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starting an online storeStarting an online store is ridiculously easy. Seriously, if somebody tries to charge you thousands for installing an eCommerce solution, just smack them. The hard part is getting search engines to care (ranking), getting customers to actually buy things (conversion), and keeping them coming back again (retention).

Here are 10 things you should do or consider when starting your own online store; but most are neither quick, nor easy – eCommerce is tough!

Choose Your System Carefully

Steer clear of specialized custom solutions built on obscure and old code – choose a system that’s popular, well supported, with a good community behind it, and which produces stunning looking shops. If you want to avoid any contact with code, a hosted platform like Shopify is a cinch to get up and running with plans starting at around $30/month for up 100 products.

starting an online store

For full control over the site at a code level, look toward either WordPress with one of the popular eCommerce plugins like Jigoshop (featured on our Best WordPress Plugins page), or a dedicated eCommerce open source solution like OpenCart.

In either case, you typically need to pay for themes and additional functionality, though the base system is free.

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Slow page load times mean loss of customers. If you’ve gone for a hosted solution when starting an online store, there’s not much you can do on this front and probably won’t need to – but when you’ve set up shop using WordPress or another self-hosted system, optimizing the page load speed is absolutely essential. Follow these three easy steps to speeding up WordPress Vroom, Vroom: A Comprehensive Guide To Speeding Up A WordPress Blog Vroom, Vroom: A Comprehensive Guide To Speeding Up A WordPress Blog MakeUseOf serves hundreds of thousands of visitors everyday, and we do it all on Wordpress. Wordpress can and does scale from tens to millions of pageviews, but you’re going to need some heavyweight plugins and... Read More .

starting an online store

Be Unique

Unless you’re actually producing your own products, there’s a good chance you’re using product feeds, including descriptions and photographs supplied by the manufacturer. Bad idea. Your content is going to be basically the same as hundreds of other online shops that purchase from the same supplier.

At the very least rewrite all the product descriptions, and put your own spin on them; ideally, take your own product images. If you’re retaking product images anyway, take some from every angle and use this jQuery plugin to make a 360 view that can be rotated.

Check Out The Competition

This doesn’t just apply to eCommerce of course, but any website. Search a keyword you’re hoping to establish yourself in, and compare the results. If the pages are badly designed and outdated, congratulations – you’re in with a good chance of success selling in that niche, but you should still consider how you would be better if someone else decided to enter the space.

If they’re beautifully designed and clearly doing well, think long and hard about whether you can genuinely compete with them. What can you offer that they don’t already achieve?

It’s Not Enough To Just Sell

The choice of where to shop online is just so expansive that consumers really have the upper hand – they can literally choose from any site in the world after all. Unless you’re competing on price – which is again very difficult since anyone can set up shop with virtually no costs and compete by undercutting – your site needs to be more than just a shop. Established brands get around this – and can charge a premium – by the fact that they have a customer base who trusts them and turns to them first for any needs.

As a new seller, you have neither brand, nor the ability to cost-cut any more so than the next guy, so use your unique product knowledge and skills to offer something more than simply a shop. Write high quality blog posts on the topic, link to your own products, and establish yourself as an expert. Share your knowledge, and be a part of the community around the products (if there is one) – don’t just try to sell things.

Pay Special Attention To SEO

Bloggers have it easy – they can develop a persona, write hundreds of words a day of unique content, and if it’s good enough, they will come. eCommerce isn’t like that unfortunately – it’s particularly vulnerable to SEO problems, and many online stores have found themselves struggling in the relegation zone after the last few years of Google algorithm changes. Why?

  • Product descriptions tend to be short, leading to a small amount of actual on-page content – which can be considered “low quality” by search engines. Read more below on how to expand page content.
  • Product variants such as size or colour can generate unique URLs with effectively duplicate content. These should all be canonical(ised?) back to the main product page.
  • Products in multiple categories create duplicate URLs; again, ensure you’re using rel-canonical.
  • Product categories often span multiple pages and thousands of products – make sure all the items are indexed with correct use of rel=next and rel=prev tags.

