesses really only need an internet connection to run various e-commerce solutions and a shipping process.

Developing an e-commerce strategy may require less investment than opening a second brick-and-mortar location, Inc. says. E-commerce allows businesses to sell their products anywhere in the world rather than being restricted to the local area, so they stand to increase sales and profits. Even the smallest businesses can integrate e-commerce with their existing business website.

The accessibility of online sales is ideal because it levels the playing field: Smaller operations can compete with large-scale sellers when they leverage e-commerce effectively.

Best E-commerce Platforms for Small Business

In the past, businesses that wanted to develop an online sales presence had to hire in-house web designers and developers to build out these services for them. However, this is no longer required.

Magento screenshot
Magento eCommerce platform

High-quality, user-friendly e-commerce solutions are readily available on the market. These platforms feature better scalability and functionality than some mid-sized companies have through their e-commerce sites, BusinessZone says. Even better, most providers offer a 14- or 30-day free trial, so you can try out different options and determine which is right for you. Many small companies utilize the same top solutions because they deliver the services and capabilities actual businesses of this size need.

The following are some of the best options available to help small businesses succeed in e-commerce. We sourced our list from this Entrepreneur article.

  • Symphony Commerce: This e-commerce platform offers a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution. It’s ideal because it off-loads the architecture and backend duties that are “critical to maintaining an online store.” This means that you can stay focused on core business processes. Symphony Commerce offers pay-as-you-go pricing, so it’s a great choice for a company that knows what it wants from an e-commerce service. If you are newer to online sales, you might want to go with a more one-size-fits-all option.
  • Squarespace: This “fully loaded” platform is affordable and allows you to choose the perfect theme for your e-commerce site — no coding knowledge required. Squarespace enables you to upload as many items to your online store as you like, and it offers full control over inventory so that you can offer variants of the same product type with no hassle. However, this platform isn’t big on search engine optimization (SEO) or customer relationship management (CRM).
  • Magento: Magento is one of the most scalable e-commerce platforms out there, meaning that you can add or subtract services to meet your specific needs. It is open source, so adding features is easy. It can be more complicated to use than many of these other picks, however, so it may be a little complex for first-time e-commerce retailers.
  • CommerceHub: This cloud-based platform lets you increase the number of products you offer to customers. It “works as a merchandising and fulfillment platform that connects online retailers to suppliers” and allows for integration with any product source. Something important to note about CommerceHub is that it relies on businesses to have a developed sales funnel already, making it a good fit for companies that want to build on existing sourcing practices.
  • Drupal Commerce: Drupal is the only e-commerce platform on this list that is built within an entire content management system, allowing users to customize workflow. It is very flexible, configurable and scalable. However, to get the most out of this option, you’ll probably need to hire an in-house developer to set up workflows and overall configuration, Entrepreneur notes. One thing that makes Drupal stand out is that it doesn’t come with licensing fees, which increases affordability.
  • Shopify: This platform is an all-in-one solution that allows you to set up an online store. It’s one of the most popular e-commerce builders on the market. You can upload as many products as you like with close inventory control. Other valuable elements include a discount code engine and no transaction fees. Shopify comes with an app store. All of these customization options can be overwhelming, but Shopify doesn’t require a tech background to use.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of e-commerce platforms available on the market to help you create the online sales strategy that’s right for your resources and business goals. After identifying your requirements, you’ll be able to settle on a platform to build your online presence and stay competitive in the fast-paced world of e-commerce. Consumers are looking for quick, convenient shopping opportunities that make online the right choice for many.

With more do-it-yourself e-commerce tools available than ever before, small businesses have the opportunity to capitalize on the online market with relatively low overhead. Cloud-based solutions make it possible to manage an online shop adeptly without wasting large amounts of time or resources.

If you are interested in topics like these that are relevant to business owners and entrepreneurs, consider Concordia University, St. Paul’s online MBA program.