While starting an Online Store has gotten a lot easier over the past few years due to the ever-improving tools that are available, it can still be a daunting process for anyone just getting started.
And it is for this reason that I created a Complete Guide to Starting an Online Store as I have built quite a few and have made many common mistakes along the way and this guide should help you from doing the same.
For this guide, we are just looking at the process of building an online store.
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Step 1: Choosing the Right Domain Name
The very first step in starting an online store is to choose a domain name and this is very important as it is the virtual address of your website.
And you probably have a business name in mind but is that name available?
This is a common problem that many businesses face as it may be the case that another business is already using that name or someone has bought that domain name and is trying to sell it for a profit, which is the most frustrating one to encounter!
When it comes to buying a domain name, there are a few options out there but there are a couple of things that are best to avoid:
- Buying cheap domain names, such a $0.99 a year because these generally have very high renewal fees and they may also charge to transfer it to another company
- Buying your domain from the company you have your website with as this keeps them separate and gives you more control over your business
I recommend using a reputable Domain Name Registrar such as namecheap.com (who we use) as they are reasonably priced in terms of buying and renewing your domain names and the customer service is very good.
The second thing to consider when choosing your domain name is are all the relevant Social Media accounts available for that name? This is very important as you want brand continuity for your whole online presence.
Tips for Choosing a Domain Name
If you are struggling to find a domain name, there are some general guidelines that can be helpful:
1. Keep it Short
You really want to keep your domain name to less than 20 characters and no more than 3 words. Ideally, you want less than 15 characters and 1 or 2 words.
2. Keep it Simple
You want people to remember your business’s name and domain name and the best way to do that is to keep it simple.
Don’t be too clever with your name, unique ways of spelling words may help you stand out from the crowd but are people going to remember how to spell your name? If you try it out on people and they either struggle to pronounce it or just simply don’t understand it then you probably need to think again.
3. Don’t use a Hyphen
A common thing I see new businesses do is to go for a hyphenated version of their domain name and honestly, this isn’t a good thing to do.
Firstly because 99% of people will forget about the hyphen and secondly you could potentially be sending traffic not only to someone else’s websites but also potentially to a competitor.
Yes, I know EcommerceGold uses a hyphen but I’d backed myself into a corner on this one!
4. Only use Top Level Domains
You only want to use top-level domains, but what are top-level domains? They are domains such as:
- .com – most popular
There are also some popular options, including:
- .me – great for personal sites
- .io – good for technology businesses
You can also choose country-specific domains, such as:
- .co.uk (UK)
- .us (USA)
- .ca (Canada)
- .com.au (Australia)
The country ones are ideal if you are just selling to that country.
One big piece of advice I would give, is that if you find your ideal domain name is available, then buy it now! Because if you wait, someone else may get it.
A secondary piece of advice is to also get other domains, so if you get the .com, also get the .net, .co etc and redirect them to your main domain as this helps prevent people from copying your business.
Step 2: Choose an Ecommerce Platform
The second step in starting your online store is to choose which ecommerce platform you are going to use to build your store.
And choosing which one is going to be right for your business depends on a few factors, including:
- The type of product you are selling – such as physical, digital and/or virtual products
- The method of selling – such as traditional ecommerce (where you hold and ship the stock yourself), dropshipping or print-on-demand
- Features – do you require specific features such as customizable products or B2B options
- Integrations – do you need integrations for third-party services from your platform such as Accounting software, order management or fulfillment
And I know that you might not know exactly what you need when just getting started but having an idea as to these aspects can make it easier to find platforms that fit your businesses requirements and then the next step is to try these out and find the one that you find the easiest to use.
For our recommendations, check out our Best Ecommerce Platforms post
Hosted vs Self-Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
I’m not looking to blind you with technical jargon here but ecommerce platforms generally fall into 1 of 2 categories, which are hosted and self-hosted and you need to decide which option is going to be best for you as once again, it narrows down the number of options you have to choose from, but what is the difference?
Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
For most people just starting an online store, Hosted Ecommerce Platforms such as Shopify or Bigcommerce are probably going to be the best option as you get a website builder, hosting and support as part of your monthly subscription.