Expand Page Content With Customer Input

Simply having a product image and short paragraph of description text is not enough anymore – but you will have a powerful resource that probably lies untapped – customers. Don’t underestimate peoples desire to share their opinions and actions shots of the product – especially if you offer prizes to the best submissions each month.

Black Milk Clothing, hosted at Shopify, is a great example of this. Each product has a distinct hashtag assigned, and the products themselves are incredibly “shareable” – you want to show them off.

starting an online business

When users share a photo and tag it on Instagram, it’ll appear on the product page. Why limit yourself to one product photo when you can have 20? 

Implement Structured Data & Videos

Structured data or “rich snippets How To Add Rich Snippets for Reviews To Your Wordpress Blog How To Add Rich Snippets for Reviews To Your Wordpress Blog Read More “, is special code added to a page to describe the kind of content – this might include videos, or average customer reviews. Include this markup on your page, and Google may use it (no guarantee) when the page appears in the search results. Look at the example below.

starting an online business

In this case, Zappos has included data about the user reviews; 6pm has included a product video. These are both far more likely to rank well and attract the attention of potential customers compared to text only results. Don’t just be another search result – stand out from the crowd!

Run a Newsletter

Newsletters are the secret weapon of eCommerce – it’s a captive customer base of loyal customers. When you make a sale, prompt the user to sign up for a newsletter and tick it by default. In addition, ensure there’s a clear sign-up area on the homepage or sidebar, and if your system allows it, incentivise with a small coupon off their first order. It works.

starting an online business

Sending a reminder to write a review or submit pictures a week after purchasing is also an effective way to keep them coming back – Amazon and eBay both do this.

Get a Social Presence

A little cliché perhaps – but everyone and their dog has a Facebook, and your store should too. It’s another direct marketing tool that you can and should use: interacting with customers, answering questions in an open and public way, offering sneak peaks into future products that will go on sale soon, and giving discounts.

Also consider pinning your best items to Pinterest, which is increasingly being used to drive sales.

starting an online store

It should also go without saying that a set of social share buttons on every page is basically essential at this point in time. Oh, and our free guide to marketing through social media is a probably a thing you should download, too.

No doubt about it – starting an online store that’s successful is tougher than ever, but these tips should help you somewhat on the path to sales success.

Do you have any more tips for setting up shop online, or do you disagree with something I’ve said? Sound off in the comments!

  1. Pratik Kafle
    August 2, 2016 at 2:47 am

    Hello..... i am planning to set up a online store to sell my custom designed printed t-shirts in Nepal..... But now i am confused where to start from......I've made arrangement for the products and got a domain...and now I'am building a site for it......If you will give any essential tips for me setting up my store it will be easier for me and would appreciate your advise

  2. Alyssa
    August 1, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Hi James: I'm selling handmade dreamcatchers on Etsy and would love to implement a "shareable content" page - where customers post pictures of how they hung their dreamcatchers. I understand customers can post pictures with a hashtag, but how do I ensure the hashtag is associated with certain dreamcatchers and those pictures will then show up on the website? I'm currently creating a website separately from Etsy (for info only and re-directs persons to Etsy for purchase). Do I add those hashtags to the Facebook page and Instagram, then some code onto my shop's website? Any tips would be much appreciated!!!

    Thanks! Alyssa M.

  3. zach
    June 1, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    First of all, thank you for that knowledge and expertise you've shared. I am most appreciative of any added edge I can gain before starting my online store. I am going to be selling lighting, such as fixtures, vanities, LED Lighting, etc. I'm currently in the process of building my online store through Shopify, which you're right it's easy! The hardest part is the time consuming task of describing and applying all the products available. What would you suggest in making this Store stand out? What type of software would you suggest I need? What is the best way to ship the products? These are all questions I am thinking about before officially launching the site. All input would be much appreciated!

  4. hannah
    April 25, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    i have a few questions, I want to open a online store, I want to sell scrapbooking stuffs. but I want to know what legal steps do I have to take to have everything legal, like do I charge taxes? do I have to register my store name?
    do I have to pay the government for my sales etc etc..

  5. Shanequa Rainey
    March 14, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    What would be your path to starting an online shop if your under 18? Me and a close friend want to start an online shop together but we are both under 18 and are a few years from it. Is there a site where people under 18 can create a shop?

