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How to Set Up an Online Store: The Complete Guide

account_circle Team

For entrepreneurs and business owners taking a new product to market, there’s no better method than setting up an online store. Why? According to cumulative data from Shopify, online retail sales reached $2.8 trillion in 2018, with it projected to reach $4.9 trillion by 2021.

That means there’s ample opportunity to create and sell products with an ecommerce brand. The question is, where do you start? How do you get an online store set up without the technical know-how? And how do you build a recognizable brand and online presence?

In this guide, we will show you how to create an online store to leverage the growing trend to shop online. We will cover: 

  • Creating your ecommerce strategy
  • Deciding what to sell
  • Selecting an ecommerce platform
  • Implementing pre-launch strategies to capture an audience
  • Launching your store and generating your first sale

Planning Your Ecommerce Strategy

Having a roadmap based on proven principles is the best way to ensure you’re set up for success. By creating a strategy at this stage, you’ll have clear goals and a plan to achieve them.

When starting small, there are three key things to keep in mind:

  1. Choosing or building the right products to sell
  2. Defining your target audience
  3. Generating pre-sales to validate your offering

Here, we’ll run through each of these steps and show you how to create a plan to make sure you achieve each of them effectively.

1. Identify The Right Products

Most aspects of your online business, including inventory, marketing and finances are directly influenced and affected by the products you choose to sell. Without a solid product line, it’ll be tough to start and scale a profitable ecommerce business.

Product research is a crucial aspect of determining which products to sell. If nobody wants what you have to offer, then nobody is going to buy it.

Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a demand for the product? Don’t build a product before finding out if people want it. We’ll explore the techniques to do this below.
  • Is the product easy to source? In the early days, you want to make the sourcing and manufacturing of your product as simple as possible. This applies whether you’re selling someone else’s product or building your own.
  • Is your product easy to ship? In an era of online shopping, customers have come to expect fast and cheap shipping. This means that weight, size and dimensions of the product will be important when choosing what to sell.

Oftentimes, products are formed from founders solving their own problem. Take Moment, for example. Their founders created professional-quality camera lenses that attach to smartphones because it’s a product they wanted themselves. In their own words:

“Beautiful moments are everywhere. From capturing the unforgettable to the everyday, our phones allow us to quickly preserve these memories wherever we go, whenever we want. But their convenience comes with a lack of precision and control. As active picture takers we understand that with the right lenses, we can have creative freedom of what's most important — capturing life's most inspiring moments with the quality they deserve.”

Finding a solution to a problem is just one way of coming up with product ideas. Other methods include:

  1. Market gap analysis: Look for products that can be improved. Start with popular or trending products and check out their reviews. What are the common complaints you find? How could you do things better?
  2. Trending products: Check out publications like 2PM, as well as Alibaba to uncover popular products. The latter, in fact, is the perfect place to source products to sell on your new store.
  3. Talk to your customers: This is imperative to the success of your business, and we’ll cover it in more depth in the next section.

If you’re re-selling an existing product, then you won’t have to worry about much beyond re-branding, shipping and packaging to your customers. If, however, you’re building a product from scratch, then you’ll need to find a capable manufacturer to produce it for you. 

When going this route, start local and then branch out once you’ve reached a level of growth you’re happy with. It’s much easier to start small with a familiar niche than throwing yourself into the global market and competing with well-established players.

2. Defining and Building an Audience

Now that you have an idea of what to sell, you must figure out who you’re going to sell it to. When writing this guide, we deliberated over whether to start with product or audience. Indeed, it can be a “putting the cart before the horse” scenario if you’re not careful.

The right answer, however, is to do both. Focus your product strategy around both the offering and the audience. Building or selling your products before understanding your target audience is a slippery slope - one that should be taken with extreme caution. 

A safer and more effective path to success is to generate insights on your target audience so you can establish a solid foundation before hitting the (tangible or digital) shelves. How do you this?

By conducting customer research at the same time as building an audience and a product strategy.. They all go hand in hand. A great place to start is by creating documented customer personas. After all, before you can reach out to customers, you must first know who they are. 

Customer personas is a simple document that defines and outlines your ideal customer. These documents include key data and insights such as:

  1. Demographic information, such as their age, location and status
  2. Information on their careers and level of income
  3. Their personality and values (e.g. what they believe)
  4. What their biggest pains, challenges and desires are

Here’s an example of a customer persona created by Munro:

With your personas defined, it’s time to ask real people about the pain-points they’re trying to solve or desires they’re trying to attain. Specifically, you want to uncover these insights as they relate to your chosen product or niche.

Instagram is a haven for generating qualitative consumer insights. Users are regularly talking about relevant industry topics. Find the posts relevant to your product and reach out to those users. For example, if you were starting an online store in the coffee space, you could search for the hashtag “#coffeesnob”:

#coffeesnob on instagram

Scroll through these posts and send a direct message to the users behind the content. Here’s a simple script you can use to get their attention:

Hi [NAME]! Hope you don’t mind the DM, but I spotted your [PRODUCT/TOPIC] photo and figured you might be able to help.

I’m doing some research around [YOUR MARKET/PRODUCT] for a new project. As a [YOUR MARKET/PRODUCT] lover I thought you might be interested!

Mind if I ask you a quick question?

