If you’ve got no idea how to start an online store, your head is probably full of questions.

What do I need to start a small online business?

How much does it cost? Can I do it for free?

What are the best ecommerce website builders?

These are great questions, and they prove that you’ve got the first thing needed to succeed in the world of ecommerce – you’re thinking ahead and you’re planning.

And in this step-by-step guide, you will find our insights, the answers to all these questions and many many more.

You’ll also learn: 

  • How to start an online store with no money
  • What business licenses you need to sell products online
  • How to use SEO and other marketing techniques to get your first sales

This article is quite lengthy, so if you’d like to jump ahead to a specific topic, do that here:

Before we get started in actually building your online store, it’s crucial that you have laid a solid foundation.

Depending on where you live, there may be a legal process you need to be a part of to start an online store, so let’s take a look at that.

If you’re absolutely sure about the legal requirements to run an online store in your state or country, jump ahead to finding the best products to sell online.

If you already have your product in mind, skip ahead to finding the best ecommerce platform to use

Step 1: Do you need a business license to have an online store?

Check the legal requirements for opening an online store in your country below:

DISCLAIMER: These guides are for informational purposes only, and do not constitute professional legal advice. Please consult independent legal advice for information specific to your country and circumstances. Shoplo is not liable to you in any way for your use or reliance on these guides.

do i need a license to sell online

Once you know what you legally need to do to open an online store, it’s time to take a look at the most important part of your brand – the product.

Step 2: Decide which products you want to sell

If you have an idea for a product to sell online, you’re already halfway to success.

If you’re not sure of an idea for a product, here are some very popular and profitable ideas:

Clothing

Everyone needs clothes! Selling clothes online allows your customers to indulge in a guilty pleasure. If you can find a piece of clothing that can solve a problem your customer is having (such as low-quality work-wear), your brand can easily take off.

Shoes

Just like clothing, everyone needs shoes. The fact is this: Shoes are a guilty pleasure.

If you’d like to sell shoes online, decide whether you will sell mass produced shoes for a lower price, or if you will specialise in selling high-end shoes.

Also consider specialist shoes – work boots, orthopaedic shoes or rock-climbing shoes.

Online jewelry business

The online jewelry industry is a very flooded market. With websites like Etsy allowing anyone to sell jewelry, it’s extra hard to stand out above the noise – but it is possible.

Your best way of building a lucrative online jewelry business is to sell high-end jewelry and offer a product and customer experience that no one else does.

sell jewellery online
Not a fan of any of these ideas and looking for something a little more original? Learn how to find the best products to sell online (read now)

No matter which product you want to sell, the most important question remains:

How do you set up an online store?

 

Step 3: Build my own or use an existing solution?

Once you’ve decided what you want to sell online, the next step is to establish how you will create the website that you’ll use to sell. There are many options available to you.

Solution 1: Your own unique platform

Your first thought may be to hire a professional to do everything. If you’re not tech-minded, this may seem like the only option.

ProsCons
  • You don’t need to do a thing
  • Expensive
  • Someone else takes care of any technical problems
  • You have little to no input into the way the backend of your store operates
  • Many developers use their own solutions, leaving you in the dark and not sure of what you’re actually paying for.

 

Takeaway: You probably won’t be able to change things without getting that same profession developer involved.

best ecommerce solution

Solution 2: Use your own domain and hosting

The next option you may find is something like WooCommerce or Magento. These are products specifically designed for creating an online store, but that’s it.

You are in charge of providing hosting, domain names, servers and just about everything else needed to build the foundation of your store.

You’re also required to set up analytics to track the performance of your web store and many other complicated matters.

ProsCons
  • Free – if not free, then incredibly cheap
  • You need to have coding skills – or know someone that does to start and fix problems
  • Versatile – you can create your store
  • Requires a lot of time and knowledge to just get started
  • You’re using the most common and well-known solutions in the ecommerce industry
  • Accepting payments is not free – fees quickly add up

 

Takeaway: This is a great solution if you have the spare time and the underlying knowledge. If you don’t, then it’s going to be a time-hungry and expensive option.

Solution 3: A premade ecommerce platform

Whether you’re tech-minded or you don’t know how to use a printer, a premade ecommerce platform like Shoplo is a great solution for you.

