How to Start an Online Boutique

You've got an eye for fashion trends, and a dream of starting your own boutique. But now what? Real estate is expensive, branding can be difficult, and, more than anything, you're uncertain where to start.

Volusion has helped over 180,000 entrepreneurs build their own ecommerce websites, so we're experts when it comes to helping people turn their dreams into businesses. If you have no idea where to start, this is your step-by-step guide for creating, designing and managing a gorgeous (and profitable) online boutique. We’ve got experts in both worlds of fashion and ecommerce to walk you through the process of setting up shop and then get the firsthand perspectives of people who have successfully built their own online boutiques.

We'll walk you through the entire process - how to choose your products, find your audience, and open your store, and then we'll hear from some real-world boutique owners and ecommerce experts to learn what it really takes to run a successful online boutique in 2019.

The Essential Checklist for Starting an Online Boutique

Here is a step-by-step guide to opening an online boutique. Preparation is incredibly important - your decisions about what to sell, to whom you will sell it, and how you brnd and market your store will have a bigger impact on your success than anything else.

  • Choose a great domain name Assuming you already have a pretty good idea of what you want to sell, you'll want to find a good domain name for your business. Your domain name is one of your most permanent and visible branding choices, and will have a big impact on the name of your business, your subsequent marketing plan, and more. This makes it important to choose a domain name that is relevant to your product or service, easy to remember, and supports your branding efforts. We've written a guide to choosing and registering the best domain name for your brand-new boutique.

  • Make your marketing plan pop Creating a solid marketing plan for your boutique is critical. No matter what your niche, you'll face competition. Ensuring that you're putting the right content in front of the right audience is the key to getting noticed and building up that all-important brand recognition. Your marketing plan will vary widely depending on your niche, which is why we wrote an awesome guide on setting up marketing plans specifically for fashion brands.

  • Find an ecommerce store platform Unsurprisingly, we’re gonna toot our own horn here - mostly because we've spent a lot of time making sure that our platform is the best ecommerce software for small- and medium-sized businesses. We're not just talk - Volusion merchants have made over $28 billion in ecommerce sales - 4x more sales per store than any other ecommerce provider. Plus, we have a support team based right here in Austin, TX standing by to help you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

  • Get your boutique's branding right For boutiques, branding is everything. Whether you're making your own fashion line or selling curated selections from other manufacturers, your brand identity is critical to all other aspects of your store - marketing, design, product selection, and more. If you need help building a brand plan for your online boutique, check out this quick video on the 5 simple steps to building your brand. After you've got an idea for the branding themes you want to adhere to, it's time to pick a theme for your ecommerce store.

  • Find a supplier for your products: The goods have to come from somewhere! Depending on what you're selling, you can look into wholesalers, flea markets, your personal sewing studio...wherever you think you can best find (or make!) your products. If you're not sure what you want to sell yet, check out our guide to finding products to sell online.
    You can also dabble in dropshipping - dropshipping allows you to ship products directly from the manufacturer to the customer, and is great for art boutiques and custom-printed t-shirts and other online clothing stores.

  • Find a way to ship your products Since boutiques tend to focus on luxury products, they tend to ship fewer (but higher-value) orders. This relative simplicity can make it much easier to manage your boutique's shipping yourself, which can save some serious money. If you're planning on shipping your products out yourself, you’ll want to set up an account with UPS, USPS, FedEx or whichever shipping company you like best. If you're planning on a higher sales volume or are shipping straight from a supplier, you'll need to find a third party to ship your products. If you have a Volusion store, this is super easy - all you have to do is use our free, integrated ShipStation shipping management software plugin, and all of your shipping will be handled for you.

  • Take the time to put in the work While you may not need much cash to start your boutique, what you will need is time. The more time and effort you put into planning, marketing, and building your store, the more successful you'll be. We won't sugarcoat it - starting a business is a lot of work. The good news is that starting is the hardest part - after your first sale, each subsequent one is much easier. Eventually, you may be able to step back from your store entirely and let it mostly run itself, but if you're just getting started it's important to be realistic about the time commitment required. If you don't have the time or knowledge to do something yourself, don't be afraid to outsource it. Volusion's expert design services can help you build a unique, memorable look, and our marketing services team has the SEO, PPC and social knowledge to help you build your online presence, develop a customer base, and get your online boutique started on the right foot.

Starting an Online Boutique: Real-World Advice from Boutique Owners and Full-Time Ecommerce Pros

MJ

Using social media to grow a customer base for your boutique

By Morgan Jones Johnston, Club Duquette


Morgan Jones Johnston is a rock and roll wife, mama, indigo-and-paint-slinging veteran, prop stylist and yoga teacher with an obsession for holistic wellness. Morgan is profoundly grateful that her business gives her an opportunity to connect with people, and believes that we all want connection, to to know we aren't alone in the world and to know that we are loved and that we are love.

Selling your products online opens up a whole new world to your business, and connects you to a global audience. Members of this audience will become your customers, patrons, friends and great champions for your brand. Whether or not you’re already familiar with retail and running a business, there are some unique benefits and challenges to taking it online.

The world of online selling is a proverbial oyster, but you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the shell, the meat and the pearl! That is to say, you’ve got to know who your brand is, who your customer base is and why your product matters to them...and you need to be able to present it in captivating ways on the web.

There are three aspects you must invest your efforts in as you grow your online business:

  1. Cultivating relationships with your customer base
  2. Creating captivating content targeted specifically to your customer base
  3. Maintaining quality business practices & great customer service

Relationships are the most important aspect here. If you don’t invest some time in establishing, growing and maintaining them, you’re missing out on a unique opportunity to create real relationships and super supporters of what you do. You have to find your people.

Find your people.

Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and it can grow your online sales exponentially. A well-known jewelry designer found my work late one night on Instagram by going down the hashtag rabbit hole. She commented on several of my photos, and I wrote her back. We began talking and had some real engagement. In the past three months she has become a true collector of my work, ordering several pieces and commissioning some original work as well. She has sent several of her friends my way, and we recently spoke on the phone. When she first heard my voice she said, "Morgan, I feel like I'm talking to an old friend."

When she first heard my voice she said, 'Morgan, I feel like I'm talking to an old friend.'

