How to Start a Successful Online Store in 2018

Jul 11, 2018

how to start an ecommerce business and sell online

Are you ready to start selling online?

Wondering how to get started?

The good news is it’s not difficult to build an e-commerce website. And you don’t need experience with coding to make an awesome store either.

One thing you do need to be successful, however, is the right plan. And that’s exactly what today’s guide has in store for you.

I’ll be giving you the exact plan to build your first (or second) e-commerce store in just 9 easy steps.

Before we get into the fun parts of building your first e-commerce website, you need to lay some important groundwork first.

Step 1: Build the Right Foundation

Laying a proper foundation is going to help you optimize your site (and business) from the get-go. It’s also going to make your job easier down the line when you have to make crucial decisions.

The first thing you’ll need to tackle is your business plan.

What Is Your Business Plan?

Don’t be intimidated by the thought of creating a business plan. Even if you don’t have experience here, you can (and should) still make it a point to complete this step.

And trust me, it’s not as hard as you think it is.

All you have to do is answer a few simple questions, like:

  1. Why do you want to start this company?
  2. Is there currently a gap in the market?
  3. What problem are you solving for your customers?
  4. How does your product help solve this problem for customers?
  5. What are you going to sell?
  6. Who are you going to sell these items to? (i.e., Who is your target market or your target audience?)
  7. What is your unique selling point or competitive advantage? (i.e., Why should your customers choose you over a competitor?)
  8. How much can you afford in setup costs to get this company up and running?
  9. How will you market your products?
  10. Do you have a marketing plan?

Your answers to these questions should create a natural business plan for you.

When that’s set, think about formulating a mission statement. This text will be used to fill in an About Us page that gives your customers an idea of what your brand stands for. This will also share a peek into your brand’s story to connect with your audience.

Once your business plan is all set, you’re ready for the next step: getting your business set up legally.

The One Step You Can’t Afford to Miss

There are a few important legal steps you’ll need to complete before you begin selling online.

First, you need to review your state’s statutes to ensure you can sell online.

Once you have the green light that it’s okay to do so, visit the Small Business Administration (SBA) site to register your business here in the United States.

You’ll also need to get a Federal Tax ID for your business, which can also be done through the SBA’s register link.

If you have the extra funds laying around, it pays to hire someone with experience here so you don’t leave yourself open to any legal troubles.

Don’t worry, this step can be done without the use of an attorney if that’s not in your budget. Simply follow the guidelines set forth by the SBA and you’ll be in good shape.

Once all the formalities are taken care of, you can move onto the next step: your products, pricing, and associated costs.

A Few More Questions to Get Out of the Way…

Next, you need to narrow down what you’ll be selling.

If you already have an existing brick-and-mortar store, you can start out small by adding only your most popular items to your e-commerce site first. Then you can add more items later on.

For those just starting out, consider beginning with only your core products initially.

This makes it less daunting to get started and increases your chances of launching on-time instead of waiting for everything to be added before you start making money.

From there, figure out how much you’re going to charge for these items.

Consider how much they cost you before setting a price to create a healthy profit.

You also need to think about your shipping costs.

How much are you going to charge for shipping? Will you offer free shipping to customers who meet a minimum purchase amount?

Keep in mind, you want your shipping costs as low as possible. Otherwise, you’ll turn away most potential customers.

Statistics show:

  • 36% of online shoppers abandon their cart due to shipping costs
  • 64% of consumers surveyed said that shipping costs “greatly” impact their decisions to buy
  • Customers who received free shipping reported an “overall customer satisfaction score that was 10% higher”

Before you start offering free shipping to everyone, remember that these associated costs should also be factored into the price you’re going to charge customers. But you don’t want your items priced too high.

You must strike a balance here.

To do that, you may need to shop around for discounted shipping rates to see which provider cuts your costs the most.

Another important factor to consider is how much tax to charge.

In most cases, your tax rate comes from the state in which you do business.

So if New York is your homebase, but you’re shipping to Florida, you may have to charge the NY sales tax to your Floridian customers.

