When it comes to selling online, the potential really is infinite. The challenge, however, often lies in knowing what steps to take in order to actually grow your business from a startup into a successful eCommerce brand.
The good news is that there are thousands of eCommerce success stories out there proving it can be achieved.
The question is how?
How have these sellers done what often feels like the impossible and grown their business to the point where they're turning over upwards of six figures? More importantly, how can you replicate the same level of success?
We asked 24 online sellers and industry experts to reveal their business growth strategies and all-round small business tips, to help you succeed in eCommerce.
“As the average conversion rate for an eCommerce store is 2%, it is important to implement as many ways as possible to bring your customers back to the site over and over again, until they are ready to make a purchase.
To accomplish this, you can use email, retargeting ads, push notifications, Facebook Messenger ads and so on. Ultimately, make sure that you don't lose your customers after the initial encounter, because multiple touch points are required prior to a purchase”. Steve Chou (Founder of MyWifeQuitHerJob.com and Owner of Bumblebee Linens)
Converting lost leads into new sales is a really smart move. Think about it - if someone has already expressed an interest in your business by visiting your website, then half the work has already been done.
Retargeting campaigns (otherwise known as remarketing) can specifically help you to re-engage past website visitors, driving them back to your website through the use of targeted advertising campaigns. Have a read of our detailed guide to learn more about using this eCommerce marketing tactic.
Retargeting aside, there are of course plenty of other ways you can make use of marketing to drive sales. Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities lies in encouraging repeat custom from your existing customer base...
"1. Optimisation Order Emails – Order confirmation emails have some of the highest open rates (more than standard marketing emails), so use them as an opportunity to encourage repeat business, social follows or feedback. Don’t waste those eyeballs.
2. Optimise 404 pages – Customers will always find a way to hit a 404 page. Rather than show an error sign, why not turn it into a positive? Optimize your 404 pages with a product offer or promo code, turning it into a positive experience.
3. Welcome Series – Last but not least is to nurture email sign-ups. This is a key eCommerce strategy because shoppers rarely impulse buy anymore. Shopping is a considered purchase, so you need to take the time to introduce, educate and build a relationship with customers before converting them. Don’t try to shove an offer down their throats on sign up, or bundle them onto one list. Treat them carefully and build their loyalty”. Matt Thorpe (Founder of Grasshopper)
Email marketing is an often-overlooked tactic for driving both website traffic and sales, in fact, there are a number of different approaches you can take to attract and nurture your target audience into paying customers.
That said, the same content won’t work for everyone, which is why you need to be segmenting your email lists. This ensures you are only sending the most relevant and targeted emails to your subscribers.
Now while effective marketing can do wonders for your bottom line, before you get started you should ensure that you fully understand the purpose of your business.
“When online store owners want to grow, their first thought usually is to do more:spend more on ads, write more content, post more frequently on social media, etc.
But there is one thing that underlies everything. Something that either hurts your efforts, or gives you superpowers. You can find that thing with two simple questions:
If you don't have a good answer for these, you need to fix this first. Don't come up with something fake either, but really try to figure out what value you're providing to your customers.
If your store does have a unique purpose, have an honest look at your design, copy, marketing, products and emails to see if they reflect that message. All of this may sound obvious, but the online stores that do this right benefit disproportionately”. Dennis Moons (Senior eCommerce Consultant at Store Growers)
"When it comes to Black Friday and other key eCommerce dates, add urgency with a countdown timer under the buy now button. Also, depending on the eCommerce platform you are using, consider the use of a plugin that shows social proof of others who have made a recent purchase on the site". Steve Hutt (Founder of eCommerce Fastlane)
eCommerce marketing is often looked at as a costly effort, when in actual fact there are plenty of low-cost, and relatively simple, things you can do to drive traffic to your site and boost your sales.
"Data! Data! Data! You can't grow rapidly without clean product data.
When your business grows, so does your inventory and the inevitable spelling mistakes and incorrect categorization of products. Your product data links to your product feed, which feeds information into your google shopping campaigns that are core to your e-commerce stores revenue generation.
One simple miscategorization could mean that your new line of women's scarfs has been categorized under men's socks. No wonder they haven't been selling!
That dreaded product excel file holds the keys to rapid growth, and poor data management could be wasting precious PPC budgets. Set aside one day every month to review and cleanse product data. By making this a regular activity as you purchase new products, you will quickly identify and fix errors whilst optimizing and creating new product types for new shopping campaigns. Once your data is fully cleansed and you're 100% confident with your product information, you can get adventurous and start segmenting shopping campaigns by product". Christopher Perry (Website & Marketing Manager at Rinkit)
"My main tip would be to 'get physical'. Online and digital marketing is great, however I find that nothing beats being in front of potential customers and showing them your products in person. I think this is even more important if you are an unknown brand.
