E-commerce platforms have come a long way since the early days of e-commerce when it could take you months or even years working with a team of developers to get your online store off the ground…
Love Milo founders Nikki Ellis and Matt hew Finch knew very little about e-commerce when they launched in 2003 but were passionate about their products – nature-inspired homeware using only eco-friendly and sustainable materials – and knew that the inexpensive route to market offered by going the e-commerce route rather than opening a brick and mortar store, would give their start-up the best chance of success.
“Setting up online meant we could keep overheads to a minimum, which was essential for our start-up. Also, what is great about e-commerce is that it allows us to focus on the process of making the best products that we can. There are of course challenges, such as people not being able to touch and feel the actual products, but our studio is in Gardens, Cape Town, and customers are always welcome to drop by. We also supply wholesale to retailers across the country as well as internationally,” says Finch.
Bespoke or niche products such as those produced by Love Milo are where small online retailers can really make a mark, says Andy Higgins, MD of uAfrica and Shopify South Africa. “Our most successful small merchants are those who target more unique product categories like fashion, jewellery, bespoke homeware, etc. They have identified a niche that isn’t serviced by the big players and where the margins are higher.”
Higgins says smaller retailers can use their passion for their products to build a rapport with their customers by off erring personalised advice – something that the bigger names in the e-commerce sphere would struggle to do. “If you try to compete with the big guys by off erring more commoditised products, you are going to really struggle,” he warns.
That first step
Ellis and Finch’s first step when starting up involved figuring out what platform – storefront technology – to use. E-commerce platforms have come a long way since the early days of e-commerce when it could take you months or even years working with a team of developers to get your online store off the ground.
Today’s online storefronts can be set up by non-technical entrepreneurs within a few hours. Among the most popular and widely used in South Africa are cloud-based Shopify and Shopstar, and self-hosted platforms Magento and WooCommerce. All have great-looking templates and all the info is easily accessible and easy to understand. Importantly, all of these also integrate with local payment gateways, which means local merchants can accept payment in rands.
Ellis and Finch spent about three months testing options, before deciding that Shopify was the right storefront for them. The duo knew going in that there would be a steep learning curve ahead of them, but were willing and eager to educate themselves for the growth of their business. “We like to constantly evolve our website and brand, and Shopify enables us to do that with no hassles. If we think something is not working for us or the customer, it’s a quick change from our side to try and make the site better,” says Finch.
If you don’t think a template driven system will provide all the functionality you need, you can opt to have a custom site built. But if you opt to go this route you will need to have an IT person in-house or outsource the work to a specialised company, which can be costly for a start-up or small business.
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