Building Your First Store Online — An Introduction to eCommerce
We live in a golden age of the internet for small business entrepreneurs. Not only do we have technology giants building uber-successful technology and platform companies, every one of us also has the opportunity to start a business faster and with a lower cost of startup than ever before. If you want to create the next Amazon or Microsoft the odds are stacked against you and you will need a ton of help. But if you want to build an eCommerce business from scratch as a part-time side hustle or have a vision to one day make it your full-time job there has never been a better time to do it.
Whether you decide to build your store on Shopify or not, this guide will help you figure out what to do and where to get started.
What is a Successful Online Store?
The first thing to do is to really understand what you want to get out of your Shopify store. Broadly speaking, there are five kinds of entrepreneurs that start an online store.
1. Selling Online for Love
For tens of thousands of online stores, it is a labor of love and passion. They get to make, buy, and sell things that they are interested in while making a little bit of money.
2. The eCommerce Side-Hustle
Then there are hundreds of thousands of online stores that are set up to make a meaningful amount of money on the side. For them it’s permanent part-time self-employment. Some of these blow up into something bigger, but most of them keep it lean — just the way they want it.
3. The Small Business Professional Retailer
There is another big segment of internet merchants that want to build a business that will grow into a full-time job. For them, their online store is a path to full-time self-employment and stability.
4. The Product Innovator or Inventor
If you come up with a new product idea, it can be hard to get that product into established retailers. A way around that problem is to start selling it Direct to Consumers (D2C) first and then build a wholesale channel to other merchants once your product is established. An online store can be a great way to do just that.
5. The eCommerce Enterprise
Modern eCommerce platforms are designed to grow with you as your business grows. They have tools to help sell internationally and tons of integrations with advanced inventory control and accounting packages. Shopify is the biggest name in eCommerce right now and it’s the one we work with every day. A lot of big eCommerce brands start on Shopify and stick with Shopify long-term even when then are selling millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise every month. This includes big names like Kylie Cosmetics, GymShark.com, ColorPop.com, and even Jay Leno run their online stores on the Shopify platform. Other big eCommerce software and platforms like Magento, WooCommerce (Wordpress), and BigCommerce are set up to support bigger businesses the same way.
The point is that — no matter which eCommerce software platform you use — all five kinds of online stores can be successful. An online store is successful when it accomplishes what you want it to do to be happy. It’s as simple as that.
Reasonable Expectations for My Online Store
The one thing that is true of every kind of online store is that it will take time, effort, and attention — work. There is no way around it. Doing a good job at anything takes work. Sometimes that work is enjoyable and sometimes it’s just plain old hard work. But online tools and store-builders make it easier than it has even been in the past.
How eCommerce Online Store Builders Like Shopify Work
It used to be that to create an online store you had to have someone who knows how to write code build it for you and a designer to make it look good. Then you would have to find a place to host it and set up separate accounts for email and customer service and to be able to accept credit cards and a lot more.
Then a bunch of online store solutions were created that did about half of the work for you — some were add-ons to existing websites (like WooCommerce) and others were full-featured eCommerce solutions that still needed to be installed and maintained at a hosting company (like Magento).
But now there is a new generation of all-in-one eCommerce platforms. You sign up and can create a good-looking website right away using a pre-designed theme template or have a template customized for you. The payment systems are all pre-installed and ready to go and the platform company takes care of all the hosting and software updates and system security for you as a part of the monthly or yearly fee.
If you are just getting started, using an all-in-one eCommerce solution is the way to go.
What Is The Best All-In-One eCommerce Solution?
We get asked all the time if Shopify is the best way to launch an online store. The truth is that if you like tinkering with code and customizations or if you are a massive enterprise with sophisticated financial needs it may not be. But this article is for people who are just starting out. So, one thing is clear:
An all-in-one eCommerce solution is best for all new entrepreneurs and Shopify is the leading all-in-one solution right now.