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you're aiming for. Be personable. Call people by their name. Always say thank you. Be regular in your engagement. Know your customer. The people who are most successful in sales, business and in life are the people who care about the person on the other end.

Get social

Social media platforms are a great way to reach people, and are a huge asset to building your customer base and directing people to your point of sale. Social media is the way I began to grow my brand recognition and my relationships. Pick two to three platforms that you can genuinely invest in and commit wholeheartedly to their success.

Additionally, don’t stress yourself out about the numbers of follows and likes you get! Think about what vibe you’re going for, what you want your channels to look like and who is going to pick up on them. The amazingly unique benefit to social media is that it gives us an opportunity to engage with visuals. We are a visual culture by nature, and we process an image in a matter of seconds. Someone may stumble across your content and immediately be hooked. Post intentionally, without sacrificing authenticity.

That’s a tall order, right? This may be intuitive for some and more difficult for others, so here are a few key tips to help keep you on track:

1. Think big picture.

Do your social media grids, boards and posts align visually with your brand’s identity? Can you see the relationship between your feed’s vibe and your store?

2. Take high-quality, interesting photos.

Get a good app; I love VSCO and Afterlight for editing. Don’t rapid-fire post, but don’t go days without posting either. Find the right cadence that works best for your audience.

3. Always have a direct URL link to your store.

You need to give people a way that they can reach you and your product! Make sure that you link to the appropriate page on your website whenever you post on social media - your conversion rate will thank you.

4. Be authentic and interesting

Post a variety of things, not just bland promotional posts. Being all business can kill relationships because it makes people feel like there’s not a person on the other end. You’re the real deal, so make sure they know it.

5. Remember that it's relationships that will sustain your boutique.

You need to give customers a reason to develop trust and positive feelings towards your store. Quality business practices create return customers. And hey, if you suck at social media and content creation, take a workshop or try to find someone to join your team on this end. It’s worth it. 90% of my sales are a direct result of my social media efforts.

"90% of my sales are a direct result of my social media efforts."

6. Manage your time effectively.

It can feel a little bit like you’re juggling so many things: growing your online presence while fulfilling and maintaining orders, restocking, creating and launching new product (and more). That’s accurate. You do have a ton on your plate, and you’ve got to maintain balance. This is why you need a solid schedule of your time, along with a healthy dose of discipline! One great way to manage time: get the perfect daybook. I personally use iCal and my trusty old Moleskine day planner. Nowadays I perfectly block out time to create and time to do business, but I used to be terrible at it. I have an artist’s temperament, so I’m prone to doing things with spontaneity, moving when inspired and putting off tasks in favor of slinging paint. But that lifestyle isn’t gonna fly if you have customers to help! At the heart of all of this, you’re running a business. Be a savvy businessperson and do the work and planning.

To sum it up:
  1. Developing relationships is crucial to your success. Create content that people will engage with, and then maintain those relationships over time. This is a surefire way to nab repeat customers who are sure to spread the word about your business.

  2. Social media is one of the best ways to get your name out there. Create a social presence that reflects your brand, features eye-catching photography and engages customers. And, like I said above, be sure to maintain relationships with the people you meet!

You won't get anywhere without a solid time management plan. Create a calendar,
buy a planner, set a million reminders in your phone: whatever it takes to keep you on track. Starting a business is a big time investment, but one that’s totally worth it!



Building a brand identity for your boutique

Brad Otts

By Brad Otts, formerly of TOMS


Brad Otts was part of the founding team at TOMS and served
as their senior sales executive from 2006 - 2015. During this time he helped lead TOMS into what has become the fastest growing shoe brand in world. Currently, Brad serves as the EVP of business development for a mobile app company, Tellzone, and also owns a retail sales and consulting agency: The Forge. He has a wife, Noelle, three kids and three dogs. He also loves cooking, cycling, competing in triathlons, drinking wine and playing music.

Brand Identity

Two words that can either get your blood pumping with excitement
or have you running for the hills in fear.

In our rapidly evolving digital world, if you are a new company, especially one whose real estate relies heavily on your ecommerce platform, you may not have 60-70 years (as brands once did) to cement your voice into the mind of your consumers. You might only have six to seven months.

Forming one’s visual voice needs to have cornerstones. As former Google executive Arielle Jackson said: “You need to have your three Ps in place: Purpose, Position
and Personality.” Look internally at who you are as a company, what messages you want to send and what impressions you are looking to make on the marketplace as a whole. By doing these through practical application, this will guide you into defining your voice. This is an evolutionary process. While many components will become your identity, as with all things, they evolve in small ways, so have patience and grace!

Who are you?

I hear one question constantly: “What are some small practical things a company can do to keep their customer experience branded?” Establishing a core identity at the beginning is going to guide all of your next directions, from design to voice. One of the best ways to guide your brand is through extremely thorough market analysis
(here’s a great Entrepreneur article to get you started), and also by enlisting the skills, knowledge and experience of others. Whatever you do, don't try to do it all alone.

Don't try to do it all alone.

As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” While your business is not a real life human being, in many ways it can feel like the same thing. (I have been part of multiple start-ups and I have three kids; trust me, I know.)

Use visual language to cement your brand

As you develop your online boutique, there are many important elements that help shape your branding. Determining your brand’s relationship to photography will be key in design direction. How much real estate should photos get? How can the composition, subject, background, color, light, etc. illustrate the brand? Additionally, what visual skills do you have? Graphic design, illustration, photography and video can all be leveraged in a unique way to propel your brand in the beginning.

Having specific tools or elements of a branding package will also help advance your online success. Easily accessible resources like Google fonts and colourlovers.com are great resources for getting started on logos. It’s important, though, to not stop there. With your MVP (Minimum Viable Product), you need to have at least two dominant visual markers that are being used consistently throughout user interface communication, such as logos, fonts, photo styles and color palettes.

Make sure that you have at least two dominant visual markers being used consistently.

You should also revisit aspects of your brand once you have more resources. Andy Dunn, CEO of Bonobos, talks about a “good enough” investment in visual language, followed by focusing heavily on customer feedback to then recalibrate (and even re-brand) into a new trajectory. In the early days, it’s key to do small tests in isolated pockets where you can interact with your customers and learn lessons. Once you arrive at a certain level of understanding, you can adjust and pivot.

