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How to set up an online store
Starting a business

How to set up an online store

If remote life has taught us anything, it’s that online shopping isn’t going anywhere. And why would it? You can do it in your sweatpants, from almost any device, and at any time of day.

So whether you’re ready to introduce your brick-and-mortar store to the internet or you’re thinking of going fully digital, it’s smart business to set up an online store.

If you’re not tech-inclined, don’t panic. Setting up an e-commerce store is easier than ever with today’s software and shop platforms. Depending on your store’s size and complexity, you could even be up and running in a matter of days or weeks. (And, might we add, it costs much less than setting up a physical store.)

Online marketplaces

If you’re new to selling products online, you might want to try setting up your shop on an online marketplace first. An online marketplace is a website where many different individual retailers can sell products. There are over 100 choices, from giant mega-store platforms like eBay and Amazon to more specialized marketplaces. The latter includes sites such as ‘Shopify’ for artists and crafters, or ‘Art Source’ and ‘Art finder’ for fine arts. There’s also ‘Refash’ and ‘Second Other’ for used fashion; ‘Ox Street’ and ‘Buy My Sneaker’ for sneakers; or ‘Gumtree’ and ‘Porch buds’ for plants. Whatever you want to sell, it’s worth checking around to see if there’s a specialized marketplace for it.

There are several advantages to taking this route. It is usually swift and easy—they’ll walk you through the setup step-by-step. Once you’ve met the marketplace requirements and are approved as a seller, all you have to do is upload your products and—ta-da!—you’re in business. It doesn’t require a lot of time or technical know-how.

Another key advantage of these sites is that they already have lots of traffic, so you can get your products in front of customers very quickly. And they typically provide a lot of tools and resources to help you succeed. Your success is their success since they take a cut of every sale. (For example, most of these platforms also offer paid advertising to boost your visibility in the marketplace.)

The downside is that you will be competing against many other sellers. Ideally, you’ve selected a product or service that has a smaller niche, so you’re not competing against hundreds of people selling the same thing. That can be challenging with marketplace platforms because you can’t create the kind of customized, branded experience that will help you stand out. You have to work within the design parameters of the platform. However, by optimizing your product feed, creating catchy product descriptions, giving detailed information, and collecting positive reviews, you can still stand out from the crowd.

Think of this approach as starting out by selling your products in a department store. With minimal investment in infrastructure, you can capitalize on a bigger brand name, expose your brand to their audience, and make some of their customers your customers.

When you’re ready to graduate, you can apply what you’ve learned about managing inventory, shipping, customer service, and advertising to building your own online store. And, since many of these platforms don’t require exclusivity, you can continue selling there and getting brand exposure, even while operating your own separate storefront.

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E-commerce platforms

Building an online store on your own domain name allows you to create a unique, aesthetically appealing branded experience that’s impossible on a marketplace platform. As you might expect, it takes more time and money to go this route. Still, with today’s software, there are some cost-effective ways to go about it.

Specialized e-commerce platforms are essentially Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings that handle all of the functions of an online store. Popular examples include Shopify, BigCommerce, and WooCommerce for medium to large stores, and Wix, WordPress, and Squarespace for small businesses. With these website builders, you can create a customized, branded storefront connected to back-end functions such as accounting, order management, inventory management, and customer service. This allows you to manage your business all in one place. Some of these platforms even allow you to run marketing campaigns through email marketing or SMS text messages.

Each of these e-commerce solutions offers tons of options in terms of design, functionality, integrations, and cost. So you’ll want to do some comparison shopping to see which ecommerce site is best for your store. Here are some of the things you’ll want to compare:

  • Storefront design options
  • Customization: Is it user-friendly and can you customize their storefront designs, or are you stuck with the template?
  • Scalability and pricing: Can it grow with you?
  • Monthly fees
  • Card reader and POS (point of sale) integrations: If you do business offline as well, these could be helpful.
  • Social media integrations: These could be important if social media is part of your marketing plan.
  • Customer support
  • Bandwidth: You want to make sure the platform can handle the volume of traffic you anticipate.
  • Amazon and eBay integrations: If you’re selling on these marketplaces as well as on your own site, these could come in handy.
  • Customer relationship management (CRM) integrations
  • Marketing features such as SEO and email templates
  • Ability to show customer reviews
  • Mobile optimization
  • Analytics
  • Shopping cart integration
  • Checkout capabilities and plug-ins for fast checkout processes
  • Payment gateway integrations: There are dozens and dozens on the market. Be sure to choose one that offers enough payment options for credit cards, PayPal, and other payment methods. If you plan to do business globally, you’ll need to make sure you have the right payment gateway for that.
  • Ease of use: How easy is it for you to come in and modify things such as product descriptions, attributes, and displays? Can you easily add new products or launch an email to your customers?

There’s a lot to think about. Fortunately, since e-commerce platforms have become a very popular software offering, you can easily find a number of comparison and review sites on the internet.

Of course, you’ll also want to see some samples of sites built on each platform. Most will display the logos of some of their prominent customers so that you can visit those sites. Alternatively, if you’re on a site you like, you can sometimes find the design firm’s name in the footer. Visit their site to see what platforms they build on.

Build a custom online store

The downside of using one of the premade e-commerce storefronts listed above is that you wind up paying fees to the platform in perpetuity. Plus, you have relatively little customization capabilities over the store’s appearance and functionality. The platform owner may make changes that you aren’t happy with, and some modules of the platform may work better than others.

By creating an e-commerce website from scratch, you can set things up exactly to your preferences and create a brand experience you have more control over. It’s more of a hassle compared to the other options, but it’s also not as hard as you might think. There are many pre-built components, and you can choose the best one from each category rather than settling with what comes in an e-commerce platform package.

You will need a web domain, web hosting, a dedicated IP address, SSL certificate, shopping cart system, and payment gateway. There are various web-hosting companies offering these items in package deals, so you can simply buy the package from them.

This option gives you the most freedom and control over your store, but it can also be more time-consuming and expensive in the beginning. That’s because you may need to hire and supervise coders, designers, writers, and others as they build your site from scratch. And you may require their help to make changes. All of this could be worth the cost if you’re trying to deliver a bespoke experience, though.

If you already have a website and you’re eager to get going, you might want to start by integrating an e-commerce platform into your website. That gets you up and running and generating revenue in a matter of days instead of weeks or months while you build a more customized site.

Set up for success

The world of e-commerce has grown extensively and is continuously evolving every day. It’s easier than ever to set up shop in an online marketplace or on your own domain, or—why not?—both! But setting up your store is not something you want to do more than once. Devise a business plan and develop your brand before beginning to build. That clarity should help you set up a successful online store that you can optimize and profit from for a long time to come. See how you can integrate Quickbooks Online with your ecommerce platform to manage all your apps in one place.

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