Understanding the basics of buying and selling online

As with other sales channels, customers are at the centre of your online business. Understanding the benefits and opportunities together with the key challenges and risks of e-commerce is important in order to reach your customers with the right products and services. 

Advances in technology, logistics, payments and trust – coupled with increasing internet and mobile access fuelling consumer demand for convenience – have created a global online shopping arena where millions of consumers no longer go shopping, but literally are shopping, at every moment and everywhere.

Retailers need to be more aware and responsive than ever before to when and where their potential customers are making decisions throughout their ‘always on’ shopping journey.

If you are considering selling online via existing e-commerce platforms, these tips will be useful. 

Considerations for e-commerce selling

While e-commerce is a globally rising trend, purchasing frequencies and behaviours vary across geographical locations, products and generations. Take this into consideration with online sales as it can determine whether your products will reach the right customer in the right region and whether there is an online audience for your products and services.

When offering your products and services online, bear in mind these facets of e-commerce:

Geographical purchasing behaviours - it may be that online demand for your products varies by region. If you are offering your products to global markets, you may find consumers in Asia, North America and Western Europe are most likely to shop online, while customers in Eastern Europe and Russia, Latin America, and the Middle East and Africa are less likely.

Generational preferences - consider your typical or target customers and their generational purchasing behaviours.

Product preferences - products such as books and music, which drove the initial expansion of e-commerce, are now typically sold online, with recent trends increasingly shifting towards appliances and food. 

Device preferences - the devices customers use for making purchases will vary by region and generation. You should adapt your online store to suit target customers on computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones, each of which requires a slightly different approach. 

In order to reach the right customers via the right channels you need to use marketing planning aligned to your online business model. Use this checklist to support planning your marketing approach.

E-commerce brings many additional benefits to online sellers:

Higher profits achieved through several factors:

business automation and faster processes 

availability of products and services 24/7 and at the customer’s convenience

direct and personalised marketing leading to improved product sales through targeting

utilising available data and analytics to identify profitable segments and products.

Expanded customer base

extended customer base bringing in additional revenues.

Ensuring a seamless supply chain

successful online stores implement seamless supply chains which employ a sequence of companies to deliver goods to customers, including logistics and transport companies, and local manufacturers and producers. Consider supply chain innovation as part of your digitalisation.

When you decide to take your business online and set up your web site, these tips will help you drive online sales. 

Customer online presence and experience

Your business needs to be aware of the fundamental customer shifts that happen when moving to the digital world to identify quick wins and to help define what your future business model will look like. To do this successfully will require having an intuitive understanding of your new online customers and the determination to remould your business to serve them.  

Understand your new online customers

Adapt your business model

Personalisation – using individualised attention to drive emotional connection

Personalisation is the most valuable component of most experiences. It shows you understand the customer’s specific circumstances and have adapted their experience accordingly. Use of names, individualised attention, knowledge of preferences, and past interactions all add up to an experience that feels personal. An example is adding personalised content or product recommendations to marketing communications.

Time and effort – minimising customer effort and creating frictionless processes

Customers’ time is priceless and they are increasingly looking for instant gratification. You can increase customers’ loyalty by removing unnecessary obstacles, impediments and bureaucracy to enable them to achieve their objectives quickly and easily. Many companies are discovering how to use time as a source of competitive advantage. Equally, there are clear cost advantages to saving time, as long as the other principles are not compromised. An example is employing easily-used online carts and buying options.

Integrity – being trustworthy and engendering trust

Integrity arises from your business behaving in a consistently trustworthy way. There are trust-building events where businesses must publicly react to a difficult situation, and trust-building moments where individual actions by employees add up to create trust in the business as a whole. For customers, the degree to which your business delivers on its promises will be the main factor in earning their trust.

Expectations – managing, meeting and exceeding customer expectations

Customers have expectations about how their needs will be met, increasingly set by the best brands they have encountered. Understanding, delivering, and, if possible, exceeding expectations is a key skill of great businesses. Some are able to make statements of clear intent that set expectations (for example, “never knowingly undersold”) while others set the expectations more specifically (“delivery in 48 hours”, “free deliveries”, “returns, no questions asked”). They then delight the customer when they exceed them.  

Resolution – turning a poor experience into a great one

Customer recovery is highly important. Even with the best processes and procedures, things will go wrong. Great companies have processes that not only put the customer back in the position they should have been in as rapidly as possible, but also make the customer feel really good about the experience. A sincere apology and acting immediately are two critical elements of successful resolution.

Empathy – achieving an understanding of the customer’s circumstances to drive deep rapport

Empathy is the emotional capacity to show you understand someone else’s experience. Empathy-creating behaviours are central to establishing a strong relationship and involve reflecting back to the customer that you know how they feel. They know you will then go that one extra step for them precisely because you show this.


Most online businesses need to set shipping policies. You can adopt several approaches:

- incorporate the shipping price into the product price and offer free shipping

- offer flat rate shipping

- charge shipping by weight, size, distance or any other criteria

- combine different options – for example, offer free shipping for purchases over a certain amount and charge a flat rate for orders below that amount.


The rise of online businesses, e-commerce and e-tailers has brought with it a number of new payment options. For some more traditional businesses and smaller SMEs, payment will remain physical, such as payment in cash upon delivery. However, online customers are generally looking for seamless, mostly cashless, paying options. 

Consider the following paying options:

Direct online payment – when creating your web site, collaborate with web site providers and third parties to establish direct 100% online payments, including a variety of debit and credit card options. This option is the leading practice and favoured by customers as it offers easy two-step finalisation of their purchase.

Online banking / bank transfers – provide payment details to your customers to allow them to complete their payments via online or in-person bank transfers. On confirmation of payment, the delivery is initiated. This option assumes your business has a bank account. It may impose additional transaction fees for your customers for each purchase and can lead to a lengthier shopping process.  

Also be aware that online payment options is another area where your business has to stay up to date with trends. Globally there is a rising trend of emerging non-bank third-party payment service providers which are expanding the payments ecosystem and promoting the development of the online payments industry. These include Apple Pay, Alipay, Amazon Pay, PayPal and peer-to-peer payment options. Savvy customers will often prefer these modern, state-of-the-art payment options.

Illustrative example

A small bakery with three employees had problems serving all of its customers. The bakery was located near schools and universities and often had rush periods during school breaks. The two employees that were serving the customers were overwhelmed and unable to serve everyone in time. 

Recently, the bakery was shown a new ordering app. The app developer presented the main features and benefits and offered a three-month trial period for a small trial price (10% of the regular price for these three months with a reduced service fee) then set it up for the bakery. 

The app enabled regular customers to store their payment details and create a list of their regular orders for future use. This way customers were able to order in advance and have their orders ready by the time they got to the bakery. A list of orders would be automatically generated for the employees, and order status information was displayed on screens in the bakery. 

This digitalisation of the orders and payments sped up the process, reducing waiting times and the number of people in the bakery. One of the servers would hand out the pre-ordered items, while the other server would focus on in-store customers and their orders. The app also stored information on the orders and behaviours of customers, providing significant insight into customer behaviour. 

This benefitted the owner, as based on the data, specific targeted offers, loyalty schemes and discounts could be given to customers. Overall, this resulted in an improved customer experience across all areas.

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