How to Start an Online Store

Written on April 25, 2020
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Online commerce is quickly and steadily on the rise, especially for younger consumers. Not to mention, in times when access to in-person retail operations are challenging, it’s more important than ever to learn how to start an online store. Whether you’re just starting a business or want to bring your existing business into the ecommerce age, you can easily learn how to set up an online store.

We’ll go through the process of how to start an online store for both businesses that simply need to transition into ecommerce as well as those that need to begin from the ground up. You’ll be able to understand not only how to set up the nuts and bolts of your store, but also how to market yourself and find customers to begin driving revenues.

How to Start an Online Store for Your Existing Business

You may have an existing retail store that you’re trying to transition online, especially as online shopping is becoming increasingly important. There are specific steps you’ll want to take to learn how to start an online store when you have an existing business, particularly a retail store that you’d like to bring online. 

As we go through the steps below, do note that we’re going to begin assuming you have completed crucial business steps including choosing a business entity, determining what you’re going to sell, setting up a business bank account and more. If you’re not at this point, skip to the next section, which will guide you through how to start an online store for a new business.

Start or Update Your Website

A website is the cornerstone of how to set up an online store. Not only is it your digital storefront for your customers, but it will also facilitate the transactions that take place in your online store. 

If you don’t have a website yet…

Choosing the right ecommerce platform will be a crucial first step in starting your online store. Ecommerce platforms differ from other website builders in that they’re specifically designed to enable business owners to sell goods online. 

The good news is, most ecommerce platforms come with templates and drag-and-drop editors to help you quickly design the perfect online store, including a homepage, contact information, product pages, and more. Others may require some coding knowledge or resources, so make sure you choose one that aligns with your skills and budget.

If you have an existing website…

If you have an existing website but don’t sell any products from it yet, you’ll want to make sure your current website platform supports ecommerce functionality. You may need to upgrade your plan or switch providers altogether. Alternatively, you may choose an external add-on like Shopify or WooCommerce that can add shopping cart functionality to an existing website. 

Next, make sure that your website is optimized for selling—that you have an easily navigated website that prominently features your products as well as any important information on your business. And, of course, make sure your products are well-described and photographed.

Add Your Products

Once you have the platform that you’ll be using, it’s time to add your products. We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: Be mindful of your photographs—they’re absolutely crucial for advertising to your customers and helping guide them to purchasing. You should include several, professional-grade images for each product, as well as detailed descriptions, dimensions, and any color or size variations.

You also want to think about how you’re grouping your products and what the best experience for navigating your store is. The user experience is very important, and can make or break whether people leave your store or abandon their carts without making a purchase.

Set up Payment Options

There are lots of different payment options that you can offer your customers, and part of setting up an online store is considering what kind of payment options you will offer. Consider what options are popular and what your customers will expect when deciding which payment options to offer.

Options include:

  • Credit cards
  • PayPal or Venmo
  • Amazon Pay
  • Apple Pay
  • Android Pay

You can also offer cash on delivery, though this is risky and can cause more logistical problems than enabling a customer to pay upfront.

As you’re choosing the platform on which you’re setting up your ecommerce store, make sure you research the payment processors that are integrated into their services. For instance, if it’s important that your customers have the option to pay by PayPal, make sure you choose a platform that supports this. Additionally, you’ll want to compare the fees associated with each processor before choosing which to use. 

Finally, consider the mobile experience for payment. Many more customers are shopping on their phones, so you don’t want the process to stall out if they’re unable to pay once they load their carts.

Choose Your Shipping Terms

Starting an online store means you’ll need to consider how you’ll get your products from your warehouse or home to your customers’ homes. Look into the best shipping services for small businesses to be sure you’re not overpaying to get your products to your customers. 

You also need to decide on how much you’ll charge for shipping. You may have one rate for express shipping, another for standard shipping, and another for international shipping. It’s important to calculate your shipping costs and figure out what you’re passing on to the customer, since undercharging for shipping will cut into your margins.

You also should take into consideration whether you’re going to charge customers for shipping at all. With the rise of large ecommerce businesses like Amazon, many customers have come to expect free shipping—and may even abandon their carts if they find out they have to pay for shipping. 

Of course, this isn’t possible for all small businesses. If it’s too expensive to offer blanket free shipping, you can also consider alternative programs such as offering free shipping if customers hit a certain spend threshold.

