Is online retail right for you?

While I have been writing a column for LBM Journal on decking for the past several years, this month’s column begins a new focus. As many of you may already know, I run a single-location lumberyard in Apple Valley, Minnesota where I focus on decking products. Though deck-building is what brought me into the LBM retail business, I’ve also built a strong online retail presence at thedeckstore.com. In fact, in recent years, my online sales have outpaced those at my retail store.

So, this month begins a new focus and a new title for my column. It’s now called “E-Commerce 101” and each month will focus on topics which I hope will help LBM Journal readers learn more about what it takes to run an e-commerce business. Now, let’s get started.

The first thing anyone who is considering getting into e-commerce should ask themselves is if it’s the right move for their business. If you’re challenged setting up an email account or doing online shopping yourself, then maybe you’re better off finding someone to help you with an online operation. No one person can do it all by themselves, but the stronger you are with online interactions already, the better it will be for you. Keep in mind that any help that you bring on should be complementary to your own skills. It’s important that every brick and mortar retailer have an online presence. Whether or not you sell online, it helps bring customers to your store.

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Today’s consumers go online for everything. I’m sure that you’ve already experienced situations in which a shopper has “show roomed” your store and learned what they could about a product, then went and bought it for less online. Let’s face it, that’s the way of the world these days and there’s no reason why you can’t also be one of those online retailers that takes advantage of customers searching the internet. The number one thing you need to do when you start selling online is to establish a plan. Just like you have a plan for running your lumberyard, you’ll need a plan for your online operations. What will you sell, who will you sell to, who is going to do what around the office, etc. A plan will help acquire customers, manage online traffic, control inventory, and ship product.

There are many services out there that will tell you that it is free to start an online store. While there may be some free software available to help you, there is no such thing as a free start up. Anyone starting now will want to make sure they have $5,000 to $20,000 set aside to launch their online operations.

You’ll need to find a host, a website management system, personnel, etc. In later columns, we’ll get into more detail as to whether you should use a hosted service or an open source software for your online store, and other details needed to properly set up an online store.

Be prepared to learn a lot of new terminology, as you learn about SERP (search engine results page), SEO (search engine optimization), paid versus organic ranking, content marketing, and so on. A lot of these terms are relatable to brick and mortar retail, but when you’re just starting out selling online, it might feel like you’re trying to learn a new language.

If you’re not familiar with the terms, find someone at your company, or hire someone from outside, who understands them. Beware of online offers that claim to get you page one on Google results. You’ll want to hire someone to help you and teach you about organic ranking.

I suggest you start small with online retail; sell a few smaller products with good margins, (hardware items, post caps, lock sets, lighting, etc.). Use those items to learn how to upload assets such as images and product descriptions to your website. Once you have that figured out, add more items each day.

Is it right for you to start selling online? Only you can determine that, but it can be a good way to capture more business. Think about it like this: There’s probably a product line that you didn’t think would sell in your market, and when you took a chance on it, you were pleasantly surprised.

Bob Heidenreich, owner of The Deck Store and thedeckstoreonline.com in Apple Valley, Minn., has been selling decking and home improvement projects for nearly 40 years. Follow Bob on Twitter: @TheDeckStore.

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