With free tools and cheap web hosting, there’s really no reason you can’t have your own catalog and shopping cart on the web if you’ve got something worth selling. Whether you’re looking for a side project or a real source of income, here’s a starting-from-scratch guide to setting up shop on the web.
DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO SELL
If you want to start an online store, you probably already have an idea for a great product to sell. Keep in mind that certain things are conducive to selling well online, while other items may be more difficult to sell when they can’t be viewed in person. In any case, you should believe passionately in the value of your product – otherwise, it will be hard to connect with customers. Here are some questions to consider:
– Is it a physical product that needs to be shipped, or is it a digital product that can be sent through the Internet?
– Are you going to have an inventory (more than one) of each product, or will they be one-of-a-kind (e.g. artwork, vintage items)?
– Are you going to want to sell a wide variety of products, or do you plan to specialize, like selling just t-shirts or books?
– Are you creating the product yourself? If so, make sure you’ll be able to keep up with demand. Form a relationship with a reliable supplier.
– If you don’t plan to make the product yourself, you’ll need a good manufacturer. Research different companies to find the one that works for your business idea.
– Decide how your product will be shipped. Create a plan to ship the product from your home efficiently, or work out a storage and shipping plan with a warehouse. You could also look into drop-shipping if the product is being manufactured by a third party.
– You are going to be intimately involved with your product or service. In order to effectively spread the word and market your store, you are going to need to socialize with people from this industry. Make sure the product is something you can get behind for the long haul.
FIND A NICHE
Knowing what product you want to sell is only part of creating a successful online store. You’ll need to figure out what differentiates your services from all the other similar services people can choose, both in person or online. Why should a customer buy your hand-knit sweaters when they have 100 other online shops to choose from?
– Size up the competition. Don’t just jump into selling a certain product line until you’ve looked at the websites you’ll be competing with. Consider the main online marketplaces you plan to advertise your products; and check out the competition within those portals.
– Offer something truly original. If you’re selling handmade crafts or works of art, the originality of your work may itself be the draw that sets your product apart. Try to strike a balance between something that is highly original and also has general appeal.
– Offer expertise. Perhaps the quality that sets your company apart from the rest will be your expertise on the type of product you are selling. Maybe you’re a former baseball pro selling a line of baseball gloves, for example. Make your passion and expert knowledge part of the package.
– Offer a user-friendly purchasing process. Even if your product is very similar to other things for sale online, you can set your store apart by making the shopping experience fun and easy. Make sure your website is easy to navigate and fun to share. Be responsive and provide great customer service where others don’t.
TEST THE WATERS BY SELLING YOUR ITEMS ON A SMALL SCALE
In the real world, it’d be wise to try selling your products through other, low-commitment avenues (consignment, flea markets, craft shows, etc.) before taking the plunge and starting an entire store. The same is true for selling online. Try selling your items individually on eBay, Craigslist, Half.com and the like. Here’s what you’ll want to look for:
– Who is buying your product? Offer a discount coupon or free gift if they answer a brief survey. Find out where else they shop online.
– How much are they willing to pay? Experiment with different prices.
– How is customer satisfaction? This is a good time to test how well you can get your product to the customer. Are you using good packaging? Is the shipping method reliable? Are they happy with their product? Did you describe it well?
MAKE A BUSINESS PLAN
Before you start the process of opening your online store, take the time to draw up a detailed business plan, whether or not you’re planning on getting outside funding from investors. It will help you plan the steps you’ll need to take to make your business successful. Figure out your cost of operation and map out a marketing strategy. You’ll want to take these factors into account:
– Production costs, whether you’re creating your product yourself or contracting with a manufacturer
– Shipping costs
– Employee wages, if applicable
– Fees for reserving your domain name and web hosting service
REGISTER YOUR BUSINESS ACCORDING TO YOUR STATE’S LAWS
When you’re ready to make things official, you’ll need to come up with a business name and fill out the necessary legal and tax paperwork to register your business.