When you first start in ecommerce, it can feel like there are a million things to do—and there are. Every store needs to launch a website, establish a supply chain, create a brand, and more.
But these early steps aren’t just a checklist to get you ready for launch. They are the foundational building blocks of your ecommerce strategy. The most successful online stores use their launch to set their ecommerce strategy, then build on that strategy over time.
A great strategy doesn’t just set you up for a great launch, though. It sets you up for long-term success by driving focus. Everyone (and their team) has a finite amount of time in a day. A great strategy helps you prioritize what needs doing, and just as importantly, what doesn’t need doing.
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What is an ecommerce strategy?
An ecommerce strategy is an organized series of tactics to promote your product and grow your sales. A proper strategy considers the full lifecycle of the product, the customer, and the corporation. Ecommerce strategy encompasses product strategy, customer strategy, and corporate strategy.
The best ecommerce strategies are comprehensive and create a foundation for growth. They’re easy to follow and give you confidence for big projects like ecommerce or retail expansion.
Learn more: Build your site by choosing a theme, making it easy to create an optimized ecommerce experience. Explore the Shopify online store editor.
Key parts of an ecommerce strategy
Let’s look at the key strategic decisions you need to make in creating your ecommerce strategy:
To plan a product strategy, use the following steps:
1. Conduct research and development
Research and development (R&D) involves understanding the product development process. How are your current products, and potential future products, developed? Some merchants prefer to handle the product development strategy themselves, while others enlist the help of a contracted third party. You’ll also want to consider how often you undergo this process.
2. Develop product positioning
Product positioning is how you present the benefits of your product to a particular target audience. This involves understanding how your product(s) will fit into the market, and ideally fulfill a need that current products aren’t filling. This helps inform your product pages’ product descriptions.
3. Research your product supply chain
It’s always a good idea to get as much insight as you can into your supply chain. This will help you understand how things work, negotiate better deals and lead times, and know the best time to reorder or develop a new product, for example.
When looking into the supply chain, ask questions. How does your product reach your customer? What partners do you select for manufacturing and delivery? These affect your product quality, delivery times, and gross margin.
4. Know your product line depth and breadth
Even if your plans aren’t set in stone, it’s a good idea to consider if you plan to expand your product line in the future or if you’ll stick with what you’ve got.
How many products would you like to carry, both for launch and over time? Will your product have multiple variants, such as colors or flavors? After your first product, will your additional ones be a new product line (think: introducing a t-shirt to complement your jeans) or an extension (think: introducing more lightweight jeans to complement your current line of jeans)?
5. Understand product lifetime
Product lifetime refers to how long your items will be viable and relevant for purchase. Some products are evergreen, or always relevant, while others may be limited-edition or seasonal product drops.
Learn more: Product analytics provides insight into the performance of your products for the past 90 days. Explore Shopify product insights.
A great ecommerce marketing strategy thinks about the full lifecycle of the customer and answers many of the decisions along that journey.
To build out your customer strategy, do the following:
1. Identify your target audience
Who is your target market? A common way to capture information about your target market is in a buyer persona document.
Shopify merchant Pepper sells bras it created to fit small-chested women. The main challenge for the brand’s target audience is finding flattering, comfortable bras. Pepper demonstrates a deep understanding of this issue and offers a solution, regardless of age or specific interests of its audience.
2. Create your branding
Branding is one way to set yourself apart from competitors and create a meaningful connection with your audience. What values does your brand represent, and how will customers understand this? How do you want your customers to feel?
Kerri Economopoulos, Managing Director of Titan AV, acknowledges the importance of branding. “Our customers expect a seamless experience, regardless of the channel they are using," she says. "Maintaining a consistent brand message, visuals, and tone across multiple channels has been challenging, but Shopify Plus has allowed us to centralize our branding to efficiently and consistently manage all our channels from a single dashboard.”
3. Understand customer acquisition
4. Build the customer experience
Focusing on creating an exceptional customer experience will create a strong foundation for lasting customer relationships. Today’s consumers not only expect but demand a great experience, and they’re not afraid to shop around until they find it.
When it comes to your customer experience, what are your customer service standards? For example, will you subsidize shipping costs and/or returns, and will you provide a guarantee? Will there be an option to subscribe? Determine the type of experience you want to create and then build systems and policies to facilitate that.
5. Focus on customer retention
Customer retention is an easily overlooked but extremely important area of your business. It’s typically much easier to convince someone who already knows your brand and products to make a purchase than someone who has no prior experience with your business.
When it comes to customer retention, determine how often you want your existing customers to reorder—once a month, once a year, never? And how will you ensure they come back to do so?
Many ecommerce website owners start their business because they’re passionate about their customer or their product. As a result, corporate strategy is often an afterthought. But a great corporate strategy can be a powerful enabler for your business.
Some of the decisions to consider in a corporate strategy include:
Number of shareholders
Who do you want to own the business? Owning 100% of your business yourself can be attractive—you get to make all the decisions. But for some people it can mean missing out on business partners that could provide valuable skills or investors who (in addition to their financing) are often well-connected, experienced, and eager to help.
