How to Start an Online Store [+ Build a Growth Business]

Helen Tarkhanova

A few years ago starting an online store seemed mind-blowingly complex for small and medium businesses. You had to code your fingers to the bone to make your first sale. Luckily, everything is different now. Indeed, it’s never been easier to launch an online business from scratch within just a short space of time.

No question, you’ll need to stick to a certain plan to do that — choose a niche, develop a business strategy, find the right eCommerce platform (you are not going to code it on your own, are you?).

Later on, you’ll have to deal with shipping, payments, and design — decide on the carriers you want to use, think carefully about payment methods, pick a beautiful template or ask someone to design it for you.

The most important part comes last. It’s marketing, and it means everything in the world. You’ll need to learn how to shoot killer product photos, try various sales channels, including social media and online marketplaces, create content with SEO in mind and probably study the basics of PPC advertising.

Scary? A bit.

But no matter how hard it may seem, here’s a starting-from-scratch guide that will help you set up an eCommerce business hands down. Follow these simple steps to get your online store up-and-running in just a few days, or less. Here we go!

Table of Contents:


Choose a Niche and Develop A Plan

Chapter 1: Choose a Niche and Develop A Plan

Building an online business is definitely a good idea with lots of promising opportunities that may bring you one step closer to financial independence and self-actualization. But our ever-changing world makes the whole process a bit more complicated. All your efforts may go down the drain without constructing a clear-cut business plan.

Yes, creating the right digital marketing strategy is a hard work — it can feel like you’re pulling information out of thin air or spending your time in vain. But don’t give up. This research can save you a lot of time and money in the long-run, preparing you for the challenges of tomorrow.

Here are a few points you need to take into account before launching your eCommerce store.

Choose a niche and decide what to sell

As Ann Smarty from Internet Marketing Ninjas has put it, the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is “starting an eCommerce website in a niche they have no idea about”. It means that if you are planning on diving into eCommerce, the first step is deciding what niche to attack and studying it from the ground up. Here’s where you can start:

  • Focus on your strengths. First of all, think of something you are good at. It may be simple. You regularly bake cinnamon snickerdoodles and your friends find them mind-blowingly delicious. Or, say, your fantasy is rich enough to create 135 types of dresses and your mom can get them tailored for you in just a couple of hours. Why not set up a clothing store? Turning your offline skills into an online business is a great way to enter the market and be sure that hardly anyone will be able to duplicate your offer.
     
  • Find an opportunity gap. If you’ve got no special skills but eager to move the mountains of eCommerce, here’s another option. Scan the market to identify the deficiency that can be capitalized on. Figure out what your potential customers are searching for in Google, but never find. Be the first to offer it to your buyers, they will appreciate it. You can gather ideas from eBay, they’ve got the list of popular items.
     
  • Carve your own product niche. Creating your own niche in a saturated market can be anything but simple. This involves developing a deeper understanding of your audience and carving out the path to your customer’s mind. Moreover, you will have to be responsible for educating your target market on why they need such a product. The good news is that there will be no competitors breathing down your neck.
     
  • Analyze the competition. If the product you’ve chosen is not one-of-a-kind, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with competitors. Pick up a couple of keywords and check their performance in various search engines, like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. This should turn up a few competitors, both in organic and paid results. Take time to acknowledge your competitors’ pain points and then counter them. For ex., Barnes and Noble’s bookstore were too slow to move their offline business online. Meanwhile, Amazon became the online leader. They identified this market and focused on making the selection and buying process easier for customers who don’t want (or have no time) to visit a bookstore.

Determine your buyer personas

Needless to say, everyone is not your customer. And if you think your product is good for everyone, you are 99,9% wrong and will most likely have no sales at all. So don’t rush to spend thousands of dollars on your marketing campaigns before you identify who your target customers are and what they really feel.

  • The easiest way to collect some basic information about your customers is to connect Google Analytics to your site. It will help you view and analyze the full customer journey — from the beginning to its end.
     
  • The second powerful source is social media — such services as Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter will give you a broader idea of your users’ hobbies, careers, and social bonds.
     
  • Polls, interviews and personal calls are the third and the most trustworthy way of studying your customers.

