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In this post, I’m going to 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 what ecommerce platform to use. It also spells out the 5 key steps you need to take to get a successful online store fully off the ground.
Let’s kick things off by discussing something very important: the products you’d like to sell.
1. Pick the right type of products to sell
This may sound obvious, but picking the ‘right’ type of products to sell is absolutely essential to the success of your store.
However, I’m not talking about ‘quality’ here – you should clearly avoid selling poor-quality goods.
Instead, 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 a vast range of products — eBay, Amazon, Etsy etc.
And generally, you are going to have a hard time selling products if you are simply offering stuff that is already widely available on those kinds of sites.
So, to create a successful ecommerce store, you need to find a niche – i.e, identify a product range that is not being sold by every online retailer out there, but for which there is enough demand to sustain an ecommerce business.
For example, instead of selling a guitar that is widely available on Amazon, you might consider selling an instrument that is harder to find online — but for which you know there is strong demand.
Now, finding a niche typically involves performing keyword research.
Let’s take a look at how to do that.
Using keyword research to help you find your niche
One of the best ways to identify a niche is to use a keyword research tool (like Semrush or Ahrefs).
Keyword research tools allow you to find out how many searches per month are performed for particular phrases (or products) and how hard it will be to rank highly for them.
So in effect, they let you identify digital niche markets — and check out the competition that’s operating in them.
Let’s say you’re thinking of creating an online store to sell musical instruments, and you’re wondering what type of instrument to focus on.
By using a keyword research tool, you might learn that there are 8,500 searches per month for the search term ‘buy guitar’ and 1,300 for ‘buy banjo.’
This could make you think “hey, there’s a much bigger market for guitars, so I’m going to sell guitars,” but stop right there — think of the additional number of guitar sellers you will be competing with!
The data from the keyword tool indicates that banjos are definitely much more of a ‘niche’ product — but one with a decent number of people interested in buying them every month.
The question is whether there are already a lot of retailers dominating the search results for this product — competitors might have beaten you to this niche.
To find out, you need to look at ‘keyword difficulty.’ This is a score given — in one format or another — by keyword research tools.
The lower the keyword difficulty score, the easier it will be to appear in searches for that product name — and thus generate sales.
As the screengrab above shows, it should actually be pretty easy to rank for the ‘buy banjo’ phrase.
So, the trick is to find products for which there is:
- a reasonably strong level of demand and
- relatively few online stores selling them.
Once you’ve found your niche, and decided upon the products you’re going to sell, it’s time to think about where to get your inventory from. So let’s move on to that.
2. Source your stock
There are two main options available when it comes to sourcing stock for your online store:
- purchasing it from a supplier, storing and reselling it, or
The advantage of the first option is that you can
- view the quality of stock first-hand
- ensure it is produced ethically
- build up a good relationship with your supplier.
(Of course, if you’re making your own products, you are the supplier!).
The disadvantage of this option is that you will need to invest cash in purchasing or manufacturing goods which — if your business is not a success — you may never end up selling.
You may also face costs associated with storing your products somewhere, and you will be responsible for all shipping costs.
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 becomes, in effect, a ‘middle man.’
With dropshipping, you might never meet or have direct dealings with your supplier, and you might never see the majority of goods you’re selling online.
Now, the big advantage of this method of selling products is that no upfront investment is required.
But the downside is that dropshipping is a very competitive activity, and you may end up selling products that are already being marketed aggressively by many existing online retailers.
Additionally, there may be some ethical concerns to consider — not all dropshipping suppliers have the best track record when it comes to how and where their goods are produced.
In terms of how to get started with dropshipping, most of the major ecommerce platforms — which I cover in more depth below — offer add-ons or integrations that allow you to dropship goods produced from a wide range of suppliers. Popular apps include DSers, Spocket and Syncee.
It’s fair to say that Shopify offers the most options when it comes to dropshipping, however — its app store contains a very large number of dropshipping apps by comparison to its competitors (510 at time of writing).
The platform also offers a useful set of free dropshipping resources in its dropshipping starter kit.
The print on demand option
Print on demand (POD) can be a great way to get started with dropshipping. A POD service lets let you create products based on your own designs — clothing, wall art, prints etc. — and, when an order for one of these products is received via your online store, it is manufactured (printed) and shipped to your customer.
