5 Ways Small Businesses Are Using AI

With rapid advances in technology, we are edging closer to the time when Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be able to perform many tasks and even whole jobs currently done by human workers. Though the full realization of this transformation is still far off, the affects of AI are already been seen and felt today, allowing companies to perform more effectively and efficiently and to do so a fraction of the cost.

AI Isn’t Just for Big Corporations

Over the past few years, a lot of attention has been focused on the use of AI technology at big corporations, such as Amazon and Facebook. But many smaller businesses are reaping the benefits of AI, too. Nowadays, small businesses can plug an assortment of AI-ready tools into every part of their business operations. If a task involves data, then AI has their back.

The result is that small businesses are already using sophisticated AI to help their employees do their jobs better, improve the customer experience, and make operations more efficient. Plus, AI has meant great leaps and bounds in the area of data analysis, allowing small companies to instantly draw useful business insights and accurately predict customer behavior and fit.

In short, as competition heats up in countless markets and industries across the globe, AI is giving small businesses a much needed competitive advantage.

How AI is Being Used in Small Companies

Since smaller companies are often working with limited resources, one of the keys to successfully introducing and implementing an AI solution in a small business is to prioritize the areas that will offer the biggest ROI. Here are five such uses of AI among small companies:

1. Customer Service. Customer service has two aspects to it: one client-facing, the other back office. AI has been making a tremendous impact on both. In client-facing customer service, small businesses have been using automated chatbot systems on their websites to help scale and streamline their customer service experience. As natural language processing continues to advance, developers have made been leaps and bounds in the ability of a chatbot to answer more complex or detailed questions. Unanswered customer inquiries are then fowarded to the appropriate person or department

Chatbots not only provide businesses with an around the clock virtual customer service representative, they also allow the small companies that use them to gather important data from their customers. This data in turn helps the business to improve various phases of the sales and support process.

While some customers may object to non-human support, chatbots at the same time create a less confrontational way for them to air their grievances and offer vital feedback to the business about the product, service, or customer experience.

In the realm of customer service, there is also Customer Relationship Management (CRM). CRM systems gather information about consumers across email, phone conversations, social media, and other channels. They then both present and analyze that data in a way that helps customer service and sales department representatives to take the most effective and efficient marketing and lead generation activities.

2. Market Research. Even if a small business has narrowed in on their ideal customers, often the market that is being served is greater than those core clients. Knowing which consumers are buying their products or services as well as how they are feeling about their purchases, can help business owners craft more effective marketing and sales strategies. Product and/or service features can also be smartly added or tweaked based on consumer sentiments and attitudes.

Up until now, collecting feedback from customers required sifting through written, verbal, video or image-based data to determine where and if there are any patterns. These days, small businesses can give AI platforms raw customer data in various forms and get categorized customer sentiments in return.

3. Marketing. Most small businesses take a hit or miss approach to their marketing. They try a few different strategies to see what “sticks” and then just keep doing the same things as long as the sales conversions keep coming in. It often doesn’t matter how good the ROI on these methods really is. Small businesses often have limited time and tools to invest in the oversight.

With AI, much of the guess work is eliminated. Some AI platforms are starting to collect, analyze, and learn from an assortment of customer data, and then assist marketers and sales team members by making effective suggestions. Content creators also use these insights to craft content and advertisements that speak directly to their target audience.

Best of all, this complex analysis is not only pretty accurate, but it is conducted in a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing.

4. Competitive intelligence. Not only is a typical small business generating a tremendous amount of data, but so are their competitors. Thus, staying on top of the movements of any competing companies can be practically impossible. Luckily, there are many AI-powered competitive analysis tools on the market that are designed to track a company’s activities across multiple channels, such as social media, online media, and their company website.

This is a real goldmine for small businesses in particular, since these AI tools can not only recognize variables, such as price changes, PR activity, and online reputation, but they can make savvy suggestions, too. Some platforms can also reveal product gaps, competitor strengths and weaknesses and untapped market opportunities. This helps small companies quickly adjust their business strategy and marketing tactics.