You can look at great all-in-one website builders like Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace too. They have added good eCommerce features and have pre-built templates for online stores to help you get started. But the difference is that Shopify ONLY does eCommerce websites. This lets them focus all their efforts on sales functionality. They even have features and hardware to support physical stores and integrate multiple locations. But that also means that Shopify does not focus on other kinds of content — the blog/article tools are sub-standard, the types of pages you can have are more limited, and there are fewer integrations to other business applications.
So, the rule of thumb right now is that if your site is 95% eCommerce with a side of content, then Shopify is probably the best way to go (a second choice might be Square). If your business is going to have tons of content and a simple online store, then definitely take a look at Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace (not the same as Square).
As you can see, asking “What is the best eCommerce solution?” is not cut and dry. It depends on the kind of business you want to create.
Setting Up My Online Store – Business Basics Come First
When you are first getting started you will be focused on products and websites and logos. Believe it or not, that’s the fun stuff. But remember that an online store is still a business. That means there are a lot of legal, tax, and other things that will have to be addressed early on.
Choosing a Domain for My Online Store
Picking a domain can be fun. But finding the right domain that fits you and your online store brand AND hasn’t been taken by someone else is quite often time-consuming and frustrating. And this is important because in the online world your domain name IS your brand. And it is not enough to simply find one that is unique. It has to be easy to spell and remember. Otherwise, folks will go to another website by accident when they are trying to go to yours.
Like I said … frustrating and time-consuming. This is why you see so many businesses online with odd-sounding names — they are brandable, memorable, and the domains are available.
Just picking a name at random … let’s say you have a shop called Mandy’s Flowers. Well, the domain MandysFlowers.com is taken by a store in New York. But no one is using MandysFlowerShop.com or MandysFlowers.biz, so you might be able to buy one of those domains. But the problem is that your customers will likely start typing “Mandys Flowers” in the navigation bar and then Google will offer them options. I guarantee you that one of the top options will be the original MandysFlowers.com and your customers will go there instead.
No matter how much you LOVE the domain you thought of, this is a business and you need your customers to find you as easily as possible. There is no easy path. Here are some rules of thumb for finding the perfect eCommerce domain name.
If at all possible, make sure that your store domain:
- Is available as a “.com” domain (it still matters).
- Is fifteen characters or less.
- Is easy to type if you hear it.
- Does not include any commonly misspelled words.
- Is easy to remember.
If possible and if you can, buy domains “around” the main domain. In the Mandy’s Flowers example, it would be best if you could buy MandysFlowers.com, MandyFlower.com, MandysFlowerShop.com, etc. Then you point all those domains at the main domain where your website can be found. This protects your domain as a brand long-term.
Do You I Need a Trademark for My Online Store Brand Name?
The simple answer is probably not. Since no one can have a domain exactly like yours, so long as you have picked a unique domain and also registered the spellings and wordings around that name, no one else will be able to use it online. And if someone else tries to trademark that name, you will be able to prove “first use” and they will not be able to trademark it out from underneath you.
You should try to file a trademark if you are going to have physical locations outside your immediate area — most state business licenses do not allow duplicate business names within the same state. You should also try to get a trademark if you are naming a unique proprietary product or service that you will sell online. When that day comes, consult with a trademark attorney. Getting a trademark will cost about a thousand dollars on average including government and attorney fees — but it can easily become double that amount — and it takes more than a year to complete. The good news is that it is an established process and you are protected once you file (first use).
The Legal Part of Online Retail — Business License & Reseller Certificates
If you are selling a handful of items each month, it is unlikely that anyone from government will worry about it. But as soon as you are doing any kind of volume at all, the local government will eventually notice. Protect yourself and get a business license in your home state within 30 days of stating your online store. It’s easy, and most states let you do it online for a nominal fee.
eCommerce Sales Taxes
This can be the most confusing part of selling online. Different states and countries all have different rules about collecting and paying sales taxes from selling online. It is really kind of crazy. But most states have thresholds about a minimum amount of sales you can make in a year before you have to collect and file sales tax in those states. That means that you probably are fine on day one. But once you do any kind of volume at all, you have to start collecting, filing, and paying sales tax.
