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From creating great websites to accepting online payment: the small business owner’s guide to selling online

Being able to sell online is a really important string to your small business bow, and it’s only going to get more important in future. eCommerce is a term that sounds a bit technical and can put people off, but all it means is being able to sell your product or service online, accepting online payment for goods that people choose from the comfort of their own home. It doesn’t have to be scary, complicated, or expensive – here’s our no-nonsense guide to getting your business online!

Why take your business online?

  • Even when we were in recession, online spending kept rising. Now the worst is over, but the high street is still feeling the squeeze: not so for the Europe retail market, which grew by a whopping 20% last year, according to Visa. Pretty impressive, right? But if you’re not selling online, you’re not taking advantage of this.
  • We’re increasingly time-poor, and shopping differently. Given the choice would you rather dash into a shop on your lunch break, or flop onto your sofa when you get home and browse at your leisure from your tablet or laptop? Your customers prize convenience, and you need to give them what they want.
  • Traditional businesses are only open at certain hours, and accessible only to the local area. Online businesses always have the door open, and people can shop from all over the globe, so you have so many more opportunities to make a sale – make sure your business is fully set up for receiving credit card payments online.
  • You can run your business on lower overheads – businesses that are completely online don’t need a shop front and the associated costs. This is perfect if you’re just starting out, or if you’re running a business alongside your day job.
  • When they’re looking for something specific, people often just go straight to the internet. Being online connects you, and your product or service with people searching for it.
  • The UK is one of the best places to sell online globally, making revenues of £100 billion per year – the average UK online shopper spends £3,370 a year. There’s never been a better time to get involved and start accepting online payment.
  • People are buying more and more from their mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones. If you don’t take your business online, you miss out on these opportunities.

Common fears

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at some misconceptions that often put small business owners off taking their business online.

It’s not safe or secure: Actually, you have less protection on in-store goods than online, for both sellers and buyers. As long as you have up-to-date security software and aren’t careless with your customer data, it’s very low-risk for both the shop owner and the customer. Plus, you don’t lose any profits to the security risks of a physical shop, such as shoplifting or damage (as long as you store stock in a safe place, that is.)

It’s too expensive: Designing a website, setting it up and hosting it seems like an expensive process, but actually it’s not as bad as you think – in fact, there are numerous free website design services such as Wix, and you can register a .com domain name from just £1.99 a year.

When it comes to credit card online processing there are some fees involved, such as a set-up fee for your account and a small percentage taken of each transaction, but bank charges for cheques are actually more expensive (and cheques are a lot more inconvenient to process). Fees can be offset somewhat by setting a minimum card spend, as many other small businesses do. However, by taking cards you’re also taking away the upper limit of what people spend (within reason!). If you only have cash, you’re limited by that – but impulse buys are much easier with a card. This means too that your increased sales are likely to offset any charges.

I’m bad at technology: It honestly doesn’t matter if you can’t even use Facebook without breaking into a cold sweat. You don’t have to be a design whiz – there are many free website design services now, so you can look totally professional in just a few clicks. As for setting up a way to take payments, leave that to your acquirer (the card payment company you’ll sign up with – but more on that in a bit). To make it even easier, there are websites dedicated to simplifying the whole process and set up an online shop in a jiffy.

How does an online shop work?

Here are the basics of how shopping online actually works, for a little background information.

  • You need three basic things to get started. A website from which people can browse and select items; a payment gateway connected to this website, which just means a programme that takes customer payments and sends them securely to be authorised by the customer’s bank; and a merchant account, which is like a bank account which only processes the funds you accept online, and is totally separate from your regular bank account.
  • The customer browses your website, finds an item they love, and adds it to the virtual shopping cart (‘add to basket’).
  • The customer proceeds to the checkout, where information about the price is sent to the payment gateway to process the transaction.
  • The customer is directed automatically to the payment gateway where they choose a payment method and enter their card details. These details pair up with the information sent over at checkout to create a transaction. (Still with us? Good!)
  • The payment gateway sends transaction details to the customer’s card provider (such as their bank). The transaction is either authorised or declined, depending on whether the customer has enough funds. The customer and business owner receive confirmation that it’s all gone swimmingly.
  • The payment gateway sends the money to the online credit card merchant account, usually within 1-2 days. The merchant account then transfers the money into your regular bank account within a few days. Congratulations – you’ve entered the world of receiving credit card payments online!

This might sound a bit technical, but you don’t need to worry about it. When you’ve set up the website and chosen the payment gateway and merchant account that’s right for you, all of the processing stuff is done by the payment gateway and the bank. Phew!

Setting up your online shop

There are three options for setting up an online shop:

  • Use an all-in-one customisable template that will give you a website and a shopping cart, so that you can get going right away. This is your best option if you’re selling a straightforward retail product, as it’s really simple and there are lots of companies that can provide this for you for a reasonable price. It also means you don’t have to worry about incorporating a shopping cart separately, as it’s all designed to have everything you need for selling.
  • You will also need to register a name for your website (a domain name) – like smallbusinessheroes.co.uk. Make sure you pick one that is clear and easy to remember. Sites such as 123-Reg give a range of pricing options and domains (such as .co.uk, .com, and .info). You can also check there if the website name you want is already taken.
  • If you want total control over your website, you can set up your own bespoke website. Unless you are a web whiz, it’s best to get a developer and designer in for this, to ensure it looks as professional as possible and that there are no glitches (or you can use a site such as Wix. You will also need shopping cart software, such as that offered by WorldPay.

