We have all learned many lessons about our personal and professional lives from this pandemic. For small business owners, many of the lessons have been painful. One of the most obvious lessons we learned is that digital-readiness is now an essential part of all business operations, regardless of business size.
Online readiness includes all aspects of your business too: Client communications, employee management, passwords, backups, bookkeeping, purchasing, sales, and many more. But a particularly important one stands out now: the ability to sell online.
You may feel you are not ready to pay for even the most splendid offers available now to build an online store. What if I told you you could create an online store yourself?
What follows is a checklist that sums up years of work and expertise in e-Commerce. It includes resources for quickly deploying e-Commerce stores, including online ordering for businesses with curbside pickup, even delivery. This list also considers low-cost options (some free) to get you started. You could have an online store by the end of the day.
The list doesn’t go into too much detail on the actual how-tos of building the stores because that is vastly covered in each vendor’s help and support systems. What this list helps with is getting ready and .
1. Getting Ready: Domain Name
If you don’t have a domain name
If you don’t have a domain name, buy one. I recommend you buy this separately from your website provider, that way your domain is not tied to their service, should you ever need to change it.
The easiest domain provider I’ve used is Hover. BUY YOUR DOMAIN*
If you already have a domain name
If you already have a domain name, confirm you have login access to your domain registrar (the place you bought it from), and that you can edit what is called the “DNS zones”.
Don’t edit them, just check to make sure you can.
Keep that login handy
2. Getting Ready: Design Prep Checklist
Now may not be the time to get lost in a redesign of your site, or the extensive design process of a new website design, but branding plays a very important role in the success of your site. In fact, branding is an important trust factor. You know, that little voice that tells the visitor “it’s ok to buy here”.
Gather together your design assets and design references that will inform the work of designing your e-Commerce website.
Find your logo files in editable formats: usually .eps, .ai (Adobe Illustrator), .psd (Photoshop), but some PDF files work as well.
Other formats may be more suitable if they are ready to use: .png is most popular for logos. Also used: .svg, and .jpg
Identity the HEX color codes used on your logo or current website. Maybe you have branding guidelines, or you can identify the colors by uploading your logo here: html-color-codes.info/colors-from-image/ . This website will produce HTML HEX color codes from the colors in your uploaded image.
To get a clear sense of what you want it’s going to help looking at some successful websites. This will come in real handy if you end up hiring someone to build your store. If all you do is skim over these next items, you’ll be better off when it’s time to build the site.
- Find good examples of competitor websites
- Find bad examples of competitor websites
- Find websites that reflect what you’d like to project about your business
- Find websites with features you’d like, like a team page, product page, etc.
Find any other website you like for any other reason (and write down the reason): style, typography, colors, photography, functionality, etc.
3. Getting Ready: Content Prep Checklist
Content for a website is not just the text or the images. Here is a non-exhaustive list of common types of content to help you figure out what you need:
- Your official business NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number)
- Technical Copy, Product Lines, Categories, and Descriptions
- Marketing Copy (for pages, product, and services descriptions)
- Business Credentials, Licenses, Affiliations
- Blog, Articles
- Staff bios and photos
- Downloadable Documents (typically PDF)
- Graphics, Illustrations (Logos, charts, branding)
- Photos (Gallery, Products)
- Inventory (Products, Services, etc.) and all related information
- Event details for Calendar, if any
- Embeddable Content (3rd party calendar, ticketing, video, podcast, scheduling, etc.)
- Social Media Profile Links
- Feeds from other sites, for example, photos from Instagram, Flickr, Smugsmug
- Forms (and the fields required for contact, quote request, employment, etc.)
4. Getting Ready: The e-Commerce Checklist
- Create a simple database of your products. Here is a Basic Products Worksheet to get you started. Make a copy or download it, and use it to get organized
- Product Images – Use your product worksheet as a checklist to get images for your products
- Product Details and Descriptions – Use your product worksheet as a checklist to get all relevant product details
- Categories – Write down the categories and sub-categories used to organize your products. Organization is critical for your store success. When in doubt, mimic what other successful sites have done.
- Write down your Terms of Service
- Write down your Shipping and Returns Policy
(If you don’t ship products, but instead do deliveries or pick-up, skip to the next section)
- Consider your shipping charges: Are they included with the price, or do you charge for shipping separately?
- Define your desired shipping method(s):
- Exact shipping costs through a real time direct link with a shipper such as USPS, Canada Post, UPS, FedEx
- Flat rate depending on location
- Free shipping over a certain dollar amount (or number of items ordered).
- Desired shipping carrier(s): Open account with them as needed
- Free ShIpping? Determine if offering free shipping and under which conditions (i.e. ”Free with $50 purchase”)
- Which countries will you be shipping to?
- Do you need to provide shipping details (tracking number) to the client automatically?
- Do you require any special shipping cut off times and dates?
- Are you drop-shipping for others?
- Multiple shipping destinations per order?
- Multiple shipping locations or warehouses?
