What You Need to Know Before Starting an Online Store
This post is the first of a two-part blog series on starting an online store. Read part two: How to Set Up an Online Store.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been thinking about starting an online store for a long time now. However, I keep getting stymied every time I go online to find out how to create and set up an online store. Paralysis by analysis.
It seems like all of the information out there is geared for individuals who want to jump into e-commerce with both feet.
I’m not one of those individuals.
I don’t want to sink a bunch of money into my first online venture. Nor do I want to start out with so many products that I can’t keep track, or can’t keep up, and end up failing because my customer service is lacking from high-volume sales.
Sure, I have the hope that my online boutique will take off and make me a millionaire — who doesn’t? But, I also know that the smartest way to build a business — online or otherwise — is to start small and build slowly.
With that in mind, in this article, I’m going to share what you need to figure out, get done, create, and gather before you choose a website builder and start setting up an online shop. You can start small (with minimal investment), and grow your business slowly — and be more likely to beat the odds.
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Let’s not sugarcoat the situation. I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics about how 90% of online stores fail within 120 days and 50% of all small businesses don’t make it past their fifth year.
Of course, the extremely short life-span of online stores has a lot to do with the fact that anyone can start an online store these days — including individuals that are just trying to make a quick buck and move on.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless you want your online store to be a part of the 10% and not the other 90%. In which case, you need to start with a:
I’m not going to outline how to make a business plan here. There are a lot of other resources out there for that. What I am going to tell you is some of the basic things you need to know before starting an online store or e-commerce business.
The best way to start an online store is to first make some plans.
These can be rough plans, that’s okay. After all, everything is a learning experience, so you’re going to make some mistakes. However, it’s best to be prepared for those mistakes and flexible enough to make any necessary adjustments along the way.
So, get a pen and some paper, sit down in your best chair and get ready to be brutally honest with yourself.
Start with a few rough lists of the following (you can always get more specific or elaborate later on):
Time. How much time do you have to invest in creating, building and maintaining your online store?
Money. How much money do you have to invest in:
- Startup costs
- Updating and maintaining your assets
- Shipping/delivery of goods
- Marketing – Will you be advertising on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest? What about Google Ads and email marketing?
Employees or partners. Do you have a partner or members of your family that will be helping out with the online store? If so, what resources do they bring to the table, and what are they going to get out of it?
Skills. What are your physical and mental skills? Will you have to hire out in order to get certain tasks completed?
Assets. Do you currently have inventory? Will you need to pay for special memberships, purchase materials, or storage space?
Plans for growth. What do you want to start with, and where do you want to go with your e-commerce business? How are you going to prepare for a sudden rush of orders or an unexpected increase in social media activity?
Plans to handle slumps. How are you going to make it through periods of little to no orders? How are you going to turn a slump around?
Now, I know that can seem overwhelming. And if I didn’t lose you at “business plan,” I want to assure you, that you don’t have to have all of this figured out before starting an online store. Nor do you have to have an abundance of resources. What you need is some forethought in planning and a great attitude. If you want to keep your online business going, you’ll also need tenacity and a lot of flexibility.
When setting up my online shop, I wanted to invest very little. After all, this e-commerce site is my side-hustle, not my day job. And I don’t have a lot of time or money to invest in building, marketing, running or maintaining my store. At least not right now. For right now, I want to dip my toes into online entrepreneurship and build slowly — as I can.
But before I could get started I had to figure out the answers to the following questions:
- What am I going to sell?
- What/Who is my brand (and why)?
- What is my niche?
- What is my business name?
- How am I going to get my merchandise to my customers?
- Where do I want to spend my time vs my money?
Although these are the questions I asked myself, you may have more — depending on your vision.
1. What am I going to sell?
I’m not crafty. I don’t make anything — much less something I could potentially sell online. Nor do I own a brick-n-mortar store full of merchandise. But if you do, you already have the answer to the most important question here and you’re ready to move on to #2.
If you’re like me, and you don’t have your own stock of hand-made goods, or a brick-n-mortar store full of merchandise. So, you have to figure out what you’re going to sell. As well as, how you’re going to be competitive amongst other online marketplaces that may have the same type of merchandise as your online shop.
This is where it gets messy for people like me. In order to figure out what I want to sell, I could either: Check out what’s selling or trending by looking at Google Trends, exploring ebay best sellers, or checking out Etsy’s trend predictions. And then hop on the trend-train (based on SEO findings). OR I could move onto my second question, figure out my brand and then find items and drop shopping providers that align with my brand and vision.
Not so fast
While selling items that are trending may sound like a good idea, if that’s all you sell, you’ll run the risk of not only running into a massive amount of competitors (hoping to make a quick buck) but also losing sight of your brand in all of the online marketplace clutter.
Since I’m planning to build my store and brand slowly, I want to sell items that are in line with my brand and vision — not just items that come and go quickly.
2. What is my brand and why?
The word “brand” gets thrown around as though everyone knows what that means. But for most of us, when someone says “brand” we think of the name of a brand, e.g. Pepsi, Apple, McDonald’s, etc.
However, as Brian Lischer put it in his article, What is a Brand?; “brands are perceptions.”
