When an Online Store Is Right for You — and When Not
Selling online is the dream of many small businesses. But not all companies are a good fit for the regular online store platforms, such as Shopify, Squarespace, or Wix.
Clients usually contact us when something is not working correctly with their online store. Their issues are often easy to fix. But sometimes, we come across a few that are much more challenging. Let's focus on the harder ones. They typically fall in either of two broad categories:
Issues that can be fixed by changing the core configuration of the online store. While solving these problems requires some work, we often find a solution using the standard capabilities of the online store. Should the standard features not be sufficient to fix the problem, we usually turn to an app from the built-in app store to overcome a system limitation, such as increasing the number of variants, adding inventory management, or implementing a loyalty program. Since these apps directly connect with the core application, they are generally easy to configure.
Issues that stem from a fundamental mismatch between a client's business model and an online store's capabilities. These problems are the most difficult to solve because they can be traced back to a misunderstanding about how the online store software works. Every software has a sweet spot—transactions it can easily handle. If your particular situation requires you to step outside this envelope, things can get increasingly tricky and expensive. Here is my simple advice. If your specific business model cannot be easily configured using Shopify's or Squarespace's standard features, then you have to look for different software. I know this is hard, but this decision can make or break your company.
Here are a few pointers of when I think an online store could be a good fit for your company and when not.
When an Online Store Could Be a Good Fit for Your Business
In general, the sweet spot of online stores, such as Shopify, is selling physical goods, especially those you can abundantly produce and keep in inventory.
The same rule - without the inventory part - applies to digital products (downloads) and services, such as classes. However, they are more Squarespace's sweet spot. If you provide billable consultations that require a scheduled appointment, you need to add a scheduling app.
In summary, online stores are generally a good fit for your business if your physical products, digital products, and services are standardized and reproducible. For example, you could easily set up an online store selling standardized or prearranged flower bouquets, which shoppers cannot customize. However, suppose you want each customer to choose the flowers that go into their bouquet according to their preference. In that case, the sheer number of different flower combinations would quickly exceed the capabilities of any regular online store. That does not mean a flower shop cannot have one. It only means that it needs to focus on selling standardized flower bouquets online and handle custom orders differently.
Also, somewhat outside the sweet spot is selling artwork, where every piece is different and one-of-a-kind. Shipping can cause some problems as the sizes could significantly vary, exposing your business to hefty after-delivery surcharges. But it all depends on the artwork. Selling pottery online, for example, could work. However, if you sell oversized paintings, you need to find a different solution for shipping.
When an Online Store Is NOT a Good Fit for Your Business
Selling customizable physical or digital products or services that you tailor to each customer may not be a good fit for a regular online store (e.g., Shopify, Squarespace, Wix) as they cannot handle the resulting complexity.
But don't worry. You can still interact with your customers online—albeit a little differently. The solution often lies in combining multiple tools along your end-to-end business process. It is less complicated than it may sound. However, it requires knowledge to create those business processes that several interconnected software packages can seamlessly support.
Instead of Selecting a Software First, Start With Defining Your Business Model
When we work with clients on an online strategy, we always spend considerable time understanding their business model(s). Once the business model is clear, we look for the most cost-effective online approach. We design business processes, select software packages, and create support arrangements. It is a cascade that starts with the definition of the business model and ends with a tailored online software solution.
You can follow the same steps. Instead of first selecting a platform, such as Shopify or Squarespace, you begin your search by outlining how you do business and then see which software platform could support your business model. That way, you are sure that you end up with a solution that works for you, saving you the expense of costly reworks later on.
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