Learning how to start an online store so you can sell products and services on the internet is easier than ever with ecommerce platforms and plugins. You’ll choose an online store platform and select order and shipping management. Also, online stores are visual platforms, so you’ll need to have a strong marketing plan.
Table of Contents:
1. Choose Your Online Store Platform
An online store allows small businesses to sell their goods and services on the internet. There are three main avenues for creating an online store. These are through dedicated ecommerce hosting, using a website with a shopping cart add-on, or a blog platform with a shopping cart plugin. Each has its advantages depending on your small businesses’ needs.
Use a Plug-and-Play Integration
“Always use an out-of-the-box integration such as Shopify. This has a huge community, is easy to set up in minutes, and you’re not tied to one developer who has built a custom system. Whenever we get clients asking about launching an ecommerce store as an extension to their existing website, we always recommend a simple plug-n-play solution to save costs and hassle.”
—Pete McAllister, Founder, OutreachPete
Dedicated Ecommerce Hosting
If selling products is your main focus, dedicated ecommerce platforms provide more robust online selling and order management features than site builder cart add-ons. BigCommerce is a website builder and ecommerce platform that offers businesses the features and functionalities needed to set up an online store. It’s beginner-friendly and features an easy-to-use dashboard, store set-up utilities, and clean, mobile-friendly store themes. This option is ideal for someone who doesn’t want to manage their own website and deal with hosting.
Website With a Shopping Cart Add-On
Website platforms let you set up a site quickly and even accept online payments for your business. Most also offer simple shopping cart add-ons if you sell a few items, so they’re a great low-cost way to open an online store.
If your main goal is to sell a wide range or high volume of products, they may not have all the features you will need. Using a platform like Weebly for your online store starts at $12 per month if billed annually. Visit Weebly to get started.
Blog Platform With a Shopping Cart Plugin
Using a blog platform like WordPress.org makes it easy to add a shopping cart plugin like WooCommerce. The plugin is free, although there are a few blog hosting expenses you’ll need to deal with. Shopify is another popular plugin for WordPress.org, which is $29 per month, in addition to any blog hosting expenses. This platform is best for bloggers.
2. Decide How You’ll Fulfill Orders
After choosing your type of online store, it’s time to look at your fulfillment options. Fulfillment covers the process of stocking, filling, and shipping customer orders. Your fulfillment processes must be efficient and accurate if your online store is to thrive, so it’s best to understand everything involved upfront.
Here are five questions to help you determine which fulfillment options are best for your situation:
- Do I already sell products from my store or warehouse? You can use any fulfillment option.
- Do I manufacture and store my own products and ship them to resellers? This is in-house fulfillment.
- Am I selling a wide variety of items or just a few products? If you’re only selling a few items, you might be able to store inventory at your home or workspace.
- Will my product suppliers dropship orders to my customers? You’ll use dropship fulfillment.
- Do I want to focus my time on building a website brand, not packing and shipping? Consider dropship fulfillment.
Ecommerce fulfillment types include in-house fulfillment, dropship fulfillment, a combination of in-house and dropship fulfillment, and outsource fulfillment.
In-house fulfillment gives you full control of your shipped orders and can be less costly than outsourcing fulfillment. You can fulfill orders anywhere: your home’s garage or a spare room, or a storage unit, warehouse, or retail store. Choosing to fulfill orders in-house will require packing and shipping orders, managing stock arrivals, and organizing and tracking inventory on an ongoing basis. This will often need daily management, even if you have the staff to help.
In dropshipping, your product supplier ships ordered items directly to your customer. You don’t have to store, pack, and ship those items yourself, and you don’t pay for the goods until they’re ordered. Some online stores sell exclusively using dropship vendors and never stock inventory themselves. However, not all vendors will dropship for you. You still have to manage order flow to your different vendors and handle customer service issues like returns or complaints.
Combination of In-house and Dropship Fulfillment
Many online stores ship most of their orders using in-house fulfillment. They dropship certain items, large orders, or special orders directly from their vendors. This hybrid-style order fulfillment setup lets you stock less yourself but still make big sales. For this reason, a hybrid approach to fulfillment is best for ecommerce stores that don’t have space for lots of inventory.
Fulfillment companies, also called third-party logistics (3PL), store your product inventory and do the pick, pack, and ship tasks for you, plus they handle returns and other customer service issues. This leaves you free to market and build your business full-time. The service does come at a cost, but most offer one big cost-saving benefit: lower shipping rates.
Since fulfillment services ship a huge number of packages with all carriers, they receive discounted rates and usually pass them on to their clients. ShipBob enables small businesses to ship their products in two days, much like Amazon Prime. Get started with ShipBob today.
