Selling online used to be a real drag.
Running an eCommerce store on auto-pilot from your bed was simply not an option 10 years ago. Luckily, it is now.
You can get your shop up and running in no time, using world-class website builders that require no coding or design skills.
You can focus on the important things, like running jaw-dropping marketing campaigns and featuring exciting products in your store, without having to sweat over coding, hosting, or SEO.
To help you get started, we’ve compiled a step-by-step guide on how to start an online store in record time.
Step 1. Pick your niche
Do you know why all of the eCommerce gurus go on and on about the importance of picking the right niche? Because it’s actually really important if you want to run a successful online store.
You’ll have a really tough time making your online store stand out and grow if you don’t have a clear niche.
With big multinational companies dominating many markets, there is no way to launch a general store and make lots of money. But don’t worry – that’s why effective niches are so helpful.
A niche is basically a fancy way of saying what your particular specialty or focus within a bigger industry is.
Let’s say you are wondering how to set up an online store that sells toys and other kid-related products.
You could try and include every imaginable toy, from baby books to toy soldiers and outdoor paddling pools in your shop, but you’re unlikely to be successful.
Here are a few reasons why it’d quickly become a train-wreck:
- It will be too generic. If anyone asks you why your toy shop is better than a bigger brand, what would you say? You most likely offer the same products as the market leaders, but won’t be able to match their prices. You simply won’t stand out enough for your business to thrive.
- Your target audience will be too broad. Who’s your buyer? If you’re selling to anyone and everyone, you will have a hard time making your marketing campaigns effective. They need to really focus on a particular audience to yield results. The bottom line – you’ll waste your precious time and money taking shots in the dark.
- It’s simply too much work. There’s only one you, right? You can always scale up, but unless you’re Alice in Wonderland, shrinking your business down will mean lots of leftover products and many sleepless nights.
So, take our advice, and when you think you want to start an online store, start small and be specific.
Going back to our children’s toy store example, perhaps you’d like to focus on baby books? If you make that your niche and really excel at what you do, you can take the big toy stores.
How? It’s simple, really:
- It gives you a competitive edge. There’s a reason why a heart surgeon doesn’t operate on people with broken legs. You should aim to do one thing really well and not many things ‘just OK.’ This applies to your online business too. Specialize in something and you’ll gain a competitive edge.
- You can target your marketing. Operating in a niche helps you understand exactly who your ideal customer is. Selling baby books narrows things down to people who have recently had a baby. Don’t get overwhelmed by data; make it work for you instead.
- It’s easier to automate. When you have a clear idea of what you want to sell and who will be most likely to buy it, you can start automating a lot of your tasks. It’ll be a lot less work thinking about your pricing or packaging when you don’t have a giant online store full of items that are all different sizes and prices.
Step 2: Trends, clients, and competition
Now that you have a clear idea of what niche you will specialize in, you can move on thinking about trends, clients, and competition.
Consider the following:
- What product or products are trending in your market at the moment?
- Who are the customers who typically buy products in your niche?
- Which companies are you going to be competing with?
Getting answers to these questions will help you understand what customers are interested in right now and why some companies perform better than others.
Know the current market trends
You should look closely at the top products in your field and what customers say they love about them.
Ideally, you want to sell products that are in demand, not products that you find cool but others have no use for.
Pay attention to what customers are disliking about the product, too. You should sell a better product than your competitors, so learning from others’ mistakes is valuable.
You can also analyze which search keywords and terms people have been using. Knowing what people are looking for will help you fulfill their needs.
Be sure to also think seasonally. It might not be the best idea to sell Christmas decorations in the middle of summer, even if you have the best looking tinsel out there.
Know your ideal buyer
It’s a logical next step to profile your ideal customer. In order to understand your target audience, start by asking yourself questions like:
- How old are they?
- Where do they live?
- Which gender are they?
- What kind of jobs do they do?
- Do they have a family?
- What’s their annual income?
- What are some of the major challenges they face?
At this stage, it’s okay to make some assumptions, but use product reviews and search trends to get accurate information.
Once you have an idea of what your ideal buyer looks like, get a hold of some real-life representatives of your target audience.
Let’s say you’re starting an online store that sells fishing gear.
