Whether you want to redesign your existing website or you're starting from scratch, the resources and tips offered here will help ensure your website provides valuable information to consumers and reflects your store's personality and spirit.
When setting up a website, you first need to create a domain name: the web address your customers will find when they search for your store on the Internet. This part may not be as easy as you think. With almost a trillion (yes, a trillion!) websites on the Internet, it's very possible someone else has the domain name you would have chosen for your store's website. Fortunately, tools are available to help you find out if someone has the domain name you want and, at the same time, get suggestions for other names.
Using a service like Whois (www.whois.net), Instant Domain Search (www.instantdomainsearch.com), GoDaddy (www.godaddy.com), or my personal favorite, DomainsBot (www.domainsbot.com), you can type in the name of your store to find out what domains are available, including suggestions for other names. Try to find a domain for your website that has a .com or .co extension, as those are the ones most used by consumers. If you can't find one, then look for a .net address.
Don't purchase the domain name yet—you'll do that when you sign up for a website building service. Just write down a few possibilities you like and let them percolate a bit.
Finding a service provider
Many companies provide website-building services; you need to find the right one for you. After researching and testing several, here are my findings and ratings:
★★★★★: GoDaddy Website Builder ($1-$6.99/mo., www.godaddy.com) is my favorite because it is very easy to use, provides email addresses with the domain name, and offers a large selection of stock photos. They don't have a free trial; however, you can watch a comprehensive demo video on their website. And, their support techs are very informative and hands-on.
★★★★★: Intuit Websites ($7.99-59.99/mo., www.intuit.com/Websites) has a 30-day free trial with a credit card. Their Business Package includes an email address and blog. I found it extremely easy to use and customize. Their templates include starter pages with basic text, and they also have lots of stock images from which to choose.
★★★★: SnapPages (free-$30/mo., www.snappages.com) is my favorite after GoDaddy. Its interface is fun and different, and I really enjoyed working with the color schemes and layouts. Editing the content is very easy, too. However, their "save" button is small and placed in the lower right-hand corner, where it can easily be overlooked. If you leave a page you're working on and you don't click the save button, you will lose all your changes.
★★★★: WordPress (free-$99/yr., www.wordpress.com). I really enjoyed testing out WordPress and found their interface fairly easy to use. You have to upgrade if you want to customize the fonts and colors. If you're not interested in having a blog-style website, you can set it up as a traditional static website instead. It's easy to add pages, and a shopping cart application can be added with third-party software plug-ins.
★★★: Weebly ($3.29-$6.63/mo., www.weebly.com) has a free trial version that doesn't require a credit card to use. Their interface is fairly easy to use, and they have many options for website add-ons. However, they don't offer any stock photos to use in building your site.
★★★: Jigsy ($3.50-$21.00/mo., www.jigsy.com) is another service with a free trial that doesn't require a credit card to use. Their interface is a little difficult to navigate, but overall I was very happy with how easy it was to edit and move around content.
★: SquareSpace ($8-$24/mo, www.squarespace.com) was probably one of the most difficult to use. I had problems finding a template I liked and once I found one, I had a very hard time making changes to the colors of the background, text, etc. Their interface is not very intuitive, so I would recommend this software for more advanced users rather than beginners.
All these services offer custom domain names, page templates, tech support, and mobile-ready sites. In most cases, changing layouts, images, and content was very easy to do. Most offer various widgets you can easily add to the website via a menu system or drag-and-drop. Widgets included forms, social media feeds (Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp), calendars, buttons, maps, videos, and much more. One tip on choosing a template: Find one that most closely matches the color scheme you prefer because changing the colors was the most difficult aspect of most services reviewed here.
If you already have a website and want to change services, contact your provider and transfer to any service you choose and still keep your existing domain name (web address).
Heads and tails
Every website consists of pages of information. Those pages will sometimes have sub-pages, or even sub-sub-pages, but they should always have the same header and footer information. The header usually contains the logo, a navigation menu, and an image or several images. If you don't have a store logo to upload, choose a font you like that is very easy to read. You can also include a tagline in the header with your store name. For example, "Déjà Vu: You've been here before, haven't you?" The images in the header should be of your storefront, entrance, or sign whenever possible, as this will help people recognize your store. The navigation menu, of course, is a list of your main pages.
You'll want your store address and phone number to appear on every page of your website; whether this information is in the header or footer is up to you. I prefer the phone number in the header and the address in the footer, but it's a personal decision based on how you design your website. What's most important is that this information is on every page. Many stores also include their store hours in the header or footer.
