If you want to learn how to sell online, this complete guide includes tips on everything from sourcing products to creating an online store.
Online selling offers endless opportunities both for small operations and big-scale online stores.
Wondering how to sell online? This guide will give you all the information you need to choose a platform, hone your sales strategy, set up your store, and jump into eCommerce.
7 Steps To Sell Online
The “secret” of how to sell online isn’t really a secret at all. If you want to open an online store and make it successful, you’ll take the same steps involved in opening just about any kind of business.
If you already operate a business and simply want to add an online element, you may be able to skip ahead a few steps. However, we advise you to start at the beginning of this list, no matter how developed your business idea is. You may spot some improvement opportunities that will make your online store more successful and profitable.
1) Identify Your Online Selling Opportunity
Before you open your online store, you’ll need to know what you plan to sell and who you hope will buy it. You’ll also want to decide on your unique selling proposition or USP. Essentially, your USP should answer this question: “Why should anyone buy from me?”
Your USP doesn’t have to be complicated. Samples include fast delivery, the best price, or the greatest selection.
Once you know what you want to sell, who you want to buy from you, and why they will say “yes” to you, you’re ready for the next step in your plan to sell online.
2) Build Your Business Plan
It sounds daunting, and while it’s true that a business plan can run to dozens of pages, it doesn’t have to.
In fact, we suggest you start with a one-page business plan, and we even have a downloadable template for you to use.
Your one-page business plan will help you organize your efforts, sharpen your decision-making, track your priorities, and give you an overview of your business plans.
This is a great time to think about what you want to name your business if you haven’t already chosen a name. In the next steps, listed below, you’ll need to apply for a business license and set up a website. You’ll definitely need a name in order to do those things.
Along with a name for your business, you’ll want to pick a domain name or URL. That’s the name your customers will type into their browser when they want to visit your online store, so it’s pretty important!
You can purchase your own domain, with prices starting at about $7/year. If you use a shopping cart platform to build your store, your subscription may include a free domain. Be aware that these free domains are often “branded,” meaning that instead of a URL like YourBusinessName.com, your URL will include your host site’s name, with an extension like myshopify.com for a Shopify store.
3) Source Your Product
You know what you want to sell and who you expect to buy from you. The next step in selling online is deciding where you’re going to get your products from.
There are almost as many different sales models as there are products to sell. If you already have a business going, and are just adding an online presence, you likely already have stock on hand.
If you’ve had success turning a hobby or side hustle into a thriving business, you may be creating products yourself. Just make sure you’ll have enough on hand to meet demand once your store goes live.
Many online stores rely on a sales model called dropshipping. If you’re planning to dropship, you won’t ever have products in your physical possession. Instead, you’ll find a reliable dropship supplier that can help you keep up with demand by shipping directly to your customers as soon as they place an order with you.
4) Make It Legal
Before you start selling online, you may need to make your business official. Whether you’re working from an office or from your home, you may need to get a federal, state, county, or city business license. In general, the only exceptions are if you’re working as a freelancer or if your business operates as a sole proprietorship.
You’ll also have to define your business. Are you operating as a sole proprietor or are you in a partnership with someone? You may decide to form a corporation or LLC, and in that case you probably need some legal assistance to file the paperwork.
Sooner or later, you’ll want to open a business bank account, too. It’s definitely important to keep your personal and business funds separate, and having a business bank account is a smart move. No matter how big or small your business, there’s a bank account tailored for your needs, including good options for business bank accounts for freelancers and side hustlers.
Even if you work from your home, consider buying small business insurance. Although you may see insurance just as an added expense, it’s actually invaluable protection.
If you have employees or business property like equipment or vehicles, you may be required to carry insurance. Even if you work from your home, you should consider adding basic liability coverage to protect your assets.
5) Build Your Online Store
Building a website can sound intimidating. Don’t worry! Even if you don’t know a thing about HTML or coding, or computers for that matter, there’s a platform out there that will be perfect for your skill level.
And you don’t necessarily need a big budget, either. Sure, you can hire a designer and pay thousands of dollars but you also can do almost all the work yourself — really.
