The Complete Guide To Starting An Online Store For Your Brick & Mortar Business
Online selling is a growing part of our world. Every year, eCommerce accounts for a larger percentage of retail sales in the US. And, as more consumers turn to online stores and marketplaces, many brick and mortar businesses are beginning to look into online selling as well.
However, while online selling is often necessary, it is by no means easy. We know that building, marketing, and managing an online store is a major challenge for most sellers. So, to help you move into online selling, we’ve compiled a list of ten steps to starting an online store. What’s more, we have reached out to online merchants and eCommerce experts, asking for their best advice for sellers who are transitioning from selling in person to selling online.
The result is a guide that you can keep on hand as you open your first online store. Keep reading for our best tips for selling online!
Table of Contents
Why You Should Take Your Brick And Mortar Store Online
Every year, eCommerce accounts for more and more of American consumer spending. By the end of 2019, eCommerce accounted for 11.4% of retail sales in the US, and that number is increasing every quarter. If you don’t open an online store, you’re missing potential sales from customers who prefer online shopping. But that isn’t the only reason you should take your brick and mortar store online! Adding an online store to your business can benefit your business in many additional ways. Here are a few things an online store can do for you:
- Opens Up Your Shop To Customers Around The World: When you sell online, you make your products available nationally, or even globally! This will allow you to gain customers that would have been out of reach before.
- Allows Your Current Customers To Browse From Home: Modern shoppers are changing the ways they interact with brands. Customers now prefer to research products online before making a purchase. Offering an online store lets customers compare your products with your competitors’.
- Adds Legitimacy To Your Business: Creating a website and an online store for your business gives your business a sense of legitimacy. Customers are more likely to trust your store if you have a solid online presence.
- Allows You To See Digital Products: If you’ve wanted to sell digital products, but didn’t have a means before, an online store is the way to go. Many eCommerce software apps enable you to sell digital products like eBooks, mp3 files, and online courses.
- Enables Customer Reviews: Many online sellers choose to offer consumers the option of leaving reviews on the products they’ve purchased. These customer reviews give potential customers a sense of confidence in your products, and they may inspire future purchases.
- Lets Customers Share Products On Social Media: When you have an online store, all of your products have their own URLs. This allows your customers to share your products via social media. Hopefully, your products will reach a wider audience this way.
- Safeguards Against Disaster: When you have an online store, you give your business an additional sales channel and an additional level of security. If you have to close your storefront for any reason (as we’ve seen with the COVID-19 crisis), you’ll still have a way to sell your products.
10 Steps To Starting An Online Store For Your Brick & Mortar Business
It’s clear that opening an online store can greatly benefit your business! However, for many sellers, it isn’t clear how to go about creating that online store. Take a look below for our ten steps to starting an online store.
Choose The Right eCommerce Software
Over the past few years, website design has become more and more accessible to the average user. You no longer have to have a degree in computer science to plan and design your own website or online store. Website builders (like Wix and Squarespace) and eCommerce software (like Shopify and 3dcart) now offer the tools that users need to create their own sites quickly and easily.
Choosing a great eCommerce software (or website builder) is the first step in running a successful online store. We recommend that sellers who are just starting out in eCommerce sign up for cloud-based software. Cloud-based software platforms are all-in-one solutions that include web hosting, domain names, web design tools, online selling features, and technical support. Cloud-based software is typically sold as a monthly subscription, ranging in price from about $29/month to $299/month, depending on the features you need.
For recommendations on some quality eCommerce software, head over to our shopping cart comparison page. All of the options presented there are excellent tools for building a brand new online store.
Pick Your Domain Name
One of the first choices you’ll have to make when you start setting up your online store is deciding on a domain name. Your domain name is the URL at the top of your online store (www.merchantmaverick.com for example). Your domain name is a key part of your brand, and it can be a crucial component of helping your current customers recognize your online store. And although there’s no guarantee you’ll get the domain name you want, here’s what you should aim for in selecting a domain name:
- Use Your Business’s Name As Your Domain Name: If it’s available, the best domain name you can have is your business’s current name. This will make it easy for your customers to find and recognize your online store.
