How to start an online store and sell online

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.

Our research

When recommending the best ecommerce platforms, our expert team of writers and researchers focus on the features that matter most to small businesses. We rate platforms on their value for money – including setup costs and ongoing transaction fees – design features, including store templates; inventory management; payment processing options; help and support, plus customer feedback.
Written and reviewed by:
Robyn Summers-Emler Grow Online Editor

Setting up an online store is pretty straightforward – you need to pick an ecommerce platform, design your store, add products, add payments, add shipping tools and then most importantly, market your store.

First things first, it's important to find a web-building solution which fits your budget, especially at a time when margins are tight due to the cost of living crisis and a reduction in consumer spending. Thankfully, web builder products allow you to get a professional-looking online store up and running in a matter of hours and for as little as a few pounds a month.

6 Best Ecommerce Site Builders for 2024

  1. Wix Ecommerce – Best all-round ecommerce platform for small businesses
  2. Shopify – Best for dedicated sales features when selling online
  3. Squarespace – Best for design and creative control
  4. Square Online – Best free ecommerce site builder
  5. BigCommerce – Best for multi-channel selling
  6. GoDaddy – Best for ease of use

Wix is our top choice for small businesses wanting to sell online thanks to its easy-to-use platform and the creative freedom it allows merchants – you can even try it for yourself risk-free thanks to the free trial. In our research, it scored an impressive 4.8 out of 5 overall thanks to its generous website and sales features.

Shopify comes in as a very close second, thanks to its impressive arsenal of sales features and app integrations that ensure a seamless buying journey and the ability to scale over time. Plus, you can start building for free, and then pay just £1 a month for three months.

Our independent reviews are funded in part by affiliate commissions, at no extra cost to our readers.

This guide will take you through the ins and outs of setting up an online store using an ecommerce platform, discussing things like how to choose an ecommerce platform, the best way to design an online store, and how you should create product listings and product descriptions.

Everything you need to create a professional-looking online shop

You really can begin creating an ecommerce store in moments, thanks to some brilliant and user-friendly online store templates.

A selection of Shopify ecommerce store templates

For example, as one of our top-rated store builders, Shopify has some fantastic ecommerce templates you can use for free. These give you everything you need to create an online shop, including a home page, search function, store inventory and even a delivery and returns information page. You can try a Shopify template for free, plus the low ongoing costs mean it's a great value way to build your online store.

1. Choose the right ecommerce platform for your online store

Swipe right to see more
0 out of 0

Wix

Shopify

Squarespace

Square Online

BigCommerce

GoDaddy

BEST FOR

All-round ecommerce platform for small businesses

BEST FOR

Best range of apps and extensions

BEST FOR

Best for ease of use and great design

BEST FOR

Best value – start selling for free

BEST FOR

Best sales features

BEST FOR

Creating a simple online store

Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.8
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.6
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.6
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.3
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.2
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
3.9
Pricing

£14-119 per month, billed annually
£13.50-£107.10 with code “GET10!”

Pricing

£19 – £259 per month, billed annually

£1/month for 3 months

Pricing

£17-£35 per month, billed annually

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

Pricing

£0-£64 per month

Pricing

$29-$299 (around £23-£240) per month

Pricing

£12.99 per month (first term savings available)

Our ranking of the best small business ecommerce platforms is based on in-depth testing covering website features, sales features, design flexibility, support, value for money, and ease of use.

A crucial decision when setting up your online store is which ecommerce platform to use. You want to pick one that’s easy to use, but also has all the features you’ll need as your business grows – you don’t want to get used to a platform that is underpowered once your online shop scales.

Using our 20 years of small business experience, we’ve put the leading ecommerce platforms through their paces, and Wix and Shopify emerged as the clear leaders of the pack.

Pretty much any kind of merchant could build an online store with Wix – our research and user testing points to this platform as the best all-rounder when it comes to website building.

