By Gareth Poppleton, Managing Director of Retail Merchant Services

UK consumers spent £23 billion online in the first three months of 2014 alone so the opportunities presented to SMEs are lucrative. Launching online can be a daunting prospect for small businesses, but it also offers a wealth of potential for growth.

Ecommerce levels the playing field between major retailers and SMEs, giving smaller companies equal opportunity to profit from the UK’s rising number of online shoppers.

Trading online is not simply a case of setting up a website, adding a few products and going live; the parameters for businesses change between bricks & mortar and online.

A solid business plan is essential for ecommerce success, as it enables you to refine your strategy for launching to a new, digital audience.

In this regard, a pre-ecommerce check-list is a useful starting point and should include elements such as a thorough competitor analysis as well as an understanding of your target audience. From here, you can look at what you will be selling as well as a pricing strategy. Other things to consider include security such as protecting sensitive customer data as well as fulfilment to ensure your online business is profitable.

The website

Once you’ve established a clear ecommerce strategy, the next step is to create a platform to get you there.
The fantastic thing about trading online is that there are an almost unlimited number of features and functions that you can add to a website, but be warned: try to do too much, too soon and you could find yourself struggling to maintain customer service levels.

Our advice is to start simple and get it right. Decide what you want your website to do right now, but if there’s anything you might like to introduce in future, it’s worth noting that down, as your website might need to be built in a way that permits added functionality at a later date.

There are two mainstream options for SMEs: build it yourself using a content management system from the likes of WordPress or Joomla or use a professional agency.

Doing it yourself is low cost, offers total brand control, provides many software programmes with existing templates/plug-ins to instantaneously create designs and functions. However, it can be time consuming, a strain on resources, raises the risk of looking ‘amateurish’ as well as other practical considerations such as web hosting.

A professional agency design will likely provide a slick look and finish, allow you to draw on external expertise while being quick to launch with ongoing support. At the same time, agencies can be expensive with creative vision lost in translation. In addition, some elements of the site may only be editable by the agency.

Online payments

Accepting payments is the core of an ecommerce website, so it’s vital that the service is both secure and delivers a seamless customer experience. There are several solutions available to SMEs, outlined below.

Hosted payment pages

One of the simplest ways to start taking secure online payments is a hosted payment page. This means a payment service provider takes care of the set-up and security, and links the page to your internet merchant account.

Some hosted payment page packages offer SMEs the option to customise the page with your own branding – so the customer journey is consistent throughout your site.

Direct payments integration

For a more sophisticated set-up you can select a solution that integrates payments pages into your main website, using a connecting technology known as an application programme interface (API).

This option is ideal for small businesses who want to ensure that the customer never leaves their site during their journey, and who wants to maintain full control over the design and management of the payments process.

Online payments gateway

Whichever solution you choose, it’s essential that your business selects a payment service provider that offers a secure online payments gateway. This authorises and processes card transactions quickly and easily, while protecting sensitive customer information.


For retailers that carry out a significant volume of invoicing, the process can be speeded up by switching over to email billing, and including a secure ‘click to pay’ link within those emails.

Virtual terminal

It’s important to remember that not all customers visiting your website will want to make an online transaction – some will prefer to place orders over the phone. To facilitate this, you can introduce ‘virtual terminal’ technology, which enables your business to securely accept telephone payments using a secure web page.

When you’ve chosen the best solution for your individual business needs, make sure you look at the support package being offered by your preferred payment service provider. Downtime is incredibly costly, so it’s important to select someone you trust to keep you up and running with full support capabilities.