Starting An Ecommerce Store: A Guide for Solo Entrepreneurs and Creatives
A few months ago, I was a chatting with a friend of mine who’d been thinking about opening an online store as a side business, selling her lovely handmade knitwear. Unsurprisingly, as I spend about 99% of my time designing, building, and strategising for ecommerce stores (the other 1% is coffees and procrastination!) she asked if I had any advice for someone just getting started, like what platforms I recommended. And I told her what I tell all my clients: I can’t recommend a platform until I know a whole lot more about your business, which generally means I can’t recommend anything until you know a whole lot more about your business.
Things like how much you'll be doing by yourself, the types of products you’ll be selling and any marketing tactics that might need building into your site (like a customer loyalty program, for example) are all things I need to know long before we can start talking platforms. And don’t forget about the actual website materials: you’ll need to prepare information like your product descriptions and images, your shipping rates and locations, and of course, details like your business address and the taxes you’ll be charging.
These, along with countless other considerations, all need to be decided before you even start thinking about a website. In fact there’s so much to consider that I’ve ended up breaking this article down into three parts, to make things a bit more manageable for you.
To make this article more manageable, I've split it into three parts:
but for now let’s start with your most important consideration: Your Products.
Part One: Your Products
I’m assuming you already know what you’re planning to sell, whether these are your own handcrafted items, or you’re starting a retail business with third-party products. (If not, perhaps you’d better bookmark this article for later!)
Some of you might be planning to start a dropshipping business (i.e. an online store where someone else actually ships the items for you and takes a cut of the sales). If so certain considerations below might already be decided for you, such as your inventory and packaging.
Regardless, once you’ve selected your product catalog, you’ll still have a lot of decisions to make, such as…
01. Your Inventory
This is something you’ll need to carefully consider: how many units of each product you plan to start to with. As well as the cost of your starting inventory, there’s also simple logistics like where you’re planning to store your products until they’re sold.
Depending on your products, this could easily be a corner of your living room, or you might need an entire warehouse! So the costs of storing your inventory will be a factor in deciding how many units of each item to start with, whether that “cost” is in the form of third-party storage fees, or in how much of your home is now taken over by boxes!
Some products, like perishable goods, may have certain legal requirements regarding how they are stored, and this may also be a factor in setting your initial inventory quantities. Even if your plan is to make your products to order, you’ll still need at least one of every item you’re planning to sell, so it can be photographed for your ecommerce store.
Finally, you’ll need to consider inventory management once the products are online: do you plan on managing your inventory levels manually to start with? If you’re planning to sell your products through other channels, particularly offline ones like markets or pop-up stores, then this might be your only option to start with. Or do you need a system that will automatically do this for you?
Are you going to allow customers to purchase products on back-order (i.e. sell more items than you have in stock, and order / create more as required)? If so, that comes with its own set of considerations: how do you manage customer notifications of this? No one wants to find out their item is going to be delayed after they’ve purchased, so you’ll need to ensure that items on back-order are at the very least clearly marked.
02. Your Packaging
Now that your inventory is decided, it’s time to consider your packaging. Again, especially if you’re storing products at home, don’t discount how much space this will take up – even flatpack cardboard boxes can very quickly take up a surprisingly large amount of room once you’re stocking them by the hundreds.
Even more important is how much to invest in your packaging. This will really depend on the type of business you’re running: if price is a selling point for your products, then you’ll probably want to consider more economical options for packaging.
If on the other hand, you sell luxury or lifestyle items – things that are based more around a customer's want than a need – then you’ll probably want to budget a little more for your packaging. For products like homeware or fashion and accessories, customers will be buying into your brand just as much the products themselves, and your packaging will make up an important part of their initial impression of you.
Sure, if you don’t anticipate much repeat business, then perhaps you can afford to skimp on the presentation of your products. But otherwise you should definitely consider your customer’s emotional reaction when their purchase finally arrives on their doorstep – think of how you can surprise and delight them through the care and attention to detail with which you send them.