- Choose A Domain Name That’s Easy To Remember: If your domain name isn’t available, do your best to choose a domain name that is similar to your business’s name. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s easy to remember.
- Use Real Words: Your domain name should use real English words, not a combination of numbers and letters.
- Try For A “.com” Name: Prioritize getting a .com domain name. These are the most commonly used, and consumers trust .com domains. If a .com isn’t available, the next best choices are .net and .shop.
- Consider Also Registering Potential Misspellings: If you have a domain name that’s easy to misspell, you should consider also purchasing any potential misspellings of that name. Then, you can redirect those misspelled domain names to your actual site.
Get A Leg Up On The Competition
As with any new business project, your initial stages should include plenty of market research.
In this case, we highly recommend looking into your competition’s online selling strategies. Since your customers will be able to compare your products with the competition very easily, it’s important to be aware of what your competition is offering. Evaluate how their website is set up, and look into which products they are advertising most heavily. You should also check out their pricing as well as their available shipping options. If you can’t compete with their prices, make sure your business offers value in another way, whether that’s better customer service, faster shipping, or higher quality products.
Select Your Website Theme
As you set up your online store, your eCommerce software of choice will likely present you with a selection of design templates to choose from. These templates (or themes) are the starting point for your online store. From here, you can add your own images and text and customize the design to best fit your brand. Depending on your eCommerce software, you may be able to customize a lot of your site (without touching the site code) or you may be able to customize very little.
When it’s time to choose a theme for your site, you should make sure to select one with a clean design. Look for a theme that is image-focused and well organized. Your theme should include organizational tools such as a header and a search bar. Avoid themes that look outdated, or that include large, unnecessary elements that dominate valuable space. You want to make sure that the theme you choose fits your brand and that it’s a comfortable “storefront” for your customers to spend time in.
Choose Which Products To Sell
Setting up great product pages takes time, which means that you probably don’t want to make every item in your inventory available online right away. Start by adding your top in-store sellers to your online store. Then, you can start rounding out your product offering, adding additional categories and supplemental items. Depending on the types of products you sell, it may be wise to keep some items as in-store purchases only. Make sure that the items you list online are items that are easy to supply, warehouse, and ship. Everything else (such as large furniture or particularly heavy objects) may be best available as pick-up-in-store products only.
Nail Your Product Descriptions & Images
As I stated above, it takes time to create great product listings. You’ll need to develop creative and descriptive text for your product descriptions and take clear images of your products in order to convey to your audience what each product is like. What’s more, creating your own unique product descriptions and images boosts your SEO, making it more likely that your products will come up in search results. Here are a few tips you should follow as you develop product listings:
- Write Clear Product Descriptions: Because your customers are not able to see your products in person, it’s important that your product descriptions are clear and accurate. Describe the materials used in the products and give the items’ dimensions. Include information about shipping costs as well as your return policy. Some brands also use the product description to tell a story about their products. They describe the ways their products will fit into their customers’ lives, and they paint a picture of how customers might feel when they own that item. ModCloth, a women’s clothing company, does a great job of telling a story in their product descriptions. I recommend reading a few of their product descriptions for inspiration.
- Feature Your Own Product Images: As you list your products, make sure that the imagery you feature is original and clearly portrays your products. While it is tempting to use the product photos that your manufacturers or supplies provide, it is unwise to use these images. Using an image that exists somewhere else online reduces your site’s credibility with search engines, leading to a potential drop in organic search traffic. If you have access to a quality camera, don’t be afraid to take your own product photos. Use a large piece of white paper or fabric to create your own photo studio, and take multiple high-quality photos of your products at multiple angles. You should also consider hiring a professional to take these photos for you. It may be costly, but it is worth the investment. Good product imagery increases your customers’ confidence in your products, and it decreases the likelihood of returns because your customers have a good idea of how your products will look.
Don’t Forget About SEO
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and it is the process of adjusting your website so that you are more likely to be listed in search engine results. Having good SEO is critical for online selling. Here are a few ways you can get started with SEO:
- Write Custom Meta Descriptions, Title Tags, & Page Titles: Write your own meta descriptions, title tags, and page titles for your products. Use relevant keywords, and make sure your page titles are easily searchable.