Some states also require a sales tax permit, which is another item you’ll need to add to your to-do list before you open your virtual doors.

Finally, before any sales go through, think about how you’ll collect payments.

Depending on the platform you choose (more on this next), you may need to set yourself up with a payment processing company, as we’ll discuss later.

For now, it’s just important to understand this is another item you must check off your list before you begin selling.

Let’s talk about the various types of e-commerce platforms you can sell on, starting with the easiest ones first.

Step 2: Find a Platform to Sell Your Items On

You don’t need a background in coding to get started with your e-commerce store. Thanks to the plethora of options out there, you may not ever need to touch code.

Get your feet wet with the easiest platforms to use first and then we’ll make our way to ones that require a little more experience.

Etsy & Amazon Marketplace

Etsy can be a great place to start your online store as a newbie since it can expose your products and online store to potential buyers from around the world.

Just last year alone the company reported that 30 billion buyers purchased over $2.8 billion dollars worth of products on their platform.

Etsy also offers you three ways to sell online. You can:

  1. Sell your craft supplies
  2. Create your own website/shop where you sell your own products
  3. Sell items wholesale

This means you could potentially triple your earning power if you fall within those three brackets.

Etsy also makes the back-end of running your shop easy too. It’s super simple to add new items to your shop and shipping is just as simple to figure out.

Plus, with low listing and transaction fees, you won’t have to fork over too much of your hard-earned profit.

And you don’t have to worry about setting up a payment processor or taking secure payments either. Etsy has you covered there too.

You’ll also enjoy the following benefits by starting out with Etsy:

  • No monthly fees
  • Automatic deposits
  • Seller protection

Amazon Marketplace is a similar option to Etsy because you can build your shop right onto their site and your products will show up in search results to help you gain extra exposure.

The only downsides to these two platforms, aside from the transaction fees, is that it can be extremely hard to get noticed. With thousands of other sellers competing for the same search results, you’ll have to do a little bit of legwork to https://blog.salesandorders.com/sell-on-amazon-beginners-guide.

Before you sign up as a seller on one of these platforms, check out how the other e-commerce ones compare next.

Shopify

Shopify is quickly growing into an e-commerce giant (technically it already is one, but it’s gaining even more traction) with:

  • Over 500,000 businesses running off it
  • 1,000,000+ active users
  • $46B worth of sales

And just like Amazon Marketplace and Etsy, you don’t need any design or coding skills to get your shop up and running thanks to their easy-to-use website builder. This means anyone can start a Shopify store ASAP.

What’s also cool about Shopify is their integrations:

You can connect your social media channels, such as Pinterest and Amazon, right to your Shopify store to help maximize your earning potential.

Plus, you won’t have to worry about finding a payment processor as this can all be done through Shopify. They even accept most major credit cards so your customers should have no trouble checking out.

At this point, you may be wondering how Shopify is any different from Etsy or Amazon Marketplace.

The first key difference has to do with what you’re selling.

If you’re selling handmade goods, Etsy or Amazon Marketplace is your better choice. Customers on these platforms are looking for those one-of-a-kind items and products made from scratch.

Shopify, on the other hand, is more like a digital store where customers search for a wide range of products.

On top of that, Shopify also gives you more customization:

  • You can create a custom URL for your store
  • You can change the look of your store
  • There are various readily available Shopify apps to help with optimizing your store

You don’t see this with Etsy. Instead, most storefronts are identical in layout and only have a few small branding tweaks like your store logo or a branded banner.

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In addition, your URL is not unique at all with Etsy.

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If you notice in those screenshots, your shop name is buried in a forward slash after Etsy.com:

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These are two things you don’t have to contend with when you use Shopify.

Shopify also won’t charge you for transaction fees or credit card processing fees like Etsy does. Instead, you pay a monthly fee of $29.

Etsy does not charge a monthly fee and instead charges you for listing items, transaction fees, and credit card fees.

