I have started a few online shops since building my first one in 2014 and I always thought that the quality of guides online were always a bit lacking.
So I decided to create a step by step guide to starting an ecommerce website that will be the foundations from which you can build a successful online retail business. Everything that I talk about has come from my own first hand experiences.
Now, I am not going to be talking about how to source products or marketing your shop, this a purely a guide to building an ecommerce store. So what are the steps I will be covering?
Throughout this guide, I will include links to other posts I have written that will help you get your ecommerce business up and running.
Step 1: Get a Domain Name
THE most important step to starting an online store is getting a domain name! The reason why it is so important is that it is your online address, the place where your customers are going to visit you.
Buying a domain name is easy, you just go to a domain registrar, search and buy. Simple right?
It is not quite that simple, there are some guidelines that you want to follow in order to get the perfect domain name for your online shop. But what are these guidelines?
1. Keep it Short
You really want to keep your domain name to less than 20 characters and no more than 3 words. Ideally you want less than 15 characters and 1 or 2 words.
2. Keep it Simple
You want people to remember your businesses name and domain name and they best way to do that is to keep it simple.
Don’t be too clever with your name, unique ways of spelling words may help you stand out from the crowd but are people going to remember how to spell your name? If you try it out on people and they either struggle to pronounce it or just simply don’t understand it then you probably need to think again.
3. Don’t use a Hyphen
A common thing I see new businesses do is to go for a hyphenated version of their domain name and honestly, this isn’t a good thing to do. Firstly because 99% of people will forget about the hyphen and secondly you could potentially be sending traffic not only to someone else’s websites but also potentially a competitor.
4. Only use Top Level Domains
You only want to use top level domains, I am talking about .com and .co.uk. The reason for this is that we are almost conditioned to type these whenever we type out a domain name. If you use any others, even .net and .org then you can have the same thing happen with using a hyphen, you are potentially sending visitors to another website.
It might take some time to get the right domain name but it will be worth it in the end as you will have one that you can build a successful business on.
If when you are searching for a domain name, you find that the one you want is available, then it is best to get it ASAP as you may find that it is has gone while you have been thinking about it. Also if both the .com and .co.uk are available, then it is best to get them both. This will help to stop anyone else from coming in and impersonating your business.
Step 2: Choose an Ecommerce Platform
Once you have your domain name, you need to choose which platform you are going to use to build your online shop. Now when it comes to choosing a platform, there are two main paths that you can take:
Number 1: Hosted Ecommerce Platforms – What I Recommend
Hosted ecommerce take a lot of the hassle out of running an online store and the reason for this is that they take care of all the technical aspects of your website and this includes:
- Website performance such as page load speed and image optimisation
- Mobile responsiveness, they make sure that your online store works well on all mobile devices
- Security, both on the server and website side of things
By taking care of all of this, it leaves you to focus on the important aspects of running the business part of website such as getting visitors, getting sales and managing your inventory.
You also get the benefit of having a support team at the end of the phone, live chat or email to help you should you encounter any issues with the your site such as it not loading or being slow etc. It is like having your own it support team.
As for choosing which one to go for, that is all down to you and which platform you prefer using. I have written reviews and comparisons for numerous ecommerce platforms on this site.
Number 2: Self-Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
Self-hosted platforms take more managing from you as you have to manage things such as your websites performance and server security. You also have two separate elements you need to manage and they are your hosting and the ecommerce software such as WordPress + Woocommerce or Opencart.
This is a better option if you are prepared to pay a web developer to help you manage your site, yes you can do it yourself and you can learn all you need to know to have a really nice site. The only problem with doing that is that all the time you spend learning how to build and manage a website, you could have spent marketing and potentially getting sales on a hosted platform.
Now there are some advantages to having a self-hosted online shop as you generally have more control over how your shop will look and you can move you site to another web host if you are not happy with your current host.
As to which option you take, that is down to you but if you are just starting out, then for me a hosted platform is the way to go.
Step 3: Designing your Shop
Once you have decided which ecommerce platform you are going to use, you then need to think about the design of your shop.
Now most people will start thinking about the look of the shop such as which theme to choose, what fonts and colours etc to use but you want to take a practical look at the design of your shop.
