Top 3 Advice for Starting an Online Store

More and more people are getting attracted to the idea of running their own business, being their own boss and forgetting about the 9–5 working day. Many bootstrappers are finding ways to succeed in the eCommerce sector, and this stimulates the others to pursue their success as well.

Currently, it is possible for all of us to run a business online, even if we already have a job, or we are studying in college, maybe even high school. The Internet definitely makes it easier and less costly to build and run your own online store. Furthermore, you have the freedom to share your products with a wider audience, starting locally, eventually expanding nationally and if you are determined enough — reaching international markets.

This blog post will shed some light on the basics of starting your eCommerce business — from choosing your product to setting up your store and marketing campaign. You will also learn about the research and development you have to do on your own for laying the ground to build your business.

Why does owning an eCommerce store sound so intriguing and tempting?

Being in control of your own business is certainly a great way to make a living while enjoying yourself. The speed and rates of growth speak for themselves:

Online sales in the second quarter of 2015 have increased by 14.4% from the second quarter of 2014 — U.S. Census Bureau

Future expectations are also helping motivate new business owners by predicting that the volume of online retail sales will continuously grow to $370 billion in 2017! Find out how you can be part of that by checking out our tips below.

#1 Find your niche and the right product

What you offer is the core of your future business, and all of your focus should go towards figuring out what it should be. The key point here is that if you are not passionate about your product, you will find it excessively difficult to be consistent and motivated.

  • What are your ideas? If you are thinking of starting your online business, you probably already have some ideas for products or at least a few directions, based on what you are interested in. Begin developing them and research the current competition.
  • How viable are they? You might have stumbled upon a narrow niche that could actually be worth exploring, so make sure you do enough research on the demand. On the other hand, if you think you’ve hit gold with a product that lacks any competition, there might be good reason for that. Probably nobody has an actual need or use for it.
  • Do they solve customer issues? Even if you are extremely passionate about a certain product or idea, it won’t get you far if people simply don’t share that passion. They might not have any use for it, or desire to possess it.

What is the impact of your product?

Start from your daily life, the things that bother you, your friends or family on a daily basis. Once you start researching, you will come across countless products that people have come up with to address regular issues that everyone encounters.

There are a few basic principles that your product should answer to:

  • The customer. Who is it useful for? Why is it useful and how does it benefit the consumer?
  • The idea. What makes it essential and what does it change?
  • The cost. What is the price they pay. What is the profit for them? How can they afford it?
  • The competition. How do you make a difference? Why will this survive over time?

Trending products and consumer passions

There are two main reasons why a customer makes a purchase. Either because they need it or because they want it.

Basic needs. On one hand, we have a situation where a customer buys something he or she needs. For instance clothes or food. Fashion is always changing and opening all kinds of opportunities for creative designers, while organic foods have been trending a lot among people pursuing a healthy lifestyle.

The United States generated about $32.32 billion from organic food sales in 2012, and $42 billion in 2014.

However, choosing to sell a product that people need and purchase on a regular basis means that you will have huge competition. This requires investments in an effective marketing strategy that will show the difference that your product makes on the market.

Desires. We have products that are purchased to satisfy an emotion or offer pleasure and convenience for customers. Passion drives the buyer’s motivation here.

People’s interests, hobbies and other relaxing pastimes are a very lucrative part of the online market.

For instance, mountain biking and outdoor activities in general have got sporting enthusiasts spending a lot of money on gear and equipment, enabling them to have a more satisfying experience doing what they love. Another good example for entertainment purposes is board games. They are trending surprisingly quick on Kickstarter and offer a great group experience for game lovers.

Out of ideas? Check your social media feed

Presenting products visually is the strongest method to attract interest and potential buyers.

For example, Pinterest is all about visual content. Growing by 97% in 2014, it was the world’sfastest growing social network. Its diverse categories like “DIY & crafts”, “Art”, “Health and fitness” make it easier for you to find what might inspire you to come up with your own ideas. Pinterest also has a “Products” category that overflows with new items, helping you indicate what attracts you and how people respond to it.

Check this neat spritzer for example. It’s very simple, and it can be utilised in many different ways. The more you browse through the rest of the products, the more you think “How didn’t I think of that earlier?”

One of the main reasons why Pinterest can be such a valuable assistant is the lifespan of each pin. Compared to a regular Facebook post, a pin has a lifespan that is 1,600 times longer.

