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...

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The pandemic has proved that it’s never been more important for small businesses to have ecommerce capability, and, thankfully, it’s never been easier to start selling online. Especially with Wix, the best ecommerce platform available for small businesses according to our expert research.

Wix ticks all the boxes and offers an all-in-one ecommerce solution with excellent features, offering a fantastic user experience, and all at a very affordable price even for the smallest businesses. In fact, the Wix ecommerce platform has seen a 10% increase in its Sales Features score and a whopping 30% increase in its Ease of Use score since our last thorough round of research and user testing – impressive development!

In this guide we’ll tell you everything you need to know about how to set up an online shop, we’ll also help you decide which option is best for your business, explain how to add essential features and functions, and how to personalise your store for success.

Need to make a quick decision about which ecommerce platform to go for? We've created our online store builder comparison page to give a snapshot overview of our top choices and what businesses they suit best. Take a look; it could help you make the right choice in minutes!

The 6 best platforms for creating your own online shop

If you want to get your online shop up and running as quickly as possible, there's no need to outsource it to a web designer and spend countless thousands. Do-it-yourself ecommerce platforms from website builders such as Wix, Squarespace, BigCommerce and Shopify can give you everything you need to create a slick, professional and modern-looking online store.

Best of all, these platforms have powerful ecommerce functions baked in – they'll let you do everything from managing inventor and displaying discount offers, to taking payments from customers.

If you'd like to learn more, see our table below, where we round up the best ecommerce platforms based on our own rigorous test assessments. We judge them for range of features, ease of getting set up, value for money, and user feedback – helping you to choose the best tool to create your own online store.

0 out of 0
Best for
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
Pricing
Visit

All-round ecommerce platform for small businesses

Best range of apps and extensions

Best for ease of use and great design

Best value – start selling for free

Best sales features

Creating a simple online store

4.8
4.6
4.6
4.3
4.2
3.9

£13-£22 per month

£20-£211 per month

£15-£30 per month

Use code “STARTUPS10” to receive a 10% discount on all Squarespace plans

 

£0-£54 per month

£22-£216 per month

£19.99 per month (first term savings available)

Decide whether to use a hosting service or use a web builder with hosting included

Arguably the first decision to make when starting an online shop is whether you’d like to use a hosting service such as Bluehost or Woocommerce to host your own website, or use a web builder with hosting included, like our number one choice Wix.

Jargon buster: Hosting an online shop

  • Using a hosting service: By using a hosting service like Bluehost, you can sell products through your own website that you have developed. As the service hosts your website on the internet, allowing you to make online sales. A hosting service however cannot build a website for you.
  • Using a website builder: When you use a website builder with hosting included, an affiliate hosting service will host the website on your behalf. This means you can create and build your ecommerce website whilst also being hosted online – essentially killing two birds with one stone.

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 and Squarespace.

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.

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, and Squarespace 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 and best overall

4.8 out of 5
  • Website features
    4.5
  • Sales features
    4.4
  • Design flexibility
    4.0
  • Help and support
    3.8
  • Value for money
    4.2
  • Ease of use
    4.0

When we say Wix really does have it all, we mean it. Our number one ecommerce platform's largely improved sales features now support multi-channels including Facebook and other marketplaces. The business basic plan, at only £13 per month, comes equipped with 24/7 customer support, unlimited product showcasing and the option to sell on social channels.

If you want further insight into your ecommerce business and control of where you can sell, the £22 per month Business VIP plan comes with customised reports, marketplace selling capabilities and priority customer care. However, despite the product priding itself on its ease of use, a rather steep learning curve is required, particularly when navigating set “ecom” functionalities.

Pricing
Business basic: £13/month
Business unlimited: £17/month
Business VIP: £22/month

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

Shopify: Best for sales-specific features

4.6 out of 5
  • Website features
    4.2
  • Sales features
    4.5
  • Design functionalities
    3.9
  • Value for money
    3.0
  • Help and support
    3.8
  • Ease of use
    3.5

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; however, this dedicated ecommerce solution is ideal for businesses of all sizes that are serious about selling online, and have the ambition to scale and grow their online offering and revenue.

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

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

Squarespace: Best for creative control

4.6 out of 5
  • Website features
    4.3
  • Sales features
    3.4
  • Design flexibility
    4.0
  • Value for money
    4.2
  • Help and support
    3.5
  • Ease of use
    4.2

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.

It has also massively improved in the UX department compared to our previous evaluations, with a staggering 23% increase compared to our past research. The ease of use improvements coupled with its countless artistic design templates make it the second best ecommerce platform available, only narrowly missing out on the top spot to Wix.

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

Square Online: Best for selling for free

4.3 out of 5
  • Website features
    3.5
  • Sales features
    3.5
  • Design flexibility
    2.7
  • Help and support
    4.0
  • Value for money
    4.6
  • Ease of use
    3.9

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

And one last point on Square Online; you may be thinking to yourself, “Why is the Weebly ecommerce builder not featured on this list?”, and we'd understand! But it's because Weebly's ecommerce solutions are now offered by Square Online.

BigCommerce: Best for multi-channel selling

4.2 out of 5
  • Website features
    3.5
  • Sales features
    4.6
  • Design flexibility
    4.0
  • Value for money
    3.0
  • Help and support
    3.9
  • Ease of use
    3.3

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 out of 5
  • Website features
    2.5
  • Sales features
    3.5
  • Design flexibility
    2.7
  • Help and support
    3.3
  • Value for money
    3.6
  • Ease of use
    4.1

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.

We've also confirmed that the best ecommerce platform for small businesses is without a doubt, Wix. This is because as a result of our extensive research, the platform came out on top with a solid overall score rating of 4.8 out of 5.

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.

Henry Williams headshot
Henry Williams Content Manager

Henry has been writing for Startups.co.uk since 2015, covering everything from business finance and web builders to tax and red tape. He’s also acted as project lead on many of our industry-renowned annual indexes, including Startups 100 and Business Ideas, and created a number of the site’s popular how to guides.

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