With an investment of fewer than 30 minutes and $0, you’re able to set up an online store, make it look just how you want, and start taking your products to the world.

Below is an example of everything you need to start selling online on an ecommerce platform (using Shoplo as an example).

best ecommerce platform

Firstly, choose a theme as the base layout of your online store.

If you’d rather build your own theme, use the Shoplo Online Store builder to build the layout of your online store for free.

how to sell online

The next step is to add your domain. Philsawesomewebstore.com, for example.

Secure hosting is provided, and you’re able to accept PayPal, Credit Cards and many other payment methods, straight away.

ProsCons
  • You start building your store immediately
  • Can be difficult to migrate from one platform to another
  • You have dedicated help and support from experienced sellers just like you
  • Can be difficult to migrate from one platform to another
  • Versatile, easy to use, and provides the best value for money.

 

Takeaway: An ecommerce platform is the best choice for you, especially if you want to have a constant support while building your business.

Now that you’ve decided on your product and which ecommerce platform you will use, you’ll now see how to start building your online store.

Step 4: How to create an online store – choose your design

People are visual creatures. Therefore the way your online store is designed plays a very important role.

Pictures, shapes, images, all work together to create the way that your customers perceive your brand.

ecommerce store design

When designing an online store, you need to keep a few things in mind:

  • Don’t overload your website with colours, shapes and images
  • Keep your colour themes and layout consistent throughout your entire store
  • Practicality is always more important than looks

Take a look at the following example of what not to do when designing an ecommerce store:

bad ecommerce design

Why is this an example of bad design?

  • What is going on? Where do I click, where do I browse? How do I get around?
  • ‘More than 20 years in IT industry’ – incorrect English doesn’t set a professional image
  • What makes this brand unique and memorable? What do they stand for?

 

Here is the opposite end of the spectrum, and a good example of web store design:

good ecommerce design

Why is this an example of good design?

  • The brand name and logo is easy to see, read and remember.
  • You know the product within a second of landing on the webpage.
  • Easy to see navigation and simple, short text.

 

As you can clearly see it’s important to put functionality in front of attractiveness when building an online store.

Why?

Good design lets your customer find what they want to with ease.

It also makes the buying process simpler and easier so you ultimately sell more.

You won’t get your design right the first time – it’s a process you’ll always be changing and tweaking.

Once you have an adequate layout of your web store, start thinking about adding your products.

Step 5: How to make an online store – add your products

So now you know how to start an online store, it’s time to look at adding your products.

Look how easy it is when you use an ecommerce website builder:

ecommerce platform products

This is an example of the ‘add new product page’ inside a Shoplo store.

Simply add a product name and an SKU number. An SKU number is a unique number that’s used to track that one product through your web store.

If you have a barcode number, you can also add that.

Next, add a price, decide whether it’s with or without tax.

Then establish if you’d like the software to automatically keep track of the number of units you have in stock.

Adding products to your online store is similar to adding products to a marketplace like Amazon or eBay.

In your own online store, you can go into greater detail with your product descriptions as it’s your online store and your space to do what you want!

Product descriptions

Product descriptions are a great way to let your brand’s voice be heard.

Go into greater detail when writing your product descriptions on your website. Tell a story and build a relationship with the reader.

If you want to learn more how to write product descriptions, read the article:
How to Write A Product Description That Sells (+4 examples)

Tip: Place a few bullet points in your product description to help skim-readers. ThinkGeek does this very well:

build online store

Once your product descriptions are written, it’s time to arrange them into relevant categories and collections.

Categories

You can use categories to separate different kinds of products.

For example:

Men’s -> Clothing -> Wet Weather -> Raincoats

Men’s -> Clothing -> Underwear -> Socks

In the following example, you can see how Yeah Bunny, a fashion brand using Shoplo, use categories to help their customer navigate through the store.

hoecommerce store categories

Using categories correctly is important for SEO purposes, and it also helps your customer navigate their way around your website.

To learn more about SEO for your store, download the free ebook  

SEO Essentials for Ecommerce (download now).

Collections

Collections are a group of products that have something in common ‘new in stock’, ‘summer 2018’ or ‘end of season clearance’.

It’s a very common practice to create marketing campaigns around products in a collection.

