How to Build an Ecommerce Website in 2021
A guide for independent retailers with physical shop locations who want to get online quickly.
The independent bricks and mortar shop is one of life’s real charms for me. My office is located in a village that still (pre Covid, at least) has a thriving independent shop scene and it’s one of the reasons I love it.
But the closure of “non essential retail” for large swathes of the past year is sure to take its toll. And while there are many success stories of business making fast changes and getting online to make up lost sales (and then some), it’s not the same story for everyone. There are some real barriers for bricks and mortar businesses in particular in setting up an ecommerce website in 2021, including:
- Where the Hell d’you start? If you’ve never built a website before and don’t know where to start, setting up an online shop can seem like a mammoth and daunting task
- What’s it going to cost? The investment needed can very often pay itself back quickly for an established business with a loyal customer base already and the scope to win more. But it’s not exactly a great time for cash flow for many independent retailers, is it?
- Fulfilling online orders. This is one you’ll need to think about – having the materials to package your products, having priced up postage accurately and putting the processes in place to send direct to households as opposed to serve with a smile in store. I think this is a really often under-considered part of the process
- How do you get people to your new website?
So in this guide to building an ecommerce website we’re going to cover the above and we’re going to talk about the different platform options available to you, about DIY or done-for-you and cover some of the basic terminology used.
Some Assumptions We’ve Made (Excuse Us)
We’ve written this post with existing bricks and mortar businesses in mind as opposed to existing online business owners. So on that basis, we’ve made the following assumptions:
- You already have products
- You already have brand name
- You may have already registered your domain name (but more on that in a minute just in case)
- You already have some customers (albeit local to you and in-store customers)
We’ve also made the assumption that most people who’ve not yet got the website up and running are likelier to be those with less experience in running websites or any sort of primarily online business. And on that basis, we’ve really focussed on the quick-and-easy-to-get-going options as opposed to bespoke web development and platforms that run into the many thousands and many months.
So in this case, we’ve focussed on what we call hosted ecommerce solutions. More on that later.
A Few Truths (Good, Bad and Ugly)
If you’re thinking about putting your products online and going with an ecommerce website, there’s a few basic truths that are worth knowing before you get started:
- Ecommerce sites do not have to take MONTHS to launch. Ok, so if you’re a High Street Brand with a million layers of sign off and all sorts of complex functionality you need (and a cubic ton of red tape to navigate) then your website might well be a six figure plus job and take the best part of the next decade. BUT, it’s unneccessary for most businesses to take ages or spend thousands upon thousands. Your main objective (particularly under these time-pressing circumstances) is probably to get online and making sales as quickly as possible.
- You do not need a web developer of your own to launch an ecommerce website. Later down the line, if ecommerce becomes a more central part of your business, you might someone with some dev know how. You might want an ecommerce specialist. But right now, when your main concern is getting online and fast, don’t worry about hiring in house experts.
- You do not need to spend twenty trillion pounds. I’ve seen sites launched for less than £100. I’ve seen sites launched for six figures. When you’re looking to get online quick, make the focus about a Minimum Viable Product – the simplest form of the site you can go live with. And you can worry about the rest of it later. In reality, it is possible to get a great looking, functional website online quickly for under £1,000.
How to set up an online shop (the quick version)
Don’t have the time to read thousands of words? Or just want me to stop waffling and crack on? That’s ok. Here’s the short version (or the contents) with the basic steps.. Want more detail? Read on.
The Step by Step Guide to Building an Online Shop Quickly
And then post launch it’s all about marketing, analysing and tweaking. We’re touching on the basics of that in this post, but we will run a separate more in depth guide in the near future to basic marketing for ecommerce websites.
1. Register Your Domain Name
If you already have an established business or brand and you’ve got your domain name, great! That’s a step you skip. If you don’t, you’ll want to get that registered first. You can register domains at thousands of places online including:
- 123 Reg
In an ideal world, your shop name will be available as a .com or .co.uk (assuming you’re selling primarily in the UK) or both! Snap them up for a few quid, follow the process online on one of these sites and get them registered. No need to do anything else with them at this point!
Where you might have an issue is if your shop name is taken in the domain space. It can happen if you have a common shop name, for example. If this is the case you could try appending “online” or similar to it. So, let’s assume your business is called Widget Shop and you find widgetshop.co.uk and widgetshop.com are both gone, you might look for things like widgetshoponline.co.uk or widgetshopuk.com.
Try a few variants!
2. Choose Your
Weapon Ecommerce Platform
So, we mentioned earlier that we’re writing this up with using a hosted online ecommerce solution in mind. In other words, rather than building a site, setting up your own hosting and putting it onto your own hosting space, a platform that handles all of that for you.
The main reason we’ve taken this route for this guide to building an online shop is because we’re making the assumption that this is about getting online quick with no previous experience of running websites.
Hosted solutions make it really very, very easy. They take care of hosting for you, things like security and other elements. But if you would also like to consider a self-hosted option, there’s a great explanation here about the differences and pros and cons of hosted vs self hosted ecommerce solutions.