What's your brand story?

As you grasp these things and continue to expand your foothold into the marketplace, you will become hyper-aware of the fact that that we’re inundated with options online. A picture really can be worth a thousand words - saying less and 'showing' more will go much further than you could ever imagine. When you dial into the primary content of the story you’re telling, this will be evident in your “visual words.”

Say less and show more.

A beautiful and compelling example of this is a brand called Apolis Global. From day one, their revolutionary model of “advocacy through industry” has been their battle cry, and has helped them harness the power of business to create social change. They built their company around one simple idea: people can live better lives when they are given equal access to the global marketplace. This concept has helped guide their design principals both aesthetically in their products and online platform content. Similarly, you should have a guiding ideal to propel your business forward.

Create a community

The ability to access the skills, knowledge and experience of our peers is one of the greatest resources you could ever utilize. “No man is an island” is the saying, and it could not ring true any more here. If you have an active, engaged community, don't underestimate the value they can provide as expert reviewers, brand advocates, beta-testers, and more. At the end of the day, your customers' opinions are the only ones that matter, so listen to what they think and use what you learn to become a better brand.

To sum it up:
  1. Build your brand around three things: Purpose, position, and personality. Assess these three factors of your business and build around them to form your identity in the marketplace. Eventually you’ll have a well-defined voice that resonates with customers.

  2. Establish your brand identify using market analysis and real-world feedback. Take a look at what other folks are doing, and let them help guide your company growth and direction. You can’t build a business in a vacuum, and it’s important to draw inspiration from outside sources. While you should still let your originality shine through, you can learn what's working by seeing what your competitors are doing. Also, get feedback from anyone who is willing to give it to you - friends, family, customers, or design review sites. Being overly familiar with a site can blind you to problems - try to enlist someone who has never seen your site before to walk you through their thoughts and experiences. An outside perspective can help you find design flaws, navigational problems, misleading language, and much, much more.

Being overly familiar with a site can blind you to problems. Enlist a fresh set of eyes.

  1. Don't tell them, show them. Your logo, photos, color scheme and other attributes should be cohesive and say something compelling about your brand. The attractiveness of your website is as important as the attractiveness of your products - nobody wants to buy high-end (or even low-end) products from a website that looks like it was cobbled together in 1998. While remaining consistent in your imagery and overall display is important, don't be afraid to update your visual style to stay on top of fashion trends.

  2. Tell a story. People have a lot of options out there. What makes your brand unique? Find a story that draws people in, and start building your voice around it. Social or environmental advocacy, unique designs, expert opinions or reviews - all of these can be the core of a great brand story.



Creating a unique visual design for your boutique

Alyson Fox

By Alyson Fox, Alyson Fox Designs


Alyson Fox makes things from paper, fabric, metal, ceramics, tape, plaster, office supplies, photographs, old tattered things, new polished things, furniture and packing materials. She has degrees in photography and sculpture. She enjoys designing things for commercial ends and designing things for no end at all.

Her work has been published in the New York Times, Architectural Digest and Wallpaper, to name a few, and has been shown both nationally and internationally. She is currently collaborating with companies on textile work, exploring personal curiosities and just launched her own line of goods under the name FOX_A.

Getting inspired

When it comes to design, I don’t want to just focus on one thing, and I try to have the best creative voice that I can. Sometimes that lends itself into a drawing and sometimes into a video and sometimes into a rug. All these things can make an impact on your brand's design, whether displayed on your site, social media or just in a workspace to keep you inspired.

I often like to get out of my comfort zone, because that’s where I feel real growth happens as a person. I try many things, fail at many things and sometimes find things that will stick. This way of thinking applies not only to design, but also to most risks in life. I’m constantly trying and experimenting with new ideas, which is critical for keeping a business fresh.

With the internet, so much is available at our fingertips, which is great for artists and creatives who want to get their products in front of people. People near and far are able to see my work because of the effort I've put into making my website. If I didn’t have a well designed website, or wasn’t fortunate enough for people to share my work, I would not be where I am today. Whenever I get e-mails from recent grads asking for advice, the number one thing I tell them is to create
a great online presence.

Whenever I get e-mails from recent grads asking for advice, the number one thing I tell them is to create a great online presence.

I have had so many different platforms for my products, and right now I’m in the thick of redesigning my site. Since I do a little bit of this and that, it has been hard for me to build category pages that aren't overly-specific, and finding one design to fit all of the different aspects of my art has been difficult. At the end of the day, it boils down to patience and persistence - just focus on your design one page at a time and make sure everything is perfect. It's OK to change everything a hundred times if that's what it takes, and since fashions and products constantly change you'll need to change with them.

For my new store, I’m going to go for a clean big image on the homepage with simple navigation headings. I also only give a glimpse of my work in each category. I’m personally more intrigued by websites that leave you wanting more, and that is something I am going to strive to do.

I like sites with clean and neutral colors, and of course pages that are very user friendly. I have designed sites in the past where people tell me they did not see this or that because the navigation was a bit too complicated. So I’m 100% in the “less is more” phase: white background, grey text, pared down images. I’m also separating my work a bit more by having three sites that I link to from my main page.

Overall, when it comes to choosing a design for your site,
it’s good to choose the cleanest palate you can, especially for fashion. Incorporate some pops of video or something to keep it from being too flat, but really focus on simplicity.

Keep it simple

It’s also important for sellers to take the best pictures of your product that they can, or to at least spend money getting good images; they can make your site! From there out, only include things that you are proud of showing. You don’t need a lot of fluff on your store. Don’t fill your site just to fill it: organize your goods and then decide what words need to be written about them. Maybe that’s just picking the best headings for site navigation, or maybe it’s a nicely written “about us” page. See what works for other sites, and then figure out what works for you. When it comes down to building your brand, get advice from others, but in the end, you should almost always go with your gut.

To sum it up:
  1. Draw inspiration from everywhere. With design you can get ideas from absolutely anywhere. Surround yourself with art, writing and people that get you thinking abstractly: don’t just stick to the retail space! Staying inspired will keep your brand fresh.

