SA e-business is on the up and up. MasterCard’s recent survey of online shopping habits shows that 51% of connected South Africans shop online – 75% of them in the last three months.
With these encouraging findings in mind, businesses know they have to start carving out an e-commerce strategy.
Unfortunately, there is no magic e-commerce formula that will guarantee success. However, the following rules of thumb give a good indication of the choices open to you if you’re looking to make the leap into online sales.
Some industries are quicker than others at adopting e-commerce. Books and music are good examples, while disciplines like engineering have been slower off the mark.
Is it about product? Not necessarily. As with CDs, one retailer’s goods are no different from another’s, and yet users of these products have not embraced the Web because of the buyer profile in that market.
In industries that have been slow to adopt e-commerce, an online catalogue backed by a real-world store will suffice for the time being. But given time, as all markets invariably flock to the cost-efficiencies, immediacy and convenience of the Web, online payment will be a necessity.
In some instances, however, offering type is decisive.
- Commodities – DVDs are commodity products, while custom-made items and luxury goods (such as jewellery) do not fare well as online merchandise, given the intensely personal bond buyers form with such items.
- Look and feel – With some products, the buying decision is inspired by a tactile experience. Clothing is one example.
In the above examples; DVDs, CDs, movie tickets, books, airtime, software, and even electronics and computers are commonly sold online, because one product instance is not significantly different from another. In such cases, full e-commerce comes into play, and not just catalogues.
Clothing websites, on the other hand, do not usually offer the option to buy. Instead, buyers are referred to high-street stores. Likewise with luxury items such as cars – browsers are normally referred to a dealer to conclude a sale.
Some now, more later
In other cases, the market is mixed.
Travel is one example. A travel package is a prime candidate for e-commerce. It may not be a commodity in the strict sense of the word, but backed by a good catalogue, favourable user reviews and high ratings, travel and accommodation can be a very predictable product.
Despite negative experiences further north on the continent, South African travel establishments and operators have taken off on the Internet. Increasing numbers of visitors pay for their accommodation, airfare and vehicle hires online.
However, a significant number of transactions still take place via EFT or cash transactions – or a combination of both – to accommodate visitors who do not have credit cards or smaller establishments that cannot afford e-commerce platforms.
Increasingly however, e-commerce providers are rising to the challenge with easy-to-use, affordable e-commerce packages, as are low-cost, secure payment services like PayPal and Virtual Card Services, a fact that will contribute to growth in this market.
Designs on share of wallet
So assuming your industry and market is not averse to e-commerce, your product lends itself to online sales, and you’ve found an e-commerce package and payment mechanism that suits you, what else remains?
Let’s face it – simply displaying your product catalogue online and offering payment is not going to do it.
As a business owner braving the Web, you’d do well to consider a few user experience design tips that will increase the likelihood of a buying decision. Whole sub-disciplines have evolved around the issues of conversion paths and usability, to bolster the business case for investing in an online commerce solution.
- Conversion paths – There is no cure-all way of converting customers, but experience delivers some useful insights. For one thing it’s important to know if one end-to-end conversion process will suit all site visitors, or whether different audiences want different products or outcomes (e.g. buying a product, signing up for channel accreditation or booking a course). In any event, simple processes are preferable over complicated ones, and all queries should be resolved without uncertainty or unease during this delicate process.
- Usability – Usability is another hugely important design consideration. From the user interface design to the layout of the product cart and banners, the site must breed familiarity by being simple and predictable, so that visitors can easily find their way around and make payment. The look and feel of the e-commerce interface is by no means incidental to the nuts and bolts of payment processing, inventory integration or search engine optimisation.
There are many e-commerce considerations beyond design, industry and product, including search engine optimisation, strategy and creative. However, knowing your product and industry is vital in determining the e-commerce options open to you. Designing for maximum conversion and usability is moreover an excellent start to your e-commerce roadmap. As for the rest of your online project, undertake it with a good software and web development partner.