    P.S If there is no such site what could we do to be prepared for when we are the right age?

    • James Bruce
      March 14, 2016 at 9:06 pm

      My first thought would be: what does age have to do with it? My second though it that my first thought might have been quite naive: wait until you're an adult. Aren't you still in school? Concentrate on your studies first; then work on a shop when you graduate.

      • Shanequa
        March 15, 2016 at 12:12 pm

        Thanks for the reply but you didn't really answer my P.S question.What are things that I can do to prepare NOW. And I have great grades in school and I am pretty sure I could handle it,because it's either that or get a job which would be worse in my perspective.

        • Shanequa
          March 15, 2016 at 12:16 pm

          And I know that runing a business is a job but I would be able to do things I actually am interested in and working on a job for someone else would mean I have to work on their hours.

        • James Bruce
          March 15, 2016 at 12:20 pm

          Well, what kind of a shop would it be? What are you planning to sell? Running an online shop is particular difficult because you'll be competing against the rest of the world on price, so you really need something to differentiate yourselves.

          Many people find success selling handmade goods on Etsy, for instance.

        • Shanequa
          March 15, 2016 at 1:34 pm

          Well that's the problem we can't sell on easy without a parent supervision because minors can't legal have a contract with them so........ our account would be in our parents name and they would have to take responsibility with the finances.

          At this point we've have just been throwing around ideas about what we want to do we are planning to sit down on Friday and talk it over for an hour or two in a brain storming session.So far we have both agreed we want to make jelwrey and accessories as some out things that I can't remember at the moment.

          But if you can't think of a site that would take us what are somethings we can do while we are still in high school to prepare for that time. And are there other ways outside of the online shop that we could start our business.

    • Susan
      May 20, 2016 at 12:32 am

      I think if you are planning on buying your merchandise from a wholesaler.. you cannot enter into a contract because you have not met the age of maturity. The law does not recognize a contract with a minor as being valid. That may be a big setback for you.

    • Jasmine
      September 20, 2016 at 8:28 pm

      Hey, I know this is a late reply, not sure if you'll still see this, but you could always look at other teen entrepreneurs and see how they do it. You could look them up and hit them up in their social media and asked them how they started and if they have any tips. There are many teen entrepreneurs out there, its tough for anyone regardless of age, but with patience and dedication you could do it. You might want to find something or someone that can help you financially. I follow Hustle & Co. on instagram, Matthew Ta, check him out, he is a 16 year old who started his business in order to pay for college. I think if you hit him up and ask how he started it could really help you! Good Luck! Oh and also take any business classes in high school that could also help you, and from my experience I know there was a business club in my high school, you could see if there is one at your school and check it out and see if that could help you, that will give you a lot of exposure and experience.

  6. mailrinzin69
    January 31, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Hi james, is it really ok to used that site i mean is it safe to open my online store? by the way i did open the site and saw free trial for 14days. but i didn't start it because i want to know more about it. it would be great help if you write me little bit about it. thank you james and waiting for your reply.

    • James Bruce
      February 1, 2016 at 8:47 am

      I've never had need of using it, and it's not the kind of topic we write about anymore I'm afraid. It's the industry standard for hosted shopping sites though. Alternatively, you could try Etsy if you're selling handmade craft goods perhaps?

      • rinzin
        February 1, 2016 at 1:05 pm

        thank you so much for helping me and i am sorry for asking without thinking about it. i will try. thanks a lot for your instant reply. god bless you! :-)

  7. rinzin
    January 31, 2016 at 6:05 am

    hi, here i am also planning to open my online store soon but i am little worried about my knowledge about on technology hinder my plan. what you guys think do i need high level of computer to open a online store?

    • James Bruce
      January 31, 2016 at 9:40 am

      Hi Rinzin. I'd suggest not trying to install your own shop system - try https://www.shopify.com , fully managed and hosted solution. All you need to do is upload the photos and sell your stuff!

