Online retail: how to get started

There’s never been a time when selling online was as viable as it is today. Whatever concerns you may have had as a beginning retailer, the online world of eCommerce puts them all to rest. 

If you’re new to this, getting started with selling your wares online can seem daunting. Even for regular brick-and-mortar store owners, discovering strategies to succeed at making sales may seem challenging. 

But there’s no need to worry as we can help you get started. In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the steps you can take to speed up your online retail journey. Furthermore, we’ll briefly touch on the various marketplaces out there and give you an honest and open review on the pros and cons of selling on a hosted platform vs selling on your own website. Most importantly, we’ll cover all the essentials you need to know when you get started. 

Online selling is disruptive and inevitable

eCommerce may not be the easiest way to do business. Some challenges definitely come with the territory. However, it is most undoubtedly unavoidable if you have ambitions of scaling.

There are plenty of local store owners who are perfectly fine with the way they run businesses. But we live in a world where everything is becoming digitized by the day. Norms are disrupted. New ways of selling and buying are adopted. Customer preferences and choices are being shaped not solely by the brands that market, but by the shoppers who buy.

Refusing to adapt accordingly and falling in step with online selling may not seem like an expensive choice at present, but it definitely has consequences in the long term because no business can survive in a space where competitors have the upper hand.

In this post-pandemic era, an online sales channel is becoming vital to achieving success. It may no longer be optional.

What to consider when you begin your online retail journey:

  1. Pulse-checking: where marketing research helps

Online retail has a low barrier to entry. Even a local mom-and-pop store can set up its own virtual store and get it running in a matter of days. As online business becomes more accessible by the day, you’re dealing with bigger and better competition than you would in your local neighborhood. Finding a niche where you can connect with your audiences becomes a necessity. 

This is why it is foolhardy to get into any business, especially online, without doing your market research beforehand. 

Assessing demand for your product based on web search results and keyword frequency can be helpful. The results may be a bit general, but you’ll get a good enough picture of whether the product’s existing popularity is something you can capitalize on. 

So the next time you have an innovative idea, you won’t be as concerned about who else has already done it, but rather, how well they are doing. 

  1. Balancing price and profit

Once you have a good idea of your product’s demand, you can move on to the equally important question of how much it is worth. This always boils down to how much your customers can afford, and how much they’re willing to pay for it. This further depends on value perception, which has a lot to do with marketing, clarity of messaging, and existing customer base feedback. 

As you can see, a lot of these variables are intertwined. You can’t build a meaningful connection with your customers if you have bad marketing. Bad PR is certainly not good for sales. 

Thankfully, there are plenty of online tools at your disposal to find out who your competitors are, what strategies they use, and what success they are seeing as a result. 

Often, the value you think you are offering customers is not the same as the value they perceive in your product. Feedback is crucial. So is finding out ways to bring clarity to your messaging. This way you can position your product in a way that drives sales. 

  1. Zoning in on your niche

Narrowing down your niche can actually help you when it comes to online selling. There are plenty of brands that sell a broad range of items. But very few specialize in any one particular category. 

You see this phenomenon with electronic products all the time. Eg: some brands may be great at producing laptops but also offer very mediocre earphones. 

Figuring out your USP can help you narrow your focus down to the absolute essentials, and funnels your investment into what really matters. 

In other words, if you want to successfully position yourself in a saturated market, you should be willing to get specific. Have some idea about what your flagship product is going to be. And do your best to stand out. The better you get at your niche, the more demand you can generate and the higher you can price the product. 

  1. Personalizing customer experience

Most marketing budgets miss the mark and are a waste of time. The reason they fail is that they’re either targeting the wrong audience, or the product simply doesn’t connect with customers. 

The solution? Gathering customer data. 

Despite the new restrictions around data privacy, we live in an age where customers voluntarily share their personal information in exchange for a personalized buying experience. 

Customer profiles have become the industry standard. Brands compete with each other over how accurate and effective their customer data platforms are. It is the front where innovation is always happening. 

From Google and Facebook ads to customer forms on your website, every single touch point or interaction you have with your audience also offers valuable insight into the customer’s life, choices, and preference. 

It helps you discern the (usually) indiscernible aspects that shape their buying choices-things that are hard to quantify yet influence why the customer chose to buy or not buy a product. 

Customer social media history has become an exhaustive and real-time updated database for brands to mine customer data and understand them better. Online surveys, feedback analysis, and competitor research can also feed into the data that helps you build an accurate buyer persona.

So if you’re aiming high, it’s good to have a proper customer data strategy in place. You can identify your existing customers, it also helps you figure out ways to target and cater to new audiences across borders. 

  1. Using third-party platforms and self-hosted websites

When you’re building an online store, the first thing you need to consider is the volume of orders you’re expecting the budget you’re willing to invest, and how you plan to grow. 

