[COMPLETE GUIDE] HOW TO START AN ONLINE STORE

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Start an online store in 2021 will be fruitful; according to research, more than 2.14 billion people are projecting worldwide to purchase goods and services online in 2021. By 2023 global retail e-commerce market sales will touch $6.54 trillion, and by 2040, 95% of retail purchases will be made online, with traditional retail almost dying out. 

STEP 1 – RESEARCH & CHOOSE THE RIGHT E-COMMERCE MODEL

Before getting to the action, it is vital to get some groundwork done. Some of the most popular e-commerce models are as follows.

Drop-Shipping Drop-shipping allows you to sell products online without ever having to stock them yourself. You purchase an item from a third party when you receive an order and have it shipped directly to your customer. To learn more, click here 

1. Warehousing

If you have a large enough space to store your inventory and sufficient capital to buy physical goods upfront, warehousing could be a decent model for you. This approach gives you complete control over the products and enables you to start an online store. But managing a warehouse is a lot of work. You have to ensure all your commodities are keeping safely, know where they’ve been stocked in the store when exactly they reached your warehouse, the duration they have been there, as well as the number of units sold/left. Therefore, before choosing this option, you must ask yourself whether you have the investment, time, physical space, and human resources to go down this route. Should the answer be yes, go for it as you will be able to ship products to your customers expeditiously and remain aware of when and how much of a particular item you need in your inventory?

2. White labeling and manufacturing

In case you have a novel product in mind that you are confident about and know can sell like hot-cakes, it might be worth white-labeling or manufacturing it under your brand. This model requires you to be directly or indirectly involved in producing the items you will be selling virtually. Therefore, you are responsible for the product’s characteristics and its impact on people’s lives after consumption. Should you choose this model, the product and your store’s reputation would become somewhat intertwined. In contrast, white labeling may give you an edge over your competition and control in pricing & promotion.

STEP 2- CHOOSE THE PRODUCT YOU WANT TO SELL ONLINE

If you start an online store then the products you want to sell in your virtual store are crucial to its success. You obviously would like to have goods in your store that are in demand. But the million-dollar question is how you would determine which products are in enough order for you to have listed on your e-commerce website. The answer is simple; search competitor websites.

Most e-commerce websites have popular product listings that indicate which items are in high demand. Look for sections such as “popular right now,” “best sellers,” “trending searches,” etc. They would give you a fair idea about the product categories that customers require.  

Some of the most popular product categories you will find in e-commerce stores are as follows:

  • Clothing & apparel 
  • Footwear
  • Consumer electronics
  • Books, movies, music & games
  • Household appliances
  • Furniture & household goods
  • Sports & outdoor
  • Health & Fitness
  • Cosmetics 
  • Home & décor
  • Toy & baby products
  • DIY, garden & pets

Some e-commerce stores purely deal with products that belong to a particular niche. This concept comes in handy because it attracts a set of loyal customers who would keep coming back to you repeatedly if your store has a product that isn’t available elsewhere. They would also be willing to pay you an extra amount for the items you sell because you’ve got the goods.

Once you have figured out which products to populate your storefront with, it is recommended that you stay on the lookout for new and trending items to introduce in your online store as your business evolves. People’s preferences and inclinations evolve constantly, and that’s why your business must stay aligned with your consumers’ changing needs.

STEP 3 – IDENTIFY THE SUPPLIERS YOU WILL BE SOURCING GOODS FROM

If you start an online store then the success will partly depend on the suppliers responsible for providing the goods you promise to your customers. Finding suitable suppliers takes some effort, but once you’ve done it right, it saves you from a lot of trouble later on. Here are some ways you can track down a decent supplier:

i- Looking through online supplier directories is one way you can find the right supplier. You can utilize Brands services like Alibaba and GlobalSource are good examples of suppliers whose if you intend to run an e-commerce platform. 

ii- Another method for locating a supplier is to visit the trade organizations’ website for the industry you are looking for in products. These websites often have a list of suppliers that you can touch. 

