This article may contain links from our partners. We may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through a link. Please read our disclosure and how we make money.
How can you start an online store in 2021? I will reveal the 5 fool-proof steps that really matter to go from eCommerce novice to master!
These last few months have been tough for many of us – the isolation, the social distancing, to say nothing of the effects of the virus. The world has changed, and it is not going back to normal anytime soon. In fact, in many ways, it will never go back.
But remember, every cloud has a silver lining.
There is one area for which the changing world has been a major boom: eCommerce.
We’ve all be stuck inside, and while we have, we’ve been shopping online.
Going digital has become an imperative for existing brick and mortar stores now feeling the pinch of recurring lockdowns.
For the rest of us, well, there has never been an opportunity like this.
Did you know: In the first half of 2020 alone, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos saw his wealth grow by over $70 billion.
Why should he get to have all the fun?
Now is the time to pursue the freedom you’ve always wanted, to get out of a job you hate, and start doing something you love.
But I don’t know how to create an online store, you may be thinking. I’m no tech wizard, and what would I even sell?
Don’t worry. All you need is a little elbow grease and a guide.
That’s why I’m here … as the guide, not the grease.
So let’s get started!
Table of contents
How to start an online store: 5 Really Easy Steps To Build A Profitable Business
Here are the 5 foolproof steps you need to follow to start an online store in 2021:
1. Pick the right product to sell online
The first step in creating a store online is picking the product you are going to sell.
Seems straightforward right?
It is often not. Many people find picking a product frustrating, even overwhelming. In fact, this situation is so common that the industry has actually coined a term for it: ‘Perfect Product Paralysis.’
So, what if you can’t decide what to sell?
Where do you start?
Don’t be paralyzed. The secret is three little words: find your niche.
What is a niche?
A niche is a segment of the larger market defined by unique needs, preferences, and identity.
Remember Chloe? She sells lights. But not just any lights, hand-crafted wood lights. This is a niche within the larger segment of the lights market. Further, she sources the wood for her lights locally. Within the light market, Chloe’s niche is hand-crafted locally-sourced lights.
Every market can be further refined like this – vegan, plus-size, ethically sourced; these are all niche markets.
You’ve heard the saying “the best thing since sliced bread?” Sliced bread is merely a niche within the bread market.
So how do you find your niche?
1. Solve a customer pain point
Think about your own life, common frustrations you have with existing products, deficiencies, and features lacking. These annoyances might be your next product idea.
And inspiration might be closer than you think. In fact, you might only have to look down.
“My own butt was the inspiration,” says Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. Her desire to have something to wear under her clothing that wouldn’t create lines made her the youngest self-made female billionaire in the United States.
2. Personal passion
Creating a store online is, like anything worthwhile, hard work.
Ask yourself, what turns your crank? The more passionate you are about the product you are selling, the easier it will be to stay motivated and creative.
Consider BeardBrand, which started as a simple blog about the bearded lifestyle. Through the passion of its founder, BeardBrand not only built a successful online store but an entire way of life, which they call “The Urban Beardsman.”
Within the first year, BeardBrand hit $120,000 in sales per month.
Passion is good, but when it comes down to it, you need to pick a product that sells.
The secret is finding a trend and hopping on it before it reaches peak popularity, something early in its life cycle with growth potential.
Fad v Trend
A fad is a novelty or gimmick that will fizzle out.
A trend is something that fills an existing need in a new way.
Remember Pokémon Go or fidget spinners. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Instead, be the person who gets in on the ground floor of sliced bread.
But you’re no Nostradamus, and neither am I; how are we supposed to know what will become popular before it does?
Here are two secrets to getting ahead of the curve.
Start with a simple Google search for the niche or product you are thinking of pursuing. What results show up? Are there many or few? What suggestions does Google make in the search area?
Go further and use tools like Google Keyword Planner or Google Trend to examine what keywords people are using to find products within your niche. Check how many searches are being made for each related keyword you can think of.
Here, you are looking for balance: too much competition and there may not be room for your new product; too little and there may not be enough demand.
Spy on your competitors
In the 1980s, Walmart founder Sam Walton was arrested for crawling in stores on his hands and knees. He then explained he was measuring the spaces between product shelves to find out how competitors displayed products.
