How to start an online shop

online shop

Note: This post was updated in May 2014 to include recent changes to SEO and social media.

You can start an online shop on a really tiny budget. Seriously.

OK, let’s get on with the steps! Here’s how I’d start my own online shop…

1. Work out what to sell

I’d have a think about things I might like to sell and then look for niches. (Why is a niche so important? Check out my post Why you need a niche.) So let’s say I fancy selling t-shirts. A basic t-shirt shop is pretty boring and I doubt I’d be able to compete with the big stores out there anyway, so I need to find a specific type of t-shirt. When I type ‘t shirt’ the Google Adwords Keyword Tool I can see what different types of t-shirts people are searching for. This gives me niches like ‘retro t shirt’, ‘designer t shirt’, ‘star wars t shirt’. I’d aim for a niche/keywords that has quite a few people searching for it, but that doesn’t have high competition.

Let’s say I go for ‘goth t shirts’. I’d still do this if I’d already been selling on eBay and was planning to move over to my own shop.I’d even do it if I was planning to make my own craft items because I might be able to tweak what I make to match what people are searching for. I’d make a note of the words people use when looking for goth t-shirts. Do people search for ‘goth t-shirts’ or ‘gothic tshirts’? How about ‘gothic clothing’? Then I’d look at my competitors to see how I could do things differently. If most goth t-shirts are poor quality, I’d look at selling some really top quality ones, for example. Cost = £0

2. Do the maths

There’s no point in opening a shop if you aren’t going to make any money. Here’s where I’d look at how much the t-shirts would cost me to buy, how much I could sell them for, what my expenses would be and how many t-shirts I’d need to sell to make the income I want. I’d also factor in my time; how long would it make me to process each order, pack and take it to the post office? This would be even more important if I planned to print them myself.

If it looked like I couldn’t make the income I want from selling goth t-shirts I would either a) look at selling them differently (if the profit margin is too small when I buy wholesale, could I make them myself?) or b) go back to step 1 and start again.

Cost =£0

3. Start researching

Your aim here is to both do some market research and to start promoting your shop before you even open it.

Find out where your target audience hangs out online. Facebook and Twitter are great places to start, but your audience may be most active on another platform such as Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest or a specialist forum. If you already have an account on that platform in your own name then it’s fine to start with this. Most of us already have a Facebook profile, for example. Otherwise set up a new account, preferably in your own name (or a nickname, if that works better) rather than your prospective business name. People respond better to people than they do to faceless businesses, and this is especially true on social media.

Whichever platform I chose for my goth t-shirt shop, I’d aim to get inside the mind of the goth t-shirt wearing community – where do they buy clothes? What do they like? How much do they spend? What do they read? Where do they hang out? I’d interact, listen and get to know people. I’d also ask what they thought of my idea for a new online shop and what they’d like to see in it.

Cost = £0

4. Get a website

There are a number of different options here including hiring a web designer or setting up a WordPress websites with an ecommerce plugin, but I recommend taking a look at website builder Create first. That’s because it’s simple and inexpensive to create your own attractive online store with Create.

I’d set up an account with Create that gave me a website, shopping cart and blog. The basic package would cost £5 a month (although I’d pay £9 a month because it gives you useful extra features like discount codes.) I’d also get a domain name.

Cost – from £5 to start and then £5 or £9 a month

5. Add a logo

I have two options here and it’s not so easy to choose between them. If I’ve done my maths and research well and I’m reasonably confident that I will make some money from my goth t-shirt venture, I’d find the cash to pay a graphic designer to make a logo for me. That might sound expensive, but if you find a freelance designer working from home, you could get a logo for between £50 and £100. Most of us aren’t good at graphic design and even if we’re artistic, we don’t always have the technical skills or the branding know-how to do it right. However, we do all know a rubbish logo when we see one and will click away from ugly websites in a nanosecond. So in my opinion, this is an area where it’s worth spending a bit of cash. That said, if you’re dipping a toe in the water you might want to try to do-it-yourself at first and then pay for a graphic designer a bit later on. But then how many potential customers might you be turning off? It’s your call. But if you’ve got doubts about hiring a logo designer, that might be a clue that you need to do some more market research.

