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How to start selling online

We explore the fundamentals of ecommerce so you can start generating revenue from an online shop - today!

start selling online today

You're reading this because you want to make money online. You might be starting a business from scratch or adapting an existing 'offline' business. Whatever your situation, you are fulfilling an ambition -- a dream.

Successful ecommerce entrepreneurs escape the 9-to-5, become their own bosses, and make money while they sleep. Sounds good, doesn't it?

Ecommerce is booming

Ecommerce has been around for a surprisingly long time; online shopping was invented and pioneered in the UK, in 1979 by Michael Aldrich. Since then, it has grown into a massive worldwide industry. It's a way of life for sellers and buyers all around the world.

In 2019, online sales reached a staggering $3.5 billion and represented 14% of the total share of global retail sales. These figures are expected to rise significantly in 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, as physical stores shut and the only reliable option is online shopping for nearly every product imaginable.

online shopping, getting orders and sales

So, why should you sell online?

What are the benefits of becoming an ecommerce entrepreneur?

  • You can start an agile retail business with a relatively small investment.
  • You can follow your passion, selling items that interest you; from replica football shirts to beauty products or Star Wars memorabilia.
  • You don't need a physical store or office, keeping overheads low; an online store can run from anywhere in the world -- or anywhere in your house!
  • You can make money 24/7; unlike a physical store, the internet never closes, making 'passive income' a real possibility.
  • You may not need to buy in bulk and can avoid storing an inventory of products, depending on how you structure your business.
  • You could generate profits after just a few months trading.

You can sell online. Anyone can!

The concept of launching an online shop can seem daunting at first. But we'll show you that you don't need a big budget to start. Ecommerce offers opportunities for anyone with an idea -- and an internet connection!

You can test your products on a small scale, to begin with, generating your first customers with minimum investment and expanding once you have tasted success.

Or, if you have ambitions to scale up quickly and sell a broader range of products, you'll find that with the right approach and investments, any kind of business can sell online.

Four things you will need

Before you start your ecommerce journey, there are four things you will need to be successful:

  1. Products that will sell well
  2. Adverts that bring people to your store
  3. An online store that converts visitors into customers
  4. Your full commitment, attention, and determination

In this article, we'll take you through the fundamentals of selling online to help you make it happen, including:

What to sell

If you haven't already, you should work out what you want to sell. This should be something you know. A product you believe in. It could be a physical product (knitted hats, phone accessories, dog capes), a digital product (fonts, document templates, illustrations of dogs), or an online course or eBook (Linkedin marketing, training your dog to answer emails) 🐶

what to sell on your online shop

Selling your knowledge online

If you have experience or information that is hard to get, and you can explain it well, you can sell that knowledge as an online course or series of downloadable eBooks.

Here are some examples:

  • experienced copywriters offer online courses to a broad audience, helping them to develop writing skills of their own
  • career consultants teach people over video calls to improve their CVs and find success in interviews
  • musicians offer paid subscriptions for online tuition, sharing their particular expertise in exchange for regular income

Selling your time

Sometimes people need a bespoke service. A career consultant, for example, provides personalised advice to help an individual in their particular situation. This is much more effective (and valuable) than some general tips about CVs and interviewing that you can read online.

People will pay for this kind of service from an expert. And it can all be sold and delivered online!

Selling physical products

The most common kind of ecommerce is, of course, selling a physical product -- or a range of products -- that customers purchase online and have delivered to their door.

How and where to sell online

Here's where you have another choice to make. How will you sell what you have to offer to the world?

You can use an online marketplace like Amazon or eBay. A social media platform like Facebook or Etsy. Or you can take things in your own hands with a custom-built site to call your own using systems like Magento, Shopify or Wordpress.

how to launch an online shop on Shopify or Magento

Whatever you decide, you should avoid trying to replicate the big players like eBay, Alibaba, and Amazon, or even your competitors. It's your business. It's your unique, hard-fought path to ecommerce success.

Online marketplaces

Marketplaces like eBay, Amazon, and Etsy offer a lot to the new ecommerce entrepreneur -- but at a cost.

