Woman picking up online order from retail store clerk - 5 Ways to Get Started Selling Online

5 Ways to Get Started Selling Online

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Starting an online business can be both an exhilarating and daunting experience. On one hand, you can be your own boss, sell what you want, and work at your own pace, all from the comfort of your own home. With online sales growing every year, it’s no wonder that the online marketplace is a sought after venture for those desiring more creative control and a way to make their passions lucrative. 

However, the freedom that ecommerce allows can also quickly become debilitating. New technology, selling platforms, and trends can leave individuals uncertain as to how to best proceed. And oftentimes, online businesses are slow to get off the ground and can leave business owners discouraged. 

Because ecommerce is such a vast field, and the possibilities truly are endless, this article will focus on the beginning steps of starting an online business so you can enter the online marketplace with confidence.

First, let’s look at some pros and cons of selling online.

Pros of selling online

Reach millions of potential customers. The chance of a customer from halfway across the world visiting your physical shop is slim to none compared to the chance of a local walking down the street and visiting your store. 

In the online marketplace, however, there are virtually no limits or constraints on your potential customer base. By 2023, it’s estimated that online sales will account for nearly a quarter of all retail sales worldwide. 

Typically, in a local shop, happy and faithful customers spread the word to their family, friends, and neighbors. With an online shop, the same thing occurs, but the boundaries are no longer your local town, city, or state, but instead spread out across the globe.

Work from home and be your own boss. We all know the ideal situation: waking up at your leisure, brewing a hot cup of coffee, walking into your home office in your PJs, and then sitting down and going through order confirmations while your dog lays at your feet. 

For those who share these same sentiments, running a successful online shop is powerfully alluring for the freedom, control, and convenience it offers. 

Can choose not to stock inventory. A constant battle for many business owners is attempting to meet demand with an adequate amount of supply. However, if you overstock on items that are selling poorly, you end up wasting money. Understock on items that garner high demand, and you end up losing out on potential profit. 

With an online shop, this battle is easier to combat. Rather than having to make predictions and hope for the best, you can choose to stock as orders come in. 

This does, however, depend on the product or service you’re offering:

  • If you’re providing musical downloads (a purely digital product), then orders can be fulfilled instantaneously and your product stock is essentially infinite with minimal overhead costs to you.
  • If you’re offering video editing (a digital service), you can accept orders at your own rate, take on as many jobs as you want, and then once you’ve reached your limit, pause purchasing until you’re ready to take on more. This means being able to buy supplies to deliver the service as you need it. This same logic applies for physical services, too, such as providing hand-made items.
  • If your business is centered around selling physical products, then things can get a bit trickier. More info on this type of online selling as we continue. 

Can choose products/services that you are familiar or passionate with. Online marketplaces often reward individuals who follow their passion and provide products or services that they are experts in. Being able to make a living off working in a field or subject that makes you happy is not only fulfilling, but rewarding for the consumer as well, as they’ll feel their purchases have value in fueling someone’s craft.

Cons of selling online

Can take time to see results. A physical store hosting a grand opening on a busy mainstreet may be able to see traction from their very first day, but online stores generally take longer to develop a substantial customer base. This is often the leading cause of online startups withering away or small business owners losing enthusiasm. 

It is not passive income. A common misconception is that online businesses do less work than their offline alternatives. This isn’t typically the case, and in many cases, they can actually be more work. But the trade off is getting to choose the work you’re doing and reaching goals that you’ve constructed.

Home becomes a workplace: Without setting up good work habits, you can quickly develop a voice in your head that is constantly criticizing you for not working or getting ahead on orders. It’s easier to separate work from play when the comfort of your home isn’t a makeshift corporation. 

However, with a bit of practice and healthy habits, a quality work-life balance can be maintained even when the locations for both are one and the same.

How to start selling online

With the various pros and cons covered, let’s move into breaking down the steps to starting your online business. 

