The growth of the internet has changed the way we shop, forever. E-commerce had a slow start, as consumers gradually became used to the idea and waited to be convinced about security issues that were quite valid at the time. Now, online retail is a huge growth area worldwide. According to data from Statista, global business-to-consumer e-commerce sales had a value of $994.5 billion in 2015. Sales are expected to break the trillion mark over the course of the next 12 months, rising to an estimated $1.155 trillion by the end of 2016 and a massive $1.506 trillion by 2018.
The huge markets in China and the US lead the way in terms of the sheer volume of e-commerce sales, but there are other important markets. The UK, for example, has the highest per capita online spend, with consumers spending an average of PS1,174. One of the beauties of e-commerce is that you are not restricted to your home market. As long as you offer an option to purchase, and shipping to overseas markets, customers can access your e-commerce website and buy your products from anywhere with an internet connection.
Target your markets
That's the theory anyway. In practice, there are always going to be barriers to reaching people in different areas. China has the Golden Shield Project (colloquially known as the Great Firewall of China), and linguistic differences can be a problem. English is the most commonly spoken language online, and to some extent it remains the online lingua franca. It still represents only around a quarter of total usage, and studies suggest that multilingual users - as you would expect - prefer to access e-commerce sites in their own native language. A Eurobarometer study of internet users in the European Union found that 55% occasionally used a language that was not their own (typically English) but only 18% said they would regularly make purchases from a website in another language.
To really target overseas markets you will generally have to localize your website, preferably with a local domain (such as .fr for France or .mx for Mexico) and use translated, adapted content. This can be time-consuming and expensive but can really pay dividends.
It can also help to concentrate on a niche or specialty in terms of the products you offer. No new business is going to be able to compete across the board with e-commerce giants such as Amazon, or with high street giants that also have an online option, such as Walmart.
As Seen On TV is a great example of a website filling a particular niche, and doing it well. Bridging the gap between e-commerce and advertorials, the site specializes in innovative products that have been - as the name suggests - seen on TV.
Consider your design
The design of your e-commerce website is very important. Customers will be visiting your website with specific tasks in mind. Usually this will be searching for items, researching products they are already aware of, or actually converting and making a purchase. This means that your website should be functional, with clear, easy navigation options and calls to action. This does not mean the site cannot be attractive as well. It should also reflect your brand image in terms of logo, visual themes and the tone of your content.
Make sure your products are easily searchable, and where appropriate, sorted into relevant categories. Your basket and checkout procedure should also be simple and secure. Most dedicated e-commerce sites use ready-made e-commerce platforms such as Magento, Shopify and WooCommerce. These can give you the skeleton of your website, with plenty of functions built in. They are also fully customizable however, in terms of both design and increased levels of functionality.
Optimize for mobile
Small screens increasingly mean big business. According to a UN report, 6 billion of the world's 7 billion people now have access to a cellphone and, with the incidence of smartphones and tablets on the rise, the way we are accessing the internet is changing. Data provided by IBM from Black Friday showed that smartphones accounted for more than a fifth (20.6%) of the $2.74 billion spent online in the US, on what has now become a peak period for e-commerce as well as bricks and mortar sales. A further 15.5% of sales were made via tablet, meaning a third of all sales were made over mobile devices. Interestingly, way more than half (57%) of commercial traffic on Black Friday was on mobile, suggesting that many consumers may have been conducting research on products and suppliers via their smartphones and tablets, before making the actual purchase over desktop or in store.
With so many shoppers now using their mobile devices, it's essential to make sure your e-commerce site displays and functions correctly, as mobile users are getting more sophisticated and demanding. Data from Kissmetrics showed that nearly half (47%) of consumers expect a mobile web page to load in 2 seconds or less, while 40% were likely to abandon a site that took more than 3 seconds to load and nearly four-fifths (79%) of shoppers were unlikely to buy again from a site they were dissatisfied with.
Cutting down on unnecessary graphics and auto-play videos can help reduce loading times, but it's also important to make sure your site displays correctly. Until recently, the common solution was to make a separate site on its own subdomain and direct the visitor to the relevant site, depending on the type of device they were using to access it. These days, responsive design, which detects the device being used and automatically sizes and formats the display to suit, is becoming more popular.
There are many different elements involved in producing a successful e-commerce solution. Setting up and maintaining a successful commercial website can take a lot of time and effort. Changes such as the rise of mobile internet access keep the landscape changing, but with e-commerce sales only looking to grow over the next few years, the rewards for tapping into the online market can be great.