Pros

  • These marketplaces offer immediate access to a large, established community of returning customers who trust the platform.
  • They offer an opportunity to test the demand for your products.
  • They will give you a good sense of what's popular and what's not before you commit more time and money.
  • You can start with a single, reliable product to build your brand around.
  • If you sell on Amazon, you don't need storage space for your products or staff to pack and ship products -- they do that hard work for you.

Cons

  • You will be charged a commission or 'seller fee' for each sale -- typically between 10 and 15% on average (this can vary depending on a few factors)
  • Fees and policies change over time (and usually not for the benefit of you, the seller)
  • Your competition will surround you -- your customers will see ads for similar products on your product pages (and often the lowest price wins their attention)
  • It's almost impossible to create a unique and consistent brand identity -- and customers using these platforms typically don't care who supplies the product.
  • Amazon has a rigorous screening process you must complete just to sell on their platform.
  • While the entry requirements on eBay are low, so are the prices for most products compared to Amazon and independent online stores
  • Stores on eBay aren't perceived as 'proper' ecommerce businesses.
  • The relationship is between the marketplace and the customer, not you and the customer, so building a customer base is extremely challenging.
  • You won't be able to provide content, gather email addresses for marketing purposes, or run campaigns to generate more sales
  • These marketplaces can shut your store at any time (although this is rare)
  • Sometimes the platform will create their own version of popular products, marketing them heavily, effectively stomping on the competition (see Amazon Basics)

Selling on social media

Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram allow you to get your products in front of prospective customers.

Facebook offers some options here, including a Facebook store with built-in cart and checkout. You can also use Facebook's massive user base for marketing your own custom ecommerce website by creating:

  • A Facebook Business page where you can market your products or services
  • Facebook Ad campaigns to generate an audience for your Business page or traffic to your website
  • Posts in related Facebook Groups to advertise what you are selling

Pros

  • You'll have a large, established audience who are comfortable with buying from businesses through social media (there are over 2.5 billion social media users worldwide)
  • Platforms like Facebook attracts users of all ages and interests - any kind of business can sell on this site.
  • Social media usage is high, and people spend significant time using these platforms every day.
  • You can market your business effectively with content and marketing campaigns using their built-in tools.
  • There are no seller fees.

Cons

  • While numbers are impressive, users are spending less time on traditional social media sites like Facebook and more time using video and live streaming services (where sales are less likely)
  • It takes time to build an audience, and you need the audience to sell your products. Your social media presence needs to work hard to gain followers, amongst many competing businesses.
  • You may need to pay for adverts on the platform to increase visibility -- depending on what you're selling; this could be a significant monthly expenditure.
  • Ads from other competing businesses could appear on your page.
  • You need to post quality content that interests your audience every day, to gain followers and keep engagement alive.
  • Your content needs to be in-depth too -- articles that are between 2,000 and 2,500 words in length get more views and shares on Facebook than articles of any other length.
  • You may not be able to collect the email addresses of your customers to run campaigns outside of the platform.
  • You can't add new functionality, for example, a countdown timer to show when a time-limited offer will end.
  • You become tied to whatever platform you choose, at least without significant effort and reinvestment to move.

Your very own ecommerce website

If you want to take charge of your own online store and shopping experience, you have a few options:

  • Launching on a hosted ecommerce website builder like Shopify or Squarespace
  • Commissioning a bespoke online shop using a platform like Magento, CraftCMS or Wordpress

Commissioning an ecommerce website isn't the typical starting point for most people, but it does offer a considerable advantage for those prepared to make the upfront investment. It's your website and always will be. No middlemen. Complete control in every decision, right down to the finest detail.

You can also use a hosted service like Shopify (our platform of choice) to build your online store, offering a frictionless way to get started quickly with an all-in-one, secure solution. But this comes at the cost of losing some control over your business, as you're tied to that service's hosting, pricing plans, and policies.