Assuming you’re starting from scratch, we’ll begin with picking a name and choosing a product or service to provide, and then move into covering various platforms that will allow you to sell your product or service. 

Afterward, we’ll look through sourcing and supplying your product or service, and also customer outreach and gaining traction. 

Finally, we’ll cover aspects of accepting payments and the various softwares available to make this process easy and convenient. 

Choose your business name

Create a name and domain for your business. When choosing a company name, an important thing to focus on is accessibility. 

Keeping your business name simple yet unique will help it top search listings and stand out from the masses. 

After deciding on a business name, it’s a good idea to see how the name you’ve chosen carries over to creating a website. Preferably, you’re able to secure a domain name that is simply the name of your business. Many customers will assume they can find your website by simply adding “.com” to your business name. If the domain name for your business name is taken, consider changing it, buying out the domain name, or, if changing your business name isn’t an option, then get creative with the domain name. For example, if your business name is “Summit Ice Cream” but “www.summiticecream.com” is taken, then perhaps try these options:

  • www.icecreamatthesummit.com 
  • www.summiticecreamshop.com 
  • www.thesummiticecream.com

Choose what product or service you’re going to provide

Sell what you love. With great passion also comes great motivation, so choosing to sell a product that you care about, enjoy making, or see as an answer to a problem you’re committing to fixing will work wonders in keeping you determined and fulfilled. 

Search market trends. Study the internet for more than a week and you’ll notice trends have a powerful ability to push consumers in various directions. It’s not at all rare that one video going viral can lead to huge rises in stocks, service orders, or products flying off the virtual shelves. 

Stay up to date with trends through social media and act quickly (or better yet, act before all the traction hits) and you can be in for a great start to your online business. 

For example, with the COVID-19 pandemic, people were more stationary and spent large amounts of time at home, so items like casual wear, coffee accessories, and home entertainment skyrocketed. On the other hand, in-person dining, retail shopping, and travel decreased.

Read online forums. Sifting through product reviews, forum postings, and social media in general can help you figure out a lot about what consumers are interested in buying:

  • See a lot of negative reviews for a product with a major defect? Fix it!
  • Reading a lot of complaints about a DIY guide or “how-to” posted online being too difficult? Find a solution to make the service easier!
  • Coming across a lot of “I wish _____ existed” comments on social media? Make it a reality!

Learn from the big stores: An important lesson to learn from chains and stores that have stood the test of time are commoditized versus niche products.

Commoditized products are items that play to a foundational need in humans. These products make up the bulk of big stores and are safe and consistent bets for the operators to stock up on. Pet supplies, food, clothing, home decor, and baby items are examples of commoditized products.

While there is always an audience for commoditized products, the market for these types of products is typically saturated. If you have the outreach, commoditized products are almost always a safe bet, but they might not be the product that helps you gain traction when entering the online marketplace.

This is where niche items come into play. These are products that are more specific and attract a smaller, but passionate customer base. Big stores typically also carry niche items on top of commoditized items, balancing out the risk and reward, and attempting to maximize products with both the general population and more distinct groups. 

Video game plushies, anime collectibles, lego sets… these are examples of niche products that have overwhelmingly paid off for big chain stores to the point that these items are almost regarded as commoditized. However, for every niche success a chain store has had, they’ve also had their share of failures, investment losses, and items they’ve had to sell at fractions of the price they initially asked for in an attempt to break even. 

Niche products are certainly a risk when it comes to being able to predict whether a consumer base will grow around them; but if that audience does form, they are typically loyal and passionate, and competitors will have to catch up and compete with you for their commitment.

For these reasons, both pathways come with their own benefits and struggles; but generally speaking, niche products are easier (and arguably more enjoyable) to sell in order to enter into the online marketplace, and commoditized options are a safer bet if you have the means and a developed audience. 

What platform will you use to sell your product?