If you’re not so keen on using third-party platforms such as Amazon and Shopify to host your store, you can go with open-source eCommerce site builders. Magento and Drupal are widely popular choices when it comes to building scalable websites that are customizable. If you don’t have coding experience, you may have to invest upfront in a development team that can understand and deliver according to your needs. Depending on the kind of business your run, the eventual returns may well justify the initial cost of set-up. 

There are also plenty of SaaS platforms for hosting your store that doesn’t charge a big cut of your revenue. The downside is that they might also not run as smoothly and effectively as eCommerce giants like Amazon and Shopify do. 

  1. Standardizing copy and visuals to drive results

Even if you’re creating and managing most of your marketing content by yourself, make sure it’s up to standard. Sub-par work shows and will only deter your customers. 

Product photography is an area where you should invest in. Pay attention to image quality, and angles and ensure you have professional lighting and equipment in place. 

If you’re not so sure about how to handle the creative aspect of product descriptions, you can always outsource it to a copywriting team that’ll do it for you. 

  1. Using Omnichannel marketing

When you begin to market your product, make sure you’re not limiting yourself to a single channel. Be willing to try out different mediums, from visual content to creative copy, across all the platforms you’re likely to find your audience on. 

Make sure you’re actively collecting customer information that powers your strategy, not just contact information. Engaging with your buyers even after the transaction and keeping them updated on your latest deals is a good way to build a relationship. Email marketing is one way to do this. But make sure you don’t overdo it. Many might consider brands that send continuous marketing emails as a hindrance, which can cause you to lose more customers than you gain. 

Your growth ambitions demand that you diversify your channels. Keeping your options open is a good way to make sure you don’t miss out on traffic flowing in from any platform.

  1. Choosing the right branding and domain

When you get into selling online, there are plenty of things you might overlook if you aren’t digital-savvy. Choosing the right brand and domain name is one of them.

Unlike local stores where your presence is a given no matter what you name your business, customers find you online based on your search ranking and other algorithm-determining factors. 

It is highly important that your brand name be memorable and easy to remember, and it would be commendable if you can get a domain name that matches. That way, you can avoid a lot of potential confusion, and drive traffic to your website instead of missing customers. 

If you have an existing business, it is best that the name of your online store is the same as your physical one. 

Including search-optimized words such as the name of your product in the domain name is a huge plus. It drives traffic straight to your website. But it isn’t necessarily something that would work for every brand. 

  1. Picking your platform

If you’re just starting out and would like to save up on costs, you could go with a popular platform like Amazon, Shopify, or others. 

Big brands can afford to invest in an eCommerce-optimized website that’s geared to convert. However, that doesn’t necessarily have to be your approach, especially if you’re in the early stages. 

Later on, you can eventually integrate the two and simultaneously run your online store across multiple platforms. 

Deciding which platform to choose, and what social media apps you can leverage is often based on trial and error 

  1. Streamlining payments for a faster cash flow

If you run your online store from your own website, then you have to consider which payment processor you’re going to choose. They are third-party applications that help manage transactions between the bank and your store’s gateway. From verifying funds to safeguarding against fraudulent scammers, the right payment processor can go a long way in getting you results. 

PayPal is a frequently used payment processor across the US and even other countries. Stripe is also quite well known. 

These are all concerns that arise when you’re running your own website. If you’re hosting your online business on another third-party platform such as Shopify or Amazon, they already have a payment-enabling gateway system built into the website. While adding another trusted payment processor would be optional, it may also cost you a little extra if your store is run on these platforms. 

  1. Ensuring easy payment

Here’s one thing you absolutely need to ensure: that your store accepts any type of payment mode. This includes credit and debit cards, various digital payment gateways, and more.

A lot of this will depend on the type of customers you usually get and which payment method they frequently prefer. Make sure you’re putting the customer’s convenience first over your own. 

There are many shoppers who would go as far as discarding their entire cart rather than adopting a new payment method. If you invest a little more to integrate all payment gateways, you can boost your earnings in the long run. 

  1. Getting your shipping and delivery right

One of the key benefits of selling online is that you get customers from beyond your local borders. And sometimes you may luck out and encounter an international audience for your product. 

Figuring out the logistics of how you deliver is crucial at this stage. If you plan on scaling, you need to have a strategy when it comes to shipping. 

Not every local eCommerce store can ship at the standard Amazon rate and retain a profitable margin. But charging too high will only lead you to lose customers to whoever is selling at a more budget-friendly rate. 

This is where balancing costs becomes key to winning. You don’t necessarily have to cut down on shipping costs if you can lower them somewhere else and even it out. 