You could do this by attending fairs (i.e. Christmas fairs), trade shows or even having a pop-up shop. In my experience, customers want to see the person/company behind the brand and to also touch and feel the product. Once they've met you in person, they are more likely to order from you online". Katarina Stetz (Founder of Ninni.co.uk)
In this day and age, thanks to the likes of Amazon and the immediacy of social networks, if a customer contacts us they expect to hear back within the blink of an eye! Whether it's a direct email from our main website, or via one of our other channels (Amazon, eBay, Twitter, Facebook etc.), we always aim to reply within 10 minutes, no matter the time of day or type of inquiry, even if it's just to say 'Thanks for your inquiry, our sales team are currently tucked up in bed, so someone will get back to you first thing in the morning'.
If you physically can't arrange for someone to monitor emails up until about 10pm, then set up autoresponders (not as good as a human response, but better than nothing!), just so that the customer is aware that their message has been received and that it will be dealt with as soon as possible.
Be friendly and efficient in your response and give the customer what they want, or at least let them think they are getting what they want, even if it is going to cost you or your company something. A discount off their next order or free delivery only costs a small amount, but can pay itself back tenfold in repeat business and good feedback. You have to consider the wider picture, after all, it's how you communicate that sets you apart from your competition”. Dan Rye (Director at Stickers4)
“The first tip I always give to new and existing businesses is to think like a buyer. Provide a service to your customers that you would like to receive, as these are the things that will help you gain visibility on eBay. Where possible, provide free 60 day returns, great customer service and communication with fast & free delivery. If you make a mistake, own it, apologize and put it right, even if your buyer is wrong! It will cost you more in the long run on search visibility due to bad seller metrics”. Jane Bell (eBay Specialist Consultant at JaneBell.co.uk)
Regardless of whether you sell on your own website, a marketplace, or across multiple channels, it’s crucial that customer service is at the core of everything you do. Failing this, you stand to damage your reputation, lose customers and even worse, risk being suspended from the marketplace altogether.
Now while exceptional customer service certainly helps to avoid all of the above, it does also encourage positive feedback - something that can help you improve product visibility and generate more custom – win win!
Or is it?
Great customer service doesn't immediately result in great reviews, and even the most satisfied of customer don't always leave feedback. This is why you need to be thinking about how you can generate positive feedback, way before you even dispatch the product...
“If you are new to selling with Amazon then one secret that you must know about is asking for seller feedback. You can use a number of ways to encourage your customers to do this. There are third party solicitation tools for this and you can make a request as part of your product packaging.
Seller feedback is important as the more that you can improve your customer service the more products you will sell. When you receive seller feedback you must respond promptly to it. You can say something simple like “thank you for shopping with us”. This is a courteous gesture towards the customer and it proves that there really are people behind the shopping page”. Chris MacNeil (Founder of e/Booster)
Fortunately, this approach does extend beyond Amazon and is something you should be thinking about, regardless of which channel(s) you sell through.
“The key factor to running an eCommerce site is creating an inventive and creative brand/product that captures and captivates the imagination of your customers, which in turn creates a keep interest and therefore sells your products”. Sam (Founder of Happy Mallows)
Your brand strategy ultimately defines how your customers perceive not only your products, but also your wider business offering. For this reason, you should be thinking about what you want your business to stand for – what is it about your brand and products that should make people want to buy from you?
To define this, you will need to consider your unique selling proposition (the key thing that differentiates you from your competitors), and then convey this to your customers through social media, your packaging, your messaging and so on.
"I think there is always a place for people looking to make some extra money from their small business. That is how we started and have since grown from the kitchen table to a business with 5 full time employees, as well as directors and part-time staff.
Looking back, there are a few tips I would share. Firstly, only invest what you can afford to financially. Remember, there will always be cheaper options, so discover what makes you distinctive and stick with it. Get your own brand mark and make sure it's trademarked as this will save you a lot of time when you grow. If I had understood trademarks a bit better at the start, it would have saved us time.
It's also difficult to get good prices from a supplier until you have established a good reputation. Keep talking and negotiating with key sales people. There are many opportunities to be the first to bring a new product to market when people know and like you. It's also worth finding other small businesses to partner with so that you can grow together. Don't give up but be willing to constantly evolve as this year's popular items may not sell so well next year.
Finally, continue being an entrepreneur and try new things. I know it costs money, but we have saved hours of time using Linnworks to list our items and handle everything right through to shipping. Again, I wish we had taken this step earlier". Nick Pengelly (Founder of JustSeed Ltd)
“It's important that you spend money on quality images, because in order to be a successful retailer, you need to showcase your products to the very best of your ability. In fact, go one step further and use short informal videos to show off your products.
