When you start an online store, there are many things, like which type of products sell fast and whether email or paid ads will deliver the best ROI, you’ll learn along the way. Sure, just like other types of businesses, much of it is trial and error and that’s perfectly fine. Though, many of the common initial mistakes can be avoided altogether if you make sure that you complete all the essential steps.
And, the first step isn’t to get a domain and start designing your website.
Before you get to the actual designing (aka the fun stage), there’s a lot of research that you first need to complete. Not only do you need to get to know your future customers, but also research possible products. Then, there are the more technical details like comparing the best eCommerce platforms and deciding on a business structure.
To help you tackle this daunting, yet exciting, venture, in a logical way, we’ve created this step-by-step guide for starting an online store. While it’s by far not everything that you’ll need to do, it will give you a good idea of which things you’ll need to have in place at the start. Think of it as a type of top-10-things-to-do listicle for starting an online store.
A 10-step Guide to Starting an Online Store:
- 1. Identify your target audience
- 2. Research possible products
- 3. Decide on a business structure
- 4. Find an eCommerce platform
- 5. Get a domain and name your store
- 6. Start designing your website
- 7. Decide on your shipping policy
- 8. Set up taxes
- 9. Link a payment gateway
- 10. Write a marketing strategy
- Frequently Asked Questions
10 Essential Steps to Starting an Online Store
1. Identify your target audience
This step is critical. Not only will it determine which types of products you’ll sell, but your future marketing campaigns too. Basically, whenever you’ll make a business decision, you’ll find yourself coming back to this point.
In short, your target audience (or market) refers to who your ideal customer is. When you’re marketing your products or services, who are you trying to reach?
Here are some factors that you need to analyze when deciding on your target audience:
- Gross income
Identifying your target customer can be a time-consuming process, especially when you’re eager to start with the “actual” work like designing your website. If you do it properly the first time around, though, it will make numerous of your other routine tasks much easier. After all, if you don’t know what your ideal customers are like, much less who they are, how can you effectively reach them?
You can then take it one step further and turn the info that you’ve collected into a buyer persona. Be sure to include it in your eCommerce business plan so that it's easily accessible when you need to refer to it again (and, as mentioned, you’ll be using it a lot).
2. Research possible products
Knowing who your target audience is will make it easier to identify a product idea or in-demand services. You don’t necessarily need to be selling trending products. That said, whatever you sell needs to appeal to the target audience that you’ve already identified. What are their hobbies, interests or needs? Let this guide you.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to manufacture these products yourself. You can also resell it. The dropshipping business model is also popular, especially if you’re new to eCommerce.
3. Decide on a business structure
While you’ll be operating online, it’s still a good idea to decide on a formal business structure. The easiest will probably be to set it up as a sole proprietorship. Not only will deciding on a business model make it easier for your business to secure funding, but it can also help to keep your personal assets safe.
4. Find an eCommerce platform
Basically, an eCommerce platform is like a website builder. Though, not only can you use it to build your website, but it also offers loads of other features that can help you to improve the customer experience and grow your online business. From email marketing to inventory management to order fulfillment, most eCommerce platforms will virtually give you everything that you need, eliminating the need to invest in third-party apps.
When deciding on an eCommerce platform to power your store, there are a few critical features to look out for. For starters, it should be intuitive. If you’re very new to all of this, look for a platform that offers a drag-and-drop website builder. This makes it a whole lot easier to understand and use.
Another added benefit is if the platform includes built-in web hosting. Otherwise, you’ll need to use a third-party solution.
You also need to look at it from your customers’ point of view. Will they find the checkout process easy? To help create a seamless customer experience, consider factors like page speed and payment methods. The more payment methods you can provide and currencies you can accept, the better.
It can also be a good idea to take advantage of any free trials (most eCommerce platforms offer this) or schedule a demo. Not only will this give you a much better feel for the interface, but it’s also an opportunity to gauge what the level of customer support is like. You might not think that customer support is a priority, but if you get stuck down the line, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for 24/7 support.
5. Get a domain and name your store
You probably already have a store name in mind. If not, the best way to go about finding a suitable name for your online shop is to make a list of words that are linked to your niche and products. Perhaps there’s a very unique selling proposition that you can tie into your name?
The challenge with naming an online store, though, is that you’ll also need to keep the search engines in mind. By including words that your target audience will likely use when searching online for your products, you can already enjoy a significant boost in search rankings. You can, for example, even include the product category or type in your business name. So, if you’re planning on selling dog food, you could build it around words like “pets”, “canine”, or “treats”. That being said, it should be unique and help you to stand out.
