Practical Ecommerce

How to Sell Online if You Already Have a Physical Store

Small brick-and-mortar retailers can find new customers, experiment with new products, and generally grow their business when they start selling online. For established retailers, the first steps toward ecommerce often begin with product preparation, software selection and integration, and learning about online marketing and customer service.

Ecommerce is a fast expanding retail segment, growing 20 percent in the United States in the first quarter of 2013. Based on estimates from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the IBM Online Retail Index, total ecommerce sales excluding travel and automobiles may have been as much as $50 billion in the first quarter.

These sorts of statistics can make ecommerce very attractive to retailers that currently sell only from a physical store or stores.

Prepare Product Descriptions and Photographs

In a real-world store, a customer can see a product on the shelf, hold it, and read its label. But in an online store, the storekeeper needs to provide a description, a list of specifications or features, and a photograph or video showing the product.

Some manufacturers and distributors will provide suitable product photography and even written descriptions, but there are usually two kinds of problems associated with getting pictures and copy in this way.

First, the copy is not unique. The product description may be identical to the description on the manufacturer’s own site or the descriptions on a dozen competitive sites. When search engines like Google or Bing choose which sites to list first on a search results page, those search engines won’t select a brand new page using a copycat product description. For some products, this might be acceptable, but in many cases, you’ll need to write a 35-to-50 word description for every product that will appear on your website.

Second, nearly every manufacturer or distributor will deliver the product information in a different way. Some offer CSV files via FTP and others use a digital asset management system. These differing systems mean that almost all of the initial product data collection must be done manually.

It may make sense to tackle this task in small pieces, writing a few product descriptions and processing a few images each day. It is also possible to hire freelance writers or photo processors to help prepare the product information. Consider trying to find help at Guru, oDesk, Virtual Staff Finder, or similar.

When you have a product description and image for nearly every product that you want on the site at launch, you’ll be ready for the next step.

Manage Inventory and Accounting

For merchants selling exclusively online, inventory and accounting — or at least transactions — are managed in the ecommerce platform. However, brick-and-mortar retailers just getting started with ecommerce probably already have an inventory management system and a favorite account software suite.

You’ll want to find a solution that allows online and physical-store sales and inventory to be handled in a uniform or nearly uniform way. In some cases, this means that your soon-to-open online store will need to integrate with your current systems, but in others situations it might make more sense to change point-of-sale (POS) solutions or accounting suites.

Consider checking out services like Vend, which is a cloud-based POS with an application programming interface that can be connected to many ecommerce platforms. Conversely, you will want a POS system for your store that doesn’t go down when the Internet is unavailable.

The payment card industry has a digital security standard for card-not-present transactions; you’ll need to comply.

Inventory management will be important too, especially when the physical store and online store are sharing units. When a shopper buys an item in the physical store, the online store needs to know not to sell it too.

Select an Ecommerce Platform

Ecommerce platform software handles storing and displaying your online product catalog, counts online inventory, connects to payment gateways, and, in short, makes it possible to sell products online.

There are many very good solutions, and deciding which one to use will take some thought.

Try making a list of what you want your ecommerce store to be able to do, include things like accept PayPal at check out, have layered navigation, be responsive so that it looks good on mobile devices, and similar. Try to find a solution that will do everything on your list either as part of its core functions or via a reliable extension or plugin.

You’ll also want to look for a solution that allows you or your designer direct access to the style sheets, page layout, and JavaScript. Even if you choose to use a template and make no changes to it, having the ability to control how your ecommerce site looks will almost certain become important as your online business grows.

Order Fulfillment

Brick-and-mortar retailers will be very familiar with receiving shipments from FedEx or even a third-party logistics company. But shipping orders to customer is quite different.

You need the packing materials, including boxes in a variety of sizes; air bladders or packing peanuts to cushion products, tape, and labels at a minimum. Since most shipping rates are wait and distance based, you’ll need a scale too.

For FedEx and UPS it is best to establish accounts and you’ll also want to be able to ship via the U.S. Postal Service.

Online shoppers will expect some means of earning free shipping too.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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Comments ( 3 )

  1. Duncan June 29, 2013 Reply

    Nice article but I don’t think it addresses the crux of the dilemma that a B&M finds itself in when attempting to sell online. I also don’t think that the fast growth of the ecommerce retail sector, a statistic that is often bandied around, is any justification or reason to cross over into ecommerce without careful consideration of what you’re attempting to do.

    As a B&M you really have to understand that simply porting your physical store over to the internet without careful consideration of the expectations of your current customers, your competitive strengths and a careful assessment of the competition is premature.

    You need to take a hard look at all your product and service offerings and think along the lines of smaller subsets of your goods to focus on that can withstand and thrive alongside the many specialists on the internet that will simply have your lunch if you merely place your entire store inventory online, (Unless you’re a highly specialized B&M to begin with)

    As a B&M you really need to ask the question, "Why would an online visitor to my site choose my store, my selection or merchandise to buy from?" If specialists are already serving individual portions of your market then you need to think really carefully about how you’re going to win that online customer over to your store and without a laser-like focus on only one or two segments of your inventory selection it is going to be very tough to make any money online.

  2. Jason September 3, 2013 Reply

    Thanks a lot for the tips, really useful! Base on my experience, there are some good alternatives to start selling online without setting a store, for example http://www.selltag.com it’s easy and free. Then, if it works you can create a wordpress o shopify.. good luck!

  3. Kerry Adams January 8, 2014 Reply

    The bricks-and-mortar stores need to get their act together asap and go online, if they wish to be competitive. This is a good guide on how a novice can go about it. Good work! You can sell online using any of the user-friendly ecommerce platforms like the retailemall online store http://www.retailemall.com/store which allows the user to quickly get down to business – rather, the business previously being lost out on.

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