- Info about any other 3rd party shipping provider
If you only do deliveries, pay attention to these:
- Consider a solution that allows you to define your geographical delivery zone. ZIP codes are common, but not the best solution (a ZIP code may extend way past your desired delivery zone). Look for a solution that allows you to define the zone via a map.
- Ideally, your ordering system provides delivery time estimates
Pick-up, & Curbside only
- Consider a solution that allows you to create a “pick up” order, and also add a message like this:
“Pickup location: 2285 Parkway, Austin, TX
Open: 9AM – 6PM Mon-Fri
To request the curbside pickup, call 987-654-3210, when you are outside the pickup location and we will bring your order to you.”
- Ideally, your ordering system allows the customer to specify pickup date and time
Selling and Billing Methods
Determine the following:
- Do you sell services or products that require regular recurring billing, like a subscription?
- On recurring billing, other than the initial order, does this recurring billing need to be self-managed by the client through the website?
If so, requires customer ability to create an account, and other PCI compliance concerns
- Do you offer certain products, prices, discounts, or content to specific visitors, such as customers, members, wholesalers, retailers, or distributors, but not others?
If so, you’ll need the ability to set up customer accounts in special groups
- Do you need to track limits on items being sold? (Like inventory, spaces in a class or time-slot)
- Do you need your website to indicate items out of stock, class full, etc.?
- Do you want to allow backordering or waiting lists?
- Confirm payment method preference (i.e. Paypal, Stripe, your merchant account)
- If using your Merchant account, make sure they enable online payments.
WARNING: Some merchant account providers may charge an additional monthly fee for this service. Verify with them.
- If NOT using your Merchant account, open a Paypal of Stripe account
- Make sure you have these login(s) handy
- Do you require your site to accept multiple currencies?
- Will currency be based on IP address? Or the final shipping address?
- Do you require a dropdown to change the currency?
- Will currency be based on one price, e.g.: USD and then all others get a live rate? or, will you fix the price in each currency (using no exchange rates)?
- Confirm your Sales Tax nexus, rates, and requirements
Do you need your e-Commerce store to integrate with any other existing systems? Have these logins at hand, and look for an e-Commerce solution that offers your integration:
- Point-of-Sale (POS) system?
- Inventory system?
- Client management system?
- Accounting system?
- Marketing communications system
You probably already offer discounts. Consider how those apply to your online store, or how you can adapt them to online sales.
- Bulk/Tiered discounts schema (i.e. “$2off on two of more”)
- Wholesale or VIP discounts schema (i.e. wholesale or preferred customers)
- Coupon Discount Codes (i.e. % discount, One time use per customer, expiration dates)
- Cart Discounts schemas (i.e. “Buy one get one free”, Scheduled sales)
Gift Card Preferences
- Gift Cards settings or preferences, if any
- Make sure your Facebook Business Page is verified
- Make sure your Facebook Business Page has no store
(may interfere with automatic sync from your online store)
- Make sure your Instagram Profile and your Facebook Business Page username are identical .
That means exactly the same. (Trust me, can’t stress this enough)
- Make sure your Instagram is a Business Profile, or make it that way
- Connect your Instagram to your Facebook Business Page
- Get the login to your Email Marketing provider (Mailchimp, iContact, ActiveCampaign, etc.), keep it handy
- Don’t have an Email Marketing provider? Get one, here’s a list.
- Anticipate who in your business will have access to your online store, and what kind of access (admin, sales, other)
- List Name, email address, and roles of users to be created
5. Building Your Store
Whew, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve completed instrumental steps toward setting up your e-Commerce store.
Since all e-Commerce SaaS have very good documentation as to how to actually build them. I’m going to stick to guiding your choices. Combined with the work you did in The e-Commerce Checklist above, you should be able to do this quickly.
First, let’s understand where you are, and your online sales needs:
5.1. Do you already have a website?
- Yes, I just want to add an online store to my existing. Skip ahead to section 5.3 below
- Yes, but I’m ok with substituting it with a new one. Continue to 5.2 below
- No. I don’t have a website. Continue to 5.2 below
SaaS vs Self-Hosted
Your best bet is using a software as a service (SaaS) e-Commerce platform. While someone will immediately recommend WordPress + WooCommerce when you tell them you need a store, I cannot in good conscience recommend that, unless you’re a seasoned website developer. The main reasons to go with a SaaS:
- Security – Most major SaaS e-Commerce platforms are Level 1 PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard). If you don’t know what that is, you should use SaaS (Heck, even if you do know). Security would fall on your shoulders if you go the self-hosted way
- Scalability – This pertains to the ability of your store to handle peaks in traffic. The typical shared hosting plan used for self-hosted stores is not the best option
- Reliability – SaaS e-Commerce platform’s entire business depends on their uptime and speed, and they hire experts that are in charge of that, so you don’t have to
- Easy of use – Ultimately, you just want to get online, not build and maintain websites
DIY eCommerce SaaS
There are A TON of great eCommerce SaaS companies. I can’t possibly cover all of them, so I’ve tried to narrow it down to popular tools that offer robust solutions. Popularity is good here. It means it’s likely a strong business that will be around for yours. The most popular ones are also usually so because they offer great features at affordable prices.
