The internet is full of advice telling you how to start an online business, but for many entrepreneurs this is only part of the equation. Perhaps a more important question is when is the best time to start an online store?
Taking your first step into the ecommerce world can be a daunting process. Most experienced store owners will tell you that it was much harder than they had anticipated and that they had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way.
If there is a such a thing as a “best time to start an online store” then this kind of information would clearly be very helpful for those looking to set up an ecommerce website. Starting an online store at the right time will help to add momentum to the launch and ensure that your hard work is rewarded, rather than frustrated. Getting the timing wrong could have a detrimental effect, wasting time and money and stalling growth.
Financial advisers often say that if you’re looking to start buying shares then the best time to do so is winter, because prices often tend to surge in December, or the middle of summer, because prices often fall after dividends are distributed in the spring. With that in mind, here are a few guiding principles to help you find the best time to start an online store.
When is the Best Time to Start an Online Store?
It Depends on Your Peak Sales Period
Your first step should be to identify which month you think will generate your peak level of sales. Ideally, we recommend that you then work backwards to give yourself as much time as possible to build, hone and market your store ready for that period. It’s slightly counterintuitive, but we’ll explain why below.
If you think that Christmas is going to generate the most sales, try and start your store in the New Year. If you’re selling products that will be enjoyed in summer, try and start your store in August/September.
Note that we’re not saying that this is when you should launch your store. Clearly these dates would be completely out of sync with your marketplace. What we’re saying is that this is when you should start working on your store.
There are several reasons for this:
- It takes time to design and build an ecommerce website. It will take longer if you’re launching a brand from scratch (rather than taking an existing business online). Giving yourself 9-12 months ensures that you have enough time to get your store ready for the next potential wave of business.
- Your chosen web designer might not immediately be available – and if you’re shopping around then that can take several weeks. It will typically take 4-8 weeks for an agency to build you a site, and whilst an out-of-the-box system can be set up very quickly, if you’re doing the work yourself there’s no knowing how long it will take for you to get the store ready.
- Ecommerce websites require constant tinkering. Landing pages, product arrangements, tags, apps, checkout pages – you’ll be amazed at how much there is to think about. You don’t have to commit to this level of detail, but from experience we know that most entrepreneurs want to because they know that there are significant gains to be had. Learning how the ecommerce platform works – from back to front – isn’t a quick process but it’s definitely worth doing.
- If generating organic traffic (from search engines) is a part of your marketing strategy, you’re going to need to give your store as long as possible to start ranking. It typically takes 3-6 months for a store to start ranking, but can be years before you start to get that crucial steady stream of traffic. Giving yourself 9-12 months means that with some hard SEO work you should start to generate a base level of organic ready for that next peak season.
Find the Quietest Time of Your Business’ Year
Alternatively, the best time to start an online store might be when your life/business is at its quietest. Yes, this is probably going to align with the principles outlined above, but it’s important that you understand the reasons for this.
Building an ecommerce store is time-consuming. It will require a significant amount of input from you in order to make the process a success. Even if you’re outsourcing much of the work to an ecommerce expert, you will need to be available to sign-off design work and give feedback.
A lot of the work required is actually fairly straightforward – such as populating your inventory and setting up your tags – but these tasks are critical to building a good store.
Sports teams take full advantage of the off season to train hard, plan, strategise and tweak. Building a successful online store is a very similar process: most of the hard work takes place out of public view. Work out when you’re going to have the most capacity, availability and energy and devote yourself to establishing your store during this timeframe.
When it Complements, Not Threatens, Your Offline Sales
If you’re already in retail then this is going to have a big impact on the right time to start an ecommerce store.
Is it the right time in the lifespan of your business to be going online? Many traditional businesses rely on the strength of their historic reputation and customer base to successfully transition to an ecommerce store. If your online store is going to be heavily dependent upon what happens offline, then there’s little point weakening the key offline retail activities that you’re engaged in to invest time and money in an online store. That time will probably come further down the line. If your biggest revenue driver is currently craft fairs, word of mouth, direct sales etc then this should remain your focus for the time being.
Do you need an online store? This might sound controversial coming from an ecommerce blog, but not every business needs an ecommerce store. This can be hard to gauge. On the one hand, if none of your competitors have an online store then it might be time to establish your ecommerce presence and steal a march on your rivals. Equally, if your competitors are doing very well then this might be an indication that your sector has not yet transitioned online. It is also important to consider what kind of online store you need. If you’re not going to be directly selling online then a clear, helpful website that directs customers to your physical store is probably going to be a simpler and more cost-effective option.
How much of your inventory will you be selling online? This will affect how long it takes to set up and test your store – and help you to decide when in the calendar year you want to develop the online store. If you are focussing on selling more seasonal products then the considerations outlined above will apply to you.
Another possibility is that you could begin by using an established platform such as Amazon, Etsy or even eBay/Gumtree/Craigslist to start selling online. Alternatively, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram now offer users the ability to sell – making it cheaper and easier than ever before to take your business online. Over time you will then be able to weigh up the merits of setting up your own ecommerce website – and identify the best time for you to start an online store of your own.
When Your Customers Tell You To
For many existing retail businesses, one of the biggest catalysts in transitioning to an ecommerce store is the influence of their customers. If your customers are asking for an online store, it’s probably time you obliged.
This is perhaps a rather simplistic view, but if your customers don’t want to buy from you via an online store then it’s unlikely to be a huge success. Conversely, if you’ve got a growing base of customers who want to purchase online – perhaps for convenience, or because they’re living in a different location or even country – then they are likely to drive early sales.
Your existing customers will also be an incredibly valuable resource in getting your online store right, both in the design stage and once your store has gone live. Listening to your customers and hearing what they want in an ecommerce facility will help you to deliver a more effective service and ultimate make your business more successful.
When Your Web Design Agency Tell You To
Clearly there are many good web designers out there, but if you have a particular agency in mind then it would be sensible to have a conversation with them sooner rather than later. They might also have a view as to whether you need an online store yet – and what sort of timeline you should be working to.
A good agency will tell you if they’re fully booked for the next 3 months – and they might well be. However, some goods questions to ask would be if there a time that will be better for them, and how well would that work for you? If you’re going to be getting expert help then it’s important to think carefully about their availability (and yours) to ensure that you get the right help in a timely and cost-effective way.
When It’s Not the Wrong Time
This might sound very backward, but sometimes thinking negatively helps us to clarify our thinking. It’s always good to look at situations from multiple angles.
It’s almost 4 years old now, but Andrew Youderian’s article for Ecommerce Fuel – 4 Signs You Shouldn’t Start an Online Store – is a must-read for those thinking about starting an online store. His first two reasons are particularly insightful. If you need to make money fast or are looking for a guaranteed, cast-iron source of additional income then this really isn’t the right step for you. There are very few circumstances in which we can objectively look at a proposal for an online store and say “that’s definitely going to work“.
We’d actually disagree with Andrew’s argument that those without tech skills should avoid starting an ecommerce store. In his defence, the range of products and platforms available to us today is unrecognisable from those around back in 2013. However, if you’re not comfortable with tech then you need to be realistic. If you’re an experienced retailer and have cash and resources to throw at your ecommerce store then there’s no reason why your project can’t succeed. If, like the woman in Andrew’s article, you have read a couple of articles and think that you too could be one of these internet millionaires, the reality is that you’re very unlikely to succeed.