At the same time, shareholders eventually want a payout for their time or money, so if you take on shareholders or investors, you’ll need a plan for them to get their money back.
Although starting an ecommerce business is easier than ever, it typically still requires some cash. Where will you get that cash? That can take the form of loans, investment, your savings, pre-sales to customers, or crowdfunding.
However, ecommerce businesses that are already operating need a financing strategy too. They may need to place big orders of supplies, or fulfill seasonal demand, and these things require a plan to have enough cash at the right times.
Learn more: View key financial information about your business in the finance reports. Explore Shopify finance reports.
If you’re just starting your ecommerce business, this one may not seem that important yet. But veteran online store owners will tell you it can get very important.
Who will your first hires be? For example, it could be a digital marketing hire, a customer experience hire, or a product development hire. Then, once you start hiring, how will your organizational structure fit it all together? How will your employees grow over time? This all makes a big difference in the future of the business.
How to create an effective ecommerce strategy
The above may seem overwhelming at first. But it’s a framework to check if your strategy is comprehensive. Once you begin planning your strategy, you’ll quickly find they’re all interrelated, and by making one decision, some of your other decisions will start to fall into place. If you need help with your strategy, or carrying it out after it’s written, consider hiring an ecommerce consultant.
To organize this strategic decision-making process, consider splitting your ecommerce strategy creation into four steps:
1. Decide on your personal goals and values
Your personal goals and values are foundational to your ecommerce strategy. This isn’t a fluffy statement, it’s a business reality. Your goals will inform how you grow and your values will inform everything from who you do business with to how you manage your product line.
Here’s an example of how goals and values inform your strategy on everything from pricing to branding:
- You value natural ingredients and commit to having your products be all-natural.
- You need to source natural ingredients from suppliers who don’t use chemicals.
- Those suppliers charge a premium, so you need to price your products higher than market averages in order to maintain your gross profit margin.
- To justify the higher price point and maintain a strong conversion rate, you’ll need to invest more deeply in brand building and customer experience.
- The natural ingredients cause your product to spoil quicker, so you’ll also need to invest in customer education and experience post-purchase.
Running a business that aligns with the owner’s personal goals or values may create operational challenges, but it’s crucial for staying motivated and proud of what you’re doing.
2. Get to know your potential customers
One of the goals of any new ecommerce store should be to establish product-market fit. This is when you have a product your potential customers (who are your addressable market) aren’t just interested in, but are thrilled to have the opportunity to purchase.
The best way to achieve product-market fit is to research and deeply understand your target audience and their needs. It’s completely up to you how you decide what customer you’re serving. It could be as wide as “women from 45 to 60” or as specific as “CrossFit enthusiasts in southern Ontario.” To determine your ideal target market, ask yourself: What group of people do I know have a need for the type of product I have in mind?
In addition to product-market fit, understanding your customer can help inform your brand positioning, marketing channels, and customer service standard. If you’re unsure where to start with understanding your potential customers, find five to 10 of them and ask them questions about your idea and their needs. If their answers surprise you, talk to more potential customers! In the early days of your ecommerce strategy, it’s almost impossible to spend too much time speaking with potential customers, given how valuable their insight is.
3. Create your long-term vision
Once you’ve done customer research to validate your initial product, branding, and marketing channels, you’re ready to think about the long-term. A great strategy is rounded out by a vision.
“Vision” may sound like something only the Steve Jobses of the world can create, but creating one is actually a fairly simple exercise. Just ask yourself a few versions of this question: “What does it look like if we succeed?”
To make this practical, add a time frame and make it specific:
- “What does our product line look like in five years if we succeed?”
- “What does our brand feel like in five years if we succeed?
- “Who are our key partners (supply chain, resellers, collaborators) in five years if we succeed?”
This is similar to goal setting, but with a different purpose. Goal setting helps you define a series of specific actions to reach your vision. Vision setting allows for ambiguity—you don’t need to define exactly how you’ll get there in five years, just how it looks and feels.
Check out how Polysleep approaches goals. "The goal was really to humanize a brand, make people realize that we’re actually a team," says Jeremiah Curver, Co-founder and CEO. "We’re not a hundred-thousand-employee company hidden somewhere in another country and don’t care about the users. [We wanted] to connect with the users to Polysleep as the brand, and not just as a company that sells mattresses."
4. Ruthlessly prioritize
By the time you’ve gone through the exercises above, you’ll likely have plenty of ideas for each area of your business. The last step is prioritizing.
For each area of your business (product, customer, corporate), identify the single most important thing to do. If you’re unsure how to identify them, try asking it this way: What’s the biggest roadblock to your business’s profitably growing, and how can you address that?
Execute your ecommerce strategy with Shopify
A great ecommerce strategy means saying no to good ideas to make way for great ones. By understanding and evaluating all the levers you have available for your business, but focusing on the most impactful ones, you can set your store up for the best long-term success.
Ecommerce strategy FAQ
What does ecommerce mean in marketing?
What does an ecommerce marketing specialist do?
How is marketing done in ecommerce?
- Development of a comprehensive SEO strategy
- Investment in pay-per-click (PPC) advertising
- Leveraging social media
- Email and SMS text message marketing
- Offer of discounts and promotions