How to Start an Online Store

Let Volusion's ecommerce experts show you how to launch
a successful online business with this how-to guide.
Pick products, set up your store and watch the sales roll in!

Selling Online

Whether it takes the form of a bustling startup, a quaint coffee shop, a hip boutique, or an industrial powerhouse, many people dream of running their own business someday. The appeal is hard to deny: you’ll be able to set your own hours, have creative freedom over your company, and profit from the niche that makes you most passionate. And all of this without answering to a boss!

With the emergence of ecommerce as a powerful force in the retail landscape, the dream of running your own business has never been more attainable.

Selling Online

This guide will teach you all the basics you’ll need to know before embarking on the journey of managing your own successful online business. By the time you’re finished, we hope you feel motivated and empowered to turn that “someday” dream into today!

Finding Your Niche

If you already have products that you are actively selling, go ahead and skip this section and dive into choosing your ecommerce platform. If you still aren’t quite sure what you want to sell - we can help you make a smart choice. Read on!

One of the most common things we encounter in prospective online business owners is the drive to run an online business combined with an inability to choose a focus or decide what to sell. If this is you, don’t worry; many people start out in the same boat. Check out our Picking Products to Sell Online guide for some in-depth advice on finding the products that will spark your entrepreneurial passion while appealing to a unique target audience. The key to finding your niche is to aim for that seemingly elusive combination of demand and market fit while staying true to the personal stamp you can put on whatever you decide to sell.

To that end, we love recommending Google Trends as the first jumping-off point for any online store owner. Start plugging some of your prospective products or categories into Google Trends for a high-level overview of each product’s popularity with today’s search audience and its expected future outlook. Although Google Trends does not address competition, it can give you a high-level understanding of your idea’s viability.

Want more? Check out these resources:

Finding Your Niche
Choosing a Platform

Choosing a Platform

Once you’ve decided what you’d like to sell, it’s time to choose where you’ll sell. While there are benefits to selling via marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon or Ebay, it’s best to think of these as marketing channels rather than your sole means of retail. These marketplaces can introduce your brand to consumers, but for long-term success, we recommend selling on an ecommerce platform that will allow you to control your own brand. The barrier to entry may be lower on eBay or Etsy, but if you’re serious about starting an online store, you will want to aim for the full functionality of an ecommerce platform that you can use as a blank slate for your voice and marketing.

There are a lot of ecommerce platforms out there that make it easy to get started selling online, so we recommend looking for a platform that boasts:

  • High percentage of uptime
  • Professionals who can help you get started and grow
  • SEO-friendly features
  • Unlimited support
  • Powerful integrations
  • Easy and secure payment processing
  • Beautiful themes and custom design options

Not all ecommerce software companies offer all these things, so we recommend ensuring that your platform has exactly what you need to start your online store and keep it functioning over time.

At Volusion, we’ve been doing this since 1999, and we’ve earned a strong understanding of what ecommerce merchants need in order to be successful. We put our customers first every step of the way, and that’s why we make sure it’s easy to start a store and we offer the support merchants need as they’re growing an ecommerce business.

If you are interested in trying the Volusion platform, we offer a free 14 day trial and have in-house marketing and design teams to help you grow your business. It’s an all-in-one platform, from hosting to checkout, so we have everything you need to be successful in one place.

If you need more guidance when building your online store, we also offer Account Managers. They know the software inside and out and can ensure you’re making the right decisions while building your store, and can offer ideas on how to improve your website and generate more revenue.

Luxe device

Market Research

If you’re one of the lucky ecommerce unicorns with a laser-focused idea of exactly what you want to sell, you’re not done yet. This is a key point that can often make the difference between a successful mogul and a struggling hobbyist: even if your products are driven by your unique expertise and passion, you will not always be selling the products that you love. Instead, you’ll be relying on a deep understanding of what your audience loves, and that begins with market research.

If you have already dabbled in online selling prior to opening up an independent ecommerce shop – say, if you were selling on eBay, Etsy, Amazon, or a Facebook store – then note which products resonated most strongly and with whom.

If you don’t have this baseline data, then be prepared at the outset to test many different products and items – even if you don’t think they’ll work. You may end up with some sunken costs, but this style of DIY market-testing is often less expensive than paying someone for the market research – and you’ll develop an invaluable depth of understanding that will help you succeed.

Selling Online
Selling Online

Look at Competitors

Research your competition and see if you can determine who their target audience is and how they speak to them. This, in tandem with the introduction of your first customers, will help you develop “buyer personas” for your own target.

A buyer persona consists of a detailed picture of your most quintessential customer. Think of this buyer as an individual (that said, you can create multiple personas for different target audiences) and make that individual the most vivid character you can. You’ll want to consider demographic information like age, gender, and income, as well as psychographic details like needs, aspirations, and family life. The more you get to “know” this persona, the more you can address your target audience as you would a friend.

Additional Resources:

Now that you have an idea of what you will sell and who you will target, it’s time to budget for opening an online store!

Selling Online

Budgeting

Gone are the days of struggling to afford the rent and upkeep of a brick-and-mortar storefront; the barrier to entry for an ecommerce shop is much lower at the outset.