Brands are made up of different components, including; company culture, vision, values, purpose, and objectives. Those components are conveyed through a company’s logo, colors, actions, personality, tagline, typestyle, voice, messaging, etc.
To find your “brand,” think about why you want to start your business, what you want your business to stand for (values) and how you want to convey that to others.
For most of us, our brands are a reflection of us, so the values align with our own. You should have figured out your brand’s purpose and objectives during the planning stage. If they’re not clear, go back to your pen and paper and figure it out.
Brutal truth: If your only purpose for starting an online store is to make money, be prepared to fall into the 90% category.
3. What is my niche?
If you have your own merchandise, figure out where it fits in the online world of e-commerce.
If you haven’t already, do some search engine research on what’s trending and see if your merchandise aligns with what’s selling.
Then, take some time to figure out who your competitors are and figure out how your brand can stand out from theirs before you start selling.
Make sure to refer back to your notes to make sure you stay in alignment with your own brand.
4. What is my business name?
Choose a name that aligns with your brand. Yes, your brand needs to be nailed down before you have a name. The reason for this is that your company name, logo, and colors should all be representative of your brand — they’re all part of the perception you want people to have of your business.
5. How am I going to get my merchandise to my customers?
Since I don’t have my own merchandise, I have to find someone who makes or supplies the item(s) that I’d like to carry in my e-commerce store. Which sparks the question: Am I willing to order in bulk, carry my own stock and ship orders myself, or do I want someone else to do that for me?
To decide that, I had to make a list of what each option has to offer:
With this list, there are a few things to be aware of. Carrying your own stock and handling shipping yourself is great for customer service. However, you have to have time available to pack and ship orders in a timely manner.
Something else to keep in mind with handling your own merchandise and/or having a fulfillment center do it for you: If something gets broken, damaged or is defective, you eat the cost of replacing that item. That includes items that a fulfillment center may damage themselves.
And while those two caveats may make dropshipping seem like the way to go, remember that when you use a dropshipper, you have absolutely no control over the shipping process. This means you most likely won’t be able to brand any packaging and you’ll be paying a premium for products. Not to mention that you can’t control delivery times or shipping delays.
Which way to go
Not an easy choice, but you don’t necessarily need to stick to just one option. If you have one item that you make and carry yourself, think about sending some backstock to a fulfillment center, or adding some drop ship products to your store that compliment your main product and/or fall into your niche. Which way you choose to go should be based upon your resources and your brand vision.
6. Where do I want to spend my time vs my money?
As I stated early on, I’m starting an online business with very little resources. So, I want to make the most of what I have. In order to do so, I found that I have to be extremely flexible.
For instance, when I first started planning this, I absolutely didn’t want to spend any time shipping items myself, but I didn’t want to pay for a fulfillment center either. Looking at my pros and cons list, it seemed like dropshipping would be the answer for me.
However, when I started to look for merchandise that I could have drop shipped for me, I struggled to find what I wanted. Nothing seemed to fit the criteria of being in my niche, at a reasonable cost, and of a quality that aligned with my brand.
However, I found some great products that were available in bulk that fit all of those criteria. Therefore I had to decide if I’d be willing to store and ship those items myself or if I wanted to look for other dropshippers and merchandise options through marketplaces other than the one I initially signed up for.
Ready to set up an online store
If you plan on starting an online store, with a bunch of products and all the bells and whistles, I recommend Shopify. This particular e-commerce platform’s plans start at $29/mo. But there are many others out there — all with different plans and fee scales to choose from.
Personally, I found Shopify’s e-commerce solution to be more than what I needed right now. So I opted for a free online store using Constant Contact’s Website Builder. With Constant Contact, I was able to get an e-commerce website that allows me to have up to three products (with unlimited options) with no start-up fees. This freed up some of my financial resources for other things — like joining multiple dropshipper marketplaces and purchasing merchandise samples.
Setting up an online store
Phew! It took a while to get here, but here comes the easy part.
The first thing you want to do when starting an online store is to gather together your images, logo, the hex codes to your brand colors, and the descriptions for the items you plan to sell.
Once you’ve got all of that handy, the rest is easy.
I already have a Constant Contact account, but you don’t have to have an email marketing account to get a free website.
The A.I. website builder will walk you through, step-by-step, setting up your online store before you start selling. You just add your own images, upload your logo, and adjust the colors to match your brand and vision.
After the store framework is created for you, it’s time to fill in the content and delete any sections or pages that you don’t want.
Want some insight on how to make your website great? Check this out: Tips to Improve Your Website.
Once you’ve got it all done, have a trusted friend take a look at your new online store before you publish it. Be open to any suggestions they have, and be sure to have a place for people to sign up for your newsletter, special sales notices, or additional information (whatever fits your plan).
With an ROI of 38%, when it comes to email marketing, never miss an opportunity to grow your contact list. (Tweet this!)
Now that you know what to do before starting an online store, and that Constant Contact’s Website builder will walk you through the process to set up your own free online store, it’s time to get that pen and paper and figure out your resources, make your plans, and nail down your brand.
When you’re ready to set up your e-commerce store, read up on How to Set Up an Online Store. While I’ll be using Constant Contact’s Website Builder as an example, I’ll also give you some insight on what pages and content need to be part of your store website, and why.
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