5 Ways to Screw Up Your Ecommerce Business

Ecommerce has come a long way from the early days of eBayers mailing Beanie Babies across the country in old cereal boxes. Online sales now account for more than 75% of all retail growth worldwide; in fact, global ecommerce sales are predicted to grow by an incredible 19% this year alone. That’s a projected total of some $4 trillion in 2020, spent by approximately 2 billion shoppers — 185 or so million of them on eBay alone.

So how hard can it be to cut yourself a profitable slice of this sizeable pie? That depends on you. Ecommerce is one retail playing field where small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) can hold their own against the mega-brands and still prosper; brick-and-mortar shops largely depend upon local patronage, but an online store’s niche market encompasses a whole world’s worth of potential customers. Yes, competition can be fierce, but in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “This is your chance…just don’t screw it up!”

Here are the top 5 pitfalls you’ll need to avoid in order to succeed as an online retailer.

  1. Choosing the wrong platform(s).

Where you choose to start your ecommerce business may well determine its success or failure right from the get-go. If you’re building it from the ground up, find your footing as a seller on one of the major ecommerce marketplaces; that way you can take advantage of their broad international customer base. Some are specialized — e.g., Etsy for handmade and vintage, Poshmark for fashion and home décor, or Ruby Lane for antiques and collectibles — while others showcase a broad range of merchandise.

eBay hits the sweet spot for fledgling ecommerce entrepreneurs:

  • Robust branding opportunities and selling tools for eBay storeowners
  • 88% of all merchandise is sold at fixed price; the rest is sold at auction
  • 80/20 mix of new and pre-owned merchandise
  • Inventory encompasses not just commodity items but also the unique and unusual (“Whatever it is, you can find it on eBay”)

From eBay, you can easily expand to other selling channels. When you’re ready for your own website, BigCommerce and Shopify are good solutions for starters. Magento is a great platform for larger businesses; it’s open source, so you can add custom apps. The downside is that developing those apps can be very costly.

So be aware of what platforms are available, but do your due diligence to determine the right launching pad for your ecommerce enterprise.

Choosing the wrong product(s).

When it comes to deciding what you’ll sell, you can make some major mistakes. A product must be:

  • In demand, but not a flash in the pan. Beanie Babies put a lot of eBayers in business, but not all of them stayed in business once that fad fizzled out — and many got left holding a sizeable bagful of no-longer-hot Beanies.
  • Not overly niche, i.e., having a too-limited market. Furthermore, a niche with no competitors may turn out to be a niche with no potential traffic.
  • Consistently available. Thrifting items one at a time limits your ability to scale, whereas partnering with wholesalers means you can sell items in multiple quantities.
  • Affordable. If you can’t make a profit on it, then it’s not the product for you.

Not every product you source will turn to gold. Liquidate the losers, and put the proceeds into something that will hopefully sell better.

  • Being user-unfriendly

It’s harder to commit this cardinal ecommerce sin when you’re using a marketplace format as opposed to building your own store from scratch. Still, plenty of eBay stores manage to do so by:

  • Lumping all their products together into the default “Other” category rather than creating intuitive categories and subcategories (e.g., “Men’s Apparel” > “Men’s Suits”, “Men’s Casual Wear” or “Holiday Gifts” > “Holiday Gifts for Him”, “Holiday Gifts for Her”, “Holiday Gifts for Kids” — you get the drift).
  • Not branding their eBay store with their business’ logo, an eye-catching billboard, and a keyword-rich description, then carrying the look through to their listings and sales collateral.
  • Failing to optimize listings for mobile (62% of all eBay transactions involve a mobile device).
  • Neglecting to use eBay’s powerful selling tools (including Markdown Manager, Promoted Listings, and store newsletters, and affiliate marketing through eBay Partner Network).
  • Posting listings with ineffective titles, lousy and/or not enough photos, missing item specifics, incomplete or way too wordy descriptions, and/or overly onerous terms of sale.

Learning eBay best practices will serve you well, because most of them align with ecommerce standards and thus will apply to any selling channel.

  • Not being customer-centric

If your customer’s complete satisfaction is not your bottom line, then your ecommerce success is going to be limited at best. It’s absolutely crucial that you give a great buying experience!