Your ideal customer might be a middle-class male, aged 40+, who’s into fishing and works at a job that requires university education. He has a small family and lives in the suburbs, probably has two cars, and a considerable sum of their mortgage left to pay.
Now, you might even know someone who fits the description perfectly. Talk to this person.
If you’re not able to talk to your ideal customer in person, you can run online surveys or a focus group.
Go to hobbyist forums and ask to join a Facebook group or two. The more you know about your buyer, the better you will be able to solve the problems they face with your products.
Know your competition
The last thing to know is who you’re up against in the market.
By having a niche, you should be able to narrow down your competition to a handful of other online stores.
Next, you need to get an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors by:
- Understanding their shopping flows and order processes. You should know what your competitors are selling and how their order process works, from product listings to shipping. Not only will it help you to find new products to sell online, but you can also get ideas for refund policies and the shopping flow itself.
- Learning what they do well. Read reviews and note down things that your competitors do really well. It could be great marketing campaigns, an intuitive shop design, or excellent customer service. Learn from it and do it even better at your own eCommerce website.
- Getting an idea of where they go wrong. Since the world of online reviews can be brutal, get an idea of the shortcomings of your competitors too. If a customer only gave the shopping experience 3 out of 5 stars because of delivery delays, make sure that your orders arrive on time, all the time.
Step 3: What’s your marketing strategy?
Wait, why are we not building an eCommerce store already?
You’ve got your niche, you know your products, and who you will be selling to. Isn’t marketing something you think about when you’re just about ready to start selling?
No, it’d be too late by then.
Having a clear idea of how you will get your online shop noticed in the world of online selling takes more planning than you might realize.
Remember: your marketing strategy will determine your sale numbers and, ultimately, your bottom line. You definitely want to get marketing right and that takes planning.
Since the next step in starting an online store is to choose a business model, you need to know what marketing channels will be most useful for you.
Building your online shop on a platform that doesn’t support SEO-driven marketing, for example, could render your meticulous keyword research pointless.
Having a clear idea for how you will market your business from the beginning will help you pick the right eCommerce platform too.
To avoid going wrong, let’s go over the two main ways you can promote your business online.
Search engine optimization (SEO)
Setting up a search engine marketing optimization strategy is simple.
First, you find the keywords (the exact words people type into the search field when looking for something on Google) for your products. Then, optimize your pages for those keywords.
This involves having high-quality content on your website, using the right keywords in headings, and making sure that the search intent is answered.
All of this can propel you to the top of the search results, which is a great place to be if you want to drum up new business.
With a good SEO strategy, people who are looking for the products you offer will find you more easily.
Rather than having irrelevant traffic coming to your eCommerce store from all over the internet, you should focus on grabbing the attention of people who are already searching for your products instead.
An SEO marketing strategy is great for eCommerce for these reasons:
- It’s dependable. If you’ve done your keyword research, the number of people coming to your website via search engines will usually be steady or growing, especially if you can rank on the first result page. This means that you can rely on the income it generates.
- You get relevant visitors. Since people are already looking for the products that you sell, they are more likely to make an order once they land on your website.
- It’s profitable. Because you’re not paying anyone to be listed at the top of the search results, the traffic you will generate from SEO is relatively cheap.
But like all good things in life, there are some cons to picking SEO as your main marketing strategy.
- It takes a while. We hate to break it to you, but you won’t make it to the first page of search results overnight. It takes weeks or even months to get your content to the first or second page. It’s not impossible to achieve, but you should be willing to invest enough time to see the effects.
- It takes a lot of effort. The only way to start ranking on Google is to produce content that answers the search intent the best. It’s what people are looking for, basically. You’ll need to include product keywords on the correct product pages, as well as create useful content for other non-product keywords and pages (think blog posts). The better your content is, the more people will use it as a resource and link back to your page. Your Google ranking will rise.
So, an SEO marketing strategy is great if you have time, don’t have a big budget, and have lots of patience.
It’s particularly good for niches you can create a lot of related content around.
For example, you’re likely to find plenty of topics to discuss if you have an eCommerce store for arts and crafts supplies. You can write blogs about seasonal crafts to do with children, different techniques, or the newest trends.