 Tips for making a brilliant website

  • Know your audience. What’s your target audience, and what kind of stuff do they want to see? Are they interested in low prices, or best quality? Use this to inform the content of your website – which takes us to the next point…
  • Well-proofed, well-written copy. You should always get someone to look over the copy you have written for your website – preferably more than one person, and preferably a professional copywriter or proof reader. If you can get a copywriter to write the words for your website, all the better. You want it to look as professional as possible.
  • Simple navigation. People get confused and frustrated by websites that make online shopping a hassle (we’ve all been there). Simplify the process as much as possible, and don’t make finding the page the customer wants a wild goose chase – they’ll get frustrated and go looking elsewhere.
  • High quality images. Avoid pixelation, clip-art, and blurry images. Ensure they’re high resolution, and also that you actually own the rights to use them – you don’t want to blunder into a lawsuit months down the line.
  • Shopping cart visibility. A really good move is to have a little drop-down menu when you click on the shopping cart icon, usually in the top corner of your website. This way customers can keep track of what’s in their basket, and shop accordingly – much more convenient than having to navigate off the page to check, or to guess.
  • Featured products. If you can highlight featured products on the homepage – new items, popular items, customer favourites – you’re likely to get lots more clicks. Also, ensure that any deals or sales are clearly pointed out for the same reason! 

What are the other things I need to think about?

Setting up the website is your first big step, but you need to ensure that your business stays on the right side of the law, that your customers are happy, and that people know all about you.

Preventing fraud

Many new businesses go bust within the first 6 months because they didn’t pay enough attention to the dangers that fraud poses. You might think that because you’re a small business nobody will want to defraud you – but nobody is safe to the impact of online crime, and crime levels are rising all the time. It is really important to realise that you are responsible for any fraudulent transactions in your store. You are liable for reimbursing cardholders whose cards were stolen and used in your store.

E-crime appeals to fraudsters because when accepting card payment you cannot physically check the card is genuine, check that the signature matches the card, or flag up any suspicious behaviour by the cardholder.

Businesses that are more at risk include:

–       Financial service sector businesses

–       Computer and electrical goods sellers

–       Travel sector businesses

–       Technology and communications sector businesses

–       Businesses that offer downloadable goods

–       Fashion businesses

–       Businesses selling any other desirable item that can be re-sold

Charities are often used as venues for ‘card testing’, where small payments can be made to check if they go through, before being used to purchase expensive goods.

Signs that a transaction might be fraudulent include:

–       Late-night orders

–       P.O box addresses

–       Anonymous email addresses

–       High quantity orders

–       Different shipping and billing addresses

–       Inconsistencies in shopper details (such as different names)

–       Frequent purchases

How to avoid fraud

First of all, ensure that all your customer details are kept very safe. Restrict physical access to sensitive data (don’t let everyone in the company have access), never write account or card numbers down on paper, and make sure you have a firewall and that all data is encrypted.

If you suspect an order is fraudulent, it’s better to risk an annoyed customer than losing thousands of pounds (and risking fines). One approach is to offer an obviously-bad value package deal on top of the order, including very overpriced and pointless extras – someone using a fake card doesn’t care about spending money, even if it’s clearly bad value.

There’s also no substitute for good old detective work. Call the customer and ask for more details, such as a work number, and do your research to see whether it all matches up. An irritated customer who knows that you take card security very seriously is better than one who has been swindled out of a lot of money due to your negligence.


Marketing is really important – there’s no point in having a totally ace business if nobody knows about it. Getting online means that people are more likely to stumble across you through Google searches, but it means you’re up against more competition too.

Anthony Wilkey, regional director of SmartFocus, believes that marketing is moving towards a more personalised approach. “I think there’s a big opportunity to make marketing smarter – smarter in how customer data is collected and used, smarter in how campaigns are planned and executed, and smarter in terms of driving higher revenue, satisfaction, and loyalty,” he says. “To be smarter in 2014, it is important for businesses to deliver personalised, real-time customer interactions across email, mobile, social, web and offline channels to continually engage customers with relevant, personalised messages that drive campaign performance and increase customer lifetime value.”

The best way to deliver this is social media – get on Twitter, get on Facebook, get on Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+ and Instagram if they’re relevant. Ensure that you interact with people, that you share interesting news and content, and that you use this opportunity to genuinely learn about your customers and what they want.

Email marketing is also extremely useful. Encourage people to sign up to a mailing list, and use a programme such as MailChimp to create beautiful and appealing newsletters telling your customers all about your news, and advertising exclusive offers. This is a great way to remind people that you exist, and using clickable headlines never fails to get people back onto your site.

Customer service

Now you’ve got people merrily purchasing your wares, you need to ensure that they’re all kept as happy as possible. Again, you can do this on social media by regularly searching for people mentioning your company’s name, or searching for people who are looking for a particular product.

Dealing with customer enquiries, ensuring that everything is sent off on time, and keeping everyone happy is time-consuming and a bit stressful. There are some programmes that can help you cope with this, however, such as Zendesk – it streamlines the customer service process and allows you to keep on top of it wherever you go, thanks to its mobile features.


So now you’re ready to get started! Go forth and get selling, heroes – and for more tips, check out our previous features on selling online, including expert tips.