Define your business model

There are actually only two types of eCommerce business models — stocking products and drop shipping.

If you have a brick-and-mortar store and consider moving your business online, then the first option will be preferable for you, as you already have a stock. Yes, you’ll have to invest in shipping and warehousing, but, as a result, you get more profit as you can price your products based on your wholesale cost.

Drop shipping means that someone else will handle the back-end of your business for you: цthe warehouse, shipping, inventory operations and the like. Your focus will be solely on your online store — you’ll have to take care of customer relationship, search engine optimization, marketing, social media, and, of course, prices.

Drop shipping is the best choice for those who are starting off, but it definitely leaves you with less money.

Create a marketing plan

Now that you’ve defined your goals, chosen a niche and have at least a general idea of what your ideal customer is, it’s time to sketch a step-by-step marketing plan. Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself before starting your business:

  • How are you going to drive traffic to your fresh-baked online shop? Some of the key marketing channels include paid (pay-per-click campaigns and affiliate sale networks) and organic (social media, SEO, email & content etc.) marketing.
     
  • What should you spend to acquire a customer? You won’t believe it but there is a certain formula to help you calculate your LTV (Lifetime Value of Customer). It will help you better understand how much an average customer will spend over time.
     
  • What is your story? Storytelling humanize your brand and adds meaning to the purchase. That’s why consumers like stories. You have to know what yours is. Oak Hall clothing store, for example, revealed the full history of the brand since 1859. Being one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the nation, they’ve got a lot of things to share. What is your story?
     
  • Oak Hall History Timeline

  • Are you ready for a brand evolution? Nothing lasts forever and your actual tactics may need to evolve over time. If you want your online business to be relevant, you should be ready for changes.
     
  • Is your team ready to carry the plan out? If you are going to actively market your eCommerce store, you may need a few more employees.

Resources/Suggested Links

What is an eCommerce Business And What You Need To Get Started
How to Write an eCommerce Business Plan for Your Startup
How To Choose A Profitable eCommerce Business Idea
The Pros & Cons of Drop Shipping


Register Domain and Choose Platform

Chapter 2: Register Domain and Choose Platform

There are a few technical aspects you should cover before you add your first product to sell online. These are choosing the right domain name, finding hosting, setting up an SSL certificate, picking up an eCommerce platform and thinking about the features customers may need. Not much. Let’s go into a little more detail on each of these points.

Choose the perfect domain name

When a woman gives birth to a baby, she gives him a name. The same goes for your “new-born” website. It’s important to give your eCommerce website a short, pronounceable and intuitive name. Just think of your customers and do not make them learn it by heart. It should instantly jump into their minds, be easy to type and, what’s more important, unique.

Where can you register a domain name for your eCommerce store? Among the most popular domain registrars are GoDaddy and BlueHost. These services combine hosting and domain registration. Before registering a domain, try this service to check the availability of the most common TLDs including com, net, org. You can also request our help, X-Cart tech gurus can do the whole thing for you.

Choose an eCommerce platform

Depending on your needs and abilities, you have to decide whether you host your eCommerce store yourself or go with a fully-hosted solution.

In the first case, you choose a shopping cart, research the best hosting offers, install the software onto your server, take care of the PCI compliance and other security aspects. It may be rather complicated for a non-techie, but less expensive in the long run. Plus, you’ve got increased flexibility with your store, which can be limited when you’re using a hosted eCommerce platform. In this case, X-Cart self-hosted shopping cart is the right choice for you, as it is available on premise.

Another option is to pay monthly for a fully-hosted eCommerce platform, such as Shopify or BigCommerce, and use it as you go. This way you are not in complete control over your installation, customer data and look’n’feel. Yes, hosted application providers will take care of your safety, PCI compliance, and backups. But as you have to rent their eCommerce engine and a payment platform, the overall monthly fee will be a way higher than the fee for almost any stand-alone hosting.

Find the right web host and set up SSL

If you decide to go with a self-hosted solution, there’s no other alternative but to search for a hosting provider. But be careful, eCommerce hosting is a way more complicated, as it has to protect your store’s sensitive data, provide you with daily backups, database support, fast speed and 24/7 support. X-Cart hosting starts from $29,95 a month and combines all the features above.