Once you’ve found a possible business name, remember to check if it’s still available. The last thing you want is to start designing digital assets, like your logo, only to discover that it’s already taken. You can, for example, use a tool such as Namechk, NameQL, or Instant Username Search.
Another major challenge is that the domain name (aka the website address) must still be available. Heads up, many people actually buy popular domain names just for the purpose of reselling them. So, you might have to think creatively to find a relevant domain name that’s available.
While your domain name doesn’t have to be exactly the same as your business name, it’s the ultimate goal. Not only will it make it a lot easier for your target audience to find your store, but it can also help with brand recall and awareness.
If you’ve signed up for one of the free eCommerce website builders, you’ll probably not have the option to connect your own custom domain name. In this case, you’ll need to settle for their domain. While this is convenient, your URL won’t look as professional as it will include the name of the eCommerce platform.
6. Start designing your website
Once you’ve decided on an eCommerce platform, you’re finally ready to start designing your website. There are a number of pages and elements that you’ll need to complete.
As you won’t have a brick-and-mortar location, your product pages will do a lot of heavy lifting. Instead of asking an in-store sales assistant, potential customers will turn to the particular product’s dedicated product page to find out more details like sizing, material, dimensions, etc.
You’ll want to ensure that you have a clear product title, detailed description, and a number of high-quality product photos. When writing your product title, try to keep it as short as possible. You can always use your actual description to add other relevant information like color, size, or variant.
In addition to adding the actual details under your product description, you can also use this space to draw store visitors’ attention to features and benefits. For example, if it’s environmentally friendly, you can mention it here. As this text can quickly become quite wordy, make sure it stays easy to read by using, for example:
- Bullet points
- Numbered lists
- Short paragraphs
Just like your descriptions should go beyond simply focusing on solely the details, some of your product photos can also demonstrate how customers can use it in real life. In fact, effective marketing strategies rely on both lifestyle and product-only photos. Whatever type of photos you decide to use, here are some golden rules that apply to product photography:
- All photos should be high quality.
- Use Alt Text to describe your photos. This extra step makes your online store more accessible.
- Apply the same aspect ratio to all your photos.
- Light matte or white backgrounds are best.
- Limit your product-only photos to five different angles at most.
- Optimize your photos to reduce the loading speed of your product pages.
The good news is that most smartphones nowadays are well equipped for taking your own product photos. Plus, with the right photo editing tool, new business owners can tackle this as a DIY project to save costs.
About us page
Your About us page gives you the opportunity to connect with your target audience on a deeper level. As your store is still new, you’ll first need to win over their trust before they hopefully turn into loyal customers. So, use this space to share more details about your online store, like how it started and its mission, vision, and philosophy to show to visitors that you’re a credible brand, albeit online.
If you’ve already landed a press mention or won an award, you can also include links to those here. Basically, you’ll want to include any social proof that can help to convince visitors to explore your product pages next.
You don’t have to limit it just to text. You can also include a short video to introduce yourself and your brand. For example, a behind-the-scenes video can give your target audience better insight into the workplace culture, how deliveries get shipped, or introduce other team members behind your brand. As mentioned, your About us page is all about building trust and establishing an authentic connection with your audience and a video is a great way to humanize your store.
As you’ll be operating online, it’s key that you include policy pages on your website. Not only can these pages help to answer frequently asked questions, but it can also offer you protection against possible disputes. Examples of policy pages that you’ll want to share include:
- Return policy
- Shipping policy
- Terms of service
The return and shipping policies, in particular, are important when running an online store. In fact, if you offer, for example, a generous window for returns or free shipping, you’ll want to highlight this elsewhere on your website too.
In addition to listing your contact details like your email address, phone number, and/or address, it’s also a good idea to include a contact form to this page. You can also possibly include a link to your FAQ page where visitors might be able to get their questions answered immediately.
Your navigation is another key element that will play a huge role in the success of your online store. The main navigation menu at the top should be clear and make it easy for customers to find their way around. In this area, you’ll also add your logo and a cart icon. Links to other less important content, like an FAQ page or shipping details, should rather be placed in the footer.
If you have a wide range of products, it can also be a good idea to include a search bar in the header next to the main navigation. This way customers can go directly to the product that they’re searching for instead of having to scroll through a number of product categories.
Basically, the golden rule when it comes to designing navigation is to keep it as simple as possible. Too many menus will only end up confusing people.
7. Decide on your shipping policy
Unlike traditional brick-and-mortar stores that might need to ship an order every now and again, when you operate an online store every single order that you receive will need to be shipped. So, how you’ll deal with shipping requires some serious thought.