5. Time Management. The final area where AI is having the biggest impact on small companies is time management. Thanks to the surge in personal assistant applications, such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, small business owners and their employees are better managing their schedules, accessing pertinent information on the fly, and having an easier time staying focused on the things that matter the most.

In short, when it comes to small companies and the integration of AI-enabled tools, the possibilities are practically limitless. AI is fast becoming a prevailing and necessary component of any business’ operations.

Is Brick and Mortar Retail Making a Rebound?

If you have been paying any attention to the headlines coming out of the retail industry over the last few months, you may think that off-line retail is going the way of the dinosaur. In the first half of 2016 alone, the industry has been flooded with unfavorable news, such as that poor sales are to blame for the closing of numerous Kmart, Macy’s, Target, Walmart and Sears stores throughout the country. Then there was Nordstrom’s embarrassing stock downgrade. Later, reports came out that Sports Authority and Aéropostale are filing for bankruptcy

Few would argue that the dismal performance of both big box and small, mom-and-pop retailers is not being affected by the growing prevalence and preference for ecommerce. Platforms such as Amazon, eBay, and Paypal, as well as the emergence of mobile technology has forever changed the way we make purchases. But that change need not be a death knell for brick and mortar retailers. In fact, over the past year or so, behind all the doom and gloom, the retail industry has actually been showing some signs of healthy growth and expansion.

According to Douglas Hope, of GlobalShop, in his session at the Microsoft Envision 2016 conference, some corners of the retail industry appear to be going strong. In 2015, retailers spent some $62 billion on in-store “shoppers’ experiences,” and it seems that at least some of this investment is making an impact. Even as several big box retailers began pairing down their operations, retail revenues hit $5 trillion last year- that represents a 72% increase in sales since the year 2000. Plus, there are currently 3.8 million storefronts in the U.S.- which represents an increase of 190,000 within two years. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener of all: about 90% of those storefronts are small, independent shops.

So, what could be driving this resurgence of off-line commerce? The retailers that are expanding in this age of digital commerce tend to have a couple of things in common:

1. They are very focused on providing a good customer experience. For example, consider the case of hunting and sporting goods chain Cabela’s. Stores feature in-door rock climbing, and an in-store cafe, animal and cave exhibits and a wide selection of products. The chain is now building two new 70,000-square-foot retail locations, one in Georgia and one in Missouri.

2. They don’t ignore their digital footprint. Successful retailers today work to seamlessly blend their online presence with their off-line one. In fact, many bring the two together. Some great examples of this in action include: Geo-Targeting and Proximity Marketing as well as in-store virtual dressing rooms.

While it may seem like the sky is falling when it comes to “real world” retail, the industry is going through an evolution and it is one that will likely include physical storefronts for a long time to come. Those who adapt now will be the ones in the best position to survive.

Small Businesses Only Somewhat Optimistic in 2016

Recent research indicates that the road ahead may still be a bit bumpy for America’s smallest businesses.

Most economic indicators suggest that the economy continues to slog on with a recovery that has been both slow and uneven. This comes at a time when the stock market has been under-performing, the presidential campaign has been both colorful and unpredictable, there is a new, imposing legal reality surrounding Obamacare, and we are facing a tight labor market in some vital sectors, as well as declining GDP and consumer confidence.

Not a pretty picture…

Caught in the middle are the nation’s small businesses- many of which have been struggling to stay afloat ever since the Recession hit seven years ago. According to the new State of Small Business Report by software solutions provider, Wasp Barcode, the top three challenges facing small businesses in 2016 are: hiring new employees (50%), increasing profit (45%), and providing health care to employees (43%). Small business sentiment is also down, according to the monthly NFIB Small Business Economic Trends report. The NFIB reports that expectations for future business conditions are low as are expected sales volumes. More business owners also responded that they are cutting average prices as opposed to raising them.