Here you can see how SugarPills Clothing uses a banner to link to their discount product collection:

ecommerce store collections

In the picture below, you can see how a Shoplo user has used different collections to separate ‘New Arrivals’ and their ‘Precious’ range of goods.

ecommerce store add categories

See the advantages of organising your products into collections by using in our ecommerce platform.  

Anything else?

There’s still a little work to do before you start selling online, though!

Once these specifics are added, you still need to address things like:

  • sale price
  • shipping costs
  • shipping methods

You may also have different return and refund policies for your items. 30 days exchange on clothing, but no exchanges on underwear, for example.

Be sure to sort this out before taking your store live.

Below is an example of a few of the other things you might like to add to make your listing complete:

best ecommerce builder

Other things that you may need to add:

  • Short product description
  • Tags
  • Metadata
  • SKU numbers
  • Taxes
  • Product dimensions

As you can see, there’s more to adding products that just writing a few words and uploading a photo.

The benefit you have by filling out these extra details is that your customer knows more about the product.

With a more complete picture of the product they’re buying, they’re more likely to commit to purchasing.

Once you’ve added one product, it’s time to repeat the process for all other products.

Step 6: Get Paid

It’s important that you provide a safe and secure way for your customer to pay you.

Before you do that, you need to make sure that you have an SSL certificate which allows you to accept money securely.

SSL certificates are available for purchase online for a yearly fee.

Once that’s done, it’s time to add your prefered payment methods. Paypal, Credit Cards, Google Wallet, Amazon and Apple pay and Bitcoin are some of the most popular payment methods.

Below is a list of the payment methods that you can automatically add to your Shoplo store:

online store payment methods

By using an ecommerce platform, you can add all these payment methods in 10 or 15 minutes.

Building your own online store from scratch, it’d take you about 10-15 minutes to add each individual gateway.

If you’re using WooCommerce as your ecommerce platform, be sure to read the following article: Comparing WooCommerce Payment Gateways [examples+how to].

Now, finally, you may just be ready to start selling online!

Step 7: Marketing

Now you’re up and running, it’s time to take your product to the world and there’s an insane number of ways to do that.

Here’s a brief list of ways to start marketing your product. If you’d like to know more about that method, follow the link to learn more.

Instagram

Instagram is a great way to take your product to the world, due to the fact that it’s based on sharing images. Here you can see how fashion label PLNY LALA, use their Instagram gallery in the footer of their web store.

ecommerce platform instagram

Tip: Statistically, we have found that people who show their Instagram content on their webpage like the above example, tend to get their first sale soon and sell more.

SEO

SEO is the art of arranging keywords so that your pages appear at the top of search results.

Learn more about SEO by downloading the free ebook:

SEO Essentials for Ecommerce (read now).

Content marketing

Content marketing works closely with SEO. The most popular form of content marketing is writing a blog that compliments your products.

Find out more about blogging for business over at Reliablesoft.

Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing involves approaching people with large social media followings and asking them to review your products.

Learn more about Influencer marketing over at Intellifluence.

Product Feeds

Product feeds are used to list your products for sale on Google Shopping, Facebook stores and other sales channels. Learn more about product feeds in the article: Product feed tips for your online store to boost profits + sales [how-to]

As you can see, there are many ways to increase traffic to your web store. Each way requires research, calculation, measurement and assessment. 

While learning how to start an online store, you may hear the names WordPress and Woocommerce. WooCommerce is an online store that’s built using WordPress.

wordpress ecommerce platform

WooCommerce is often compared to Shopify. To learn the difference between the two, read the article Shopify vs WooCommerce.

As mentioned, WooCommerce and WordPress are one of the best free online store builders, but they’re complicated. You also have access to hundreds of free plugins at your disposal.

ProsCons
  • You have complete control over the way your online store looks and operates
  • You have total control – if something goes wrong, WooCommerce won’t help you
  • Access to hundreds of free plugins and third-party software
  • You need to provide hosting, domains and serves – if there’s a problem, it’s up to you to fix it.
  • Incredible amounts of support material available online
  • While it may be free to set up, it will cost you time. Adding safe payment gateways will cost either initial fees, monthly or annual fees and/or fees per transaction.

 

Many people use WooCommerce as it’s ‘free’.

After a while, the fees and costs for payment gateways and other added extras (that come standard with other complete solutions) start to add up.