This means that they take care of all the technical aspects of your website, including:
- Making sure the software is up-to-date
- Website performance such as page load speed and image optimization
- Mobile responsiveness, they make sure that your online store works well on all mobile devices
- Security, both on the server and website side of things
This leaves you to focus on the important aspects, such as getting visitors, getting sales and managing your inventory.
You also get the benefit of having a support team at the end of the phone, live chat or email to help you should you encounter any issues with your site, which can be very helpful.
Self-Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
Self-hosted ecommerce platforms require a little bit more technical knowledge as you need to:
- Buy some web hosting
- Install your chosen software such as WordPress + Woocommerce or Opencart
- Build and maintain your site (updates, optimization etc)
And while they offer some advantages such as more control over your site and they can be cheaper to start, it does put a lot of responsibility on the website owner and if you have never built a website before, you may find the learning curve quite challenging.
You can outsource much of this by employing the services of a web developer to help you manage your site but they generally don’t come cheap.
As to which option you take, that is down to you but if you are just starting out, I would recommend a hosted platform as it makes the process much easier.
Step 3: Branding Your Store
Before you start building out your shop, you want to think about your store’s branding as this is what helps differentiate yourself from the competition and there are a few things to think about…
1: Your Logo
Every business needs a logo as this is what helps people identify your business and think about any famous brand and I bet that their logo instantly comes to mind.
And fortunately, there is software out there, such as Canva that makes creating a logo a very simple process and once you have created your logo, you want it to feature prominently in your website’s header and also on your social media accounts.
Colors can be another important part of your store’s branding and once again, many famous brands are synonymous with certain colors, for example:
- Tiffany & Co – a distinctive greeny blue that is a trademarked color
- Hermes – a vibrant orange, similar to the one used in the image above
- Rolex – a deep green
- Ferrari – red
And this color is reflected in their branding and features heavily on their websites and social media as people automatically associate that color with that brand.
It can be tempting to go for the typical black and white but adding a splash of color can help you stand out.
When it comes to the font on your website, you want to stick to fonts that are easy to read as this just makes life easier for your customers and that is why Sans Serif fonts are great options for your body text.
For your header font, you could go with something a little fancier (depending on your niche) but you still want this to be easy to read.
You want your branding to be consistent across your website, social media and also in real life, so if you have packaging, printed documents etc, then you want them to look the same as your digital presence.
Step 4: Building Your Store
Now we get to actually building your store and the process is going to vary from platform to platform, with setting up Shopify being completely different to setting up a WooCommerce store but there are some steps that are generally universal…
1: Choosing a Theme or Template
Your theme or template is basically the design of your storefront, so how it looks to your customers and most ecommerce platforms offer a range of these for you to choose from.
Each will have its own unique styling elements and you need to find one that best matches your vision for your store and also your branding.
Once you have chosen your theme or template, you will need to customize it so that it is unique to your store.
2: Setting up Your Home Page
Your homepage is the central page of your site as everything else branches off from it and it is for this reason that you want to set it up as a navigational hub, meaning that people can quickly and easily find different sections of your site from your homepage by having links to:
- Chosen products (featured, on sale etc)
You also want it to look good, so use high-quality images and also if possible, use different types of sections to help break the page up and make it easier for your customer to read and use.
3: Site Structure & Navigation Menu
You want your site to be easy to navigate as this makes life easier for your customers and to do this, you want to set up your site’s structure and navigation menus.
If you are not sure what site structure is, it is how your pages are organized and for most online stores, a hierarchy structure is going to work best, which looks a little like this:
You can also add sub or child categories as well as categories for your blog depending on how many products/content you have on your site.
Once you have planned out your site structure, you want this to be reflected in your navigation menu as this is the way your customers move around your site and most platforms will allow you to build custom navigation menus.
4: Set up Your Product Pages
These will probably be the most visited pages on your site and this is really where first impressions count and this is why it can be useful to see your product pages as landing pages, which are part of your sales funnel.
Ideally, you want the customer to land on your product page and then go through your checkout and some things that can help with this are:
- Using large, high-quality images so customers can see the product
- Create an original product description that sells the product (sell the benefits, not the features)
- Include all relevant information such as product specifications, shipping costs etc
Basically, give customers all of the information they need on the product page and this should lead to more sales.
