Out of all the countries in Europe, the UK is the most enthusiastic about e-commerce, with 86% of its internet users shopping at online stores. The future of e-commerce is bright as customers continue to appreciate the convenience of ordering with a few clicks and businesses benefit from lower costs and access to a wider market.
Fashion, food, travel deals, gadgets—various industries are hitting all-time highs with their online shopping presence. Unsurprisingly vaping is also seeing huge growth in e-commerce growth, with more and more online vape shops popping up every day to meet the burgeoning demand for vaping products.
Whether you already have a physical store or are starting from scratch, having an e-commerce website will level up your sales and bring your products to a UK wide market, or potentially even an international one.
There are a lot of considerations when setting up an e-commerce site without technical experience, so in this guide, I want to walk you through some of the fundamental stages.
Plan your Business Model
Before you get started with your website, make sure that you have at least a rough business model. What’s unique about your existing vape store (if you have one), and who’s your target market (modders, newbies, etc)? How will it compare to current competitors, offline and online?
These are all important questions but they all come down to one thing: will your store earn you sufficient profit after factoring in costs such as taxes, hosting, staff, and product procurement?
Another important consideration is shipping. Will you buy your vape products wholesale and take care of it yourself or rely on a fulfilment company for storing your inventory and then delivering products? You can also opt for drop shipping, where the manufacturer of the product ships directly to customers.
Know the Law
All vaping retailers, whether they have online or brick-and-mortar stores, must comply with regulations such as the TPD (Tobacco Products Directive) bill and general product safety rules.
The TPD states that e-cigarette tanks can only have a maximum capacity of 2 mL, while nicotine-containing e-liquids should have a maximum volume of 10 mL and a nicotine strength of 20 mg/mL at most. If you’re producing and importing e-liquids or e-cigarettes, these should be tested in UK-approved labs and registered with the MHRA.
There are also strict standards for packaging and advertising when it comes to vape products—for example, no ads in magazines, newspapers, and unsolicited emails. A complete list of regulations would be too long to include here, so you can check out the full list of regs on the Gov.UK website.
But that’s not all. E-commerce retailers in the UK have another unique set of regulations to follow, but they’re easy to comply with and can be seen as sound business practices. You have to get consent before sending emails, which should have opt-out options, and your website must display honest information about your company.
On the technical side, you must comply with GDPR, which deals with data security and privacy to protect your customers. You must also obtain proper licenses if you’re selling third-party brands. This page from the UK Government has more details on the rules for online and distance selling.
Choose an E-Commerce Platform
Now that you have a plan in mind and know about regulations, we can move on to the fun part: building the website. You don’t have to code it yourself since there are plenty of reliable online store builders out there. I’d highly recommend working with a capable web development company and if possible a separate SEO agency in order to make sure you build a slick and attractive site that can be properly optimised for search and develops with your business.
Of course, with a little HTML knowledge, creating your e-commerce website can just involve picking a ready-made design and using drag-and-drop for customising (no coding required). The best online store builders even have 24/7 customer support, and many functionalities are taken care of, such as a CMS for your content, multi-channel integration with websites such as Amazon and Facebook, and shopping cart management.
In terms of platforms, these are two of the crowd favourites:
Shopify is the number one e-commerce platform that works for businesses of all sizes. Its rates start at $13 for new, smaller stores, with the future option to scale up. All you have to do is select a theme, input your information, and add products, and you already have a functional website! Its features cover what every e-commerce store needs—an inventory system, merchant payment, shopping carts—and more. Many hugely successful online businesses are powered by Shopify.
BigCommerce has attracted retailers from more than 120 countries and has a huge collection of themes, along with its built-in systems for coupons, subscriptions, and inventory management. It also has SEO support. The product reorder feature is a nice touch, allowing people to order repeatedly and it caters well to vaping because customers tend to get additional batches of the same product. BigCommerce’s rates start at $29.95, but their basic plan contains more features than Shopify’s.
There are a ton of e-commerce solutions out there, but as I’ve already said, it’s important to get advice from professional web developers as they will know the ins and outs of each. For a more complete list, check this guide out.
Purchase a Domain
The next step is purchasing a domain, which is the URL that people will enter to reach your website. It’s usually based on the name of your store. Because your domain will most likely be permanent (unless you want to buy a new one), spend some time brainstorming on it so that it’s catchy and easy to remember. The most popular top-level domains (TLDs) are .com and .co.uk, which but you can go with more specific domains such as .uk or location specific TLDs like .london if you’re targeting a certain area.