  2. Try different things. Don’t be afraid to try new ways of approaching design, even if they sometimes fall flat. Some ideas will fly, and others will need to be improved upon, but you’ll never create a compelling store if you always
    play it safe.

  3. Create a compelling presence. Craft a beautiful digital space that people will want to enter, whether it be a well-designed storefront or an eye-catching Instagram feed.

  4. Understated is underrated. Stick to a clean, minimal palate for your site design. This draws more attention to the goods you’re selling, and makes pages easier to navigate. Incorporate some video and color to keep things interesting, but the main focus of your site should be the products.

  5. Feature what you're proud of. Don’t fill your site with fluff. Have well-shot items, succinct descriptions, easy navigation and perhaps a nice “about us” page. Don’t overload your design with unnecessary baggage.



Taking the headache out of managing inventory

Rey

By Jessica Rey, Rey Swimwear


Jessica Rey is a businesswoman, fashion designer, actress, wife
and mother of three. Formerly the White Power Ranger on Disney's Power Rangers Wild Force, she is experienced in using her ninja skills to fight the good fight. She also is the founder and CEO of Rey Swimwear. Among her favorite things in life are karaoke, making her kids laugh, traveling and anything to do with salted caramel.

It's all about the product listings

Now we’re getting to the meat of your store: your products themselves! Here are some tips for listing and managing inventory, so you can put your best face forward. Even if you have great products, no one is going to buy them if your photos look terrible. Selling online is all about the photos. Since customers can’t physically touch the items you are selling, they need to be able to see details. Good photography is one of the most important aspects of your site to invest in, so buy or rent a nice camera, or hire a photographer pal to come shoot for you. If professional photography isn't an option, you can still take a great photo using your smartphone if you know what you're doing.

Selling online is all about the photos.

Additionally, item descriptions are also very important. Tell a story about the photo you’re featuring. And if you don’t like writing item descriptions, find someone who does! There are companies out there that specialize in ghostwriting, and you can pass the work off to them. One great place to start your writer search is Fiverr. The last thing you want to do is use a generic or boring product description.

You should also make sure your site has all the info customers need. For an online clothing boutique, you should include a size chart on every item listing. A small in one brand could be a medium in another; cut down on returns by cutting out confusion. For further inquiries, a FAQ section can help cut down on unnecessary customer communication. Any time a customer has a problem, you have a problem. The clearer and more helpful your product info and photos, the fewer complaints and returns you'll have.

Any time a customer has a problem, you have a problem.

Optimize your product photos

Customers want to see what the product is going to look like on them. Figure out what your demographic is and choose models that resemble your potential customer. At the very least you should show the front and back of an item on a model. If your products have details or tiny patterns, include close-up shots as well. Customers also like to see lifestyle shots: they help them imagine what they’d do with your products, like how they’d wear them and incorporate them into their existing wardrobe.

While it’s important to have beautiful images, it’s also important to make sure the images accurately represent the products. When I first started my store, I had beautiful images but the colors didn’t quite match up to the products, which resulted in returns. Customers need to know exactly what they’re buying; otherwise they may feel deceived and lose trust in your store.

Customers need to know exactly what they're buying.

Additionally, you should make it easy for customers to navigate your site. If you sell jewelry, think about the types of collections you can create, such as bracelets, earrings, necklaces, etc. If you sell shoes, create collections for winter boots, summer sandals, etc. Collections make it easier for customers to shop. Nobody wants to scroll through pages of products to track down what they’re looking for on a website.

You want your stock to look cohesive, so that customers feel that all items belong in the same shop. You don’t want one piece that looks like it belongs in Bloomingdales and another in Wal-Mart. Again, think about your customer and target demographic. What would that specific person buy? If he/she wouldn’t buy it, it probably doesn’t belong in your shop.

Organize your inventory

When I was shipping things myself, we had a shelving system with a bin for every single SKU. This is a must: you don’t want to have to go through a stack of products that all look the same in order to find a specific size. Minimize time spent looking for items, so you can focus on more important things. I have now moved my operations to a fulfillment warehouse, which was a huge learning curve for me. Here, we have to make sure everything is labeled and packaged the way the warehouse needs it to be, and I’ll admit that it was very time consuming at first. Once we got things going, our operation began to run like clockwork.

Handling inventory can be tricky, but when you get the hang of it you can develop a smooth-running system of selling. Hopefully these tips will help you get started!

To sum it up:
  1. Create awesome product listings. No one wants to buy items that don’t have informative pages. Go the extra mile to write compelling item descriptions and add detailed info about sizing to each listing. Also create collections of various products, to make it easier for customers to navigate your site.

  2. Go all out with your photography. Use models that visually represent your customer base, so that shoppers can picture themselves wearing the items you’re selling. Additionally, make sure that product photos match exactly what’s going to ship to the customer’s door. This will help you avoid returns (and headaches).

  3. Get a handle on your inventory. Inventory can be a bear to tackle at first, but it’s one of the most important aspects of running an online business. Keep everything organized by SKU, so you don’t waste precious time digging around for items.



How to handle shipping & returns

Kinnison

By Andrea Kinnison, Volusion


Andrea Kinnison is a writer, photographer and nature lover. She's also the Content Strategist for Volusion. When not at work, you'll probably find her camping, bird watching or hanging out with her cat, Jolene.

So you’ve sold your first item. Congratulations! Now it’s time to get the goods from point A to point B. One thing that everyone who has ever run their own online store will agree on is that if they spend any time worrying about shipping, it was too much. You want to make sure that shipping is as automated and easy as possible, or it will be difficult to scale as your boutique grows.

Obviously, the first step in shipping is figuring out who is your best (and most affordable) option. Your four main options are USPS, UPS, FedEx and DHL, though there are a number of other companies out there. Here are a few good questions to ask when vetting shipping services to make sure you're getting the best deal:

What kinds of products am I shipping?

Are you selling shoes that will need to be sent in giant boxes, or clothing items that will easily fit in a small mailer? How do you ship a fragile item safely, or an 800-lb. concrete statue? Some carriers can’t deliver items of a certain shape or size, while others charge higher rates for certain items. Experiment with your packaging and providers - every dollar saved on shipping is another dollar in profits.

Which providers are the most reputable?

