The Ultimate 5-Step Guide to How to Sell Online

Online sales continue to grow—increasingly making up a larger and larger piece of the U.S. retail market. With this exponential growth, it’s no surprise that more and more entrepreneurs (as well as brick-and-mortar retailers) turn to start an ecommerce business. Of course, selling online has its distinct benefits—you can reach a wide variety of customers, you don’t have to worry about the cost and upkeep of a physical location, and overall, startup costs are fairly low.

This being said, however, as is the case with starting any type of business, there are a number of nuances that come with learning how to sell online.

Luckily, we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll break down, step-by-step, everything you need to know to get started selling online—from choosing the right products to marketing and growing your store.

How to Sell Online

Although navigating the world of selling online may seem intimidating, the process can be much more manageable if you take it one step at a time.

Therefore, whether you’re a brick-and-mortar retailer interested in starting an online-based branch of business or you’re looking to start a business for the first time, you can follow these steps to learn how to sell products online.

Step 1: Choose what products you want to sell.

First and foremost, in order to start selling online, you need to decide what products you want to sell.

If you’re a brick-and-mortar business owner starting an online store to compliment your physical location (sometimes referred to as brick and click business), this step will likely be simple. On the other hand, however, if you’re starting a brand new online-based business, there will be much more research and decision-making involved in this step.

This being said, there are a variety of factors you’ll want to consider when choosing the products you want to sell online. As you research and think about different types of products, you might keep in mind the following:

  • Cost: Without a doubt, certain products will be more expensive to sell online than others. Of course, these types of products may mean a larger profit margin in the future, but you’ll certainly want to consider how much it will cost to acquire the products when you’re first starting out. As an example, choosing products that are available through wholesale, like t-shirts, will likely be cheaper than selling (and acquiring) expensive jewelry or tech products.
  • Sourcing: Where will you get the products you want to sell? Being able to adequately source products and maintain inventory is integral to selling online. Again, you might choose a product that is readily available from a wholesale supplier, or you might decide to sell a product you already own or make yourself.
  • Demand: You might think you’ve found the perfect product to sell, but if there’s no demand for the product, you won’t have any success selling online. Therefore, you’ll want to think about the possible demand for any type of product, what the ideal customer looks like, and how you can reach that audience to connect them with your product.

Overall, when choosing the right products to sell, it can be helpful to start with an industry or type of product that you already know something about, or simply something that interests you.

From this starting place, you can narrow down your focus and find the right niche. This niche should be a balance of an affordable, sourceable product with adequate market demand—and not too much competition.

selling online top retail categories

According to a 2018 study published on Statista, these are the most popular retail categories for selling online. Image source: Statista

To this end, as your narrow down your list of product ideas, it’s worth researching other businesses or entrepreneurs who are selling these products online in order to evaluate the competition.

A product may seem ideal, but if you’re competing directly with big-name retailers in order to sell your products, it will be much more difficult to successfully reach and acquire customers.

Step 2: Decide where you want to start selling online.

Once you’ve determined what you want to sell, the next step to learning how to sell online is deciding where you want to sell. With the breadth of sales channels available online, you’re not exclusively limited to starting an online store. You might decide to sell on a marketplace, like Etsy or Amazon; sell through a social media channel, like Facebook or Instagram; or sell through a combination of channels.

As you might imagine, to some extent, the product you decide to sell will play a role in where you decide to sell. For example, if you decide to sell homemade dog bandanas, these products will be well-suited to sell on Etsy, but may not be as fitting for an expansive marketplace like Amazon.

selling online; etsy example

This example shows an online retailer who sells dog bandanas on Etsy. Image source: Etsy

Of course, perhaps the best option will be to sell through multiple channels, often referred to as omnichannel selling, as this will expose your products and brand to a wider variety of potential customers. When you’re getting started, though, you might focus on a single channel and move to other platforms as you refine and grow your business.

To this end, you might search specifically for an ecommerce platform that allows you to create your own online store, as well as sell through additional channels. This way, you can manage all of your sales channels through a single location—which will make omnichannel selling exponentially easier.

Step 3: Choose an ecommerce platform.

Although you might decide to exclusively sell your products on a social media platform or marketplace, it’s very likely that you’ll decide to launch your own online store.

After all, creating your own online store will allow you to build your brand, give insight into your business, and serve as a virtual home base for your operations. Plus, as we mentioned above, you can always choose an ecommerce platform that gives you the ability to create your own store and sell through exterior channels as well.

This being said, the next step to getting started selling online is choosing the right ecommerce platform for your needs. As you might imagine, there are hundreds of ecommerce platforms available on the market, and therefore, you’ll want to ensure that you do your research, compare options, and take advantage of free trials before deciding which solution is best for you.