Here are just a few of the ways you can fail to put your customer’s happiness front and center:

  • Have unappealing or even off-putting terms of service, especially around shipping and returns.
  • Poor customer relations management. For example —
  • Don’t communicate, i.e.. respond promptly to inquiries; set buyer expectations as to shipping and delivery windows; and/or cheerfully and professionally resolve post-sale issues.
  • Pack sloppily and/or ship items in a less than timely manner, especially if you ship without providing tracking information.
  • Assume every buyer is out to scam you. This will cast a negative pall over every customer interaction!
  • Ignore customer feedback. Remember, only about 1 in 3 customers takes time to leave feedback; if one person expresses disgruntlement with some aspect of a transaction, chances are you’ve also got other unhappy customers who just won’t buy from you again. So take both positive and negative comments to heart, learn from them, and move on.

(Bonus points if you reach out to dissatisfied buyers with a public apology and an offer to make right whatever went wrong. Do this well enough, and you could even turn them into loyal returning customers!)

  • Don’t build a customer database, from enlisting subscribers to your eBay Store newsletter to harvesting customer names and addresses into your private resource for generating repeat business.
  • Avoid social media. Social media marketing doesn’t just mean sharing your listings on Facebook, Pinterest, etc. It also means building a community, whether via Instagram followers, on a Facebook Business Page, or through your own blog.
  • Ignoring your numbers

This is the biggest pitfall of all — and the cause of most retail business’ downfall, be it online or off. Numbers measure the health of your business. If you do not know your numbers, you cannot measure your business. If you cannot measure your business, then you cannot manage your business. And that means sooner or later, your business will go belly up.

Here are a few of the numbers you need to know:

  • Previous year’s sales, both gross and net
  • Cost of goods sold for that period
  • Your profit margin(s)
  • Operating expenses —
    • Facilities (warehouse space, etc.)
    • Selling fees
    • Shipping costs
    • Supplies
    • Transaction losses (lost or damaged shipments, returns, etc.)
    • Marketing, i.e., advertising and promotion
    • Miscellaneous other costs of doing business
  • Conversion (a.k.a. sell-through) rate —
    • For all sales
    • For each channel and format
    • By category and product
  • Return/refund rate —
    • Number of returns per total transactions (expressed as a percentage)
    • Dollar amount of total returns (important for determining loss rate)
  • Sales velocity, i.e., the speed at which an item sells. Remember, unsold inventory is your cash, sitting on a shelf, laughing at you!

However, there are more complex metrics you should track as well. This is where PayHelm can help. Among other useful reports, it enables you to:

  • Monitor global sales performance
  • Filter and chart an overview of your buyers by location
  • Analyze your sales across multiple channels and platforms

Keep an eye on your numbers, and watch for trends. Formulate hypotheses to account for these trends. Then test, test, test to see if your hypothesis is correct.

Now go forth and make the most of your chance to succeed as an ecommerce entrepreneur. Just don’t screw it up!

Taking Care of (Online) Business: eCommerce Workflows

If this is the workflow for your ecommerce business, it’s time to clean up your act!

Whether you’re an accidental entrepreneur whose hobby selling on eBay became a full-time occupation or a purpose-driven e-tailer who deliberately set out to build an ecommerce empire, you’re in business now.

But are you running your business, or is your business running you…ragged? If it’s the latter, then it’s time to review your procedures with an eye towards streamlining and automating whatever you can.

Because when it comes to your ecommerce business, it literally pays to mind your Ps and Qs. Here’s how the workflows boil down, step by step:

  1. Product sourcing
  2. Post items for sale
  3. Promote your listings and store
  4. Quick shipping
  5. Prompt and professional customer service
  6. Quantify your business’ success via key metrics

Let’s take a closer look at each of those workflows.

Product Sourcing = Homework + Legwork

Before you can start selling anything, you’ve got to have something to sell. Time to go product sourcing! But where to start?

You’ve got plenty of options. Many online sellers swear by thrift shops and garage or estate sales, because they love the thrill of the hunt. But scaling a business based entirely on unique items — “one-offs” —can be brutal; you’ve got to list items as fast as you sell them just to keep your virtual store stocked. Unlisted inventory is your tied-up cash just sitting on the shelf, laughing at you.