Before long, you’re paying just as much, if not more, than you would for an easy online store builder like Shoplo.

How much does it cost to start an online store? – The cheapest way to build an online store

Gone are the days where an online store would cost you hundreds of dollars to open. Nowadays, you’re able to start an online store for less than $50 and keep it running for less than $15 per month.

Even though it is cheap, it’s important to create a budget and stick to it. Just like your personal finances, if you spend more than you earn, you’ll be in for a tough time.

Here’s a comparison of costs you’ll need to pay when building a web store on an ecommerce platform like WooCommerce opposed to something like Shoplo:

WooCommerceShoplo
approx $10/yearDomain Nameapprox $10/year
From $8/monthHosting Included
$60/yearSSL CertificateIncluded
NoneMonthly FeeFrom $12/month
Manual set-upSite backupsIncluded
Manual set-upAnalytics Ready to go

 

As you can see, WooCommerce might be free, but the associated costs add up quickly.

If your budget is tight, consider doing some things yourself. But remember never to forsake quality just to save a few dollars.

open a free online store

Spend the time learning how to use Photoshop or Canva and create most of your images yourself, for example.

SEO is another thing that you can learn to do yourself. It’s easy enough for you to lay the foundations of your website’s SEO yourself.

Want to learn a little more about how SEO can help your ecommerce store be found? Download the free ebook:

SEO Essentials for Ecommerce (read now)

If you do need some professional help, speak to other peers in the industry to see if they can recommend someone.

Alternatively, check out websites like Fiverr or Upwork. One thing to remember about these websites – you get what you pay for.

Tip: If you’re willing to pay someone $13 to design your brand’s logo, you will get a logo that looks like $13.

Whether you allocate a lot of your time learning how to do things yourself, or you pay professionals, you’ll have to put in some serious work.

Now it’s time to take a look at how to start an online store for free, and why a free ecommerce platform may not be the best option for you.

How to open an online store for free

If your budget is very very tight and you’re looking to open an online store for free, ask yourself a question:

Am I doing this to start a brand that people will love, or am I doing this to make some quick money?

If you want to quickly make some money, starting an online store is not the way to go.

If you’re looking at how to start an online store for free, just to make some fast cash, you will be very disappointed – and you may even lose some money.

The fact is, that while there are many options to start an online store for free, those options are quite limited.

For example, you can list your products for free, but you pay a very high sales fee. You may also be limited to only one or two sales per day, or be limited to using expensive ways to accept payments.

Using a free ecommerce platform will result in more pain, fewer sales and more frustration.

On the other hand, using an ecommerce platform like Shoplo, which offers value for money and a wide range of included features, you can save money and time – time that’s better spent growing and developing your business plan.

BONUS:

Looking to open an online store in a particular niche? Take a look at what you’ll need to open an online store selling some of the most common and popular products:

How to start a fashion business online

Starting your own online boutique is a great way to make a little extra money and sink your teeth into the world of online selling.

start a fashion brand online

To succeed, you must be willing to work hard and long, as the competition is fierce, regardless of what you’re selling.

Firstly, decide how you will source your clothing.

  • WIll you make it yourself?
  • Will you design it yourself and outsource the production?
  • Will you buy it from the wholesaler and resell?
  • Will you be selling vintage and second-hand clothing online?

Once you’ve figured out the best way to source your apparel, you then need to start building your brand.

What’s your brand name? What’s your mission statement, what are your goals and how are you different?

Then, create a logo and visuals.

NOTE: The best fashion brands do an excellent job of communicating visually.

Invest some serious time, and if necessary, money, in creating lookbooks and killer product photos that show off your product. Show what your customer’s life will be like if they buy your product.

This attitude towards graphic design and visuals can really help you stand out, regardless whether you’re selling cheap, mass-produced clothing, vintage and second-hand items, or high-end fashion.

Once you have all your product and your visuals, go and start your free 15-day Shoplo trial.

Choose a beautiful theme to compliment your current visuals and start uploading your products.

online store themes

Once your store is set up and your products are live, it’s time to take your new fashion boutique to the world!