Now, let’s take a look at the online store builders that you can use to create your ecommerce site.
3. Choose the right online store builder for your project
Once you’ve identified your niche product and market, and you 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 ecommerce platform to build your store yourself
If you go down the agency route, make sure that your developers to give you access to a content management system (CMS) that lets you edit your site easily and manage your store’s inventory yourself.
Having access to a CMS means that you won’t have to pay a developer on an ongoing basis to update its content or add or remove products.
(You may still need to pay them to maintain your store in other ways, however — for example to update plugins and themes, field general support queries etc.).
The other option is to use an online store builder and just create your own store.
These store builders work by letting you select a theme for your store as a starting point, which you then customize so that it meets your branding requirements.
After that, it’s usually a simple case of adding some products, choosing a payment processor — Stripe, WorldPay, PayPal etc. — and launching your store.
Of the store builders that I have tested to date, I have found Shopify and BigCommerce to be the most obvious options for users without a lot of experience of building online stores or websites – they strike the best balance between features and user-friendliness, and they’re also good for selling in multiple currencies.
Wix isn’t quite as fully-featured as these two, but is a good all-rounder and does have the advantage of being one of the cheaper ecommerce solutions available.
In my view, Squarespace is probably the easiest to use out of the bunch, but lacks multi-currency and some other ‘power user’ selling features.
You can watch our video review of Shopify below for a more in-depth overview of the pros and cons of the platform, or grab a free trial of it here.
Which online store builder is right for me?
Here are some of our thoughts on some of the best-known online store building tools currently on the market.
Thanks to an app store featuring a huge number of add-ons and integrations with other software, along with a really wide choice of payment gateways, Shopify offers more flexibility than other ecommerce solutions (although you will sometimes have to pay extra for this). It’s also probably the best option for anyone who needs point-of-sale features (tools that let you sell not just online, but in physical locations too).
BigCommerce is a good all rounder, offering a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ — its entry-level plan offers a lot of key ecommerce features out of the box that you don’t always get included in competing products (for example, professional reporting and advanced shipping options). Its SEO features are strong too. Read our full BigCommerce review here.
If you already have a website (for example, a WordPress site) and want to add an ecommerce store to it, a ‘plugin’ store builder like Ecwid can be a good solution.
Ecwid lets you create an online store by adding a snippet of code — a ‘widget’ — to an existing site. Once added, users will see a fully-functional online store appear on that website.
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 ecommerce features are getting increasingly good — the only major issue I have with Squarespace on the ecommerce front is that it doesn’t give you much choice in the payment gateway department, or let you sell in multiple currencies (a big drawback for anyone wishing to sell products in other countries).
But if your needs are simple, and you only need to sell in one currency, Squarespace is a great option. Read our Squarespace review here.
Wix is more of a ‘general’ website builder than BigCommerce or Shopify, but it does nonetheless provide some pretty comprehensive ecommerce features — and at a lower price point than the above products. It also comes with some pretty powerful marketing tools out of the box.
So 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. Read our full Wix review here.
WooCommerce is in an industry standard, feature-packed solution for selling products, and — thanks to its open-source nature — it’s an enormously flexible tool.
It differs from most of the other ecommerce platforms mentioned in this article however in that it’s a plugin rather than a standalone solution — and it works exclusively with WordPress.
You can learn more about WooCommerce in our WooCommerce vs Shopify comparison.
GoDaddy’s Website Builder is, like Wix a more general-purpose website building tool, and one that lacks multi-currency and multilingual selling tools. But its ‘Commerce’ plan is reasonably priced and gives you a decent range of other ecommerce features.
Like GoDaddy, Square is one of the more basic ecommerce platforms currently available. However, it does have an ace up its sleeve: its point-of-sale features, which let you sell easily in physical locations. These are particularly good and work especially well for those working in the food and drink industry. You can learn more about Square in our Shopify vs Square comparison.
Amazon, Etsy and eBay
Amazon, Etsy and eBay aren’t technically ‘store builders’ like the products listed above — they are big online marketplaces that you can list your products on (and in the case of eBay, auction them). But thanks to their large customer bases, they can work well as ecommerce tools too.