You get the idea.
This is one of the most traditional and well-known marketing strategies online, but it’s not free.
In short, you create an ad and buy ad space on websites where you want it to be shown.
The biggest and the most popular websites which offer ad space are social media platforms.
You’ve probably seen plenty of ads on Facebook, on the right-hand side, or slotted in between your friends’ posts as Sponsored content.
You might have also seen social media influencers create content to promote a particular product or a brand.
The popularity of social media advertising stems from the sheer number of people using each platform, the wealth of information the platforms have about their users, and the amount of time users spend on the sites.
Brands and businesses need to be where their audience is and try to target their ads so they’re likely to be seen by potential customers.
This type of marketing works especially well for products and services that are:
- Aimed at consumers. Think about the biggest and best websites for paid ads – Google, Facebook, and Instagram. The biggest audiences on each platform are consumers, rather than businesses. A product that’s made for the consumer market will work best when it comes to a paid advertising strategy.
- Visually appealing. Imagine social media is a shopping mall. People don’t just go to the shopping mall to buy things, but to also leisurely walk around, hang out with their friends and window shop. The same principle applies to social media. People are there first and foremost to interact with their friends and family. A product that’s highly visual will grab the consumer’s attention.
- Not too expensive. Make sure your product is priced right so that people can act on impulse. If it’s too expensive, the likelihood of anyone clicking on your ad is smaller. Don’t pay for an ad that doesn’t deliver.
- Not too complicated. Consumers should understand your product in a matter of seconds. If your ad is too complex, vague, or unclear, people will scroll past it.
With paid ads, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you’re planning to run your campaign successfully.
It can get costly. Running ads isn’t free; you need to be willing to invest some money upfront, without really having a guarantee that you will turn a profit.
Plus, it takes time to create, set up, and optimize your paid ad campaigns. If you’re looking for a quick fix – sorry to disappoint you.
Opting for paid ads as your main marketing strategy generally works well if your product is something you could sell at a shopping mall.
Alternatively, you could combine a paid ad or two with your SEO strategy, if you’re already aiming to rank for particular keywords.
Having an ad showing at the top of the page can be a great way to get a hold of people who are already looking for products that you happen to sell.
Step 4: Choose a business model
You have a clear idea of what the main focus of your online business will be and how you will get the word out about your eCommerce website.
Now, we can move onto thinking about the day-to-day of your business.
Since your shop will be online, one major decision to make has to do with your inventory. There are two main business models that work well with an eCommerce website.
You could either contact manufacturers directly, buy a certain amount of the products you want to sell, and make use of your spare room or rent some storage space to warehouse your stock.
Another popular way to get started with your online business is to partner with a dropshipper. This means that you collect orders from customers and send them to the supplier.
The supplier then ships the order directly to the customer. This way, you don’t have to worry about physical inventory or the management of the supply chain at all.
Both methods have their pros and cons, so let’s look at them both in detail to understand which works best for your online store.
Pros and cons of keeping inventory
If you’re old school or just love to really see your product ‘in the flesh,’ you might prefer keeping a real inventory and handling the shipping process yourself.
Buying your stock might be good for your business, if you:
- Are building a brand. If you’re not just looking for a side hustle, but want to create a self-sustaining brand, you need to have full control over the customer experience. That includes packing orders yourself (you could add a personalized thank you note) and tracking shipments.
- Want to have a higher profit margin. While dropshipping is convenient, you might as well cut out the middleman. When you buy products in larger quantities, you make a higher profit per product sold.
- Want to be able to react faster. There could be problems with shipping or a dissatisfied customer. Regardless of the situation, having your own inventory means that you can solve all problems much faster.
- Think product quality is a top priority. Being able to see how your product and its packaging look can help you improve. Maybe the tape you’re using to seal off the parcel is really difficult to cut open, or the way the box is made makes it difficult to recycle.
There are, however, some drawbacks to keeping your own stock:
- It’s expensive. You need money up-front to buy the products in bulk, so unless you have starting capital, that could be out of the question.
- It takes up space. One thousand postcards take up a lot less space than the same amount of boots. But in general, you should think about where you keep your inventory if you don’t want to rent a separate space for it.