3. Select Order Management and Shipping Choices
You will need to determine how you can manage shipping tasks and track the status of your orders. Your needs will differ depending on the type of fulfillment you decide to use. If your order fulfillment and shipping are all outsourced or left to dropship vendors, you can skip this step.
If you ship one or a few things in pre-set box sizes and weights, built-in website tools and basic shipping options are all you need. However, if you’ll be shipping different box sizes, managing dropship items, or selling through different channels, advanced order management, and shipping software is your best bet.
If you plan to manage and ship orders yourself, here are the three main options you have to make the entire process efficient and cost-effective.
Shopping Cart Order and Shipping Management Features
Most ecommerce platforms have good built-in order management tools. From your online store’s management dashboard, you can review and change orders and print packing slips. Some, like Shopify, even let you print shipping labels.
Basic Shipping Software and Online Options
There are plenty of free shipping label printing options; USPS.com, UPS.com, Fedex.com, and their free installed software are great for certain shipping needs. The problem with these is that you can’t compare rates among all carriers easily to find the lowest price for each shipment.
Advanced Order Management and Shipping Software
Cloud-based software like Ordoro and Shipping Easy integrates with most online store platforms and offers many efficiencies. They’re worth considering even as a startup. A major advantage is that they let you compare all carrier rates so that you can save on shipping from the start.
Most online order management stores offer free or low-cost entry-level plans to streamline shipping tasks for both website and multichannel sales. You can add more order management tools, dropship order support, and inventory tools as you grow. Another popular option is ShipBob because it offers two-day shipping. It also integrates well with BigCommerce and Shopify.
4. Choose Inventory Management for Your Online Store
Unexpected backorders and stock shortages aren’t entirely preventable. Although having a sound inventory system at launch will help you sidestep inventory mistakes made by many startups.
Whether you fill orders yourself or use a fulfillment service, there’s one thing you must do: update your website with correct inventory numbers. This prevents oversells and backorders and keeps your operation running smoothly and your customers happy. To do this, you should track your warehouse inventory software for small businesses using a system that either works within or connects to your website.
Use Built-in Store Platform Inventory Management Tools
Most ecommerce platforms have good inventory management tools. Usually, this is all you need if you operate one store or sell a small number of items. With Shopify, you can track inventory variants, such as small blue shirts and large red shirts. Each variant adjusts on the variant details page. If your product doesn’t have a variant, all you’d see for their product details are pricing, inventory, and shipping.
Manage Inventory With Advanced Order and Shipping Tools
These cloud-based software services integrate with most online store platforms and offer impressive inventory tools in addition to order and shipping management. For example, if stock runs low, you get low stock inventory alerts. If you sell many products or sell on different channels like Amazon, eBay, or Etsy, these tools can help you run your whole operation efficiently.
Use Accounting or POS Software
Using programs like QuickBooks or Square, you can manage your inventory easily. These programs and systems can tie to most online store platforms to update inventory counts.
5. Elect Payment Options for Your Online Store
As an online store owner, you will need to choose a credit card payment processor that is Payment Card Industry (PCI)-compliant. PCI compliance is meant to keep users safe from data breaches. While there’s no federal law mandating PCI compliance, some state laws do require it. Since you can be liable for any data breaches, it’s best practice to use PCI compliance anyway.
There are three types of PCI-compliant payment options for online stores:
- Secure payment providers: PayPal and Stripe are simple, easy to use secure online payment solutions that let you accept credit card payments online using just about any online store platform.
- Shopping cart checkouts: Secure shopping cart checkouts remove much of the responsibility for protecting customer data from your shoulders.
- Payment gateways & point-of-sale (POS) integrations: Most merchant accounts work with a secure payment gateway. For POS systems like Square or Vend, most top ecommerce platforms will integrate for payment processing.
If you compare all-in-one payment providers Stripe and PayPal to other merchant services, you’ll likely find the all-in-ones’ rates are higher. The tipping point is about 50 orders per month. For less than 50 orders, then Stripe and PayPal are very cost-competitive. For more than that, other payment options can be cheaper. With all-in-one providers, you don’t have to manage security issues yourself. This can save you time and money in the long run since managing PCI compliance requires a lot of technical knowledge.
6. Brand Your Online Store
When you’re ready to set up your online store, the platform you choose is likely to have a tutorial that walks you through the entire setup process. Before you start, you’ll need to have a few pieces of information ready to create your store’s key pages. You’ll also need product information organized so you can start filling up your store.