Overall, to make the process of selling your products online easier, you’ll want to look for a full-service ecommerce website builder that allows you to create and launch your own online store as well as manage all of your operations through their platform. To this end, you might keep these factors in mind when searching for an ecommerce platform:

  • Cost: How much are you willing to invest in your ecommerce software? Most providers price their software on a monthly subscription basis and costs can start as low as $0 per month to as high as $200+ per month. In most cases, the more features and customization you’re looking for, the higher the cost of the software. This isn’t to say, however, that you’ll have to budget a significant amount of money for your solution—there are a number of free and low-cost available solutions out there.
  • Setup and usability: How easy is it to actually set up and launch your store using this platform? You’ll want to look at whether or not an ecommerce platform includes web hosting, a customized business domain name, integrated security, and more. You’ll also want to determine how the system allows you to build your store: Is it a drag-and-drop-based system or a code-based system? For the simplest, fastest, and most approachable solution, you’ll want to look for a fully-hosted software with website theme options and a what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) editor.
  • Features: What features are included with this platform? As you might imagine, different platforms contain a variety of different features, so you’ll want to look at what each platform has to offer in terms of listing products, processing and shipping orders, accepting payments, marketing your store, and more.
  • Mobile-friendliness: With the popularity of mobile commerce, you’ll want to ensure that any ecommerce platform you choose is mobile-friendly—with themes that are optimized for mobile devices, additional mobile tools, and even a mobile app that allows you to manage your store on-the-go.
  • Integrations: As we mentioned above, some ecommerce platforms offer you the ability to sell across multiple channels—whether directly through their system or by using an integrated plug-in. On the whole, you’ll want to consider how any ecommerce platform works with third-party tools, so that if you don’t have a feature you need, you can connect to a tool that gives you that functionality.

With all of this in mind, it’s possible that you already have an existing website and want to start selling online from there. In this case, you’ll want to look for an online shopping cart software that allows you to add ecommerce functionality to your website.

As an example, one of the most well-known shopping cart plug-ins is WooCommerce—which gives you the ability to turn your WordPress website into an online store.

selling online; woocommerce example

Example of a product page on a WooCommerce online store. Image source: WooCommerce

Top Ecommerce Platforms for Selling Online

As you can see, finding the right ecommerce platform might not be the simplest process. Therefore, if you’re looking for a place to start, you might consider any of these options:

  • Shopify: One of the most well-known and popular ecommerce platforms on the market, Shopify allows you to build and launch your online store quickly and easily. Shopify is extremely user-friendly, feature-rich, and offers a wide network of integration options. Pricing for Shopify starts at $29 per month. Read our full review of Shopify.
  • Square Online Store: If you’re looking for a free ecommerce platform, Square Online Store allows you to create and customize your online store with their free plan, you only pay the cost of credit card processing. Square Online Store also offers paid plan options with additional features and connects seamlessly with Square POS—making it a great option for brick-and-mortar retailers who already use Square. Read our full review of Square Online Store.
  • PrestaShop: Whereas Shopify and Square Online Store are fully-hosted solutions, PrestaShop is an open source platform, meaning it’s free to download, but requires that you obtain your own web hosting. Overall, open source solutions offer greater customization capabilities than fully-hosted platforms, but also require technical knowledge to do so. This being said, however, PrestaShop is one of the most feature-rich and approachable open source ecommerce platforms out of the box. Read our full review of PrestaShop.

Step 4: Set up your online store and establish your selling policies.

Once you’ve decided which ecommerce platform is right for you, the next step to selling online is actually setting up your website. The specifics of this part of the process, as you might imagine, will largely depend on which platform you’re using—as well as whether you’re creating a new website from scratch, adding ecommerce functionality to an existing website, or simply setting up a store using a marketplace or social media platform.

Regardless of how you’re building your online presence, however, it’s important to think about how you want to brand your store, what you want it to look like, and how you’ll list your products. After all, this will be the place where customers come to browse and purchase products from you—and therefore, you want your store to be aesthetically pleasing, easy to use, and of course, fully-functional.

