Offline to online business: How to successfully lead a digital transformation

A step-by-step guide on how to move your offline business online

In a matter of months, the COVID-19 crisis has transformed our lives and our businesses. With retail businesses being hit exceptionally hard, many business owners are wondering just how to keep their store afloat. Because of this, many small and mid-sized businesses across the globe are moving their business from offline to online (O2O) in a matter of weeks. 

If you don’t have an active website presence in the current circumstances, you are severely restricting your ability to reach potential customers looking to shop online, possibly for the first time. To prevent these shoppers from looking to your competitors to meet their needs, you’ll need a fully functioning e-commerce website that allows all of your business to be conducted virtually.

Making the switch from an offline to an online retail business isn’t always a simple process. What works offline may not work online, so you’ll need to adopt new strategies to keep your current customers and attract new ones. As you think through making this switch, ask yourself if you have the necessary skills to follow through with it. Will you be able to translate your offline experience into online business success? 

If you’re not sure if you have what it takes, we’ve created this guide to walk you through each step you need to take to move your retail business from offline to online. We’ll cover why it’s important and give detailed instructions on every aspect of the O2O process. 

Follow these 11 steps to move your offline business online

  • 1. Understand why you must get your offline business online
  • 2. Understand the benefits of moving your retail business online
  • 3. Collect offline customers’ emails for future online marketing actions
  • 4. Assess your online assets
  • 5. Plan to move your offline presence online
  • 6. Choose an e-commerce platform
  • 7. Buy a domain
  • 8. Build a high-converting e-commerce website
  • 9. Plan for marketing & SEO
  • 10. Final steps before the launch
  • 11. Go live

1. Understand why you must get your offline business online

Moving your offline business to an online setting is the best thing you can do to ensure the future success of your retail business. Even if you live somewhere that is entering the early phases of reopening, don’t be so quick to fall into the lull of business as usual. As these unforeseen circumstances have proven, it’s never too early to prepare your business for future potential disruptions.

Here are some other good reasons why making the switch to an online retail business model: 

#1. The Internet is made for business

The internet affects all aspects of your business already. It’s a dominant source of information on products, prices, and reviews, and people are likely talking about your business online, even if you’ve never purposely cultivated a web presence. Capitalize on these existing conversations by sharing positive reviews and talking to customers online to build your digital presence and market to a new audience. With the entire internet at your fingertips, you can reach new customers that you wouldn’t be able to target by any other means. 

#2. Potential customers can find you quickly

People now have the means to find you right at their fingertips, so it’s up to you to put the information out there so they can. Today’s consumers are almost guaranteed to check for information about a business online before visiting them in-person—and in many cases, they may prefer to make their purchase entirely online. Including your location, hours, and an “About” section on your website are great first steps to help people know the basics about your business. 

#3. Work more easily with other businesses and professionals

Networking and collaborating are musts in today’s business world, but doing the legwork of meeting new people and establishing solid connections can be time-consuming. Putting your retail business online will help like-minded businesses find you for partnerships, as can joining social networking sites to introduce you to professionals to collaborate with or hire.

“Ecommerce is poised to grow 18.0% following a 14.9% gain in 2019, further evidence of the digital shift”


2. Understand the benefits of moving your retail business online

Before you begin shifting your brick and mortar business online, it’s important to understand the benefits of what you are about to do, so you have a clear goal as you move through the O2O process. This will inform the decisions you take to bring these benefits to your business.

  • Get your information out to the public: Moving your retail business online is an excellent way to let the public know who you are and what you’re about. You’ll have the perfect venue to present your products and services and explain why a potential customer should choose you as the solution to their problem. You can explain elements of your business or educate customers about related topics.
  • Save money: Shifting to an online retail business can reduce operational and administrative costs. Even if you keep your brick-and-mortar storefront, you can operate with reduced hours, no longer having to wait for foot traffic to bring in new business. Your website does the work for you. 
  • Find new leads and make new sales in a global market: Bringing your retail business online allows you to target the global market with your goods, expanding your business’s reach and providing an almost endless supply of potential new customers.
  • Stay open around the clock: Online shopping can be done anytime or anywhere. Don’t be held back by standard store hours. Having an online store allows people to shop when it’s convenient for them, so you can sell products 24/7/365. 
  • Improve your customer support: Having a website is allows you to solve customer issues even if it’s the middle of the night. Post the answers to common questions your customers may have in a FAQ section or use a site feature like a chatbot that will engage with your customers, answer simple questions, and record any issues that require personal follow-up during business hours. 
  • Make the most of your advertising money: Online marketing extends your advertising dollars, reaching more people more effectively than traditional marketing methods. With digital marketing, you can test tactics and measure results, and then adjust as needed. It’s a better way to optimize your marketing and eliminates the uncertain results of offline marketing. 