According to ConsumerAffairs.com, UPS is the best of the 4 major carriers, with an average review score of 1.9 out of 5. While far from spectacular, it is noticeably better than the competition, USPS, FedEx, and DHL: They all tied for 'worst shipping provider' with a 1.3 out of 5 star score. In all fairness, we would like to point out that very few people leave reviews of shipping services unless they're upset, so these low ratings aren't necessarily a sign that customers have frequent problems - the vast majority of packages are delivered without issue.

How will you get your products to your shipping provider?

This is a commonly-overlooked step of ecommerce that can end up costing you a lot of time each day. Will you need to make a daily schlep to the post office, or will your carrier pick up goods for you? If you have to drop off packages, where’s the nearest place you can do so, and when are they open? Your chosen carrier’s website should have listings of their locations, along with detailed hours. You'll need to balance convenience against cost - while having automatic pickup of packages can be tempting, consider how much it will cut into your profit margin.

Will I be shipping internationally?

You may start small, but international shipping is something you might want to consider eventually. Compare rates and provisions for international orders up front, and check out carriers that are specific to certain countries.

Control your Costs

We’ve gone over how to figure out what shipping will cost you, but it’s equally important to figure out what it will cost the customer. Here are a few options you can provide:

Free shipping. Yeah yeah, it’s hard to bite the financial bullet and offer free shipping on your products. But people love free shipping, and if you’re selling goods that have high retail competition, free shipping may be your trick to getting ahead of the crowd. You can also incentivize customers to buy more by offering free shipping on orders over a certain dollar amount.

Flat-rate shipping is exactly what it sounds like: with flat-rate shipping you can charge a set amount based on the total order weight. For example: $5 for 0-3 pounds, $10 for 3-6 pounds, etc. Consider using flat-rate shipping for promotional purposes, such as “This week only! $3 shipping on all scarves.” You can also use flat rate shipping to utlize USPS' fixed-rate envelopes.

Write a return policy

Returns should be no-hassle for both you and your customers. Write out a crystal clear policy (or have a wordsmith friend do it for you), and have it prominently displayed on a Returns page. Need some help writing your return policy? We have a return policy generator that will do it for you!

While your policy doesn’t have to be super formal, it should achieve the following:

  • Keep things clear clear. Not everyone can speak Legalese, so write your return policy in plain, understandable wording. Sneaking clauses into the fine print will make you seem untrustworthy, so be direct and upfront. Include where to send return packages, instructions on packaging and shipping, refunds, returns, and anything else the customer needs to easily complete a return.

  • Be upfront about charges and fees

Some online businesses offer free return shipping, but not everyone has those kinds of moneybags. If you charge return shipping or restocking fees, state that explicitly in your policy. Any customer surprised by hidden shipping is unlikely to remain a customer for very long.

Any customer surprised by hidden fees is unlikely to remain a customer for very long.

  • Make it very clear what returns you don't accept. Specify your allowed return window, what condition the product needs to be in to qualify for a return, and anything that would speficically prevent an item from being returned (e.g. "We do not accept returns for any product with a broken safety seal.")

  • Let people know what to expect. Will they get their refund in 1 day or 14? Cash or credit? If they're getting a return or exchange, when will they get it? You don't have to list all of this out on your return policy if it varies from situation to situation, but you should provide all of this information after the return process has been initiated.

To sum it up:
  1. Figure out how you'll ship products to your customers. Are you going to do this yourself? Who is the most reputable carrier out there? What about the cheapest? How are you going to get your goods out the door? These are all simple questions, but the answers will take time, planning and research.

  2. Figure out your shipping costs for you and your customers. Decide if you want your shipping to be free, discounted, weight-based or decided on some other factor. Be sure to consider how offering certain deals might compel customers to spend more.

  3. Make sure your return policy is crystal clear, easily readable and lists all requirements and timeframes for returns. Having an easy-to-navigate policy will save you lots of customer service agony in the long run.



Developing a marketing plan

Adam Sam

By Adam Kirsch and Samantha Rupert, Volusion


Adam Kirsch is an e-marketing professional with a specialization in paid search. His dog is named Moose. Samantha Rupert is an impassioned aquaphile, makeup addict and Volusion's Social Media Manager.

Developing a Marketing Plan

Congrats! You’ve added all your products, you’ve set shipping parameters and you’ve created your new social channels. Basically, you’re an entrepreneurial badass. But now it’s time to show the world what sets your store apart with a dynamic marketing plan.

Let’s be real. There’s a ton of fashion brands out there, and the competition has never been fiercer. You have to define what makes you special. Do you have a great customer service team? Are your designs super chic? Do you have a compelling backstory? Maybe you are known for only using ethically-sourced materials. Whatever it is, your unique selling proposition should be at the core of your marketing plan.

You have to define what makes you special.

Once you’ve identified your store’s secret sauce, think about your audience. Who are they, and where can they be found? Great marketing plans are all about how you can convey your message to your target market through various mediums. Search engine optimization, social media, paid search ads, email marketing and blogging are all important marketing techniques for fashion entrepreneurs.

So put your thinking cap on and start doing your research. Pinpoint which marketing avenues your target market prefers and create a plan. Developing a content calendar or a three-month tactical plan can help you determine what and when you should advertise and where you should promote your website.

If you’re selling clothing to a younger, millennial market, social media is the way to go. About 90% of young adults, ages 18-29, use social media. And for tech-savvy Millennials, social media is actually the preferred communication tool for connecting with businesses. Post engaging content and photos on fashion-forward networks like Polyvore, Instagram, Wanelo, Tumblr and Pinterest. Maybe even set up some social media ads! But be sure to get involved and get engaged with potential customers in your target audience.

90% of young adults use social media, and it is their preferred communication tool for connecting with businesses.

If your store caters to an older demographic, try paid ads or a tried-and-true email marketing campaign. Email marketing actually offers the best return on investment and generates more leads when compared to other advertising campaigns. Add your social buttons to your emails to bring your marketing efforts full circle.

When you’re just starting out, earning traffic can be a real pain. But don’t get discouraged if you only see your friends and family browsing your site. Start out small. Concentrate on getting traffic to your site through search engine optimization. Once your store has been established, work on turning those visitors into loyal customers.

