Chapter 9 How to Create, Setup, and Launch a Profitable Online Store (Seriously)
For centuries, success in commerce was defined by a simple formula. Secure a profitable spot for your cart. Shout louder than your competitor to attract more foot traffic. Operate at a lower cost to pocket more profits.
In the 21st century, it’s not that simple.
Large, vocal brands often fail to connect with modern consumers. The physical location can be more of a nuisance than a convenience. And a small store can be operated with a lean budget and no inventory at all.
All of the above makes it easier for digital-first retail brands to carve out a spot even in saturated markets. So if you plan to create an online store, you have plenty of headroom in 2021.
The Statistics of Selling Online
Last year, the retail sector went through major turmoil. But the unfortunate global events propelled the growth of digital sales:
- 46% of U.S. consumers tried a new brand or placed orders with new retailers last year. Thanks to the convenience of online shopping and blurred geographical lines, consumers are actively shifting brands.
- According to a May 2020 study from Accenture, the volume of purchases from inexperienced or infrequent ecommerce users is expected to increase by 160% in the future. Many people last year discovered how much they quite appreciate the convenience of online shopping — and they’re growing more accustomed to it.
- 50% of online spending will be done via smartphones by September 2022. U.S. consumers spent over $190 billion via mobile in 2020.
- Smaller ecommerce stores saw a 96.5% rise in web traffic between October 2019 to October 2020 with over a third reporting an increase between 100% and 200%. The majority also expect this growth to remain in the coming years.
Based on those data points, there is a huge and growing opportunity in digital retail. And those opportunities are diversifying. The market conditions for launching an online store are as favorable as they can be despite the overall economic uncertainty.
Also based on those data, there’s a differentiation opportunity. How many sites do you visit on mobile that have a seamless shopping-to-checkout experience? If 50% of spending is going to be on smartphones (never mind what that means for browsing time via mobile), let’s just say their phone is going to be the literal touchpoint connected to all different types of interactions, all over the funnel. Giving customers a convenient, usable shopping experience on even their smaller devices — could be a huge differentiator.
8 Steps to Creating Your Online Store
A simple, functional piece of software can launch a website that enables you to sell products. But how do you keep growing past “minimum viable product” and take your business to the next level? Here are step-by-step instructions.
- Choose a niche and develop a business plan
- Select your domain name
- Pick your ecommerce website builder
- Design the look of your online store
- Add products to your online shop
- Set up shipping
- Market your online store
- Launch your online store
Choose a Niche and Develop a Business Plan
The ecommerce market is hyper-diverse. Even today’s giants such as Amazon started as a niche retailer. Do background research on ecommerce niches to identify your focus area.
1. Conduct a SWOT analysis.
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It’s a simple yet effective way to assess different niche and product ideas.
For example, let’s say you want to start a CBD business:
- Strengths: Growing interest, high consumer demand, multiple product verticals, personal knowledge in CBD.
- Weaknesses: A lot of regulatory gray areas, shipping restrictions, challenging cross-border expansion.
- Opportunities: Untapped CBD-infused gourmet drinks market, ability to establish partnerships with restaurants (run B2B & B2C operations)
- Threats: Failure to source regulation-friendly products with legitimate test certifications, regulatory issues when selling cross-country.
2. Find industry gaps.
At first glance, it may seem that all the good ecommerce niches are taken. But it’s not true.
With targeted research, you can uncover unfulfilled consumer demands even within popular product categories.
For example, toys are aplenty. But some parents have grown concerned about exposing children to unsafe chemical compounds.
To find gaps in your target market, tap into:
- Social media — analyze concerns, complaints and recommendation requests, voiced by your target audience.
- Google Trends — compare and contrast the search volume for different product types over time.
- Look at bestsellers on Amazon and eBay — read reviews and see what the shoppers are missing or what they complain about.
3. Analyze your customer personas.
The best ecommerce product ideas are born at the intersection of need, preferences and interests among the target audience.