Cost – £0 to £100

6. Set up shop

I’d set up my shop using Create like this:

    • Choose the layout of the website using the templates and colour schemes.
    • Create the homepage and ‘about’ page making sure the text is clear, easy to understand, had some personality (not “we are a small goth tshirt company based in the South East..”) and contained a handful of the keywords (step 1) sprinkled through it in a natural way.
    • I’d list the items in my shop using the best photos possible and clear descriptions.

Cost – £0 if I do my own photography

7. Add a mailing list

Once I’ve got people to my website, I’d be mad not to stay in touch with them using a mailing list. I’d offer them an incentive to sign up (discount voucher or e-book) and make sure I signed nobody up without their permission.  MailChimp is a pretty good email service and it’s free to send up to 2000 emails a month. Personally, I switched over to Aweber because it has a few features that MailChimp doesn’t, but both are good.

Cost- starting from £0 if you use Mailchimp

8. Check systems are in place

Before I launch I’d want to make sure I had systems in place to process orders efficiently. Is my stock stored so I can find it easily? Do I have a supply of packing materials? Have I bought stock or will I be drop-shipping? How can I be sure my suppliers can cope with demand?

Cost – depends on how much stock/packaging you buy and whether you’re buying wholesale or drop-shipping

9. Start promoting

Well, carry on promoting, actually! I’d keep my Facebook and Twitter followers updated on my progress and offer them a special deal if they buy on the launch day. I’d start to blog about my new business before I launched so the search engines can start to pick up the fresh content on my website (again, using my keywords in a natural way). I’d also start contributing to internet forums where my target audience hang out – ideally including my web address in my signature (but check the rules of the forum to be sure). I’d even send a press release to my local newspapers and any other publication that might be interested in my story. On launch day I’d tell everyone I could possibly think of that it was happening and splash a big ‘Launching today!’ sign on my homepage.

Then I’d carry on promoting my website a little each day – blogging, contributing to forums, updating Twitter and Facebook, possibly LinkedIn and Pinterest. I’d definitely consider YouTube too.

Cost – £0

If that sounds a lot of work the great news is that you can spread it over months, doing a little work here and there in your spare time. Plus it’s nothing compared to the work and money you’d need to invest in a bricks-and-mortar shop, so it’s a fantastic opportunity.

This post contains affiliate links.

Comments

  1. Amazingly awesome post Helen. You should definitely turn this into an e-book. I’ve even printed it out, so I can make sure I’m covering all the steps! Love it!

  2. Awesome – easy peasy steps to follow. I am using this as a check list on actions to make sure I am covering everything as it is easy to get bogged down and not make progress.

    An e-book is a fab idea. Cant wait to read it.

  3. Inspiring post! Its true though – I know: cost isn’t an issue these days, its the idea, the belief, passion … oh and the bloomin’ time!

    You can even save on the £5-£10 a month considerably if you go for standard web hosting and set up a WordPress website yourself – which can be free, including a shopping cart with payment processing by credit/debit card, PayPal and Google checkout. So you’re just paying for the web hosting which would be about £3/month.

    It would be nice to get the total down to £0 though! It would make for a great title for the ebook wouldn’t it :-). I provide web hosting, so maybe there’s a way .. let me know if you might be interested and I’ll have a think about how it might be done.

    Mark

    • Hey Mark.

      As much as it sounds fantastic to not pay a cent for the server it is my opinion that you should not cut costs here.

      Hauling all the information from one server to another can be a very time-consuming process. Keep in mind that your visitors will want to be able to see what they buy. Therefor detailed, high definition images are mandatory. Preferably from multiple angles aswell. A cheap hosting solution will not have enough bandwith to sustain such image browsing at a favourable speed. Especially not when multiple people are simontaneously browsing your website.