In fact, you’ll find some eCommerce platforms that are designed for beginners to use. We’ll share our tips for the best eCommerce platforms, including some for beginners, below.
Of course, if you’re concerned about the cost of opening and operating an online store (and who isn’t?), you might find the right platform among the year’s best free eCommerce platforms. After all, the more you save on monthly subscription fees, the more money you’ll have to grow your business.
6) Grow Your Customer Base
You’ve got your product, you’ve got your website. Now, where are the customers?
Two of the easiest — and least expensive — ways to attract customers are email marketing and social media marketing. And while you don’t have to become a marketing expert, you should learn a little about search engine optimization, or SEO. It may sound technical, but you won’t need a lot of expertise to enact some SEO best practices that help customers find you online.
You should also explore the free marketing tools that may be included with the website builder you use. For example, you’ll find some great Shopify marketing tools. Square marketing tools are useful, too. And using these built-in marketing tools won’t cost you anything extra.
Be sure to claim your Google Business Profile, too! It’s fast, it’s free, and it’s a great way to connect with potential customers.
7) Expand Your Reach
Once you’ve launched your business and opened up your online store, you may soon realize that you want to grow your business even more.
In that case, you might want to extend your sales to one of the many online marketplaces available. Launching a store on Etsy or Amazon can help you reach even more customers.
Depending on the platform you choose, you may find some built-in integrations that make it easy to sell on these marketplaces and even some social media sites.
For example, Shopify makes it easy to sell on Amazon and eBay, and many platforms make it easy to sell on Walmart Marketplace, TikTok, and other sites.
When you’re ready to expand, be sure to check the app marketplace on your platform’s website to look for the integrations you need to meet your customers where they’re at.
4 Steps To Sell Online Without A Website
So far, we’ve talked about ways to sell online using a full online store. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that you can sell very successfully without setting up your own store!
We suggest you start with the steps outlined in the section above. Even if you’re not opening a full store, it’s still smart to identify your selling opportunities, build a business plan, source your product, and register your business. You can skip Step 5 since you won’t need an online store, but you’ll still want to grow your customer base and expand your reach as you build your business.
These additional steps will help you build a strong online business without a full online store for selling:
1) Focus On Customers
You don’t need a website to sell online. But you do need customers! So as you plan your online business, you’ll need to stay focused on your potential buyers.
Start by thinking about where you’ll find your customers and why they might want to shop online. Why are you adding online sales to your business? Maybe you are an artist or maker who sells in person at events and wants to give fans a way to buy from you afterward. Or you might own a brick-and-mortar business and want to grab more sales by making it more convenient to shop at home.
It’s important to outline your reasons for selling online. That information will help you in the next step, below.
2) Choose A Platform
You may not want or need a full online store. You’ll probably still want to use an established online platform to meet your customers.
That could mean joining a popular marketplace, like Amazon, Etsy, Walmart Marketplace, or eBay.
Or maybe you plan to sell online using social media sites like TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook.
Don’t overlook the option of signing on with a shopping cart platform like Ecwid or Shopify that offers eCommerce subscriptions that don’t include a full online store.
You can use the tools these platforms offer, like buy buttons, to sell on your blog, your social media posts, or in email or text messages. Look into Shopify’s Starter plan, too. For $5/month, this plan lets you sell on social media, email, SMS, WhatsApp, and anywhere else you can share product links. With this plan, you’ll have the option of adding an online store if you want to down the road someday.
Shopify also offers tools to help you sell on Facebook, including with a Facebook store. And if you’re inclined toward Square, be sure to take a look at Square Online Checkout for a free payment link generator you can use to take payments online without a website.
3) Pick Your Payment Method
When you set up an online store, payment processing is often built into the platform. If you’re going to sell online without a website, you probably will need to choose your own payment method.
Although you might want to set up your own merchant services account, you might not need to. You’ll find some great point of sale options (POS) that work very well for online selling. (We’ll discuss some of the best POS systems for online selling a little further on in this post.)
You can even use Venmo for business to take payments online and in person, using QR codes and the Venmo app.