Conveniently, you can often purchase domains directly from e-commerce builders. An alternative is to get it from hosting sites like Godaddy or 1&1 and 123 Reg for .co.uk. Once you have your domain, install an SSL certificate if it’s not yet part of the hosting package. This encrypts customers’ data to keep it safe and private.
Design your Website
At this point, you already have a generic website, and now you can unleash your creative side and customise it for your brand. First, decide on the overall theme. Most e-commerce builders already have many design themes available, so you can choose from those and then tweak elements such as the text and colour scheme. You should also put up a logo. If you don’t have one yet and are on a budget, you can make it yourself through free tools like Canva or Hatchful, although it’s always best, in the long run, to invest in a professional designer.
From there, you can create your home page, which should include compelling copy and high-quality graphics. Other essential parts of your website are an about page for describing your business, a contact page for customers to reach you, and a blog where you can post content and updates. Perhaps most importantly though are your product pages themselves. You should make sure your site has an intuitive navigational interface so users can quickly find what they’re looking for.
With online vape stores, you will want to group similar products under category pages (ie mods, e-liquids, RDAs, tanks, etc). You may even want to create brand-related category pages as well. Don’t make the structure too complicated though. The fewer clicks a user can take to get to exactly the product they’re looking for, the better.
Add your Products
This might take a while, depending on how many products you’d like to sell. Look at the big picture first by coming up with categories, then sort your products into these and make individual profiles.
It’s not enough to just build a website and add your products of course. You’ll need to add copy in order to help it rank in the search results. I’ll talk about this in more detail in a future blog post but for now, make sure each profile has a product name, price, and description, with at least one appealing photo of the product. The description can cover both technical specifications and benefits, but do rewrite it to vary from the supplier’s so Google won’t downgrade it as duplicate content.
A search option will help your customers wade through the stock, and it’s a good idea to put featured products up front on the homepage.
Set up Merchant Accounts
Because your customers will be making online purchases, your website needs a payment method. You can partner with a bank and open a merchant account that receives payment from credit and debit cards or use a payment processing company.
Most online stores make both of these options available through both. It’s worth noting that 47% of British shoppers prefer using credit cards while 41% would rather use Paypal. However, Paypal and other payment processing companies tend to charge an additional fee for each transaction.
E-commerce website builders, as always, are one step ahead, automatically connecting you to up to hundreds of payment options, so just make sure you give people as much choice as possible. You’ll also want to be very clear on your shipping costs and make sure customers know what they’re paying for this in the checkout process.
Engage in Marketing
By now, your e-commerce website should be technically functional but people still need to find it. Word of mouth and social media aren’t enough and whilst you can run AdWords to attract traffic, this requires constant investment. Over the long term, you need to invest in a proper SEO strategy to gain traffic from Google’s organic search results.
SEO determines how well your website will rank on Google search, which affects visibility heavily, so improving it should be a priority. It’s a complex topic and there’s a lot of information out there but guide from Moz is a good overview.
Accumulating links from other websites is one way to help your site rank but creating high-quality content targeting the right keywords is arguably more important for a fledgeling online vape store. Good content has the additional benefit of attracting more customers and establishing your authority as a vaping brand. Beyond your website, your business would ideally have an active social media presence and a growing email list that you keep in touch with.
Suffice to say, we’d again, recommend working with professionals as the investment in a proper SEO strategy will pay dividends in the long term.
Provide good customer service
Since you’re running an e-commerce store, it’s inevitable that customers would want to constantly contact you about inquiries, technical difficulties, and even advice about vaping. These should be answered as quickly as possible. You might do it yourself over email at first, but as your business grows, you should have a dedicated customer service team who can address these real-time via phone or live chat.
Aside from being polite and providing a solution efficiently, your customer service team should be knowledgeable about vaping if they are to satisfy customers who want guidance about products. Even if you do everything else right, bad service or a lack of customer service can turn customers away. Remember, many people turning to vaping don’t know what they’re looking for and the world you’re used to may feel intimidating and alien to them, so make sure you take the time to talk to your new customers as they could end up your customers for life.
Once your online vape shop is up and running and customers can proceed with ordering, you’ll need to stay on top of things, making sure your website is updated with new products, security updates are installed and you keep on top of your SEO. The good news though is that if you lay the right foundations from day one, you’ll be in a better position than most of the new online vape stores.
With the future looking good for both vaping and e-commerce, you can then focus on growing your online business and connecting vapers to your products.