These are the top platforms most pros recommend, that I can recommend for DIY. They are robust, solid offer, massive user base, and built to support your business growth. Take your answers to The eCommerce Checklist and run them against this list:
(If yours is a food business, or your focus is on deliveries or curbside pick-ups, skip to the next section)
With its ease of use, Point-of-sale system, and multitude of addons, Shopify* is a top choice for the DIYer. Some people bemoan their payment processing “penalty” if you use your merchant processor. Simply use theirs in that case.
Arguably stronger technology-wise, BigCommerce* is great for businesses that anticipate a mid-to-high level of customization and growth. That means you may require a developer sooner than you think. It does have a lot of built-in features that require an app with others.
Ecwid* has been around for a looong time, with a robust feature set. While it’s arguably not as powerful as Shopify and BigCommerce, it does offer many of the top features you’d expect from industry leaders, like supporting a crazy number of payment gateways. Oh, and it’s very easy to use.
These are simply other popular choices:
- Pattern by Etsy (probably the easiest, fastest option if you already sell on Etsy)
DIY eCommerce SaaS for Deliveries, Pick-up, Curbside
If you’re in the food business, or find yourself wanting to sell for Curbside Pick-up, you may want to look into these for a quick implementation:
Your POS system
It’s easy to overlook your own point-of-sale system may already offer the ability to build a website that is fully integrated with your ordering system.
Some that come to mind:
- Square POS* – The popular, easy to use POS
- Shopify POS* – Of course
- Vend (Ask me!)
Another online ordering service that can add a website, PlaceBag comes with a higher price tag.
Yep, thanks to their awesome, step-by-step guide to implement Curbside Pickup, we’ve added this industry champion to the list. Go with BigCommerce* if you want a world-class eCommerce engine for growth. Connects with countless POS, payment methods, and many other features.
The Ordering App
A Google company, The Ordering App is bound to do everything you need. They build the site for you.
So you already have a website, and simply want to add some e-Commerce capability to it? In this section, I cover how to do just that. There are two main ways to go about it:
- Adding a Cart to your website. See 5.3.a and 5.3.b, below
- Creating a full-fledged store in a sub-domain (i.e. shop.example.com). See 5.3.c
5.3.a Adding a Cart to your website
PayPal calls their solution “buttons” and it’s a simple way to add products to your website. You simply create the button at Paypal.com and embed it on your site. You can even send it as a link via email.
The Paypal button has some basic stock-level features as well as a subscription feature.
While little known, Square also has “buttons” you can embed on your site. You can also send it as a link via email.
This is the original use case for Ecwid*. An easy way to add a robust feature set to your website, and even embed certain products throughout it. This solution can create more of a store “feel” for your website. There are many ways to do this, and it’s widely documented.
Plug&Paid* is a newer player that brings a modern feel to the idea of adding eCommerce to an existing website. Small selection of payment gateways.
Shopify Lite* allows you to embed products in your website (as well as Facebook)
Almost the same as the ones you can build a site with:
Another online ordering service that can add a website, PlaceBag comes with a higher price tag.
The Ordering App
A Google company, The Ordering App is bound to do everything you need.
Creating a full-fledged store in a subdomain will require you getting comfortable editing your domain DNS, and creating what is called a CNAME record (here’s Hover’s help article). You will want your store in something like shop.example.com
At this point, you can use any of the DIY eCommerce SaaS mentioned above, and set them up as a sub-domain of your existing website. Each SaaS support and help articles will guide you through the process.
A NOTE Regarding SSL Certificates
Most of these eCommerce SaaS companies include an SSL certificate for free. If they don’t, or it doesn’t work because you’re using a subdomain, you’ll need to pay for this certificate separately. You will probably need what is called a “Wildcard” certificate (named this way because of the way it’s set up in your DNS, using the wildcard character “ * ”).
Feel free to reach out for help with creating an online store in a subdomain.
5.4. Working with a firm to build your eCommerce store
If you read this far, and completed The eCommerce Checklist, you should be able to find an agency or freelancer that can get you up and running quickly. You’ve done a lot of work. I’d be happy to help you create your online store.
Since most small businesses are also brick-and-mortar, you should concern yourself with local search engine optimization. Local SEO focuses on helping your business show up on search engines searches that are geographically relevant to your business. That is to say: these are people nearby, looking to do business with you.
The entire Guide To Setting Up An Online Store is available in a convenient checklist format that includes the Local SEO checklist here: https://bit.ly/NJeCommerceChecklist. Copy it to your Google Drive, Download it, no strings attached.
Feel free to reach out if you or someone you know needs help with all this.
*Affiliate links allow AllyOne to collect a commission on, or be recognized for, any sale generated by the referral. This does not affect your price or benefits, it just modestly compensates AllyOne for providing you with this information.