How to Start an Online Store

Learn what steps you’ll need to take in order to start a new online store from scratch.

Illustration of human hands and animal hands being raised

Merchants and entrepreneurs all over the world have been flocking towards e-commerce in recent years, and it’s easy to understand why. According to Internet Retailer, global e-commerce sales grew 18% in 2018, with consumers spending more than $2.86 trillion online. In the United States alone, e-commerce sales increased by 15% in 2018, representing 14.3% of total retail sales.

But it’s not just the potential financial benefits that makes e-commerce so appealing. In addition to the allure of earning income from sales, many would-be online sellers are also drawn in by the flexibility and freedom that opening an online store can provide: you can operate from anywhere in the world, you can grow at your own pace, and you get to be your own boss.

Even if you already operate a brick-and-mortar storefront, introducing e-commerce to the mix can offer some valuable benefits. Creating an omnichannel experience will help you reach a larger audience, make your products easily accessible, and most importantly, generate more revenue.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the steps that every aspiring e-commerce merchant needs to take as they prepare to open a new online store from scratch.

What you'll need before starting your online store

Before you can begin traveling down the pathway to e-commerce success, there are a few essential elements you’ll need to have in place. First, the technical components:

A domain name

Your domain name is more than just the internet address where people can find your store—it's the online identity of your business. It can make you look more professional and give you instant credibility with your audience, but you'll want to be sure to select a name that matches your brand and is easy for your customers to remember.

Not sure how to select and register a domain name? Our guidelines will help point you in the right direction.

A web host

A web host is where your store will “live” online, acting as a digital landlord for all of your content (like files or images). Many domain registrars and store builders will offer hosting services directly, so it’s often easy to check this off of your to-do list.

An SSL certificate

SSL (short for Secure Sockets Layer) is a security protocol that allows your customers to establish a safe, encrypted connection between their browser and your store. You’ll need this in order to accept payments, but don’t worry—many web hosts (or online store builders) can provide the SSL certificate for you.

And then, there’s the more obvious stuff:

Something to sell

Before you can open up an online store, you’ll need to decide what kind of stuff you want to sell. There’s a lot to consider, so you should start by asking questions (and researching topics) like:

  • Do you want to sell your own handmade product?
  • How much will that product cost you to produce?
  • What will the cost be for the customer?
  • How much inventory are you prepared to keep on hand?
  • What differentiates your product from other similar items that might already exist on the market?

Or, maybe you’d rather partner with an established third-party manufacturer or wholesaler and focus on drop shipping. With drop shipping, you won’t need to maintain any inventory of your own; when a customer buys an item from your store, you’ll forward their order to the third party who will package and ship the item to the customer on your behalf.

A store builder

The store builder is the platform you’ll use to design and build out your new e-commerce store. There are a lot of different options to choose from, so you’ll need to identify the builder that offers the right combination of features for your business at a cost that fits into your budget.

Later in this article, we’ll take a closer look at some important questions to consider as you’re searching for the right online store builder.

Step 1: Decide what to sell online

If you’ve already created a product of your own—whether it’s a line of clothing, a mobile app, or anything in between—then you’re off to a great start. But if you’re still on the hunt for the next big product idea, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind throughout your search.

Inspiration is everywhere

Sometimes the best idea comes when you least expect it. Maybe it’ll pop into your head while you’re standing in line at the coffee shop. Or maybe you’ll see something while commuting that gets your creative juices flowing. Keep an open mind and always be prepared to make a note of any (potentially profitable) ideas that you come up with, no matter when—or where—the inspiration strikes.

Identify gaps in the market

Every day, people rely on products that only exist because someone, somewhere identified a need and came up with a new way to address it. As you go about your day, pay attention to the simple, common frustrations that you (or the folks around you) are experiencing. If it seems like there must be a better way to do something, there probably is—and you might be the person to discover it.

Think about current (and future) trends

Many sellers find success by analyzing the latest trends—in fashion or pop culture, for example—and developing a product that links back to those trends in some way. Brainstorm potential products that could help you capitalize on the stuff that’s hot right now, or think about ways the trends might shift so you can be one of the first to reach the market when the next big thing hits.

Find a product that you’re passionate about

An online store is going to require a lot of your time and attention, and you’ll be working with the stuff you sell all day, every day. Choosing a product that you’re familiar with and knowledgeable about will make it easier to talk to (and sell to) your customers, and help you stay motivated and excited about running your store, too.