Key Stats

  • 90% of consumers used the internet to find a local business in 2019
  • 33% of consumers look at local businesses online every day
  • 75% of 18-55-year-olds search for businesses online each week

(Ref: BrightLocal)

Now that you know the “why” of moving your retail business online, let’s cover the “how.” Each step builds off the last, so make sure you follow these steps in order to make the transition as smooth and successful as possible.

3. Collect offline customers’ emails for future online marketing actions

Tap into your current pool of customers as a resource for your pivot to digital by collecting their email addresses for your marketing campaigns. At your physical location, next to your register or reception area, have an email sign-up sheet. Let them know they’ll receive a discount voucher by email or text with a link to the site and a coupon to encourage sign-ups. 

You can also ask for feedback customers have about opening an online store. Not only will this help welcome your existing customers to your new digital store, but it can also give you great insight into what your customers are looking for when it comes to online shopping. 

  • Use targeted marketing

Because of how efficient digital marketing is, you send out ads and newsletters that target different groups. Group your customers into different segments so you can create personalized offers that appeal to their specific interests. For example, you could send a back-to-school deal that focuses on your customers that have children or an early bird special aimed at retirees that are home during the day.

  • Collect customer testimonials

Testimonials are a great way for potential clients to see what other people are saying about you and your business. As a result, they are a very effective way to get more clients and customers. Ask satisfied customers to leave testimonials detailing what they like about your business. You can have a review section on your website where people can voluntarily leave their comments, or you can ask for permission to use their testimonials in your marketing efforts.  

4. Assess your online assets

Look at your current online presence. Even if you are one of the late-adopters of all the newest technology, you probably still have some form of digital imprint. Your current online assets will form the basis of your new online business strategy: what do you need to improve, and what do you need to build from scratch?

To assess your online assets, ask yourself the following questions: 

What are all the digital accounts you have affiliated with your business?

  • Do you have a bare-bones website as a placeholder that you’ve been intending to update for years? 
  • Do you have a presence on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tiktok, etc.? (Count these, even if they are not frequently posted to.) 
  • Do any of your personal social media accounts double as business accounts? This frequently happens with LinkedIn, so make sure you take that site into account as well.
  • Have you participated in digital forums or Question and Answer websites like Quora or Yahoo Answers? Have you answered questions relating to your field of expertise or posted threads?

Consider your outcomes

  • Now go through the list you created above and ask yourself what did and didn’t work. Pay close attention to any successes and failures and what caused them. 
  • What were your results? Were you using all of the tools each platform presents to maximize the return on your investment of time?
  • Consider how you can further leverage those channels. Take note of what similar businesses are doing with their online presence. Take note of followers, tone of voice in posts, frequency in positing, and time of day of posts. All of these insights can provide valuable social media strategies to try out in the future.

5. Plan to move your offline presence online

Before jumping into the deep end of the digital ocean, make a plan for establishing your online presence. Figure out how you want to go about taking your retail business online by answering some of the following important questions, such as:

  • Do you want to completely switch to an online business model all at once? 
  • If you launch the online part of your business while running your current one, can you run the two businesses (online and offline) together or will it increase your workload detrimentally?
  • Do you want to gradually transition from offline to online? If so, what elements will you introduce into your business first?

Remember: just because you’re moving your business online doesn’t mean that you have to shut down your traditional business. You’re just making your business more visible and more available to the people you serve.

6. Choose an e-commerce platform

Picking your e-commerce platform is a simple yet important step in moving your retail business online. Before making your choice you need to understand your options. There are two types of e-commerce platforms: SaaS-based and open-source:

#1. SaaS-based e-commerce platforms

SaaS-based e-commerce platforms are the perfect choice for people without experience setting up a web store and are very simple to operate. A SaaS (or Software as a Service) platform is a web-based software that you pay to use through a subscription and access through the internet. You’ll work in a user-friendly interface to design and build your website, and they’ll typically have tips and tutorials to make it as easy as possible. 

Once you sign up for this type of e-commerce platform, you’ll be able to set up your store without any prior knowledge of coding or web hosting needed. While this option can be more expensive, the benefits and features that come with it are often worth the cost. If even that level of tech-savvy seems out of your reach, you can always call upon the Ndiwano marketplace to hire someone to help you navigate this step of moving your business online. Shopify or BigCommerce for instance are two examples of popular SaaS eCommerce providers

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Find a ecommerce consultant for hire Ndiwano

#2. Open-source e-commerce platforms

Open-source e-commerce platforms require more technical knowledge, as there aren’t built-in tools to make web design accessible for beginners. An open-source e-commerce platform refers to the type of website design software that has code that can be modified or enhanced by anyone. They are far more affordable than SaaS options and offer near limitless customization options, so your website can perfectly match your needs. You will need more technical knowledge to set this up, but hiring a freelance web developer will provide that expertise at an affordable price. Magento, WooCommerce or Drupal are among the most popular open-source eCommerce platforms.