And of course if you’re selling primarily on social media, you can use Facebook Pay as your payment option. This is a low-fee processor that may let you keep down the costs of making the sale and keep more of your profit!
4) Stay In Touch
Just as with any kind of store, online or in person, once you have customers, you’ll want to work to turn them into repeat buyers.
Fortunately, there are many tools available to help you make this happen!
The main thing to remember is to keep your products visible to buyers. That may mean posting regularly on your social media sites, planning email or text-message ad campaigns, or even partnering with influencers to extend your reach.
You can also make special offers to draw buyers back for more shopping. For example, gift cards can help you boost sales, convert lookers into buyers, and widen your reach as gift-card recipients browse your product line.
Some platforms support gift cards better than others. For example, Square gift cards are easy to use and can really bump up your sales, whether you’re selling in person, online, or a combination of both!
Best Platforms To Sell Online
Whether or not you want a full online store, you have a lot of choices for how to sell online.
You could choose to join a marketplace, like Amazon, Walmart Marketplace, or eBay. There are even special marketplaces for selling handmade items, like Etsy and Cratejoy.
These marketplaces have enormous reach and can help you connect with customers. They’re also crowded, competitive, and costly, so they’re not the right choice for every online seller.
If you want to sell online with full control of your branding, prices, and marketing, along with lower fees, you might do better setting up an independent online store.
Here are some of our top choices for online sales platforms:
Square is one of the most popular POS systems on the market. It’s also a solid choice for eCommerce. With a free standalone eCommerce option called Square Online in addition to free integrations with many popular eCommerce platforms, you can use Square to sell online and in person.
If you build your online store using popular platforms like WooCommerce, BigCommerce, Ecwid, Magento, Shift4Shop, or OpenCart, among others, you’ll find a prebuilt integration. If you’re tech-friendly, you can even use Square’s APIs and SDKs to build a custom connection between any eCommerce platform.
You’ll probably find some familiar names on our list of the best Square eCommerce integrations, along with options for connecting Square with your website builder. We think Square is particularly well suited for selling art online, with its $0 transaction fees, no commission fees, and a satisfying blend of online and in-person capabilities.
You can learn more about setting up a Square Online store to see how easy it is — and you won’t believe how quickly you could be selling online with Square.
Lightspeed is a POS system that also supports eCommerce. Sign up for Lightspeed’s Retail POS Standard or Advanced plan, and you’ll be able to sell in person or online. Lightspeed even includes the option of running multiple stores.
You’ll also find some intriguing options with Lightspeed eCommerce, such as support for appointments, BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store), and wishlists. Lightspeed also supports international sales and shipping.
Overall, Lightspeed consistently shows up on our Merchant Maverick lists of the best POS systems for retail. It’s also one of our top choices for selling vape products.
Helcim is a credit card processor that comes with POS capabilities for in-person selling and a full online store — if you want one.
Screenshot of Helcim webpage, captured 3/15/2023
If you already have a website, you can use Helcim’s Hosted Payment Pages to enable online selling. If you don’t, you can use Helcim Online Checkout to build a basic store that won’t require any coding or design expertise. Your store will be fully hosted, with integrated payments and shopping carts, so you won’t need to add any third-party integrations.
Your Helcim store is customizable, too, within limits. You’ll be able to make it look like your brand, and you can add custom content, including blog posts and informational pages.
Helcim Online Checkout is included with each free Helcim account. You can set it up to allow delivery or customer pickup options. Using Helcim payment options, you’ll enable customers to pay with all major credit cards and mobile payment options.
Shopify is an eCommerce giant that has plans to fit every size of business, from small sellers who don’t need a full online store to titans that need the support available from an enterprise-level plan like Shopify Plus.
Screenshot of Shopify webpage
The Shopify Starter plan lets you place buy buttons in any type of text, from social media posts and email messages to blog updates and text messages.
If you want to add a full online store, Shopify has three subscription plans to choose from, each offering an increasing level of features for managing ever more complex sales. Shopify’s support for growing businesses is one of its best features. You can sign up for a plan that fits you now, and that you can afford, and upgrade when you’re ready.