However, unexpected costs can and do arise, so budget carefully and do your best to consider all possible costs.

Just a few of these costs include:

  • The raw cost of the products
  • Shipping
  • Website hosting and security
  • Marketing
  • Paid advertising
  • Customized website design and development
  • Logo design, product photography, and other graphic artwork
  • Most people also include the cost of their own time as a business expense, especially if they’re forgoing a salary

If you’re hoping to cut costs, look into doing as least some of the design and marketing work yourself.

DIY and Save Money

Check out the resources throughout this guide for tips and tricks on DIY SEO, professional product photography, and more. Just remember that your website will not market itself or become an overnight success without some serious legwork, so whether you learn the basics yourself or choose to hire an expert, remember that your business plan cannot forgo great presentation and marketing!

The more of these tasks you take on yourself, from data entry to copywriting and marketing, the more you may consider making your ecommerce business your full-time job. We don’t blame you; ecommerce businesses do demand plenty of time! However, making your online store your only financial resource before you’re ready to do so can lead to unnecessary stress, and may even restrict your freedom to test various products and marketing strategies to find the most successful outcomes.

We recommend keeping your day job for as long as you possibly can, making the switch to running your business full-time only when a sizable demand for your products prompts you to do so. Additionally, set aside enough money to live on for six months to a year, and don’t lose heart if you don’t see any profit within the first year. The first year is a time for testing and preparing for growth!

Want more? Check out these resources:

Selling Online

Setting Up Your Online Store

After doing research, finding your market, and setting a budget, it’s time to set up shop! Familiarize yourself with the Volusion platform by checking out our feature-list and Getting Started video series which will coach you through setting up your store.
Here are a few additional tips to get you started:

Selling Online

Choosing a Template

Volusion offers a number of free and paid templates that are beautiful, on-trend, and responsive. But how do you know which one is right for your shop? That depends on what you’re selling.

If your products are highly visual and geared toward women, aim for a template like Cherish 2.0, which provides a stunning but minimal backdrop for a slideshow of hero graphics. If you’re selling tech gear, auto parts, or masculine products, try a darker template like Tech.

If you are looking for more guidance and want a more branded storefront, Volusion also offers an array of custom design services.

Images Matter

The power of images cannot be overstated. If your home page uses feature photos or hero graphics, as many do, ensure you always use compelling, high-quality images. If you do not have images that fit the bill, you can purchase them from an image library like iStock. Stock photo libraries are inexpensive - especially when you consider the impact they have on sales conversion!

If you’re going to be using Volusion’s built-in Homepage Slideshow - as opposed to a single hero image - make sure your slides highlight important aspects of your business (such as sales you’re running, a flexible warranty policy, and more) with a headline and sub-headline as well as a “call to action.” Slide shows are a great way to showcase multiple products and/or marketing messages and we have a great video resource to help you make your slideshow look its best. It's recommended to use 3 slides or less to keep the attention of site visitors and reduce load speed time.

Selling Online
Selling Online

Choosing Categories

Think about your favorite stores and reflect on how those stores stock their shelves or aisles. From grocery stores to department stores, most places lead their customers through a logical flow and build an experience customers learn to rely on.

Online stores are no different. This is a discipline called “merchandising” - the study of organizing products, categories, and other content in the way most likely to end up with a purchase, which we talk about more in our series, Merchandising 101.

Create an experience that will lead your user from what they’re looking for in the broadest sense – “Women’s Tops” – or “Men’s Accessories” – to the specific item they need. The navigational flows will lead your customers to products they didn’t even know they needed! Try guiding your user to their final product in four clicks or fewer. If you’re not sure where to start, use the most popular stores in your industry as guides.

Selling Online

Product Descriptions

We recommend writing a unique product description for each product. Be sure to include all the information your customers will need prior to making a purchasing decision (the “what”), as well as compelling copy about what sets the product apart (the “why”).

Do not give your shoppers any reason to second guess their purchase. If your product involves technical specifications, ingredients, or other granular details, alternate product descriptions are a good way of making sure your customers have this information without crowding out the main description.

Product Photos

Make sure each product has at least three high-quality, high-definition photographs from multiple angles. Many people benefit from having at least one zoomed-in photo for a detailed view, as well as one photo of the product “in use.” If you sell apparel, consider hiring a model so people can see how the clothing looks on a person. Remember, online shoppers can’t test out or try on your products, but the more you can mimic the experience of doing so, the better.

While we are on the topic of products, don’t forget to use Volusion’s Featured Products functionality to highlight new or best selling products on your homepage!

Selling Online

Always Be Testing

Be sure to test your checkout using every available shipping option and payment method. This ensures everything is working correctly so your shoppers won’t get “stuck” in checkout due to a settings issue. Refer back to your personas, put yourself in their shoes, and explore your website to make sure it is easy to navigate and no question goes unanswered. Pay attention to the quality of the experience your users are likely to have when shopping on your homepage, categories, and specific products - if you get lost, so will they.

If you need assistance, Volusion’s Customer Experience team can help you troubleshoot. And, if you’ve been working with one of our Account Managers, don’t hesitate to ask for a second opinion!

