Where to get help taking your business online

The pandemic has brought forward the transition to e-commerce, so businesses need to go digital. David Prosser explains the tools available to help take your business online.

Woman packing things
There is plenty of help available for companies setting up online operations
(Image credit: © Getty Images)

Online sales accounted for 35% of all retail sales in the UK last month, an all-time high. But retailers who assume this percentage will fall back once the Covid-19 lockdown comes to an end may be making a costly mistake.

Analyst Retail Economics estimates that since the beginning of the pandemic, one in two Britons have bought a product online they had previously only bought in a shop. People’s shopping habits are changing for good.

Building a platform

For smaller businesses, this represents a challenge. They may lack the expertise to exploit e-commerce opportunities. And even if they do manage to get online sales and fulfilment operations up and running, they may struggle to attract attention in a crowded marketplace where larger rivals have huge marketing budgets.

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The good news is that there’s plenty of help available. The first option is to build your own online shop with the help of an e-commerce platform. These platforms provide templates you can customise for your own needs, along with all the sales functionality you’ll need to actually begin trading online. The idea is that the platform takes care of the technical stuff so that you can concentrate on growing sales.

There is a wide range of options to choose from, but in one recent report, startups.co.uk, an online community for small businesses, named Wix, Squarespace and Shopify as its picks of the platforms. Wix did particularly well in the study, with pricing that begins at £13 a month; the platform also offers support with customer relationship management, marketing and order fulfilment.

If you’re worried that your brand will get lost in the ether if you go it alone, an alternative is to sell through someone else’s platform, where you’re guaranteed plenty of traffic. The obvious option is to set up shop on Amazon. But while plenty of small businesses report good results from the e-commerce giant, there are also a growing number of platforms specialising in hosting independent brands.

The best known of these platforms is Not On The High Street, launched in 2006, which is now home to more than 5,000 small, creative retailers from across the UK. It has seen its traffic and sales soar during the pandemic, investing heavily in marketing to bring new customers on to retailers’ home pages.

More recent arrivals in this area include Mighty Small, which describes itself as a “supermarket of small brands” and enables independent food and drinks producers to reach online shoppers all across the country. Local & Independent is another operator worth considering. It hosts smaller food retailers, often offering artisan products, and enables customers to search by both region and type of food.

These platforms often feel like a better fit for smaller retailers, whose brand values may sit less comfortably with the giants of e-commerce. Indeed, many of the emerging platforms are keen to highlight their community links and to tap into movements such as ethical consumerism.

An accelerating shift

Not On The High Street launched a campaign to work with retailers to increase face-mask production at the height of the pandemic last year. Mighty Small works closely with the charity FoodCycle, which uses surplus food to prepare meals for those struggling financially or with problems such as loneliness.

Different options will appeal to individual businesses, depending on what they sell online and their current levels of experience and expertise. But the bottom line is that the UK’s shift to e-commerce appears to have been accelerated by the pandemic – possibly by as much as ten years according to some retail analysts – and small businesses can’t afford to be left behind.

David Prosser
Business Columnist

David Prosser is a regular MoneyWeek columnist, writing on small business and entrepreneurship, as well as pensions and other forms of tax-efficient savings and investments. David has been a financial journalist for almost 30 years, specialising initially in personal finance, and then in broader business coverage. He has worked for national newspaper groups including The Financial Times, The Guardian and Observer, Express Newspapers and, most recently, The Independent, where he served for more than three years as business editor.