Instagram is another way of finding new ideas because it also mainly utilises visual presentation and is very easy to scan. It grew by 50% at the end of 2014 and has plenty of reach to more than 300 million Instagrammers, which makes it a gold mine for product ideas and finding your niche.

You can find your areas of interest by using the hashtags and following people who are influential in the markets that you are interested in. Iconosquare made a study in 2015 which reported that 70% of 16,000 interviewed users have been looking for brands on Instagram.

The power of social media is a rich source of information and key insight into what is currently trending around the web and what your potential customers want and need. Later in the article, we will also discuss how you can use social media as an advantage in your marketing strategy when you have picked the product you are selling.

Create an influential brand that has character

While you are contemplating on what kind of product you are going with, think about branding as well. Even something as simple as coffee can be turned into a product that people have both the need and desire for.

A brand that customers can identify with has a strong influence on the market, but to do that you need to be unique in what you are offering, especially in a competitive market. Building an audience and knowing it inside out will let identify what is the exact thing they need and want. This means that your product will have a very strong presence by leaving a mark on the customer’s mind, making them become brand loyal.

Tell the story

If you are like Joel Gascoigne, the founder of Buffer, and you came up with an idea that has helped you in a significant way, you will want to share it with others. His idea came from not being consistent enough with social media and created an app that schedules Facebook posts and tweets. It offers a more stable social media presence that is very useful for businesses and other entrepreneurs trying to maintain an audience.

Joel had a story about an issue that bothered him, he came up with a solution and decided to help others with it as well. Great products always have great stories behind them and people want to hear about how it all started. A captivating story makes a brand much more recognizable.

For further reading, we would recommend one of our favorite guides, courtesy of Richard Lazzazzera — How to Find a Product to Sell Online: The Definitive Guide.

#2 Research extensively

Brace yourself, because research is coming!

It’s important to note that research is not just a single step in the entire process of starting your online store. If you want to stay on top, you must constantly do research on your audience and the direction in which your niche and industry is going. Studying your clients is a never ending process that you should embrace as a part of your strategy for maintaining strong online presence.

What’s your potential competition up to?

Having a good understanding of how your competition is doing and who are the top competitors in your field is time-consuming, but it’s a must if you are determined to make a difference on the market.

What are the most important things you want to know about your competitors while planning your store opening?

  • Who are their customers — what is their average age, gender, and social status?
  • Why are they attracted to that particular company — how do they charge for their product and what are its advantages?
  • What are their ratings and reviews — what is the customer feedback on their website and social media channels?
  • What clients don’t like about the competitor’s product — what are their weak points and how can you take advantage of that?

All of those questions must be examined and answered in detail for you to know what you’re up against. Carefully inspect your competitor’s websites, blogs, and social media activity. Figure out their business model, their values and what are the main reasons for their popularity.

Compare all your potential competitors according to these factors and determine their unique selling propositions. Do their customers like them because their products are resolving an essential issue, or because they are marketed very well?

Plan with the future in mind.

Will your product remain relevant, will it allow you to expand?

Product relevancy is a very important subject that every bootstrapper has to answer because simply following trends and fads does not always promise a stable future.

I’m not saying that fundamental needs like food, clothing, comfort, communication and transport are not dictated by trends to a great degree, of course they are. It is innovation that sets you apart, it is discovery that finds new ways to benefit society.

How can we innovate with fundamentals?

A great example for clothing is the sports apparel sector. For instance, athletic wear for people who need better performance, flexibility and comfort from their workout clothing, while still combining it with modern, unique style. By offering all of that, you are addressing a huge crowd as well as a common, specific need among them. Quite promising.

A company can only be somehow successful if it is based upon fad-driven products that are usually very short lived. Simply because you cannot be sure how trends will change in 6 or 12 months in the future. A company has to be rock-solid and reliable in the eyes of the consumers to be stable and successful in the long run.

What’s currently trending? Can you take advantage of it early enough?

Let’s take LED lights for example. It’s very possible for you to be using them in your home. This sector has been booming for quite a while because LED lights are very flexible to implement for almost any kind of purpose.

The graph below shows the increasing search tendencies for “LED lighting” according to Google Trends:

The popularity of certain products can easily be detected if you are active enough on social media. Understanding what are the upcoming trends early enough will give you ways to build a profitable business around that.