Not everything is doom and gloom, however. On the positive side, small businesses are looking forward to an increase in revenue in the coming months. According to the Wasp Barcode study, 71 percent of small businesses expect some increase in revenue this year. According to the NFIB study, for all the struggles, actual spending and hiring numbers have remained at average levels as compared to the previous years.

But, much also depends on the outcome of the Presidential election as well as the buoyancy of the global markets. While the year ahead may not be smooth sailing, there may at least be some pockets of light to look forward to.

What Do Small Business Owners Fear the Most?

Small Business Fears

Wondering what keeps small business owners up at night? Conventional wisdom aside, things like recent government legislation, time management, and Internet marketing are all important concerns, but they’re not giving the majority of small business owners the jitters. The following eight things are the real ghosts and goblins of running a small business. How many can you identify with?

Getting and keeping customers

If few people or businesses come to buy your products or services, you won’t be in business very long. On the other hand, if you are constantly bending over backwards to please the customers you already have in the fear that they’ll defect to another company, you can easily exhaust vital energy and resources, hinder growth, and have little to show for it. Instead, focus on targeting your ideal, best paying customers and on building your brand with quality products and services.

Weak sales

Following on the heels of the point above, a sales slowdown can bring a good business to a screeching halt. Part of what makes poor sales so scary is that it can come from a number of unexpected occurrences, such as an economic downturn, bad weather, a natural disaster, or a sudden shift in consumer trends. The best way to cope with this fear is to have an “emergency” plan in place for dealing for the most likely scenarios. Depending on your business, this could include setting up an emergency fund and having multiple sources of income.

Not having access to credit or capital

Even if you belong to the bootstrapping camp, to sustain healthy business operations and growth, you will likely need access to some kind of outside credit or capital along the way. You don’t want to pass up on an opportunity to buy inventory in bulk at a great discount, or be unable to cover a sudden cash short fall, or put off buying the equipment, hiring the workers, or making the renovations that will increase your sales. While getting access to financing through traditional means, such as via your local bank, is extremely hard for small business owners these days, there are other alternative financing options out there, such as business cash advances, invoice factoring, micro loans, and even peer-to-peer lending. Just make sure you do some research before settling on the product that makes the most sense for your business.

Not being able to pay the bills

Many small business owners are so focused on increasing sales and ultimately their bottom line, that they don’t pay enough attention to their cash flow. This can cause a lot of operational issues, not to mention a huge load of stress and anxiety for the small business owner. The most important thing that small business owners can do is to create and monitor a weekly or monthly cash flow statement. Most accounting programs will do this automatically. Even business owners who are relying on Excel to keep track of transactions, can download a simple cash flow statement template. They are many kinds available online for free.

Loosing key employees

A small business’ employees can often be one of its biggest assets. After all, think about all the time, energy, and money that goes into recruiting, hiring, and training these people, not to mention compensating them for their work. One of the biggest fears that small business owners have is loosing their key employees to their competitors- especially those that have the size and the resources to offer better compensation and more opportunities for education and advancement. While this is certainly a real concern for many small businesses, business owners should focus on the positives that they offer aside from compensation, such as their unique work environment, more intimate setting, and perhaps the ability of employees to have more of an impact on business decision making than they would in a bigger business.

Not keeping up with the competition

Many businesses these days are being overwhelmed by their competition- whether their competitors are big brands that can slash prices and conduct flashy and pervasive marketing campaigns, or they are small, scrappy companies with a knack for drawing market attention. Add to this the reality that the Internet and the technology that supports it all is rapidly evolving, and businesses are having to deal with an increasingly impatient and demanding customer-base. It’s little wonder why many small business owners are in constant fear of loosing their customers to their competitors. The real solution to this starts with properly defining your ideal customer, developing your brand so that it highlights your company’s strengths and your customers’ needs, and then figuring out the most effective places and ways to reach these people. In other words, getting back to the basics of running a successful business.