4. Optimize your online store for search engines
Search engine optimization (or ‘SEO’) is absolutely vital to the success of any ecommerce project.
So, once you’ve found your niche market and designed your online store to cater for it, you need to make it visible on search engines.
You can use keyword research tools again here to find out precisely 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:
- page titles
- product descriptions
- meta descriptions
Additionally, try to ensure that your online store is fully accessible to those with a visual impairment. Not only will this help users with disabilities access your content more easily, it can bring SEO benefits too.
The online store builders mentioned above give you a lot of control over SEO (with BigCommerce and Shopify probably coming in tops in this regard). If you opt for one of those products, make use of this functionality!
While you’re here, download our free ecommerce e-kit
For a limited time, we’re offering our readers some excellent free tools. Sign up free to immediately receive:
- our online store comparison chart
- a downloadable cheatsheet on how to create an online store
- our SEO, blogging and ‘how to start a business’ cheatsheets
- extended free trials and discount codes for essential business apps
- our latest tips on ecommerce and growing a business
5. Market your store
Once you’ve built your store and covered the SEO basics for it, it’s time to market it! Let’s take a look at some of the key ways you can do that.
A key way to attract traffic to an ecommerce website is to blog regularly about topics related to what you are selling.
This type of activity is basically known as ‘inbound marketing’ or ‘content 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:
- maximising the chances of your site appearing in relevant search results
- 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 all things relating to their area of business.
In addition to employing SEO and content marketing tactics to promote your online store, you’ll usually need to create some paid ad campaigns for it too. The starting point for most people with this involves Google Ads and Facebook 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 Google 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.
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, you could use Facebook to advertise Beatles T-shirts to people who like the Beatles; VW key rings to people who drive Volkswagens and so on.
Facebook ads are very powerful and let you target audiences to the nth degree, but use them incorrectly and you could find ad account disabled (with serious implications for your online business).
Accordingly, it’s worth getting a full understanding of how Facebook ads work — and how to avoid contravening the company’s advertising policies — before you start spending money on them. Facebook’s own guide to advertising on their platform is a good starting point.
Email marketing is another great way to promote an online store — and one that can offer a particularly good ROI (return on investment).
To get going with email marketing, you’ll often need to buy a suitable marketing app (like GetResponse or Mailchimp); but that said, some online store builders (for example Shopify and Wix) include email marketing features as part of your plan.
Or…just 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 a proliferation of online marketplaces that allow you to browse vetted online businesses for sale.
Our guide to buying a Shopify store provides an overview of the processes typically involved with purchasing an online store.
How to make an online store — FAQs
How can I start my own online store?
To start an online store, you’ll need an ecommerce app. Popular options include Shopify, BigCommerce, Big Cartel and Squarespace. Another option is to sell on an online marketplace like Amazon or Etsy, or to use WordPress in conjunction with the WooCommerce plugin.
How much does it cost to start an online store?
This depends on whether you are happy to build your online store using a ‘do-it-yourself’ platform like Shopify, or whether you want to involve a web developer. With the first option, you’re typically looking at a monthly fee of between $29 and $299 per month, depending on your requirements (the simpler the cheaper). As for the second, this will depend on how experienced your developer is — but it would be wise to budget several thousand dollars.
Can I start an online store for free?
To start an online store for free, you’ll need an ecommerce solution that offers an entirely free plan. Most of the most popular ecommerce apps (like BigCommerce, Shopify and Squarespace) don’t, but Ecwid and Big Cartel offer plans that allow you to sell a limited number of products without paying for a monthly plan.
How do I set up an online store with no money?
If you have absolutely no budget whatsoever, you can set up an online store using an online store builder that offers a free plan. Two good options here are Big Cartel and Ecwid, but you should note that the free plans offered by both services really only cater for very simple selling. Another option is to sell using a service like PayPal, which doesn’t charge you to sell but will take a fairly hefty cut of each sale.
What’s the best online store builder?
This will depend to a large degree on your requirements as an online merchant, but of the solutions we’ve reviewed, we’ve found BigCommerce and Shopify to be the most fully-featured, and Squarespace the easiest to use.