5 tips for successfully running an online store

Closeup of keys on old gold coloured cash till

In October 2020 I closed my online store, Amy’s, after six years selling specialist dance shoes to people all over the UK and overseas. When I launched the business I wanted to make sure my website was user-friendly, full of information that would be useful for people buying shoes without trying them, and of a clean, clutter-free design. I achieved these objectives and learned a lot about how to ensure you get happy customers when you don’t have a brick-and-mortar store. Here’s my 5 biggest lessons.

1. Information, information, information.

When selling a physical product it is essential that you take time to imagine all the things your customers will want to know about it. They need to feel confident in buying something they can’t touch; don’t leave the details to their imagination. This is especially true when you’re selling something that needs to fit well in order to function as intended (and the better the product fits the less likely you will get a lot of returns).

Measure the product and give these measurements. For the shoes I sold I included insole/outsole length, width, circumference around the toes and heel height. Provide a page somewhere on your site that explains what these measurements mean if they’re not obvious, and guidance on how a customer should measure themselves to determine what size to choose. Don’t just copy-paste a size chart you found online, make sure it correlates with how you are listing your items.

Explain if the item fits smaller/bigger/wider/tighter than standard. If your products routinely fit small for size consider labelling them a size down. Imagine you’re a customer scrolling through what they think is all the items in their size, only to read the details and find they’re all too small. They are likely to feel disappointed or confused and may give up and go elsewhere.

Describe what it’s made of and how it feels. If the colours or finishes of the product look a bit different than they do in photos mention this. Is it shinier than pictured? Softer than it looks? Does it have a shimmer finish that doesn’t show up in the photos?

A fundamental rule of selling is to describe the benefits of a product, not just list its features. In-person sales often rest on quickly determining whether the customer in front of you is chiefly concerned with the benefits of the product and the romance of it, or the features of it and whether it ticks the boxes for them. Online sales are a shot in the dark so you must cater for both sets of needs. Indeed, you are much more likely to get a customer who has trawled many websites and is familiar with exactly what they want. So, describe the benefits but also list out all the features and measurements and details you think will be useful.

Try and be consistent across your entire product range. You’ll get customers who know what they want and purchase quickly. Others will trawl through your inventory and narrow down the options. If you provide 10 information points for one item and no details for another it will stand out and looks sloppy. An offline product database is a great way of managing all this information and ensuring consistency (I used Podio for my product database and can’t recommend it highly enough).

2. Make your website clear and easy to use (for customers and you)

I’m an experienced website designer but for my site I used an ecommerce platform (Weebly) and tweaked an off-the-shelf design. I opted for white space over snappy crowding of the page. The result looked professional and was very easy to manage. The monthly cost of the website was reasonable, I found a good domain host (TSO Host) and my site experienced zero downtime.*

I followed a few basic rules of good websites: easy to use menu (that was also mobile-friendly), alt tags for every image, optimised image sizes, another menu in the footer. I didn’t use any pop-ups (beyond the required cookies banner). This was personal preference – sometimes they look nice and can be an effective acquisition tool but I find them an annoying interruption.

I tested the site every time I made a change, especially navigation and links. A broken link is a surefire way to lose customer interest and suggests a lack of organisation.

Finally, I looked out for time-sensitive content. Every December I’d update the copyright year in the footer. I’d set myself a reminder to update shipping information whenever Royal Mail announced price changes. I decided early on not to have a “news” page as these take time to manage. They can quickly look neglected if it’s been a long time since you added anything to them. Stagnant content speaks of a stagnant business and does not inspire confidence. My blog was an external link rather than an integral part of the website. I had a feed on the homepage to my Instagram. Marketing gurus will tell you that ideally you need to be adding something to social media several times a day. If this is your full-time business then you should absolutely be dedicating time for this. If it’s a side hustle or you get most of your sales through word of mouth I’d argue that a functioning, user-friendly website, quality products and impeccable customer service are far more important than a high volume of social media posts.

*The first few years I used a different platform, Moonfruit. To start with it was fine and the design interface was easy to use. Then it became apparent that the platform was being sold to another company and development and support were being run down. My site experienced several periods of downtime. I finally gave up and found a new platform. Although it was quite a lot of work to move my site to a different provider I’m glad I did. Don’t ever be afraid of the effort involved to shift your website to a new platform. The advantages to doing it far outweigh the short-term workload.

3. Always be responsive and friendly

When you are the face of your business you need to be prepared to answer queries from customers at any hour of the day (within reason). You need to be patient, to be prepared to give good advice and recommendations that are in the customer’s best interests. If you can always be responsive you will easily retain customers. It is, in fact, much easier to retain customers and enjoy repeat business than it is to gain new customers. And it is hard to come back from disaster if you treat a customer badly. So how do you do this?