Not being able to retire

Though many small business owners enjoy what they are doing and aren’t necessarily thinking of retirement, nevertheless, nearly two-thirds of small business owners fear outliving the money they need to retire, according to a poll from the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute. But it’s more than that. Many business owners may not have a clear succession or sales plan for the business when it comes time for them to leave. It’s for this reason that even new small business owners should hash out a strategy for both retirement savings and for passing on the business to others.

The fear of failure

Every single person on the planet has failed at some point or other, yet the fear of failure can be one of the most debilitating sources of anxiety for small business owners. When a business owner hits a road block in the business, the worst thing he or she can do is to spend too much time on what went wrong without spending valuable time analyzing what went right and what was gained from the experience. Small business owners should also make sure they’ve got a strong support group to help them through the down times. Plus, taking care of physical needs such as proper diet, exercise, and sleep, can significantly affect both mood and performance.

So, where do you fit in this list? Are you dealing with other fears not listed here? How are you coping? Let us know in the comments below.

Big Banks Are Lending More: Is It a Real Sign of Economic Recovery?

According to the most recent results of the Biz2Credit Small Business Lending Index, small business loan approval rates at the nation’s biggest banks rose to 19.4% in April 2014. This is up from 18.8% in March, and it represents a record high since the start of the recession.

ID-10015674While this is certainly good news, is it a telltale sign that the economy is steadily improving? If more established businesses are starting to seek out loans which presumably would be used for hiring, expansion, and capital purchases, it would seem so. The truth is that banks generally look at three years worth of sales history. This year marks three years after the recession officially “ended” in 2011. To qualify for bank financing, these businesses had to have performed well post recession.

But, a closer look at the results of the survey may reveal that the recovery may not be so great after all. Small business loan approval rates at small banks actually decreased to 51.1% in April 2014, down from 51.6% last month, and the same pattern was seen with credit unions (43.5% down from 43.6%). Perhaps most telling is that lending approval rates at alternative lenders dropped for the fourth consecutive month to 63.5% in April from 63.6% in March 2014.

What does this all mean? It may mean that there is a growing schism among America’s small businesses. Big banks tend to attract and approve only the most credit-worthy businesses. These businesses usually have more assets and are more established and… they tend to be bigger as well. The definition of a “small business” among the nation’s biggest banks is a company with less than $20 million dollars in sales!

On the other hand, small banks, credit unions, and alternative lenders, in particular, get more requests from newer, less asset-rich businesses as well as those struggling with bad credit. If these institutions are approving fewer loans, chances are good that the pool of applicants are more risky and worse off than they were even a few months ago.

Changes the whole picture, doesn’t it?

What do you think? Do you feel there has been some real recovery since the recession or is it mostly smoke and mirrors?

(Image Credit)

Should You Accept Bitcoins at Your Small Business?

It’s getting harder to ignore the rising popularity and ubiquity of Bitcoin, the most widely recognized open source, peer-to-peer payment system and digital currency in the world. As the digital “cryptocurrency” continues to generate serious attention, a lot of major companies and organizations have been taking notice.

WeAcceptBitcoinCurrently, there are thousands of businesses- online and off– around the world that accept Bitcoins as a valid payment for products and services. There are also countless supporting platforms that assist in the purchase and storage of Bitcoins as well as payment processing in the digital currency. Some of the big names in this space include Bitpay, Coinbase, and Bitstamp.

If you are enthusiastic about the Bitcoin movement and you are running a small business, you may have played with the idea of accepting it as a form of payment. But, on the logistical and legal side, such a move brings up a few, big important questions:

  • What is the right way to accept and account for Bitcoin transactions?
  • Is it legal? Will you get in trouble with the government?
  • How should you pay taxes on income received through Bitcoin?
  • How do you account for the currency’s volatility?

If you are going to accept Bitcoin, then you will need to use a third party platform to process the transactions in a safe and convenient way. If you are selling goods and services online, then you’ll want to use an online Bitcoin merchant solution. Some of these services allow you to automatically convert the Bitcoin to USD or any other major foreign currency. If you are running an off-line business, customers can pay using hardware terminals, touch screen apps, or they can use their wallet addresses through QR Codes.