Once they respond, ask them questions relevant to the product you’re aiming to sell. Examples include:

  • How often do you buy [PRODUCT]?
  • What do you like most about [PRODUCT]?
  • Which brand of [PRODUCT] do you buy and why?
  • What do you think could be better about [PRODUCT]?
  • Would you buy [PRODUCT]?

This will give you insights into their current buying habits, as well as how you can fill gaps in the market that other brands are not filling.

3. Generating Pre-Sales

Pre-selling your new products is one of the best things you can do to launch your new business. It will validate your new online store and give you the confidence that it’s going to become a success.

Generating pre-sales doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply reach out to the communities and individuals you’ve already talked to. Reach out to them via email or Messenger, and tell them what you’re about to launch.

If your audience wants something bad enough, they’ll give you their cash before it even exists. 

Setting Up Your Online Store

When you set up an online store, you'll need to choose a domain name. You’ll also need an ecommerce platform and a way to accept payments. Here’s how to do it:

1. Choosing A Domain Name

If you already have a brand or business name, then you should aim to secure this as your domain name. Don’t worry if the .com version is taken. See if you can get a variation, or if a .co version is available.

If you’re coming up with a name, start by focusing on the products you’ll be offering. Choose a domain name that lets people know what you're selling.

For example, you could choose something like "" if you’re selling shorts to be worn while in the gym or on a run. Try to choose a domain name that is catchy and memorable. 

2. Choosing An Ecommerce Platform

When evaluating ecommerce platforms, look for a reliable vendor with a high uptime and the right features to list products and accept payments.

Take a look at their features and packages available, as well as how much those packages cost. Select a platform that’s easy to use, and allows you to expand as your online store grows.

Identify any relevant features you may need later on. They should also take care of hosting and make it easy for you to accept payments from customers.

3. Setting Up Payments

When setting up your online store, think about which payment gateway you will use. The top payment gateways include PayPal, Stripe, and Payline.

Choose a payment gateway that can easily be incorporated into the ecommerce platform you choose. Furthermore, they should allow you to accept several payment types, including credit cards, electronic checks and debit cards. Check the transaction fees they charge. If they’re too high, they can end up eating into your profit margins.

4. Choosing a Website Builder

The best website builders make it easy for you to design your online store. Invest in a website builder that allows you to create a well-designed store without any technical know-how. It should have drop-and-drag features, making the creation of your online store effortless.

Launching Your Online Store

With your online store set up and your products loaded in, it’s time to launch your new site.

By building an audience in advance, you’ve made the launch process much easier. Let’s go through the three launch phases and how to get ready for sales on launch day.

1. Pre-Launch Activities

First things first, make sure your online store is optimized for SEO. This will allow you to generate organic traffic over time as your site starts generating attention.

Generating backlinks will help you increase the results from your SEO efforts. One of the best ways to do this is to create entertaining and useful content that people can’t help but link to.

Start by setting up a blog and creating articles around your product. For example, if you’re selling coffee, then the keyword “how to make coffee” is a great topic to go for:

As you prepare for your pre-launch, be sure to build buzz around your new product(s). Here are some activities you should consider and look into:

  1. Build anticipation with your audience: If you built a waiting list for your product, send them a series of emails leading up to the launch. Share the launch date and show them what they can do to help.
  2. Create behind-the-scenes content: People love to learn about what their favorite brands are up to and what they’re building. Share the story of your journey to launch by creating and sharing content on social media.
  3. Run a contest: Give away product in exchange for email addresses. Bake virality into your contest, encouraging entrants to share the competition for extra entries.

These pre-launch activities will help you generate an audience eager to buy your products when the time comes to launch.

2. Things to Get Ready For

Get ready to answer questions about your products. If your launch is wildly successful, then be prepared to receive questions about your products. As you receive these questions, collect them and place them on an FAQ page. This should reduce the number of inquiries you get as you grow.

You should also make some test purchases to ensure your payment processor is working properly. Collaborate with any fulfillment and shipping companies you’re using. Check they get the order (and be sure they don’t fulfill it).

Finally, make sure your email and marketing systems are all in place. How are you going to keep in touch with your customers? Will you send a monthly newsletter, or perhaps weekly offers? Make sure you have made this decision and have systems in place on launch day.

3. What to Do on Launch Day

On the day of the launch, make sure you’re ready to answer queries and put out any last-minute fires. Launching isn’t just a button you press and forget about.

Make sure you have a system in place to measure results. Using Google Analytics can show you how your store is performing and how customers are engaging with your site. How many people are visiting your store and how many sales are you making? Knowing these metrics will allow you to test approaches and optimize your messaging.
While what we’ve listed above can seem overwhelming, it’s necessary. To summarize this beginner’s guide, here are the steps you must follow when launching your store:

  • Create your strategy
  • Define and build an audience
  • Find products
  • Choose a domain name
  • Select an ecommerce platform
  • Determine what payment processor to use
  • Use a website builder
  • Implement pre-launch strategies
  • Launch your store

Launching an online store may not be as hard as you think it is. Just keep the above in mind, and you’re likely to succeed.

Image Credits

Feature Image: Unsplash / Square
Image 1: via Moment
Image 2: via Alexa
Image 3: via Instagram
Image 4: via Ahrefs