Don’t be afraid to spy on the competition.
Here are 4 ways to get your sleuth on:
- What’s hot in online marketplaces: Examine Amazon Best Sellers, Etsy Most Wanted, and Trending on eBay.
- Sponsored ads: If companies are spending money advertising a product, they are likely to make money on the product.
- Customer reviews: What are people saying? Are there any recurring complaints, any additional accessories customers wished they had? What do they love, and what do they hate?
- Social media: Examine conversations between buyers and sellers, peruse trending hashtags. Find what people want, straight from the horse’s mouth.
One final thing to remember when picking your product: don’t overthink it.
Just look at the founders of Bushwick Kitchen, who started by mixing raw honey and chili flakes into a product they called MixedMade. Within ten months, this simple idea had generated $170,000 in sales.
What’s important isn’t to reinvent the wheel but simply to get the wheels turning.
2. Source your product
Once you’ve decided what to sell, you’ll need to find a supplier for it.
When looking into sourcing your physical product, there are 3 options.
Calling all craftspeople and hobbyists. Where do you source your product? Easy. Make it yourself!
Many have gone this route for smaller, more boutique eCommerce stores.
There are plenty of products you can create and sell.
Some of the top options:
- hand-crafted jewelry
- Handmade ceramics
- Natural cosmetics
Check out this list of the top things to make and sell yourself to make money.
Order products from a manufacturer, then ship them to customers yourself.
By doing so, you can check the quality of your products, ensure materials are ethically sourced, plus you will be responsible for top-notch delivery standards and customer service.
There is a downside to these two first options. Both require an up-front investment, a purchase of either the product or the materials to make the product. You may also need to consider storage costs if you have no space at home.
For some at the very start of their quest to start an online store, the idea of ordering and sitting on a product until it sells is a turn-off.
In this case, you may want to consider the third option: dropshipping.
What is dropshipping?
Here’s how it works.
You list the product in your online store, take orders, and send the orders to a third-party vendor – the dropshipper – who then creates the product and sends it to the customer who ordered.
You make the sale without the product ever passing through your hands, and, more importantly, without spending any of your own money.
Here you can find dropshippers: Worldwide Brands.
Dropshipping doesn’t mean you can’t create your own brand and products.
Printify is a great example of dropshipping that can be easily customized to your design specifications. You can select between the 200 products they offer, upload your design, and let them take care of creating and dispatching the orders while you relax and concentrate on promotion.
The downside with dropshipping is that you’ll need to rely on your supplier to deliver the product. Which means less control over quality, stock, and customer service.
So far, we’ve only talked about physical products.
But what about digital products?
I know what you’re thinking. I’m trying to figure out how to create an online store here, not how to peddle eBooks.
There is something you need to know.
The digital product market is booming, and it goes far beyond eBooks.
It’s simple. People are eager to learn from home. All you have to do is sell them the courses which teach them what they want to learn.
Just look at Once Wed, an online store selling wedding planning courses at $700 each. To date, Once Wed has sold many thousands of these courses, despite the somewhat hilarious fact that the company’s founder never even had their own wedding!
Other popular digital products include:
- Video content – such as webinars or video courses.
- Audio content – like sound effects, text-to-audio conversions, or voiceovers.
- Digital Assets – including social media graphics, icons, infographics, or fonts.
- Templates – for websites, PowerPoint, or resumé.
Like dropshipping, you don’t have to invest upfront, there is no storage, and you never have to worry about having enough product to satisfy demand. There are no supply chains and no shipping costs. The customer can purchase and receive your product in a couple of clicks.
Best of all, create it once, and you can sell it forever!
Don’t have the digital know-how?
There are many professional freelancers on platforms like Fiverr who can take your digital product idea and make it a reality. They can help with the content creation or take something you already have and put it into the appropriate digital format.
One final thing to remember when sourcing your product.
Don’t panic if you don’t get it right the first time.
Just look to Sriracha2Go. Before being featured in Buzzfeed articles and receiving 10,000 orders in a single day, they went through three different suppliers before finding one which met their needs.
3. Choose the right platform
Once you have decided on and sourced the product you are going to sell, the next step is deciding where you will sell it.
You must pick your eCommerce platform – the home base of your business!
