Local Business

The First Steps in Adding Ecommerce to a Brick-and-mortar Store

Brick-and-mortar retail businesses are turning toward ecommerce to generate revenue — online and click-and-collect. As they make this digital transformation, those merchants will likely have questions about ecommerce platforms, themes, and design. While all of these are important, a company’s initial focus should be on products and marketing, in my experience.

The act of merchandising and selling an item in a physical store is fundamentally different than promoting and selling the same product online.


Consider the advantages of physical retailing. In a physical store, a shopper can handle a product before buying it. He can, for example, pick up a new kitchen knife, feel its weight, and gauge how it fits in his hand. In some stores, he could even chop a few carrots before making the buying decision.

Similarly, a mother shopping for kids’ clothing can touch the fabric and have her child try on an outfit or two. For questions, a clerk is not far off.

A retail clerk can answer product questions in real-time and on a personal level. <em>Photo: BBH Singapore.</em>

A retail clerk can answer product questions in real-time and on a personal level. Photo: BBH Singapore.

What’s more, a physical location can be its own form of marketing.

An art supply store in a popular shopping center may have thousands of potential customers drive past it every day. Some of those passersby will see the store’s sign for years. When those folks need a sketchbook and art pencils for their children’s drawing class, the brick-and-mortar store could come to mind.


Conversely, selling a kitchen knife, children’s clothing, sketchbooks, or anything on the Internet is different. Product images, product descriptions, and inventory management are critical for ecommerce but may be challenging for brick-and-mortar businesses selling online for the first time.

Images. To sell a product hanging on a hook at a physical store, a retailer simply needs the product and the hook. Online, however, a merchant requires at least one photograph to represent the item.

A merchant can either photograph every product or, alternatively, acquire photos from the manufacturer or distributor. Both of these tasks more time-consuming than what one might imagine.

At one of Sur La Table's physical stores, a shopper could handle this knife before spending $399 to buy it. But online, the knife is represented with an image.

At one of Sur La Table’s physical stores, a shopper could handle this knife before spending $399 to buy it. But online, the knife is represented with an image.

It is not uncommon for a store to have thousands of SKUs and dozens of vendors. If it decided to download product photos from those vendors, a retail business would need someone to contact each vendor, gain access to the images, download and organize them, perhaps edit them, and upload them to the ecommerce site — repeated hundreds of times.

But a methodical approach can help.

  • Identify your business’s top-selling items and prioritize them.
  • Devote the labor needed to download and upload photos.
  • Automate the process when possible.
  • If necessary, use snapshots from mobile phones as placeholders.

Good product photos are more important than a perfectly designed website when you’re getting started.

Descriptions. Product descriptions are similar to product images: You don’t need them in a physical store and generating them for an ecommerce site is a larger task than one might imagine.

Whether your company decides to write these or copy them from a manufacturer — never copy a product description without express permission, however — the steps will be similar to those for images.

  • Focus on the best-selling items first.
  • Devote the labor to the task, or outsource.
  • Automate the process if possible.
  • Publish products without descriptions if necessary.

Inventory management. Imagine a chain with 15 physical stores. Each store has one particular espresso machine — 15 company-wide.

When it comes to managing inventory on an ecommerce platform, what are the available quantities for this espresso machine?

If it plans to fulfill from every location, the company might assume 15 machines are available to sell online. But that could be a problem.

What if three stores had an incorrect inventory count? Instead of having one machine in stock, they had none. And what if two other stores tossed the boxes because the espresso machines are on display? Those stores would have no way to ship them. And what if customers are buying the espresso machines at four other stores right now?

To make matters worse, inventory counts could be off by a lot if the chain’s physical point-of-sale system doesn’t automatically update the ecommerce site.

The solution depends on a merchant’s systems and capabilities. But knowing that inventory quantities can be a problem goes a long way toward a fix.


The aforementioned art supply store resides in a popular shopping center, has a physical sign, and is known to thousands of potential customers.

No one will notice the business, however, when it opens online. A shopper could search for the store by name on Google or Bing, but there is no guarantee that those search engines have even indexed the new site yet.

Thus it’s not enough to open an ecommerce shop. Merchants must promote and market it. Marketing for a new ecommerce site should use a retailer’s traditional channels as well as new ones, such as pay-per-click and video ads.

For example, a retailer should continue with radio ads but now include the new digital offering. Similarly, a chain should continue inserting circulars in the local newspaper, but, again, now emphasize online or click-and-collect services.

Marketing a new ecommerce store is often more important than the platform, the theme, and other design elements.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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