How to Make an Online Store (2021) — 6 Simple Steps to Kickstart an E-Commerce Project

Picture of an online store — accompanies an article on how to create your own online store.

In this post, I’m show you how to make an online store.

BUT…

Creating an online store is fairly easy. Selling isn’t.

So this post isn’t JUST about whether you should be using Shopify, Bigcommerce, WordPress or Squarespace to build an online store…it spells out the 6 key steps you need to take to get a successful online store fully off the ground. One that actually results in sales.

Right, let’s go!


1. Pick the right products to sell

This may sound rather obvious, but picking the ‘right’ products to sell is absolutely essential to the success of your store.

However, by ‘right’ I’m not talking about quality – you should obviously avoid selling poor-quality goods – I’m talking about the ‘uniqueness’ of your products.

This is because when you set up an online store, you are competing with a large number of hugely popular sites selling everything under the sun (Ebay, Amazon, Etsy etc.).

Generally, you are going to have a tough time shifting products if you are simply selling stuff that is already widely available on those kinds of sites.

Identifying a niche and finding the right e-commerce products to sell is vital to the success of your online store.
Identifying a niche and finding the right e-commerce products to sell is vital to the success of your online store.

To run a successful online store, what you ideally need to do is ‘find your niche’ – identify (or make!) a product range that is not being sold by every online retailer out there, but for which there is enough demand to sustain an online business.

For example, instead of selling a guitar that is commonly available on Amazon, you might consider selling an instrument that is harder to find online, but for which you know there is strong demand.

Finding a niche typically involves a bit of keyword research. Let’s take a look at that.

Using keyword research to help you find your niche

The simplest way of identifying a niche is to use a keyword research tool (like SEMrush) to find niche markets and see what sort of competition is operating in those markets.

Keyword research tools allow you to find out how many searches per month are performed for various keywords.

For example, they might tell you that there are 206,000 searches per month for the search term ‘buy guitar’ and only 1,600 for ‘buy ukulele.’

Performing keyword research with the Semrush keyword research tool.
Performing keyword research with the Semrush keyword research tool.

This might make you think “whoa, there’s a much bigger market for guitars, I’m going to sell guitars” but stop right there: think of the number of guitar stores you will be competing with.

The numbers that the keyword tool has just given us tell us that ukuleles are definitely much more of a niche product, but one with a decent enough number of people interested in buying them (nearly 20,000 a year worldwide, enough to arguably sustain an online ukulele-selling business).

The question is whether there are already a lot of retailers selling this niche product: people might have beaten you to this niche already.

To find out, you now need to look at ‘keyword difficulty.’  This is a score given (in one format or another) by keyword research tools. The higher the keyword difficulty score, the harder it will be to rank for searches for that product name (and thus generate sales).

Example of a keyword difficulty score.
Example of a keyword difficulty score.

You can also use keyword research tools to see how many stores specialising in selling ukuleles online are already out there — and how established they are in the marketplace.

If you find that there are already loads of hugely popular online ukulele stores in existence, it might be time to think about selling a different product. But if there’s clearly only one or two online stores selling ukuleles…well, maybe it’s time to think about going into the ukulele-selling business.

This is a very basic example; you can go much further with niches. You may find during your research that there are quite a lot of ukulele sellers out there, but not many soprano ukulele sellers (but still enough demand to justify the setting up of an online store selling soprano ukuleles).

Or, although there may be a lot of ukulele sellers doing business online, there may not be many in your local area, despite a lot of demand for them there.

The trick is generally to find products for which there is a reasonably strong level of demand but with relatively few online stores selling them (or, ideally, none at all!).

Related content: For more information on keyword research tools, check out our Ahrefs vs SEMrush comparison; our SEMrush review; and our guide to SEMrush pricing.


2. Source your stock

There are two main options available to you when it comes to sourcing stock: 

  • purchasing it from a supplier, storing and reselling it, or

  • dropshipping.

The advantage of the first option is that you can view the quality of stock first-hand, ensure it is produced ethically and build up a good relationship with your supplier.

(Of course, if you’re making your own products, you are in effect the supplier!).

The disadvantage of this option is that you will need to invest cash in purchasing goods which, if your business is not a success, you may never end up selling. You may also face costs associated with storing them somewhere.

The second option, dropshipping, is a fulfilment method where you don’t keep what you’re selling in stock (you take the order, send it to a supplier, and they deliver the goods to your client — your store is in effect a middle man of sorts). You might never meet or have direct dealings with your supplier, and you might never see the majority of goods you’re selling.

Shopify trial.

The main advantage of dropshipping is that no upfront investment is required; the downside is that it is quite a competitive area, and you may end up selling products that are also marketed aggressively by many competing merchants.

Additionally, there may be some ethical concerns to consider — not all dropshipping suppliers have the best track record when it comes to how their goods are produced.

Most of the major e-commerce platforms (which we’ll talk about in a bit more depth below) offer add-ons / integrations which allow you to locate and dropship goods produced from a wide range of suppliers. Popular apps include Oberlo for Shopify and Ali Express for Bigcommerce.