Four pages every website should have
While working on your website, keep in mind your store's personality. The goal is to create a site that is easy to use, easy to read, and encourages customers to visit. It doesn't have to contain all the latest bells and whistles, but it does need to be functional and paint a basic picture of your store. These are four pages every website should have:
Home Page. The home page gives consumers their first impression of you and your store, and is therefore the most important page of any website. This is where you're going to spend the most time fiddling and adjusting to make everything "just right." It should include a short description of your store, a short description of your products, your store hours, links to any social media services you use, and photos of the inside of your store. Put at least one of the images "above the fold," meaning it's visible without the need to scroll. Keep the information contained and short so the whole home page can be viewed without using the scroll wheel more than once.
About Us. This is where you can wax poetic about your store, your mission, your staff, and your involvement in charities. Again, include photos of the inside of your store, your staff, your store mascot, etc. The Internet is a visual landscape, so images are very important and help break up blocks of text. If this or any other page gets much longer than your home page, organize the information into sections with descriptive headers so customers can easily find what they're looking for.
Contact Us. Here you should reiterate your address, phone number, and store hours. Also include a short form visitors can fill out when they want to send questions. Make sure the entries for the form are sent to an email address you check at least once a day. Do not put your email address on your website, as this will dramatically increase how much spam you receive.
Other pages customers love
Make sure you design and publish the four pages mentioned above before adding more pages. Otherwise, it will seem like a never-ending task. The goal is to upload the basics and refine and revise over time.
Here are some ideas for other pages you can add to your website:
- What's New. I love finding these pages on websites, as they show me what has just arrived at my favorite local stores. Include product photos and short descriptions.
- Events. If you host events at your store, an event page with a calendar will help your customers decide what to attend.
- Blogs & Vlogs. Blogs and vlogs (video blogs) can be a fun way to express your opinions, ideas, and personality, but on a business website you'll need to make sure you stay positive and stick to topics relevant to your store's mission. For example, if your store's mission is "Reduce/Reuse/Recycle," your blog posts should be about how customers can do that, rather than rants against government regulations or raves about your new baby, etc.
- Newsletters. If you send out newsletters, whether by snail mail, email, or text messages, you can keep an archive of them on your website. You never know when a customer will want to look back at something you sent last year because it had a great quote, resource, idea, or product.
- Mascot Page. I love walking into a store and visiting with their mascot, be it a cat, dog, canary, or even a turtle. If your store has a mascot, consider a page dedicated to them, their story, and maybe the latest pet-friendly products in your store.
- Loyalty Programs. Customer loyalty programs are big, so make sure you talk up any loyalty programs your store offers.
Online shopping and shopping carts
Fortunately, setting up online shopping for your website is very easy with most of the services listed at the beginning of this article. Many have a shopping cart option you can easily add to your website whenever you're ready. Some, such as WordPress, use third-party shopping cart software, so you might have to do a little more testing to make sure it will meet your needs.
Things to consider when designing an online shopping cart for your website include: what categories will make it easy for customers to find what they're looking for, how will you track online sales in your inventory, will you charge extra for shipping and handling, and who will process the orders. This is not something you want to jump in and start doing; it requires thought and planning to ensure its success.
When you add online shopping to your website, make sure product images are clear. For online shoppers, nothing is worse as an than finding small photos on a dark background that don't allow you to see the details of the products for sale. When photographing your merchandise, use good lighting from multiple angles, a decent camera that will take high resolution photos, and a software program to edit the photos.
Another thing you will need when offering online shopping is a page that outlines your sales terms and conditions. This should explicitly state your policies on shipping, returns, disputes, damaged merchandise, and any other policies your store has.
DIY next steps
Post your web address everywhere and encourage your customers to visit your site. The beauty of web design is you can see your creation immediately. You may encounter short-term frustrations, but stick with it, and in the end, you will experience a deep sense of satisfaction, pride, and joy.
- Include your phone number and address on every page of your website.
- Ensure your store hours are listed somewhere easy for customers to find.
- Choose white or very light background colors for your website. Use bolder colors in the headers and footers.
- Use black text for the body of the website and save colored text for headings, sub-headings, and links.
- Use a font that's easy to read and in a size large enough for customers with less than 20/20 vision.
- Include photos wherever possible. Consider it eye-candy for your customers.
- Offer in-store pick up for online orders. You might get a larger purchase, plus the customer will appreciate saving money on shipping.
- Have your log in the header link back to you home page. This is standard practice for most websites.
- Do not include your email address anywhere on your website as this will encourage spam. Use forms instead.
- Do not use images you find in internet searches or on other companies' websites without express permission.
- Do not use dark backgrounds, as this makes the website very difficult to read and feel closed off and heavy, rather than open and light.
- Do not stretch or skew images. Make sure they're sharp, in-focus, and not too dark.
- Do not use images higher than 72 to 100 dpi resolution. Any higher and they will take too long to load.
- Do not have music play automatically when customers come to your website. People have very particular tastes in music, and you could lose customers if they don't like your music selection.
First published in Vol. 27 No. 3 of Retailing Insight. © 2013 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.