iii- Visiting trade shows is another technique you could employ to get hold of potential suppliers. These events open up the opportunity for you to meet and network with suppliers on a face-to-face basis and even take a look at the products they have to offer. Keep checking on the internet when the next trade show in your city or country is scheduling so that you could register yourself as an attendee. 

iv- There are also some groups on social networks like Linkedin, where you can post a query regarding suppliers’ availability within your industry. A massive audience will read this message, and someone will hopefully be able to handhold you to the correct supplier.

v- If you have any links or contacts with people who are currently operating in your industry, ask them to recommend you the right supplier. This idea is always helpful because whoever is referring you to a supplier would probably be doing so based on the first-hand experience. 

Upon finding companies that you could source products from, you need to shortlist them until you arrive at a final decision. The assessment of each vendor can be done by communicating with them over the phone or email. Make sure you have a set of questions ready for the supplier, based on which you would choose your vendor. 

Check for the payment terms, the minimum order policies, and shipping/handling costs. Also, inquire if they can provide a certificate of liability insurance, which would come into play if the products they deliver are faulty. Furthermore, check what their policies are regarding orders that are either delayed or undelivered altogether. 

STEP 4 – DETERMINE WHAT TECHNOLOGY AND SOLUTION YOU WILL BE USING FOR YOUR ONLINE STORE

Even if you aren’t very tech-savvy, there are several tools and technologies available on the internet that would allow you to get started with your online store without any fuss. However, the variety of these technologies is overwhelming, so that decision-making can be a bit of a challenge. Here is a list of items you need to cross off from the technical point of view before proceeding to the next steps.

a- Deciding where to host your online store

It is vital to compare your hosting options before opting for one. Various hosting providers charge different prices for different features, support, and accessibility options. When you’re at a stage where you have to choose a hosting server, remember to check if the payment information shared on the server will remain secure. How much storage you will get, what kind of technical support you will receive if there’s an issue with the server, and how much you will be charged for maintenance. Also, enquire if there would be any additional charges which you may have overlooked initially. 

b- Choosing & registering your domain name for an online store 

Your domain name should be a reflection of the products you are offering. There are some examples of successful online retailers with domain names completed unrelated to their business’s nature. But to turn such brands into household names, heavy-duty marketing is required. Unless you have a hefty budget to invest in building your brand name, a safe bet will focus on a name that conveys what kind of products you deal in. A short, simple, and easy to pronounce name would always remain memorable and convenient for users from the search point of view. In case you want to explore some domain-name options to help you make up your mind, online tools like “domain type” and “namestation” could come in handy.

Once you’ve decided on your domain name, you would need to have it registered. Some of the most popular domain registrars include “GoDaddy,” “Bluehost” and “Hostgator.” Depending on the name you have picked for your e-commerce store, you will be required to pay a registration fee for your domain.

c- Opting between a “hosted” and “self-hosted” e-commerce platform

The platform which powers your e-commerce store is the next thing you would need to choose. Typically, there are two types of e-commerce platforms. 

On the one hand is a “hosted platform,” which is extremely easy to manage and perfect for individuals with limited technical knowledge. Your hosting and server maintenance worries are all taken care of as part of this option. Some hosted platforms even simplify the lives of entrepreneurs by offering drag-and-drop features to create their websites themselves. Hosted platforms come with pre-built templates and a combination of tracking options about inventory, sales, etc. The support that accompanies hosted platforms is also excellent. The downside of hosted platforms is that they’re limited in terms of features, not as flexible as an open-source platform, and may support add-ons from only a handful of providers. In case a hosted platform option is one you feel works for you, the most popular hosted platform names you must explore include Shopify, Squarespace, and Bigcommerce. 

Now let’s examine the “self-hosted” e-commerce platform. This option allows you to customize every aspect of your store, be it hosting, implementing, or maintaining. A qualified web developer is typically hired for handing a self-hosted platform since it is too complex to be managed by non-technical people. The biggest perk of having a self-hosted platform is that it is mostly free, and you have full liberty to control your store’s aesthetics and overall functionality. As you are not confined to a limited set of features or integrations, you can go ahead and incorporate ones that are better suited to your personal preferences.