Which platform is best for your online store?
There is a multitude of eCommerce platform options available. Which will be best for you depends on the products you are selling, your level of technological experience, and the requirements of your customers.
Before trying to decide, think about what you want to do with your store, what goals you have, and what features you might like.
Here, it’s a good idea to check out what are those selling similar products are doing. Visit their stores and note the design they are using, the elements they include.
From there, it’s time to consider the contenders.
Remember, most of these eCommerce platforms offer similar features. The difference is in the small details and what you need for your own online store.
|Shopify||+ Incredibly easy to set up for both physical and digital products |
+ Easy to use
+ Flexible and scalable
+ Top-notch support
- Additional apps can get expensive
- Little checkout customization
- Transaction fees on most payment gateways
|BigCommerce||+ Flexible and scalable |
+ Ideal to move brink and mortar store online
+ Top SEO tools
- Expensive for high volume sales
- No multilingual feature
- Reported issues with loading speed
|Squarespace||+ Great integration with your blog |
+ Social media friendly
+ Stunning template design
- Limited eCommerce integration
- Limited payment gateways options
- Not as easy to use
|Wix||+ Plenty of design options |
+ Great looking templates
- Lack of features for larger stores
- Slow speed
- Poor SEO
|WooCommerce||+ Highly customizable |
+ WordPress integration
+ Great SEO
- Not easy to use
- Zero support (unless you hire someone to help)
Let’s get through each one, so you can evaluate what’s best for your online store.
The Big Kahuna. And by far, my favorite.
It’s the platform we used when we started our tea business a few years ago (more on that another time).
And I loved it!
Shopify powers more than 1 million stores and boasts 2 million users.
It’s not hard to see why. Some might say Shopify has it all – over 100 design themes for your store, an in-house payment processing system, and shipping discounts, all backed by award-winning 24/7 live chat support.
It’s the best eCommerce platform for large stores, especially if you use dropshipping, including print on demand products.
For both digital and physical products, all its features make running an online store easy and fun.
+ Incredibly easy to set up for both physical and digital products
+ Easy to use
+ Flexible and scalable
+ Top-notch support
– Additional apps can get expensive
– Little checkout customization
– Transaction fees on most payment gateways
Many put big commerce just below Shopify, while some even put it above. You would not be wrong to give BigCommerce a look.
One of the best features that give it an edge is its strong product search engine, perfect for larger online shops or any business with a brick and mortar store that wants to expand and add online orders.
Like Shopify, BigCommerce offers some beautiful templates, which means you won’t need to learn any coding to design your shop.
It can be a bit trickier to set up when you are starting out because it offers more integration options.
+ Flexible and scalable
+ Ideal to move brink and mortar store online
+ Top SEO tools
– Expensive for high volume sales
– No multilingual feature
– Reported issues with loading speed
Squarespace is the top platform used by the creative community. If you are looking to sell hand-made artisanal products, this might be the place for you.
Squarespace templates look visually stunning. Each theme has a stylish and modern design perfect if you want your brand to stand out.
But its beauty comes with much more limited usability. It’s not as intuitive to use as Shopify or Wix. But it’s still easier than BigCommerce.
Plus, it only accepts payments with Stripe and PayPal. So if you are looking to offer more options to your customers, this might be a problem.
+ Great integration with your blog
+ Social media friendly
+ Stunning template design
– Limited eCommerce integration
– Limited payment gateways options
– Not as easy to use
Famous for its unparalleled customization options. Wix has more templates than any other platform out there.
And it’s one of the easiest to set up.
It doesn’t charge any transaction fees, and it’s much more affordable than Squarespace.
The main issue with Wix is that it is not as fast as other platforms, plus there is little room for customization.
If you are after an easy-to-use and affordable eCommerce platform for a small online shop, Wix could be perfect for you. But if you want the option to grow, you are much better of starting with Shopify.
+ Plenty of design options
+ Great looking templates
– Lack of features for larger stores
– Slow speed
– Poor SEO
WooCommerce is not an all-in-one website builder like those above, but rather, a plugin to add eCommerce functionality on an existing WordPress website.
Installing WooCommerce onto your own host (such as Bluehost) is incredibly easy. In fact, it’s the most popular eCommerce plugin out there.