Ecommerce stores. Shopify and BigCommerce are two examples of business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce platforms. B2B platforms are for selling large quantities of products between businesses, otherwise known as “wholesale”. 

Ecommerce websites are beneficial for those with large production capabilities looking to sell to distributors/merchants, who in turn also benefit by then being able to repackage and sell smaller quantities at a higher price to their customers.

If you’re looking to get into the supply market, in which you don’t have to worry as much about growing a customer base but instead quality relationships with other businesses in need of your product, this would be your best bet. 

Or, if you’re trying to get into the commoditized product field, this is a good option to buy these common products in bulk at an affordable price to then distribute yourself. 

(Shopfiy and BigCommerce are also platforms that can host small business websites as well, and are not limited to only B2B transactions)

WordPress. WordPress is a content management system that works across virtually all servers, and all its combined webpages take up roughly 40% of the internet. WordPress is one of the most accessible ways to host a website for your online business to engage in business-to-consumer (B2C) transactions. Using these platforms, businesses are able to simply list their products online, and have customers buy their products without having to leave their homes.

Today, WordPress websites have built in plug-ins and customization options so you can design your website yourself and represent yourself exactly as you want to. They also come equipped with tools like product management, blogging, social media connection, etc.

If you want to maximize creative control, finding a WordPress host to work with is a great choice. The downside of going this route is you’ll have to rely mostly on yourself for gaining traffic and growing a consumer base.

Online marketplaces. Chances are, you’ve used Amazon, Etsy, or Ebay. These ecommerce powerhouses are examples of consumer-to-consumer (C2C) platforms. On these sites, virtually anyone can sell almost anything. 

Some of the benefits of selling on these C2C platforms are their ease of use and their immense amount of daily traffic. Although it can initially be difficult to see immediate results, these platforms reward merchants with good reviews and punctual shipping reports with better coverage, so staying determined can pay off.

Amazon has more layers, and requires certain credentials for access to certain features. While almost anything can be found on Amazon, the bulk of its sales are commoditized items.

Etsy is great for selling niche products, and has less regulations about what you can sell: hand-made video game plushies, artwork, movie-themed merchandise, crafted clothing, etc.

Ebay is truly almost anything goes, but it’s well known for selling collectibles, signatured items, out of print material, technology, and antiques. This is due to its “bidding” feature, which allows consumers to bid for products that are one of a kind and difficult to find anywhere else.

Craigslist is another popular selling platform that is based on geographic area. This is typically used more as an online yard sale website, but does have potential as well as a strong following. 

Many merchants use these platforms as B2C by presenting themselves as a store brand on the website rather than on an individual basis.

Social media sites. Another B2C and C2C platform that has grown popular in the last decade are social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

These sites allow you to create business profiles on their site and use them as a gateway to share your products, contact customers, run a blog, and run ads. As it stands, social media sites are primarily great tools to bring traction to your business’s website or profile on a host platform (more on this later), as the payment transactions for items has to occur on a separate website.

Facebook, however, has Facebook Marketplace, which can run purchases and acts like a modern Craigslist, where anyone can sell practically anything and search results are dependent on geographic location. 

Or, choose multiple platforms. It’s completely feasible to sell your products across all of these platforms, so there’s no need to feel like you must commit to only one. The more routes available for customers to find your storefront, the higher your sales chances. Just be careful not to spread yourself too thin and be aware that some platforms come with fees that can add up quickly.

The traditional route is to choose one third-party platform to sell through, construct your own website storefront, and boost traction and visibility through social media.

How to source your product

So, you’ve got an idea for your business name, a product you’d like to sell, and a platform on which you’d like to sell it. Now, let’s look through ways to supply your product. 

Purchase from a wholesaler/manufacturer. This method involves buying items in bulk (wholesaling) from a distributor and then selling the items at a higher cost through your storefront. This entails maintaining a good relationship with a manufacturer/supplier, assessing the quality of the products, and then shipping the items to your customers.