- It’s time-consuming. It’s all fun and games sending your grandmother a parcel in the mail. But if you’re not prepared to get out of the house to pack and ship a big order that comes in on the weekend, inventory-keeping might not be for you.
So, keeping your own stock might be the right way to go about your online store if you’re obsessed about perfecting your brand and want to have full control over the entire selling process.
Pros and cons of dropshipping
Dropshipping has made it easier for people to try their hands at running an eCommerce store.
Those who swear by dropshipping note that it:
- Saves time. If you’re not a fan of packing up orders one after another or having lengthy conversations with manufacturers, starting a dropshipping business is definitely for you.
- Saves space. While you might have no problem keeping a few boxes of keyrings in your hallway, trying to store 1,000 pairs of shoes is a bit more problematic. Since you only relay orders to a supplier, you don’t need to worry about inventory.
- Saves money. Not having to buy stock up-front saves you a lot of money and takes away the risk of being stuck with those 1,000 phone cases that nobody wanted.
Of course, depending on your niche and focus, dropshipping might pose drawbacks like:
- Lack of control. Although you don’t really have a say in the manufacturing or shipping processes, your customers will come to you if they encounter any problems with the shipping process or the product itself.
- Lengthy or no returns. Rather than the customer shipping the product back to you to handle the situation directly, the return process for a dropshipped product can take weeks. That is if your partner allows returns in the first place.
- Lack of branding. Most of dropshipping manufacturers don’t allow you to customize packaging and might even add their own promotional leaflets of other products in your customers’ orders. If you’re building a serious brand, you might want your customers to receive branded parcels in the mail.
So, while dropshipping has leveled the eCommerce playing field and is a great way to get started fast, you have to work really hard to keep your customers happy.
It’s also not the best solution for those wanting to build a big brand.
Step 5: Find the perfect name (and make it official)
Right, we’re finally onto the fun and creative stuff. Well, almost.
Good business names can be tricky to come up with. So, using a checklist can help you get a clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t.
Pay attention to these things:
- Relevance. If your shop specializes in pet supplies, don’t give it an auto-industry-related name. Make sure the name you’re going with is relevant to your field of business.
- Spelling. Don’t end up on this list of the worst business names. Make sure your name is easy to spell and pronounce, and that it makes sense. Think about any potential associations it might have, and not just in your own language.
- The number of words. Anything longer than 3 words makes your business name a bit of a mouthful, so try to stick with 1 to 3 words. This will also help with your domain name.
- No conflicts of interest. Be careful about trademarked names, because you could get into a lot of trouble. Do a thorough background check on your chosen name.
- The Bar Test. A good business name should pass the bar test. That means that your chosen name should be easy enough to remember, say, and hear if told to a friend in a busy bar. That’s a good excuse to hit the pub for some ‘business research.’
- Available with a .com domain. Once you have a few ideas for a business name, check that they’re available as domain names, and with a .com domain extension. Depending on your field, you could choose a flashier extension (.io or .xyz), but a .com domain is the easiest for your customers to remember.
After you’ve come up with a shortlist of 3 to 5 names, it’s time to sleep on them and return to them the next day.
To avoid becoming blind to your own genius, ask for other people’s opinions. Run a poll among your friends and family, and ask why they would choose a particular name.
Once you have your shiny new name picked out, you can get on with the other tasks that come with starting an online store and a business.
For starters, you want to register your domain name and sort out your web hosting.
Look for a web hosting provider that offers high uptime and has solid security features like SSL certificates. You don’t want to scare anyone off from making a purchase on your site that doesn’t have a secure checkout process.
Alternatively, make things easier for yourself and pick an eCommerce platform that takes care of both your domain and your hosting for you, like Zyro.
Make it official
Now that you’re officially online, the next step is registering your new business with the local authorities as a business entity.
The process differs from country to country, but it usually involves filling out some forms and deciding on the legal makeup of your business.
You can either go for a sole proprietorship, meaning that there’s no real difference between you as an individual and your business.
Tax is usually a lot easier to handle as a sole proprietor, but here’s a word of warning: if your business takes on any debt, you’ll be personally liable.
