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How to start an online shop

How do I start an online store? From integrating secure payments to marketing your shop, get your fledgling retail business off the ground with our guide to starting an online shop...

In the UK alone, ecommerce grew to be worth a huge €178bn in 2018. Taking a slice of that pie is enticing enough – even without knowing that, though the UK's ecommerce market is currently the biggest in Europe, it's still growing rapidly.

Online shops are popular for obvious reason. Customers don’t have to leave their home, they (usually) don’t have to wait in queues, and they can shop at any time, 24-seven.

But as well as the customer, ecommerce is also great for your business: with small start-up costs, the barrier to entry is low, you can gain instant access to a global market and start selling straight away.

One of the easiest ways to start an online shop is to use a website builder such as Shopify, BigCommerce, or Wix, which all offer affordable ecommerce plans. Alternatively, if your requirements are a bit more complex, web design agencies give you the opportunity to build an entirely bespoke website from scratch.


The 6 best ecommerce platforms for small businesses in 2020

If you want to get your online shop up and running as quickly as possible, click on the links below to get started with a plan from one of our six tried and tested ecommerce platforms

We put every platform through a rigorous user testing process and ranked them in order based on seven key metrics.

You can find out more information about each ecommerce platform below.

Best value for money
Best for creative control
Best for sales-specific features
Best hassle-free platform
Best for selling for free
Best for multi-channel selling
Best for ease of use

Decide whether to self-host or use a hosted site

Arguably the first decision to make when starting an online shop is whether you’d like to self-host your shop, or launch it on a hosted platform such as Bluehost, Hostgator, and InMotion.

Jargon buster

  • Self-hosting: Selling your products through your own website.
  • Using a hosted site: Selling your products through an existing online marketplace, such as Amazon, Etsy or eBay.

As a newcomer to the world of online shopping, a hosted site can be very tempting. After all, they come with lower start-up costs and are, of course, much easier to set up. Bluehost’s WordPress hosting service is currently £3.19/month.

On the flip side, a hosted site will surround your products with competition and present little opportunity to get your branding and brand message out there. Not to mention that you’ll need to pay some of your profits back to your host.

Plus, self-hosting comes with less external risk. If a hosted platform undergoes technical or financial difficulties, for example, the sellers using it will suffer too.

This guide will deal primarily with starting your own self-hosted online shop – however, you can visit the following guides to learn how to:


Build the foundations of your self-hosted online shop

It seems like it’d be a complicated process, but starting an online shop can actually be as simple as adding ecommerce functionalities to your business’ website or blog.

Shopify plans include all these functions and more with all its premium plans. You can check out its full range of front and backend ecommerce solutions here. Likewise, BigCommerce’s product has a dizzying array of features you can use to create a professional-looking online shop regardless of your skill level.

By ecommerce functionalities, we simply mean:

  1. A page, or series of pages, on which customers can browse your products
  2. A shopping cart
  3. A method by which to securely take customers’ payments

You’ll also need to be able to package and ship your products in a timely manner.

Of course, if you don’t already have a website, you’ll need to build one first. You can do this by:

  • Building it yourself (knowledge of HTML coding is essential here)
  • Using a website-building tool
  • Hiring a web developer (professionals can be pricier than tools, but can offer hands-on advice and guidance).

Visit our guide to building a website in seven steps for more information.

Another way to integrate these functionalities is to install what’s known as an ecommerce platform. These are software applications using which entrepreneurs can build online shops, as well as manage sales and operations, using one handy programme.

With so many ecommerce platforms available, visit our guide to the UK’s best ecommerce platforms for entrepreneurs for help with deciding which is right for you.

Most major website builders offer all the functionality you’ll ever need including Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly.

Using your ecommerce platform, you’ll be able to get the all-important foundations of your online shop in place by:

  • Installing a shopping cart functionality.
  • Building a catalogue for your products, separated into the categories (if any) that you’ll sort your products into.
  • Customising shipping and payment options, adding a payment gateway that’ll securely accept credit and debit card payments.

Each ecommerce platform will come with its own configuration process, but it’s worth opting for one that has an intuitive setup wizard that’ll guide you through this early building process.

You will also need to make sure that your website can securely take payments from credit/debit cards and/or Direct Debits. It may be that your ecommerce platform guides you in this, but we'd also recommend checking out our guide to taking payments online to find out how to set this up!

Alternatively, this functionality is available with ecommerce plans from Wix and Squarespace.


Personalise your shop

Devise a simple user journey

Alongside the ability to add key functions, an ecommerce platform such as Shopify or BigCommerce will enable you to personalise your online shop’s design so that it fits with your business’ branding and your shop’s intentions.

Whichever provider you opt for, you won’t be short of designs for your online shop. Shopify has a nice, manageable 20 templates to choose from, while Wix has more than 500 templates available!

When it comes to this design process, you will be limited to what your ecommerce platform allows.It could be that it enables you to freely put a page together using drag and drop tools, or it might stick to a more rigid template structure. Either way, it’s important you choose a platform that offers the level of customisation that you desire.

In terms of design, think of your online store as a physical store. The site should be user-friendly, with the aim of making it as easy as possible for customers to buy something.

Having poor site navigation is like making somebody wander aimlessly around a physical store – before long they’ll get frustrated and walk out. The same happens online.

In other words, make sure all the key elements of your site – for example, your catalogue of products, an ‘about us’ page, and the customer’s shopping cart – are easily accessible at all times. A customer will get frustrated if they’re made to click through countless pages before reaching the product category they want.

Add detailed product descriptions

Of course, where online shops have a disadvantage is that customers are unable to examine or feel a product in the flesh before deciding to buy it.

So, it’s important to give as much information as possible about a product to encourage them to commit to buying it – and so they receive what they expect to receive.