Pros

  • Having your own online shop gives you the most freedom and flexibility of all the possible options.
  • You can create a unique brand around your business and products that customers will develop a relationship.
  • You'll have full control of what your customers see; from the product page right through to the product packaging, email receipts, and marketing emails.
  • You can create a website that looks and works the way you want -- with complete control over your design, functionality, and content.
  • You can make as many adjustments as you like to improve your shopping experience and increase your conversion rate.
  • There will be no other sellers or products appearing on your store and competing for your customers' attention. You can sell at higher prices.
  • If you already have a website, you may be able to install an ecommerce plugin, like WooCommerce for Wordpress.

Cons

  • Requires time, some expertise, and the dedication to set things up.
  • Integrating with payment systems or your bank can take time and must be thoroughly tested and secure. These payment systems charge a small transaction processing fee (usually around 2%)
  • You may need some support from an expert in the particular hosted-service or platform you choose, to help make updates or add new functionality.
  • If something breaks in the night, you might not realise, and it may take some time to fix -- a pro of the supported ecommerce services, like Shopify, who will always be monitoring and taking action to any issues found.
  • You must pay close attention to the performance of your online shop; the speed of your website has a significant impact on conversions.

The why of starting an online shop

Why you are selling online

If you haven't already, we encourage you to find your 'why' -- your motivation for starting your business and selling online.

Maybe your why is to free yourself from the 9-to-5 rat race to spend time with family. To work hard and retire early for worldly adventures. Or simply to improve the lives of your customers in some way.

why start an online business

In identifying your why, you will have a personal motivating factor to keep you going when you have doubts or face challenges on the road to establishing and growing a profitable online store.

Why customers should buy what you're selling

Another important 'why' is why customers should spend their money on your product. Think about what is unique about what you offer. How does your product or service improve the lives of your customers? How does it make them feel?

Remember, small things are important to people. For example, our local coffee shop is delivering fresh food and coffee to customers in the area during the Coronavirus lockdown. They use Facebook daily to share the next day's blend and menu in a simple, easy-to-read format with clear pricing. It's all delivered to our doorstep, nice and hot, with a smile and a friendly wave. Their pricing is consistent and fair, with no delivery charge. Payment is simple and done online (easy for them and easy for their customers).

The story above is an excellent example of the most basic of online selling with lots of small and simple things done in the right way. And with a personal touch.

Why customers should buy from you

The final 'why' to think about is why your customers should choose you over your competitors. Will you compete on price? A risky strategy! On the range of products offered? On the quality of your product? Or by providing a better experience -- starting with your website?

Planning your approach

So you have a product. You know how you'll sell it and all the right reasons why you are doing this. And why people should buy from you. But where do you start?

You need a strategy. Even a brief plan is better than simply launching and hoping for the best to happen.

marketing strategy for ecommerce and starting an online shop

Create an ecommerce strategy that outlines your approach, including things like:

  • How you will source what you sell, for example: 
    • The supply chain to making your products
    • Sourcing products directly from manufacturers, usually involving the development and branding of a new product
    • A traditional wholesale approach where you negotiate the price of a bulk purchase of products from a wholesaler and store them somewhere until you can sell and ship them yourself to your customer
    • A 'dropshipping' approach that uses a supplier who can package and ship a pre-agreed list of products directly to your customer without you ever touching any stock
  • What your pricing strategy is for your product(s)
  • How you will deliver your products, how long that will take (if you're offering a physical product), and how much it will cost you
  • Your budget for the upfront cost and any monthly expenses of running your online shop, and any improvements you might like to make over the first year
  • Your budget for running marketing campaigns throughout the year, attracting those first surges of traffic and keeping connected with a growing audience
  • Your initial goals for visitor numbers, monthly and end of year sale targets, and even social media followers
  • A competitor analysis will also help you understand what others are offering in your marketplace, how they do it and for what price - this will help you see where there are gaps, and how you can fill them.

The right hands make light work

Depending on what kind of approach you choose and how quickly you want to grow, you may need to partner up with experts who can help you with:

  • Branding
  • Design
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Website hosting
  • Search Engine Optimisation
  • Conversion Rate Optimisation (turning more existing visitors into paying customers)

Take the time to understand and prepare the relevant legal requirements and documentation for your business, such as:

  • Sales tax
  • Your terms and conditions of sale
  • Your return policy
  • Your advertised delivery times -- don't promise dates you can't always meet!
  • Payment terms and fees that are taken by Paypal, Stripe, credit card processing companies

Other standard legal elements associated with a website include a privacy and cookie policy and an accessibility statement. Depending on what type of store you use, these may be provided for you.