Shopify comes with many tools that will help your business grow, too. You’ll find support and resources for setting up your Shopify store. And once your store is up and running, you’ll find tools and tips to grow your Shopify sales.
Shopify also includes a POS system with every subscription level except the Starter plan. It gives you strong multichannel capabilities, including in-person, online, social media, and marketplace selling.
Shift4Shop offers one of the best prices for eCommerce functionality available. With a price tag of $0, as long as you agree to use the in-house payment processor Shift4 Payments, you gain access to top-tier advanced features that will support even advanced eCommerce operations.
Screenshot of Shift4Shop webpage
Shift4Shop is one of the best platforms for selling subscriptions. If your online sales plans include subscriptions and recurring payments, you’ll like what you see. You will have to add a native integration called AutoShip, which comes with an added cost. Because Shift4Shop’s fully loaded End-to-End plan costs $0/month, that cost may be easy to bear.
Shift4Shop also supports high-risk sales like vape and CBD, including subscription sales. Selling CBD online can be complicated, but it’s a growing market, and it’s becoming easier to sell CBD — with subscription sales especially enticing.
BigCommerce is one of our highest-rated eCommerce platforms, and for good reason. It’s user-friendly, comes with no transaction fees, offers a generous free trial, and is built to grow with your business.
Screenshot of BigCommerce webpage
All BigCommerce plans — there are four of them — include unlimited products and no added transaction fees, no matter what payment processor you choose to use. Big sellers might not find all the features they need on BigCommerce’s lower-tier plans, but as you go up in plan level, including an enterprise plan, you’re likely to find all you need and more.
One of our favorite BigCommerce features is its generous free trial. At a time when many software companies are scaling down or eliminating free trials, BigCommerce still gives you 15 days to test the platform before you commit.
That’s one reason we think BigCommerce is a good platform for businesses that are new to eCommerce. Whether you’re selling jewelry, artwork, subscriptions, vape, or anything else, BigCommerce definitely is one sales platform that’s worth checking out.
Final Thoughts On Selling Online
Online sales continue to grow and grow rapidly.
Forbes projects global online sales of $6.3 trillion in 2023, and that number continues to rise, with projections topping $8 trillion by 2026.
Your customers are not going to the mall or the corner store to browse and buy. They’re turning on their laptops or grabbing their tablets and cell phones. You need to be ready to meet them online if you hope to make the sale.
This post has outlined the steps you’ll need to take to start selling online and highlighted six of the best platforms to use to get started. Whether or not you build a full online store, by now, you should understand what you need to do and how to do it.
It’s time to start selling online, and you’re ready. So what are you waiting for?
FAQs: Selling Online
Can anyone sell online?
Anyone can sell online. You may decide you want a full online store, or you may find ways to sell on social media, via text or email messages, or as a supplement to your in-person sales. There are endless ways to sell online, and no matter how you choose to do it, you’ll find the tools you need with platforms like Square, Lightspeed, Helcim, Shopify, Shift4Shop, and BigCommerce.
Do you need a business license to sell online?
You may need a business license to sell online unless your business is classified as a sole proprietorship or you’re working as a freelancer. Check with your city, county, or state to be sure.
How do I sell online successfully?
Selling online successfully requires many of the same skills and techniques needed for in-person selling. You’ll need to create a solid business plan, find customers, source attractive products, and make it easy for customers to buy. You may find it easiest to set up a full store using a hosted platform like Shopify, Shift4Shop, or BigCommerce. Or you might do a better job of reaching customers with a combination of in-person and social selling, using tools available from Square, Lightspeed, and Helcim, among others.
How do you sell online internationally?
You can sell online internationally if you choose a platform that supports international sales. Lightspeed is one of the best choices when you’re looking at global sales. Other good choices include Shopify, Shift4Shop, and BigCommerce.
What are the best websites to sell online for free?
You can set up a free online store using a platform like Square Online, Helcim, or Shift4Shop.
What's the best way to sell online courses?
If you want to sell online courses, you may do best with a platform that specializes in online learning. Udemy is one example. You may also be able to use a platform that supports digital downloads, like Shopify or BigCommerce, or that supports subscription sales, like Square or Shift4Shop.