How To Get Started Selling Online

Suzanne McKee

Suzanne McKee

Thinking about adding eCommerce to your distribution model? Let’s assume you’ve already decided that yes, this is the right choice for your business. Here are the four steps you need to take.


1. Make a plan (with a realistic budget)
2. Decide on the direction of development and design
3. Staff and support it
4. Market it

Formulate A Business Plan

Adding an eCommerce platform to your existing business model is much like adding a new division to a company. It takes planning, critical analysis and dedication of resources to make it work. You can’t just slap a shopping cart on your site and sit back and wait for the orders to come pouring in.

I’d recommend taking the time to put together a thorough business plan and accompanying marketing plan that delves deep into your target markets, pricing strategy, positioning, goals and financial projections (along with other key components) to give your new venture the keys to success it needs.

This up-front planning will pay off in the end with a well thought-out vision, strategy and execution plan.

Inherent in this will also be defining a budget that will realistically cover development, design, marketing and ongoing support costs. The only way you can achieve this is to fully understand where you want to go with online ordering for your customers and how you can get there.

Development Direction And Design Inspiration

An integral part of that up-front planning will help you work toward deciding the development direction of your eCommerce project. Your objectives, goals and the complexity of your product offering will help answer the question, “Custom, off-the-shelf or, somewhere in between?”


Options For eCommerce

Your Options For eCommerceDevelopment CommitmentFlexibility and CustomizationExamples
Sell through 3rd-party retail eCommerce
Add online ordering and a shopping cart to your existing
Build and maintain a fully integrated online eCommerce (there are hosting services that have tools to help, but you will need a development team to create your own eCommerce site)


There are definite pros and cons to each of these options. If your product offering is pretty simple and straightforward, it is cost-effective to take a more pre-programmed route, and it may prove to be incredibly successful. However, in our industry, the complexities and intricacies of working with live goods may require that you dive a little deeper into the custom world to create a viable eCommerce option for your business. It is this complexity and variability of working with live goods that I think is a big reason the floriculture industry has lagged behind other industries in how we sell our products online.

If you decide your business would thrive online with a third-party option, then you will have little to no control over how your products are displayed on their site. This loss of control, however, also means a reduced expense on designing, developing and maintaining your own site and user experience. If you take the middle of the road between cookie cutter and customization, you will have varying levels of responsibility in the design and user experience, and if you design from the ground up, you will need to make sure you are well-versed in what makes a successful site.

Regardless of which development and design directions you take, remember one thing throughout the entire process: if your customers can’t find your products, they can’t buy them. Smashing magazine says “product findability is key to any eCommerce business.”

Whether this means finding the best third-party option or designing your own search capabilities, make sure your eCommerce platform has a well thought-out way for customers to find what they are looking for.

For more of my thoughts on this and other user experience issues, check out my article in the Greenhouse Grower January issue, “Take Ownership Of Your Online Presence.”

Staff And Support

It is a big misconception that eCommerce equals less customer support. I would argue that successful eCommerce businesses put even more reliance on outstanding customer support than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. It just takes on a different look and feel. For instance, your online customer support may be in the form of a support forum or an in-depth FAQ section on your site.

Many online users prefer to find the answers to their questions on their own and won’t reach out to ask. This means you better make sure that you make it easy to find the answers they may need. Not thinking ahead of where customers may stumble or what kind of questions might arise during the purchase could mean the difference between making the sale and losing it.

Additionally, live chat is a great option for eCommerce sites. Again, a lot of the types of users who are drawn toward online ordering might prefer to chat online with you, as opposed to picking up the phone. That being said, many users will also pick up the phone with their questions or suggestions, so you better be prepared with a well-staffed operation, ready and able to answer those calls in a timely and well-informed manner.

Beyond customer service, it is critical that your distribution model can support the online business. Do you have logistics set up to handle working with geographic areas you haven’t worked with previously? Do you understand what costs are associated with this new way of distributing your products? Can you handle an increase in orders that may possibly happen overnight? It’s so much harder to win back a customer who had a bad experience than it is to get a new one to try you out.

Market Your Site To Give It The Best Start

Again, if your customers can’t find your products, they can’t buy them. If they can’t even find your site, or worse, have no idea it exists, then you might as well close up shop and move on. If you are going to put in the time and the financial and emotional resources it takes to create an eCommerce site, don’t stop short on the marketing and promotional end of things.




Pros And Cons Of Selling Through eCommerce (from a business perspective)

Overhead is not exponential with salesInitial investment can be very high
Growth opportunities through online channels are proving to be bigger than traditional onesChannel conflict (between direct sales and online channels) could hinder growth if not handled well
Can oftentimes help to streamline existing logistical issuesSophisticated systems required to handle complexities of working with live goods



Give your site the opportunity to succeed and brush up on your digital marketing skills to make it easy for people to find you and give them exciting reasons to care. Here is where you will be happy you spent time up front on your marketing plan, and now it is time to execute it.

Marketing strategies and tactics are different for brick-and-mortar than they are online, so be sure to understand your customers, your marketplace and your online avenues for promotion and search optimization.

Make sure these points are included in your marketing plan:
• target customers
• unique selling proposition
• pricing and positioning
• distribution plan
• offers
• marketing collateral
• content creation needs (become the go-to source for your customers for information, as well as products)
• promotion strategy (include email marketing, SEO, keyword searches, paid search, online demos and social media, along with more traditional marketing tactics)
• joint ventures and partnerships (something as simple as cross-linking can improve your searchability immensely)
• referral programs
• retention strategy (you need to make a connection, even though your customer may never talk to an actual person at your company)
• data collection and analysis (eCommerce sites often have a leg up on collecting great data on their customers. Make sure you use it intelligently to give them more of what they want)
• financial projections
• goals

Make Your Online Efforts Worthwhile

eCommerce is an exciting way to improve your presence with existing markets and to expand your offerings into new markets. But it needs to be well-thought out, accurately budgeted for and given the correct support in order to have a chance to succeed. GG