E-commerce platform must-haves

Once you decide on the level of customization your shopping site needs, then you can focus on the features to look for when selecting what platforms are. 

  • Mobile functionality: Most people use their smartphones for everything and that includes online shopping. You want to make sure that your shopping site looks and functions just as well on both mobile and desktop computers. Many platforms have a simple tool that lets you see how your site will display and function on both types of devices and easily rearrange things to accommodate each separately.
  • Security: Your traditional business earned the trust of your loyal customers, and now your online business needs to earn their trust as well. This is even more important when you start to accept payments online. To protect your customers’ credit card information, your site must have PCI-DSS compliant payment solutions to prevent hackers from stealing their personal and credit card information. It’s also helpful if your platform features Captcha technology to verify that your users are real people and not robots.
  • Room to expand: As your business grows, your online store needs to grow too. Your site should be able to accommodate a high amount of traffic and store as many pages or products as you need. Open-source platforms will typically offer this naturally, but if you’re using a SaaS solution, pay attention to how much bandwidth and storage you get, and how easy it is to add more if you need it. 
  • Product and order management systems: These tools allow you to upload your products to your site, map shipping options, and even handle orders. You can sync your order management system to your inventory so your orders can be processed in a timely manner. Order management systems even can help you manage and track return orders.
  • Multichannel integration: If your e-commerce site has multichannel integration, that means you can use your website to manage other online seller marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, or Google Shopping if you currently are also selling in one of those venues or plan on acquiring one in the future. Managing selling on different sites can feel overwhelming so being able to track inventory and sales in one place will streamline your selling and time management. 

7. Buy a domain

A domain name is an ‘address’ (URL) for your website. It’s what people will type to locate your online retail store. It needs to be short, unique, and memorable so it is easy for customers to find and return to. 

Things to consider when purchasing a domain:

  • The domain name should fit with your brand. It should be in line with the name of your traditional store but doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly the same name.
  • Make sure no other site has registered any close variants. 
  • Decide which suffix to use. The most common and trusted endings are .com and .org. 

The next step is to register the domain for your business. If you’ve decided on going with a SaaS-based e-commerce site, you can typically purchase and register your domain through that platform. With an open-source e-commerce platform, you’ll need to purchase web hosting and a domain separately. 

Bonus Tips

  • Choosing a name: Choose a name that is short, unique, relevant, and easy to remember. Make sure your customers will be able to recall and easily and properly spell your domain name. 
  • Provide social proof: Once your domain is purchased, link your social media accounts to your new website and add your website link to your social media pages. If you still need to set up social media profiles, now is the perfect time. Choose social media handles that are similar to your domain name for consistent branding. 
  • Add testimonials: Incorporating testimonials on your website shows prospective customers that you have a good track record of customer satisfaction. You can ask loyal customers to provide one by asking them to fill out a survey, noting that you may use their comments for marketing purposes.

8. Build a high-converting e-commerce website

Now you’re ready to create the best website to serve you and your customers. Consider all the elements of websites that you frequent, especially when it comes to those you go to for your own online shopping needs. Though people may have different personal preferences when it comes to design elements, all consumers want a shopping experience that is easy and intuitive to use. Ease of use will apply both to how your website is mapped out, making your products easy to find and search for, and also in its functionality. You want your website to be glitch-free, with all of your photos loading properly and sales functions operating smoothly.

Here are some other website must-haves: 

  • Brand consistency: Your website needs to be consistent with your existing business’ brand. Reassure your customers they can expect the same quality products they know and love. Ideally, you want your online business to be a seamless extension of your traditional business that equally complements each other, where they can shop for your goods either online or off, depending on what is more convenient for them.
  • Quality images: Use clear, in-focus photos that show the products from different angles. Ideally, you should shoot your photos both on a white background and in a lifestyle shot, to show the product both on its own and in use. Make sure they are optimized for fast loading on your site, regardless of the device someone is using. 
  • Show them how it’s done: Incorporate videos, especially how-to videos, when you can. If your product needs some assembly, add a video to your site to show how easily putting it together can be by offering a step-by-step tutorial. Another video must-have is a moving 360 image of the product. It will help your customers get the full experience of the product, similar as they would if they visited your physical store. 
  • Mobile responsive: We cannot stress the importance of a good mobile website enough. If you’re using a SaaS e-commerce platform, check the mobile view before publishing to ensure your design is responsive. If you’re using open-source, make sure your coder or designer is aware of this requirement and carries it out well. 
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Find an ecommerce web design specialist Ndiwano

9. Plan for marketing & SEO

Now that you’ve set up your website, the next step is to make sure that people find it. You have a small audience of your loyal current customers, but the beauty of an online retail business is now you can make your services and products available to the whole world. To expand your reach to new customers in online retail, take note of the following tips on building your online audience.