How to open an online shoe store

One very popular online business model is selling shoes online. Opening an online shoe store can be a very profitable idea for a number of reasons:

  • Everyone needs shoes
  • Collecting shoes is a pleasure or hobby for many people
  • Shoes can be seen as a status symbol
  • Those that don’t have a passion for shoes prefer to buy cheap shoes

If you decide to sell shoes online, there are a few specific things worth noting. Let’s take a look.

Know who you’re selling to and what they want. If you’re selling skate shoes to teenagers and young adults, don’t sell high heels. If you’re selling high-end designer shoes, don’t sell work boots.

how to sell shoes online

Secondly, establish if you will make and/or source the shoes yourself, or whether you will be a reseller.

Once you know the shoes you will sell and who you want to buy them, it’s time to start marketing. For shoes particularly, Social Media and Influencer marketing may be the best channels for you to market your shoes.

People will remember your shoe store if you go out of your way to add value to your customer. You can do this by creating content that helps the customer make their decision.

For example, you can create multiple blog articles that educate your customer about shoes in general.

  • How to find the correct size running shoe
  • The correct way to polish men’s formal shoes
  • How to lace hiking boots
  • The best casual shoe for an after-work function

By creating content that helps your customer, you again build trust.

In a business such as shoes where the market is flooded, it’s a great way to stand out from your competition.

How to start an online baby boutique or baby clothing business

If you’re interested in starting an online baby boutique, this can be a very profitable venture.

Many new mothers are looking for well-made products created from high-quality materials for their newest members of their family.

By selling baby clothing online that suits this kind of buyer, you’re able to create a brand that young families will love and keep coming back to, time and time again.

Be warned though, the baby business can be quite a saturated market. You’ll need to have a well-defined marketing plan and a high-quality product.

how to start an online boutique

The same steps apply for starting an online baby boutique as much other business.

  • Check the laws in your country and state
  • Decide on a product to sell
  • Find a way to source that product
  • Establish who you will sell it to
  • Decide on what makes you unique
  • Start building your website

One thing that’s specifically worth noting about starting an online boutique with baby clothes, is insurance.

Be sure to have some kind of insurance or Limited Liability if your product is involved in an accident or incident.

Baby clothing regulations are incredibly high (fire-retardant pyjamas, for example) so be sure that you’re not leaving yourself open for business disaster.

How to calculate shipping costs for an online store

Shipping is one big expense that many online business owners overlook.

It’s important that you calculate shipping costs accurately and provide value for money for your customer – in many cases, this means providing free postage.

how to sell online free postage

If you’re able to put the cost of shipping into the final sale price of your item, you can offer free postage. This is a massive incentive for your customer – everyone wants something for free!

If you can’t offer free shipping, there are many ways that you can offer and calculate shipping.

  • Flat rate shipping: All orders have the same shipping rate, regardless of size.
  • Price based shipping: The shipping cost is based on the total price of the items being purchased. This price goes up or down depending on the total sales price, but postage rates are broken up into price-based tiers
  • Weight-based shipping: The shipping price is based on the total weight of the products purchased
  • Real-time shipping rate calculators: The shipping rate is calculated in real-time with a particular shipping carrier such as DHL, FedEx, UPS etc.

Each option has its pros and cons, so spend some time figuring out which is best for you, but also which one is more suited to your customer.

NOTE: Sticker shock is when your customer abandons their cart as the shipping rate is more than expected. Again, sticker shock is destroyed when you can offer free shipping.

How to start an online store – Final thoughts

Now you’re hopefully a little more informed about how to start an online store.

Like any small business, there is a lot of planning to do if you’d like to make your business one of the most successful online stores. b

What’s more, once you’ve done all your research and planning, the ongoing work of operating an online store is only just beginning.

In this article, you learned:

  • How to start an online store
  • Some of the best ecommerce platforms
  • How to get traffic to your online store

These are some of the most important things to know before heading into business.

Selling online and building your own legacy is a very rewarding experience. A very difficult experience, but a very rewarding experience.

If you’re ready to get started, head over and start your 15-day free trial of Shoplo now, and start taking your brand to the world!

Any other tips for selling online? Let us know in the comments!

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Phil Forbes

Phil Forbes

Bearded Australian living in Warsaw, Poland. Content writer and marketer for Shoplo, who enjoys helping and watching small ventures start, learn, grow and thrive. I love my dog, Star Wars, heavy metal and my girlfriend - in no particular order. Find him on Twitter @philbilly86