The disadvantage of having a self-hosted platform is that it may be challenging to set up than its hosted counterpart. Also, any new feature/design would require separate coding. Furthermore, fees related to the server and the platform’s development and maintenance need to be paid separately if you opt for this alternative. In case an open-source platform is what you want to go for, the names worth checking out are Magento, Opencart & Woocommerce. 

d- Giving ample importance to security 

Your e-commerce website’s security is one of the critical elements you must invest time, effort, and money in. After all, you want to give your shoppers complete peace of mind while shopping with you. If they feel insecure about their payments on your website, they will bounce out and end up in a different store. You can make your site secure by Single Security Layer (SSL) certificates, which encrypt user data and make all your store transactions very fast. SSL certificates come as part of pre-built e-commerce platform providers. In other cases, they may be obtained as an add-on. A cloud-based platform called “Sucuri” may also prove to be very effective in preventing your site from getting exposed to any security threats. By taking all these measures to fortify your website security, not only will your customers feel safer in your store, but your e-commerce business would also get ranked higher by Google. 

To properly assess all the solutions and handpicking the most suitable e-commerce platform, it is essential that you first take a free trial of the solutions that appear to be closest to your needs. By doing so, you would have a first-hand experience of what it is like to use the platform and whether it is in-sync with your requirements. 

Also, have a chat with the support and sales staff of each platform and explain to them the scope of your business, the kind of products you would be selling, how you would be selling them, and what your technical requirements are—notice who gives the most satisfactory answers on time. Lastly, do check out the customer-base of each company. Client reviews on social media would indicate how satisfied the existing customers of a particular company are.

STEP 5 – PICK YOUR PAYMENT GATEWAY

In simple terms, a payment gateway is a technology that processes credit card payments made by individuals making purchases from an online store. Various payment gateways are being used by e-commerce platforms nowadays. These include Paypay, Payoneer, Stripe, Worldpay, etc. 

A payment gateway serves as the spinal cord of any e-commerce business. That is why having a robust payment gateway that integrates seamlessly with your e-commerce platform is of paramount importance. To select the most appropriate payment gateway for your business, a few factors are worth considering. 

Firstly, pay attention to the payment gateway’s pricing structure, which may vary from one provider to another. In some cases, the provider may charge you a fixed rate on every transaction made. In others, you may have to pay a variable percentage. Also, individual providers may charge you a gateway fee every month. It is important to note that your business’s location and that of the customer may also influence the gateway fee. Make sure you check your payment gateway works in all possible regions that you plan on serving. In the end, the prices of the products you are selling and your projected sales volume would help you determine if the cost of the payment gateway you are considering to choose is justified or not. 

The second most important thing worth looking into is if the payment gateway supports the types of payments you plan on having on your platform. While the usual payment form, i.e., a credit card, is supported by all providers, not all support cryptocurrencies. So if you’re planning to have, for example, Bitcoin on your store as an acceptable mode of payment, make sure your provider has it covered. 

Last but not least, your gateway must be integrated with your e-commerce platform. It would ensure that your customers do not have to exit your website to carry out the payment for their purchase and seamlessly finish their transaction in one place. 

STEP 6 – IRON OUT THE SHIPPING DETAILS

You may have a perfect store with great products and customer service. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to how efficiently they’ve been shipped to the customer after purchase. You will be required to partner up with a courier service to ensure your products reach the buyers in a secure and timely fashion, for starters. 

Next up, you should determine how you will be charging your customers for shipping. For this, you need to have your shipping “origin address.” If this address is different from that of your office, make sure you factor in that the shipping rates and taxes will be calculated accurately. 

You must also decide which regions in the world you can ship your products to. As the rates differ from one country to another, your website must declare the areas you are serving and the shipping rates for each.