In your online product descriptions, you should look to include:

  • A blurb about the product and what it does. Remember to keep your tone of voice consistent with your branding when writing these!
  • Multiple images of the product from different angles, ideally including an image of the item in use, or in a home setting.
  • The product’s size and dimensions, as accurately as possible.
  • A list of the ingredients or materials that make up the product.
  • Any health risks, such as choking hazards or allergens, that come with the product.

Important: Any photographs that you use of your products need to be of a professional standard. While it might be more expensive to get these done, it’ll make your business look better in the long run.

Experiment regularly to see what has the best effect, for example, giving certain products the top spot, etc.


Do you want to launch a new site or replace an old one?


Add extra functionalities to your online shop

An ecommerce platform on its own won’t necessarily come with all the features you’d like for your shop.

However, many enable integration with (mostly) third-party apps – which you can download as add-ons – that add new functionalities to your website.

Check out the Shopify App Store, or discover the numerous integrations BigCommerce offers to help you enhance your online store.

Such apps might enable your online shop to:

  • Show personalised product recommendations
  • Recover abandoned shopping carts for customers
  • Let customers create wish lists
  • Let customers write comments and reviews, and generate ratings

From a back-end point of view, other apps might help you to:

  • Improve the site’s SEO
  • Import products directly onto the site from a database
  • Manage your inventory, data and accounts

With the right add-ons installed, your site could have an impressive range of functionality – from both you and your customers’ perspective – despite the fact that it’s been built with a simple ecommerce platform template.


Security

Security is a huge priority – your customers need to feel safe using your shop, and be protected from any hacking or fraud attempts.

You can ensure this from the start by choosing a reputable ecommerce platform that integrates secure payment – the industry standard is the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS), so look out for this accreditation.

Shopify, BigCommerce, Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly are all PCI-DSS accredited.


Choosing an ecommerce platform for small business

Using one of the following six ecommerce platforms is the quickest and easiest way to start an online shop.

We've conducted rigorous user testing to compile our list of the best ecommerce platforms for small businesses, ranking them based on the seven factors we know are most important to small businesses:

  • Customer score – how likely a customer would be to recommend the platform to a friend
  • Design functionalities – the variety, flexibility, and accessibility of the platform's design features
  • Help and support – how useful the platform's support features are
  • Sales features – what ecommerce functionality is offered to help customers succeed
  • Value for money – the quality of features in combination with the price paid
  • Website features – the quality of features

So, how did our 6 ecommerce perform against these metrics? We've ranked them below:

Wix Stores: Best value for money

4.7
Website features
Sales features
Design flexibility
Help and support
Value for money
Customer score

Our number one rated ecommerce platform for small businesses, Wix is a great user-friendly option with a drag and drop editor and excellent customer support services for those looking to create a simplistic but effective online store. 

Pricing
Business basic: £13/month
Business unlimited: £16/month
Business VIP: £22/month


Squarespace: Best for creative control

Squarespace website builder
4.5
Website features
Sales features
Design flexibility
Help and support
Value for money
Customer score

With product display in multiple formats, including video and image, automatic inventory management, and shipping calculator features, Squarespace makes it quick and easy to get your online shop up and running and sending products.

Pricing
Basic: £20/month
Advanced: £30/month


Shopify: Best for sales-specific features

4.5
Website features
Sales features
Design flexibility
Help and support
Value for money
Customer score

Shopify is one of the most popular ecommerce platforms globally. It’s affordable, has an easy to use, intuitive interface and doesn’t charge transaction fees for payments. If you specialise in drop-shipping, Shopify should be your go to platform.

Pricing
Basic Shopify: £29/month
Shopify: £79/month
Advanced Shopify: £299/month

You can also try Shopify for free with a 14-day trial.


Weebly: Best hassle-free platform

4.3
Website features
Sales features
Design flexibility
Help and support
Value for money
Customer score

Weebly is one of the easiest platforms to use, making it the perfect choice for early stage online retailers. The drag-and-drop editor makes it easy to create an online shop using one of Weebly’s 15 ecommerce templates.

Pricing
Business: £18/month


Square Online: Best for selling for free

square online logo
4.3
Website features
Sales features
Design flexibility
Help and support
Value for money
Ease of use

Square Online is the only one of our top ecommerce platforms for small businesses that allows you to sell for free (minus the 2.5% transaction fee). Beyond that, it has some pretty handed, if limited, sales features, and a neat shop front design.

Pricing
Free:
£0/month
Professional:
£9/month
Performance:
£19/month
Premium:
£54/month


BigCommerce: Best for multi-channel selling

4.1
Website features
Sales features
Design flexibility
Help and support
Value for money
Customer score

In just 10 years, BigCommerce has grown to be one of the most popular ecommerce platforms in the UK thanks to its easy to customise themes, range of integrations, and tools to help your business grow.

Pricing
Standard: £24.45/month
Plus: £64.72/month
Pro: £242.82/month
Enterprise: Contact sales


GoDaddy: Best for ease of use

3.9
Website features
Sales features
Design flexibility
Help and support
Value for money
Customer score

GoDaddy Online Store is very easy to get to grips with, even for complete beginners. It’s also one of the most affordable  ecommerce website builders, and promises real business growth (not just a pretty shop front).

Pricing
Ecommerce: 
£19.99/month


What’s next?

In this article, we’ve provided you with the key information you need to know for starting an online shop, including the key features you'll need to incorporate into your website and additional functionalities you might add, plus tips on marketing and making your ecommerce website the very best it can be.

Now, in order to get started, take a look at our article on the best ecommerce platforms to find out which is right for you and your business. Otherwise, if you're interested in finding a web design company to create the site for you, select whichever option is relevant from the icons below.

Do you want to launch a new site or replace an old one?