Also, if you want buyers to trust your store and be sure that their credit card data is safe, you might need an SSL certificate. Green padlock in the address bar instantly adds trustworthiness to the products you offer.

Choose eCommerce shopping cart features your store needs

To understand which eCommerce platform is right for you, you should scrutinize the list of features each shopping cart offers. A feature-rich platform is good, but the one that allows you to modify the core code is just awesome. It means you’ve got unlimited customization, extensibility and scalability options.

100% Responsive & Mobile-friendly | Real-Time Smart Search | Lightning-fast Speeds | Bulk Product Editing | SEO tools | Multiple channels | Secure payments | Easy upgrades

See the full list of X-Cart features

Resources/Suggested Links

What are Your Options When You Can’t Buy Your Ideal Domain Name?
Ecommerce Security: 10 Simple Tips to Lock Down Your Site


Initial Web Design

Chapter 3: Initial Web Design

You may believe it or not, but your website’s design matters a lot. People entering your online store experience a subconscious reaction to the design before they have even seen your products and read a line of your content. This first impression based on the overall look and feel of the site affects their decision. So think carefully about the way your eCommerce website will look like when it’s live.

User experience is the second thing that is taken into consideration. Once you have made that first impression, the attention is switched to the layout, navigation and even color. If your design is cluttered with an unlimited number of unnecessary fields and banners, or your navigation is too complex, or that awful red button looks extremely distracting, then your design is acting against your website’s purpose. The result — zero conversions and no sales in your state-of-the-art clothing store.

Branding

Before starting your online store you should develop a longstanding and likable brand with your audience. Here are a couple of strategies that should help you uniquely position your eCommerce business above the competition:

  • First, get a memorable logo. Not only it should establish credibility and build trust, but be recognizable. That’s why it’s better to avoid stock images as anyone on the web can make use of them.
     
  • Connect your brand with social media. Use the same profile picture on all platforms.
     
  • Be careful with the wording. Your tone and style should be consistent across all platforms.
     
  • Communicate your message. Everything should convey a singular idea that your products are valuable and best bought here.

Choosing a template

Before you start browsing for eCommerce templates, you need to understand the basics of UX and explore what strategies top-selling eCommerce sites and smaller successful online stores use to boost conversions.

For example, Target.com discount store creates a sense of urgency, pushing timely and relevant sales events 6 times on a single page. Nike does a great job shooting awesome photos and converting website visitors into app users by placing a special tab on the upper part of the page. Zoffoli uses background video to communicate a powerful message. Amazon uses horizontal scrolling to showcase curated product carousels on mobile platforms. Bellroy uses 3rd party testimonials to build trust. Car iD reassures buyers that the product will fit. JCPenney makes emphasis on help and support.

Choose the template wisely. It should keep pace both with your business plan and your customers’ needs.

Choosing X-Cart template

Resources/Suggested Links

How The Best Ecommerce Sites Win at Web Design [23 Examples]
105 Ecommerce UX Tips: How to Seduce Visitors to Buy

Add Products to Website

Chapter 4: Add Products to Website

According to X-Cart survey of top eCommerce experts, product page has the highest impact (51%) on the success of your eCommerce site. It means that the more consideration you give to the products you add, including their photos and a well-thought-out description, the more successful your online store will be.

Here are a few simple must-follow tips every eCommerce beginner should know about shooting vibrant product photos and writing a seductive description.

Product photography

We are visual. Studies show that people can only recall 20% of the material that they read versus 80% that they see. So uploading low-quality pictures is lame. Don’t make that mistake. Learn how to shoot pictures like a pro to attract new customers and convert the old ones:

  • Learn photography basics, like aperture, ISO, shutter speed, exposure, and lighting. You don’t have to buy a professional camera to create awesome pictures, the only thing you should have is the basic understanding of some of the functions.
     
  • Set up a studio. Your setup depends on what you are shooting. Smaller items can be placed inside the lightbox or right on the table with a backdrop.
     
  • Shoot lifestyle images. Use people in your shots to show the way your product is used.
     
