How Small, Local Businesses Can Expand Online

If you run a small, local business, chances are you’ve got some sort of a website. You may even be set up to sell a few products online, here and there. But you may not have tapped the massive potential of building out a real e-commerce arm for your business. And you might not realize just how easy — or how lucrative — it’s become for small, local businesses to move online.

If you’re still mostly bound to brick-and-mortar, it’s time to consider a change. Here are some low-risk, high-reward ways to successfully scale into the digital world.

1. Do a Digital Reboot

As noted, you may already have a great website or even a decent online store. But it’s likely you could be doing much more to make it competitive with other e-commerce sites in your niche.

If it isn’t already, your site should be hosted on—or at least integrated with—a platform that’s designed for e-commerce, like Shopify, Squarespace or BigCommerce. Make sure it’s easy to use, intuitive to navigate and has a clean, simple design. It might be worth having a specialist conduct a user experience audit.

Perhaps most importantly, ensure your site is optimized for mobile users. Remember that 91% of Americans ages 18 to 49—likely the bulk of your target customers—shop on their smartphones. Most web design platforms let you convert your desktop designs to mobile layouts almost automatically. But you still need to make sure the mobile version is attractive and usable.

2. Leverage the Power of Online Testimonials

Getting good product reviews on your site and on other platforms can do wonders for your business. Consumers don’t trust brands, but they trust other people’s experience of a brand or product. Positive reviews can be just as effective as hearing directly from people they know in real life.

Smallbiz Technology recommends that businesses feature reviews and testimonials directly on their website and social media channels, natch. But they also note that positive reviews on third-party sites like Google, Yelp, and Trustpilot can generate tons of traffic.

To encourage customers to write reviews, they suggest offering customers free products or discounts as incentives. But note that if you sell products through a marketplace like Amazon, exchanging gifts for reviews could violate their policies. Alternatively, you can reach out and simply ask customers who like your product to take a moment to do a short write-up.

3. Offer Convenient Payment and Shipping Options

Your customer won’t buy from you online if you don’t make it as easy for them as shopping on Amazon. It’s imperative to offer fast, free or cheap shipping and eliminate any trace of friction from the shopping experience. The smallest details can send a customer packing even when they were already pretty serious about making a purchase.

Whatever you do, don’t force your customers to create an account before checkout. That’s one of the fastest ways to turn a ready-to-buy customer into one who’s just closed your site’s browser tab. It’s also vital to offer a number of convenient payment options, including PayPal, Apple Pay and Google Pay in addition to the standard credit cards.

Packing and shipping your own orders in-house may save you money when you’re just starting out. But as a small business, you don’t have the infrastructure to keep doing that at scale. Eventually, you’ll need to contract with a third-party fulfillment service. Shopify offers its own in-house option and maintains a list of other recommended fulfillment services you can try.

4. Be Smart About Email Marketing and Social Media

One advantage you have as a small local business owner is that you already have a devoted following. You’ve got people in your corner who support your business and want to see it flourish. If you create content that speaks to your biggest champions, they’ll be excited to share it with others.

Email marketing remains one of the best ways to drive engagement and sales for your brand. After all, it’s one of the few forms of brand communication that customers actually enjoy receiving. Still, carefully consider your content—you don’t want to irritate your loyal fans with ads for the same old products. Use email to make announcements, share informative blog posts or offer valuable discounts. That’s the kind of content your devotees will be happy to pass along to their friends.

Social media is likewise a powerful tool for bonding with current customers and reaching new ones. This is especially true if you actively engage with users, such as responding to Instagram comments or stitching videos on TikTok. Partnering with influencers through a platform like Grin or Afluencer could also help drive engagement.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

As recently as five or 10 years ago, small businesses had to transition to e-commerce on their own. They needed their own systems for everything from packing and shipping to handling customer service to accepting credit card payments.

All that has changed. Now, there’s an easy, affordable third-party solution for just about any e-commerce problem you can think of. You’ve already got a small, likely overworked staff. Don’t make them—or yourself—create systems from scratch when there’s probably a ready-made solution a short Google search away.

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