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Planning to reopen

Last updated July 27th, 2020

Taking your business online

Whether your business sells products or offers services, you might consider developing an online presence if you don’t have one already. Developing an online presence (whether you're interested in taking your entire product or service online or just want to take advantage of connectivity through social media) will enable you to interact directly with your customers at a time when consumers are increasingly dependent on their devices to communicate and make the purchases they need.

Small businesses around the country are at different points in their digital journey. Some have been online since the start, while others are just starting to consider taking their business online due to the COVID-19 crisis. If your business is already online, you may want to skip to engaging with new and existing customers. If you are just getting started, consider these initial starting points

Building a website

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As you think about building a website for your business, you may want to look at additional guides and resources. Examples of easy to use guides that share similar helpful practices include: this guide from Square and this guide from Shopify.

1. Select an e-commerce platform that suits your business needs

Platforms allow nonexperts to easily build e-commerce websites; some also offer third-party plugins to help with logistics, analytics, payments, and more. Many platforms are currently offering free trials for small businesses. Examples of online retail platforms used by many small businesses include the following:

2. Choose a website domain

There are two common strategies for picking a domain name:

  • Use your company’s name: if your business name is available as a domain, you will be more likely to get instant customer recognition from those who are already familiar with you. If it's not available, some companies add a purchase-related term, like "shop" or "buy," to their domain name, as those combinations may be more likely to be available.
  • Use a more searchable name to capitalize for search engine optimization (SEO): re-branding to a generic name will create a website that can be more easily found organically through online search (this of course depends on the name of your brand and of the "more searchable name" you choose).

It is important to make sure that you are not using a trademarked name in your domain—this is more likely if you choose a common name. Using a trademarked name is considered a trademark violation and can result in legal action from the owner and fines and more for the party violating the trademark. Check the USPTO trademark database (if in the United States) to see if the name is already registered.

3. Design the essential pages

Customers have become increasingly comfortable shopping online and are accustomed to finding information through certain common essential pages. Help your customers learn important information about your product or service and anticipate their questions through intuitive information pages on your site. Consider starting with the following:

  • About us: Share your personal background and the story of your business. While you are currently unable to personally meet your customers and establish a connection, this page can help create a similar connection by helping a customer get to know your business.
  • Product/service pages: Help customers understand what products and/or services are available to buy online. Businesses often include a picture and short description of the product or service to help the customer make purchase decisions. Other helpful information includes shipping timelines for specific products and whether or not it is currently in stock.
  • FAQs: Inform your customers about shipping timelines, exchange and return policies and processes, and other important information specific to your product or service. This may help keep customers happy and reduce complaints.
  • Contact us: Help customers get in touch with any questions, concerns, or feedback they might want to share with you and your team. Some commonly used methods of contact include a company email address set up specifically for customer interactions and a company or customer-service phone number or online feedback or query form. You may choose to add additional language letting customers know when they might expect a response. Brick and mortar locations also often include their address (and sometimes a map!).

4. Additional tips and nice-to-haves

Once you have all of the basics set up, you may want to consider a few additional ways to improve your customers' online experience. These next considerations are more time-consuming and in some cases require additional financial investment or expertise.

  • Rich product information: Building out product pages to include detailed information on your product or service can help customers make decisions. Some examples, depending on your business, may include size and fit, materials and composition, care, origin of materials/product and manufacturing, product story, use, and customer reviews and ratings.
  • Easy navigation of current promotions: Adding clickable banners or countdowns to expiring promotions and sales that drive straight to a subset of products on sale, tagging items with "sale," striking through original pricing, and automatically applying discount codes at checkout are some commonly used approaches to encourage customers to engage with promotions and offers.
  • Search, sort, and filter functionality: Depending on the products/services offered, certain businesses choose to help customers find what they are looking for through added search, sort, and filter functionality. Examples include sorting by price or newer products or filtering by size, color, and category. These features can be more expensive to add depending on the platform.
  • Added-value benefits: Certain businesses choose to encourage purchasing through easy or free shipping or returns (sometimes depending on basket size) or order tracking. Some businesses make returns easier for customers by including the return label in the outbound shipping box.
  • Personalization: This more advanced approach to improving the customer experience generally requires financial investment, additional time, and expertise. Businesses may choose to tailor the customer experience through personalized promotions, recommendations, and more to help customers through the purchase journey.

5. Additional professional guidance

Please note that the above considerations are not comprehensive nor exhaustive and do not constitute legal or tax advice. Consider engaging professional advisors, including legal and tax advisors regarding tax or legal matters, or with additional questions regarding e-commerce. Here are some pro bono professional resources to consider.

Managing delivery to customers

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Now that you have a website in place, consider the back-end (offline) needs of your business to make sure that you will have enough inventory and the right logistics in place to meet customer demand in a timely manner.

Consider different shipping and delivery options

  • Free shipping: Customers may be more likely to buy if you offer shipping-related incentives—for example, free shipping for orders over a certain dollar amount.
  • In-store pickup: Rather than wait for shipping, many customers prefer the speed and convenience of an in-store pickup, although it may complicate how you handle your inventory.
  • Third-party pickup or delivery: Restaurants, shops, and other businesses that offer pickup and delivery may want to consider implementing tools to help with logistics. Owners/operators should be aware that some of these tools may take a commission on each sale. Several publicly-available resources aggregate available tools; as an example, see Google's thoughts on tools for managing the logistics of pickup and delivery.
  • Change the way you package your products: Traditional packaging methods may not meet your customers’ expectations for safety and hygiene of. Consider double-bagging to allow for an easier disinfection process at home, packaging individual items (utensils, condiments, popular retail items, etc.), and labeling to indicate which parts of the packaging have been sanitized.
  • Do it yourself or engage a third party: Some small businesses are able to handle shipping and fulfillment operations themselves; however, some store their inventory with a third-party logistics partner and let it handle shipping to customers.

Engaging with new and existing customers

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Here are few ways to potentially grow your customer base by engaging with new and existing customers online:

  1. Signage (to inform regulars and passersby that they can find your business online)
    • For brick and mortar locations that are closed or have changes to service due to the COVID-19 crisis, signs can serve as a great way to keep customers and passersby informed. If you are going online for the first time or shifting products and services to digital, this is an easy (and low-cost) way to alert customers to your new online presence.
  2. Social media
  3. Recommendation engines and forums
    • Consider listing your business on recommendation engines, forums, and other common informational sites to gain visibility among customers looking for your services. This can also be a venue to share key information about your business as well as promotions.
  4. Email outreach
    • Many businesses (even those without an online presence) use email as a way to interact with their customers. Email can be a great way to share the company’s story and voice, update customers on changes to the business, communicate offers on products and services, and more. Particularly at a time when customers are trying to determine which businesses are open, email is a great way to keep them in the loop, drive them back to your site, and to stay top of mind.
  5. Additional paid marketing possibilities include the following
    • Social media paid advertising and brand presence creation
    • Local listings and recommendation engines
    • Search engine optimization (SEO) for top positioning on major search engines
    • Search engine advertising for key words related to the business and product
    • Offline advertising through newspaper/local media, promotional fliers, and so on
The steps and resources listed are representative rather than exhaustive and are current as of date of publication. Please note that McKinsey & Company does not endorse any of the listed websites or their sponsors. The contents of this site, including any statements, articles, graphics, charts, checklists, and other materials (“Content”) are for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice or to constitute medical or legal advice.