You should also strive to become an expert in your field and offer free advice. This has worked very well for us. Finally, make sure you spell check every word before you post on your website - nothing hacks me off more than poor spelling, there's no excuse for it”. Brian Mulreany (Owner of The Executive Shaving Company)
Whether your products are listed on your own eCommerce site or on an online marketplace, the images you use to showcase your products tend to be the key factor in the customer’s purchasing decision.
Everything else you do – listing optimization, product promotion, great website design, outstanding product descriptions – will be a wasted effort if your images don’t look professional and accurately convey all product details.
The thing is, not everyone has the luxury of using a professional photographer, especially those of you in the start-up stages. With this in mind, the next tip will help you improve your images for maximum sales…
“My tip is to brush up your photography skills - the images you show online need to be as professional as possible because it is a major part of ecommerce selling. Think about the audience you would like to attract and that could determine what sort of background or setting you will use.
I adjust all my images on a photo program, cropping carefully and adjusting the white balance and light levels to make the images as fresh and appealing as possible. If you keep things simple so as not to distract from the product and try to give an indication of size by careful propping you are well on the way to running a successful venture”. Dorothy Wood (Founder of dorothywood.co.uk)
When it comes to selling online, putting all of your eggs in one basket can be a risky move. This refers to not only the channels you sell on, or even the markets you sell into, but also the suppliers and couriers you are using.
Below, four of our eCommerce experts have outlined some of their best practices for how you can overcome this issue and future-proof your business.
“Be a multi-carrier business as soon as you can. Don't just rely on one carrier - for example there are fantastic alternatives to Royal Mail for small packages. Yodel, for example, offer a special discounted service for small packages and they are easier to manage when it comes to collecting at the weekends, which could really help you out in Q4.
Additionally, when it comes to selling abroad, don't look at it like the cherry on top or the icing on the cake. Instead, you should look at your international sales strategy as a completely new case, with actual resources and investment. As we've grown, we have not only become less dependent on individual channels, but also less reliant on individual countries. With Brexit looming and exchange rate fluctuations, it's good to have a sales base in as many currencies and territories as possible”. Richard Goss (Commercial Director at Rinkit)
Using more than one courier not only helps to protect your business in the event of any potential issues, but if you sell different types of products (i.e. products with different weights and dimensions) or offer different delivery options, it can actually save you money.
That’s because different couriers will be more cost-effective for certain things i.e. smaller and lighter products, bulk-shipments, next-day delivery etc. Find out what the cheapest courier service for you is, based on your business needs.
Of course, it can be pretty challenging and time-consuming to work out these calculations repeatedly on a daily basis. Which is why you may want to automate this process with use of shipping management software to secure the cheapest rates possible.
Using multiple couriers isn't the only recommendation though...
“One of the less discussed points, yet one of the most important milestones for growing an online business, is the realization that you can't be reliant on just one supplier.
If this is the case, your business, in essence, is controlled by the actions of another business. If your supplier ends a line, raises the price or just runs out of stock then you have to shadow those actions for your own business, which could lead to devastating results.
Have options and find other suppliers, this same mentality should be spread throughout your whole business whether it is your selling platforms or couriers”. Charlie McBroom (Founder of Fitted Commerce)
In order to successfully scale your business, you will need to prepare for all eventualities, and one way to do this is by using more than one supplier.
Building and maintaining good relationships your suppliers should in fact be a key focus of your business strategy, because done correctly, you can benefit from quicker turnaround times, cost-savings and in some instances, exclusivity over products.
“A major part of our strategy has been product selection and buying. Making sure we have a good mix of innovative and exclusive products, alongside recognised and trusted brands. We only work with suppliers who are strongly aligned to our core values of innovation, durability and design.
Additionally, it's important that they have tight control over their distribution channels, as unfortunately we've seen a lot of great products have their lifecycle cut short by market saturation. We seek to develop long term relationships with our suppliers and select products that are timeless, whilst also innovative. This is one of the hardest, but also most rewarding parts of building Bear & Bear”. Sam Gore (Founder of Bear & Bear)
“Multi-channel selling is the future! I believe multi-channel selling is still in its very early days, think of video recorders, microwaves, mobile phones and son on. Who do you know that doesn't own a microwave or mobile now?
We have been selling across Amazon, eBay and Etsy for many years. Depending on your product and market, failure to capitalize on every channel available to you means you could well be spending more on SEO and Google "Click Through" each year just to stand still, which might make you think your sales are fine, but your margin will be shrinking.