5: Site Footer
Site footers are often overlooked when setting up an online store but they are where you put links to all of the important pages that you don’t want in your navigation menu, such as:
- Contact details & contact page
- Terms & Conditions
- Any other policies, returns, shipping etc
You can also add links to your social media profiles and an option to sign up to your newsletter, your site should also include a copyright notice dated to the current year.
Step 5: Choose a Payment Gateway
This step is a pretty important step unless you don’t want to sell anything or give all your stock away for free!
To optimize conversion rates, it is often best to offer multiple payment options such as PayPal and a Credit Card processor as this gives your customers a choice and they may have their own personal preferences and you want to accommodate this if possible.
When you are just starting your online store, it is best to go with payment gateways that offer a pay-as-you-go approach to pricing, meaning that you only pay a fee when you make a sale with popular options including:
While these payment options do give you more flexibility, they do charge higher transaction fees, usually around 3%, however, some do offer reductions in fees for high-volume merchants.
You may also want to consider payment gateways such as Klarna, which offer flexible payment options such as:
- Buy now, pay later
- Pay in installments
Which can improve conversion rates, especially for higher-priced items.
Step 6: Make Sure Your Website is Legal
When you are selling online, you need to make sure that your business is operating legally. Because if you don’t, you can end up in a lot of trouble and end up facing some big fines or worse.
It does depend on where your business is not only located but where you are selling to as to the rules and regulations that you need to follow.
*Disclaimer – this is a guide only, always get anything legal or financial checked by a legal professional, accountant or the relevant authorities*
One of the big ones you don’t want to fall foul of is paying the right taxes to the right authorities and this will vary from country to country, so it is best to contact your country’s business authority and ask them exactly what you need to do.
And make sure that you put money aside from your sales to cover your tax bill at the end of the year!
Different places around the world may require you to hold a business license in order to able to start selling online.
You may be required to display your business information on your site and this will once again vary depending on your location but this could include:
- Your Business Name & Trading Details
- Your Business Address
- Contact Information such as Telephone Number and Email Address
For your email address, it always looks more professional to use a domain-linked email rather than a Gmail or similar.
This is a big one and one that you definitely don’t want to fall foul of any many more countries around the world are introducing data protection regulations such as:
- GDPR for anyone selling in or to the UK and EU
- CCPA for anyone selling in or to California, USA
- LGPD for anyone selling in or to Brazil
Requirements vary for all of these but two things you are going to need are:
Terms and Conditions – you may end up with two sets of terms and conditions. One may be for your websites, so how visitors can use your website and intellectual property etc. The other may be for when they purchase from you and will include your contact info and how to contact you, how they can pay, their right to cancel, returns and refunds. Basically anything related to the transaction that is made between the customer and you as a business.
Step 7: Test, Test and Test Again
So, you have built your website, it looks amazing and it is time to go live and start making sales right?
Not yet as you need to thoroughly test your site before you open it to paying customers, so what do you need to do?
- Make sure it works on mobile, use tools such as Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test but also check it on an actual mobile device
- Make sure all the links are working, a tool like Ahrefs Webmaster Tools will check for broken links, images and other technical issues on your site
- Run tests orders through your checkout, this will show you how the process works but also checks to make sure your payment gateways are set up and emails are being sent out properly
- Test order management, run through the whole process of managing an order and processing a refund to make sure it is working
- Test contact options, make sure your contact options such as the contact form, live chat and any other digital means of communication are working
Basically, you want to test as much as you can on your site and it can be helpful to get friends and family to try it as well as they may provide some valuable feedback.
Once you have tested out your site and are happy that everything is working properly, then you can open it up to paying customers and you should find managing your store much easier as you now know how it all works.
Even though starting an online store has gotten a lot easier, there is still a lot to think about and it is very easy to overlook small details (even experienced site builders miss things!), which is why it is good to create a plan of what you are going to do and when you are going to do it as it is easy to get distracted.
But once your store is live, it is not time to start thinking about marketing your online store as this is going to drive traffic and more importantly get you sales so that you are actually a business and not just a website.
To help you with many things we talked about in this post, we have created numerous guides, tutorials, reviews and comparisons to make the process of getting started and choosing the right platform for your business easier, so make sure to check out the rest of the EcommerceGold site.