Overall, it’s probably fair to say that Shopify offers the most options when it comes to dropshipping, however — simply because its app store is extremely large by comparison to its competitors, and it is stocked with a lot of dropshipping apps.

Now, let’s take a look at the platforms you can use to build your online store.


3. Choose the right online store building app

Once you’ve identified your niche product and market, and know where you’re sourcing your stock from, it’s time to think about getting your online store off the ground.

You have two options here:

  • hire an agency to build it

  • use an online store builder app

If you go down the agency route, make sure that you get a solution that lets you manage your store without its assistance after it goes live – i.e., ask the agency to provide you with access to a content management system (CMS) that lets you edit your site easily and add/remove products.

This means that after your store goes live, you won’t have to pay a webmaster or developer on an ongoing basis to do this for you.

Example of a Shopify theme.
Example of a Shopify theme.

Another option is to use an e-commerce platform and just create your online store yourself.

There are lots of e-commerce solutions to choose from – popular ones include Shopify, Bigcommerce, Squarespace and Wix.

Of the ones I have road tested to date, I have found Shopify and Bigcommerce to be the most straightforward for users without a lot of experience of building e-commerce websites – they definitely strike the best balance between features and user-friendliness of the bunch.

You can watch our video review of Shopify below for a quick overview of the product, or grab a free trial of it here.

Shopify video review

Free Shopify trial | Full Shopify review

Squarespace and Wix are also easy to use, but lack some of the more advanced e-commerce features that come with Shopify and Bigcommerce (notably the ability to sell in multiple currencies, or make extensive use of point-of-sale technology).

Point-of-sale (POS) hardware can help you make use of your online store in a physical location — but not all e-commerce solutions support this method of selling.
Point-of-sale (POS) hardware can help you make use of your online store in a physical location — but not all e-commerce solutions support this method of selling.

The good news is that all these solutions offer free trials and support to help you get going – just follow the links below:

Which online store builder is right for me?

There is a growing number of online store builders available. Here are some thoughts on some of the best-known ones.

Shopify

Thanks to an app store feature a huge number of add-ons and integrations with other software, Shopify offers more flexibility than other e-commerce apps (although you will sometimes have to pay extra for this). It’s also probably the best option for anyone who needs point-of-sale functionality. Read our full Shopify review.

Bigcommerce

Bigcommerce is a good all rounder, offering a lot of ‘bang for your buck — its entry-level plan offers a lot of key e-commerce features out of the box that you don’t always get included in competing products (for example, professional reporting and gift card functionality). Its SEO features are really strong too. Read our full Bigcommerce review.

Squarespace

Squarespace’s templates are great, and the platform is extremely flexible when it comes to how you lay out text, images and blog posts on pages (much more so than many of its competitors). Its e-commerce features are getting increasingly good — the only major issue I have with Squarespace on the e-commerce front is that it doesn’t let you sell in multiple currencies, which is a drawback for anyone wishing to sell outside their own country. But if your needs are simple, and you only need to sell in one currency, Squarespace is a great option. You can try it for free here (use the PARTNER10 code at checkout to avail of a 10% discount).

Wix

Wix is more of a ‘general’ website builder than Bigcommerce or Shopify, but it does nonetheless provide some pretty decent e-commerce features, and at a lower price point than the above products. It’s a good option if you’re on a budget, or if you’re hoping to build a general-purpose website and sell a couple of products on the side.

But if you need features like the ability to sell in multiple currencies, or comprehensive point-of-sale functionality, it’s probably not for you. Read our full Wix review

What if I’ve already got a website?

If you already have a website (for example, a WordPress site) and want to add an online store to it, ‘plugin’ tools like Ecwid will come in handy. Ecwid allows you to add a ‘widget’ to your site (or to any other online presence that facilitates the addition of HTML code – for example, a social media page or blog) and users will see a fully-functional online store at that location.

A way to save money on Squarespace

If you’re interested in using Squarespace to make an online store, the company is currently offering 10% off its plans. This can amount to quite a saving, especially if you opt for one of its ‘commerce’ plans.

This discount is available for a limited time only – to avail of it,

1. Grab a free trial on the Squarespace website using this link.
2. Enter the code ‘PARTNER10’ when purchasing a plan.


4. Make your store appear in search results

Once you’ve found your niche market and designed your online store to cater for it, it is now time to optimise it correctly for search. SEO is absolutely vital to the success of any e-commerce project.

You can use keyword research tools like SEMRush again here to find out exactly what kind of searches are performed for your type of product, and ensure that your site contains all these keywords in all the right places, namely

The online store builders mentioned above give you a lot of control over SEO (with Bigcommerce probably coming in tops in this regard). If you plump for one of those products, make use of this functionality!

You’ll find more detailed information on how to make a site visible in Google here.

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5. Drive traffic to your store via blogging

A key way to attract traffic to an online store is to blog regularly about topics related to what you are selling.