  • Optimize images. Every perfect photo can be enhanced with the help of editing software.

Product description

Written words are enormously powerful. They inspire us to take action, make us roar with laughter or stay sad half the day. But it gets even more exciting when it comes to spending money — when a person is about to purchase something, he scrutinizes each word. Learn these few techniques and start injecting power into your words:

  • Repeat your idea several times — it will create the ‘illusion of truth’ and make people believe you.
     
  • Understand the needs of your customers. Once you do it, your copy will become much more persuasive.
     
  • Maslows Triangle
  • Use benefit-focused copy to promise your customers a better version of themselves.
     
  • Find out what language your buyers use to Google for your product.
     
  • Use sensory words to create and describe feelings.
     
  • Use scarcity to encourage impulse buys.
     
  • Let them buy something small first.
     
  • Do not hide the negative features of your product.
     
  • Use power words: you, free, because, imagine, new.
     
  • Analyze competitors’ copy to improve yours.
     
  • Try DTR method to influence people.
     
  • Use buyers’ words to help people self-identify.
     
  • Create a reward program to build customer loyalty.
     
  • Rhyme — it makes copy easier to remember and ideas easier to digest.
     
  • Describe your item to the tiniest detail.
     
  • Add reviews — they create trust.
     
  • Tell mini stories, people love them.

Resources/Suggested Links

Product Photography: How To Market Products With Photos [19 Pro Tips]
19 Persuasive Marketing Techniques For Product Descriptions That Sell


Start Marketing

Chapter 5: Start Marketing

Now that you’ve chosen a niche, defined your potential customers, picked a perfect shopping cart and done all technical stuff, it’s time to get down to business and launch a marketing campaign. Yes, drawing up a sound shopper marketing plan is never an easy job, making it lucrative is even tougher. However, we’ve got a few tips that should help you.

Ecommerce marketing

If you try to Google for “eCommerce marketing” on the web, you’ll get 41,900,000,000 search results on that. Don’t be scared. There is a gazillion of the so-called “growth hacking” tricks, but there are only three main things you have to do first — define your goal, your strategy, and your tactics.

A marketing goal can be traffic or revenue. Say, you want to boost your sales by 145% within six months.

A strategy gives your goal a path. Building authority, using top funnel organic traffic and so on can be called a strategy.

Tactics is the way you are going to execute your strategy — run an email marketing campaign, launch PPC ads and so on.

Blog

When internet users are buying products or services online, they do care about who they are buying from. That’s why every successful eCommerce business needs a blog.

Blogging generates traffic for your eCommerce site, tells the story of your brand to your potential customers and educates them, helps you rank in search results, builds trust and authority.

Add blog to your X-Cart | Add X-Cart to your blog

SEO

Data reveals that 81% of shoppers conduct online research before buying things online. It is most likely that your potential customers also do it. If so, you need to think about SEO. Here are several things you need to know, including keyword research, on-page and off-page SEO, technical SEO and link building.

Resources you might need:

SEO for Beginners, part 1: First Steps in Making Your Store Visible to Search Engines
SEO for Beginners, part 2: How To Optimize Your Store Content
SEO for Beginners, part 3: How to Create Product Descriptions That Search Engines Will Love

PPC (Pay-per-Click)

If you are just starting off, pay-per-click advertising can help you a lot providing a wide range of opportunities to attract shoppers to your eCommerce site. One of such strong programs is Google AdWords, which allows you to run campaigns such as search, display, video, and remarketing ads.

Social media

Not only social media can help you get a clear understanding of who your audience is and what their needs are, it is also a great place to generate leads for your online business. Do not underestimate this source of traffic as it works.

f-Commerce Go | Social Feeds | Social Tab

Resources/Suggested Links

SEO for Ecommerce: A Comprehensive Guide

E-commerce SEO (Advanced Guide + Step-By-Step Case Study)
A Simple (But Complete) Guide To Ecommerce SEO
7 advanced tips for Google Shopping ads
How Ecommerce Brands Can Drive Qualified Leads from Social Media
Grow your Sales with Google AdWords & Google Shopping

5 Ways Niche Brands Can Build a Massive Community

Payments, Shipping & Inventory Management

Chapter 6: Payments, Shipping & Inventory Management

When starting an online store, you should take care of handling shipping and taxes, accepting payments and managing your inventory. Let’s dive into each point one by one.