Create a set of ideal buyer personas, populated with:
- Demographic data — age, location, occupation, income
- Psychographic data — interests, values, beliefs, struggles and aspirations
Learn more about buyer personas.
4. Choose the right business model.
As part of your customer research, you should also note how and where your audience tends to buy products and what would be the best way to reach them.
- B2B ecommerce — Do you see yourself selling more to wholesalers, retailers and business buyers?
- B2C ecommerce — Or would you rather market your products directly to consumers?
- Selling on online marketplaces — Popular marketplaces such as eBay, Amazon or Etsy provide built-in access to a variety of audiences.
- Dropshipping — This model passes on order fulfillment tasks to a third party, so you don’t hold any inventory yourself.
- DTC — The direct-to-consumer business model eliminates the intermediary (multi-brand retailer or wholesaler).
Check out our detailed explainer on different types of ecommerce business models.
Select Your Domain Name
Just like your business name, a domain name is your unique identifier for consumers. Apart from guiding them to your online store, the right domain name can also improve brand recall and awareness.
Here’s how to generate a domain name for your ecommerce store:
1. Try to be unique.
“Exact match” domain names such as buytoysonline.com used to be all the rage among small business owners, because keyword-rich names made it easier to rank in search results. But, those aren’t ideal for most businesses.
Instead, opt for a more unique name. To come with one, try this:
- Mesh two words: “Big + Commerce”
- Use a descriptive real word: e.g. Burrow — den, refuge.
- Experiment with foreign words: e.g., Natori
2. Don’t use unfamiliar words or use creative spellings.
On the other hand, don’t get too creative when trying to compound different words. You might end up with something unintentionally offensive or inappropriately funny, such as:
- Amigone Funeral Homes => AmIGonefuneralhome.com
Try to come with a domain name with no:
- Unintentional compound words
- Hyphens or numbers (unless part of the brand)
- Misspelled words (as people will mistype them as correct ones)
- Hard-to-pronounce combos
3. Keep it short.
Keep your domain name under 12 characters. That’s the perfect length for making it memorable and easy to type. You will need similar social media handles for your website — these will need to be short as well.
It’s okay if your full business name is longer. For example, ASOS marketplace originally stood for “As Seen on Screen,” but grew popular under the shorter name.
Pick Your Ecommerce Website Builder
Ecommerce platforms come in different types with a varying set of native features and extensions. To identify the best choice for your business, create a prioritized list of requirements — a list of critically important functionality and the “nice to haves.” Then, analyze different open source and SaaS solutions.
1. Things to consider when choosing your ecommerce platform.
It may be tempting to start with the cheapest website builder. The downside is that you may have to migrate your ecommerce site later, which is an added complexity. Consider the long term, even if you’re just building your first iteration.
When analyzing different options, ask:
- Can this platform grow along with my business?
- Will I experience a drop in performance after my business moves past a certain traffic or sales threshold?
Apart from scalability, you should also consider:
Does the platform provide all the most critical core commerce features natively? What will you need to invest in as an extension or develop yourself to fill in missing native functionality?
On your list of requirements, rank each feature on a scale of necessity from 1-10, and then assess several store builders and tally their scores.
Ecommerce data breaches are both a financial and a reputational risk. With a growing array of alternatives, modern consumers will likely think twice about buying from an online store that:
- Recently suffered from system hack or data breach
- Doesn’t have SSL security at checkout
- Doesn’t provide information on payment processing and data storage
Did you know that, since 2020, Google has been using mobile-indexing for the whole web? That’s why you need to make sure your ecommerce platform enables a stellar mobile shopping experience.
To determine the website’s position in both desktop and mobile SERPs, Google crawlers now rely on data gathered about the way your website renders on mobile devices.
If your online store isn’t mobile-friendly, your SEO page rankings could be suffering — leading to significantly lower website traffic. What’s more, you’d be also missing out on mobile sales.