In terms of the legality of Bitcoin and how you record your income for tax purposes, so far there is nothing illegal about processing Bitcoin transactions in your business. Most governments it seems are taking a “wait and see” approach to the digital currency and some of it’s major competitors, such as Litecoin.

For now, Bitcoin could be treated like a cash-based transaction. Consider how you normally record your cash transactions and then this process could be applied to your Bitcoin sales, and in order to decide what a Bitcoin transaction is worth, you could follow the IRS guidelines on how to value transactions made in a foreign currency.

Lastly, regarding Bitcoin’s volatility, the biggest factors to consider is what proportion of your sales you think will be processed in Bitcoins, and if your business can afford to sustain fluctuations in the value of those sales. Supporting the principles and ideals behind Bitcoin is worthy, but you don’t want to sacrifice your business for them.

In short, there are already thousands of businesses processing payments in Bitcoin. If you are considering joining their ranks, then make sure you have all the checks in place to do so responsibly.

The Biggest Mistake Business Owners Make on Google+

If you have been paying any attention to the clash of the social media titans, you’ve probably heard about the explosive growth Google’s newish social network, Google+, has been enjoying- especially over the past year or so. While many in cyberspace have been quick to criticize for Google for practically force feeding G+ to the masses, there’s a growing movement of people who are starting to realize that there is an important trend silently playing itself out.

Google PlusWith it’s introduction and continued development of G+, Google is really ushering in a new era in the creation, exchange, and consumption of digital information- one that will increasingly rely on multi-media platforms and be influenced by your online profile as well as those in your network. It’s what is commonly known as the “social web.”

The key take away here is that Google+ is not just another social network; it’s just one part of a bigger user experience, and because of this, business owners in particular cannot afford to ignore it.

Many people already know the power and influence of having an optimized local search presence. These days, that means if you run a brick and mortar business, you need a Google+ business page, or your visibility online will be extremely impaired.

But, there’s more. Google+ has a number of amazing features, specifically, it’s searchability, and it’s Hangouts On Air, which offers a pretty seamless user experience across several platform’s and mediums. Plus, did you know that you can actually embed a Google hangout within a sales page? Imagine the potential over there…

That said, the biggest mistake small business owners make with their G+ accounts is that they don’t optimize them, and use them, or at least, they don’t use them enough. Whatever you think about Google, it almost doesn’t matter. There is a reality to doing and/or advertising a business online, and if you’re not going to subscribe to Google’s way of doing things, then soon it will just be somewhere else, like say Yahoo!.

Even if you don’t have so much time to put into G+, you should definitely make it a point to completely fill out your business profile and include in it important keywords. You should connect it to your business website and any other sites where you contribute content. You should also update it every now and then with fresh content. That little bit of effort will already put you several steps ahead of countless small business owners who have avoided G+ completely.

And if you have a bit of time, explore some of the new features, like Google+ Communities. Even if your peers aren’t on G+, there’s nothing to stop you from bringing them there. In many cases, you may even have a richer experience than you would on other platforms, such as Facebook.

So, the bottom line is, whether you like it or not, Google+ needs to be a part of your online marketing mix, and hey, you may just find it to be a pretty useful place once you get there.

Obamacare Offers More Questions Than Answers for Small Business Owners

Well, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has definitely gotten off to a rocky start. After its website, Healthcare.gov, officially opened for business, allowing uninsured Americans from 36 states to purchase health insurance online, it was quickly plagued by glitches that prevented many users from successfully signing up for an insurance plan. These hiccups have persisted, prompting critics of the ACA to call it a failure.

drWhile it’s too soon to tell if Obama’s signature legislation will go the way of the dodo bird, the whole episode is just one more point in an already confusing health care landscape for small business owners.

One of the corner stones of the new plan is the SHOP Marketplace, scheduled to fully open in 2014. The SHOP health exchange market place is a Web portal where eligible small businesses with up to 50 employees can shop for and buy private health insurance for their full-time employees.