Once the shopping cart platform is installed, you will need to start building your own store. There are plenty of templates available, and some WordPress themes come with a page set up for your store already.
The only downside of using something like WooCommerce is that you’ll need to know CSS or hire a developer to help with any high customization.
But if you want the ability to personalize your online shop, WooCommerce is the best overall self-hosted eCommerce software out there.
+ Highly customizable
+ WordPress integration
+ Great SEO
– Not easy to use
– Zero support (unless you hire someone to help)
There are many eCommerce development experts available on websites like Fiverr who can help set up your store.
4. Build Your Brand
Good news, you are more than halfway to creating your store online.
It’s time to develop your brand!
What is a brand?
Your brand is your business’ personal stamp, the thing that differentiates you from all the rest, your story.
As the saying goes, ‘the best branding cannot be seen, it can only be felt.’
So how do you develop your brand, how do you decide the story you want to tell?
Start by thinking about two things.
- Think of your customer
Remember, not everyone is your target audience. Who is your ideal customer? What motivates them? What are they attracted to? Your goal is for your brand to speak to this person in a way that resonates with them.
- Think of yourself
What motivated you to start your business? What do you want your business to stand for? How will you make the customer’s life better?
With these two things in mind, let’s examine 7 tangible ways to build your brand.
1. Your brand name
What’s in a name? A lot, actually.
Think about how brands like Kleenex or Band-Aid have become synonymous with the products they sell. Think about how Tesla built its brand off the clout of the great scientist Nikola Tesla.
Here are some dos and don’ts for picking the right name.
Do keep it short and sweet, easy to pronounce, and easy to spell. Make sure it rolls off the tongue and the fingers.
Don’t use numbers or hyphens or overly complex, difficult to spell words. According to one of the angel investors behind Uber, “If you have to spell it over the phone, you’ve lost.”
Do use relevant industry keywords in your name to expand your reach in Google search results.
Consider how one family-owned brick and mortar paint store grew their business an incredible 2400% after creating a store online. The key to their success was changing their business name from their family name to ‘US Paint Supply’ and shifting their focus from local to national.
Don’t go overboard with keywords. Google is onto overly spammy names; their algorithm will quickly filter out low-quality websites with exact match names.
Once you’ve concocted a few potential names, check their availability using a tool like Namechk, which examines 150 social media sites and blogging platforms.
Your logo is the face of your brand.
Quite simply, it’s everywhere.
It is on your website and social media page, even the tabs at the top of the internet browser. It will be one of the first things that comes to mind when the customer thinks of your brand.
Think of McDonald’s, and you’d be hard-pressed not to visualize those golden arches.
If your logo’s creation seems daunting, it may be worth investing in a professional logo designer.
3. About Us
Did you know that 52% of visitors go to a website’s About Us page before anything else?
In other words, after your name and logo, your About Us page will be the first thing the majority of your customers see. It is likely to be your most visited page.
Here is the good news: this makes it the perfect opportunity to tell a story about your brand, what you represent, your history, your values, your mission.
For inspiration, look to Yellow Leaf Hammocks. Their About Us tells of how they empower artisan weavers and their families. They use words and graphics to paint a picture of a “brighter future,” one which customers can support by backing their brand.
Here are 4 must-haves for your About Us page:
- Introduce yourself
69% of consumers say that the most important thing brands can do to improve their experience is “knowing them.” Introduce yourself and your team – who are you, what do you do, what are your interests? Put a face behind your brand.
- Your unique value proposition
What problems does your product solve, what desires does it satiate? Here you could talk about where you source materials or how a portion of your proceeds go to charity; you could describe how you cut out the middle man and passed the savings onto the customers.
- Hard Numbers
Show the stats behind the problem you are trying to solve. If you’re saving the customer money, tell them how much. If you’re saving the environment, quantify your impact.
- Links and calls to action
If the About Us page is the first place customers go, make sure to tell them where to go next. This could be other parts of your website or social media channels; you could ask them to join an email list or read a blog.
The main difference between a traditional brick and mortar store and an online store is that eCommerce shoppers do not have the opportunity to see and touch the products they are buying in person.
What this means:
The visual experience is critical for an online store.