- Optimize URLs: All of the URLs on your website should use plain English. Make sure that every one of your product pages has an URL that ends with the name of the product, rather than a set of numbers and letters. Use forward slashes to add the names of categories and products to your URLs. For example, if you sell handmade ceramics, and you are marketing a burgundy 16oz mug, your URL might look something like this: www.domainname.com/ceramics/mugs/16oz-burgundy-mug/
- Target Short & Long-tail Keywords: Research keywords that you can target in your meta descriptions, title tags, and page titles. Find short keywords as well as long-tail keywords (keywords that are two to four words long). Typically, long-tail keywords are best for smaller online stores. These keywords are less competitive, and they help to get traffic that is more specific to your products.
- Write A Blog: Blogs are a great way to boost your SEO. By regularly updating your blog, you communicate to search engines that your site is active, which helps you rank higher in search results. What’s more, blog posts are a great way to put out lots of keywords, which helps draw traffic to your site.
For more information on Search Engine Optimization, we recommend checking out Shopify’s Beginner’s Guide to eCommerce SEO and Ahref’s Simple (But Complete) Guide to SEO. Both are great resources for new online sellers.
Create A Refund Policy & Shipping Policy
Refunds are a very real part of online selling. Customers are beginning to expect the ability to return anything they buy online, and now many customers expect to return those products for free! According to Narvar’s Consumer Report 2018, 69% of shoppers are deterred from shopping online if they have to pay for return shipping. Whether you choose to offer free return shipping or not, it’s important that you communicate your return policy with customers early on. Make your return policy easy to find–list it on product pages, in your website’s FAQs, and during checkout. You don’t want your return policy to be a surprise to customers, especially if that policy doesn’t allow for returns at all!
You should also be clear with your customers about your shipping policy. In the age of Amazon Prime shipping, many customers expect shipping options that are both free and fast. Make sure customers know what to expect by listing estimated shipping times on product pages. If you offer a free shipping deal for purchases over a certain total, communicate that deal in a banner at the top of your site. An informed customer is a happy customer, and you should do everything in your power to make sure customers are not surprised (and turned away) by additional shipping costs at checkout.
As you make choices about how you will handle shipping, we’d also like to recommend that you look into available shipping software. This software helps you make real-time calculations on the costs of shipping through different carriers, and it helps manage order fulfillment by simplifying the process of purchasing and printing postage. Take a look at our article, The Best Shipping Software For 2020, for a few great options.
Decide Which Payments Methods To Accept
In order to begin accepting online payments, you must integrate a payment processor.
Payment processors are available in two forms: payment service providers (PSPs) and merchant accounts. PSPs are payment providers that handle all aspects of accepting payments online. A few examples are PayPal, Stripe, and Square. In general, PSPs are easy to set up, and they have an easy to understand fee model (typically 2.9% + $0.30 on every transaction). That said, PSPs are also notoriously unstable. Many merchants are initially allowed to begin processing payments with a PSP, only to be suspended from the service months later while their funds are held up in their frozen accounts.
Merchant accounts, on the other hand, are the more old school way to accept payments. They take longer to set up, and they don’t integrate as easily with online stores (you typically have to use what’s called a “payment gateway” to make the connection), but they are a more stable way of accepting payments. A few examples of merchant accounts are Dharma Merchant Services and CDGcommerce.
You likely already have a payment processor that you are using to accept in-person card transactions. Look into your current provider to find out if they’ll allow you to accept online transactions, and look up the fees associated with online card-not-present transactions. For some suggestions on selecting a payment processor for your online store, check out our article How To Choose An eCommerce Merchant Account.
We recommend accepting payments through two or more payment processors. It’s always good to give your customers a choice of how they’d like to pay, especially in a situation where customers may be concerned about their payment data’s security. In particular, we recommend listing PayPal as one of your payment options. PayPal allows customers to make a purchase without handing over their credit card information to another website. The ability to pay via PayPal boosts customers’ sense of security and makes them more likely to purchase. In fact, a reported 54% of customers are more willing to buy when a business accepts PayPal. This is still true even if the customer doesn’t end up using PayPal to process their purchase!
