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How to start selling online during COVID-19

how-to-start-selling-online-during-covid-19

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With the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, reaching customers with online shopping options is more important than ever.

Under these conditions, you don’t want customers to lose the benefits they get from your products, and you also want try your best to sustain your business. 

If your store got most of its business from foot traffic and brick and mortar locations you need to get start selling online quickly to keep serving customers.

It might be intimidating if you don’t have much of an online presence, or if whatever site you have right now offers limited shopping abilities, but it’s easier than you think to start reaching your customers online — and even get a fully-functioning online store.

Here’s a guide to getting your online offering off the ground while still practicing social distancing and following other safety guidelines.

This what we’ll go over in this article:

And remember, even though times might be tough, these are all obstacles you can overcome. There are a lot of people who want to help.

  1. Organizations are offering free and low-cost resources to help small businesses keep going, from government grants to free and discounted services from ecommerce companies. It actually could be a good time to launch or enhance your online shopping experience.
  2. People are being vocal about supporting local businesses in the wake of COVID-19, so while you might not take in the same revenue you would under normal circumstances, there’s still an opportunity to make money. 

How to serve customers if you have little to no online presence.

So if you want to start selling right away, here are some strategies merchants are using that require little to no ecommerce experience or infrastructure.

While these methods allow you to start connecting with customers faster, we recommend you work on getting a sophisticated in ecommerce store online as well. It can save you time and money in the long run, and COVID-19 measures might extend for months to come.

So while you can get going with these tips, also follow the steps in the second section of this article to create or enhance your online store.

Decide what options you’re going to offer online

You have a few options here. Most of these you can get going right away with minimal ecommerce experience or presence while you build out a more advanced store.

Offer preorders

Try accepting preorders for pick up so you can still serve your local customers. You can easily fulfill these order with in-store or curbside pickup.

You can offer these through your online store, but if you’re not set up to take orders, don’t sweat it. It can be as simple as putting a menu on your website or social media page with your contact information and taking orders over the phone or by email.

Use etransfers or even let them come into your storefront to pay — just make sure you sanitize your POS station after every customer.

With the former two options, you can just leave their order at your door for pick up once their payment goes through. 

If you have an online store already on platforms like Shopify, you can use integrations such as Zapiet to offer customers pick up options that sync with your inventory.

Just make sure you’re clear about order deadlines and pick up times. Learn more about that in this section later on.

Black Market Provisions 

This independent grocer curates tasty ready-to-eat food. They collect orders online and leave them in front of their store for pick up.

They’ve done a great job of communicating that they’re still open for business on both their website and their social channels, letting their loyal customer base know they can still safely get their products.

Black Market Provisions (@blackmarketprovisions) • Instagram photos and videos 2020-04-06 13-51-49

They use a highlight on Instagram that provides customers all the information they need about how to shop with them under COVID-19 conditions, including what products are still available, and their curbside pickup option.

Stories • Instagram 2020-04-06 13-52-19

Stories • Instagram 2020-04-06 13-52-07

Offer delivery 

This can be as complex or simple as you want it to be.

You could deliver products yourself from orders you take over phone or by email, or you can sign up for a delivery service. This is a good idea for any store under these circumstances, but especially for any restaurants or stores selling groceries — from food to wellness products. If you’re legally allowed to stay open, you could try this. 

Put your menu online or sign up for popular delivery apps. You could even advertise on Facebook Marketplace. Some income is better than none!

This can be a quick solution for delivery. Learn how to get registered on some of those popular services below.

You can also opt to do deliveries yourself.

If you or one of your employees is doing the deliveries, start with a small radius. It’ll be a good way to figure out what the variables are before you expand.

Keep it simple, because things can get complicated quickly. A possible upside to this situation for merchants like you is that a lot of people are staying home, giving you a pretty wide open schedule for delivery. Some business are just offering delivery by EOD on the order date.

Either way, here are some things you should consider:

  • Last time to place order for same day and next day delivery
  • Cancellation policy: will you have a cut off time? 
  • Will you charge a delivery fee (from what we’ve seen $5 is about the norm).
  • Consider getting pre-paid for orders so there’s no contact on delivery.

Jenna Rae Cakes

This artisanal bake shop is still serving their customers with SkipTheDishes, a food courier service popular in their city. They answer customers’ questions about delivery in a highlight on their Instagram story, which is one of their main marketing channels anyway. 



In that highlight they answer questions they predicted their customers would ask. 

