7 steps to getting started in ecommerce

While ecommerce has been a growing industry since Buy Now buttons were first coded, there’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of growth. But online sales aren’t expected to ebb with containment of the pandemic. According to Statista, global ecommerce is projected to grow from $4.9 trillion in 2021 to nearly $7.4 trillion by 2025.

Many brick-and-mortar small businesses have determined the only way to remain competitive is to operate in the ecommerce market, which is something several businesses are doing for the first time. (On the other hand, there are also many retail businesses that start in the online space and only open storefronts if and when it makes sense for their customer base.)

Here are seven steps to quickly establish an ecommerce presence and continue reaching customers:

  1. Set up an online platform
  2. Determine which products you’ll sell online
  3. Diversify your payment methods
  4. Set up your shipping and returns functions
  5. Consider how you’ll manage sales tax compliance
  6. Plan your online marketing strategy with social media
  7. Preview, test, and publish your store

1. Set up an online platform

The first step for any business owner considering ecommerce is to research the platforms available to determine which best fits the needs of your business and your budget. There are a number of cost-efficient ecommerce providers that allow small businesses to get up and running in a matter of minutes. You can search for the ecommerce providers Avalara works with here.

There are several factors to consider when evaluating an ecommerce platform, including:

  • Multiplatform operations
  • Shipping and fulfillment features
  • Security measures
  • Compliance capabilities
  • Setup and maintenance costs

If your business is transitioning to online selling for the first time, simplicity in functionality both on the back end and in customer-facing features may also be a consideration. Most ecommerce platform providers have several different plans designed to best fit your business.

When deciding which plan is best for you, keep the following in mind:

  • How many products do you plan on selling? If you’re not planning to sell a lot of products, a simpler plan with lower rates might work. Most providers don’t put a product limit on their primary plans.
  • What features do you need? If you want a site that enables customers to simply view your products and make purchases, a simpler plan is likely the best fit. However, many businesses opt for additional features that contribute to a positive customer experience, like customer loyalty plans, abandoned cart recovery, and more.

If you’re in a hurry to get your ecommerce business going, you may not have the luxury of conducting extensive research on multiple platforms. Fortunately, there are providers that offer out-of-the-box functionality that will enable you to open a basic store pretty quickly.

"For business owners who have invested their energy into building lasting physical storefronts, the process of moving online doesn’t have to be intimidating, even when the future of your brand relies on your ability to launch and drive online sales. Ecommerce platforms, like BigCommerce, are designed with out-of-the-box functionality and application integrations to ensure that even the most novice sellers can get their stores online quickly, and offer the tools to help their business grow now and for years to come."
—Meghan Stabler, VP of Product Marketing and Communications, BigCommerce

Once you’ve identified a platform that works best for you, you’ll need to register your domain name and get your account set up — all of which can be done from any connected device. Once you’re in, it’s time to start customizing the features of your website.

2. Determine which products you’ll sell online

To maximize your efforts as you transition to ecommerce, it’s important to prioritize which products you’ll sell online, so your most profitable and in-demand products are available when you launch your website.

It can feel like you need to have every product in your store available immediately, but by prioritizing the most popular products, you can get your online operations up and running then begin fulfilling orders while adding additional inventory.

3. Diversify your payment methods

Setting up your accepted payment methods is a crucial part of converting browsers into buyers. Consider which payment methods are most commonly used and which accommodate the largest number of your target customers.

Fortunately, most ecommerce providers offer integrations with a broad range of payment methods like Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Apple Pay, and more. If you’re still unsure which payment methods to install, a good rule of thumb is to offer the same payment options you accept with your in-store point-of-sale (POS) system.

4. Set up your shipping and returns functions

Once you’ve outlined your products and set up payment methods, the next step is to ensure you can get products to customers. Shipping, fulfillment, and returns can be a major roadblock for many small businesses and should be a key consideration when comparing ecommerce platform capabilities. Options should account for drop shipping, printable shipping labels, and setting up shipping providers.

If you’re concerned about how to fulfill orders as your online business scales, consider using an outsourced provider, like ShipBob, which processes orders for thousands of ecommerce brands.

For some businesses, a storefront can also serve as a fulfillment center. It serves the dual benefit of getting products to customers quickly while ensuring in-store inventory doesn’t go to waste. If you’re fulfilling orders yourself, consider a shipping app like ShipStation, which helps automate shipping for merchants of all sizes and offers small businesses discounted shipping rates with USPS, UPS, and FedEx.

