How to Launch an E-commerce Business When Your Product Isn’t Legal in All States
by Sumona Business Development 28 February 2022
Starting your own e-commerce business is an exciting prospect. This sector has and continues to see massive growth potential, reaching more than 2 billion buyers as of 2021. This rise in demand seems to show no signs of slowing down, as a convenience, competitive pricing, and product variety are unbeatable in virtual shopping spaces.
The pandemic has only boosted buyers’ bias towards online retail. But for sellers, there is massive responsibility involved with the inception, optimization, and ongoing operation of an online shop. E-commerce sites are regulated by federal laws in the U.S. They are also subject to the laws of the state where it is incorporated.
So even though many of the highest growth product categories represent major business opportunities for sellers, they are also extremely tricky from a regulatory perspective. Indeed, finding the best niche to go into can be tricky.
To run an e-commerce business, as with other categories, you need the standard licenses and permits or tax IDs. You also need to ensure trademark protection. There must be a proper dispute resolution mechanism. Customer information, be it financial or personal, needs to be secure.
The primary issue at stake, though, is product legality. When you sell outside your home state, you need to make sure that the products are legal there. If there is proof of even a single transaction in a state where the product is banned, you can be prosecuted or sued.
So before you launch an “active” website where consumers can interact and buy, make sure you know the rules of that jurisdiction. For example, a site selling firearms may be legal in South Carolina but not in Illinois.
Other rules are slightly more complex. As the use of cannabis may be fully legal in some states, others only allow medical marijuana. So, if you plan to launch a store for CBD, you will have to negotiate varying degrees of legal strictures.
Multi-jurisdiction e-commerce businesses and disparate product laws
When the products your business offers are subject to varying enforcement strategies by states, you need to be adaptable. Versatility and remaining informed are key. You need to be aware of the authorizations in each jurisdiction.
One needs to keep pace with the nature and extent of regulations. Understand your audience and keep updating the website to enhance visibility. For example, keeping track of changes in cryptocurrency regulations will help you to target your buyers better.
Maneuvering your business practices around an ever-fluctuating economic climate is especially hard. There is a lot of investment of time in referring to statutes and regulations in order to ensure legal compliance.
Since some products may be contraband in specific states, you may not get financial backers for expansion. Banks may be unwilling to lend to e-commerce owners due to lack of collateral, low credit rating, or uncertainty because of legal complications.
Unlike brick and mortar stores, banks cannot visually inspect and verify an e-commerce operation. A tangible business is often deemed more secure, and it evokes more confidence in the banking sector. So you may have to turn to more unconventional sources.
Funding from VCs can be difficult since they often choose to not work in industries that require extensive bureaucratic maneuvering. But even here, the political climate and government regulations may hinder you. Financiers may be unwilling to back businesses that go against policy ethics.
The same problem creeps up with marketing and promotions. Conventional platforms like newspapers or television channels may be averse to supporting lesser-known or controversial e-tailers.
They may also be owned by shareholders with more orthodox sensibilities.
How to plan a successful e-commerce strategy for legal gray areas
You can circumvent the limitations of this business format through an overarching strategy of good market research. There are a few fundamental components to attend to.
a) Explore your customer base and chart a growth trajectory
Since this is your revenue stream, this process takes precedence. Keep your ears to the ground so that you proactively take on opportunities. Understand and analyze demand trends across jurisdictions.
This will allow you to tap into the market segment with the most potential. For example, maybe you observe that women in California aged between 20-40 years are exploring more marijuana or CBD therapy. You’ve just tapped into a niche audience with immense growth potential.
b) Analyzing your competitors
This segment involves understanding the way similar businesses function. Zero into their customer attraction and retention strategies. Assess how their vision is symbiotic with the broader supply-demand ecosystem.
You can also learn a great deal from their business model. This could include payment tools, market share, product range, and so on. You could attempt a SWOT analysis of your business vis-à-vis your rivals. Another area to focus on is branding and how it shapes perceptions and acceptance.
c) Gauging investor sentiment
As noted above, conventional forms of financing may be harder to procure. So it might be a good idea to look at contemporary funding avenues. These include crowd-funding, government small business loans, and private assets.
You can also take personal credit if you are starting off on a small scale. Other options are angel investors and venture capitalists specializing in your industry – these investors are always on the lookout for the next big thing. They are more experimental and open to avant-garde ideas, commodities, and services.
d) Publicity and advertising
Buck the age-old trend of conformist, mainstream platforms like television and news cycles. Throw your hat into the social media swell. This space is more liberal and less rigid, as long as you don’t break any laws.
You can reach potential consumers directly. Target advertisements to interested groups. It is efficient, focused, and influential. You can reach millions of netizens and their opinions will also be broadcast widely. Use engaging content formats like quizzes to spread the word.
Social media marketing is now the crux of e-commerce success. Additional tools include pay-per-click (PPC) software like Ad Badger or Google Ads. And you can generate maximum hits and views by adding SEO tools to the mix.
e) Staying current and clued-in
Underlying all this is your business acumen and insight into the industry. Constant learning and updating are crucial to determine the scope and new possibilities. You will need to learn from other players, innovate and take some risks.
Information sessions or mass interactions can help to convince more people of the desirability of the product. An in-house legal counsel will also come in handy when navigating the regulatory apparatus of different states. This will keep you financially and legally secure while expanding commercial activity.
Navigating e-commerce opportunities that aren’t legal everywhere
Some of the biggest online business opportunities involve product categories that have questionable, nuanced and dynamically evolving legal statuses. These include cryptocurrencies, NFTs, cannabis derivatives and accessories, firearms, and the like. Selling these types of products isn’t for everyone, but if you manage things with care, it’s still possible to unlock major prosperity.