Try subscriptions

Subscriptions can work for both products and services. If you have a product that people need delivered regularly, people might be more inclined to sign up. They know there’s restriction on how often they leave home for the next few months.

So this could actually be a great way to provide a valuable service for people in isolation and also make recurring revenue during when business might be light. 

peach-goods-toilet-paper-subscription-cratejoyStores like Peach Goods offers a subscription on Cratejoy.

You can offer subscriptions with platforms like Cratejoy, but if you already have a store with Shopify or BigCommerce, Bold Subscriptions will give you more control over how you offer your products.

It’s also a great opportunity for any business offering services, like fitness centers or counsellors who want to do remote work outs or sessions. While it might not compare to IRL sessions, they’re better than nothing, and a lot of people are probably dying to get back into their original routine.

Fitness businesses like Buti offer subscriptions that give members access to a private social community, weekly workout schedules, meal prep templates, online coaching.

buti-how-to-start-selling-online

Create a sophisticated ecommerce store

So now that you have a minimal set up in place to keep serving your customers under social distancing, it’s time to build an online store, or optimize what you have for conditions brought by COVID-19.

Get on an ecommerce platform

If you want to get online with a fully-functional ecommerce store, or you need to have more than simple delivery and pick up options through email and phone for local customers, there are some ecommerce platforms that can get you online and serving your customers quickly.

Shopify 

Shopify is known for helping small businesses get started with online stores. While there’s no free plan available, it does come with a 14-day trial. Shopify hosts everything for you, meaning you don’t have set up and pay for servers. All you have to do is set up your store from one of their templates, making it ideal for ecommerce beginners. That being said, it can still scale when needed.

While the templates themselves might have limited functionality, you can download software from the Shopify app store enhance its abilities. But many of these apps will take a little bit of time to configure and might charge you additional fees.

It also supports multi-channel retailing, so you can sync up your store with Amazon, social media channels, and even POS.  

WooCommerce

This platform is ideal if you already use WordPress. It’s free to plug into your WordPress site and since it’s open-source it’s highly customizable with lots of integrations. There’s also a community of developers and experts, so it might be easier to find dev help or DIY it by using help forums and Google. While it’s free, you still have to pay for a domain name and hosting, which might be complicated to do on your own if you’re new to ecommerce.

You can also access a vast array of extensions, integrations, and themes to enhance and customize your store’s functionality, but to get the experience you want, you’ll probably need help from somebody who’s proficient in WordPress.

BigCommerce

This platform allows you to get online quickly and give you advanced product settings right out of the box. Like Shopify, it has an app store that gives you access to other company’s integrations so you can better tailor your store to your business’s needs. 

They host your site for you, so all you  have to worry about is setting up your store. It will scale when you need it to and they brag 99.99% uptime. 

Weebly

Weebly might be a good option if you already use Square, since they’re owned by the payment collection company. It’s similar to Shopify and BigCommerce in that you don’t need any coding experience to get started. It’s one of the more affordable options, and in the wake of COVID-19 they’re offering free buy online pick up in store functionality. So if you want to get up and running for your local customers right away, this could be a good option. 

Product photography

Making your products look good is important.

For product photography, you might be hard pressed to find a photographer now (even though you probably should because photography is harder than it looks!), so you can try it yourself with these tips:

  • Photographs don’t have to be fancy, try to aim for consistency (i.e. set up a photo area in your shop with consistent lighting.)
  • You can even use your phone and free appslike Snapseed or Afterlight to edit the images.
  • If it’s difficult to style your products or get photos, consider graphics like restaurant Pine Ridge Hollow did here.

You want to get online quickly, so remember finished is better than perfect. If you have a lot of products, don’t worry about getting all of them online on the first day. Put your most popular ones up, then add the others gradually. 

Same with product descriptions, in an ideal-world they’ll be on-brand and beautifully written with SEO in mind, but that can come later. Write up a quick description and iterate on it when you have time.

Fulfillment

Once you have products listed on your store, you can automate some aspects of the fulfillment process, like syncing inventory with orders, collecting payments, and so on. Here are some options and considerations to keep in mind. 

Pickup

If you followed the instructions in the first part of this article, you probably already have a low-tech way of doing this — you just have to hook it up with your ecommerce store so they can shop and pay online.

This is the option that a lot of people might be looking for under COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.

As we already discussed, people are looking to support local businesses (both loyal customers and new customers) might be happy to leave the house and pick up their order from your store. A lot of stores are even offering curbside pick up to minimize the risk of social contact.

