Why your small business should get into e-commerce

E-commerce is no longer just for flashy start-ups or big companies with even bigger budgets – it is also becoming a valuable channel to market for Small & Medium Businesses.

From plumbers to playschools and from artisan food stores to gardening services, all sorts of small businesses can benefit from allowing their customers to shop and pay online.

This can work especially well for seasonal promotions when many people will be looking for gift ideas online or might not have time to get to the shops.   

Here are a few reasons why e-commerce is a big opportunity for South African business builders of all sizes.

The demand is there and it is growing by the day

According to research from World Wide Worx, South Africans spend around R9 billion a year on online shopping. Sure, that’s just 1% of the total retail market, but the value of e-commerce is expanding by more than 20% a year. Investing in e-commerce now positions you take advantage of South Africans’ growing appetite for digital convenience.

It’s easier and more affordable than ever before

With the right solution, it is fast, affordable and simple to set up a slick, attractive and secure e-commerce website. The best solutions include features for search and social media marketing to help boost your web traffic, sales leads and store orders by targeting potential customers online.

They can also integrate with your accounting packaging, updating pricing, stock levels and product data in real time.

You can give customers different options to pay

Payments gateways accept a range of payment types through your online store, including VISA and Mastercard card payments, bank EFT, instant EFT, and mobile wallets like Masterpass. Even if you visit customers on-site to render a service or they come into your store, they can go online at their convenience to pay you with the method that suits them best.

You can reach new cities and even new countries with minimal investment

In the past, if you wanted to sell dresses from your Cape Town boutique in Johannesburg or San Francisco, you would need to incur costs such as rent, staffing and utilities. Now, you can sell to people from around the country and the world through a website.

Though South Africa’s logistics network has a way to go before it is as cheap and reliable as those in the US and Europe, there are many great courier companies who can help you ship packages across town or to the other side of the world at an affordable cost. Even in your own neighbourhood, people who shop online might represent a new market for you over the business you get from referrals or walk-ins.

Customers do their research online – use e-commerce to convert browsing to sales

A growing portion of customers do their research about pricing and options online before they buy – these days the Internet is the Yellow Pages for anyone who needs an electrician or a new bicycle.

For that reason, many small businesses already appreciate the importance of marketing themselves using Facebook pages and ads, listing themselves with online directories and maintaining a professional-looking website. If you haven’t, you should start with those basics before you go the e-commerce route.

Adding e-commerce to your existing online presence can help you capture more sales. For example, if a serious buyer is browsing through your online catalogue of televisions, making it easy for him or her to buy and pay might close the deal. Researchers say that it can take as little as 2.5 seconds for a consumer to make a purchasing decision – you don’t want to miss out on that window.

Quick tips for doing e-commerce the right way:

Be responsive – online shoppers are impatient and expect a quick answer to queries via email or social media.
• Make sure you partner with a good courier company – missed or late deliveries will hurt your reputation and profitability.
• Remember to make some effort in marketing your e-commerce site – that includes online marketing (SEO, social, Google ads) and offline marketing (ads in the local papers, on your business cards etc.)
• Use a reputable payments company - a robust gateway means peace of mind for your customers and for you as the merchant.
• Be ready to learn about new customer segments – international or online customers may have different expectations to your usual clientele.

Viresh Harduth is the Vice President: New Customer Acquisition (Start up and Small Business) at Sage Africa & Middle East.

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