A good source for information, news, and examples for new products is TrendHunter. They have categories for practically anything from fashion, tech and culture to design, business and ads. Other examples for cool places on the web where you can follow trends are TrendWatching andUberCool.

Establish your business plan.

Why is that so important? Because every business needs a strong foundation upon which to build its fundamentals. It will be a guideline to follow even if you don’t plan on getting outside funding, requiring you to make a convincing presentation. Setting up your business plan is a strategic step that will allow you to plan for future growth and build your business on a rock-solid foundation.

It’s normal to encounter difficulties on the road to success, so when in doubt — check your business plan. It will remind you of your ideas, what you started from and where you want to go.

#3 Launching your store and marketing your product

And finally, the fun part!

It’s time to start designing your website and begin with the final steps to launching your online store. In this section, we will cover the main web design subject you must consider, as well as your marketing & shipping strategy, and product evaluation.

Get people to remember you and visit your store again

Leaving a mark on the people visiting your website can turn them from random visitors into actual, paying customers. Web design plays a huge role in that. Let’s go over the fundamental parts of a great website:

Attractive design

Looks are usually something subjective, but you can always tell when a site is good looking, and when it’s so unattractive that you desperately start looking for the X button right away.

Rich product descriptions

Eye-candy is great, but the main thing your clients need is the product. Describe each of the products you are selling in detail, add their technical data & specifications, and everything that the consumers might need. If possible, show how real customers are using the product.

Check out Shopify’s guide to writing successful product descriptions — 9 Simple Ways to Write Product Descriptions That Sell

High-quality product photos

Properly presenting your products from a visual perspective is one of the key selling points of every online store. Be sure to capture your products with high-quality images and multiple angles, showing off all of their qualities in a visually pleasing way.

Informative

Give all kinds of useful information, examples and guides about your products and your field in general. Consider adding blog posts and articles with news, developments, and innovations concerning your sector.

Easy to use

An online store must be as simple to use and explore as possible. Add a search bar, categories, sorting and filtering options to make it easy for your visitors to quickly find the products they came looking for.

Seamless shopping cart experience

Long and difficult checkouts are among the top reasons why customers abandon their shopping carts before finishing their purchase. Check out this infographic for a detailed explanation about the importance of a seamless shopping cart experience.

Define all the marketing goals and methods

No marketing strategy is successful without the 7 Ps of Marketing.

Target audience

Profiling your potential market and customers involves the size, demographic, social and cultural trends of the market as well as the purchasing habits, needs and interests of your customers.

Business model and goals

Decide what you are expecting to accomplish with your business and figure out how your marketing strategy will support you in achieving those goals. You may aim to overtake a new customer segment or simply raise awareness about your products and what they resolve.

There are several ways for acquiring the products you are going to sell:

Make — this is for people who have decided to build a business around their hobby and craft, selling products they are capable of making themselves.

Manufacture — if you are not capable of making your own products, you can find another manufacturer who can handle the production.

Dropship — the orders that your store generates are directed to your supplier who directly ships the product to the customer.

Wholesale — a common choice for entrepreneurs who want to skip the manufacturing process and buy the products directly from manufacturers, selling them at a higher price.

Define the shipping strategy

Are you selling on a local, national or international level? How much do you plan on charging for shipping? You can either choose to offer free shipping, flat rates or charge whatever the shipping company charges you for each order.

Forrester Research made a study on the effects of free shipping, indicating that the increasing rates of abandoned carts are affected substantially by high shipping rates.

Evaluate your online store before launching!

Making mistakes and learning from them is the only way to achieve your final goals, so start testing. Launch a test store and begin generating traffic to start analyzing consumer behaviour and interest.

Consider pre-selling some of your products and convey surveys about what your clients think of your web store. Run A/B testing on the design and conversion capabilities of your website until you decide that you have fulfilled the potential of your eCommerce store.

Final thoughts…

Starting and running a business is a challenging venture. Being your own boss requires a lot of effort, but I assure you that if you are determined enough to do all the dirty work of evaluating market, consumers and competitors, you will be ready to continue building your online store.

I hope you find this helpful and informative. Don’t forget to leave us a comment in the section below if you have any questions.


Originally published on the iSenseLabs Ecommerce blog.