If you’re just getting started, Etsy is a better route to take, despite those fees. But if you’re a seasoned e-commerce vet, it’s time to graduate to Shopify or one of the next e-commerce platforms on my list.

BigCommerce

BigCommerce is another e-commerce platform that makes selling online a breeze.

Just like with Shopify, you can customize the look and feel of your store, use a custom URL, there are tons of BigCommerce apps to help with sales, and you can even manage your shipping and payments with their help.

You can also connect your BigCommerce products to your social media channels and to Amazon.com to increase your earning potential.

Some other cool features you score by using BigCommerce:

Their responsive templates are built to increase conversions. Many merchants experience “2x the industry average in growth,” according to their site.

You won’t have to worry about your site going down. BigCommerce boasts a 99.99% uptime rate. Wondering what that is?

When major sales holidays roll around like Black Friday, a huge surge of traffic hits many online storefronts.

But if your website isn’t ready to handle the influx of traffic, it will crash and cost you thousands in missed sales.

You won’t have to stress during those times with BigCommerce since your site only has a .01% chance of being taken out of the game. This is HUGE and especially worth noting.

Plus, BigCommerce offers a pricing plan close to Shopify at $29.95/month.

If you’ve been steadily growing your e-commerce store and are frustrated by not being able to grow it faster, BigCommerce could be the solution you’ve been hoping for. It’s made to optimize conversions and promises that your site shouldn’t go down during high volume periods.

Don’t make your decision yet — we still have two more e-commerce platforms to consider.

Magento

Magento is considered next level because you can manage not only your entire store but multiple storefronts as well.

Plus, Magento scales well. Whether you’re just starting out or you have thousands of products to sell, Magento can and will grow with you.

Even though it offers themes optimized for conversions for beginners, everything is super customizable so you can create a store that matches your branding without having to conform to predetermined layouts like a pro.

The only downside to Magento is the price. While they offer a free version, as you grow, it’s going to cost you.

And while the customizations are possible, they’re not always easy. In some cases, you may need to hire your own developer to make a change and Magento-specific devs can be hard to come by, not to mention costly.

This is why narrowing down your budget in your initial plan is so important. Magento is not for those watching their pennies.

On the flipside, if your business is going well and you want to take it up a notch fairly quickly, it’s wise to make the investment in Magento.

Last but definitely not least, WooCommerce is another popular e-commerce platform you may want to consider.

WooCommerce

What if you already have an existing website on WordPress?

Instead of switching to one of the other platforms mentioned here, you could just add a WooCommerce extension, which is like adding a storefront to your existing site.

With this, you won’t have to switch back and forth between platforms and you could drive traffic from your existing site right to your store.

WooCommerce is also set up to connect with all major payment processors. And shipping is easy peasy too. You can set up free or flat rate shipping all with the click of a button.

And since WooCommerce runs off your existing site, you can control how much bandwidth you’ll need for your hosting plan, which I’ll go over next.

Keep in mind, WooCommerce is more for intermediate to advanced online shop owners. So if you’re intimidated by building your site in something like WordPress, this is not the platform for you.

Something easier like Shopify may be better suited for you instead.

Then again, if WordPress is your thing and you can easily navigate through that, WooCommerce has your name on it.

You’ll find everything you need right in one centralized location and you can control how much hosting your specific store needs.

Speaking of that, let’s dive into hosting next.

Step 3: Choose a Hosting Plan that Makes Sense

For those readers unfamiliar with the term, hosting is the bandwidth that your site runs off of. It’s what powers your e-commerce store.

Without hosting, your site just will not run. That’s why you need to consider your hosting options anytime you’re talking about building an e-commerce website.

Platforms like Etsy and Amazon Marketplace take care of the hosting for you. These sites already have their own and you just piggyback on theirs.

The downside here is that you give up some level of control. If Black Friday hits Amazon and Etsy way too hard, your site is liable to go down with them.

But, since Amazon and Etsy are well-prepared for this, the chances should be slim of this happening to you.

BigCommerce also has the hosting covered. This time, they’ve built in added layers of security to ensure that your site stays up during Cyber Week and any other major peaks so you never have to worry about your site crashing.

