According to forecasts from Forrester Research Inc. online spending will reach $370 billion in 2017, marking an annual growth rate of nearly 10 percent from 2012, and accounting for 10 percent of all U.S. retail sales. When it comes to e-commerce, it’s no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a must-have. If a retailer has a cool offering in their physical store, customers are going to expect to be able to buy the same cool items online as well.

So, where do you start? What do you need to do once the site is up and running? And, what other value-adds can you integrate to attract new customers and keep existing ones coming back. It all begins with research. Whether business owners do it themselves or hire a professional firm, research is one step that absolutely cannot be ignored.

Research: What to look for?

Retailers can do their own private study or rely on professional research firms to discover what creates the best customer experience online. For personal research, customer surveys are a great way to gather direct feedback from current and potential customers. Businesses can also learn from leading market research companies and investigate what these firms look for when analyzing websites. For example, several leading market research companies examine the following criteria:

  1. Functionality – Online websites must be user-friendly and organized in an effective manner. User interfaces need to be intuitive and easy to use, with clear search offerings and immediate access to the shopping cart/bag at any time. Top internet shopping websites have all their technical elements working properly and efficiently.

  2. Merchandise – Merchandising online is just as important as in retail stores. From appealing products to a good selection of items, online merchandise needs to be showcased pleasingly and pictured from several different angles, if possible. Logistics is another vital component to merchandising. Popular online websites offer direct shipping to a customer’s homes or a ship-to-store function for customers to pick up their products in a retail store. Moreover, shopping websites affiliated with physical stores should provide information regarding inventory available in-store for immediate purchase.

  3. Price – Savvy online customers know how to search out the best price for any product. To stay competitive in the marketplace, flourishing online retailers will set their prices to be fair and equitable with other websites as well as physical stores, or even offer a best price guarantee.

  4. Content – Online content should be accurate and current. Internet shoppers like fresh content that provides important information about the product they are purchasing. If the customer can make an informed decision without calling a customer service number, the website’s content is considered to be more than adequate. In this area, size charts, where applicable, also deliver a better online experience as do customer ratings so people can see and read what others are saying.

With all these indicators, market research firms can analyze accurately what makes a successful online shopping website. In the long run, successful retailers desire to create an exceptional online shopping experience that keeps satisfied customers coming back for more. Some questions to carefully consider when analyzing retail websites are:

  • Will customers easily find my website?

  • Will customers make an online purchase after visiting the website?

  • Will customers who visit the website for more information make a purchase in a physical store that is affiliated with the website?

  • Will customers return again to the website and continue to buy merchandise?

  • Will customers recommend the website to other potential clients?

  • Will customers make a commitment to the brand of merchandise?

Developing or expanding an online shopping website to meet all of these criteria helps businesses compete. Internet shoppers who enjoy their online shopping experience are more likely to return to these websites, make additional purchases online and tell their friends and family about their shopping experience. Implementing successful traits from leading retail websites creates a positive e-commerce experience for everyone.

The site is ready – let the marketing begin!

E-marketing and social media are just a few of the cost-effective, resources available to online shopping retailers. From Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media websites, savvy customers almost expect quality retailers to have links available for them to select. For specialty retailers, social share is also gaining popularity, offering shoppers the ability to share their purchases immediately to a social network directly from the online retailer’s site. Social is a great way to share new products, cultivate a loyal following and even offer exclusive discounts. E-marketing is also another great way to stay connected with prospects and customers. Offering site visitors the opportunity to sign-up (or opt-in) for a newsletter is just one way of keeping your brand in front of your audience. And, there are a myriad of tools available like those from MailChimp, Constant Contact, and iContact.

Keep customers coming back

Almost every successful business has a loyalty program to reward their repeat customers. Small businesses can take advantage of a rewards program to increase their customer base as well. More often than not, customers will choose to purchase their products when they feel they have a working relationship with a company. Like building a solid foundation piece by piece, thriving businesses understand that loyal customers help create financial stability in a very competitive commercial community.

Some successful reward program ideas include the following:

Membership Cards – Membership into a loyalty program rewards the customer for repeat business. Typically, the customer can earn points towards discounts, cash back or additional products. At the same time, businesses earn valuable insight into their customer’s buying habits and preferences. Membership cards also create a feeling of ownership or partnership with the retailer.

Exclusive Clubs – Some companies create different ranks of membership such as “Silver, Gold or Platinum” levels. These exclusive memberships incentivize loyal customers to do more business for additional perks and privileges.

Gift Cards – Gift cards are an ideal way for current customers to refer new clients to shopping websites. More often than not, gift card recipients will spend more than the actual amount of the gift card. In this way, businesses can increase their profits as well as promote their merchandise.

In-Store and Online Discounts – Coupons and discounts are valuable because the expiration date creates a sense of urgency. Many businesses also give discounts for purchases that have reached a certain amount, such as 10% off any $100 order or more. Online shopping websites can also offer free shipping discounts with a specific amount purchased.

From research and marketing to rewards programs, successful online shopping websites take advantage of every tool and resource available. In today’s competitive marketplace, budding companies can discover a lot from thriving retailers with a strong web presence. In the long run, new businesses can develop the e-commerce experience that their customers demand by learning from the best retail websites today.