Alternatively, you can opt for setting up a limited liability company (LLC). This way your personal assets are not affected by a bad business year, since your company is a separate entity from you as a person. You will need to file additional taxes.
Look for a good accountant at this stage too. You can save a lot of money by letting a professional look after your tax declarations and bookkeeping.
Step 6: Branding
Got to here? Great.
You can take out your sketching pad and start brainstorming your newly named business’s look.
While the choices might feel endless, you probably have an idea of what you like already, without even realizing it:
- Make a list of businesses that you like. Don’t think too hard. Just put down the brands and the names that come to mind.
- Think about why you chose these brands. List the most memorable things about their logos, adverts, or their brand as a whole. Maybe their advertising jingle is a real ear-worm, or you’ve received outstanding customer service from them before.
- Put all of the memorable and positive things together. You’ve created a list of all the things that stand out to you in the businesses that you like. Now put them to action in your own eCommerce store.
Whether you learned that you’re a sucker for all things green or that you place real value on companies that have a laid-back vibe, you have a solid place to start.
While it’s okay to borrow good ideas, you shouldn’t be touching anything that’s trademarked or has its rights fully reserved. This includes not just visual elements like logos, but also certain words used in trademarked business names.
What’s your mission?
The next step is to think about the mission your brand will have and what values you want to communicate to the world.
A good mission statement should be able to act as a stand-alone tagline to sum up your business personality.
Your brand values should also be reflected in your design.
If you want to provide an excellent customer experience, but your website is confusing and hard to navigate, or your marketing campaigns make little sense, your brand values will seem like empty promises.
Don’t diminish the trust your customers have in you and which you’re working hard to build.
A branding checklist
When thinking about your branding, focus on things like:
- Your logo. As the centerpiece of your brand, you want to go for something that’s timeless, simple, and memorable.
- Your brand color palette. Colors can be associated with a variety of things. Shades of blue might remind you of the seaside or a clear blue sky (travel companies love to use blue in their branding). Similarly, green is usually associated with nature (think of forests, Whole Foods, and Greenpeace). What does your brand represent and what associations do you want it to have?
- The fonts and typeface. While a font might seem like a tiny detail, you want people to be able to read what’s on your website, emails, and print flyers, right? Choose the main font for headlines and a couple of accent ones, and you’re set. Stick with something that’s clear and easy to read, even from a distance.
- Your brand’s voice, tone, and style. Who are you talking to? If your main target audience is kids, you would probably speak differently to them than to a room full of business professionals. Tailor your voice and tone towards the people you want to become your paying customers. Don’t make your message difficult or annoying for them.
Get product samples
A good way to see how your brand actually works in practice is to get your hands on a product sample.
If you handle your own stock, you need to talk to your manufacturers. They are usually happy to send you a sample of your product, but you’ll probably have to pay for it.
Being able to see how the packaging looks and whether there are any faults in the product itself is extremely valuable. It will help you eliminate potential complaints before they happen.
Meanwhile, as a dropshipper, getting hold of a sample product might not be as easy, and it depends on the provider you’ve partnered up with.
While you can’t have much say in the packaging, it’s still worth seeing what your product looks like and how it’s packed.
Step 7: Create your online store
OK – now we’re really talking. It’s time to set up your digital shop.
There are plenty of different ways to go about setting up your eCommerce store:
- You can create one from scratch. This method is the most time-consuming, expensive, and complicated. Unless you’re a web developer looking for a side project, you’ll need to hire a professional to set up your website from scratch.
- Put one together on a CMS. This is the option of intermediate difficulty. A CMS platform allows you to create a website by using themes and plugins, so you won’t need to do all of the design or the coding work. However, if you’re an online business beginner, a CMS might be too difficult still.
- Use a website builder. This is a quick and easy way to get online and it won’t break the bank either. You can usually try them out for free or with a free trial, so put that credit card away for now.
We’d recommend going for a website builder, especially for your first online store. But why, we hear you ask? That’s because it’ll save you time and money.
Developing something from scratch takes a lot of time. Plus, if you pay someone to develop a website for you, it will cost you. Depending on the complexity of your web project, you might be looking at four or five-digits.
A website builder also lets you have full control. You don’t want to rely on a third party every time you want to change the product description on your website, do you?