The most important thing you want it to be is easy to use and navigate, aesthetics are great but usability it king when comes to ecommerce. So think about how you are going to organise your products? what kind of hierarchy you are going to use? can a visitor move from product to product or category to category easily?
There are also some aesthetics that can have an impact on how easy your site is to use, one of the main ones is using the correct style and size of font. Struggling to read a product description, or not being able to make out what the titles in your navigation bar say doesn’t make for a good user experience and it is things like this can depend on whether or not you make a sale.
Making your site easy to use and navigate is going to have a positive effect on your online shop as the more time visitors spend browsing your site, the higher the chance of them buying something.
Step 4: Choose a Payment Gateway
This step is a pretty important step, unless you don’t want to sell anything or give all your stock away for free!
It is always best when choosing how you are going to take payments to try and offer your customers as many options as possible when they go through your checkout.
Fortunately there are now plenty of options for new online businesses out there to offer this flexibility. At a minimum you want to offer two mains ways that your customer can pay and they are:
Number 1: PayPal
PayPal is by far the biggest payment gateway, especially in the USA and UK and that has mainly come around due to its early association with Ebay. For many years it was looked down upon by more ‘traditional’ payment processors but it is now a major player in the market and is used by nearly every online retailer.
The reason why you should offer it, is that a lot of people prefer to pay with PayPal, especially if they are buying from a website they have never used before. This is because they get a lot of buyer protection, just in case anything goes wrong with their order.
While the fees are quite high, starting at 3.4% + 20p transaction fee. The beauty of PayPal is that you only pay when the service is used and you aren’t tied into any expensive long term contracts. As the amount of sales goes up and you pass certain thresholds, you can ask PayPal to review your account and if approved you will see your fees drop.
Number 2: Credit Card Processor
Having a credit card processor on your website is now really easy and long gone are the days of trying to get your new business accepted by the big payment processors, just so you could pay them so much money every month to use their service!
The reason for this is a company called Stripe, who offer a pay as you go credit card processor for your website. Signing up to them is pretty straight forward and they are integrated with pretty much all the major ecommerce platforms.
By having Stripe or any other credit card processor on your website, you are offering your customers another option to make a payment. This is good for you as there are lots of people who don’t or won’t use PayPal to buy things online so by having the two, you are maximising your chances of getting more sales.
Number 3: Flexible Payments
This is something you may want to consider further down the line but it is definitely worth mentioning here. With flexible payments, you offer your customer a few different options such as Buy Now, Pay Later or some form of retail finance.
For some sectors of the retail market, offering this kind of options has seen a huge boost in the amount of sales they are getting.
One of the main companies offering this kind of flexible payments are called Klarna, a Swedish bank that have shaken things up a bit and should definitely be considered if you plan on expanding your payment options.
Step 5: Setup your Delivery Methods
The next things you want to do is figure out how you are going to get your products from you to your customer?
As with most things in business, there is more to this than meets the eye. Not only do you want to know what services you are going to be using and how much they are going to cost but you want to know how reliable are they? do they offer tracking? can you claim of them if your item gets lost?
Sometimes going with the cheapest can end up costing you more money in the long run. So do your research and make sure you are working with a company that is going to help your business not hinder it!
This is also something you need to consider when you are planning how to post out your products. You want your products to get there in one piece so you need to make sure it is well protected during transit.
Again there a few things to consider:
- How does your packaging look? It might protect it but if it looks like it has just been thrown together by someone on their kitchen table, it isn’t going to give a great first impression.
- How much does the packaging cost? You want to find a happy medium between it protecting the item, looking professional and not costing too much.
- How easy is the packaging to dispose of? Customers are caring more and more about the environment and you might want to consider having easy to recycle postal packaging, plus it makes your business look good.
Take some time when planning how you are going to get the products to your customer and if you have it already setup and ready to go, it will save you a lot of time when your online shop is up and running!
Step 6: Make Sure Your Website is Legal
When you are selling online, you need to make sure that your business is operating legally. Because if you don’t, you can end up in a lot of trouble with the government and that is the last thing you want to have to deal with!