The stats back this up. 93% of online customers consider images an essential part of their purchasing decisions.
Even if you don’t have a professional camera, there are many editing programs, tools, and tutorials you can use to make your product photos top-notch.
Just make sure two types of product photos are absolutely a part of your brand.
- White background – clean-cut, product-only photos from different angles on a white background. These are the kind you see displayed in online stores.
- In context/lifestyle – the product being used in real-life situations. These are great for social media, blogs, and other marketing.
5. Payment options
Face it, the customer can find your product and be enamored with your brand, but until they actually part with their hard-earned money, it’s all for not.
Just how important is smooth payment processing?
Consider this: to optimize its process, eBay developed its own online payment system called Billpoint. When Billpoint failed to surpass PayPal, eBay bought PayPal.
When creating your online store, take note:
- Nearly 50% of customers who can’t use their preferred method of payment will abandon a purchase.
- 56% of customers expect a variety of payment options on the checkout page.
A strong brand is one that offers plenty of payment options, the more, the merrier! This means credit cards and Interact Online, of course, but also PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Pay, and so on.
6. Online support
We’ve all been there, impatiently waiting to hear back about a problem we are experiencing.
Here is the dirty little secret.
The big sellers are not all that great at customer service.
Have you ever tried to contact eBay?
Consider the tragically comical fact that 80% of businesses believe they provide excellent customer service, but only 8% of customers agree.
Meanwhile, 7 in 10 customers say they would spend more money with a business that provides great customer service.
This means that those who build their brand around outstanding customer service will have a distinct advantage over even industry giants.
Reality: 90% of customers say buying decisions are influenced by online reviews.
Read that again. 90%!
Amazingly, one product review can result in a 10% increase in sales, while 200 reviews can result in as much as a 44% increase.
So how do you get reviews?
Simple. Just ask.
70% of customers will leave a review if you ask them. So make sure to ask on product pages, in emails, on invoices, and so on.
What about the elephant in the room? Negative reviews.
*Cue ominous music*
I know we all feel a little anxious when we put ourselves out there to public scrutiny.
Here is the good news: negative reviews are not actually all that negative.
In fact, customers are more likely to buy a product with a star rating between 4.2-4.5 than a perfect 5-star because they perceive the slightly lower rating as less fake.
And remember the service recovery paradox. Reviews allow you to resolve problems in public so everyone can understand how seriously your brand treats customer satisfaction.
5. Grow your online store: become a marketing genius
Great news: If you’ve made it this far, then you have completed the heavy lifting.
With only one more step, you too will know how to start an online store.
Now for the fun part.
It’s time to build momentum. It’s time to market your store!
Here are six ways to get this done.
1. Content marketing – write a blog!
70% of customers want to learn about products through content, not ads.
“Content isn’t just king, it’s currency,” says the former Editor in Chief at Shopify.
And there is no better form of content marketing than a blog.
It is a way to engage customers on an ongoing basis, drive traffic to your store, and cultivate a community. It is a way to harness your brand voice and tell your story. Most importantly, it is the way to demonstrate your expert knowledge and establish yourself as an authority in your industry.
But what should you blog about?
A blog is a chance to take a deeper dive into your products, a chance to answer frequently asked questions, to reveal new information about your store or industry.
It’s about sharing informative content with those ready to learn, about building trust and brand reputation with customers before they are even customers.
A blog is also the optimal way to boost search engine optimization. The more content you produce, the better your store will index, and the higher it will rank in Google search results.
Writing a blog will help customers find you organically.
Bonus tip: To further establish yourself as an industry leader, answer questions on Quora, respond to Reddit threads, and comment on other relevant blogs. You can even guest-blog for others.
2. Social media
Customers spend 20-40% more with companies they have social media engagement with.
Social media marketing is a way to interact with your audience, increase visibility, and drive traffic to your store. The key is meeting your customers where they are and building a connection with them.
So where are they? And how do you build this connection?
With 2.7 billion active monthly users, Facebook is the world’s largest social media network.
When considering the marketing end of how to start an online store, Facebook may just be the best, free, place to start.
Take Diamond Candles, which built a thriving community of more than 250,000 Facebook fans without spending a dime on advertising. Rather, they encouraged customers to share pictures interacting with their product.