As for Magento and WooCommerce, you’re on your own with hosting. But this can also be a good thing since it allows you to have all the control.

If you need more hosting, you can simply go up in your hosting plan. And if you don’t have that much traffic right now, you won’t have to pay for a costly hosting plan.

You can also find hosting plans that are specifically optimized for these e-commerce platforms. Popular hosting sites like Bluehost, SiteGround, and Pressable can be used for WooCommerce and HostGator, GoDaddy, and Nexcess for Magento.

You’ll want a few extra features for your e-commerce hosting plan than you would normally have with a regular hosting plan.

For example, look for features like:

  1. A dedicated IP. This is a unique web address that only pertains to your site. You won’t have to stress if another site goes down on your hosting’s server because it won’t affect yours.
  2. SSL certificate. This certificate encrypts your site’s important data to protect it from hackers. Customers want to know that their information will be safe and protected and an SSL does just that.
  3. Unlimited domains. Choosing the right domain is your first step but it also pays to purchase a few more too. I’ll dive into this more next. With some hosting plans, you can either have a single domain or an unlimited amount. If you can afford an unlimited one, you’re better off.
  4. Unmetered bandwidth. This means you won’t be charged for the amount of bandwidth you use.

Small online shops may be able to start out with a shared hosting plan to keep the costs down. However, you do run the risk of having a site that performs slow during someone else’s peak time.

If that’s starting to happen to you, it’s time to upgrade to a dedicated hosting plan where your site is the only one on there.

Once you sort out your hosting, you’re ready to find your domain name.

Step 4: Find the Perfect Domain Name

A domain name is the URL your customers will type into the website address box in order to find your site and store.

Ideally, you’ll be able to grab yourbrandname.com and any other related ones, such as your name misspelled or variations like TheLatestShop.com and LatestShop.com.

With sites like Etsy and Amazon, the only thing you can add to your URL is your store name, which doesn’t give you much room to work with.

On the flipside, since Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce, and Magento let you use your own URL, it’s worth serious thought, especially if yourbrandname.com is not available.

If this is the case, consider using keywords in your URL if it makes sense.

Check out how this online seller, Pura Vida bracelets, does it:

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Since their brand name PuraVida.com was already taken, they added bracelets to their URL instead. Because that’s their core product, it makes perfect sense and has the bonus of also being optimized for search.

You may not be able to get your keywords in as well as this example, but you should still try to optimize your URL for searches and so it’s easily recognizable and memorable for your customers.

To do that, keep your URL short and readable and try to avoid anything overly complicated. If your URL is too hard to remember, your customers literally won’t.

Once you find a URL you like, see if it’s available (for free) on hosting sites such as Bluehost and GoDaddy. If you can afford a few more variations of your URL, it pays to lock those down too.

Now that you have some of the basic foundational stuff off your plate, you’re finally ready to start building your e-commerce store.

Step 5: Start Building Your E-Commerce Shop

Here comes the fun stuff — when you actually get to build your store from the ground up.

Before you get too overwhelmed, I’ll walk you through each step of the way so you know exactly what to do.

Get Familiar with the Platform

It doesn’t matter which e-commerce platform you go with, each one is going to have a learning curve as you get familiar with it. Over time, you’ll become an expert at using it though.

To start, you need to figure out the layout of your store and how you will display your products.

This step usually involves choosing a theme or layout or building one of your own.

If you need inspiration here, visit some of your favorite online retailers to get a better idea of what you like and don’t like and possible options for your store.

Etsy and Amazon Marketplace don’t have too many choices here. Instead of having to spend time finding a theme, you can jump right into building out your product pages.

For those not using Etsy or Amazon Marketplace, once you have a general theme picked out, you’re ready to build out your pages.

Start Building Out Your Shop

Before you can build out a page full of products, you need to first create individual listings.

This is usually done through an Add New Product button or link on your dashboard.

Once you find and click that button, you’ll see an empty product page that needs to be filled in.