      Ofcourse with that in mind, it is a very good idea to do a price check on multiple hosting providers. To see which ones provide what services at which price. I strongly believe that having a good structure is key.

      I agree on the main post. These are indeed the steps you need to do to start your own webshop. However no one should overlook the difficulties that each step may pose. True entrepreneurship comes from using these difficulties to your advantage (learning from them :))

      Personally I would go for a brand name rather than an Exact Match Domain name type. It might be less favourable for SEO purposes, but for marketing purposes it works out it’s benefits quite big.

      Anyway, thanks for the post, I liked it.

      Ori.

  4. I have also printed off this post – it really has got me thinking. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for the really positive comments, I’m so pleased you like the post!

    Mark, I did think about mentioning WordPress (I use it myself, so I’m a big fan) but I know of quite a few people who have had problems when they came to install it. I wanted to keep the steps as simple as I possibly could so anyone could follow them, which is why I went with the template website. That adds just a few quid to the bill, but for many people it’s worth it so that they can set it all up themselves with zero technical knowledge.

    You’re right though, it would be nice to get the bill down to £0! Thanks for the offer and I might be in touch!

  6. Helen,

    Indeed WordPress takes a bit of effort to learn, though as you and I know, there are a lot of benefits that make it worth it. I help very small businesses with this and some people want to get their hands dirty while at the other end of the spectrum they don’t want to go near a computer. Then again… I just shut down my PHP editor for the day and came down to find my girlfriend trying to create her first website with HTML! Shocked and impressed :-)

    Mark

  7. Great post – does Create.net also handle payments? I’ve not heard of it before, will go and have an explore, thanks.

  8. Michele says:

    I’ve just gone live with my create site. Still lots to do… Shelf filling … Tweaking etc. So far i’ve found it very easy & much faster to build than my previous template which was mr site. I have the pro site @ 9.99 per month. Time is my biggest obstacle- not enough of it to do all the things i need to! My typical day is 7-7 and more often than not 6 day week, 7 if i’m doing a sunday event. Would be much easier to go get a regular 9-5, but i love my job!!

  9. Naomi Richards says:

    Great ideas Helen. Anything is possible.

  10. Hello!
    Would like to ask about legal part of the online shop. Is there any need to open a company, pay tax and insurance?

  11. Hi Helen,

    Nice to see still life in this post here and in your forthcoming eBook. I haven’t forgotten our short chat above, so let me know if you would be interested in something and please announce your ebook in a comment so I’ll hear about it!

    Mark

  12. Hi Mark, good to hear from you again! Here’s the latest on the ebook…http://businessplusbaby.com/2012/04/26/why-people-struggle-to-run-online-shops and I’ll certainly post a comment on this thread when it’s ready.

  13. Thanks Helen – have signed up so I won’t miss it and hope it goes well.

    It may be a bit late, but I provide a free ebook template for use with OpenOffice/LibreOffice (the free office software suites). I’ve had really good feedback about it so in case you find it useful:
    http://thewebalyst.com/free-ebook-template-for-libreoffice-writer-and-openoffice/

    Mark

  14. Thanks for the template, Mark. And also for signing up.

    Just to let you know my e-book is now ready and I’ve updated this post.

  15. Stephanie says:

    Hi

    I’m trying to find out what kind of technical requirements I would need for my online shop. Do I need a dedicated BT line etc. Can I run it from a laptop? I’m a little bit clueless about this and can’t seem to find any info on it.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!