E.g. Automating a lot of routine warehouse processes and digitizing most of your paperwork can be helpful.  If you can cut down on costs in warehousing, packaging, and staffing, you can easily retain your original shipping costs without compromising on your profit margins. 

Take note: a lot of your pricing tactics in online selling depend on how good you are at balancing the costs. In other words, figure out what’s absolutely essential, and which processes you can do without, or refine to be more cost-effective.  

  1. Tailoring your marketing with target-specific messaging

As the world of commerce changed, so has advertising. The marketing budget of many big brands is predominantly in social media, more than any other medium. 

More than half of the world can be found online, on the most popular websites and mobile apps. Attention is the new currency. 

Even if you’re not much of a social media person, your business needs to be. Consistency across a variety of social channels can benefit your brand’s messaging in the long run. 

  1. Matching the right business model

Zoning in on the right business model is key to a winning sales strategy. Some sellers might price their products individually. Others might try seasonal variations where they bundle complementary products to capture a bigger audience. Either way, finding the business model that works for you is often a result of trial and error.

  1. Studying your competition

Unless the product you’re selling is completely innovative and unique, you’ll encounter competition. What’s important to note here is that you’re essentially trying to win over customers from your major competitors. This only works when you have a good value proposition that can’t be countered by your competitor. 

  1. Building trust through transparency

Ensure you don’t forget to include essential pages that intuitively give your customer the information they are looking for. Visibly placing your contact and FAQ sections is highly recommended. It also plays an important role in building trust.

Platforms and marketplaces you can consider for online retail

  1. Shopify

Shopify’s platform allows merchants to quickly set up and sell products on a hassle-free, templatized page. It is extremely popular with over a million businesses being active subscribers. It works pretty well for small to mid-range business owners who are interested in a low-investment deal. The monthly subscription fee is hardly expensive, and Shopify is just as popular, recognizable, and trusted as other mainstream eCommerce platforms.

  1. Facebook

No matter how you feel about Facebook, one thing that makes it unique are its business-oriented features. The platform is built to give businesses access to customers in a way that many other platforms aren’t. You’ll also find numerous e-commerce-friendly features that help you land a sale through your ad within seconds. 

  1. Instagram

High-quality product photography is key to winning in Instagram’s saturated space. Furthermore, the attention span of your audience here is extremely low, which means you have a very short window to engage with them. Keep your ads short and creatively simple. 

Instagram Shopping also offers a product catalog feature, where you can upload and showcase products to interested shoppers. 

  1. Etsy

If you’re a creative artist looking to sell your wares, Etsy is a dedicated website that might suit your requirement. It is a  niche website where sellers get to showcase their personally crafted products. 

The learning curve is short on Etsy, but the costs per sale may be particularly high. You may need to consider whether the end returns and the audience access you get on the site justifies the cost. 

If not, then it may not work as a Standalone solution. Meaning it’s best that you develop your own online store and have it running in parallel to your Etsy store. 

  1. eBay

eBay has a sales model that’s built around bidding on the price. This means that if you’re going with the standard model, there’s an opportunity for your product to be overvalued and also a possibility that it may be undervalued. 

Regardless, it also offers merchants the option to set up an online storefront where they can sell at non-negotiable, non-auctionable, fixed rates. 

What’s unique about eBay is that it’s a hub for you to try pitching even the most out-of-place products. Unlike standard retail, customer expectations are pretty accommodating. It wouldn’t be surprising to find strange, unusual, or unconventional products on eBay, which is not the case with a site like Amazon. 

  1. Amazon

Almost half of the world’s online retail shoppers search on Amazon. It’s a platform that requires no introduction. As far as the pros and cons go, Amazon offers sellers access to one of the biggest online audiences across the world. The FBA service is also standardized, allowing sellers to set aside their worries about shipping and delivery. At the same time, Amazon does charge a considerable cut of your revenue from each sale.

If you’re a small-scale retailer who’s yet to find an audience offline, Amazon may not be the best choice for you. 

Visibility is another issue that new and upcoming sellers may find tricky to navigate. You’d have to resort to consistent search optimization tactics if you want to appear in relevant results to the right audiences. 

If you don’t feel like Amazon may be your cup of tea (yet), there are still many other viable alternatives that could work.


Convenience rules

Online retail thrives on two major advantages that it offers: the convenience of set-up to sellers and the convenience of shopping to buyers. This is why the future looks incredibly promising to those who are willing to change and adapt. It may seem like an overstatement, but the survival of many businesses today depends heavily on how much they are willing to digitize, automate, and optimize their existing models in line with recent innovations.

There is no one-size fits all model for starting an online store. Instead of getting caught up in the details and specifics, it is best to simply get a head-start and figure out the rest as you go along. In the end, it’s all a matter of trial and error. And if you don’t try, you’ll never know.

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