On the other hand, Shopify should be the top choice of small businesses looking to scale and grow in the mid to long term, thanks to its comprehensive range of quality sales features and customisation capabilities.

Wix

Try free for 14 days

Our top-rated web builder and top-rated ecommerce platform, Wix is a great fit for anyone that wants to create an online store thanks to:

From our first-hand user testing, we found Wix to be a robust ecommerce website builder because it's highly intuitive and accessible to those that are amateurs in website building. For instance, it recommends which items to put into your website based on the type, industry and name of the page. It also has an extensive App Market, which prepares you with all the sales functionalities you need to boost your conversions.

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
Pros
  • Perfect solution if you want more creative freedom
  • Very rich features offering - supports everything any up and coming merchant needs
Cons
  • Can have a steep learning curve at times as some ecommerce features are hard to grasp
  • Slow server response time
  • Editor is clustered and overfilled

Read our full reviews of:

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!

Shopify

Try free for 3 days, then pay just £1/month for three months

If you’ve got grand ambitions for your online business, then Shopify could be your ideal partner. Its prices are top end but you’ll get access to:

  • Templates specifically designed to turn browsers into customers
  • Advanced sales features like multi-channel integration
  • An extensive app store full of useful add-ons and extra features

From our independent research, we found Shopify has a wide range of sales features and is a great platform to use if you're looking into dropshipping. It also has a solid affiliate program, which we've determined is the best for ecommerce brands.

To see how Wix and Shopify compare to some of their rivals, check out our ecommerce platform comparison page for an at-a-glance lowdown on the UK’s leading providers.

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
Pros
  • Diverse multi-channel integration options
  • Strong server response time
  • Has a wealth of apps meaning your store can literally do anything you want it to
Cons
  • Design is more restrictive than other platforms
  • Less in-built features, which will hike the price up per month
  • High transaction fee when not using Shopify Payments

Read our full reviews of:

Do you want to make an online store from scratch with a CMS?

If you’ve got the technical expertise and the time, then building your online shop on a CMS platform like WordPress.org could be a great option.

If you do want to go down this route, then you’ll need to find a hosting provider to, erm, host your website – Bluehost is our top choice when it comes to a supportive hosting provider for small businesses.

Or, you can check out our guide to the UK’s best ecommerce hosting providers for more inspiration.

Do you want to outsource the creation of your online shop to a web designer?

Want to create the online store of your dreams (and got the budget to pay for it)? Then you might want to hire a web designer to do all the hard work. This generally costs thousands of pounds (plus maintenance), but you could end up with something truly spectacular. Tempted? Our how to find a web designer guide is full of info on how to find the people who can make your vision a reality.

For information and advice on the fundamentals of starting an online store, take a look at our guide to starting an ecommerce business. Which covers everything from choosing a business model, to (eventually) outsourcing your order fulfilment.

2. Design your online store

Screenshot of three different website templates for an ecommerce page, to design a homepage

Let’s start by stating the obvious – the way your online shop looks is pretty damn important.

Think about it like a physical store, you need to grab attention, clearly demonstrate what you’re selling, and present your business as reputable and trustworthy.

With a bricks and mortar outlet, one of your biggest challenges is trying to get people through the door but, with an ecommerce site, the really tricky part is trying to get them to stay, browse, and ultimately buy.

Generally speaking simplicity is the key, your potential customers will respond well to clean lines and an approach that doesn’t fill pages with overwhelming detail.

Remember, if they can’t quickly find what they’re looking for, they’ll click away and go to a competitor instead.

Thankfully, ecommerce platforms guide you through this process, starting with the crucial decision of selecting a template for your online shop.

Choosing an ecommerce template

Screenshot of an ecommerce page for children's clothing

Your template is the foundation for your whole online store, so this is a decision that needs real thought and consideration.

It could also influence your choice of which ecommerce platform to use – Wix has the widest selection of templates (with over 70 specifically designed for ecommerce).

