16 tips on setting up your web store

Setting up a retail outlet on the web is not an easy process. There’s plenty you need to be aware of when it comes to launching an online store, from the initial site design, to the often-overlooked extras that will have customers knocking down your virtual door. Don’t feel overwhelmed, though – just take things slowly, and step by step. Also, you can avail yourself of all the handy tips we’ve got for you here. We’ll cover site design, implementation, elements such as privacy and return policies, and we’ll round off with some tips on preparing for the big opening day…

Design for the future

Whether you're creating the site by yourself or working with a pro, it’s a good idea to make decisions about the look and feel of the site immediately. Sit down with a piece of paper and sketch it. Include all the elements you think the site needs. Even better, if you're well-schooled in software like Photoshop and InDesign, mock up exactly what the site should look like. The file you create may be the perfect template.

At this point, you may want to hand off things to the pro doing the actual coding, but it would be smart for you to consider all the elements before you begin, from start to finish. Just because you hired a pro doesn't mean he or she knows everything. Be sure to note all the pages you'll need that person to build, including the home page, product pages, how to contact you, and so on.

Create consistent navigation

The true sign of a nonprofessional site is that each page looks completely different from the others. It might seem creative and artistic, but for visitors who want to buy something and find their way around easily, it's confusing, and it's likely to send a potential customer running for the hills. Keep this in mind at all times when designing your site. Be sure to incorporate search and subscription forms. Because of search engines and links, interior pages of your site will probably be the first page a visitor sees. Not everyone comes into an online store via the front door (aka the home page). Make sure each page has the information customers need to navigate your site.

Sample site statistics

When it’s up and running, keep an eye on the traffic for your site. The natural choice these days for measuring traffic is Google Analytics, which provides all sorts of graphs and charts about your visitors and what they do when at your site. For more on this, see our closer look at website traffic analysis.

Optimise for search

SEO is the art and science of search engine optimisation. You need to plan for this early on to ensure your site is at the top of results for any searches related to your products. For example, if you sell, say, one niche product, but a search on that term doesn't yield your store, you've got problems. Carefully consider the metadata for your site – keywords, descriptions, headers, and so on. The more specific the terms used, the better. SEO is too big a topic to cover in a small tip, but there’s reams of material relating to SEO online. Go search (oh, the irony), read, and read more.

Ensure SSL is applied

Not S-O-L – that's bad. SSL is short for Secure Sockets Layer, a protocol for secure Internet transactions. When a web address starts with https:// instead of http://, that's SSL. No one should ever give out credit card info to a website that lacks it – even yours. Some web hosts may charge a little extra for SSL, but it’s something you need.

Photograph your products

eBay proved a long time ago that people like to see what they're buying. Don't consider putting up a catalogue that doesn't feature good photos – and don't limit yourself to one picture per item. Offer multiple shots, from every angle, so people can get as close to a 3D feeling as possible. It doesn't hurt to have art to go along with digital products, as well – mock up an album cover to go with that MP3 you're peddling.

Consider video

Multiple images of a product are nice, but nothing beats a hands-on demonstration. You'll retain tighter control by making your own video to show the selling points. Host it at YouTube, Vimeo, or any number of sites, and embed it.

Think about shipping

Anything that has to go out the door is going to cost you money to ship. If the customer is not paying for it, make sure your prices offset your costs. You don't want to go broke because you make a lot of trips to FedEx. If you ship a lot – an awful lot – you can negotiate some rates with your carrier. And don’t be afraid to shop around courier services.

Free shipping – for the consumer, that is, with you eating the cost – is a great incentive for customers. Offering it may be realistic for Amazon, but not for your sole proprietorship. Try it for a limited time, perhaps around the Xmas holidays when it may be a priority for last-minute gift purchasers. However, the extra sales volume you gain may not outweigh the added shipping expenditure.

Whatever you decide, explain your shipping costs and policies up front. Tell visitors when you'll ship. Spell out if you have same-day shipping and when that's possible (before 17:00, for example). After all, two-day shipping means different things to different people on different days of the week.

Read visitor comments

Selling items online is not a one-way street – at the very least, you should provide an email link or comments function for anyone who might want to contact you. Give customers a chance to rate your products – it may give you an idea of what to sell, what not to sell, and how to make what you've got more appealing.

Search the site

In this case, the search is for the customer. Unless you sell only a handful of products, all found on your top page, your site must have internal search so customers can find the products they want. Get it through Google AdSense – really, why would you get it from anyone else? Especially since Google will pay you a few pennies for specific searches. It won't make you rich, but the extra dough might pay some web hosting expenses. Again, incorporate the search box into your design.

Live chat with visitors

You've doubtless encountered this: You're surfing a retail site and an offer – or even a chat window – pops up, inviting you to talk to a customer service representative. It might be obtrusive to some, but it's a quick and inexpensive way to provide info to customers, as well as gather some info for your business.

It doesn't have to be annoying. Add a button so the customer can start the chat if they want. It helps if your chat service is manned 24/7, but at the very least create an instant messaging handle that you leave on when you are available. When you get big enough, move up to a service like LivePerson.

Promise privacy

Once your site is up and running, you'll (hopefully) soon be awash in credit card numbers, personal addresses, and phone numbers, and of course email addresses. Before you collect even one bit of personal data, make the privacy policy for your site public, so customers know exactly what they can expect: Contact from you, contact from spammers, or to be left completely alone to enjoy their purchase. Sign up with TRUSTe to get your site audited and earn its seal of approval to show customers they can trust you.

Prepare for returns

Write a clear returns policy and post it on the site. Include it with every shipment as part of the invoice, spelling out whether you or the customer is responsible for return shipping costs, any restocking fees, and so on.

Market via email

Not everyone reads blogs or RSS readers, but everyone has email. Create an opt-in email newsletter with a third-party service, and put the form for it (or at least a link to the form) on every page of the site. You can start out with something simple and manage it with email software like Outlook or even Gmail, but once the list gets big use a service so you don't get identified as a spammer when you're not.

Notice we said opt-in – don't assume all emails you get mean those people want to be in your list. Ask first.

Blog your heart out

Yes, you're a retailer. That doesn't mean you have nothing to say to your customers. If your comments are insightful or interesting, they could be enough to bring people to your site under their own steam… and maybe they'll buy something. Many web hosts offer blog tools like WordPress, but you can always set up your own with Blogger.com and add a blog page to your own site. For that, you'll need some HTML skills, of course. For more info, check out our look at the best free blogging websites.

As you open…

Here’s a small collection of tips for the actual opening of your web store.

Beta test the site: Before you open your site, make sure you test it thoroughly! We can guarantee that something, if not everything, will be broken on opening day. (Actually, that could happen even with testing – from the crush of customers, if you're lucky).

Send out a press release: You're nearly open, so tell the world! A professional press release sent to the right places can make all the difference. Hit the blogs that love your kind of product – if you can, give them an incentive to share by giving something to the blog readers, perhaps a code for some money off if their visitors are among your first 100 (or 1,000) customers. Keep the hype in your release to a minimum – you're only starting out and thus you're probably not the "leading dealer on the entire planet." Yet.

Remember, the best way to get customers is word of mouth. By the same token, the best way for Google to find your site and rank it high in search results is for there to be lots of links to it. The more the better. Quality counts too, however: If the BBC links to your site, it ranks higher than a link from your local paper.

Pay for placement: You should also think seriously about advertising. You can actually pay to get decent placement on a search engine. Google AdWords may cost you only a small amount per month. Do some research on the best combination of keywords to drive the most searches to your ads.