Who doesn’t like to see their face on their favorite brand’s social media feed?
An incredible 80% of Instagram’s nearly 1 billion monthly users follow brand accounts. Perhaps then Instagram is the best place for those creating an online store to start. The platform is built around photos and is ideal for eCommerce sellers.
Take note: Both Facebook and Instagram offer the ability to sell directly to customers without them having to leave the platform through shoppable posts.
Though not a social media platform in the traditional sense, Pinterest is an excellent place for driving sales within certain demographics.
Not sold, pun intended, on Pinterest for your online store?
Consider Warmly. Barely two years old, Warmly uses Pinterest almost exclusively to drive between $500,000 and $1 million in monthly sales of furniture and home décor accessories.
3. Paid ads
Not satisfied with the free options? Ready to invest some money in your social media game?
Use sponsored social media posts to increase your reach.
Just look to National Parks Depot, an eCommerce business selling outdoor gear and apparel. When first starting out, their founder, an ex-convict with very little money in his pocket, decided to put what little cash he could scrape together – a whopping $60 – down on Facebook ads.
Incredible, I know. But it gets better.
The next day he doubled his ad spend, and the next day, and the next day after that, until sales reached $80,000.
Facebook is especially useful for this. There, create a custom audience based on preferences, behavior, and demographics. Facebook will then take this custom audience and create a lookalike customer to put your ads in front of.
Make big data work for you!
Influencers are those who are well-known within an industry or niche. Their status means they can influence the beliefs and opinions of others. They are seen as knowledgeable, trustworthy, and authoritative.
In fact, 92% of consumers trust recommendations from influencers more than they trust recommendations from brands.
So what should you do?
Simple. Partner with an influencer who aligns with your brand and speak to their audience.
Take inspiration from Gymshark, who used influencer marketing to disrupt a fitness and apparel industry dominated by major brands like Nike and Adidas.
Early in their existence, Gymshark sent several fitness influencers free samples of their product, eventually deciding to sponsor 18 influencers with a combined following of over 20 million people.
Today, Gymshark is a powerful global brand that boasts a team of brand ambassadors known as ‘Gymshark Athletes.’
I know what you’re thinking. Email? Isn’t that a little antiquated?
Far from it.
Put it this way. Social media is a great place to get discovered by customers. Email is the place to maintain and strengthen existing relationships.
Because email is the place where customers have voluntarily entered into a relationship and given you direct access to their inbox. Email is your own source of proprietary data that not even the big names can touch.
Use metrics like open rate, click-through rate, and conversion rate to find out which emails your customers are responding to. More simply, find out what your customers like. From there, you can tailor your content specifically to their tastes.
No wonder every $1 put into email marketing drives $38 in return, the best return in digital marketing!
Even global star Drake uses email marketing. Antiquated? I think not.
6. Special Offers
Shall we sweeten the pot a little bit?
How? By offering customers special offers.
Remember, promotions come in all shapes and sizes. The goal is building your community and engaging customers with your brand.
Some of the best offers to consider:
- Social media sweepstakes – Pick a winner among those who like, comment, and share one of your posts.
- User-generated content contest – Ask customers to share a photo or video of themselves interacting with your product. This stands as one of the most popular techniques to grow brand visibility.
- Seasonal contests and giveaways – Haven’t you always wanted to be Santa Claus?
- Limited edition products – Give your loyal customers something no one else has access to.
- ‘Caption this’ giveaway – Make your brand into a meme. You might go viral!
It must be said:
There is one promotional offer that undeniably stands above the rest: free shipping.
- 66% of online shoppers have decided not to buy an item because of shipping costs.
- 93% of consumers say shipping options are an important factor in their online shopping experience.
Simply, free shipping is the holy grail. One need only to look at Amazon Prime.
Guess what … You now know how to start an online store!
So, what are you waiting for?
The world has changed, and it’s up to you to change with it. Forget that job you hate and get in on the future of commerce.
The time is now to start creating a store online and take the first step towards financial freedom.
Yes, it will take hard work. The elbow grease is up to you, but now you have the guide!
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me. I reply to every email!
And if you know someone that is wondering how to start a store online, I would be very grateful if you could share this guide with them!