However, we'd say Squarespace's super stylish template offering is better for design-focused businesses.

Ecommerce heavyweights like Shopify offer less design choice but leverage their expertise with templates focused on conversion and the user journey.

Once you’ve chosen a template, you can then customise it, with many platforms offering intuitive drag-and-drop tools so you can make sure your online shop perfectly matches the vision in your head.

Or, if you’re in a hurry, the Wix ADI (Artificial Design Intelligence) lets you knock up a basic ecommerce site in minutes. Simply enter a few details about your company, make a couple of design choices, choose the features you need, and you’ll be up to speed in no time – with a simplified editor then guiding you through how to tweak things to your liking.

Top tips for designing your online store
  • The look of your online shop should match the branding of your business - you want a consistent visual identity across the whole company
  • Experiment with different layouts – approach the design process with an open mind and try out multiple ideas to see how they look on the page
  • Consider embedding your social media feeds on your homepage – this can increase authority and grab attention
  • The mobile experience is absolutely key – many customers will complete the entire purchase process on their phones, so make sure this is sleek and seamless

For some great inspiration on how successful online stores tackle design, check out Oberlo’s spotlight on 40 Amazing Ecommerce Website Design Examples.


3. Add products to your online shop

Example of an ecommerce page that sells dog accessories and products (homepage)

Product pages are the beating heart of your online store.

To make sales and grow your business, you’ll need to nail your product listings, product descriptions, product images and product categories.

Product listings

Product listing pages are what your customers get when they search on your online store.

They’re a crucial step on the user journey, and need to do a great job of showcasing your products/services and making users want to click for more information.

The key is simple, elegant design that doesn’t overwhelm the user, Convertcart’s dedicated guide to Creating Converting Product Listing Pages is full of expert insight and examples of best practice.

Product descriptions

As you’ve probably guessed, product descriptions are pages devoted to particular products – ultimately it’s these pages that decide whether people click that all-important ‘Buy’ button or not.

How you approach them will depend on how many products/services you’re selling.

If you’ve got hundreds or even thousands of products, then your product descriptions will have to follow a set format in terms of where information is placed and what information is included in different sections.

If, however you’re only selling a handful of products/services, then you’ve got the freedom to really get creative and make each product description a true work of art. Think interactive elements, unusual placement of images/text, and design that evokes the ethos of your products (in other words, how they make people feel).

If you're struggling to think about how to write the description, you can always get the help of AI. For instance, you can use ChatGPT to get an initial description and get inspired, and make the necessary changes from then on. Alternatively, you can also make use of fully integrated AI tools in ecommerce website builders like GoDaddy which have an in-built AI text creator.

You can also use Shopify Magic, which automatically generates text to help with copywriting. It produces suggestions for content, such as product descriptions, email subject lines, and headings for your online store.

To learn more – and see how it’s done by some of the best in the business – take a look at Hubspot’s collection of 20 superb product design page examples.

Product images

Humans are visual creatures, and the quality of your product images will have a big influence on the success of your online shop.

Of course, to get the best possible pics, you’ll need to hire a professional photographer but, with some planning and low-priced equipment, you can take excellent product images with your smartphone.

Privy’s guide to taking high-quality product photos is full of useful advice on how to do this, covering everything from lighting setups to photo editing software.

Product categories

For ecommerce sites, product category pages are a fundamental part of the browsing experience. Unless they know what they’re looking for, users will progress from the homepage to product categories (or find them via search engines), so you need to make sure these pages engage and convert users.

Offering the right filters and sorting options is crucial to the success of these pages, so ensure that you consider these very carefully when creating category pages for your online store.

A quick way to start selling online

If you just want to dip your toe in the water rather than going to the effort of setting up your own online store, then think about selling via big ecommerce sites like Etsy, Amazon and eBay.

