washingtonpost.com
The Online Store for the New Decade

Entrepreneur.com
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 12:00 AM

From jewelry designers to musicians, from shop owners to authors, everyone is looking for a way to sell products or services online. How do you begin, and what do you need to know about setting up and managing an online store for your business? Whether you do it yourself or hire a firm, you are the expert at what you sell, and your involvement is crucial to the success of your web store.

It's Not MagicWhether you are considering using a prepackaged solution or building your website on an open source shopping system, it is important to recognize something right upfront: You need to be involved. You will need to take the time to create your list of products. Each product will need a unique item number, product title, price and description. Depending on what you are selling, you may have more fields than these. If you're using a prepackaged solution, some services will provide you with a spreadsheet template to follow.

Beyond the data, you will need images of your products or icons for digital items. You may need to spend some time familiarizing yourself with an image editing application to correctly size your product images to match the layout or design of your website. Keep in mind that if you plan to show jewelry, clothing or furniture in other colors, you will need images of those items. Web applications do not magically recolor photos, so you need to have photos taken of products in other colors or have a graphic expert recolor your products. If you are selling a digital product like music or e-books, you'll need to create sample files to provide your visitor. For example, offer two pages of your e-book in a pdf format or an edited 30-second sample of your music for review.

Technology ConnectionsWe all need to accept credit cards to sell online, and there are a variety of ways to do this today. You can go to your bank and open a merchant account or use a merchant service company. Credit card processing can also be supplied by the prepackaged solution or from a third-party service like PayPal or Google. When making this decision, think about your audience. Will they be comfortable jumping off your website to an external processing service like PayPal or Google? You can integrate many processors into your shopping cart, but it is important to understand that people are human and they will make mistakes. Mistyping a credit card number and entering a wrong ZIP code are frequent human errors, so be sure you test the error notifications on your website. When evaluating shopping systems, do not assume international orders are allowed. This may be a feature that needs to be customized.

Additional technology connections may also be needed to provide you and your audience with the most accurate costs. For instance, how are you shipping your products? Not all shopping carts integrate with every shipping service, and if you are planning to ship your products, you will want this feature integrated into your website so that buyers' postal codes can be checked against your products' weights and shipping zones. Many small businesses run into a lower profit margin because their shipping isn't calculated properly.

Social FeaturesAside from managing inventory, adding images and connecting your products to shipping systems, your customers are looking for more. Customer reviews have become standard in today's e-stores, and they serve two purposes: They can help increase sales, and they provide an opportunity for your customers to give you feedback.

Providing customers with wish list tools for sharing their interests with friends and family is not a standard feature on most e-commerce sites, but for certain websites this feature can help your customers get what they want and even share their lists on social sites.

Fresh content about your products is a must for any site. Plan your site around sharing information about the best uses of your products or highlight different customer stories about how your e-book impacted their lives. The message needs to stay fresh, so plan your site with more than just a shopping catalog--plan it with a sense of community.

Building an e-commerce site today is not just about offering the latest and greatest product or the lowest price. You'll want to build a following and make it easy for your team to manage the growth. The two most important things to remember are that not every feature will be available out of the box and that you will need to be a participant in your success.

Jennifer Shaheen, the e-marketing and Technology Therapist, has more than 10 years experience working with small- to mid-sized businesses on their e-marketing and web development needs. You can learn more about her by visiting her website, TechnologyTherapy.com

© 2010 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.