    Steph

    • Hi Steph, whichever type of shop you set up (eBay, Etsy, your own store), it will be hosted on a server (ie saved on a big computer which is owned by someone else) which is accessible to visitors 24 hours a day – you’ll just be logging into it to do updates from your own computer. So it’s perfectly possible to run it from a laptop because the shop isn’t actually on your laptop. Hope that makes sense! :) As for phone lines, there are many more options than just BT these days. I use a Skype online number, and you can read about other options in this post…http://businessplusbaby.com/2010/06/15/do-i-need-a-business-phone-line-for-my-home-based-business/

  16. stephanie says:

    Helen,
    Forgot to ask – what kind of internet connection/service to you recommend? I would assume to run an online shop you need to have a reliable internet provider and would not be able to rely on wifi?

    • The ordinary broadband that’s available for home use should be fine. It’s hard to recommend a provider because it’s like recommending a mobile phone tariff – it depends on your needs and it’s changing all the time. It’d recommend looking around at some providers, finding a deal that looks right for you then Googling around for reviews on how reliable that service is.

  17. Hi Helen

    This was a great read, thank you for putting it together! I was hoping to find more information about where and how to source packaging though as that’s the thing I’m finding it hardest to get advice on. I have my inventory now, all I need is a reliable and cost-effective packaging supplier and any tips on how best to package items. Is there somewhere you know of that’s a great source of information about packaging?

    Many thanks

    Lou

    • Hi Lou, thank you very much! I’m afraid I don’t have any info about packaging to hand and it’s a little tricky to know where to start unless I have some idea of the size/type and quantity that you need? Although eBay used to be a good place to pick up things like this, have you tried there?

  18. Hi Helen
    I am currently putting together an online shop and was wondering if you could recommend a dedicated accounting package that would take care of all my needs.
    Thanks, Simon

    • Hi Simon, can you tell me which shopping cart/ website solution you’re using? There may be some accounting packages that integrate better with your system than others. And it would be helpful to know a bit more about your requirements e.g. someone sending out a few parcels a week at first might be able to get by with an Excel spreadsheet but if you’re sending out 30 parcels a week it would be a different scenario.

  19. Thanks for your post Helen, it’s easy to get your shop started but to do it well is a different story. I will definitely need to get more organised, thanks for the link to mail chimp as well.

  20. hiya

    i looking to start up a oline shop with Create. Im new to this and have just been ebaying but charges and rules are becoming silly. I have been successful with car boots and some mini-wholesale items. i have moved to ireland for a new life and im claiming unemployment benefit. Im worried that if business dont take off that it would ruin my benfit. can a business be registered once you know it is going to do well so i can sign off social welfare??

    • Hi Rachel, thanks for stopping by. I’m afraid I don’t know the situation in Ireland as I live in the UK. But in the UK the issue wouldn’t be registering the business as such (although you’d need to do this), it would be how much money you were earning. So even if your business makes e.g. £10 a month profit you would need to declare that and it could affect your benefit. In the UK it’s a complex situation and you would need to get some expert advice to decide if you were better or worse off by earning the profit you’re expecting from your business, unfortunately I don’t know who you would talk to in Ireland. Good luck!

  21. Hi Helen,
    Thank you very much for this post. I want to start an online shop and this has given me all the information I need. Will loads more I was not thinking of.

    Hi Rachel, the link below has info about starting your own business when unemployed. Hope it’s helpful.
    http://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/employment/types_of_employment/self_employment/setting_up_a_business_in_ireland.html

  22. Marten says:

    Hello! I just want to give you a huge thumbs up for your excellent information you have got
    here on this post. I will be returning to your
    blog for more soon.

  23. I stumbled across this page by accident whilst drowning in a sea of information as I was looking for help on setting up my business from my physical shop (didn’t work out) to online selling. I have virtually no idea what I’m doing, I have zero cash (it’s all held in the stock now living in my front room!) so was looking for some simple (idiot’s guide) to setting up an online business. I have to say what a refreshing piece of writing! I am just off now to give the Create site a trial run and see if it will work for me. so just wanted to say thanks! x

    • Really pleased to be able to help Dawn! Good luck with it and let me know how it goes!Also, thanks for leaving me a comment, it’s so helpful to get feedback. :-)

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