We’ve produced a guide to getting started on each:

Set your price

Another key component of listing your inventory will be to add price tags. The actual setup will change from platform to platform, but from our first hand experience, we found this process is flexible and easy with Shopify. You have the option of doing two extra things when setting the price: compare at price or cost per item.

Cost at price helps show what the product would typically cost, if there was a sale. This gives your customers an extra push when it comes to clicking the purchase button because they can visualise how much money they are saving. Cost per item allows you to track your profit margin for an individual product.

Setting your price is not necessarily a straightforward part of running an online store since you need to account for taxes and how wide you want your profit margin to be. What remains obvious, however, is that you want the price of your product to be higher than the per-product cost. In other words, you want to be charging your customers more than what you pay to get the product for sale.  For instance, if you're getting a mug from your supplier for £5 a piece, you want to be charging around £15 for it to make a 66% gross profit margin.

4. Connect online payments

Screenshot of a product page on an ecommerce sit, showing model wearing an orange jumper, the price and a checkout page

Once you’ve picked an ecommerce platform, created a dynamite homepage for your online store, and crafted masterful product pages, you need to focus on making sure your customers can actually buy what you sell.

This brings us to the not insignificant issue of online payments. How exactly you set this up will depend on which ecommerce platform you’re using, but you will be guided through the process, and all it really involves is filling in forms with your business info and bank account details.

Some platforms, including Wix, offer their own payment processing services (you can check out Wix Payments) as well as supporting third-party providers such as PayPal. If you do have this option, it’s well worth offering both options – an in-house payment provider lets you keep customers on your site for the whole purchase and checkout process, but other buyers prefer to use a payment service they know and trust like PayPal.

If you're choosing to go for Shopify, you can activate Shopify Patments in just one click and pay 0% in extra transaction fees. You can also choose form over 100 third-party payment providers or offer to pay through PayPal.

To ensure that customers trust your site, you should create pages that explain your business’ privacy policy; refund, return and cancellation policy; and shipping, fulfilment, or delivery policy.

And, speaking of shipping …

Did you know?

20.8% of retail purchases are expected to take place online in 2023. This means that even if you have physical stores, it's crucial to also have a digital storefront so that you're not missing out on sales.

5. Set up your shipping options

There are two components to tackling shipping for your online shop.

Firstly, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to actually get your products to your customers – and whether you want to use the national postal service Royal Mail or a private courier company like DPD, Hermes or Yodel. This is a big decision, so you should check prices and customer reviews in order to work out which is the right partner for your online store.

Once you’ve done that, you have the rather complex process of setting up shipping policies for your online store. You’ll do this through your ecommerce platform, and there are several options to choose from:

  • Free shipping – This keeps things simple, and you can either absorb the cost of delivery yourself or add it to your product prices.
  • Flat rate shipping – This is where you charge a set delivery fee on each purchase, and is a good fit for online stores that only sell one type of product.
  • Shipping rate by weight – This is pretty much what it sounds like, your delivery charges change according to the weight of the products being shipped, with heavier products costing more.
  • Shipping rate by price – Again, this is pretty straightforward. Your delivery charges change according to the price of the products being shipped, so you could offer free delivery for orders over £25 for example.
  • Shipping rate by product – With this option, you arrange your products into groups and change different delivery rates accordingly. So, for example, you could charge higher rates on more fragile products as these require special care.

You can also offer multiple shipping options at checkout, such as a standard and next-day service.

You might also want to consider offering international shipping if your products have a global appeal. To do this, you need to select which countries you want to ship to, and then create shipping rules for those countries (see main pic above).

If all this sounds a bit overwhelming then don’t worry – you can start by just offering free delivery in the UK, bumping up your product prices to take care of your delivery costs, and very quickly get those deliveries going.

6. Market your online store before launch

Screenshot of Instagram post for Wild Refill, showing a turtle with a deodorant on its shell in front of a purple backgroundYour online shop is going nowhere fast if people don’t know about it. So, if you’re going to make it a success, you’ll need to master digital marketing.