#1. Create incentives to encourage email sign-ups 

This commonly looks like a pop-up when you visit a site that says “Enroll in our newsletter to receive 10% off your first purchase.” These free opt-in incentives help you build up your email list. If you aren’t able to offer a discount to customers as an incentive, you can offer the promise of future deals in your newsletter or offering a chance to buy an item early for hot-ticket items before they’re released to the larger public in the future.

#2. Grow your social media following

With all the social media sites available, growing your social media site may feel a little overwhelming. You don’t need to use every social site—you should focus on the ones that your target audience spends the most time on. You can determine this by doing some marketing or competitor research, or hiring a social media expert to help you find the best platforms. 

#3. Use paid Ads

Utilizing tools like Google AdWords and buying ads on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are a great way to raise your new online brand’s profile. Using Google’s advertising platform allows you to target customers searching for the keywords you’ve selected. For pricing, you only pay for each time someone goes to your site from the ad, which is known as pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. You can bid on how much you’re willing to pay for each click and set a budget cap for individual campaigns so you know how much to expect to spend. 

Social media ads are typically a bit cheaper, so they may be the easiest entry into the world of online advertising. Each platform offers a guide on how to purchase ads. Additionally, if these sorts of ads are uncharted territory, you can also outsource this task to a freelancer at the Ndiwano marketplace.

#4. Hire an SEO expert

SEO, or search engine optimization, drives traffic to your site when you appear in Google searches for terms and keywords that are relevant to your business. But SEO isn’t as easy as adding a few specific words to your site. You need to consider the site architecture and navigation, image alt tags and optimization, and numerous other on-page and technical elements. 

SEO is a complex and ongoing effort, so it’s best to hire a freelance SEO strategist who can take devise a long-term strategy for growing your website visibility. They’ll take care of everything from keyword research to image optimization and keep up with any major changes to SEO. 

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Find an SEO expert for hire Ndiwano

10. Final steps before the launch

Your website is almost ready to go: you just need to put the finishing touches on your e-commerce site by making sure customers can complete purchases and receive their products. 

#1. Configure payment methods

Many e-commerce platforms have built-in payment options, so configuring payment can be as simple as selecting and adding in account numbers. For example, linking up your PayPal account to your website can be done quite simply. Additionally, if you use Square as a POS system for your brick-and-mortar business, you can also use that for web payment to simplify your process. It’s also advisable that if your checkout process stretches over several web pages, you add a progress bar so they know how many steps are needed before they complete their checkout.

#2. Configure shipping methods

Choose a shipping carrier to deliver products that people purchase online. When choosing your shipping carrier, consider what you are shipping and how much it weighs, where you’ll be shipping to, what tracking options are available, and the cost involved. 

Check to see if your e-commerce platform has an affiliated shipping carrier to use, which may include a shipping discount. If you can, present your shoppers with a variety of shipping options covering both shipping speed and varying price points to provide as many options as possible. 

#3. Check tax compliance

As you know from your brick and mortar business, tax laws are very important and that same fact stands as you transition to an online retail business model. Make sure you have up-to-date information on sales tax when it comes from selling in your state to other states and even countries now that your online business has expanded your potential customer base.

11. Go live

Launch your website confidently now that it’s complete and ready for your first sale. To celebrate your new business stream, send a celebratory email to your traditional customers to welcome them to your new site. Include a discount code or voucher in your welcome email to encourage customers to try out your new site. If your brick and mortar business is closed, the launch of your new site is the perfect time to reach out to customers. If you have a business storefront, consider placing a sign in the window with your new web address so customers looking to make a purchase will know where to find you while you are unable to do business in person.

Expand your retail business reach by moving online

Transitioning your retail business from offline to online is the best way to stay current in today’s unpredictable retail market. Even as traditional businesses begin to reopen, this crisis has opened all of our eyes to the potential roadblocks that prevent business from occurring as usual. Businesses need as many retail streams as possible should another unexpected situation arise. There are many benefits of selling online that extend beyond just being prepared for a future crisis. 

Online retail stores allow you to reach new customers in markets far from the local area that your business services. It also allows shoppers to make purchases when it best suits them, letting them make purchases 24/7, beyond the hours of your brick-and-mortar store. Additionally, operating an online store can save you money in overhead costs compared to your traditional store and allows you to streamline your advertising. 

With all of the technology available, it’s easier than ever to make the switch to online. You can do this yourself or with the help of an expert freelancer to get the most impact from your new e-commerce website. Your business will have a bigger reach than ever before, so get ready for a new phase of business growth. 

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