When you’re the one creating the website, you can change your website as often you want.
Choosing the right website builder
You want to kick-start your marketing campaigns and have your beautifully branded business visible for all to see, pronto.
After all, you’ve probably been bragging about it to your friends and family ever since you picked the perfect business name.
How to start an online business is just as much about saving precious time and having fun as it is about hard work.
A website builder is a natural choice to make this happen as fast as possible.
Here are a few major things you should find in a high-quality website builder:
- Intuitive interface. Nobody has time to learn all of the ins and outs of a complicated and outdated builder. If the website builder itself isn’t guiding you through the website creation process, it’s not worth your time.
- Free templates. Your website builder should feature a big selection of good-quality templates so that all there’s left to do is to update your information and maybe change a few photos.
- Responsiveness. Your eCommerce store might look great on a computer screen, but could still be useless on mobile. A good builder should make your website responsive on any type of screen so that your brand looks good at all times.
- Speed. Especially with an eCommerce store, the longer it takes to load, the more likely you’ll lose your visitors. Make sure your building platform is optimized for maximum speed.
With a top builder, like Zyro, the process is simple: you pick a template, customize it to your liking, add your products, and click to Publish.
Pay attention to detail
Your eCommerce shop relies on good product photography to sell your products, so don’t cut any corners when it comes to your product pages.
If you’re dropshipping, use mockup generators to give people an idea of how your products look like ‘in the flesh.’
If you’re managing your own inventory or have ordered samples of your products, set up your own DIY photography studio. With a bit of research on lighting and photography angles, you can deliver surprisingly good-looking results.
Include clear and SEO-friendly descriptions of your products, and show both studio and action photos of your products. Maybe even do some product photo collages to create upselling opportunities: choose an item and build a collection of items around it.
It could be a dress that one can match up with some accessories, a hat, and shoes. Or pick a gardening tool and create a full-blown gardening scene around it, including some plant pots and a watering can in the image too.
Step 8: Start selling
Drum roll, please: it’s time to celebrate your shop’s official launch.
Take the night off, put your feet up, and relax. You’ve taken the first step and figured out how to build an online store from scratch.
Keep up the momentum and put your marketing strategy into action.
Start producing outstanding content for your blog and email marketing campaigns. Make sure to track how your most important keywords are ranking. Ask your friends and family, and their friends, to share the word of your eCommerce store.
And, before you know it, you’ll start hearing about your eCommerce store in conversations, both online and offline.
Why not set yourself up for a successful future – today?
Frequently asked questions
The costs required to start an online store can vary greatly depending on the way you do it and your needs.
For example, for those getting started in eCommerce, Zyro website builder lets you create a lightning fast online store for $8.99 per month with free hosting included.
If you wanted to hire a professional designer to build your online store for you, it would likely cost a minimum of $5000 to get your website off the ground.
As you scale the number of products in your inventory it is likely that the cost could become as high as $50,000 for large eCommerce businesses.
Online stores can be extremely profitable businesses because of the lack of overhead costs compared to traditional businesses.
That said, to give your online store the best chance of success, you should stay away from niches that are overly competitive.
Trying to break into a competitive niche will probably require lots of advertising money which most new businesses can’t afford.
To maximize your chances of making a profit, find a profitable online niche and work on increasing traffic through free methods such as SEO.
If you want to make money selling online then the best products are going to be low-cost, high-profit margin items.
Jewelry, beauty products, and apparel are all good examples of such products. But be aware that online stores selling items in these categories will always face a lot of competition.
One of the best ways to make money selling online is to focus on an item, service, or niche that you have personal expertise or experience in.
Yes, one of the most popular ways to start an online store without inventory is called dropshipping.
Dropshipping is a business model that connects the customer to the supplier through an intermediary online store.
In this model, it is not necessary for your eCommerce store to have an inventory or stock as your business simply takes the customer order and fulfills it through the supplier.
Another possible business model to start an online store without inventory is to create an on demand business.
Your business could advertise a product and take pre-orders to judge the amount of interest in an item and then use the money from the pre-orders to create exactly the amount of products that you need.
This is a common tactic for small and independent businesses.