2. Ecommerce website builders to choose from.
Ecommerce website builders simplify store setup and management. To make the optimal choice, consider your business goals, operational model and vertical, as well as technical requirements for your store. Then assess some popular options, like the ones listed here:
BigCommerce is an open SaaS ecommerce platform offering a wide range of native commerce features, integrated payment processing and secure hosting. If your business is poised for high growth, BigCommerce is easily extensible with custom integrations. Or, use it as a headless commerce solution and connect to a fully custom front-end — or any front-end of your choice.
- Visual drag-and-drop page builder and editing of HTML and CSS
- Integration with 55+ payment gateways
- Supports up to 600 SKUs per product
- Enables payments in 140+ local currencies in over 95 countries
Shopify is a SaaS ecommerce platform offering a competitive range of features to get your online store up and running. Catering to small businesses and, more recently, larger mid-market shops, Shopify provides a good balance of native features and third-party integrations with other business apps.
- Visual page builder, as well as direct editing of HTML/CSS
- Proprietary payment processor, plus integration with 100+ payment gateways. Merchants using a primary gateway other than Shopify’s will be subject to additional transaction fees up to 2%.
- Secure shopping cart functionality
Magento is an open source ecommerce platform. It’s highly customizable but also requires a greater level of technical upkeep. You can download and host Magento locally or in the cloud.
- Open source
- On-premise or PaaS (platform-as-a-service) operational scenarios
- Virtually unlimited customization and extension opportunities
- However, prepare to set aside a high budget. A basic Magento store, built on an open source platform using a template, can cost up to $20,000-$45,000 up-front.
WooCommerce is an open source ecommerce platform developed as a WordPress plugin. A lot of businesses use it as an easy gateway to making online sales from their WordPress websites. Similar to Magento, WooCommerce users are responsible for hosting, securing, configuring and extending their own instance of the WooCommerce software.
- Quick to install, as it’s available as a WordPress plugin
- Integrates with 140 region-specific payment gateways
- Hundreds of extensions you can install for help with shipping, accounting, marketing and much more.
Design the Look of Your Online Store
Ecommerce website builders such as BigCommerce come with a broad selection of website themes, organized by verticals.
Choose a template that best matches your needs and then adjust it to fit your business’ branding:
- Customize fonts and text sizes
- Add high-quality visuals and branded assets
- Configure your color scheme
- Embed social media accounts and branded content
- Experiment with different page layouts and product listing types
Read more on ecommerce design.
Add Products to Your Online Store
To make your store delightful to shop and your products easy to find, set up your product category pages, write great product descriptions and upload product images that will sell.
1. Product descriptions.
A persuasive product description addresses the customer’s problem, lists the product’s features and highlights the main benefits to prompt a sale.
The secret to product descriptions that convert is a formula pro copywriters use:
- Explain who this product is for.
- List the essential product characteristics (size, material, etc).
- Suggest when someone needs this product.
- Help the buyer envision where they’ll use it.
Bliss makes a simple body wash sound exciting by highlighting product quality (“silky lather”, “pick-me-up fragrance”) and benefits (“exceptionally soft skin”) in 3 snappy bullet points.
Just like Bliss, keep your product description devoid of:
- Complex jargon
- Clichés or odd pop-culture references
- Long rambling sentences
2. Product images.
Don’t skimp on product photography.
- Hire a professional photographer to do the shooting if you can afford to.
- If not, create a home-made photography setup for shooting attractive ecommerce photos.
Also, consider getting 360-degree photos for higher value items such as furniture, equipment or certain types of garments. According to data supplied by Webrotate 360, business owners report a 5% to 40% increase in online sales after adding 360 product view functionality to their website.
3. Product categories.
Website taxonomy helps establish and manage relationships between different product pages. Product categories, in particular, are necessary to properly display your catalog and make your inventory more discoverable.
