Grand Designs: How to build an online store that sells

It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in, to create a successful online store you need to pay attention to the specific needs of the people who will be browsing your site. That doesn’t mean blowing your budget on customised graphics and flashy elements. It means establishing a design that focuses on the user experience. Knowing where to start when designing an online store can be tricky, but by focusing on the most important elements, your site is more likely to succeed whether you’re selling baby clothes, custom-made art or even live plants.

Back to basics

Focusing on how your site is going to function rather than how it looks is a good starting point. While having a visually appealing web presence is a good idea, even the most beautiful design in the world is wasted if customers can’t figure out how to buy your products.

The basic elements your online retail site needs to function well are:

  • A home page with clear pathways to products and pricing
  • Simple and clear product pages with easy ‘add-to-cart’ and ‘checkout’ processes
  • A text-based search for products
  • Secondary pages such as: contact us, site map, privacy policy and terms of use.

Put user experience front and centre

One of the most frustrating experiences for an online shopper is being unable to find the specific product they’re looking for. Make sure your site has simple text search functionality, based on both product names and descriptions. Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes is a simple way to ensure that the user experience of your site is a good one.

Conduct testing with friends and family who aren’t directly involved in the business. If they have trouble navigating the site or finding specific products, then the chances are the general public will have the same problem also. Allowing enough time to conduct user experience tests ensures that when the site is launched you already know that it’s in good shape and ready to be used by the masses.

Invest in images

Ensuring your product images are clear and of high quality is paramount, so investing in a professional photographer is a good idea. While this cost may strain the budget of new small businesses, the pay offs of having quality images on the website are well worth it.

Innovative Gold Coast-based business Plants in a Box used professional photographers to capture all images on the new website for their online plant business. “Images are a high priority not only for our website but for our social media channels. Photos give our customers and potential customers a vision for what they can do with their plants,” says Debbie Prince, co-owner of Plants in a Box.

“Our photos are always a work-in-progress and we are constantly updating them. Live plants add a level of complexity when it comes to getting great photos. It often means waiting until the right time of year to get the perfect shot of that plant in full bloom or when wearing their autumn colours. So patience plays a major role in getting the perfect shot.”

Be mobile

Many will agree that consumers are increasingly browsing and shopping via their mobile and tablet (rather than a laptop or desktop). This means that ensuring that your site is responsive and accessible on all devices is of the utmost importance. When engaging the services of a website designer, ensure they have experience optimising sites for mobile and tablet use. Do your research by comparing the mobile user experience with other sites operating in the same space as yours, then apply the same principles to your own site.

Keep it simple

Don’t attempt to create a brand experience that gets in the way of finding products and purchasing. Many fashion businesses have animated homepages that invoke a brand experience but only serve to annoy customers who are there to buy. Don’t let your ‘brand experience’ become an unnecessary barrier to purchase.

Treat the website as a work-in-progress

A business website isn’t a ‘set and forget’ type of investment. Rather than being stagnant, the website should be an evolving feature of the business. Debbie Prince of Plants in a Box agrees.

“We see our website as being fluid," Debbie says. "There is a constant need to adapt to new technology, listen to feedback from customers and keep an eye on a constantly changing market place. We are already planning the next version as there is so much more we can do."

"The crew here at Plants in a Box are constantly looking to move in a direction that is both exciting for us and our customers. By far our best feedback is from our users. It’s about listening and adapting.”

Streamline the sales process

Buying plants online is still a novel concept, so the team from Plants in a Box had to plan their website carefully to ensure shoppers became paying customers. Questions around quality control and delivery methods are common for the business, so several key factors help customers have confidence in their product and delivery methods. Transparency and accountability are important to small businesses, that’s why a good website includes:

  • An easily visible contact number so customers can talk to a living, breathing person 
  • Real comments and feedback from customers 
  • Explanations about the company’s special packaging designed to ensure goods arrive in good condition
  • A notice that if customers are not happy with their goods they will be replaced, even if it is due to circumstances outside the company’s control 
  • Free, tracked shipping with Australia Post so customers can checkout easily and not pay fees they weren’t expecting.

While planning and building a new online store is a major endeavour for small business owners, investing the time, energy and finances into creating a comprehensive site with superior functionality will pay dividends well into the future!

Get business stories, ideas and offers in your inbox each month.