To give your customers the option to buy online and pick up in store, you can integrate your online store

Do it with apps like these:

When you do this, there are few guidelines you should set to ensure you can give your customers a good experience and give yourself a routine so you can efficiently fulfill your orders.

Order deadlines: Set a deadline of when people can place orders for delivery on that day or the next. That way they have clear expectations about when their products are avaialble for pick up, saving them time and saving you any customer service headaches.

Make set pick up times: If you’re exclusively doing pick up, you might want to create a pick up window. This could be more important if you have a small team and you don’t want to get distracted by constantly going to the door to give customers their orders. If you set a window of a few hours for people to get their packages, it’ll save you time communicating individually with every customer about when their order will be ready. 

Shipping

If you’re going to be shipping products you’ll have to decide if you want to offer international, domestic, local, or all of the above. If you’re just getting started you should focus on local first and then expand from there. There are a lot of different considerations you’ll have to make if you want to ship internationally.

Regardless of if you’re going cross-border or just sticking to your own city, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Shipping material: ideally you want your unboxing experience to be memorable. That mean nice packaging that matches your brand and an aesthetically pleasing presentation
  • Timeline: Give customers clear idea of when they can expect to receive your products.
  • Shipping rates: For most platforms, there are apps and integrations that help you automate this, but if you’re new to shipping it can still be a bit overwhelming. Try getting a quote for packaging and using that as an estimate for a free shipping threshold or flat rate shipping cost. That way you give customers the perception that they’re getting free shipping but that minimum order amount is actually helping you subsidize shipping costs. Customers generally don’t like being charged for delivery, or having variable shipping costs.
  • Consider COVID-19: Make sure you take into account any affects COVID-19 will have on you shipping process, from delayed time to obstacles to picking.

Payment considerations

Making it easy for customers to prepay, especially for pick up and delivery, will help streamline your process. 

Most platforms give you the option to link your store with your business bank account. Once this is done, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Offering additional payment streams that might not be available in store (ex: PayPal, Amazon Pay, Apple Pay) to remove friction for your customers
  • Remember to charge for taxes. Some apps and integrations can help you here too, check out the listings for whatever platform you’re on.
  • Accounting (possibly speak to our Quickbooks / Xero integrations – I used to use Wave)

Notifying customers

Let all your customers know you’re still ready to serve them. A lot of people still want to support their local businesses, and they might even be happy to know they can still get a sense of normalcy by getting the products they like.

  • Send out an email to your list letting them know you’re still open for business. Be sure to include any information on new hours, ordering methods, and how to actually get their hands on your product (delivery, pick up, etc.)
  • Post on social media, Tweet about it, adjust your Facebook bio and hours, make an Instagram post and highlight, and so on.
  • Use the signage on your store (including the windows – most people might not be coming in)
  • Register on services like buylocal.ly where people are searching for local businesses to support and buy from.

Admin details

There are few other administration details you’ll want to take into consideration. Make sure you’ve adjusted these details so information accurate and up to date. 

  • List the hours that customer support will be available.
  • Update parts of your terms and conditions so they align with and cover any changes you had to implement.
  • Add a step of automation with confirmation emails that go out after an order has been been placed. Klayvio offers a free plan.
  • Update your Google listing: a lot of people are probably Googling you and using the info there for your business hours and more. Make sure those reflect any changes cause my COVID-19 conditions.

We hope this will help you do business better under COVID-19. Remember to register with Buy Locally and check out other resources ecommerce players are offering here. Best of luck, and if you need any help, our Merchant Success team can support you.

This article originally appeared in the Bold Commerce blog and has been published here with permission.

About the author

Steve Hutt

Steve has entrepreneurship in his DNA. In the early days of online commerce, he achieved Power Seller status at eBay, which then propelled him to become a founding partner of VisionPros.com, a contact lens, and eyewear retailer. After a successful exit from his startup, he embarked on his next journey into agency work in e-commerce and digital strategy.

Currently, Steve is part of the Merchant Success Team at Shopify Plus, where he is a Strategic Advisor helping brands continue to grow and scale with the Shopify Commerce Platform.

To maintain his competitive edge and life of learning mantra, Steve also hosts and produces a top-rated weekly podcast show, eCommerce Fastlane, where he interviews Shopify partners and subject matter experts who share the latest marketing strategy, platforms, and must-have apps, to help Shopify brands build and scale lifetime customer loyalty.