Market Your New Online Store
Once you have your online store ready to launch, don’t forget to set up a few marketing campaigns!
Make use of social media, email marketing, and your physical store location to advertise your business’s new online shopping options. Since you already have a consumer base, you’re a step ahead of most new online stores. Get the word out about your online store by embedding a few links in your social media posts and email newsletters, and keep an eye on Google Analytics to track the traffic that comes in.
Expert Tips For Taking Your Store Online
As we researched for this article, we also reached out to current online sellers, asking them what tips they had for moving from in-person selling to online selling. In their responses, we noticed a few trends. Here’s the advice they had to offer.
Find A Niche
With competition as large as the internet itself, it can be difficult to set your store apart from the crowd. It’s crucial to find a niche for your store.
Here’s what Ron Yates of Yates & Co Jewelers and Titanium-Jewelry.com, has to say about finding a niche for his store:
There is no way I could compete with the larger jewelry websites with my very limited resources. So I identified one small niche of jewelry that I carried in my physical store [and] I built this site with a laser focus on just that type of jewelry. And it worked! Within 4 years we were selling over $1,000,000 jewelry per year on this site.
Finding a niche worked for Yates, and hopefully, it’ll work for you.
Choose An Excellent eCommerce Platform
In order to build a successful online store, you’ll need to be able to easily manage your storefront.
That’s why we recommend easy-to-use cloud-based eCommerce software to most merchants. Turns out, we aren’t alone in this recommendation. We found a couple more eCommerce experts who say the same.
Tami Brehse, COO of Reboot Marketing, is one such expert. She recommends finding a cloud-based, all-inclusive platform for your online store. According to Brehse:
My best advice would be to start out with an all-in-one platform like Shopify that’s tailor made for ecommerce, rather than trying to do it yourself or cobble together a solution using many different providers. With a platform like this you’re able to easily upload products, create product pages, and make changes to the layout of your site without any need for code.
Use a hosted eCommerce solution like Shopify or BigCommerce. Let’s face it, most online stores need pretty much the same functionality. Don’t re-invent the wheel by spending thousands creating your own eCommerce site. Use a tool like Shopify or BigCommerce and take advantage of their baked in tools like Apple Pay, Cart Abandonment Emails, etc.
Here at Merchant Maverick, we place a lot of focus on finding the right software for your store. And we’re particularly fond of cloud-based solutions for their ease of use. Take a look at our top ranking eCommerce software platforms to get a jump start finding the shopping cart that’s right for your company.
Prioritize Inventory Management
If you’ve read any of our articles on multichannel selling, you know that inventory management is one of the biggest challenges related to selling in-store and online.
It can be difficult to keep product information synced between your Point Of Sale and eCommerce platforms. And, if you sell products with a lot of attributes (different sizes, colors, and styles), monitoring these stock levels can be especially difficult.
My advice for regulating inventory is this: Make sure your eCommerce platform offers a pre-existing integration with your Point Of Sale system. See to it that this integration regularly hands information between the two platforms. Some integrations update information after every transaction (which is best) and others update every hour or so (which is okay, but not ideal).
Derek Miller from CopyPress agrees that inventory management is one of the biggest challenges to brick and mortar sellers who are approaching online selling. His advice focuses primarily on stock levels:
eCommerce stores are open 24/7 which means you need to make sure you have products available whenever customers want it. You need to strike a balance between having enough goods available, but not overstocking. Many eCommerce platforms have analytic tools to help you gauge demand and you can also set up auto ordering when inventory hits a threshold.
In short, you need to make sure that you have the products that your customers expect. Poor inventory management can lead to some very unhappy shoppers.
Use Original Imagery
As you design your storefront, you’ll want to make sure the layout and the images you provide fit your current brand. This means that you’ll likely need to invest a bit more time (and money) into the creation of your site. In specific, you should use original images for your products.