For orders exceeding a certain amount, you can offer free shipping. This is an attractive feature a lot of stores operating online offer. However, this option works best for high-value items and might not entirely make sense for cheap products. Make sure you’ve done all your calculations before offering free shipping. 

If your store sells large items like furniture, you can calculate shipping price by the product’s dimensions, weight, and where it needs to be shipped. 

As an additional shipping alternative, you can offer “store pickup” for customers, whereby they could visit your premise and collect their order themselves. This would allow for interaction between you and the customer in the flesh. Also, it may reduce delivery time and help customers save money. 

STEP 7 – START POPULATING PRODUCTS IN YOUR ONLINE STORE

This is the phase where you start filling your storefront with the products you intend to sell. Here are the key considerations while adding products to your online store.

i- Ensure that you have the product classification done clearly. This would enable customers to search for products effortlessly. Each category page must have a comprehensive description, which could come in handy for you from the SEO point of view.

ii- Each product page must have the product’s official title, model number, features/specifications, color and size options, pricing, shipping information, and detailed description. A convincing product description can influence the customer’s buying decision. Therefore, pay special attention to this bit.

iii- Clear and accurate product photos and thumbnails need to be displayed on the relevant page(s). As the customer can’t touch the product or hold it in their hands, their only chance to assess its look and feel is through photographs. That is why getting the visual part right is essential. 

iv- If you have any videos covering the review of a product or how to use it, they might be worth incorporating in each product page. These videos and product photos would give the customer an in-depth understanding of the actual product.

v- Create individual brand pages. Brand-conscious customers may judge your store by the variety of brands you have on offer. A nicely constructed brand page with detailed information about the type of products is sure to leave a great impression on the visitors about your store. 

STEP 8 – MARKET YOUR ONLINE STORE

Once you have filled up your online store with products, the next step will be to let the world know about it. To generate traffic on your e-commerce platform, there is a multitude of techniques that could be put to practice:

i- Search Engine Optimization

Your e-commerce website must be visible on search engines so that people may locate it online. To rank your website on Google search results, you need to have a healthy SEO plan in place. You can get the most relevant and meaningful traffic on your website by optimizing your online store for search terms pertinent to your industry. 

The best terms can be determined through comprehensive “keyword research.” There are several tools out there that can help you in this activity. In the end, the keywords that have a high volume and low competition should be the ones you should be looking to get your website ranked for. 

Besides keyword research, “competitor research” would also play an instrumental role in your SEO exercise. A handy tool for this purpose is “SEMRUSH,” which would allow you to see the keywords your competition focuses on. You can also use a tool called “Moz’s open site explorer” that would enable you to identify the websites that point customers to your competitors’ online stores. 

Once you’ve gathered all this information, smartly include all the essential keywords in your page titles, descriptions, headers, web copy, and URL slugs. The unique content you write, the better your chances of being ranked higher.

The speed at which your site loads, its user-friendliness, and compatibility with mobile devices would also play a key role in its ranking. So make sure these factors are also given due importance.

ii- Link building

Getting back-links from relevant and high-performing websites can have a remarkable impact on your online store’s ranking. You might need to reach out to the websites providing back-links to your competition and see if one of them could link back to you as well. Alternatively, you could write guest posts on external websites and incorporate shortened links to your store therein. You could invest in some great tools such as “Mangools” that allow you to find powerful back-links. Furthermore, you could have your store’s products reviewed by a blog and industry website, wherein people wanting to buy them could be pointed to your e-commerce platform. You could also have your website listed in the online vendor directory or get media coverage. All of these tactics could help you earn valuable back-links.

iii- Content Marketing

Creating relevant and educational content would allow your audience to engage with your website more actively. Furthermore, it would do your website’s SEO a world of good. Using high-performing keywords in your website content can give a massive boost to your online store’s ranking, “SEMRUSH”  is the only option for optimal results. And that’s not all. When you create shareworthy content, the chances of external websites providing you link-backs increase exponentially. To create compelling content, understanding your customers’ pain-points is extremely crucial. This insight can very easily be obtained through keyword research. Once you have that intel, it is recommended that you create content that responds to your customers’ concerns in the form of blogs, FAQs, product descriptions, taglines/captions, etc. You can even create detailed guides, case studies, white papers by following the same methodology. 

iv- Social Media Marketing

There is a fair chance that your existing or potential customers are users of social media platforms. What you need to do is determine which platforms they use and what their social media habits are. This information would help you formulate a winning social media strategy. 

