Hackernoon logoIs it Time for Small Businesses to Go Online or is it Too Late? by@MySmallStore

Is it Time for Small Businesses to Go Online or is it Too Late?

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I am a business owner, born and raised in Europe, lived in Africa and the Middle East for 15 years.

With our store in that cool neighborhood strip-mall, no local competition, and lots of foot traffic, life was good, and many couldn’t see the need for a fully implemented online commerce.

At My Small Store, we went online back in 2017, mostly because of the competition of marketplaces (Amazon, eBay). It wasn’t an easy, smooth process. There were many mistakes, many hesitations, and many headaches, but we went there.

When the virus came, we shut down for two weeks thinking it will give us time to reorganize the store. Then, we waited two more weeks, and we got ready for at least four more. We were prepared, and e-commerce became our main source of income.

Many stores tried and still try to go the online route to complement their curbside delivery. Nowadays, it's easy to do even with limited technology skills. So easy, anyone can do it.

Quick setup, upload inventory, fulfill orders, and ship! Or, that's what they say, at least.

When we started, we tried and tried, but received no orders. This resulted in hard-earned cash thrown through the wide-open window. We almost gave up many times.

Using Google, it’s simple to find the perfect e-commerce platform. At first, we picked BigCommerce based on the terrific reviews, lots of features, three months free then $30 a month to start with – perfect!

A few weeks later, we realized that we would need “modules” to synchronize stock levels, manage backups, manage shipping, communicate with customers, manage advertisement and sales channels, and something we didn’t know about: SEO or Search Engine Optimization.

SEO is one of the essential features many ignore - that’s what brings or should bring buying visitors.

Adding all these modules together, it added up to $500 a month. Like many other physical store owners, we looked somewhere else. We picked Shopify – the most extensive, according to many, the best e-commerce platform that even allows us to manage our store POS. All this for $29 a month, isn't that fantastic?

It is until we realized that like for BigCommerce, you need modules to perform automation, customer, and stock management. The number of employees is limited to two, and we have six. We were looking at upgrading to the next level at $79 a month. Modules, plus the base subscription brought the monthly total to almost $750.

The SEO part is still not part of the core of the Shopify system, requiring the business to hire an online marketing specialist or an SEO agency. We know that no or inadequate SEO equals no online customers. The quotes we receive for our “specialized” Shopify SEO gave me headaches – I wasn’t ready to spend a monthly minimum of $2,500 plus all advertisement expenses with NO guarantee!

We decided to do our own SEO. Many classes, many books, articles, and tools available. Let’s do it.

We quickly realized that Shopify wasn’t the best tool for what we needed. We didn’t need a POS, we had one, we didn’t need a special pricing on shipping, we had one, but we needed a great SEO.

We understood that e-commerce stores are challenging to make Google-friendly, and to rank on page one is very difficult and doesn’t happen overnight.

It takes a lot of work and a long time, a very long time or a lot of money – according to Wordstream, “the average small business using Google Ads spends between $9,000 and $10,000 per month on their Google paid search campaigns.”

To sell our products, instead of trying to compete with the world, we followed others’ examples and started with what they call “validation” by blogging about our products.

We moved to a WordPress platform, which is perfect for blogging compared to e-commerce platforms. We talked about what we know best: our products, how to use them, care for them, and we provide useful recommendations.

We manually created backlinks, social media accounts, and months later, we saw several of our keywords SERP (Search Engine Results Pages) rank higher, going from 100+ to the first page on Google. A few were ever number 1, generating a good 100-200 visitors a day who devour our blog posts.

You are probably saying a blog is not e-commerce! No, but it can quickly become an ecommerce store by adding the free WooCommerce module. It has all the features of the big platforms, even a POS interface for a fixed yearly price under $200.

The beauty is that we started by validating our niche without spending some $400-$500 a month, as most common WordPress modules are cheaper and a yearly commitment. In the first year, we spend a total of $500 or less than $42 a month, including website hosting.

When we added WooCommerce, we “only” had to show off products in our pages and posts, which was done in a few weeks.

Today, our website generates about twenty to forty sales a day without spending a penny in advertisement, compensating for the lack of in-store sales.

I see some rolling their eyes, 40 sales for 200 visitors. No way, that’s a 20% conversion rate when the Google Adwords average is at 3.5%. True but the concept is totally different.

When we search “how to clean blue widgets,” Google shows us advertisements to buy blue, yellow, green widgets, and we click to check it out, but is that our intent? No, we are looking at cleaning the one we have.

Now, if I have a post that discusses how to clean widgets and recommends cleaning products, new widgets, etc. Not only does it show we are an authority in widgets but also encourages buying. With the correct CTA (call to action) visitors do buy.

We have several products that get a 100% conversion rate! Not bad for a brick and mortar store 😊 .

Getting back to my original question, "Is it time to go online, or is it too late?" To compensate for the pandemic effect, it’s too late. However, in general, all brick and mortar should have a selling website.


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