Researchers estimate that more than 100,000 U.S. small businesses have permanently closed because of COVID-19. Hoping to avoid that fate, many are adding an e-commerce component to their brick-and-mortar business or making their temporary "online-only" status permanent.
Brick-and-mortar businesses that were already selling online before the coronavirus pandemic hit had a leg up on their in-person-only neighbors when all of them shuttered their storefronts. It's not too late for others to catch up, though.
Here's how to transition from a brick and mortar operation to an online business.
Start small when launching your site
Before investing in your own e-commerce site, get used to fulfilling and delivering orders by starting with Facebook Shops and Instagram Shopping.
When you're ready to expand your reach, explore existing retail marketplaces. Beyond Main offers retailers a "shop-local" online marketplace, Etsy provides an online home for merchandise ranging from jewelry to window treatments and shoes, and Mercato gives independent grocers a selling platform with local delivery.
"Using an existing platform means there is already traffic, infrastructure, and a quick way to get your products out there. While you are paying a fee for the sale on these sites, you are not paying for the advertising or the time you would have to wait in getting your own site going," says Sami Koudmani, Mercato's public relations manager.
Design your website specifically for e-commerce
If you've decided to sell from your own platform, don't be tempted to fit e-commerce into an existing website that isn't built for it. The user experience required for online shopping is different from that of an information-only site. "If your website design, speed, and content, just to name a few, are not top of the line, your customers begin to get a bad impression of your business," says Claudia Long, SEO specialist at marketing firm BlahBlah Media.
"Ensure the user interface is intuitive, clean, and easy to navigate. You must make a strong impression in three clicks," adds Kate Giovambattista, Beyond Main founder. Rather than trying to figure out how to do that yourself, hire a specialist.
"Make sure you find someone you trust to create your website and actually invest in it, because if you don't, you could end up paying out again after a few months," adds James Lewin, marketing director of Bring Me Drink, a brick and mortar shop that added an e-commerce component.
Drive traffic to your site
Spend time on keyword research as you begin site development. Use that to write product descriptions and other site content that will help shoppers find your business.
When your online store is ready to open its doors, avoid relying on Google or Yelp ads to bring traffic. Master email marketing, but also leverage your customers' favorite social networks to form relationships, build trust, share product information, and provide customer service.
Focus on content that adds value for your audience. "Local events or a piece of history are things your audience may appreciate outside of the usual sale or new product announcements that fill people's feeds so often," says Koudmani.
Don't worry about being crushed with orders as soon as you begin selling online. Generating traffic and awareness takes time—and you can take advantage of that time to improve new systems and processes.
"It usually takes about six months to start noticing ranking, six more months to get legitimate traffic that can convert, and then the next year to start scaling and capitalizing," says Koudmani.
If you start small and slowly, and especially if you maintain your physical store while building an online business, you'll be able to use that time to learn and grow.
"Taste before you swallow," advises digital marketer Adnan Javed, founder of Digital Echo. "One big benefit of transitioning online is you can decide to go as deep as you like or your customers are comfortable with."