Get SEO-Friendly

Search engine optimization is a slow and steady process, akin to gardening. You need to plant the seeds of great content and then help them grow. When creating a new business, you’re probably anxious to start making sales. So you may be thinking,
“Ain't nobody got time for that!” Before you discount it as being too difficult or time-consuming, consider the cost of SEO - nothing. Unlike social media, paid ads, or pretty much any other marketing technique, SEO costs nothing per lead except for the time and effort required to create the content and drive links to it. If you don't have a big budget, SEO can be a good way for you to get traffic to your site without needing to pay for every click. In sum, SEO is an essential marketing tool that can help boost visibility to your online store organically. Plus, fundamental SEO best practices are a requirement for getting your store's pages indexed in Google. If you're on a Volusion store, we've got the technical side of your SEO covered - sitemaps, redirects, and other technical tas

The sooner you implement search engine optimization best practices to your site, the sooner Google can index your store and start directing relevant traffic your way. Obviously the more people who see your store, the more chances you have for visitors to purchase.

Set up your analytics

So where do you start? Before you do anything, get set up on Google Analytics immediately. It’s free and it can give you a wealth of information on the status of your site. It tracks where traffic is coming from and collects data on the visitors coming to your store.

Write great copy

Once you check Google Analytics off your list, start making category pages and products SEO-ready by writing unique, engaging and informative product URLs, titles and descriptions. Include descriptive, relevant keywords that could lead searchers to your products. But be specific! For instance, a little black dress is not JUST a little black dress. Is it a black cotton fit-and-flare dress or is it a black lace bodycon dress? Insert important adjectives into the product titles such as material, color, design and brand name to make sure users have all the information they need. This increases conversions and limits the amount of people returning items to your store. Detailed titles and descriptions also make it easier for search engines to crawl this information on your site and serve your products to relevant prospects.

Ensuring all of your products and category pages are SEO-friendly definitely takes more than a hot minute. It can be a big process, but the earlier you start, the earlier your store will be in great shape. If you’re looking for more of an instant return, paid search campaigns like pay-per-click advertising and product listing ads can satisfy your “get money now” appetite.

Get started with PPC

Pay per click advertising (PPC) is a great way to hit the ground running with your new store. These are ads that appear at the top (and bottom) of a search engine result page. You heard us right – they’re at the top of the page. That’s prime real estate! As such, this makes PPC one of the quickest and easiest ways to get your name out there and get people visiting your site.

Set a budget

The best part of all this is that you only spend what you’re comfortable spending. While it is true that pay per click ads will cost some money, you don’t have to empty your bank account for it. You set your daily budget and the amount you are willing to spend for a visit to your site. You create ads, and tell Google what types of phrases you want to show up for in search. When someone uses the Internet and searches for those terms and keywords, your ad has a chance to be served up to potential shoppers. When someone clicks on that ad, they’re brought to a corresponding category page on your site, where they can browse and start buying! It’s that simple.

You’ll have to create an AdWords campaign and input your billing information to get started. Don’t worry about keeping track of a new username and password – you can set this up under the same email address you used for Analytics. Once you do, you’ll see that there are a few different types of ads you can create within AdWords. Some of the coolest ads are product listing ads, which incorporate information like your product price and pictures right in the ad! We’re sure we don’t have to tell you that being able to show shoppers pictures of that dress you’re trying to sell is a huge advantage, and it leads to buyers that are more engaged and on board with what you’re selling right from the get-go.

Get targeted

You can even make special ads for people that have already visited your site, making your store more memorable, and possibly even getting someone to change their mind and splurge on those shoes they were iffy about.

Paid ads can be great for bringing traffic to your site right away, and the revenue you generate can help you out while you work toward a long-term marketing project like SEO. With the myriad options of ways to promote your products, as well as the flexibility to pay what you want, there’s no reason not to give it a shot!

To sum it up:
  1. Figure out what makes your marketing plan unique. There are probably plenty of companies out there that are similar to your own. Which is why you need to find what makes you special, and then let everyone know about it. Who is your market, and how are you going to show them how awesome you are? For a younger audience, social media marketing is your best bet. Do your customers skew older? Try your hand at email campaigns.

  2. Get organic. Navigating the world of search engine optimization can be confusing at first, but you’re gonna have to do it if you want to get ahead of the Google pack. Start off by downloading and familiarizing yourself with Google Analytics, which will help you see how you rank for your key terms. And be specific as possible with the item descriptions on your site; search engines love attention to detail!

  3. Buy clicks with PPC. Pay per click ads cost money, but they’ll also get you immediately showing up in search results, whereas SEO can take months, years, or eternities to get your page showing above-the-fold for the same keywords. Familiarize yourself with Google AdWords and see if PPC is the right option for your store. This can be a good way of getting eyeballs to your site while you’re still waiting for your SEO to kick into gear.



Providing a boutique customer service experience

Ashley

By Ashley Cottle, Sister House Collective


Ashley Cottle is the founder and curator of Sister House Collective. Her intense passion for social justice inspired her to create a social impact brand that promotes fair trade practices and the local and global handmade market. She strives to create conversations about the importance of equality, opportunity and well being for all people. Find Sister House Collective on Instagram and Facebook!

Customer Service 101

Customer service is one of the most important aspects of running a successful small business, but it's even more important for a boutique. This cannot be stressed enough - if you're advertising a luxury experience, the single best way to show it is through exquisite customer service whenever a cusotmer has a problem. Your customers need to know that at the end of the day, you'll make things right - no matter what. This doesn't mean that you have to hand out refunds to anyone who leaves a 4-star review - instead, it means that you take a personal and attentive approach to customer service problems. Here's how:

Keep it real

A-U-T-H-E-N-T-I-C-I-T-Y. Be authentic. This is your online store, right? You created a place with a very specific look and feel, selling products that you are passionate
about getting out into the world. This is the place where your customers were intrigued enough to click through and add items to their cart, pay for them and wait patiently for their goods to arrive.

It’s safe to say that these customers are already invested in what you’ve created. Not only have they invested with their purchase, but they’re also probably going to share their experience with at least one friend or potential customer. This is the online equivalent of walking into your store, purchasing an item or two and walking out. The experience after the purchase is when others ask that customer, “Where did you find that?” or “That’s incredible! Where can I get one?” You want them leaving with the feeling of being welcomed, the exchange being seamless and all of their questions having been addressed in a polite and timely fashion. Customer service is the key to keeping customers. It is the key to returned business. It is the key to growing your business.