When A Hume Country Clothing decided to take their store online, they wanted to make sure that they preserved the atmosphere of their physical stores. According to Max Robinson:
Our shops are filled with character and feel very personal, and when we made the transition into the online world we wanted to ensure that our website had the same feel. We knew that original imagery would be key to achieving this, so we invested in photoshoots for every product that we sell. It was a huge investment (both time and monetary), but helps our online presence to be more in line with the experience that customers have in our shops. It also helps us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors online.
Not only does original imagery better build your brand, it also boosts your site’s SEO. Google loves unique images. Using your own images instead of the stock images from your suppliers will have a noticeable impact on your search rankings.
Original photography is, without a doubt, the way to go. Take a look at this article by Shopify for a DIY guide on taking your own product photos.
Learn About Search Engine Optimization
As a store owner, you certainly know how to bring in foot traffic. However, as you move online, you’ll need to attract a new kind of traffic. And unfortunately, it takes a bit more than some fliers and billboards to draw in online traffic. You’ll need to enter into the world of SEO.
“Learn as much as you can about SEO and online marketing,” says Bob Ellis, owner of Bavarian Clockworks. He goes on:
The primary difference between a brick and mortar store and an e-commerce one is how your customers find you. With a physical business, a lot of your customers are foot traffic that walk by, see something they like, and enter your store to explore your products. With the e-commerce model, most of your customers will find your shop online by actively searching for products you sell. This is why it is so important to understand SEO or work with someone who does.
I particularly like that last bit: “or work with someone who does.” SEO is incredibly complicated, and it can be difficult to know what’s working and what isn’t. If it’s within the budget, find someone who can work part-time to get you on the map in terms of SEO. It will do your store a world of good.
However, if DIY is your only option, take a look at Neil Patel’s SEO strategies. He’s one of the leading experts on the topic, and he often has free materials available on his site.
Diversify Your Marketing Strategies
SEO is clearly one of the best ways to bring in web traffic; however, it is not the only way. In fact, you should pursue multiple marketing methods at the same time in order to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket.
Marlon Heimerl, the Content Marketing Manager for Bellacor.com, suggests diversifying your marketing methods. He tells the story of Bellacor’s marketing strategy to illustrate this point:
As the years drew on and the market changed, we focused on a diversification strategy engaging PPC, organic, affiliates, content marketing, and more. The idea is through diversification you safeguard against channel lulls and drive revenue through disparate yet complementary channels.
In short, you should be using different marketing strategies like Pay-Per-Click ads, blogging, and social media engagement.
Ready To Get Started? Here’s Your Brick & Mortar Online Store Launch Checklist
As you transition from the real world to the digital, take these tips with you. They’ve worked for other sellers, and they can work for you too.
Do you have anything to add? Comment below to let us know your best tips for moving online.
Or, if you’re looking for more advice on building an online store, download our free eBook, The Beginner’s Guide to Starting an Online Store. It’s full of tips and tricks for setting your store up right the first time.
Without further ado, here’s that final launch checklist:
- Choose An eCommerce Platform: Select the software that you’ll use to build your online store. This could be software that you use to build the entire site from the ground-up, or it could be a software plug-in that you use to add a shopping cart to your existing website.
- Claim A Domain: Register your store’s domain name. Aim for a domain name that is similar to your business’s name and that uses real, easy-to-spell words.
- Review The Competition: Dig into your competitors’ websites. What are they offering their customers, and what areas can you improve on?
- Design Your Website: Use your eCommerce platform’s design tools (or hire a web developer) to create an easy-to-navigate website full of beautiful imagery and effective search tools.
- Select Excellent Products: Fill your store with products that have proven to be successful in the past. Look for items that are inexpensive to ship and that have a high profit margin.
- Create Quality Product Listings: Create original product descriptions and imagery that give customers a good understanding of your products and motivate them to buy.
- Prioritize SEO: Dedicate time to learning the ins and outs of search engine optimization, and then implement that knowledge on your site.
- Find A Great Shipping Solution: Sign up for shipping software that lets you quickly calculate, purchase, and print postage.
- Choose You Payment Processors: Select one or two payment processors and get started with their sign up process. Consider listing PayPal as a payment option.
- Engage In Marketing: Advertise your new online store on social media, in your storefront, and in your newsletter. Let customers know that your online store is open for business!