So, on the basis that we’re looking for a fully hosted solution we’ve got a number of options. You could and Google and find a whole host of options with pros and cons and different offerings. Some to look at:
- Shopify: Canadian company with lots of themes to choose from so while you could hire someone to design something custom, you could equally DIY and be live quickly. Hiring someone to design a Shopify store for you can range from the hundreds on freelancer sites so thousands of pounds with agencies.
- Shopblocks: less of a DIY option, this UK based platform onboards all its clients – essentially builds the site for you either based on your design or even based on some pointers from you about sites you like, styles you want etc. If you have your products in a spreadsheet, they can import that for you too and this onboarding fee is typically under £1000.
- BigCommerce: a US company where you can again pick a theme and do it yourself if you prefer
This isn’t a rundown of the pros and cons of various platforms. There’s plenty of that content elsewhere already. What we would say is that all platforms have pros and cons. All of them. It’s about finding the one that works best for you and your needs right now.
Make enquiries, have demos, check out examples. Want someone to just build it for you and get it live? Take a Shopblocks demo. Want to just login, speak to nobody and build it yourself from a theme? Take a look at Shopify or BigCommerce.
All of these platforms have example sites that rank well in search engines, they can all be used to blog (but expect blogging platforms within ecommerce platforms like these to be less feature rich for content creation than blogging specific platforms like WordPress). While you could easily argue none are perfect, I’ve not found a perfect one yet.
A few things to consider (and ask about):
- Monthly fees
- What support is available to you
- Integration with Amazon and Ebay (and similar platforms) if you plan to use them
- Integration with Google Shopping, which will be important in your marketing efforts later
- Reviews or integration with third part reviews platforms (particularly for shops that are new online, reviews will play a huge part in winning over new customers)
- Payment gateway options (some will have their own – like Shopify – and then charge a premium for you using alternative gateways). Just make sure you know what payment options are available to you and at what cost
- Any limitations around product numbers. Many ecommerce platforms will enable you to have unlimited products and if you have a large inventory of hundreds of products (or even more) that is likely to scale over time, this will matter
- What are the standard features and are there other ones you might be charged more for?
Speak to reps, take demos, research and find the platform that’s right for you and sign up.
3. Design the Site
So here’s where the process will differ from platform to platform. And in all honesty, if you’re looking to have a shop online fast and start replacing lost sales from Covid closures, I would personally encourage you not to overthink this stage in the process.
You have time to go back and make things look different later.
If you’re DIY with Shopify or BigCommerce you’ll be choosing a theme (free or paid options available) or having a designer do this for you. If you’re being onboarded by Shopblocks, you’ll be liaising with their BlockLab designers about sites you like, styles you want or maybe even sharing wireframes or designs if you happen to have had them previously done.
A few things to remember on the design front:
- It can change later. If you have lots of traffic and feedback suggesting it’s not working from a design point of view, you can change it then
- You could easily spend days and weeks agonising over small design details (over 11 years in digital marketing and I’ve seen this done a LOT)
Popular BigCommerce and Shopify themes are often very simple and clean looking. And frankly, to get something usable and live fast, this will probably do the trick for your first version.
Shopblocks designers have years of experience in putting together online stores that look great and convert users to sales.
The main thing with design is get something that looks professional enough to trust, easy enough to see, read and understand and clear enough for users to find what they want and buy it.
Designs can be iterated over time when you actually get some tracking data to establish how users interact on the site.
4. Choose your payment gateway(s)
The payment gateway is what enables you to take payments online. They include Stripe, Worldpay, Opayo (all of which let you take credit card payments or payments from debit cards). You may also choose to offer something like Paypal.
Shopify has its own payment gateway and while you are able to use third party gateways, you pay a premium.
You need a good idea as to what payment methods you want to accept and from which countries you want to be able to process payments as this will form a part of your decision making.
Things to check out before deciding which gateways:
- Transaction fees – there will be transaction fees for each transaction and these vary from gateway to gateway. Take a look and calculate, based on your likely average order value, what might be best for you. For example, gateways with higher set fees and lower percentages might work better for higher priced items but less so for lower priced items
- Integration with your chosen platform: Does your chosen ecommerce provider support the gateway? Do they have recommendations for certain gateways based on integration with their system?
There is a really solid rundown of payment methods written by Stripe. Now of course, as a gateway themselves you could argue they’re not impartial. But this is thoroughly informative.
5. Consider your postage options
🤷♀️ Royal Mail? Hermes? DPD?
🤷♂️ Next day? Economy?
🤷 Free? Charged? Upgraded available? Free on orders over certain values?
There are a ton of different considerations with delivery and shipping and it will often come down to your product (size and urgency of delivery), whether you need special delivery provisions (like temperature controlled) and how quickly your customers want their items.
One thing is for sure. Packaging and shipping your items to customers is a part that way too many businesses under-consider before building their online shop.