Let things develop naturally by letting customers come to you

Developing customer relationships should feel natural and uncontrived. This is especially important to the customer experience; as inauthentic relationships are usually quite apparent. So what does a natural relationship look like between a customer and the online store they support? Who is looking at your site and why? Where are they following you on social media; is it Facebook? Instagram? Twitter? Consider taking the time to “investigate” these clients and figure out what it is about your brand that interests them. Consider commenting on these individuals’ pages or photos. Respond to a comment they posted on yours. Something that simple can initiate an authentic relationship. Developing these relationships in a genuine manner shows your customer that you not only appreciate their business, but are also truly thankful for what they offer to the prosperity and growth of your store. Your customers are your true support system; make sure that they have a positive, personal testimony as to why they will continue to back your brand.

Maintain your customer relationships

Maintaining customer relationships is something that takes a little planning, but don’t be intimidated. They should already know that the time, interest in your store
and the income that they bring to your business are absolutely valued. This is when you can get creative with how you will go that extra mile to make a larger, lasting impact. It can be the quarterly or monthly newsletter you send or a handwritten thank you. Keep in mind that it does not need to be lengthy or intensely wordy, just a simple, “Thank you for your business!” will suffice.

If handwriting a thank you is not feasible, a quick, personal email saying thank you (signed by you, not the company as a whole) can work just as well. As customers receive this personal outreach from you as the owner or manager, they not only experience the products but also develop a personal interaction with the creators behind them. And if income allows, sending a small gift or special discount code with a package is also a GREAT way to maintain customer relationships. These small gestures will really make an impression and strengthen your customers’ overall association with your company.

Your ecommerce brand is what initiates a service to your customers; your personal outreach involvement is what maintains it. Be authentic, be genuine and make sure each and every one of your shoppers knows their significance in cultivating your pursuit.

To sum it up:
  1. Tread the middle ground. Some stores err on the side of being too aloof, while others practically throw themselves at shoppers (and the money in their pockets). Find a happy medium between icy and overbearing, and your customers will keep coming back.

  2. When it comes to customer service, authenticity is key. You can tell when a company is being phony, and the same goes for your customers. Just be friendly, efficient and genuine, and you’re sure to see positive results (and returning shoppers). Keep in mind that each customer problem is an opportunity to display amazing customer service and win a lifelong customer.

  3. Connect with your customers. Surprise surprise: social media gets mentioned again in this book! That’s because it’s so important to develop a good rapport with your customers. Comment on their photos, like their posts and just show an overall interest in their lives (without being creepy, of course).

  4. Maintain your relationships. Your customers already like you; now don’t let them forget it. Write a handwritten thank-you note, or shoot off an email signed by you personally. Maybe even throw in a discount code or small gift. Just find a way to make your fans’ barometer dip into the “love” category.



How NOT to start an online boutique

Amanda

By Amanda Assad Mounser, Mounser


Amanda Assad Mounser is the founder and creative director behind the sculptural jewelry line MOUNSER, and co-founder of the new ready-to-wear series LOVEHARD. Amanda’s resume also includes positions at the powerhouse fashion showroom Aeffe as well as with the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund nominee and shoe designer Alejandro Ingelmo.

Hopefully you’ve gleaned a good amount from our gigantic article thus far. There’s a lot to be learned when you’re starting your own business, especially in the world of online fashion. I’m here to fill in a few gaps that we still want to cover so that you can go out and sell strong. We've talked a lot about what you should do when opening your online boutique, so this article focuses on some of the most common mistakes people make when trying to start a boutique.

Avoid procrastinating

If I’ve learned one lesson in business, it’s that procrastination can be your worst enemy. Entrepreneurship is filled with exciting challenges and lots of opportunity for learning how to problem solve on your feet. You never know what each day will bring, so give yourself a leg up by tackling things as they come, rather than putting them off.

Sometimes tasks can stack up and seem overwhelming, which can then breed procrastination. If you take each item on your task list and work through them step by step, you’ll operate more calmly and efficiently than if you give into that stress filled feeling of overload.

Planning ahead, and taking steps with calm fluidity will allow you to stay on track and actually accomplish the goals you set for yourself. This will then infuse a general vibe of calm confidence in everything you do, and when there are hiccups, you’ll be able to quickly exercise decisiveness and move on to the next challenge with efficiency.

Don't give your brand multiple personalities

Alyson and Brad already touched on this, but your website should be aligned with the soul of your brand. The first step in in having a successful website is defining what your brand identity is, and figuring out how to communicate that through the language you use and the visual imagery you provide. A few things to consider:

  • Define the spirit of your brand: How do you describe its aesthetic? What are the brand’s inspirations?

  • What do you give the consumer that no other brand does? When they purchase your brand, what kind of lifestyle are they buying into?

  • What is your mission? Why does your brand exist?

  • What does your brand stand for? What does it believe in?

  • Create a mood board that visually inspires and defines your brand.

Determining the answers above and using them as tools to springboard your framework will create a clear picture of your personal brand identity. This will also provide the vein through which your whole website will run so that you always stay on message.

It’s important to focus on what the consumer is seeing visually, as this will communicate the soul of the brand and evoke emotion within the consumer that will tie them to you. “Editorial images” should visually describe the lifestyle and feeling of the brand in an aspirational way. The consumer should be able to see these images and feel as if they have stepped into your world, and then subsequently feel they want to be part of that world. In addition to aspirational imagery, if you are selling a product, it should also be shot in its cleanest and purest form, on a white background where the product can shine on its own.

Don't try to please everyone

My store’s clockwork is bound closely to social media, specifically Instagram. Social media is the link to many of my online sales; it’s where editors discover my brand for features, and is a direct way of communicating my brand message to the consumer one-on-one.

One thing that has made me so successful was that I don't try to appeal to anyone and everyone that sees my material - I know my audience, and am speaking directly to them. If you try to appeal to everyone, you'll probably spend a ton of time, effort, and money trying to sell things to people that don't want them. Spend the time to find your customer base - what they like, what they don't like, how they think, how they talk, how they feel. Once you've got a good sense of your customer, create an ad that displays the problem and how your product will fix it.