Choosing payment gateway

There are different ways of accepting payments, such as accepting credit cards online via payment gateways, cash on delivery, gift certificates and many others. Also, you should know that most countries have their popular local payment methods. Say, Americans like PayPal and credit card. Chinese prefer Alipay eWallet. Germans use Sofort Banking, Giropay, and Paysafecard. Skrill, Authorize.Net, SagePay, Amazon Payments, 2Checkout are among the top payment processing companies in the world.

Businesses that accept card payments face various risks like fraud attacks. To save your eCommerce business from online scammers, you need to monitor the transactions for unusual activity yourself or entrust your transactions to experts, like Kount, Signify or NoFraud. Check X-Payments, PA-DSS payment application, that integrates with these all-in-one risk management solutions and over 40 payment providers to protect your business from eCommerce fraud.

120+ Payment Gateways | X-Payments

Delivering products and choosing shipping carriers

Shipping can make or break your business. If you choose the wrong shipping partner, your customers may suffer an unpleasant shopping experience. Just imagine how your buyer would feel if his package arrived all messed up and damaged. Ultimately unsatisfied! Or a little girl who has been waiting for her Christmas present which was lost for good in transit. BAAAD, really bad. As a result and on top of that all, you may be left in the red.

Yes, if you’re selling eGoods, it’s not an issue. But if you need to deliver actual products to your clients, it’s important to pick the right shipping carrier. Think about different options for different shipping zones. Free in-store pickup is a good choice for local businesses. But you still might need an option to deliver your goods to other states or overseas.

Give your customers the most accurate shipping quotes available with real-time prices from Australia Post, Canada Post, FedEx, UPS, DHL, USPS, Pitney Bowes, Pilibaba, and ShippingCalc. Or set up shipping rates manually, based on shipping zones, weight, cart subtotal, number of items and other parameters in your merchant account.

X-Cart Shipping Carriers

Inventory management & how to start an online store without any inventory

Warehouses have become a key pillar for retailers. To keep up with the industry changes and provide customers with viable solutions you have to constantly improve your customer service:

  • consider using centralized inventory system, like POS, to store and access all your inventory data at any time;
     
  • update inventory records as soon as a sale is made;
     
  • forecast demand for products, locations and quantities;
     
  • regularly analyze performance of your inventory management process and so on.

Drop shipping allows you to create an online store without any inventory and warehouse at all. Such shopping carts as Shopify or BigCommerce offer dedicated services for setting up a drop shipping business.

Resources/Suggested Links

Order Management, Shipping and Fulfillment Tools: the Essential Guide

How Ecommerce Is Changing Warehouses for the Better
Tools to beat the fraud: from manual checks to enterprise-level automation


How much does it cost to create your store

Chapter 7: How Much It Costs to Create an Online Store

If you are planning to launch a brand like eBay or Facebook, you’ll probably need heaps of money (plus a money printing machine, as you will hardly do without it) to jumpstart your business. However, if your dreams are moderate enough, you need just $33,95 a month. Let’s try to count how much money you are likely to spend if you choose X-Cart as an eCommerce platform.

Starting a dropshipped online store

The cheapest and the easiest way to start an eCommerce store is drop shipping. You do not have to spend money on building a warehouse or buying products to sell. The only thing you should do is to find the right supplier. The amount of revenue earned is the selling price minus the cost of goods sold and a small drop shipping fee.

Here’s the minimum investment that you need to launch a dropshipped online store:

Starting an online store with inventory

Starting an online store the traditional way, with a warehouse and inventory, will cost you nearly as much as starting a dropshipped online store. You will only need to put aside money for your initial cost of goods. The total sum could range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars depending on the type of products you choose to sell.

Resources/Suggested Links

To Sum Up

Now that you know how to start an online store and how much it costs, it’s high time to muster up your willpower and get down to business. If you are still unsure, feel free to get in touch. We are always here to help.

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