Considering an E-Commerce Strategy (Part 1)
In this three-part series on e-commerce, we help you consider whether e-commerce could be a good fit for your business and evaluate what entry points may work best for you.

COVID-19 restrictions have quickly changed the way people live, work, learn, and shop. Many traditional business models and sales channels are no longer viable – or significantly less effective – due to the current climate. Even as we "turn the dial" toward reopening, it is likely that reopening will not be a linear process, or that consumers will be slow to return to physical locations. Given these potential realities, the choice to add e-commerce into your retail mix provides an additional channel to increase your cash flow and engage with customers .

Key Considerations for an E-commerce Strategy
A few months ago, the process of getting product online may have felt too overwhelming to explore. Yet the pandemic has lowered barriers to entry as small businesses have creatively engaged with their customers online in a variety of ways. In addition, many large e-commerce platforms have increased the tools and educational resources available to help you sell online. 

E-commerce is just one tool available to you. The effectiveness of that tool depends on establishing strategies and goals around using it. So what should you consider when deciding whether selling online is right for you?

Product Offerings
Does your product or brand translate well to e-commerce? Think creatively, keeping in mind that the old “rules” may no longer apply in light of evolving consumer expectations and experiences during the pandemic. For example:
  • While the experience of an overnight stay at a beloved inn cannot be delivered online, bundling certificates for a future stay with branded coffee mugs and the inn's cookbook could help consumers connect with the joy of your brand - even while they are at home. 
  • Products (spices, cooking gadgets) could be bundled with an experience, such as an on-line cooking class from a local Chef.
  • Holiday gift bundles (Father’s Day, graduation, etc.) may keep your products relevant and timely. 

If you typically offer a more traditional retail experience, it is likely not worth the time and effort – photographing and cataloging products, taking quality photographs, writing product descriptions – to post all of your products online. Instead, be judicious about what you include online to focus on your most in-demand items, high profit-margin items, or bundled products.

Customer Behavior and Expectations
Do you already have an online presence? What platform are your customers currently using, and what are their expectations for similar products? To address these questions, spend a little time doing some market research on your key competitors. What do they sell on-line, and how does that product mix differ from their other traditional sales channels?

Operational Feasibility
How complicated – and costly – will it be to sell and deliver your product/service via e-commerce? Considerations include:
  • Profitability: Is the product worth selling online, or would the cost of shipping outweigh the revenue from the product itself?
  • Shipping logistics: Is shipping worth the cost and effort, or are curbside pickups or limited local deliveries a better plan? Do you have the needed shipping materials and a process in place?
  • Employee power: Can employees help track and package sales, or is this an endeavor you’d have to take on by yourself?

Time and Cost
As with any new skill, you will need to be honest with yourself about the time and money you have available to spend on developing your e-commerce presence. If you want to feature a few favorite [or high-margin] products on social media as part of a new summer line, that process is significantly simpler than establishing an entire online storefront. Similarly, while many online platforms offer a variety of tools, it still takes a significant time investment to explore and implement those tools – is that process worth it for your business?
"Presence vs. Perfection” may be the best choice today for entering the online marketplace. Your objectives for an initial strategy may fit within the left column (a "modest" presence), and they may evolve into a more sophisticated presence over time. Note that this evolution does not require you to fall fully in either category; rather, this list provides you with a variety of options to consider as you make a plan.
Presence vs. Perfection
While e-commerce can be a gateway to reaching customers, your success with selling through this channel is largely dependent on a solid foundation, or e-commerce strategy . “Presence vs. perfection” may be a strategic mantra today as you focus on the goal of making products more accessible to customers; however, you will always have the opportunity to evolve.

One example of a local business entering the online space and evolving quickly is board game retailer I’m Board! Games and Family Fun , recently featured in the Wisconsin State Journal. I’m Board! launched an online store to connect with customers who were seeking at-home entertainment options. The April blog post written by owner Bryan Winter articulates some of his experiences with moving online and clarifies the process for ordering. Even since writing that initial post, Bryan has made changes to the store as his knowledge evolves. This evolution demonstrates that e-commerce – like most business plans – can be iterative and flexible.
Other examples of businesses adapting to e-commerce strategies:
  • Virtual wine tasting
  • Themed kits for special events
  • Shared online presence among businesses, such as:
  • Virtual boutique crawls
  • Shared storefronts like Christine’s Kitchens
  • Partnerships to offer “exclusive content” through one business (i.e. a gift shop partnering with a florist to offer add-on choices for a Mother’s Day package)
  • Or the newly virtual Madison Night Market event
  • Online ordering and takeout meals from restaurants that did not previously offer them

Part 2 of our e-commerce series will provide you with resources from each of the major online platforms and help you consider which might fit with your audience and development capacity.
The Wisconsin SBDC Network is a proud part of the  Institute for Business & Entrepreneurship  in the  University of Wisconsin System . It is funded in part through a Cooperative Agreement with the  U.S. Small Business Administration.