The Great E-Commerce Debate

Today, it’s easier and more affordable than ever to add e-commerce to your website—but that doesn’t mean you should

Historically, e-commerce hasn’t been an option for the average small business. The cost of implementing a functioning online store—potentially well into the six figures—was prohibitive. It simply didn’t pay for most businesses to seriously consider selling on the Web.?Today, however, it’s all changed. Technology has improved at a rapid pace, and the costs are falling just as quickly. You can now build a website on an open-source platform such as Magento for a few thousand dollars, or even host your online store on a service like Shopify starting at just $29 a month. What was once overly complicated and expensive is now ­surprisingly simple and affordable.

At face value, it seems as if adding a low-cost, easy-to-use shopping cart to your website is a no-brainer. But in reality, selling online has the potential to fundamentally alter your business and should not be undertaken lightly. There is little question that the opportunities are real. According to eMarketer, many retail executives expect yet another double-digit gain in online sales this holiday season. However, they also make it clear that the bargain-hunting attitude of the past two seasons is likely to drive that growth. This is where much of the risk lies.

As it becomes easier to shop online, it becomes harder to explain the added value that you offer. Key value propositions such as expertise and service are easily overlooked in favor of coupon codes and free shipping. It is through added value that the average local jeweler is able to make its margins—and this is far better explained in-store. The ease of online shopping inevitably brings the consumer’s decision down to one thing: price. And this has proved to be the significant force behind online sales.

Before you offer browsers the option to buy, think carefully.

Don’t forget—the online experience is not all about the purchase. Ninety percent of all in-store sales now begin with research on the Web. Keep this in mind when thinking about your website and the holidays. There is a good chance that by not adding a “buy” button, you may leave some money on the table, but by focusing your digital efforts on exciting and informing your customers, you can create higher-­margin opportunities. If you aren’t likely to win on price, you should implement calls-to-action that encourage customers to inquire by phone, email, or even visit the store to learn more. You’ll forgo the immediate sale, but you’ll put yourself in a better position to service those customers who are looking for a more personal touch and are likely to pay more in return.

If you do decide to add a buy button, take the time to think about the shopping experience. Don’t just focus on the shopping cart. When it comes to your brick-and-mortar store, you worry about every aspect of the sales process. You think about what the customer will experience from the moment they walk in your door until the moment they leave (and beyond). You do more than ensure that you have a quality cash register.

There is a big difference between an online shopping cart and an e-­commerce strategy. One enables online sales and the other takes into account how those sales will impact all areas of your business. The strategy factors in how you will handle things such as inventory, shipping charges, and customer requests and determines how you can best leverage your current infrastructure to add value in order to rationalize your premium at every step.

Go slowly, and remember that it is a delicate balance. You want to look toward the future—and clearly, online sales will play a role—but you also want to maintain the value that your store offers. Whatever you choose to do online will inevitably impact how you sell in the store and what your customers come to expect from you. If discounting is a key part of your online strategy, you can count on those customers to expect the same when they finally walk into your store.

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