To organize your product information, you’ll need:
- Store contact information
- Customer service policy
- Shipping rates and policy
- “About Us” information
- Product information
- Product images
Your product descriptions and imagery are the most critical content on your website. They need to be great and original, if possible. For product descriptions, if you resell products, don’t settle for the same vendor-provided blurbs that your competition is using. Write them yourself, and include all details: size, weight, material, and anything else that might prompt a customer question.
The same goes for your product photos. If you have great images from your vendor, use them, but take some of your own to highlight your brand too. If you’re not great at taking photos, an influencer or brand ambassador can take them for you. They are usually well-versed in ecommerce and take pictures that highlight your brand.
“Here are my tips on how to set up an online store:
- Make sure there’s a market for what you want to sell.
- Each one of your product descriptions should an accurate reflection of the product and brand as well as optimized with the right keywords.
- Have at least five points of entry where visitors can opt in for your newsletter. The places to have opt ins are the hello bar, a delayed pop-up box, an opt-in in the footer, one on the about page, and one on the contact page.
- Blogging weekly will also help with search engine rankings. Blog posts should be at least 1,000 words.
- Only spend money on ads if you have extra revenue because Facebook and Google Ads budgets can go very quickly.
- Offer free shipping on a certain amount and provide coupon codes.
- Showcase any press received on a media page.”
—Kristin Marquet, Founder, FemFounder.co
7. Market Your Online Store
You can have the best products at the best prices, but none of that matters if you’re the world’s best-kept secret. Marketing your products is necessary for getting sales. For online stores, traditional marketing like direct mail and TV advertisements work. However, small businesses tend to stick with online channels like email marketing and using influencers and brand ambassadors.
Here are some ideas for marketing your online store:
- Blogging: Showcase your expertise by explaining topics in your niche.
- Pinterest: You can create shoppable pins and even share blog posts on Pinterest.
- Email marketing: Collecting emails means you’ll have people to market to.
- Video marketing: Creating videos can help your potential customers see your product in action.
- Coupon promotions: Send coupons through email marketing or social media ads.
- Free shipping offers: Offering free shipping can help increase sales.
- Influencer marketing: Hiring an influencer in exchange for compensation, whether product or cash, can help bring in sales.
If you’re creative and persistent, you can attract a following with blogging, social marketing, email, video, and offline engagement, and spend very little money doing it.
If you have the budget, you can focus efforts on paid marketing like Facebook ads and Google Ads. These let you drive targeted traffic to your site or certain products. When you make a sale, be sure to use other tactics, like promotional inserts in shipments, to keep customers coming back.
“The three most important tools a small business needs for their online store are:
- Inventory system: This helps to reduce overselling and being able to keep your inventory in check remotely.
- Email marketing: Keeping your customers updated about your sales, new products, and so on/ This is a great way of blasting a message to all your customers. You are also able to personalize the emails sent to customers to provide a better experience.
- Reviews: It’s important that you collect reviews and testimonials from your customers whenever they purchase any products. Whether positive or negative, reviews are important to understand what sells best, those that are not performing and will help ease the decision-making process of customers.”
—Rodney Aeria, Content Producer, HUSTLR
FAQs About Online Stores
This section includes the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about how to start an online store.
How do I start an online store with no money?
Many entrepreneurs want to jump in headfirst and quit their day job when starting an online store. However, that’s not always the best idea. Treat your current employer as your angel investor—they help fund your business in return for you working. Use them as a bridge until you’re making enough with your online store to make it your full-time job.
Do I need a business license to start an online store?
Whether you’re a brick-and-mortar storefront or an online store, most states will require a business license. This is so that you may collect taxes from your customers, and the IRS may track tax revenue. Your state’s department of revenue should have the info you need.
How much money can I make with an online store?
While there are no guarantees you’ll make any money, you may make a profit with the right resources. Whether you’re covering the costs of your monthly hosting or making a full-time income, any of it is possible given time, talent, and resources. Your income depends on your niche, audience, and expenses.
What are the best products to sell online?
You should plan for profit when figuring out what to sell online. The profit of the products that you sell depends on the wholesale or manufacturing cost and the price a buyer is willing to pay for it. You also have to factor in fulfillment costs such as packing, shipping, and tracking their orders.
Now you know how to start an online store, and it’s easier than ever since ecommerce platforms walk you through store setup every step of the way. You can launch an online store within a day and at very little cost. Being ready to manage orders and pack and ship boxes is also important and a huge step in the selling process.
With BigCommerce, the selling process is made even easier. It has the most straightforward setup process and offers the most features at the same price level as competitors. Sign up for a 15-day free trial today.