So what do you need to do to help ensure that your business is legal?
*Disclaimer – this is a guide only, always get anything legal or financial checked by a legal professional, accountant or the relevant authorities*
Tell The Taxman
When you set up as a business, you need to let whoever you are responsible for paying tax to, which is HMRC here in the UK, that you are going to be making an additional income.
The simplest and easiest way to do that here in the UK is to become a sole trader, it also involves less paperwork, which is always nice! If you have any questions about what is best for you to do, then speak to a chartered accountant as they will be able to tell you exactly which route you should take.
You need to include your business information on your website and also make sure that this information is easy to find. But what information do you need to include?
- Your Business Name
- Your Business Address
- Contact Information such as Telephone Number and Email Address
If you don’t want to use your home address, then one option is to use a Virtual Office, which is where you rent a mailbox from a company and all of your post and correspondence will go there.
When it comes to your contact information, it is worth investing in having a domain linked email address such as email@example.com rather than having a generic gmail or outlook email address. You can usually do this through your website provider or if you can use G Suite by Google or Office365 by Microsoft that both enable you to do this and you also get to use their apps which makes managing your business email on the go much easier.
With your telephone number, you can use VoIP software that allows you to have a geo or national landline, without having to have another phone line installed as they use the internet to make the calls. You can either have a VoIP phone or install the companies app on your smart phone to turn it into a business phone.
Website Pages – Required
There are pages you need to have on your website that are legal requirements.
Terms and Conditions – you may end up with two sets of terms and conditions. One may be for your websites, so how visitors can use your website and intellectual property etc. The other may be for when they purchase from you and will include your contact info and how to contact you, how they can pay, their right to cancel, returns and refunds. Basically anything related to the transaction that is made between the customer and you as a business.
Website Pages – Optional
For online stores, it is always good practise to create separate pages for parts of your terms and conditions (they must still be in your T&C’s). This just makes it easier for your customers to find out what want to know, without having to trawl through the terms and conditions page.
Contact Page – this just makes it easier for your customers to contact you. This can be really beneficial to sales as some visitors will have questions they want to ask before making a purchase, so make it easy to contact you. Also include your telephone number and email address on this page to give them more options.
Returns Page – clearly listing out your businesses returns policy can help build confidence in your business as you are not trying to hide how your customers can start a return, if they don’t like what they buy from you. Always make sure your returns policy is fair and most importantly legal!
Payment & Delivery – you can do these as separate pages or combine them into one. You basically want to include all the information you sorted out in Step 4 and 5 above and tell your customers how they can pay, what delivery methods you offer and how much delivery costs.
Step 7: Test, Test and Test Again
Once you have finished building your website and filling in with inventory and content, it is pretty much ready to go. But before you launch and start getting customers to your site and buying from you, you want to test your site to make sure it is working properly.
Run some test orders through your site, make sure that your checkout and payment processors are all set up correctly and the sales are going through.
Print the orders off so you know that you can process the orders, work through all the stages of the order such as processing, completed etc.
Cancel and refund your test orders, do you have to do it through your payment processor or can you do it through your admin area?
Doing all of this testing with practise orders will make your life so much easier as you will know how it works and what you need to do for when you start getting real orders coming in. You also want to check to make sure that all the emails are not only sending properly but also contain the right information.
If you want to ramp your testing up a bit, get friends or family to place some test orders on your site and get feedback from them as to how easy it was to do, did everything work properly and can anything be improved. It is better to iron out as many issues at this stage rather than trying to work through them when the site is live.
Conclusion – Get Started!
Planning will only get you so far and you can read every guide under the sun but nothing can replace actually getting started!
I will be completely honest, you never feel ready and you never feel like you know enough but you won’t know what you need to learn until you are out there doing it. The first 12 months will be a constant learning process and you will make mistakes but you learn from them and grow as a person and a business.
The first 12 months will be roller coaster of emotions, you have have good times and great times, you will also face some tough and challenging times but it will be an experience you will never forget and you will use it as a platform for your future!
Starting a business is challenging and scary at times but you want to embrace the challenge and enjoy the process! You only regret what you don’t do, so go for it!