The goal with this online marketplace is to supposedly give smaller businesses the advantage of group purchasing power and just make the whole system more affordable. In some cases, small businesses may be eligible for a tax credit on employee premium payments.

The problem is that there are still many unknowns, like how much smaller businesses will really end up saving. All the delays on top of the on-going government shut down brings up the question of when the system will actually be up and running as planned, or if it ever will. This is particularly agonizing for those small businesses that are required by the new law to provide an employer-based healthcare plan in 2014.

All of this brings up many questions- especially for those running a small business hovering around the 50 employee mark:

Should you offer employer provided coverage or not? If you are employing fewer than 50 people, then you won’t be required to provide coverage. But, health benefits play a significant role in employee satisfaction. Deciding whether or not you are going to offer a health plan to your employees is a choice that affects more than just your bottom line; it also affects employee morale and retention.

Should you risk hiring more than 50 employees? If your business is going through a growth spurt and you need additional workers that will put you past the 50 employee mark, should you hire now or hold off till things settle a bit? The government has delayed the implementation of the employer mandate until January 1, 2015. After this grace period, small businesses face steep fines for each employee not covered by a plan. It may be worth the “risk” to hire now and see how much revenue those extra hands bring in.

What kind of health coverage should you offer? If you would like to provide some kind of coverage for your workers, but money is a concern. What are your options, especially given that healthcare costs are still very much on the rise?

According to the new legislation, the health care insurance provided by the business must pay for at least 60 percent of health care expenses, and employees may not be forced to pay more than 9.5 percent of their family income (before deductions and adjustments) for their employer-sponsored coverage. However, how you as a business owner are supposed to know the amount of “family income” of your employees is not yet addressed. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), on their healthcare.gov site, also defines a “comprehensive package of items and services, known as “essential health benefits.”

That’s a pretty hefty list of requirements that can feel like even more of a burden if you are struggling with lackluster sales.

The bottom line: as Obamacare starts kicking in, it seems that it’s generating more questions than answers for small employers. For now, the safest thing may be to wait it out a bit- at least until some of the most prominent kinks get ironed out.

Truckers Sidelined by Safety Regulations

In the trucking world, safety comes first, but continued concerns about lengthy workweeks and driver health are sending some truckers back to bed instead of onto the road. New regulations by the Obama administration, which will limit truckers’ workweek to 70 hours from 82, were announced in December 2011, but the industry had 18 months to implement the regulations.

The transitional costs over the 18-month period have already cost the industry roughly $320 million, according to Dave Osiecki, Vice President for Safety Policy at the American Trucking Association, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) estimates that the regulations could cost the industry a half-a-billion dollars.

Along with a decrease in workweek hours, the rules require that after every 70-hour workweek truckers take 34 hours off to “restart,” which must include two 1-5 a.m. time periods. Additionally, truckers can’t be on the road for more than 11 hours at a time and are now required to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of any shift.

The biggest complaints about the new rules have come in the form of industry concerns about costs being passed on to consumers. Fewer truckers working fewer hours means less time transporting goods from place to place, meaning consumers might have to start paying more for products and shipping.

“If you buy more trucks and hire more people to close the gap, someone has to pay for those new trucks and people. On the other hand, if companies decided to operate at less capacity, that will also increase rates, and who pays for that? The consumer,” said Lyndon Finney, Editor of The Trucker.

There is one major upshot to the regulations, and that’s safer roads and an estimated $200 million in savings from better driver health.

“FMCSA developed the rule based on the latest sleep science and sought input from all sectors including small business owners, drivers, shippers, safety advocates and trucking companies,” said Anne Ferro, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety administrator.

The number of people killed each year in large truck crashes fell by almost 30 percent, from 5,282 in 2000 to around 4,000 in 2011, and, according to the FMCSA’s analysis, the new rules will prevent some 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries, saving at least 19 lives each year.