SEO

For ecommerce businesses, SEO (search engine optimisation) is a huge part of this. Without going into too much detail, this is all about how high up you appear on search engine results pages (SERPs) and is affected by both the structure of your site and the content of your site.

Both our top two ecommerce platforms – Wix and Shopify – offer expert support in this area, with Wix explicitly detailing how it makes all its sites attractive to search engines. Shopify also provides further information about its SEO support on its website.

If you want to learn more about how SEO works and what you need to do to push your site up those results pages, there are tons of resources online and the Ahrefs beginner’s guide to SEO is a great place to start.

Social media

The other thing you should really focus on is maximising your social media presence. As an online shop, your Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc profiles are massively important – they need to grab the attention of your audience and reflect the personality of your brand. They also give you a chance to engage with customers/potential customers and get honest feedback on what they like and don’t like about your business.

Different platforms require different approaches. For example, Instagram is highly visual, so successful businesses create bold graphics that catch the eye and often use humour (like the tortoise post from Startups 100 member Wild shown above).

Make sure to be aware of the latest digital marketing trends. This will help ensure your social media marketing is a success.

Also, think about hiring a social media marketing agency to support you. We have reviewed the best agencies in the UK so be sure to check that out to help you make a decision.

Once again, the internet is full of articles on how to best use social media, and Hootsuite’s 12 simple social media tips for small businesses is a great jumping off point.

Did you know?

57% of online shoppers report shopping internationally. Therefore, if you open up a digital strorefront, even if you are UK based, you can still have access to other markets and increased sales!


Final thoughts

As you can see, with the right web building tools, it’s very easy to quickly set up your online store and start selling online as a small business. It can also be done in a way that's highly affordable, even in the tough times of the cost of living crisis.

Finding the platform for your online store comes first. We'd recommend Wix's ecommerce offering to pretty much any merchant looking for a fantastic all-rounder. But if business scalability is on the brain, then Shopify's sales features and customisability with app integrations will probably appeal more.

With the right approach, tools, and marketing, you can pretty much sell anything nowadays. As long as you understand what appeals to your audience and know how to present it professionally, you should be well on your way to high conversion rates and a booming ecommerce business.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How much does it cost to start an online store?
    You can start an online store with no upfront cost. With Square Online, you only pay fees on the sales you make, so it’s a great choice for cash-strapped businesses. However, we’d recommend paying a monthly fee to sign up with an elite ecommerce platform like Wix or Shopify.
  • Are online stores profitable?
    Yes, your online store can be profitable (or even very profitable). You just need to make sure you keep a close eye on your costs and price accordingly. And, obviously, you need to be selling something that people actually want to buy.
  • How do I start an online shop?
    It’s easy to start an online shop using a cutting-edge ecommerce platform like Wix or Shopify. You can easily design your online store, add products, connect online payment options and set up shipping options – meaning you could even start selling on the same day.
  • How do I legally start an online store?
    To legally sell online in the UK, you need to register with HMRC – the easiest way is to be a sole trader and you need to register within three months of starting to sell online. You’ll also need to fill in an income tax self-assessment at the end of the financial year, and may need to set up a limited company or register for VAT as your online business grows.
  • Can you set up an online shop for free?
    You absolutely can! All you need to do is get your hands on a free ecommerce website builder like Weebly. However, keep in mind that free plans will be limited in features so if you're looking to scale or make your site look more professional, you'll need to invest in a subscription.

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Written by:
Ross has been writing for Startups since 2021, specialising in telephone systems, digital marketing, payroll, and sustainable business. He also runs the successful entrepreneur section of the website. Having graduated with a Masters in Journalism, Ross went on to write for Condé Nast Traveller and the NME, before moving in to the world of business journalism. Ross has been involved in startups from a young age, and has a keen eye for exciting, innovative new businesses. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.
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