How to start an online shop

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

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It’s actually pretty straightforward to start an online store – you just need to pick an ecommerce platform, design your store, add products, add payments, add shipping tools and then market it.

With a leading web builder like Wix or Shopify, you can get a professional-looking online store up and running with ease, and very quickly start making money.

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.

We won’t cover the wider process of planning your business, so won’t explore areas like market research, choosing the products you want to sell, and SWOT analysis (but don’t worry, we’ll show you where to find this too).

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.

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!

1. Choose the right ecommerce platform

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Based on our in-depth research and user testing
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Wix

Shopify

Squarespace

Square Online

BigCommerce

GoDaddy

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

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4.6
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£15-£27 per month

$29 – $299 per month

(approximately £21-£220 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

£13.99 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.

Wix

How to start an online store - Wix

 

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:

  • An unrivalled choice of over 70 ecommerce-specific templates
  • Intuitive design tools give lots of creative freedom
  • A good range of sales features

Shopify

How to start an online store - Shopify

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

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.

Do you want to make an online store from scratch?

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 great when it comes to help and support, or 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

How to start an online store - design your online store

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

How to start an online shop - choosing an ecommerce template

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), Squarespace has a bespoke collection of super stylish templates (see above) perfect for design-focused businesses, while ecommerce heavyweights like Shopify and BigCommerce 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

How to start an online store - add products

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).

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.

As Nosto’s guide to creating the best category pages explains, 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:

4. Connect online payments

How to start an online store - online payments

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 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.

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 …

5. Set up your shipping options

How to start an online store - shipping

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

Instagram exampleYour 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 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. 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).

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.

Final thoughts

As you can see, with the aid of a top ecommerce platform like Wix or Shopify, it’s very easy to quickly set up your online store and start making money.

However, this is an important decision and one you need to approach carefully.

Make sure that you choose the right ecommerce platform for your online shop, put real thought into designing your site and adding products, do a good job of connecting online payments, set up the right shipping options for your products, and finally plan a pre-launch marketing campaign that uses the power of SEO and social media to really get your name out there.

Don’t just think of these jobs as boxes to be ticked – they are each a stage in the development of your online store and nailing each one will set your ecommerce empire on the path to greatness.

Good luck!

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  • Sales features
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  • Ease of use
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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.

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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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