How to Sell Goods and Services Online: a Guide for New Businesses
If you are just starting out in business, then whether you have physical goods or a service to sell, you will probably find that nowadays the Internet is an essential way to connect with your potential customers.
Perhaps twenty years ago, you could take out a display advertisement in the local Yellow Pages and wait for the telephone to start ringing, or take out a lease on a local shop and see the crowds build. Even the way people in the past would have queued patiently while awaiting their turn to be personally served has changed.
In today’s faster-paced world, advertising and sales have moved online. If you want to keep up with the competition and maximise your sales, you need to optimise your online presence in a way that works for your business.
Part 1: How to Sell Goods Online
Depending on the kinds of goods you are selling and the size and extent of your planned sales operation, there are multiple possible routes for online sales that may be preferable.
If you are selling perishable items in a small bricks and mortar shop, or through a local weekly box delivery scheme, then different logic is likely to apply. You cannot send such items through ordinary post, so the main aim of your website should be to showcase what you sell, and let people know how to find you or how to sign up to the scheme, as appropriate.
If you are selling large, expensive items that cannot be easily delivered, then it may be preferable to detail what you have for sale but invite prospective buyers to make contact with you, and then follow up with a personalised sales consultation over the telephone or by email or videoconferencing.
For most other classes of goods, an automated online shop is likely to be a worthwhile investment. This allows customers to add items to a virtual cart, go through an online checkout process (with the cost of delivery calculated automatically), and pay up-front before you pack and send the goods to them.
If it is appropriate for you to go down the e-commerce sales route, then it is worth thinking next about where in the web space to site your shop. To stand out and build your brand, an independent shop at your own domain name is ideal.
If, however, you are selling common classes of goods that people are likely to search for on sites like eBay and Amazon UK, and you think you are able to compete on quality and / or price with sellers on these platforms, then it is probably well worth setting up shops on these sites. This can either serve as your primary online sales portal or operate in tandem with your website, in order to reach more customers faster. The millions of established users of these platforms are likely to search for what they want in their internal search engines rather than on Google, Bing or other general web search engines. Both Amazon UK and eBay take significant commissions on goods sold, so you need to make sure your costs are covered if you use them. However, what you lose in profit margins as compared with selling on an independent website, you may gain in sales volume.
If you do create your own independent e-commerce store, you have a blank canvas to design it to reflect exactly the look you want for your brand. Unlike with Amazon marketplace and eBay sales, it becomes about much more than just the description and pictures of generic goods you are selling – it is about brand image, and you can mould your website to the image you desire.
There are different content management systems suited to online shops. In some cases (such as Shopify), you pay a monthly fee to the provider of the system in return for an easy-to-operate and flexible sales space and inventory management system. In others (such as WordPress and Drupal, which are both open-source and free of charge), the CMS in itself is not dedicated to online sales and covers a wider range of more general website-building purposes. You will therefore need to add a suitable third-party e-commerce plug-in to the site for your online shop, while designing your home page and supplementary informational pages using the facilities offered by the CMS as a whole.
Part 2: How to Sell Services Online
The idea of selling services online may sound paradoxical if those services traditionally require meeting with clients in person for a face-to-face consultation, or attending their premises to carry out tasks demanding practical organisation or physical labour.
Even though you can’t always deliver services via email or post, the value of selling your services online lies in allowing potential customers looking for such services to become aware of the fact that you offer them. If those services by their nature do depend on attending local premises or meeting face-to-face, then you can target your visibility by location, emphasising the places that are within reach for you by name. If you don’t have this limitation, then the world can be your oyster. The instant international communications afforded by email and live video calling allow you to carry out consultancy, teaching and many other kinds of work remotely around the globe.
There are several routes to market for businesses with services to sell. The first port of call, and perhaps the most obvious one to think of, is a business website. If you are serious about being found online, then at the very least you need a web presence of your own, with details of your business name, location, contact information, and services offered. An attractively designed, modern website that adapts responsively to screen resolution so that it displays well on both mobile devices and large screens will be a great asset to your business in terms of raising awareness and also bringing in enquiries and requests for work.
Another area to focus on when you have services to sell is social media. If you are selling to businesses, organisations or professionals, then you should ideally set up a profile on LinkedIn and use this to network with potential customers and raise awareness of what you offer so that when your services are needed, people remember you and at least consider you as a provider. If you are selling services directly to the general public, for example domestic window-cleaning, then Twitter and Facebook may have more to offer. Consider targeted sponsored posts on Facebook as a form of advertising investment so you reach people who have not heard of you yet, but who fit your target demographic.
It is also worth considering investing time in producing a regular email newsletter sent out to your customers and other business contacts, but bear in mind the spirit and letter of the GDPR regulations, and make it easy for customers to opt out of receiving marketing communications from you (even when they are in the legitimate interest of marketing your business). You do not want to be reported for spam, or fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for breaching its privacy directives.
Finally, see if you can get your business listed in local directories and relevant trade-specific directories online. Although very few people search in directories rather than general search engines nowadays, in specialised industries people may still check trade directories they trust as a first port of call to screen for reliability, and local directories are still searched in by some who want to use a local supplier. If you are a member of any relevant trade organisation that allows its members to post an online listing on its website, then take that opportunity too. Directory listings add citations of your address and telephone number that help to enhance your credibility as a verified business in the eyes of search engines.
Part 3: Advice equally applicable to selling goods and services online
Simply having a website in a field crowded with other websites offering similar goods or services is not automatically going to make yours visible enough for people to find it. Once you have a website set up to represent your business, or a simple e-commerce store up and running, you should start thinking about how to enhance it to increase its visibility. This can mean adding more pages with details of the goods or services you offer, and optimising the home page and the additional pages for keywords of relevance that people looking for the goods or services you offer are likely to search for online. This process is known as search engine optimisation (or SEO).
You should also then think about maximising the rate at which those interested enough in your services or goods to pay your website a visit convert to paying customers. This is often referred to as conversion rate optimisation (or CRO). Make it inviting and easy for them to send you a message or a pre-sales enquiry in a way that suits them: on every relevant page in your site, give them a choice of filling in a contact form, sending you an email, or calling.
Reputation counts for a lot in business, and this holds just as true in the online world as it ever did by traditional word of mouth. If people viewing your website for the first time have not heard of you from other customers, then they will have nothing but your word to go from when it comes to assessing your credibility and the quality and reliability of your services or wares. So, give your happy customers a voice on your website, adding testimonials and reviews, to show potential new customers how the services and goods you offer are appreciated by those you have previously served.
Beyond this, you should set up and customise with relevant details your own Google My Business page. The address verification step you will need to go through to complete this process increases your credibility as a genuine local business with Google’s algorithms, as well as with potential customers. Google Reviews can also be left by your customers, automatically appearing on your Google My Business profile. Positive reviews will further help to instil confidence in your ability to serve customers to a high standard.