In this way, if you’re selling online using your own ecommerce website, you’ll want to remember the following as you start setting up your store:

  • Domain name: As we mentioned briefly above, some ecommerce platforms will include a free domain name, but these are often branded based on the platform—e.g. yourstore.shopify.com. Some platforms will allow you to purchase a customized domain through them or direct you to a partner to create your own domain. If you choose to purchase a domain, you’ll want to ensure that it both suits your business and isn’t problematic. You’ll want your domain name to give customers an idea of what you sell, it should be easy to read and spell, and it shouldn’t be too close to another brand or business.
  • Store design: Once again, the design of your store will be important—affecting both how you bring in and retain customers. In this way, your store design should be neat, easy to navigate, and eye-catching. To this end, you’ll also want to think about a logo, colors, and fonts—as all of these pieces will contribute to the overall design of your store and feel of your brand.
  • Product listings: To actually start selling online, you need to not only create an online store, but list your products as well. You’ll want to include high-quality photos, thorough (and SEO-optimized) descriptions, and pricing information for each product that you’re going to sell.
selling online; shopify theme

This example shows what it looks like to customize an online store design using Shopify. Image source: Shopify

At this point, you’re almost ready to launch your store and start selling products online. Before you can start taking orders, however, you’ll need to establish the selling policies (and settings) of your store. After all, you can’t take orders from customers until you’ve determined how you’ll accept payments on and ship those orders.

Along these lines, you’ll want to consider the following policies (among possible others) and how you’ll handle them when selling online:

  • Accepting payments: Luckily, if you’re using a full-service ecommerce platform, these systems often include integrated payment processing—either directly from the provider (like Shopify Payments) or from a third-party provider. Overall, you’ll want to ensure that you choose an online payment processor that is affordable, allows you to accept a variety of payment types (including credit cards, digital wallets, and online payments), and works well with your system. This being said, if your software provider offers in-house payment processing, this may be the easiest and most affordable option—however, if you’re looking for other providers, Stripe, PayPal, and Square are some of the top options out there.
  • Shipping: You’ll also need to decide how you’re going to ship your products. What shipping providers will you use? How much will you charge for shipping? What locations will you ship to? All of these questions will be important to answer before you start taking orders. This being said, however, most ecommerce solutions include basic shipping tools that allow you to designate your shipping settings and work with top shipping services to simplify the process.
  • Returns: Although you can hope that customers won’t return their purchases, this is an inevitability of selling products online. Therefore, you’ll want to draft and publicize an established return policy on your website before you start taking orders. This way, if you do have a customer returning a product, they know what to expect and you know exactly how to handle the process quickly and easily.

Of course, as we mentioned briefly above, if you opt for selling online through a marketplace like Amazon, or a social media platform like Facebook, the process you go through to list your products and establish your selling policies may be a little different.

This being said, if you’re looking for more specific information on these types of channels, you can refer to the following guides:

Step 5: Market your products and start fulfilling orders.

After you’ve set up your online platform and established your policies, you’ve completed all the behind-the-scenes work. Now, it’s time to actually start selling your products online. You’re ready to officially launch your online store.

This being said, however, until you start marketing your store and your products, you might not see any orders come through—after all, how will customers know that your store exists unless you actively promote and market it?

Therefore, once you’ve launched your store, you’ll want to start developing an ecommerce marketing strategy. You might utilize any marketing tools that are included in your ecommerce software, download marketing plug-ins, or take to social media.

Along these lines, diversifying your efforts across multiple sales channels—i.e. promoting your online store through Facebook and Instagram—can help you get the initial attention you need.

selling online, facebook ad

Example of an online retailer advertising through the Facebook newsfeed. Image source: Facebook

Of course, it might take some time and reimaginations of your strategy before you determine what works best for your store and customer base. Through this process, therefore, you might also consider email marketing, offering discounts, starting a loyalty program, or even simply promoting your store by word of mouth.

Once you actively start promoting and marketing your business, however, you should start to see customers placing orders—and then you’ll have to work through the process of actually fulfilling those orders.

As you complete more orders, you’ll continuously learn what works, what doesn’t work, and how you can change or adapt your processes to make selling online all the more of a seamless operation.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, learning how to sell online will be different for every business owner. Although the overall process will be similar—as we’ve outlined in our five steps—many of the details will be unique to each business.

This being said, however, as we’ve discussed throughout this guide, the growth of the ecommerce industry has made it easier, more approachable, and more desirable to start selling products online.[1] Therefore, there’s no better time to pursue an online-based business endeavor.

Plus, as we’ve seen, there is a multitude of resources available out there to help you get started, as well as support you through the process of promoting, marketing, and ultimately, growing your online business.

Article Sources:

  1. FRED.StLouisFed.com. “E-Commerce Retail Sales

Randa Kriss

Randa Kriss is a senior staff writer at Fundera.

At Fundera, Randa specializes in reviewing small business products, software, and services. Randa has written hundreds of reviews across a wide swath of business topics including ecommerce, merchant services, accounting, credit cards, bank accounts, loan products, and payroll and human resources solutions. 

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