Regardless of your fulfillment method, be transparent about shipping costs throughout the shopping experience to avoid the risk of customers abandoning their cart if they’re surprised by shipping charges at checkout.

5. Consider how you’ll manage sales tax compliance

Most states have economic nexus laws in place, which means online sellers are required to register to collect and remit sales tax once their sales surpass a certain threshold (e.g., $100,000 in sales or 200 transactions in a given state annually). Therefore, online sellers need an ecommerce platform that applies the correct sales tax rate to every transaction and supports timely filing and remittance.

Many ecommerce platforms rely on tax rate tables. Yet rate tables often align rates to ZIP codes, and ZIP codes don’t map to sales tax jurisdictions. Furthermore, frequent changes to rates and product taxability rules can quickly render rate tables obsolete: In 2019 alone, there were more than 34,000 tax rate and taxability changes in the U.S., along with 115,000 sales tax holiday rule updates.

After calculating and collecting sales tax, online sellers need to file returns and remit payments on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis. Companies with sales tax obligations in multiple states typically have to manage multiple deadlines, multiple forms, and a host of filing rules and requirements.

It's possible to look up sales tax rates based on a street address, but when tackled manually, sales tax collection, filing, and remittance is both time consuming and error prone. Implementing a seamless solution that pulls transaction data from a POS or accounting system is more efficient and more accurate. And it’s more necessary now that 43 states and the District of Columbia enforce economic nexus.

Online sellers must monitor sales to all states with economic nexus laws to know how close they are to meeting the economic nexus threshold: Some states require remote sellers to register for a sales tax permit and start collecting sales tax as soon as the threshold is crossed (i.e., on the very next invoice).

To support tax compliance, choose an ecommerce platform that integrates with software to provide:

  • Real-time sales tax rate and product taxability updates
  • Seamless filing and remittance
  • Sales tracking to monitor economic nexus thresholds

6. Plan your online marketing strategy with social media

Perhaps one of the most important steps in this transition is communicating how your business will now be selling. Social media posts and advertising can inform customers about your new online availability. While most brick-and-mortar shops are already using social media to market to their customers, it’s critical that businesses over-communicate the change in operations to ensure regular customers are aware of the new selling channel, and to capitalize on the expanded customer audience.

Social media can be used to promote your new online presence and as a platform to advocate for the unique value-add and distinguishing factors of your business. Use this opportunity to tell your story and highlight the characteristics that make your small business stand out to consumers.

Another option is to go beyond your marketing efforts and consider using social selling platforms as a complement to your newly formed online store. In today’s social network-driven society, social media platforms are no longer just an avenue to increase brand awareness, but an opportunity to connect with customers and make sales in the social threads customers are already sifting through.

Comment selling platforms, like CommentSold, are blending content and commerce to convert social media comments into sales and automatically invoice shoppers from their social media timelines.

By separating the front end and back end of an ecommerce application, businesses can easily combine their social media marketing and online selling for limited friction in the browsing and shopping experience. Through social selling capabilities, businesses can save customers time they would otherwise have to spend sifting through websites to find the items that best fit their wants and needs.

“Social selling platforms allow retailers to connect directly with customers via live video and product content on Facebook and Instagram. Creative tools, like instant comment purchasing and real-time live sales events, can help retailers grab and keep their online customers’ attention.”
—Andy Smith, COO, CommentSold

7. Preview, test, and publish your store

The final step to bringing your store online is to ensure every function of your site is operational. Double-check each function by confirming the following:

Does my checkout work?

  • Orders work across all payment methods
  • Shipping options and charges are correct and visible
  • Items and prices in your cart are correct
  • Discounts and promotions apply correctly
  • Tax is calculated correctly after shoppers enter their location

Is content presented in a professional manner?

  • Copy is proofread across the website
  • Images, videos, and other forms of multimedia are appearing correctly
  • The user experience is smooth and predictable

Does my store work on various channels and internet browsers?

  • Products are accessible from multiple device types
  • Your site functions across different internet browsers

If done right, ecommerce allows retailers to diversify their business, explore new selling opportunities, and find ways to further serve their customers. Fortunately, technology that exists today allows even the smallest of businesses to quickly ramp up online operations, reaching a broader audience, and incorporating all the necessary functions needed to provide a comprehensive, frictionless online shopping experience.

Get the free guide for more details: How to get started in ecommerce.

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