Fortunately, there are apps and plugins that can help with all this.
Search the app store of your all-in-one eCommerce solution. There are several really good ones out there. In Shopify, the most popular ones are TaxJar and Avalara.
Business Structure — What Kind of Company Do You Want to Have?
For nearly everyone just getting started in online selling, filing your income taxes and running your business as a Sole Proprietor will be fine. But as your business grows, as you take on debt, or if you are selling something that can have liability you will want to officially create a business entity. There are several types including Limited Liability Company (LLC), S-Corporation, and C-Corporation. Creating any stream of income from a business that you own means that you should use a professional accountant (CPA) and you should talk to them about which option is best for you from a liability and tax perspective.
What Products Should I Sell Online?
This is where the rubber meets the road. The fundamental part of selling items online is having something to sell that other people want to buy. Sounds easy, but it’s not. Let’s get started.
Sell Something Online That You Like
Rule #1 of effective selling online is choosing products you like. This is important for a lot of reasons. The most important of which is that you will be spending a LOT of time with the products — writing descriptions, taking photos, creating ads, writing blog posts. If you do not like the products you are selling this will be a series of arduous tasks. And what’s worse, you will not do as good a job.
In addition, by definition, the people who buy your products will be people who like the products you are selling. If you like the products too, that gives you something in common with them so customer service is just easier — you use similar products so you understand the challenges and tips and intuitively know when the product is performing as it should.
It’s simple. If you like a product it’s easier to sell and service.
DO NOT chase the lastest thing. We have personally worked with dozens of online stores where the store owner was selling vape supplies or fidget spinners or CBD oils or any number of things that they didn’t really like, but that they decided to sell that stuff because they heard that this was where the money was.
These online merchants were miserable.
It’s totally fine to chase a dollar so long as the dollar is not the only thing that you are chasing. Do you believe in and use CBD oil products? Great! Are you just trying to grab on to the hottest trend? Not so great long term.
Find Your eCommerce Niche
Now that you have some idea about what kinds of products you want to sell online it’s time to specialize a bit. If you are actually manufacturing your own products, then your brand and special twist are a form of specialization. If you are buying wholesale and reselling goods online, you are probably going to have to narrow things down a bit to gain traction. For example … BestBuy.com sells every kind of digital camera you can imagine. It’s going to be hard to compete with them on general digital camera sales. But what if you focus on digital cameras and equipment for fashion photography? Or what if you focus on digital cameras and equipment for streaming video online?
If you specialize, not only can your limit your products to a certain category, but you can create content and descriptions that speak to a smaller target audience. You have a better chance at being seen as an expert in your field and your recommendations will carry more weight than an anonymous blue-shirt inside a big-box store. And since your images and content will be more targeted, you will have a much better chance of coming up in online Google searches.
This is an example of finding your eCommerce niche. Let’s look at one more example of an ecommerce niche.
There are a lot of online stores that sell leather goods — from shoes and jackets to belts, wallets, and purses. It’s hard to compete with them. If you focused on western styled or themed leather goods, the list is smaller but still a bit crowded. I ran some test searches as I was writing this article and found that there are not many online retailers that focus on urban styled leather goods. If I liked leather jackets and boots in a big city style, I would be looking at this niche.
Should I Use Drop-Ship Companies, a Fulfillment Service, or Ship Products Myself — Which Is Better?
There are a bunch of companies that will drop-ship for you. They will show you success stories of young folks that have made a bunch of money this way — they build their site, load the drop-ship products, and then just sit back and collect the cash. This is very tempting and seems easy. But it’s not.
No doubt, some drop-ship product stores have made money. But by definition, if you have access to those products then so does everyone else. And they provide you with images and description text that are the same images and text everyone is using. This makes it REALLY hard to stand out. You also lose control of the process — someone else is doing the fulfillment work very far away from you. You will never know if there is a problem until it’s a much bigger problem and you will have no control over how carefully the products are packaged.