There are a number of factors that you’ll need to consider such as:
For example, if you mostly sell small, lightweight products, it might make more sense to use a flat rate as it will be easier to anticipate your shipping costs. On the other hand, if your eCommerce platform integrates with some of the leading shipping carriers, you’ll be able to offer your customer various shipping options like same-day delivery, shipping in one to three business days, etc. Not only will customers find the options convenient, but the live pricing means that you’ll never operate at a loss.
That being said, there’s a huge advantage to offering free shipping. According to eCommerce statistics, an extra cost like shipping is the main reason why online shoppers abandon their carts. What’s more, free delivery is the main feature why consumers choose one online store over another. In fact, consumers prefer free delivery over fast delivery. Alternatively, if you plan on having one or two locations, you can also give local customers the option to order online and collect it at one of your locations in person for free.
8. Set up taxes
While there are a number of things that you don’t have to worry about when you’re managing an online store, taxes ain’t one of them. Just like with any other type of business, you’ll also need to pay tax for each sale.
The good news is that depending on the eCommerce platform that you’ve used, most tax calculations could possibly be automated. That said, it’s still best that you familiarize yourself with your local tax regulations first to ensure that you’re indeed charging the right percentage of sales tax. Better yet, leave it to an experienced tax practitioner.
9. Link a payment gateway
As mentioned earlier, when setting up an online store, it’s best to provide a variety of payment options. While the majority of consumers still pay via credit cards most of the time, payment statistics shared by Statista reveal that PayPal, in fact, is the preferred payment method among online shoppers. In addition to accepting Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal, it’s also a good idea to explore the use of buy now pay later (BNPL) options such as Klarna, Amazon Login and Pay, and Afterpay. In fact, alternative payment methods are now considered a must-have feature for any online business.
10. Write a marketing strategy
No website is going to market itself. Even if you made sure that you optimized your website for organic traffic while you designed it, search engine optimization (SEO) shouldn’t be your only means of attracting visitors.
There are various social media platforms and channels that you can use for marketing your store such as:
In addition to social media marketing and email marketing, you can also try your luck with:
- Influencer marketing
- Affiliate marketing
- Search engine marketing
- Content marketing
At the end of the day, whichever eCommerce marketing strategies you decide to include should take into consideration your target audience. After all, what’s the use in advertising on, let’s say, Twitter, when your target audience rarely uses it?
Wrapping Things Up
As you make your way through these 10 steps, remember to keep in mind your future needs too. For example, will the eCommerce platform that you’ve selected be able to grow with your business? Which additional sales channels can you add later? Perhaps create a Facebook Store?
While online shopping is not showing any signs of slowing down any time soon, online retailers still need to actively scale their business over time. So, as you go over these simple steps, at each step, remember to think about and plan for the future too.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there any good free website builders for starting an online store?
There are a number of good free eCommerce website builders that you can check out if you want to start an online store. You can, for example, try:
- Big Cartel
- Constant Contact
- Square Online
While most of these tools offer some type of free plan, you might not be able to connect a custom domain which means that you will need to use their domain which can look unprofessional. Also, keep in mind that you won’t be able to use all the features for free.
What are some examples of good products to sell online?
According to eCommerce trends, a product category like sanitation will continue to remain popular in the next few years. Products related to self-care and personal health, like meditation apps, facial products, and plant-based alternatives are also currently trending. Examples of other popular products that you can sell online are:
- Planners and notebooks
- Eco-friendly beauty products
- Board games
- Mobile device accessories
- Pet products
- Stock photography and other design assets
What does a dropshipping business do?
In short, dropshipping refers to when an online store buys the products that it sells via a third party that then delivers it directly to the customers. In other words, online stores that use this strategy actually don’t keep the products in stock. This means that they also never handle the products directly. Instead, they’ll just buy stock as required from third parties. It’s an attractive model to businesses that are new to eCommerce, especially if they’re not sure what they want to sell yet.
What are some tips for choosing a name for your online store?
Choosing a name for your online store can be more challenging than you anticipated. So, it can be a good idea to use a free business name generator tool to help you come up with a few possibilities. You can, for example, check out Influencer Marketing Hub’s online Business Name Generator tool. You basically just need to identify some relevant keywords for your industry, enter the keywords into the search bar of the tool and it will automatically generate some ideas.
How can you market your online store?
From email marketing to affiliate marketing to influencer marketing, there are several effective strategies that you can use to market your online store. One of the best places to start is with your website. Check that you have optimized your product pages by including the right keywords. It’s also a good idea to include a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section somewhere. This section can be a good place to include long-tail keywords that will help with SEO.