Most garment retailers go with “men’s, women’s, accessories, new in and sale.” categories. Ecommerce websites carrying a larger stock also add bonus categories to facilitate discovery. Oftentimes, there are based around common customer search queries or seasonality. For example, you can also add “gift categories” around Christmas time. Or “Featured sustainable brands” if that’s a rising demand among your target audience.
When designing product category pages, add extra filters to help customers narrow down their choices. The handy ones are “Size”, “Price range”, “Color”, “Material”, etc.
Set Up Shipping
Next, you need to figure out how new products will reach owners. Effective ecommerce shipping strategy is critically important because 56% of consumers will not buy from a retailer after a bad delivery experience. So be sure to sort all the ends.
1. Determine your shipping policy.
A shipping policy sets the right expectation among new customers. It needs to clearly communicate the costs, terms and any limitations of your delivery.
To create a shipping policy for your store, consider these questions:
Are you offering shipping for free, a flat rate or a variable fee? Work out a realistic “free shipping” threshold to appeal to more buyers and encourage higher average order value. Otherwise, use a tiered ‘flat fee’ structure for different types of deliveries — standard, priority, 2-day, etc.
What carrier(s) do you ship with? Prices, timings and shipping restrictions vary from one carrier to another. Consider all the options available to you and prioritize those offering the best price-to-value ratio. For example, a cheaper provider may not accept bulky items or offer no insurance in case of damage.
Do you plan to ship internationally? Consider selling and shipping to nearshore destinations (e.g. Canada and Mexico) at first to scale your market reach. Then look into international fulfillment strategies.
2. Select ecommerce shipping solutions.
You can compare shipping rates, print shipping labels and automate shipping updates with shipping solutions. Prioritize shipping solutions that you can easily integrate with your ecommerce platform and configure to match your operations workflows.
This guide provides a detailed lowdown on the best shipping software for ecommerce companies.
Market Your Online Store
Every entrepreneurs’ worst nightmare is seeing zero active visitors in Google Analytics on the launch day.
To make sure that your new store is bursting with virtual visitors, you’ll need to:
- Prioritize several ecommerce marketing channels.
- Develop a pre-launch promotion strategy for them.
To get traffic to a new online store, most markets rely on:
Social media: Start building your online audiences before your website is done. Share quick product previews, teasers and behind-the-scenes previews to build up anticipation. Then announce the planned launch day and steer extra engagement by offering special discounts/promos to all followers.
If you are launching a niche store (for example, one selling vintage posters), you can also get extra free publicity by networking in niche online communities and forums.
Influencer marketing: Audience-less businesses may want to prioritize pre- and post-launch influencer marketing campaigns. The big boon of influencer marketing is that you get triple benefits:
- A push in brand awareness/recall
- Engagement with your organic content
- Direct leads and sales
Influencer partnerships at early stages can help attract those first few sales, plus boost your website visibility among search engines as interested consumers will start typing in your brand/domain name in the search. This is a strong positive ranking signal.
Paid advertising: Targeted Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest campaigns can also facilitate brand and product discovery. Just like with other performance marketing strategies the definite advantage here is that you only pay for meaningful action — clicks, visits, inquiries, sales.
Search engine optimization (SEO) and email marketing are more long-shot strategies. Both need more time and investment to “take off”. But the sooner your start — the faster you’ll see positive traction.
So make sure that you have basic on-page SEO in place before launch. Then dial-up with content marketing and off-page SEO post-launch.
Similarly, create a set of on-site subscription forms and incentives for subscribing (e.g. first order discount) to start growing your email list from day one.
Launch Your Online Store
Once you moved your website from stage to production, give it a quick test-drive to ensure that you are all set in terms of design, performance and navigation.
Here’s a quick checklist:
- Review all call-to-actions and form titles on the homepage and landing pages.
- Test your checkout experience.
- Double-check payment processing integrations (credit cards, PayPal, Stripe, etc).
- Make sure that all images are high-definition but well optimized.
- Look for missing product descriptions, characteristics, categories.