A lot of established online stores have their products shipped to an outside company that will keep their products in a warehouse, accept orders, and then ship them for you. These kinds of companies are called “fulfillment” companies. There are some really good ones. But it is hard to do this cost-effectively and efficiently when you are just starting out.
For the vast majority of start-up eCommerce entrepreneurs, the best option is to have their products at hand — in a spare bedroom or a garage — and to process, box, and ship everything themselves at the beginning. Not only is this the most cost-effective way when you are at a low volume, but there is no better what to learn the business than by doing as much of the work as possible. Fortunately, the all-in-one solutions like Shopify have the tools to keep basic inventory and process orders included. And you can install a shipping app like ShipStation or EasyShip or others that will help you get shipping rates and print mailing labels quickly.
Take the Time to Load Your Products in Your Online Store Right
Once you have determined the products that you will launch your site with, you have to upload them into your site. This is a very important time and the work is vital to your long-term success. Unfortunately, many online merchants rush through it.
- Whenever possible you should take your own photos. You do not need to be a professional photographer.
- No matter where you photos come from, every photo on your site should be formatted to strike the perfect balance of quality and speed … more on that in a moment.
- Every photo should have an Image ALT tag.
- Every product should have a product name that is descriptive and friendly. For example, “Womens Black Boots” is not enough. Something like “Urban Chic High-Heeled Womens Leather Boots in Black” is much better.
- Each product should have a well-written description of at least 50 words (70 is better). This description should be written in a way that would make you appreciate the value and want to make a purchase. It can feel odd or difficult at first, but if you like your products it will get easier quickly.
Baseline Best Practices for eCommerce Images
At TaskHusky, we want you to get off to a great start, so I am going to share this info with you. Here are our current baseline best practice recommendations for eCommerce images in all-in-one eCommerce solutions like Shopify:
- Header/Hero/Full-span photo images — JPEG, 9” wide at 150dpi (1350 pixels wide) compressed.
- Collection/Category photo images — JPEG, 5” square at 150dpi (750x750 pixels) compressed.
- Product photo images — JPEG, 6” square at 150dpi (900x900 pixels) compressed. Importantly, images 800x800 or larger automatically support product zoom functionality inside Shopify.
We have found these specifications to be consistent with the high-quality images on some of the top luxury brands in the world. It is our opinion that they strike a near perfect balance between quality and load speed — reducing overall page size for most websites while maintaining critical image quality across all major devices like cell phone and desktops.
You do not HAVE to use our best practices, but if not, you should use a set of rules that are substantially similar.
PNG vs. JPEG Images for eCommerce
You will notice that all of the best practice recommendations above all specify JPEG images as opposed to PNGs. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. But generally speaking, all “photos” should be JPEGs and all line art should be PNGs. I will spare you the technical details here, but same/same, JPEG images make photos load faster with better quality. The complete opposite is true of PNG images for line art.
A Note on Image ALT tags
Image ALT tags not only are great for SEO, but they are required for ADA compliance. Your new online store needs all the SEO value it can get and the lack of proper Alt tags can be problematic if it comes to the attention of an opportunistic attorney here in the US.
We wrote up an article that gives an introduction to Image ALT tags that should give you the information you need. ALT tags can be easily edited in the Shopify product page interface, but all eCommerce all-in-one website platforms that we know of support ALT tags.
Getting Extra Help with Understanding eCommerce Images & How to Prepare Them
We know that it can be problematic and confusing to work with eCommerce images when you are just getting started. If you need specific help with this or any other eCommerce related issue, you can get one of our eCommerce Strategy calls. We record them with video and we could walk through the process of formatting an image properly if that would help.
You can request this specialized task on this dedicated page:
What Comes Next for My New Online Store?
You are now ready to launch your online store — this is an exciting day. But you are only just getting started with your journey. Your eCommerce online store is a real business that will likely require your attention every day.
The next step is to drive traffic to your online store so that you can get that first sale. This marketing work will be important to all levels of online merchants. But marketing is a topic unto itself and we will cover this in another article.
Thanks for reading.
If you have decided to build your website on Shopify and need technical assistance tweaking or fixing something on your website, that’s what we do.