Learn what people are searching for online

Search engines like Google and Bing empower millions of people around the world to search the internet for, well, just about anything. Consider using a tool like Answer The Public that aggregates all of the search queries those engines receive and makes it easy to identify the most popular searches surrounding any given keyword. It’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the internet—and to identify product ideas that might already generate plenty of organic traffic.

Step 2: Choose an online store builder

Once you’ve got something to sell, you’ll need to find a place to start selling it online. As we mentioned earlier, even if you’ve already got a physical location where you sell your wares, it’s important to have an online, omnichannel presence so you can reach your customers no matter where they might be.

There’s no shortage of online store builders on the market today—including WooCommerce, BigCommerce, and PrestaShop, to name a few—each one offering varying degrees of sophistication and its own unique set of features. So whether you’re the tech-savvy type who wants to be able to customize everything, or you’re just looking for an easy-to-use option that allows you to build an online store as quickly as possible, it’s important to research your options and find the one that makes the most sense for your business.

Note: If you’ve only got one item to sell (or you’d prefer to dip your toes in the e-commerce waters before making a big commitment), you might also want to consider Mailchimp landing pages as an option. Mailchimp offers an integration with Square payments so you can sell an item (and accept payments) directly from a landing page—with no e-commerce store required. It’s a great way to launch a new product, run a targeted promotion, or sell a limited edition item, while still giving shoppers a seamless buying experience.

Questions to ask before selecting an online store builder

No matter your technical proficiency or what type of stuff you’re planning to sell, there are a handful of questions that every potential online seller should be asking before selecting a store builder for their business.

1. Does it come with a domain and hosting?

A branded domain name and a web host are must-haves for any online store, which is why many store builders have started to offer these services to users. If you don’t already have a domain and host lined up for your new store, selecting a builder that provides them for you can be a real time-saver.

2. Does it connect with other marketplaces like Amazon or eBay?

Some merchants, especially sellers who already have an established brand identity, want the freedom to list their products across multiple sales channels. If your goal is to expand beyond a single branded online storefront, look for a builder that offers that type of scalability.

3. How does it handle inventory management and shipping?

If you’re selling a physical product, you’ll need access to tools that help you keep track of your inventory and ship stuff out to customers in a timely manner. Some store builders will have built-in solutions available to help you address those concerns, while others might require you to find and install plugins.

4. Does it connect with social media?

Social media sites—particularly Facebook and Instagram—have become critical marketing tools for online sellers. Be on the lookout for a store builder that makes it easy to promote and share your products across all of your social channels—it’s a great way to reach new audiences, build brand awareness, and drive sales.

5. Does it give you access to other marketing tools, too?

Your relationship with customers shouldn’t begin and end when they exit your site or buy something from your store. As you’re growing your business, you’ll need tools like abandoned cart emails to remind people about stuff they leave in their shopping cart and order notification and confirmation messages to let shoppers know their order has been processed and is on its way.

6. If you answered “no” to questions 4 and 5, does it integrate with other apps or services that offer those features?

Your preferred store builder might not offer all of the features you need to both sell your products and manage your marketing—and that’s okay!

If you’re not able to find an all-in-one solution that makes sense for your business, there are other services on the market—like Mailchimp for example—that integrate with many store builders and will provide you with the tools you need to get the word out about your business and drive traffic to your online store. With Mailchimp, you can create Facebook, Instagram, and Google remarketing ads, send automated abandoned cart emails, create order notifications that match your brand, generate personalized product recommendations, and a whole lot more.

Step 3: Create your online store

Once you’ve picked the store builder that’s right for you, it’s time to start designing a virtual storefront that is uniquely your own.

1. Select a domain name

An effective domain name will make it easier for your existing audience to find and recognize your brand online, and help define your brand to new audiences, too. It should be easy for folks to type, spell, and remember, but not contain any trendy or regional slang terms that tie you down to a specific location or time period. Read more tips for choosing the right domain name.

2. Choose a template

Most store builders will have easy-to-use template options to help you get up and running as quickly as possible. Scan through all of the available options and pick the layout that aligns with your vision for your new store. Think about the design elements you want your store to have and how you want customers to navigate through your products.