  8. Serena Hammock
    January 20, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    Hi, my name is Serena. I have been researching lately because I really want to start my own online shoe store. But I have the slightest idea where to start and what do I need. I have been looking up different wholesales, and trying to figure out the best way to start up my website. I also need to know what legal actions do I need to take, in order to be a legit business. I read your article but honestly I do not know or understand any of the tools that you describe to get thing up and running sufficiently. If you have any advice for someone like me, ( a beginner who has no clue) all I know is this is what I want to do. I would greatly appreciate you. Thnx

    • VERONICA BRAVO
      January 22, 2016 at 12:13 am

      Hello Serena, my name is Veronica and I can relate to your situation. I am also planning on opening an online store, and have been looking into it for a while now. I've done so much research, subscribed to different entrepreneur newsletters, and read so many articles like this one, and let me tell you it has helped me so much and I believe I'm on the right path. I can't stress enough how much you can learn from putting work into your goal, and it looks like you are already taking action on it. Here's a tip: anything you read and find yourself confused about research about it. Follow entrepreneurs on Instagram and subscribe to entrepreneur newsletters. *MAKE SURE it's FREE!!!
      Write all your ideas down on a paper, do research, do ask questions, and plan, plan, plan. I recommend you to read THINK AND GROW RICH by Napoleon Hill. After reading it I realized that this is my year, I am ready and will be launching my online store this year!
      I hope some of this helped you, and I wish you the best of luck! :)

  9. Tiffany
    December 4, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    Thank you! James

  10. tiffany
    December 3, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    How do I market myself in the online world like get traffic and promote without setting on my online boutique yet? Do I just set up a blog and base it on fashion ?

    • James Bruce
      December 4, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Sure - if you have a unique insight and expert knowledge to share abotu the world of fashion, it would be a great idea to buy the domain you want to eventually base the shop from, and start a blog. If you're using WordPress (the self installed one), adding eCommerce capabilities later using WooCommerce is simple, so you can use the same wordpress install for everything. Either way, it would certainly help to have google indexing your domain and recognizing your expert knowledge before launching a shop.

  11. magento
    September 30, 2015 at 8:20 am

    Starting an online store has advantages over having a physical storefront: there's no rent to pay, and you can reach millions of customers from the comfort of your own home.
    Decide what you want to sell. If you want to start your online store, you must have your idea what to product you want to sell. Its very important to make your business plan first.Then apply things And most important, set up merchant account.
    You've explained good guidelines for those who want to start their online store.

  12. Zakir Hosen
    August 13, 2015 at 11:41 am

    Great article and would love to follow this and please try to explain more for each category. We are trying to implement your every points on our project http://www.bdshop.com/ and we really thanks for helping us with such great ideas. We believe great content and proper SEO tools may bring more business for long run with less cost. Thanks again for your informative article!!

  13. Caroline Scott
    June 10, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Selecting a website builder tool is the most important thing because your online store services depend upon their functionality.Must try to add social media API in your website to make its design more attractive.

  14. Pravin
    April 25, 2015 at 4:06 am

    This good tips for how can begin a ecoomerce portal , Just one thing how can get a unique products in India No any one have a unique products if have any firm then required of back log like spend more money , when no have any more money how can resolved this ?

  15. Scott M
    May 2, 2013 at 11:41 am

    A nicely done guide for starting an online store reduced to only what you need to get started.I think any refining should be done after you are aware of what your customers need or desire for a superior shopping visit on your site with your product.It is very difficult with any new business,online or brick and mortar,to succeed and you almost always should begin with a simple easy to understand model.

  16. Doc
    May 1, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    One thing you need to be aware of, at least for the US, is PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliance...meaning you need an approved system for (temporarily) storing credit card information collected during checkout. Google Checkout or PayPal is one way around that; with PayPal, payment information isn't even collected on your store's site, but taken care of by PayPal. Other options include dedicated "merchant" systems, like GoDaddy's Quick Shopping Cart, Volusion, BigCommerce, etc., in which case you only need to design your site's "look and feel" and product listings...

    • James Bruce
      May 2, 2013 at 7:44 am

      Good tip; I think most sites go with a verified payment provider like PayPal or Sagepay. Again, system choice is important there - a lot of people are tied to one particular payment processor, so if its not supported then they're SOL.

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