Another viable sourcing option is retail arbitrage: buying marked-down, limited edition, and/or hard-to-find merchandise at brick-and-mortar shops or online, then flipping it for a profit. The drawback to this business model is that it’s unpredictable.

Ditto for buying liquidation goods; you can never be sure where your next hot product is coming from or what it may be.So start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!) by doing some market research. Maybe you’ve already got a product category (or categories) in mind; maybe you’re wide open to suggestion; or maybe you just want to find your next hot niche. Or maybe all of the above. Whichever it is, make sure you do your homework!

List More, Sell More

Once you’ve settled on a saleable and sustainable product mix, you’re ready to start listing. That can be the most challenging part of your business to scale, and you can’t do it manually — or singlehandedly.

So start automating whatever you can — the sooner, the better. Eventually, you’ll also need to add somebody else, or even several somebodies, to your payroll. Because even with stock photos, listing takes time. And if you’ve got to do your own product photography to boot, forget going solo. You’re going to need help from third-party tools and/or human employees.

The best third-party ecommerce tools offer multiple plans to accommodate your growing business. Most offer free trials, too, so don’t hesitate to shop around until you figure out what feels right for your business.

Then choose the tools that can best handle what you need them to do, whether it’s importing/exporting listings across platforms, keeping tabs on your inventory, streamlining customer relations management, or shaping up your shipping. Whatever tool(s)’ you use should include some kind of reports or metrics.

Keep Calm and Leave Feedback

Speaking of customers, you’d better be prepared to deal with them — preferably promptly and professionally. One word: Communication. Answer questions ASAP; manage buyer expectations whenever possible; and focus on each customer’s complete satisfaction as your bottom line.

Start each customer on the road to happiness  — and set yourself up for reciprocal feedback — by leaving feedback for buyers as soon as payment is received. The buyer’s job is to purchase and pay; once they’ve done that, show them some feedback love. (Hint: You can automate it.)

Of course, if they don’t pay, you’ll need to have a system in place to deal with that as well. For example, on eBay, you simply open an Unpaid Item case — or let Unpaid Item Assistant do it for you.

But don’t just sit back and wait for shoppers to stumble across your listings and store. Get out there and promote them via social media, Facebook ads, or marketplace tools such as eBay’s Promotions Manager and Promoted Listings. Consider rewarding repeat buyers in some way. Set up volume discounts. The more traffic you can drive your way, the bigger the boost in sales.

Fast Shipping and Happy Returns

Once you do make a sale and receive payment, that’s your cue to ship quickly. Ideally, your shipping solution of choice should allow you to purchase and print shipping labels; generate packing slips and customs labels; upload tracking; and notify buyers that their item has shipped and when they can expect to receive it.

Your job doesn’t end there, though. After-sale customer care is critical to your ongoing success. If they’re happy, great; if not, you’ve got to negotiate an amicable resolution. You might also have to process a return and/or issue a refund. Just don’t ask for feedback! Take care of your buyers, and your feedback will take care of itself.

Know Your Numbers

You can’t manage your business unless you can take its measure via certain key metrics. You’ve got to keep tabs on gross profit versus net profit; cost of goods sold; and overhead expenses.

Drilling down, you need to know how well each product is performing along with what’s selling best on which channel(s). It’s also useful to analyze sales by SKU; by buyer location; by price point; by order size; and more. Quantifying this information enables you to see what’s working versus what’s not working and allows you to gauge your success (or lack thereof).

Each marketplace provides sellers with a certain amount of data and some type of sales reports, but to really keep your fingers on the pulse of your ecommerce business, you’re better off using a third-party analytics tool that you can tailor to suit your needs.

Remember: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you don’t know your numbers, sooner or later, your business is going to crash and burn.

So there you have it, the soup to nuts of ecommerce:

  • Source products that will sell and enable you to scale
  • Post listings as quickly as possible
  • Promote your products and store
  • Ship quickly (and cost effectively)
  • Communicate with customers every step of the way
  • Streamline and/or automate as much of the above as you can
  • Monitor your business’ health via key metrics

Now go forth and sell!