Take a look at the example below to see what needs to be done:

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Using this as an example, you’ll want to add the following items for every product you list:

  1. The product’s name (example: Silver wave ring)
  2. How much it costs
  3. Any available sizes or color options
  4. Details on shipping
  5. A short product description
  6. Product specifications
  7. A high quality image of the product itself
  8. Additional pictures to give customers a better idea of what they’re buying

It’s also smart to add tags and categories so you can group existing products together on product pages.

Check out how that’s done using the same example:

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Once you have enough products added to your store, you can then begin to fill out product pages like the one in the example above.

By grouping similar items together using tags and categories, you’ll also make it super easy for your customers to find exactly what they’re looking for. And that’s a surefire way to increase sales.

There’s also one more thing you can do on the back-end to improve your sales: optimize your store for search engines.

Don’t Forget About SEO

Just like you did with your website (you did do this, right?), you need to pay attention to your SEO, or search engine optimization, with your e-commerce store.

This step ensures that your site is found by search engines and customers who are looking for what you sell.

When it comes to SEO, you should start out with a list of keywords related to your product.

Using our example above, those would be: bracelets, charity bracelets, jewelry, jewelry for charities, etc. You get the point.

Next, you’ll want to add those keywords to specific places.

You can use them in your categories and tags as well as in your product description or even the name altogether (like, Save the Dolphins Bracelet).

Don’t stuff keywords unnaturally or in too many places that don’t make sense (think: One of a Kind Bracelet- Save the Dolphins Bracelet).

Instead, just include them whenever possible and wherever it sounds natural.

Many successful e-commerce retailers include SEO keywords on the product image titles themselves. You can do this using the alternate text and image title text on the back-end of your image.

Your product description should also include your keywords and should be carefully worded so that’s it’s engaging and resonates with readers instead of being boring and stuffy.

Optimize each product page for SEO as well. This means your title and meta description should be filled out, without going over the character limit, and it should include your target keyword.

You should not reuse the same title and meta description on more than one page. Vary your keywords as much as possible to ensure you’re capturing multiple searches.

From here, repeat the process of adding a new product, creating product pages with similar items grouped together, and optimizing each page until you have all of your products up and ready for sale.

When that’s all set, you’ll want to set up your payment processing.

Step 6: Set Up Your Payment Processing

Etsy, Amazon Marketplace, and Shopify all take the guesswork out of collecting payments from your customers. They each have their own payment gateways set up and ready for you to use.

You can even collect payments using a third party payment company like PayPal, Stripe, Authorize.net, etc. with Shopify if you prefer.

Choose WooCommerce or Magento and you’ll need to set up and connect a payment processing gateway yourself. Luckily, there are plenty of trustworthy ones to choose from with each platform:

To find out which one is right for your business, check out each website to compare things like their transaction fees, credit card fees, monthly costs to use their service, and factors like that.

When you find the perfect one, set up an account with them, provide your Federal Tax ID and any applicable forms of identification, and then connect this to your e-commerce platform.

With WooCommerce and Magento, these steps are pretty easy to tackle, even for beginners. Simply follow the instructions from your payment gateway and add some important details to your e-commerce platform to connect the two.

Once you’re able to accept payments, it’s critical to obtain an SSL certificate.

Step 7: Add an SSL Certificate to Your Site

Whenever you’re selling anything online, you need to show your customers that your site is safe and can be trusted.

Add that extra layer of security to your website with an SSL certificate.

Put simply, an SSL adds a padlock to your site to keep important things like credit card information and passwords safe from hackers. By digitally encrypting these important files, customers enter a safe portal zone and feel comfortable handing over their payment info.

As an added bonus, SSL certificates also give your SEO a slight boost since you’re proving to search engines that your site is safe and trustworthy.

This may seem like just another thing to add to your costs, but it’s one you can’t afford to go without.

Fortunately, Etsy, Amazon Marketplace, and Shopify all have SSL certificates included in their pricing so there’s no excuses here.

