Have Northern Ireland businesses left it too late to start selling online?


Nick Martin, e-Business Advisor
Nov 25, 2016

This is a common question regularly asked by local businesses. My answer, in most cases is a resounding ‘no’.

Where to start selling online

With online sales reaching over £52bn in the UK in 2015 it is clear there are still opportunities for local companies to start selling online, particularly in the consumer products sector.

The giants of eBay and Amazon are often a good place for a business to start selling via the internet. These online marketplaces remove many of the challenging barriers which make it difficult to get into selling online and they provide a strong and stable technology sales platform. Marketing is taken care of by the marketplace, with customers already present on these sites searching for products. This leaves a novice online seller with the more straightforward tasks of concentrating on their products, pricing, fulfilment and customer service.

All this comes at a price, online marketplaces take a percentage of each sale, however, it can be a price worth paying. Businesses can learn the fundamentals of selling online and begin to understand if they have what it takes to operate a successful online business. From a cash flow perspective, fees are usually paid after a sale, so it’s a fairly low risk - if your products don’t sell, you don’t pay the marketplace sales fees. Using marketplaces is good first step into the challenging world of e-commerce.

Develop your own e-commerce website

Creating your own e-commerce website is another option for selling online. There are a few different ways of going about this, from approaching a web developer, to using an online hosted platform. One of the biggest mistakes businesses make in this area, is spending too much on their first website, there is just no need to do this anymore, especially with the strong selection of hosted eCommerce platforms like Shopify, Big Commerce and Volusion.

Another major issue facing businesses with their own website, is the upfront cost of marketing. Search engine optimisation techniques, while important, take time to yield sustainable sales and most successful eCommerce businesses are heavily involved in paid online advertising, such as Google Adwords. This is an upfront cost and to work effectively, you first need a good quality, functional website with clear calls to action, reasonable shipping costs and great products with competitive prices.

As businesses step into the world of online sales they quickly realise that things can get very complex, fairly quickly. Managing your stock and customer orders across multiple sales platforms would be practically impossible without some way of coordinating this. Thankfully technology exists to help and is called multichannel software. Usually it is fairly reasonably priced and rich in features which make listing stock and completing tasks such as processing shipping labels easier.

Practical support to help you sell online

There are still opportunities for Northern Ireland businesses to start to sell online and Invest NI has a range of support including practical workshops and webinars to help local companies get started selling online. To help we have developed a short presentation which you can watch below. You can also read further guidance about selling online on the nibusinessinfo.co.uk website


Nine top tips for selling online

  • Sell the products your customers want
  • Sell first through online marketplaces
  • Learn the fundamentals
  • Work from a solid technology platform
  • Don’t overspend building your website
  • Spend time on your products
  • Measure, adjust and re-measure – continuously
  • Understand the financials
  • Always look for other opportunities

Share this Article


Should "define your competitive advantage" be on the checklist?

What advice would you give to businesses that don't have a clear differentiated proposition entering an already well serviced market?

How does an ecommerce business gain attention at an affordable cost when competitors have well established search positions for most key terms that lead to purchasing?

How many ecommerce projects, where the product is not truly innovative, actually cost money or just break even in the first few years?
Niall McKeown
06/12/2016 05:39
Should "define your competitive advantage" be on the checklist
Thanks for your input Niall, it’s interesting to get feedback from other consultants in this space. The check list is not exhaustive, so you could possibly add a number of additional items as required. I would probably advise companies new to selling online to research the market and develop a strategy up to a point, but there is no substitute for getting started and dealing with the challenges as they present themselves. As you’ll know, you don’t need to have unique products, or be the cheapest supplier to sell online - we have lot of Invest NI companies who are doing extremely well online selling easily comparable products. In terms of driving targeted traffic, most of our established eCommerce Clients are heavily reliant on paid online advertising, even in a saturated marketplace there are still gaps and opportunities for new companies to begin to sell online, not just in the UK but further afield in export markets in Europe, Australia and USA. Most of the companies that are doing well online have properly resourced online marketing budgets and are partnered with a quality firm who can run their paid marketing campaigns successfully. In terms of success online, if it’s going to happen, it generally happens fairly quickly – companies do not have to wait long to find out if they have what it takes to sell online. Thanks Nick
Charlie McCloskey
Last Edited: 2016-12-15T12:25:00.91

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