- Inspect your website navigation.
- Connect helpdesk email and/or helpdesk software.
- Check if all links and forms work.
- Verify that all taxes are set correctly.
- Test your email marketing service provider.
- Ensure that all the inventory is properly listed.
- Try if coupon/promo codes work.
Also, be sure to check if your digital storefront works equally well on desktop and mobile.
2 Examples of Successful Online Stores
Wondering how other entrepreneurs survived the journey of creating their online stores? Here are three inspirational stories from our customers.
Justin Wang, an eco-activist and avid hiker realized that it’s very hard to ditch the plastic water bottle. Available reusable plastic bottles weren’t that good either. Most were hard to keep clean when used frequently. So he designed LARQ — a self-cleaning reusable bottle — and started selling a product range online.
His online business grew rapidly with a 400% YoY increase in revenue. In 2019, LARQ started the international expansion and drove an over 80% increase in conversions over 3 months by adding multi-currency checkout with BigCommerce.
While studying in business school, Burrow’s co-founders were struggling to find good quality furniture for a reasonable price. They didn’t want to buy cheap reusable items, polluting the environment. But also didn’t have patients (and a big budget) to spend on custom furniture. So they came up with an idea of modular out-of-the-box (literary) items that can be assembled with minimal hassle.
In 2019, the duo launched online operations with BigCommerce — an ecommerce platform as modular and convenient as Burrow’s products. Kabeer Chopra mentioned that our headless commerce solution allowed them to create a unique shopping experience, effectively linked with their operational backend.
Everyone’s journey to online commerce will be somewhat different.
Some create online stores to complement retail operations. Others venture out as hobbyists and then scale via self-funding or seek to attract external investment.
What remains constant is the underlying setup process. You need to select a “fit for purpose” ecommerce platform, set up your product catalog, tweak design and other configurations and then dial up on marketing!
How to Create an Online Store FAQs
1. How much does it cost to set up an online store?
Ecommerce store setup costs will depend on your store size and ecommerce platform selection. You can launch a hobby store with a small product catalog for as low as $29/mo with BigCommerce. But a more complex solution with custom design, extensions and payment methods will cost more to set up.
2. Can you create an online store for free?
There are certain ecommerce softwares that you can download for free, but launching a site will never be completely free. Consider any apps or add-ons you’ll need, plus, if you’re using an open source software — typically the ones you can download for free — you’ll be responsible for your own maintenance, security and hosting.
3. How profitable are online stores?
Profitability will depend heavily on your up-front investment, the profit margins on your product mix, and how much you spend on marketing, advertising, operations and shipping.
4. How do I start my own online store?
You need to first come up with a business plan, choose products, and get all your logistical ducks in a row. Then, select an ecommerce platform that will deliver what you need as far as functionality requirements without breaking the bank.
5. Do I need to use a developer to start an online store?
Not necessarily. Some platforms, like BigCommerce, make it easy to start an ecommerce store with little to no support from developers. However, once you start to scale, you may want to engage an agency or freelance developer to help make customer-friendly customizations.
6. How can I make an online store successful?
Ecommerce success depends on four factors — product relevance and quality, ecommerce website performance, pricing strategy and targeted marketing campaigns. Ensure that you source in-demand products, price them correctly, promote them to the right target audience and deliver a stellar online shopping experience.
7. How long does it take to create an online store?
Timing depends on your store size. A hobby or pop-up store can be set up in less than a month (factoring design, content creation and configurations). SMBs should plan for a longer timeline — 1-3 months.
8. What integrations do you need for an online store?
That depends on the features you want to offer your customers. You’ll definitely need a payment gateway, though, so determining which payment gateway will suit your needs the best is a great place to start.
9. Can you start an online store without inventory?
You can run an online store without inventory by dropshipping products. Find a manufacturing/supply partner, negotiate sales and shipping terms. Then list their inventory on your online store and forward shipping information to them when you make a sale.
Want more insights like this?
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