3. Add your products and start merchandising

As you’re building your product page(s), be sure to incorporate the product name, price, color, dimensions, weight, and any other details that will help customers as they’re making their final purchase decision. It’s also important to include a compelling description of the product and plenty of beautiful images that will help bring the item to life. Learn how to design a product page that sells.

4. Determine which payment methods you’ll accept

There are a number of different payment options available to e-commerce merchants, including credit cards (like Visa and MasterCard) and digital payment services (like PayPal, Google Pay, or, if you’re selling an item through a Mailchimp landing page, Square). Before making your decision, take some time to learn how online payments work, how much each payment option will cost you per transaction, and if there are any limitations to where they’re accepted around the world.

5. Think about order fulfillment

Once you’ve added products to your store and decided how people will pay for them, you’ll also need to determine how you’re going to deliver those products to your customers.

If you’re selling an e-book, whitepaper, art file, or some other type of digital product, you can provide customers with a download link on your site or send it via email immediately after purchase. If you’re selling physical products, you’ll need to pick a shipping service and decide which countries you’ll ship to, what type of packaging to use, and how much to charge for shipping.

Step 4: Test your online store

You’ll never get a second chance to make a good first impression on your customers, so be sure to thoroughly test every element of the shopping and checkout experience before the first customer passes through your virtual doors.

1. Preview your store on different browsers and devices

You never know how or when customers will visit your online store, so it’s a good idea to be prepared for anything. Before you start driving traffic to the store, try accessing it from as many different web browsers—and as many different devices—as possible. This will help you ensure that the store looks great and is easy to navigate for your audience, whether they’re visiting from their desktop, tablet, or mobile device.

2. Place a test order

Ensure that your entire checkout process works as expected by following the same path your customers will: visit your store, add an item to your cart, and then complete the purchase.

Along the way, you’ll want to confirm that the pricing of the item in the cart is correct, that all of your shipping options, fees, and any applicable taxes are clearly stated (and accurate), and that payments are processed properly after the order is complete. If you’re planning to offer any special promotions or discount codes for customers at launch, you should make sure they work correctly, too.

3. Check your inbox for an order confirmation email

After placing an order, head over to your email inbox to make sure that you receive an order confirmation message and that all of the information within the email is correct.

If you’ve connected your store to Mailchimp and plan to use our order notifications feature, you will also need to double check that you’ve disabled the store builder’s built-in order status emails to avoid redundancy for your customers.

4. Go through the refund process

No matter what type of stuff you’re going to sell, there’s a good chance that one of your customers will eventually need to request a refund or cancel their order. By testing out the refund process before your store is open to the public, you’ll be well-equipped to issue refunds quickly and professionally should you need to do so in the future.

Step 5: Start marketing your online store

Once you’re confident that your store is ready for its first customers, it’s time to start thinking about how you can advertise to increase awareness and attract visitors. In this section, we’ll outline a few of the marketing tools that can be particularly useful for online sellers—and you can do all of it with Mailchimp.

1. Promote your store on social media

When you’re ready to start welcoming customers, get the word out by sharing a link on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or anywhere else your friends, fans, and other potential customers might be. You can even create customized Facebook and Instagram ads to target specific segments of people—like folks who live in a particular location or are within a certain age range, for example. These ads can help you grow your audience and drive more traffic to your store.

2. Offer incentives to attract customers

Incentives are a great way to generate excitement within your audience and encourage folks to make a purchase from your store. You could share a promo code with new customers that rewards them with free shipping or a discount on their next purchase. Or, you could announce a contest and give your first 50 customers the chance to win a one-of-a-kind gift or special prize pack. Be creative!

3. Start building an email list

Email marketing is an effective way to build an audience, keep them engaged, and gain valuable insights that will help you grow in the future. Consider adding a signup form to your website or collecting an email address from customers when they make a purchase from your store, then sending out emails to thank folks for their support, share updates about your latest products, and more. Afterward, you can review your email reports and learn what type of content leads to more opens, more clicks, and more purchases from your store.

4. Create Google remarketing ads

If you’ve ever visited a website and then started seeing ads for that same site as you browsed elsewhere on the web, there’s a good chance that you’ve already encountered Google remarketing ads. This type of advertising allows you to keep your business top-of-mind by displaying targeted ads to people who have visited—and navigated away from—your store. They’re a powerful way to drive traffic and recapture sales from your customers—no matter where they go online.