Offer Customer Service

The logistics of your online store are just about set, but one last crucial step to consider is your customer service. How will you assist customers who have questions or need assistance?

There are a few different ways to do this—email, phone, and even live chat. But make sure you’re accessible to your customers; the better customer service you have, the more likely your customers will be to have a positive experience and shop with you again.

How to Start an Online Store from Scratch

Starting an online store from scratch is a slightly different process. You’ll eventually follow the steps above, but you’ll have to begin in a different place. This includes establishing yourself and your strategy and aligning yourself with the audiences to whom you want to sell.

Choose a Business Name

To begin, you need to figure out what you’re going to call your business. Remember that your brand name says so much about you—it can communicate what you’re selling, what you believe in, whom you’re serving, and more. 

You’ll want to check with your secretary of state’s online portal to make sure the business name you want is available to use. But beyond this, you should also conduct a Google search to make sure your desired domain name is available as well. You’ll want your business name and domain name to be the same so your customers can easily find your online store.

Choose a Business Entity

Along with choosing a business name, you’ll have to figure out how you’re setting up your business legally. Choosing a business entity will determine how you pay taxes and determine certain legal factors about your business. Check out Fundera’s complete guide on types of business entities and how to choose the right one for your business.

Open a Business Bank Account

Opening a business bank account is crucial for your business. Keeping personal and business finances separate is not only a good idea, but it’s important for your taxes and to protect yourself legally in case your business is sued or fails to pay its debts. 

You’ll want to begin with a business checking account, which should be sufficient for businesses that are just beginning. You’ll want to be mindful of fees, requirements, and minimum balances, most of which are more minimal with entry-level checking accounts. Remember, you can always upgrade your account as your business grows.

Choose Your Stock

You will, of course, need to determine what you’re selling before you can create your online store. Make sure you choose what you’re stocking carefully; you want to look at your price margins, what your competitors are selling, and more. It can be judicious to begin with a small number of products and then look at the trends in customer purchasing to make decisions for the future.

You’ll also want to check with your state’s rules to see whether there are any restrictions on what you can sell online. Some states don’t allow alcohol to be shipped, for instance, so make sure that anything you’re selling and subsequently shipping is permitted.

Once these elements are in place, you’ll want to go back to the top of this guide and follow the steps above to launch your online store.

How to Market Your Online Store

You certainly don’t want to go through all the trouble of setting up an online store without letting your customers know you’re open for business. Here are a few things to consider to promote your store and drive customers:

  • Set up your marketing strategy. First, decide how you’re reaching your customers. Are you focusing on social media? Search? Local advertising? There are several ways you can try to capture the attention of your target market. Devising a strategy will help guide the rest of your marketing decisions.
  • Set up your marketing channels. Once you figure out the channels through which you’re marketing your business, you’ll then need to set up the accounts on those channels. This may include social media advertising platforms such as Facebook Ads, or search-driven platforms such as Google Ads.
  • Decide on a marketing budget. As you’re doing the finances for your business, be sure to set aside at least some budget for your marketing needs. Your initial investment doesn’t have to be big, and you should actually have more data on the platforms on which your customers are responding before putting a ton of money into advertising.

As you learn more about your customers, you’ll find out more about the best way to reach them. You should expect to be constantly updating your marketing strategy and changing the distribution of your budgets to invest in the most successful channels.

The Bottom Line

You’ll be pleased to know that setting up an online store isn’t difficult. Finding a platform can be easy as well as establishing the nuts and bolts of getting live. Just don’t neglect the details: Make sure that your online store is the best reflection of your brand and your products. It’s competitive out there—but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach your customers and provide them with a seamless shopping experience.

Sally Lauckner

Sally Lauckner is the editorial director at Fundera and the editor-in-chief of the Fundera Ledger. She has over a decade of experience in print and online journalism. Previously she was the senior editor at SmartAsset—a Y Combinator-backed fintech startup that provides personal finance advice. There she edited articles and data reports on topics including taxes, mortgages, banking, credit cards, investing, insurance, and retirement planning. She has also held various editorial roles at AOL.com, Huffington Post, and Glamour magazine. Her work has also appeared in Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan magazines. Sally has a master's degree in journalism from New York University and a bachelor's degree in English and history from Columbia University.  Email: sally@fundera.com.
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