Marketing your online shop

Think of your ecommerce website as a machine, with traffic coming in one end and sales coming out the other. Your marketing needs to generate that traffic, creating a never-ending funnel of people interested in what you are selling.

There are many ways to generate traffic to your online store:

  • Social media, growing an audience with engaging content
  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), having people search and find your product on Google, Bing or Yahoo
  • Paid advertising campaigns on Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat, TikTok, etc.
  • Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising, for example, on Google Ads
  • Word of mouth (referrals)
  • Printed marketing materials distributed locally
  • Email marketing, start building your list today!

Measuring and improving

Don't miss out on any early metrics. Record everything from day one and learn from the behaviour of your first website visitors. What you can track will vary, depending on how you build your online store.

improving your online sales conversation rates

Here is what we consider to be the essential things to measure and improve on your new online store.

Conversion rate

The most crucial measurement by far is your conversion rate. The conversion rate is the efficiency of converting visitors to sales. A low conversion rate means your online store isn't convincing people to purchase, and something is clearly wrong.

What is considered a low conversion rate?

This can vary from industry to industry. But anything below 1% is considered low for any kind of online store.

What is considered a high conversion rate?

Again, this can vary depending on the industry, but we have seen some ecommerce sites convert 10% of their visitors. This is incredibly high for any website, and that takes time to achieve.

Expect your conversion rate to start low. It's something you'll build up over time as people become more familiar with you and what you're selling. As you learn more about your customers and their behaviour, you will find ways to improve your conversion rate.

Visitors

The easiest thing you can record and track is the number of visitors to your store -- a basic but vital measurement of your marketing efforts.

Without visitors, there can be no customers, so pay attention to this metric, checking in every week or so to spot any noticeable changes.

Some changes in visitor numbers are seasonal. For example, most stores can expect more visitors over the Christmas period but a reduction during the week before payday.

Sales

An obvious thing for any kind of shop to track is sales. Monthly sales reports will help you compare your income to your outgoings.

We recommend investing profits back into the development and improvement of your store, to continually improve that conversion rate.

Our top tips for ecommerce

When it comes to planning, building, and launching your online shop, there are several things you can do that will set you off in the right direction, with higher-than-average conversion rates.

  • Provide plenty of detail. Write a product description that explains the benefits to the customer - don't just list the features!
  • If appropriate, display a gallery of product photos or, even better, include a video.
  • Display the logos of your accepted payment methods prominently, along with any security certificates and guarantees.
  • Encourage all of your customers to leave reviews by sending a friendly follow-up email after delivery; Does your dog like their new cape?!
  • Use your reviews and ratings to create 'social proof' (people are most comfortable spending money when they know other people have done so already)
  • Pay attention to abandoned carts -- set up an email system to draw them back to your store with incentives to commit to a purchase (like free delivery or a discount)
  • Offer an enticing reduction for buying multiples of the same product, or a bundle of complementary products. You'll encourage visitors to make larger purchases, and they will feel like they've got a bargain.
  • Time-limited discounts with a visible timer or deadline can add that gentle bit of pressure needed to encourage the hesitant buyer. FOMO, anyone?!
  • When it comes to delivery times, always 'under-promise and over-deliver'. Customers then aren't kept waiting and having to contact you, and they'll be pleasantly surprised!

We'll be covering some of these top tips in more detail very soon -- including some visual examples and free templates. Pop your email into our mailing list, and we'll let you know when we do!

What are you waiting for?

You now know starting an online shop doesn't need a huge up-front investment. You can take an approach with fewer risks than a physical store. And that the factors determining your business' success are entirely in your control.

If you currently have the time and resources for selling online, then remember -- there's no time like the present! Good luck!

And if you'd like a hand preparing an ecommerce strategy or launching your own online shop, give us a call.