The benefits of this method is that with the right negotiation and a significant customer base, this is the tried and true method to make the most profit and have the most control over your online store. 

The downsides are that it takes a considerable amount of cash to get started, and if you’re unable to sell off what you’ve ordered, then you can lose a substantial amount of money. This makes it an especially risky option for those just entering the online marketplace. Additionally, you have to store the products and either make room for them in your home, rent storage space, or partner with a third-party fulfillment service.

Dropshipping: Dropshipping is a popular supply method for newcomers and those who haven’t yet built a consumer base, because unlike wholesaling, dropshipping has no initial costs.

This method involves working with a supplier who offers dropshipping, which means that they’ll supply your product and package and send the product to your customers. This means you only make money, and acquire costs, when you make sales. 

This is the safest approach to entering ecommerce, but keep in mind you lose out on some control and profit having to work through an intermediary. 

Make the product yourself. If your product is centered on an item or service that you’re passionate about, then you may just want to supply the product yourself. This is especially prevalent when dealing with more niche items or items that only you can make.

One difficulty with handling production yourself is having to limit your orders so as to not get overwhelmed. This can mean losing out on profit you would normally get if you had a more consistent and substantial stock.

But it also means you get to:

  • Take joy in creating items you love
  • Proudly sell hand-crafted quality
  • Offer customization of products
  • Pay production costs only as you need them

Many individuals have started online selling simply to live out their hobbies and side gigs, but it’s not rare for these side hustles to gain traction and turn into lucrative careers.

How to get customers and make sales

Social media. It’s helpful to think of making a social media account for your business in the same way you’d make a personal account to get hired for a job. You want your business to appear:

Articulate, well-spoken, and specific with what you do and do not offer.

Clearly visible with professional photos of your products that show them off at their best.

Easily reachable with your contact information clearly located.

Well-reviewed and trustworthy with customer reviews acting as references and customer engagement acting as community approval.

Furthermore, many social media sites have advertising programs where your posts and business page gets pushed to users whom these sites have categorized as likely being interested in your products.

Search engine optimization (SEO): A social media page for your business not only acts as a representation of your business, but can also greatly boost its SEO, which is basically the chance that a customer sees your internet storefront as one of the top choices when using search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

Before covering how to increase your SEO on search engines that serve the entire internet, it’s first good to know that some platforms have their own search engines and built-in tools you can take advantage of to increase your outreach on these sites. 

For example, if you make a post on your Facebook page with hashtags, which is achieved by using the # symbol followed by a word (e.g., #improveSEO), then when people make searches containing these words on Facebook, they are more likely to come across your posts, and therefore your products, therefore boosting traction to your storefront and increasing purchases. 

Instagram and Twitter also have their own search tools and make use of hashtags. 

It’s unlikely that people will randomly search for your business or product names, but it’s highly likely they will search for keywords pertaining to your business and your products, so it’s a good habit to incorporate them regularly. While doing so will probably help your SEO on these specific sites, it can improve your SEO on search engines like Google if they gain enough hits and engagement. Two ways to increase your SEO on these more extensive search engines are through blogging and vlogging.

Blogging. The SEO process consists of Google scanning through all the information you release to the public (item descriptions, updates, prices, bios, etc.) in order to show customers the most relevant results. The more information Google has, coupled with the more engagement your website and social media have, will increase your chances of having your business pushed to the top of search result pages.

That’s where blogs come in. Blogging on your social media or WordPress gives search engines a wealth of information to work with that you get to control. At first, it might not seem like you have a lot to write about, but if you break down the components of your business, you’ll begin to see quick write-ups you can hammer out relatively quickly:

  • Day recaps/weekly reviews (essentially keeping a business journal)
  • Product updates
  • New items in the store
  • Why you started your online business (people love supporting passionate people)
  • Team member bios
  • Detailing the process by which you make your products
  • Things you’ve learned/things you wish you knew (write these after spending some time in the online scene)
  • Promotions and sales

If you look closely, you’ll see a mix of posts above: some are store specific and others are more general content. 