As you can expect, you’ll need to obtain your own SSL certificate if you’re going with WooCommerce or Magento. Fortunately, this step is easy too.

You can add an SSL to your site through your hosting plan. Sites like Bluehost and GoDaddy have SSL certificates, with Bluehost offering a free one to any of their WordPress customers.

Once you’ve added an SSL to your site, you’re ready to tackle the next phase of your project: testing.

Step 8: Test, Test Again, and Test One More Time

Every new website should be tested before launching, but it’s especially important when it comes to your e-commerce store.

If your customers can’t complete a transaction, your hard work will be wasted and you’ll lose out on potential revenue and maybe even a customer.

Instead of getting to that point, do a quick audit of each page on your site. Make sure that every link works and there are no glaring issues.

Don’t forget to actually test out your shopping cart functionality.

To do this, turn on a test sale and complete the entire transaction, including entering a fake credit card number (read: don’t just make one up, use a legitimate dummy credit card), and both billing and shipping information.

You’re looking to make sure everything works for your customers, but you should also make sure you understand the flow of your transaction process. Pay attention to where your orders go on your dashboard and understand how to handle them from there.

Try to practice a refund to make sure you’re set up properly for that as well.

Lastly, double check that you’ve set up trigger emails to launch anytime an action is taken by one of your customers.

So once an order is placed, an email should automatically trigger to the customer saying their order is being processed. Once the order is processed and out for shipment, you can send another automated email to your customers with that update.

These emails should be both set up and tested before your first transaction takes place.

I can’t stress the importance enough: Make sure you test everything before launching your e-commerce store.

And if you’ve tested everything at least one to three times, you can then move on to your last step: selling.

Step 9: Start Selling Your Products Online

This is where all your blood, sweat, and tears will finally pay off. You’re ready to open your virtual shop for business.

You can choose to go about this next step in two ways:

  1. Launch whenever it’s ready and announce the good news the day of
  2. Set a target launch date and drum up excitement early

Choose the first route and you can keep things quiet until your site is ready. It’s not a bad way to do things; it may be a little safe, but it’s not terrible.

I’m more in favor of the second choice.

You should be creating a bit of a buzz while you’re still building your site. This works for two reasons:

  1. It forces you to stay on track with your launch date
  2. It can help you build a community of potential customers even before your doors open

Big projects like building an e-commerce website can easily get off track. There are so many steps that can extend well past their target deadline.

But when you make a commitment to potential customers that you’re going to launch by a specific date, there’s more pressure to get it done by that time.

This is perfect for anyone who loves to work under pressure and it also helps keep the momentum of the project moving along. Anyone can benefit from this approach.

So while your site is under construction, add a single landing page that only includes a CTA and an email signup box — that’s it. Remove the menu and header as this will lead people back to a site that’s not ready.

It’s also a good idea to add a countdown timer so your new website visitors know when to check back in to make a purchase.

From there, share your new landing page on your favorite social media platforms and do the same thing once your store goes live.

Between sharing your new e-commerce website on social media, growing your email list, and optimizing your site for search, your brand new store will get noticed even in a crowded digital world.

Build Your E-Commerce Website Today

With all of today’s information under your belt, you’re ready to build your first e-commerce website today.

Start by laying your groundwork:

  • Create or update your business plan
  • Tackle all of the legal aspects and licensing
  • Figure out what you’re selling

Then move onto choosing a platform, hosting plan, and a domain name.

At that point, you’re ready for the fun: start building out your store. And make sure to optimize it for search engines when you do.

Once that’s all set, choose a payment processor, add an SSL certificate, and then start testing before you launch your e-commerce store for real.

Spend your time after launching promoting, selling, and updating your store so it keeps growing (and earning lots of profits!).

But to get there, you need to actually build your e-commerce store first. Good thing you have everything you need to do that now.

 

Topics: How-To E-Commerce

Anthony Capetola

Written by Anthony Capetola

Tony is the Marketing Manager at Sales & Orders heading up our inbound marketing and advertising team. His latest adventure, though? Being a dad!

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