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Ecommerce is big business. Scratch that, calculated to be worth £121bn (around $186bn) back in 2010 and growing to £221bn (around $340bn) by 2016, it’s safe to say that ecommerce is massive!
Ever since my very first online purchase, from the UK to cdnow.com in the USA back in December 1995, I always knew that ecommerce was going to be big business, even if I didn’t fully realise it at the time.
Despite having some exposure to ecommerce, in the late nineties, through my employer, it wasn’t until five years later that I set up my first ecommerce business. It wasn’t particularly easy back then but, in comparison, it is relatively simple for you to do today.
Do you have an ecommerce idea you're toying with? If so, now is a great time for you to start your ecommerce based business.
Barriers to Entry
In early 2001, getting an online shop up and running was no mean feat. Not only was the choice of available ecommerce software extremely limited, the setting up of bank and merchant accounts were extremely convoluted. It was possible only if one could convince conservative banks that trading online was not the Wild West.
It's possible to have a fully functional online store – able to take orders – up and running within one day. By that I mean one working day of eight hours!
The next big obstacle was finding any customers as, back then, many people still connected to the internet via dial-up modems. Consequently, the web was extremely slow and relatively expensive to use. There was reluctance on the part of the consumer to put credit card details into a website because they largely perceived the web to be unsafe and unregulated.
More than a decade on and the Internet is an integral part of most people’s lives, we’ve become accustomed to shopping online and, for the merchant today, the barriers to get online have been broken down. It's possible to have a fully functional online store – able to take orders – up and running within one day. By that I mean one working day of eight hours!
Regardless of whether you are new to ecommerce, are a small business or just an individual wanting to sell your crafts, there are a number of choices to make when setting up your ecommerce presence online. Some suit themselves to different requirements or seller profiles. Here are some potential options:
Starting out as an auctions listings site, in 1995, mainly for people to have online garage sales, both eBay and their customers recognised the platform as having potential for carrying on a business.
Whilst not a conventional online store, eBay provides individuals and businesses with the means to set up shop fronts that allow them to display a range of products for sale at fixed prices as well as the traditional auction model.
On the plus side, many people have prior experience of eBay, so the transition to trading full-time is not an obstacle. Conversely, the expectations of consumers on eBay is that products are bargains, so it can be a race to the bottom on pricing, especially if you are box-shipping the same products as your competitors. Factor in the feedback and payment systems, employed by eBay, and you may find yourself wanting something a little more conventional and professional.
Another Internet stalwart, established in 1994, Amazon started life as an online bookseller, moving into music, electronics and more besides. In it’s quest to become the internet’s shop, Amazon has opened up its platform to allow third party “marketplace” sellers.
The advantage for Amazon is that it strengthens their position as an e-tailer as it adds to its inventory of products, even though some are fulfilled by third parties. The individual merchants, the marketplace sellers, instantly get the benefit of the huge virtual footfall to the Amazon website.
On the downside, as an Amazon Marketplace seller you’re in for a steep learning curve in using a clunky web-based administration tool in order to maximise sales and, again, there is a danger of prices being a race to the bottom given your competitors’ and your customers’ perception of Amazon being a place for bargains.
Simple Hosted Solutions
E-commerce on the internet today is worlds apart from my first foray into selling online back in 2001. Perhaps the easiest way to get a store up and running, for the non-technically minded entrepreneur, is to look at hosted solutions.
Services such as Etsy, Squarespace and Goodsie are all contenders in this field. There are many others, too.
Etsy is aimed at independent creatives wanting to sell handmade goods and vintage items. With Etsy there are no subscription fees, simply $0.20 to list an item for up to four months or until it sells whereupon they take a 3.5% sales commission. Compared to the likes of Amazon and eBay, this is quite modest.
Squarespace is a beautifully designed service with many beautifully designed templates, all of which are customisable. They pitch their services at businesses, photographers, stores, restaurants and individuals - which is a pretty broad scope. Pricing for the plan that includes e-commerce is a very reasonable $24 per month.
Goodsie is focussed on e-commerce and making it simple to set up shop for non-coders. It’s with Goodsie that I set up a fully functioning store within one working day. Unlke Squarespace, Goodsie is focussed solely on e-commerce and has some flexibility and powerful features for the new entrepreneur experimenting with online selling, all for $30 per month.
Self Hosted Solutions
If you have your own hosting, and are familiar with mySQL databases and PHP scripts, it is possible to set up an online store potentially for no initial cost – aside from the hosting.
A popular way of doing this is by using a Wordpress theme that has been written with ecommerce in mind.
Bear in mind, in addition to running your business you will also need to keep on top of software security updates and deal with any hosting issues. This might become a distraction from your ultimate aim of selling products.
A stalwart of open source ecommerce, appropriately named OSCommerce, is a collaborative attempt at online store software and forms the basis of many online stores.
It’s popularity is, perhaps, declining in the face of the forked developments such as ZenCart, and with the advent of greater competition in this space.
A heavyweight, open source ecommerce solution, Magento is capable of running online stores with thousands of SKUs (Stock Keeping Units).
Highly configurable and customisable, Magento is unlikely to be the first choice for any ecommerce novice unless the services of a professional are employed to implement Magento properly.
Advanced SaaS Solutions
For the serious ecommerce entrepreneur, for whom the discussed services are not appropriate, there are now a number of players that provide hosted shopping cart solutions that enable those with little or moderate technical expertise to get a store up and running.
Priced from just a handful of dollars per month, these SaaS (Software as a service) platforms provide many features suitable for most people’s requirements.
For those with many thousands of SKUs and/or wanting greater flexibility, but lacking the technical expertise to self-host, MagentoGo is the SaaS equivalent of the open source script version. This means that the hosting, all system upgrades and software maintenance is taken care of, for you, in return for at little as £9.99 (around $15.00 per month).
MagentoGo is positioned at the serious end of the ecommerce platform marketplace. It’s a “hosted ecommerce solution for small businesses with big ambitions”, they claim.
Whether you're selling your handmade craft items, are dabbling in retailing to make a little extra or have decided to launch a full-scale ecommerce enterprise, the fact is that there is a huge choice when it comes to selling online.
Embarking on an ecommerce venture was subject to some very high barriers to entry back in 2001, such that it was very difficult to do. It is possible, today, to have a fully functioning online store up and running in as little as a few hours.