It can be hard to find the silver lining when the world around us looks as dire as it has these last few months.
At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 death count was headed toward half a million worldwide. Many businesses have shuttered, and more are on the brink. Tens of millions of Americans have requested unemployment, and the country hasn’t seen this many people out of work since the Great Depression.
It’s not pretty out there, folks.
Things looked bleak back in 2008, too. The Great Recession crushed the housing market and drove unemployment to — you guessed it — the worst levels since the Great Depression. Foreclosures went through the roof. While that time was tough on the overall economy, it also spurred the creation of companies such as Airbnb, Uber, GitHub, Square, Slack, Dropbox, and Glassdoor. In the cases of Uber and Airbnb, in particular, they offered a chance for anyone to make money in new ways. There’s a similar opportunity in online retail today. As millions of people find themselves out of work, they may decide they’re tired of working for someone else when they could easily become their own bosses.
While coming up with the next billion-dollar business idea might be a stretch, launching an online store is something anyone can do. We all have passions, skills and interests, so why not channel your creative and entrepreneurial minds to build a new opportunity for yourself or family? Millions of people sell things they make on Etsy or buy and re-sell goods on eBay. Why not go a step further and create your own e-commerce site? One that will grow with you and that doesn’t require technical knowledge to be successful.
The Time is Ripe for Online Shopping
The timing couldn’t be better. Online retail has been booming over these last few months while people have been staying home. Merchants on the BigCommerce platform have been selling at levels on par with the holiday shopping season. Listrak reports a 40 percent increase in e-commerce revenue since the U.S. declared a state of emergency.
It makes sense that online shopping has been up because shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have prevented people from going out and stores from opening. Consumers had no choice but to go online, and many retailers reaped the rewards. Sales of home furnishings and furniture skyrocketed as people invested in home improvement projects. Toys, games and educational materials were hot items as parents sought ways to keep their kids busy — and educated — while schools were closed. Sports and workout equipment sales spiked early because people still wanted to exercise even though gyms were closed. The same thing happened with home office equipment as people shifted to working from home.
Even as those short-term spikes have leveled and stay-at-home restrictions are loosening, many people will still prefer to keep shopping online to minimize contact with large groups of people. With a vaccine several months away, online shopping will stay hot for a while.
Prioritize Customer Experience and Engagement
If the idea of building a retail website is intimidating, take a deep breath. You don’t need to have a PhD or know anything about coding to run an e-commerce site. In fact, your biggest asset to running a store is that you have been a customer yourself. You know what you like in a shopping experience, so you can use that personal expertise to win your own customers.
The most important thing to remember when building an online store is the customer experience. With more people shopping online, there will be more competition, and merchants need to differentiate themselves with compelling experiences that connect online and offline services. Think about shopping on Amazon.com. It isn’t usually a memorable experience. You pick what you need, click a couple buttons to pay and ship, and you’re done. Clear communication, strong search results and frictionless checkout are critical for your site too, but after that, there isn’t much to learn from the Amazon shopping experience.
Instead, look for ways to bring your brand to life. Think about brands you love and are loyal to. They usually have a strong identity that customers relate to. For your e-commerce venture, start by thinking about your mission, vision, values, brand personality and voice. You want to make sure your website and the digital experience you provide are aligned with your brand identity.
When just starting out, there will be all kinds of tempting options to add, but it’s important to focus on the functions and features that resonate with your audience. What provides value? What furthers your brand? While some things are nice-to-have vs. need-to-have, one feature you can’t live without is a way to include engaging content on your site. Too many e-commerce stores overlook content and only focus on commerce. That may work for Amazon, where it’s all about price and fast shipping, but it won’t work for smaller merchants that need to connect with their audiences.
After you get up and running, getting customer feedback will be a good way to make sure you’re on target with your messaging. Ask customers about what they love about your brand and how they like your site experience. You’ll quickly learn whether the two are working together or if there are rough spots you need to smooth out.
The ability to customize your site will depend largely on what platform you use to host it. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of different e-commerce platforms (mainly because I work for one of them and am inherently biased). Suffice it to say, there are several options that allow you to process payments, track orders and ship. Some are better than others at the content part, so pay close attention there.
Regardless of the platform you choose, running your own online store has never been easier, and now is a great time to dive in. For people in need of income to support themselves or their families, e-commerce could be a critical lifeline.
Meghan Stabler is vice president of global marketing and communications at BigCommerce, an e-commerce platform provider.