Transform each purchase into a gift through your packaging, and you’ll be well on your way to turning first time customers into loyal fans of your brand. Which brings us to another point – do you plan to offer gift wrapping of items? If so, will this be an optional add-on for customers, and do you plan to charge them for it? Do you really want them to have that slightly disappointed feeling as they open a plain old cardboard box?
Finally, there’s the environmental factor: if you sell anything eco-friendly or marketed as “green” then this will be of utmost importance in selecting your packaging, but regardless of what you’re selling, this is still something to think about – and most people resent an excess of packaging, even if it’s only because there’s more for them to dispose of!
03. Your Product Images
Ok, now we’re getting to the fun stuff – getting your products ready to be sold online. High quality imagery will be an absolute necessity, whatever you’re selling. I know a lot of first-time entrepreneurs balk at the expense, particularly if you are unable to DIY your product imagery and have to hire a professional.
To begin with, the quality of your images are all a customer really has to go on regarding the quality of your products – so if your handmade earrings are displayed through fuzzy, underexposed images that you clearly photographed in your bedroom somewhere, you’re not exactly convincing me that the earrings themselves will be much better.
But if you still need convincing, think of it this way – imagine you were selling in person. Would you actually try to describe your product through your words alone, or would you, I don’t know, show them the damn product?
Exactly. Coming back to our earrings example, I not only want to see a clear photo of the front of the earrings, I want to see things like the clasp, perhaps a detailed shot, and naturally, something to give me an idea of the size – ideally you’ll show me someone actually wearing them as well, but photographing them against a standard size object like a bottle cork for example will help me decide on my purchase far more easily than if I’m having to comb through a text description.
This is also when you’ll see the advantage of figuring out your packaging options before you start working on your product imagery, since if gift wrapping is an option or you feel your standard packaging is especially appealing – show it!
Finally, before we move on from photography, don’t forget about marketing! The classic plain white background may work well for the products shown in your store, but you might want to create some more contextual images of your products for things like your social media and website banners.
I used to write these on a regular basis myself, so trust me when I say I know exactly how hard it is to write a single unique, compelling product description – let alone a hundred of them.
It’s also worth it. If you’re struggling, start by specifying the technical details of the product in bullet point form – this is essential information to your customers anyway, and presenting it in a list form makes it easier for them to find the features they consider most relevant to them. Things like:
- Product dimensions
- Product weight
- The materials your product is made from
- Any unique features of your product, like how it was made, or perhaps who made it
Note that if you’re selling internationally, you should definitely be saving your customers a bit of extra calculations by presenting things like height and weight in both imperial and metric. This becomes doubly important for items like clothing; make sure your customer can find their size, according to the sizing standards in their location.
Seriously, do not add to your customers’ effort. It may seem like unnecessary effort that barely anyone will appreciate, but remember, if you don’t provide them with the information they need, they’ll turn to Google, and world of distractions away from your site. Worse, in the case of the clothing example I mentioned, do you know where they’re most likely to find the sizing comparison chart they need?
That’s right, a competitor’s retail site.
So now that you have the basic details of your product down, it’s time to look at those from a customer’s perspective. What’s the draw for them? Does your product solve a problem they might have? Then tell them. Or is it more wish fulfillment, does it speak to a certain lifestyle they might desire? Describe it.
Your product descriptions do not need to be long paragraphs of prose – a couple of sentences can do the trick, so long as they’re the right couple of sentences. A few lines that really speak to your audience is far more valuable than a lot of fluff they have to sift through.
A final consideration here is your brand – what type of personality are you evoking? For example, is your brand a solid, practical one, or more about whimsy and fantasy? The former is better expressed through shorter sentences that bluntly state your product’s advantages; for the latter, you would probably want to use longer, more evocative sentences, that invite your audience to visualise what life will be like with your product.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’re well on your way to having your products ready to launch, now that you’ve figured out your product catalog and inventory, prepared your packaging, photographed your collection and written detailed descriptions of each item.
Now it's time to get into the nitty gritty details of running a business with Part Two: Legalities and Logistics. Or, if you're still on a creative high after all that writing and photography, then skip ahead to Part Three: Branding & Beyond.