We all know our customers will look on Amazon first, then eBay, and as a last resort will finally "Google" what they are looking for. We have always sold across many platforms but managing them was time consuming and the stock was a bit of a mess. Our inventory management system (LW) has proved to be invaluable to us, as it brings the orders from each of our different channels into one control panel, manages our stock and enables us to dispatch and print our postage labels all from one dashboard, instead of having 8 different sales channels opened.
New players will come into the market to directly compete with Amazon and eBay, so Linnworks will need to be ready to integrate with them, which I'm sure they will be! We should all sign up with the new players to make sure Amazon and eBay are kept in check. The time Linnworks saves us on "reacting" frees us up to work on driving our business forward”. Elliott Isbitt (Sales Director at Syntego)
One of the most effective ways to expand your business is in fact by selling across multiple channels. By increasing your product visibility and customer reach, you stand to make more sales and a higher profit.
“The UK eCommerce market was worth £155bn in 2016 and when it comes to eCommerce exports we're world leaders.
All British businesses have the power of the Union Jack being highly valued, and alongside a weak pound in many countries you have the perfect mix for growth through export - it's something we support our clients with a lot.
To go global, consider the best marketplaces for your business - it won't always be eBay and Amazon. Marketplaces will give you simple routes to market without expensive advertising costs. Just don't overlook differing demand; returns; customs and VAT registration - many sellers do, and it can be a costly mistake”. Darren Ratcliffe (Founder of Digtl)
Running an online business will always take time and effort, no matter what processes you put in place, but one of the biggest secrets to growing a successful venture comes down to how you are spending your time.
I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying that time is money, and it certainly is, but here's the thing - it’s also a whole lot more. If you don't spend it wisely, time can become wasted opportunities, both in the sense of business growth and personal experiences.
With that in mind, three successful online sellers have detailed some of their top tips for ensuring you are utilizing your time effectively.
“My secret tip is to automate everything. Spend a year automating as much as you can and you will only have to work one day a week from that point onwards”. Gemma Price (Founder of Superfood Market)
By automating your key business processes with an inventory and order management system, you not have more time to focus on growing your business or spending time with loved ones, you also reduce the occurrence of human error such as overselling.
This in itself becomes all the more important as you grow your business across multiple channels...
“Typically, people start using an order management system such as Linnworks when they are established and busy. Usually at the point where they can't cope with the workload and are seeking a way to streamline their operations. We did it differently, when we only had to manage 5 to 19 orders a day and grew into the system. While we still don't use all of the features such as purchase orders and multiple locations, we are confident knowing that the functionality is there should we need it. You don't need to be a megacorp to use Linnworks, but you're set up to be one by building a good foundation from the beginning”. Rob Ellard (Founder of StealthVape)
While an order management system can help businesses to scale, by automating key processes and synchronizing inventory from multiple channels, a crucial part of running a business is in fact being able to effectively manage your own time.
This brings me onto the next tip…
“When it comes to selling online and more specifically having to keep up with the requirements of a constant workflow, as with anything that requires any type of mental and physical energy, not to mention time input, it is often very easy to feel overwhelmed.
I've found that making and completing mini to-do lists, narrowing tasks down into smaller manageable sections and focusing on completing those individually has helped immensely. For example, with my eBay shop, tasks include sourcing, stocking and storing inventory, photographing and listing items, packaging and shipping items, as well as dealing with everyday customer inquiries and requests. I've found that this has made me considerably more relaxed, productive and efficient in the process”. Phoenix James (Phoenix James eBay Shop)
Finally, one of the biggest things to remember is that things do go wrong. It’s how you handle these issues that defines your success as an online seller.
“If you want to start an eBay or Amazon business, then you have to go ahead and START your business. No matter how much research and training you do, there will never be a perfect time to start. In fact, when it comes to online sales, there is simply no learning you can do that is as good as real life experience. Yes, you will make some mistakes - we all do. The crucial thing is to think of a mistake as just another learning tool”. Skip McGrath (Founder of skipmcgrath.com)
I think the secret to being a successful seller is just never giving up. There are so many ways to try to advertise in this market. The competition can be brutal, making goals and hitting them is important though staying on target can also be difficult at times. The best practices are staying organised, finding a need and filling while also keeping your head in the game. Customer service is one of the best secrets I could provide. Providing the best customer service at all times if possible is also key. I wouldn't say that is 100% bulletproof, but it will go a long way. People will remember you for the extra effort that was given and the added touch of good service”. Craig Weiss (Founder of Artyah.com)
"My tip would be to never forget your customer. Ultimately, if you can be honest and back up your promises you will succeed. Of course, you will need to back it up with quality and great service". Terry Burke (Managing Director at Mats Nationwide)
So there you have it. 24 invaluable growth tips from successful online sellers and eCommerce experts from a range of different industries.
Discover more topics in our resource hub.