General content posts are great for attracting readership and accumulating interest in your brand, business, and online persona. These types of posts are easier to push on search engines and are typically more searched for. 

The hope is that when potential customers read these more general posts, they’ll dig deeper and find your website, or come across your store-specific posts, and learn more about your business and support you by buying some of your business’s products.

Writing tutorials on your blog is a highly effective example of this. Suppose you’re the owner of “Summit Ice Cream”. Rather than simply list your new ice cream spindle product, write up a blog post titled, “How to best spindle your own ice cream.” Then, at both the beginning and end of your blog post, include links to your spindle product and a quick sentence or two as to why it’s better than any other one on the market.

Not only will this increase traction to your website, bolster your SEO, and raise sales, it will also build your brand’s persona as being helpful, passionate, and informative.

Vlogging: Vlogging is blogging in video form rather than written posts, and is a great way to take advantage of video sharing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. 

All the blog post examples are possible here, just in a different format. Vlogs tend to be more popular among younger generations for being more visual and for being shown on more trending websites, whereby written blogs fare better among older generations and people looking to find quick answers to problems on Google.

Vlogging can take a bit more effort than blogging, but you’d be surprised how many viewers are content with simply watching someone talk about a product, guiding them through a tutorial, or reviewing a service without any special effects or professional editing. You just need to have an adequate camera and microphone to get started.

Here’s a good tip: if your main outlet is blogging, then simply use your blogs as scripts for vlogs. And if your main outlet is vlogging, then use your vlog scripts as blogs as well. Also, writing out your vlog script in the description of your vlog video will boost your SEO.

Always remember to have links to your main storefront/business website on all your blogs, vlogs, and social media!

Email marketing: Emails are still a popular way to get information out to your customers and build a loyal consumer base, but it probably shouldn’t be your only outreach. Newsletters aren't quite as popular as they used to be, but there is a new modern approach replacing them. This involves having an option at checkout for your customers to receive new product alerts, blog posts, and general updates from your business sent to the email address they use to complete their purchase. You get a free list of email contacts to interact with, so it’s a pretty safe and easy option to integrate.

What payments to accept

Does your platform have a built-in payment processing system? Something to keep in mind is how you’ll perform transactions and which payments you’ll accept. Some platforms, specifically the larger ones, have built-in payment options you can opt into, and WordPress has tools to incorporate this feature as well. Note that these built-in options can cost money, take up a percentage of your profits, and cost more than alternative processing options.

While it seems that the obvious choice is to accept credit card payments, it’s a good fact to keep in mind that digital payment transactions like PayPal, Apple Pay, etc. account for roughly a quarter of online sales. Other options like cryptocurrency also account for a significant portion of sales. With these stats in mind, it’s always a good idea to have some variety in payment options. A good approach would be to accept credit cards and one form of online transfer service. 

Use a payment processor. While using built-in payment processors is convenient, they can become tricky when you are using multiple platforms to sell on, have a variety of income streams, and sell on all three business models (B2B, B2C, and C2C).

In addition, if your business gains traction, you may have to consider hiring more help, fending off fraud, and promising customer data security.

For these reasons, investing in a payment processor is a smart long-term decision that will seamlessly fit into whatever business you’re constructing, and can be customized to fit your exact business needs.

A good payment processor will save you time and money, and allow you to focus on interacting with your customers, researching trends, and making your products.

Looking for a partner who can help you sell online?

Heartland is ready to help.

Heartland is the point of sale, payments and payroll solution of choice for entrepreneurs that need human-centered technology to sell more, keep customers coming back and spend less time in the back office. Nearly 1,000,000 businesses trust us to guide them through market changes and technology challenges, so they can stay competitive and focus on building remarkable businesses instead of managing the daily grind. Learn more at heartland.us.