On Facebook, your business must have detailed company information. You should take out time to post photos, announcements, etc., frequently on your Facebook page. Besides, encourage users to post reviews there about your store. You should also a CTA button on your Facebook page that directs your social media audience to your website. As the trend of instant messaging continues to grow, it is suggested that you also have Facebook messenger active for your customers to have an actual conversation with you. To reach new customers, you could even consider running a paid ad campaign on Facebook, provided you have the budget for it. 

Use Instagram, a visually rich social network, promote your products, engage in conversations with customers, and do visual story-telling. Posting on IG-stories can help your customers see your brand’s human side and, thereby, form a deeper emotional bond with it. 

You could also showcase your Pinterest merchandise, which is considered a highly effective social network for e-commerce brands. Catchy images of your products would win not only more eyeballs but also stand a higher chance of being “re-pinned” by your audience. 

v- Email Marketing

Unlike social media, where you don’t own your audience and who views your content is determined by the social network’s algorithms, email marketing gives you greater control over who you want to reach. There are plenty of email marketing solutions like Mailchimp, Sendinblue & Getresponse that you could invest in to start building your email database. Make sure the tool you choose blends nicely with your e-commerce platform. Next up, create an opt-in pop-up on your website encouraging your audience to share their email address with you. If need be, you can even throw in an incentive for people who opt-in. Once you have a pool of contacts, you can start sending them special announcements, updates on new product arrivals, heads-up on promotional offers, etc.

STEP 9 – EVALUATE THE PERFORMANCE OF YOUR ONLINE STORE

Once your store is fully functional, and your marketing activities start yielding sales, the next thing to do is check what the numbers are saying. SEMRUSH has some metrics that may help you correctly monitor the progress you’ve made as a business.

First and foremost is the “Site Traffic.“It would help if you saw how much traffic you generated to your online store. It is also essential to check which country your traffic is coming from. Furthermore, the source (social media, search, third-party sites, email marketing) that generated traffic for you is also worth looking at. This information would help you make more intelligent and much more conscious marketing decisions in the future. 

Secondly, the “Conversion Rate” would help you ascertain the extent to which you’re able to turn your visitors into buyers. If you start an online store and your conversion rate is low, it could be because irrelevant traffic arrives at your store, or there is little/no correlation between the site and your marketing message. If your online store isn’t technically very sound, that too could lead to a drop in conversions. 

Another KPI to keep an eye on is the “Cost Per Acquisition,” which is the amount you invest in for acquiring a customer who purchases on your website. To calculate CPA, the total campaign cost should be divided by total conversions. By having the CPA in front of you, you would tell how effective your marketing effort has been and which channel is worth spending on more.

And lastly, the “Average Order Value” is another metric that is very important as it gives you an understanding of your audience’s buying behavior. A low AOV may result from excessive marketing focus on inexpensive items, in which case the high-value products need to be promoted more aggressively. If the AOV suggests that customers aren’t purchasing more than one thing from your store in a single instance, it indicates that you need to focus on cross-selling to ensure sales of multiple items in one order. 

Concluding Remarks

Starting an online store from scratch requires a lot of hard work, but it certainly pays off if you get your ducks in a row. If all the steps discussed above in this article are followed and executed to perfection, you can guarantee yourself a very profitable e-commerce platform. 

Got a question? Comment here or open a thread. We will help!

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He is an expert and having 5 years of experience in helping businesses to build a meaningful online presence. He is a former online marketing specialist with wide-ranging expertise - including market research, design, messaging, and project management.

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