Additional resources:

After setting up your online store, it’s important to make sure it gets noticed! Marketing is one of the most time-intensive parts of running your business, and it can often make or break it.

Selling Online

Marketing Your Online Store

A well-crafted marketing strategy involves a careful mix of SEO, paid ads like PPC and Shopping Feeds, PR and outreach, social media, newsletters, review generation, and more.

Each facet requires expertise and finesse, which is why it’s not uncommon to outsource parts of your marketing strategy, particularly the more technical components like SEO or PPC.

Even if you choose to outsource one element, however, you are still responsible for keeping the other cogs in the machine moving. Well-executed marketing strategies are holistic and include, at minimum, the following components:

  • SEO
  • Content strategy
  • Paid ads
  • Social media
  • Analytics

SEO

Search Engine Optimization is one of the most essential parts of marketing your online store, and it’s also the most involved. A hearty mix of technical optimization and off-site tactics, SEO requires both creative and analytical thinking.

True SEO experts are some of the most impressively thorough researchers, as their job requires them to observe and interpret algorithm changes in the search engines as soon as they happen and adapt accordingly. You may not have the time to become an expert, but to get started with SEO, we recommend having a baseline understanding of keyword research, meta data, and simple on-site and off-site strategies.

Check out our DIY SEO Guide to get started. Volusion also hosts regular SEO Office Hours where you can get expert advice and ask questions with ecommerce SEO experts.

Selling Online
Selling Online

Content Strategy

On that note, a solid content strategy is a cornerstone of SEO, and it also impacts the way in which your user experiences and shares your site! Write copy that connects to your audience, uses a relatable voice, and shares your passion.

On-site, make sure that each and every product and category description is unique and compelling. This isn’t just great for conversions, it will also help you avoid possible de-indexing for duplicate content.

Off-site, think about what type of articles you can write to build yourself up as a thought leader in your niche; or offer your products for bloggers to review. Writing your own on-site blog or resource articles will also be a valuable and fun way to share your expertise with your audience, while widening the net of prospective keywords through which searchers can discover your site.

Paid Ads

For a quicker return on investment than SEO, paid ads are the way to go. Most ecommerce merchants are great candidates for either PPC (Pay-Per-Click advertising), Shopping Feeds, or both. Successful PPC and Feeds campaigns require a strategic and data-driven approach as you search for the keywords and ad spots that will produce the highest-converting results while achieving the best possible balance of search volume, competition, and cost per click.

To get started with paid advertising, take a look at your audience again. Who are they? What do they like? How exactly do they search the internet? Google’s search audience tends to be younger and more adaptable. Bing, on the other hand, tends to attract an older and more affluent audience, with approximately 57% between 25-54 and 49% possessing a college degree or higher.  Once you’ve spent time implementing and optimizing your campaign strategy in the engine that you’ve deemed the best fit, consider scaling your account by breaking it into different campaigns and increasing budget accordingly. Next, consider opening your targeting to include the other engine.

Selling Online
Selling Online

Social Media

Last but not least, it’s time to get social! Social media is one of the most economical ways to grow your brand visibility and meet your audience or prospective audience on their “home turf.” First, identify the platforms your target market(s) are most likely to use and enjoy. For many ecommerce merchants, this means Facebook at a minimum, with Twitter providing an assist. If you sell clothing or other visual, attractive items, then Pinterest, Instagram and Polyvore are great homes for your brand. And if your audience is young, then learn to love Snapchat.

No matter what medium you choose, social media is your chance to humanize yourself to your audience. Share promos, interesting news, musings, and humor (if it’s in line with your brand voice). Hold contests and giveaways. And most of all, respond to all questions and feedback in a timely, informative, and friendly way!

Consider investing in advertising for your mediums of choice, especially at the beginning, so you can find more “fans” in your target. Check out Chapter 6 of our DIY SEO Ebook for more tips on using social media for ecommerce.

Analytics

A huge part of being successful online is making decisions based on data. Google Analytics is free and will provide you a wealth of information on your visitors so that you can make informed choices about your website and advertising. It’s easy too - here is our guide to setting it up and a video on how to use Google Analytics once your data (and sales!) start rolling in.

Additional Resources:

Selling Online

Looking to the Future

As your store picks up, it’s time to look to the future. Reinvest your profits in your business and do what you can to tighten up processes so your business can scale up. Encourage brand loyalty and repeat customers by sending out newsletters or setting up a rewards system. Keep an eye on your Analytics to review how certain pages are doing, and never be afraid to make changes to your categories or products if a page isn’t performing the way you hoped. Above all, as you grow, don’t lose sight of your brand voice or the passion that made you open up your online store in the first place.

Happy Selling!

Selling Online

We’re here to help! For even more expert advice,
check out the following resources:

Try Volusion free for 14 days

No fees, no commitment, no credit card.

Get started
Try our award-winning ecommerce software to build your online store and sell more! Trusted by 40000+ businesses. FREE 14-day trial, no credit card required.
1835 Kramer Ln A100
Austin
TX
78758
United States