Focus on the moment

Good marketing imagery centers around focusing on the moment that your product enters into and improves your customers' lives. For instance, if you were selling coffee pods, you'd want to identify & target those 'moments' thoughout the day that people drink coffee. People drink coffee for different reasons - for some, it's a comforting morning ritual, for some a necessary energy-boost.

A good ad might feature a mom struggling to get her difficult children dressed and off to school - but her morning cup of coffee, available at the push of a button, is a little oasis of calm in her otherwise hectic morning. A different ad targeted at a different customer may focus on the energy-giving aspects of coffee - a tired nurse drinks a cup of coffee to get the energy to finish her overnight emergency-room shift, for example.

Both of these approaches focus more on how people interact with your product rather than the product itself, and are much more effective as a result. No matter what you're selling, focus on how people will use it - it's not just a scarf, it's the perfect scarf for leaf-watching this fall.

Focus on how people interact with your product, not the product itself.

Tell the same story on social media as you do on your website

I focus on creating the same level of strong imagery for social media that can also be found on my website. For me, it’s a continuation of the story that includes art, architecture and fashion inspiration, my own creative work, artistically-shot products and some personal imagery that provide an intimate snapshot for consumers to connect to visually.

Social media is great because it’s free, and for a new brand starting out it should be a no-brainer marketing effort. I am closely connected to a lot of fashion industry insiders and all of them use Instagram like a search engine to discover new brands and companies. Many seek Instagram first before even going to a brand’s website because the picture is more comprehensive.

Social media allows you to create a glimpse into the world of your brand, and your website should be connected to that narrative in a very strategic way. While social media is a great place to try some design ideas that wouldn't fit on your website, make sure that people aren't offput by the visual differences between your social pages and website - try to keep those same 'design anchors' we discussed above in place across all platforms.

Don't expect instant success

Online entrepreneurship is all about trial and error. Some things work, some don’t. It takes time to get into your groove and connect all of the dots, and that’s okay - no matter how long you've been in ecommerce, you'll always make mistakes. You can implement the same step-by-step attitude and know that one thing always leads to another.

Of everything written in this article, this might be the single most important thing. While it's tempting to spend pages detailing mistakes, what I learned from them, and how it made me a better ecommerce professional, none of that will do you, the reader, any good. Instead, I'd just like to emphasize one thing as strongly as possible:

You will make mistakes. That's OK.

The people who succeed in ecommerce aren't the ones that never made any mistakes, but the ones that learned the most from their mistakes. Keep at it. Be analytical about your failures - what went wrong? What can we learn from it? How do we do it better next time?

Do plan ahead

I also make sure that my resources are lined up to do larger scale manufacturing for all products that I offer. This way I am covered when certain items start selling like hot cakes, and I can capitalize on those sales.

Likewise, understanding seasonality is critical to make sure you're in position to capture sales when they occur. If you rely heavily on Black Friday, for example, you'll need to begin preparing for it months in advance - making sure your inventory is sufficient, ensuring that your promos are still profitable, creating ad imagery, and more. Be proactive - whoever acts first typically gains a tactical advantage that is difficult to overcome.

Make the purchase path seamless

One thing I am always mindful of is to make sure that the product available on my website mirrors what I am marketing through social media or what is being featured editorially. I want the purchase process to be seamless for the consumer so I make sure the availability matches what is being promoted so marketing efforts don’t go to waste.

The sale is in the details

When it comes to branding and visuals, I’m a stickler for details, and I also make sure that same attention radiates throughout the entire consumer experience. This attitude should be all encompassing when it comes to your online business:

  1. Product quality. Your product should be carefully checked before it leaves your studio or warehouse. Your product is your brand, and quality control is everything. If you do make the mistake of sending something that isn’t 100% up to standards, make sure you are quick to rectify the situation and that your communication with the consumer is open and expeditious.

  2. Packaging. It’s part of the consumer experience, and should feel just as special and as beautiful as the actual product itself. Packaging should build excitement and feel like an extension of the lifestyle of the brand. Be mindful of its importance.

  3. Communicate effectively and in a timely manner. Once an order is placed, quickly acknowledge placement. Choose reliable shipping options with tracking – it’s important that the consumer feels that they can keep and eye on the product as it makes the journey to them. Be quick to respond if there
    are complications.

Fall in love with the customer, and they'll fall in love with you

Make the consumer experience an amazing one. Your customers are your best advertisers, and if their experience is strong and they connect with you, they will spread the word to their friends and automatically build your customer base.

Keep things fresh and always try new things

One of the hardest things to embrace sometimes is the idea of change, but change is your closest ally. Change is what propels you forward. Get comfortable with change, experimentation and trying new tactics and you will go far. There aren’t any rules, so you can really be flexible and have fun as long as at the core of it all you’re staying true to your identity.

If something isn’t working, scrap it and move on! The beauty of owning your ecommerce is that there are no rules, you can experiment and play and see what works for you. Spending too much time trying to 'force' something to work just won't cut it - if your 'great idea' isn't working out in practice, ditch it and try a new approach.

To sum it up:
  1. Procastination is your worst enemy. Plan ahead, and get organized with your time. Running a business is a lot less stressful when you aren’t constantly putting out last-minute fires.

  2. Don't try to build a brand out of nothing. Figure out the heart of what you’re doing, and then build your business around it. Your design, marketing, website and more should all be developed around your brand identity. Additionally, really try to communicate the soul of what you’re doing through the visuals on your site.

  3. For boutiques, social media is critical. Not only should you be connecting to customers via social media, but you should also be using it to give them a look into the world you’re creating around your brand. Additionally, make sure there’s no discord between your branding on social media and the branding on your website.

  4. It's the little things. Focus on details such as product quality, packaging, efficient shipping and overall customer experience. Even the smallest thing can turn an impulse buyer into a returning customer.

Get started on your own online boutique today


Well there you have it: the ultimate guidebook to crafting your own online boutique. Building your own business can be tough, but with the right amount of time, determination and hustle, you can make it happen. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start selling!

Have any questions for the authors? Hit us up at marketing@volusion.com