How to make an online store - a guide to getting started with e-commerce
In this article, I discuss how you can make an online store - and more importantly, how you can drive traffic to it and generate sales.
You're probably reading this post because you're looking for some e-commerce software to help you get an online store up and running.
Finding this software is the relatively easy bit (we have some suggestions below); but getting your store to make money is the tricky part. So in this post, we look at all the things you need to do not just to get an online store live, but attract traffic – and thus sales – too.
But first: let's take a look at how you go about choosing what to sell.
1. Pick the right product to sell
This sounds so obvious that it’s barely worth saying, but picking the ‘right’ product 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 tat – I’m talking about the ‘uniqueness’ of your product.
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: just think of the Amazons and the Ebays of this world to get a flavour of the level of competition.
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.
To run a successful online store, what you ideally need to do is ‘find your niche’ – identify (or make!) a product that is not being sold by every online retailer going, 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 hard to find online, but for which you know there is strong demand.
2. Use keyword research to help you find your niche
To help you find the niche discussed above, you are going to need to do some research. The simplest way of identifying a niche is to 1) use a keyword research tool (like Moz Keyword Explorer, Ahrefs or SERPs to find niche markets and 2) perform online searches to see how many retailers are operating in those markets.
Keyword research tools allow you to find out how many searches per month are performed for various keywords. For example, it might tell you that there are 246,000 searches per month for the search term ‘buy guitar’ and only 1,600 for ‘buy ukulele’.
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.
It's also a good idea to perform some of searches in Google to see how many stores specialising in selling ukuleles online are already out there. 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 flogging ukuleles…well, maybe it’s time to think about going into the ukulele-selling business.
This is quite a 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)…you get the idea.
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!).
3. Source your stock
There are two main options available to you when it comes to sourcing stock: purchasing it from a supplier and reselling it, or dropshipping.
The advantage of the first option - buying it from a supplier you know - 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. (In fact, if you're making your own products, you are in effect the supplier!). The disadvantage is that you will need some cash handy to invest in purchasing stock which you may never end up selling (or, if you're manufacturing it yourself, you'll need to invest to produce it).
The second option is to dropship. Dropshipping is a fulfillment 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). The main advantage of this method of sourcing stock is that no upfront investment is required; the downside is that dropshipping is quite a competitive area and you will end up selling products that are also marketed by many competing merchants.
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 Alibaba for Bigcommerce.
If you're interested in dropshipping, you may find Shopify's free webinar on the topic useful.
4. Create your online store
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 could hire an agency or freelancer to design your store for you, but if you go down that route, make sure that they implement a solution that lets you manage your store without them after it’s live – i.e., they need 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 to do it every time.
(That said, if you are short on time, or bad with computers, it may make sense to hire a professional to do this work on your behalf.)
Another option is to use an online store builder and just create your online store yourself – you may find this more cost-effective, but you will have to tread carefully.
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 websites – they are definitely the most user-friendly of the bunch. Squarespace is also quite easy to use, but it lacks some of the more advanced e-commerce features that come with Shopify and Bigcommerce.
The good news is that all these solutions offer free trials and support to help you get going – just follow the links below:
- Try Shopify for free
- Try Bigcommerce for free
- Try Squarespace for free
- Try Volusion for free
- Try Squarespace for free
If you already have a website (for example, a Wordpress site) and want to add an online store to it, tools such as Ecwid will come in handy – it allows you to plug a ‘widget’ into your site (or anywhere else you can insert some HTML code – for example, a Facebook page or blog) and users will see a fully-functional online store at that location.
5. Optimise your site for search
Once you’ve found your niche market and designed your online store to cater for it, it is now crucial to optimise it correctly for search.
You can use keyword research tools again 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 – page titles, product descriptions, headings, meta data and URLs.
A hugely important part of attracting traffic to an online store is to blog regularly about topics related to what you are selling.
For example, on your ukulele site, you could blog about playing techniques, or your favourite type of ukulele strings, or that bit in Some Like It Hot where Marilyn Monroe plays a ukulele on a train.
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 ukulele buyers will have greater confidence in ukulele vendors who clearly have a passion for, and understanding of, all things ukulele).
Returning to particular store builders for a moment, it's worth pointing out a key reason why I'm keen on Shopify and Bigcommerce solutions for building e-commerce sites: both products come with blogging functionality built in (which, for the reasons outlined above, is very important for building an audience for your store). You can add blogs to a Volusion site too but it involves setting up subdomains and is a bit of a fiddly process.
7. Advertise online
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.
Using Google Adwords involves identifying (and paying for) relevant search phrases that will display adverts for your store/products alongside ‘organic’ Google search results.
In my experience, Adwords campaigns generally work well when you are selling relatively expensive products. For example, you might be able to live with an Adwords ‘cost per acquisition’ of £50 (i.e., where you spend £50 on ads to generate one sale) to sell one product if that product – let’s say a TV – retails at £1000, but if you are 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 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.
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.
Any thoughts on how to set up an online store?
If you've set up your own online store, or have any queries about doing so, we'd love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Note that if you're viewing this article on a mobile phone, you may be seeing the AMP version (which loads faster but doesn't display comments). You can click here to view the regular version, which does allow you to post comments.