Respond to every enquiry within 24 hours. If it came through Facebook you may wish to respond sooner as you are scored on your response times. Periodically check your email’s spam folder for enquiries that may have ended up there.

Fulfill exchanges and refunds promptly. They suck and can really make you grumpy but you have got to do them in a timely manner.

Communicate well and often when you have an active enquiry. Too many emails is better than none at all. Don’t leave your customer in the dark. Also allow for the fact that sometimes your email to them will get stuck in your customer’s spam folder and if you haven’t heard back you maybe need to pick up the phone.

Check in with customers after they have received their order. I had a lot of success sending a “hope you enjoy your new shoes” message a few days after I had verified through parcel tracking that an order had arrived. More often than not this got me a “yes they’re amazing and thanks so much for checking” reply which always made my day. It costs nothing to check in with customers, whether they are new or repeat, and helps ensure the transaction finishes on a high note.

4. Know your customer’s rights

We’ve all been there. You’ve bought something online and it hasn’t worked out. You want to return it and the seller is giving you the run-around. Suddenly unknown fees start appearing or they’re being difficult about refunding your shipping costs. Did you buy from them again? Worse, did you tell everyone you knew how shoddy it was? As an online seller it’s essential to know your customer’s rights and follow them.

Familiarise yourself with the key points of the Consumer Contracts Regulations. Follow your obligations and don’t try sneaky ways around them. Don’t deduct a “re-stocking fee” from a refund. They are meaningless and pretty much guarantee that customer will never come back to you. Always refund standard postage charges along with the refund for the item (if they return only part of an order you only have to refund shipping such that whatever remains represents shipping for what they kept).

Don’t overcharge for shipping as a way to pad your profits. If shipping costs you £2.50 and packaging materials 40p the shipping charge is £2.90. Not £5.00. If you’re using custom mailing boxes and scented paper and fancy labels then add up whatever the per-item cost of that stuff is. Don’t just inflate it to cover your costs for overdoing the packaging in the first place. There is no explicit rule against this but I believe it’s a dishonest way of conducting business.

5. Know your rights

The good thing about the Consumer Contracts Regulations is they provide protections for you, too. Under current rules a customer has 14 days from receiving their order to tell you that they want to return it or exchange it. You might have a longer window (30 days is common). So if a customer suddenly requests a refund 6 weeks after you sent them their order because they’ve changed their mind you have every right to politely reject it. The exception is if there is a clear fault with the product in which case you must investigate the problem and respond accordingly (yes, it feels awful when you have to accept a faulty product and do a refund, especially if you end up out of pocket, but you have to do it).

If some of your products are made-to-order you have a set of rights to fall back on when problems occur. You do not have to refund a custom made product, unless there is a clear and irrepairable fault. A customer changing their mind does not count. If the item does not fit and you know you will be able to sell the return, offer a remake within a reasonable timeframe. If it’s faulty, talk to your supplier (if you make items yourself you will have to do a refund or remake).

Don’t use the made-to-order rules to get out of doing refunds. It bugs me the number of sellers on platforms like Etsy who say their products cannot be returned when the amount of customisation is miniscule. Are you selling something made completely from scratch to the customer’s requirements? Yes, that’s custom made. Are you selling something from existing stock that you tweaked slightly for a customer’s request but could easily sell again if they returned it? No, that’s not custom made, that’s customised.

If you set the expectation that orders will be fulfilled within 2 working days and will be delivered within the guidelines of whatever delivery service you use then you don’t need to run around like a mad thing dispatching orders on your day off or worrying if the courier will fail to deliver. Fast delivery has become a race-to-the-bottom of standards in online retail. We’ve all heard of parcels being flung over hedges and delivered to the wrong door. Don’t assume that your customers will expect their order immediately. They want it correct first time, not in a hurry. I offered a next day service with a cutoff time but my standard shipping was 2 days dispatch and 2 days delivery. 99% of the time my customers chose standard and were happy to wait.

If your opening hours are clearly displayed on your website (and everywhere else you list your business) stick to them. You get an email at 11pm on a Friday? Leave it. Answer it when you are next open for business or within 24 hours. Switch your work phone to voicemail when you are done for the day. Set up an out-of-office when you’re out of town. The moment you start responding to enquiries 24/7 is the moment your business takes over your life.

Finally…

Know when it’s time to throw in the towel. Tell your customers why, fulfil any outstanding transactions and close down in a professional manner. Take pride in the work you did well and move on to the next adventure.

Happy selling,

Amy

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