This type of activity is basically known as ‘inbound marketing’ and if you don’t engage in it, you are potentially missing out on a huge number of sales.

By posting high-quality, keyword-rich blog posts related to your area of business, you are doing two things: one, maximising the chances of your site appearing in relevant search results, and two, showing you are an authority on the area of business you are operating in.

Potential buyers of your products will have greater confidence in vendors who clearly have a passion for, and understanding of, all things relating to their goods.

Top tip: check out our comprehensive guide on how to increase traffic to your blog to discover the 10 things you need to do to make your blog really take off.


6. Use online ads to promote your store

If you have the budget, it’s definitely worth running some online ads to promote your online store’s products. A good starting point for this is Google Adwords and Facebook ads.

Google Ads

Using Google Ads involves identifying (and paying for) relevant search phrases that will display adverts for your store/products alongside ‘organic’ Google search results.

In my experience, Google Ads campaigns generally work well when you are selling relatively expensive products.

For example, you might be able to live with a Googld Ads ‘cost per acquisition’ of £50 (i.e., where you spend £50 on ads to generate one sale) to sell a product if that product – let’s say a TV – retails at £1000; but if you end up spending £50 on ads to sell one CD that retails at £10…well, a different approach might be needed.

It’s a question of looking at your margins, trying out different keyword strategies and so on to ensure that the cost of advertising doesn’t eat into your profit too much.

But, used well, Adwords can help you sell a lot of products; and If you’re interested in learning more about using them, you could do worse than checking out Neil Patel’s ‘Google Adwords Made Simple’ guide.

Facebook Ads

Facebook ads work in a different way to Adwords: rather than paying to display your ads to people who are entering keywords into a search engine, you are paying to display your ads to people who have told Facebook what they are interested in.

For example, using Facebook ads you could advertise Beatles T-shirts to people who like the Beatles; VW keyrings to people who drive Volkswagens and so on. 

Using Facebook to advertise products from your online store.
Using Facebook advertising to sell CDs online

Facebook ads are extremely powerful and let you target (and re-target) audiences to the nth degree – as such, it’s worth getting a full understanding of how they work before you start spending money on them. Facebook’s own guide to advertising on their platform is a good starting point. 

See also: check out our guide to creating e-newsletters and email marketing campaigns to find out how you can advertise an online store in sophisticated ways using email.


Any thoughts?

Have you any thoughts on how to create an online store? Or need any help?

If you’ve set up your own store, or have any queries about doing so, we’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. You can also contact us if you need help building one.


Free trials of e-commerce apps


Squarespace free trial

Or…buy an existing online store!

If all the above sounds a little like hard work, the other option is to buy an online store that’s already generating a profit.

This is actually easier to do than you might think, thanks to services like Exchange Marketplace by Shopify or Empire Flippers, which allow you to browse online businesses that have been vetted by experts before being listed for sale (meaning you can buy them in relevant confidence).

For more information on these two options, read our guide on how to buy a Shopify store using Shopify Exchange or visit the Empire Flippers website.


Further reading

Comments (9)

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Hey Chris, Iove this article thanks for sharing. Just finished setting up my Shopify store and currently looking for a paid theme. I keep reading reviews about eCom Turbo but can’t make up my mind because of the price. I understand it has a ton of features which I can kind of justify for the price but then again in this review www.digitclicks.com/ecom-turbo-the-only-shopify-theme-youll-ever-need/ they are saying it is great. Would love to get your opinion on it and is it something someone needs when first starting out. Thanks again for the tips. I’m on the fence if I should sign up or not.

Every beginner should read this before starting an online store. Before creating anything, a marketer should understand the bigger picture. It is really helpful that you provided examples as well. Definitely coming back to re-read!

I love that "build the site" isn’t until step #4. Yes, you have to plan! Kewords matter! Blogging matters! Anything that will help market to your target buyer persona is key to getting them to your site. What’s more important after they are there? That your site is user-friendly. It is essential that is taken into consideration when choosing what platform to build an ecomm site. If your user gets there but has any trouble ordering its a for sure bounce instead of a sale.

I have been pushing to all our prospective clients the need for a BLOG for their e-commerce site. Usually, they are quite stubborn because they don’t understand how blogging can boost the SEO of a website. Step 5 and 6 of this guide are verrrrry closely connected.

Hi Cindy, cheers for your comment.
The post is more about tactics for building a successful store than particular solutions, but the solutions that I have suggested are more ‘dedicated’ tools than Squarespace. Whilst Squarespace does have e-commerce functionality, it is not yet as comprehensive as the solutions referred to above. Additionally, Squarespace sites don’t display correctly on any version of Internet Explorer lower than 9, which could affect sales for store owners (particularly if their core market work in corporations or government agencies). All that said, Squarespace is a nice tool, with particularly slick templates, so it’s worth considering if aesthetics (rather than functionality) are the primary concern.

Hi, I found your blog today and have read at least half a dozen posts. It’s so helpful! Thank you for sharing such thoughtful info.