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E-Commerce: 10 tips for growing your online sales

The formula for attracting traffic to your online store and persuading visitors to click through to your shopping cart comes down to simplicity; In other words, make it easy for your shoppers to do business with you.

There are dozens of convenient and affordable options to add pizzazz and personality to e-commerce ventures, from innovations in interactive marketing to distinctive product displays.

In the end, it’s a matter of deciding what is the right balance, and what trade-offs your site might experience in usability if you add in dramatic effects. Testing is essential to see what works and what doesn’t.

Remember to weigh all your choices against the time it takes pages to load, the perils of glitches or crashes, the complexity of searches or transactions and the risks of making customers impatient.

Generally speaking, simpler is smarter—and more profitable.

If you’re ready to launch an online shop or want to retool one that’s already up and running, here are 10 more tips that can help keep customers clicking.

1. Brand your online store. The first step, of course, is to choose your online brand—that is, the domain name of your store. You want a brand and URL that will immediately and accurately communicate your wares and image. Craft a name that signals the soul of your mission and products. Also, consider what will emotionally appeal to the customers you target. For help in registering your domain name, check out the Microsoft Office Live Small Business offerings, which include a free domain name for your business Web site.

2. Choose a quality e-commerce platform. It’s likely to be your fastest and most cost-effective option to purchase an e-commerce package of site-building templates and services. Spend time researching competitor sites to see what’s available. Compare how vendors handle information about returns, shipping, and privacy, and what specific services they offer. (Be sure to check out Store Manager, a feature of Office Live Small Business.)

3. Select payment options. You will need to set up merchant accounts and credit card processing systems for online transactions. At a minimum, you will want to offer a choice of at least three major credit card options, and perhaps a PayPal account.”Understand all of your online processing fees,” adds Henry Helgeson, chief executive officer of Merchant Warehouse, a Boston-based company that specializes in setting up merchant accounts. Those fees include “interchange fees,” or the amount charged by bankcard networks to use their debit or credit cards.

4. Strive for clarity in design and navigation. The more efficiently you can deliver what customers seek, the better off you (and they) will be. For instance, don’t force visitors to return to your home page as they move through your site

5. Collect visitor information, but do it carefully. “If you collect contact information and stay in touch, you’ll extract more value from your visitors than if you depend on the 1 percent to 2 percent who are ready to buy right now and ignore the rest,” says Howie Jacobson, author of “AdWords for Dummies.”However, if you force customers to register too much personal information before they check out, you’ll lose the sale—either because it takes too much time or because the customer is annoyed by your information demands.

First, state your privacy policy clearly on your site, including on the registration pages, so that customers understand that their information will be protected. Next, give customers an incentive to share information. For instance, offer a discount coupon or free shipping in exchange for registration.

6. Let your customer drive. Instead of creating rigid pathways, build in search functionality or a dynamic database that lets customers find what they want, when they want it. Similarly, make sure visitors can get quick answers to their questions. A March 2007 survey of nearly 3,000 online customers found that 44 percent abandoned a shopping cart because they couldn’t get the answer to a question, according to Harris Interactive. A prominent FAQ page or Live Chat function can respond to such queries.

7. Leverage the power of search engines. When visitors input the product you sell or your brand name on search engines, make sure the link connects to your landing or product page, not your company home page. This enables customers who don’t know your company or who forget its name to still find you.

8. Use a content management system. This will not only make it much easier to post crisp and clear product descriptions, but will also allow you to quickly update prices and product information. Such systems, which used to be costly and geared to large retailers, are now much more affordable for small businesses.

9. Don’t make your customers dig. If you have invested in marketing a sale, discount, special event or any other promotion, post that in a prominent place on your home page. It should be the first item visitors see, so you immediately reward prospects for responding to your messages.

10. Regularly track site results. Set up a system to capture traffic information, either in-house or by using fee-based products, such as ad Manager, a feature of Office Live Small Business. This will transform the site into a marketing analytics tool that can tell you, among other data points, the sites and search engines that refer your best customers as well as which pages draw the heaviest traffic. Such tools also enable you to identify return customers, new prospects, and understand how users typically navigate the site—where and what they clicked. Then you can adjust your design or products accordingly.

Today’s intuitive, automated tools work fast and efficiently, so you should be able to launch your online store quickly and painlessly.

35 Free High-Quality E-Commerce Templates [smashingmagazine.com]

The WordPress e-Commerce Plugin [http://www.instinct.co.nz/]

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