- Be sure that you know what all the costs are to your business of shipping through different couriers based on the size/weight of what you’re sending. You don’t want nasty surprises in the form of margins being wiped out by shipping miscalculations
- What level of integration is available with your chosen platform? Can you auto print shipping labels for certain couriers?
- Will you use free shipping as an incentive to increase order values?
- Do you have to adapt your pricing to accommodate shipping?
Research several different providers. If you expect to be doing a large volume of sales from early on, maybe speak to some directly about what provisions could be available for collections and so forth.
6. Add content and products
So it feels like we’re kind of cheating by making this one step because, in reality, this could be the biggest job for you.
Some things you are going to need right away:
- Descriptions of your products
- High quality images of your products
With the former, write your own wherever possible. I appreciate if you’re selling a product with lots of similar variants and thousands of them to upload, creating detailed product descriptions of them all isn’t feasible. In this case, perhaps pick out your highest priority products and prepare descriptions for those.
With text content in particular, there’s a real benefit from a searcn engine optimisation (SEO) point of view to having your own proprietary content and this includes product descriptions. We’ll talk about that a little more shortly.
On the product image front, I really would recommend good quality, clear images. You don’t necessarily have to hire someone to do this for you. Maybe the manufacturer (if you’re selling products manufactured by someone else) has imagery you can use.
If you have a relatively new smart phone model then there’s every chance you have a camera that is more than substantial in your pocket. There’s a really great post by Hubspot on product photography if you plan to tackle this yourself.
If you have a spreadsheet with your products and this information on, you may well simply be able to load this into your new website builder rather than manually creating listings for every single product.
- Tip: If you have loads of products and feel this is going to delay the launch of your website, start with a smaller selection. Maybe go live just with the most important 20 or 30 products initially (either biggest sellers, those with the best margins or products where you’ve got a particularly large amount of stock maybe?). If it’s not pivotal for absolutely every product to be live on launch, then don’t kill yourself trying to do that. New products can be added over time.
Categorise your products carefully. With Shopify you add to collections and with other platforms to “categories” and/or groups.
Category pages are really important SEO landing pages. For example, if you sell homewares and you have a selection of candles within your range, you’d ideally want all the candles grouped together on a single page where someone searching “candles” or “buy candles online” might land if they find you.
So think about product categorisation both in terms of how your products are most logically grouped, but also from the perspective of how people might search for them (more resources on this feature at the end of this post).
You may also need homepage copy and some category page content too, as well as imagery.
As soon as you’ve chosen your website builder/platform, get a list together of all the different pages likely to need content and images so you can get the task list out early and get help if and where you need it.
I’ve seen many a website launch held up because of content not yet prepared – so get your task list together early and get it delegated or on your to do list asap.
7. Implement Tracking (Google Analytics or Similar)
I’ve waffled on in this post about going live with something simple and then making iterations later.
This only works if you have data from which to make decisions about later changes. And that data comes from tracking.
Google Analytics is completely free and will give you a ton of insight about where your users are coming from, what they’re doing on your website and so forth.
Search Console is another Google Platform which is really useful if you plan to do any SEO to drive traffic as part of your marketing. It tells you how people search when they find your website in search and also alerts you to any issues that might exist on your site in terms of Google’s ability to get around it, crawl it and ultimately index it.
Most shop website builders make it really easy to add this tracking.
In terms of resources:
- Google Analytics: set up your account and find out more
- Search Console: set up your account and find out more
- Google Analytics for Beginners Course (free course by Google)
This would be the minimum in terms of tracking you’d go live with. Later down the line you might choose to look at other tools that give you more insight into how users behave when they are on your site (tools like Hotjar, for example).
Whichever platform you’ve chosen will provide instructions for linking your web domain up with your new website and getting live.
Once you’re live of course, it’s just the start.
Marketing is a HUGE part of what you’ll need to do. A few steps to get you going and then some resources.
- Let your current customer base know they can now get your products online. Reach them through your social platforms. If you have a dedicated customer base already who have been unable to shop with you recently because of lockdowns and various restrictions, then this is the time to let them know you’re there
- Will you sell through Amazon and Ebay? They have ready made audiences but also take a chunk of the sale revenue so weigh up whether it works
- Consider a paid advertising budget on either social or search engines (or both). There are resources below for learning to manage this yourself but equally you could get the help of a freelancer or agency
- Do your keyword research, tweak your pages if you need to and consider putting some time (or getting some support) in carrying out SEO so that users looking for products you sell in search engines find you!
Here are some “get started” resources:
- Facebook’s free learning resources and courses to get to grips with Facebook ads
- Google Ads courses
- The Moz Beginner’s Guide to SEO
- The ahrefs.com guide to Keyword Research
Don’t expect this to be perfect from day 1. Tweak, iterate, analyse the data and learn. For those who’ve never run an online business or store before, there’s bound to be a learning curve. But there are tonnes of resources out there and platforms like the ones we’ve talked about today make it really accessible.
Best of luck.