Despite these regulations going into effect, the battle continues. In March, oral arguments were presented in a lawsuit by the American Trucking Association asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to reverse the new regulations, but it is not clear when that ruling will be handed down.

For now, it’s hard to say what the true impact on truckers, the industry, manufacturers, and consumers will be, especially when fewer than 2 percent of drivers work the 82 hours per week. According to DOT, 85% of drivers won’t even be impacted by the new regulations. If anything, long-haul truckers that are paid by the hour and specialty shipments will be hit the hardest.

It will be a slow process for the industry to return to its pre-regulation productivity levels, but it’s not an impossible feat.


E-commerce: The New Royalty of Retail

ecommerce-150x150Online transactions are the preferred shopping method of today as this generation spends most of its time online. The prevalence of smart phones has only increased this phenomenon. In the past few years mobile payment services have become a norm increasing the already high volume of online sales. FastPivot Ecommerce states that online purchases from mobile devices increased from 2% to 8% within a two year period. According to statisticbrain.com, there is a steady, annual increase in online sales with time saving as the number one reason consumers choose to shop online. 83% of internet users have purchased one or more items online in 2012! So how can you cash in?

Having an online store you will guarantee that you reach a much wider and varied clientele. A recent survey by Lab42 Market Research revealed that:

  • 73% of online shoppers do at least half of their shopping online.
  • 66% prefer online shopping to store shopping.
  • 4 out of 5 online shoppers feel they have access to a broader selection of items online.
  • 45% of shoppers bought items online that they would not have bought in person.

If you have competitors (who doesn’t?), odds are that they already have an online presence. If you find them on Google your potential customers can find them as well. Make sure that your business turns up and stands out online. It’s relatively easy, inexpensive and quick to set up a basic fully functioning e-commerce site. The top e-commerce software packages come with all the features you need to set up an online store with a mobile version to boot and various options to help spread your online presence with social media. So if you are technically proficient, you can probably set up an e-commerce site on your own. If not, you will probably need a web developer to get your online store up and running.

What do you need?

A domain & Hosting Plan
The domain name should be as similar to your store as possible. Domains usually cost between $10 and $15 a year and can be purchased from several online registrars. Hosting plans generally cost between $4 and $6 a month. There are hundreds of hosting companies. Choose one with good customer service and you’re in good hands.

Shopping Cart Software
There are dozens of free shopping cart software packages. The packages that are most commonly used have the most features, better online assistance and helpful user forums. Magento, OS Commerce and Open Cart are just a few examples of widely used e-commerce platforms. E-commerce platforms also have a built-in option to hook up to various payment gateways. Most small businesses start off with PayPal as it is the simplest and safest payment method. Once your site reaches a high rate of sales you might want to consider other payment options such as direct credit card payments.


Once your system is ready, you will need to insert images of all your products – with a digital camera or smartphone this should be a breeze.


Content is King
You want potential customers to find you by searching online for products that you can provide them with. Search engines like websites with compelling and relevant content so it is well worth your time to write good descriptions of your store and your products. The content you write must be authentic and not copied from a similar website. In order to stay on top of search engines, your website has to constantly be updated with new content. The best practice for writing about your store items is to use a short yet catchy headline in order to capture the attention of the reader. After that, use a professional yet conversational tone to further describe your product using as many key words as possible. There are professional content writers and bloggers who can be hired to perform this task. As we mentioned in the first section, online shoppers often end up buying products they hadn’t intended on. Good content and exciting images are the best way to draw shoppers to new and unexpected products.

Social media
Once you have customers, they can help promote you by liking a Facebook page dedicated to your store and by clicking on share, tweet and other share buttons that you can easily display on your site. Your Facebook page can contain coupons and information on new products that will encourage customers to visit and revisit your site.

In this day and age e-commerce sites are a must, especially for small businesses. As long as you put together a quality, customer friendly site you are guaranteeing an additional source of monthly income. If you already have a site, make sure to keep it up to date and interesting as well as offering the same kinds of promotions you would in your brick and mortar site.