When you sell online, you can connect customers around the world with your products or services. Over two billion people shopped online during 2020, spending $4.2 trillion globally—and the more consumers who shop virtually, the more opportunities there are to launch and build an ecommerce business that will last.
All-in-one platforms like Squarespace make it simple for independent creators, passionate makers, and entrepreneurs with big dreams to start online retail businesses. Whether you’re looking to sell art, clothes, food, or crafts, these are the tips and tools you need to get started.
Decide what to sell
The first step of selling anything online is deciding what you want to sell. Start by narrowing it down to a general category—like art, clothes, food, or crafts—then dig in even deeper.
If you decide to sell art, for example, will you focus on original works, prints, or digital downloads? Are you an artist who’ll create your own work, or a curator who’ll be selling work created by others? Whether you have a studio full of ready-to-sell original artworks, or you’re interested in collecting and selling art that was created by others, having a clear idea of what you'll sell before you begin will help to focus your efforts.
With a solid plan in place for what you’re going to sell, you can turn your attention to how you’ll sell it. By building your own ecommerce site, you can maximize your reach and increase the opportunities for customers to find and shop with you. If you already sell on a platform like Etsy, you can start to build more direct customer relationships by importing your marketplace inventory to your website.
Finally, think ahead to the last leg of your items’ journey. Shipping considerations can vary greatly depending on what you sell. Are your products bulky, heavy, or fragile? Make sure your packaging and shipping strategies guarantee that orders will get from your business to your customers' homes in one piece. Whether you need to stock up on extra-sturdy boxes, build up a supply of bubble wrap, or offer local pickup to your customers, plan ahead to make sure that you can safely fulfill orders.
Ready to monetize your creativity? Learn everything you need to know about how to sell art online.
Balance business and customer interests
Once you know what you’re going to sell, make sure you have a plan for how you’ll produce or procure those goods. If your online shop is focused on apparel, for example, decide whether you’re creating the clothes yourself, putting together a vintage collection, purchasing items wholesale, or working with a production partner.
Share as much information as possible on your website to create a better customer experience and help your online apparel business earn a reputation for being trustworthy and reliable. Use product photography and write detailed product descriptions to clearly showcase your items for online shoppers. If you’re selling secondhand clothing, for example, you’ll want to include pictures of any imperfections. That way, your customers will be able to make informed purchasing decisions, which will help ensure that they’ll love the items they buy.
Manage your customers’ expectations by offering clear return, exchange, and refund policies. Make sure to set a time limit, like 30 days or 60 days, for example. With clear store policies in place, customers can shop with confidence and know exactly how and when they can make changes if they’re not 100% satisfied.
Interested in launching a retail business? Get started with our post on how to sell clothes online.
Learn the rules of your industry
Every online business has to follow specific regulations to run smoothly. Do some research into your local and state laws to make sure that you’re complying with all the rules. You may need a business permit from your state or a permit specific to your industry. If you’re selling food, for example, you're likely to need a food handler’s or a food establishment license.
It’s a good idea to conduct market research that gives you a better sense of what your competitors are doing and how to set your business apart. Once you identify what makes you unique, take the time to tell that story on your website. You may want to pull back the curtain on the materials and ingredients you use, detail your manufacturing processes, or introduce the people who have a hand in making your products. When you show consumers that you share their values, they’re more likely to become loyal customers.
Balance growing your customer base with preserving the quality of the goods you sell. For instance, certain items actually benefit from non-shipping options. Food products might require refrigeration or even freezing to maintain their quality during long journeys. If it’s appropriate for your business model, consider offering alternatives and in-person pickup to ensure the quality of your orders.
Ready for your food business to reach more customers? Read our guide to selling food online.
Plug into the shopper experience
Everything from the products you sell to the website where you sell them should reflect your unique branding. Whatever your products are, make sure your visual branding matches their general aesthetic. For example, if you’re selling home decor crafted from lace, you might design a logo that mimics the airy, looping style of your crafts. Creating a consistent brand experience from your name, logo, and website design straight through to the crafts you sell may encourage customers to form an emotional connection with your company.
There are some businesses where differences and imperfections between individual products are a liability. But for certain products—handcrafted ones in particular—it’s actually a good idea to lean into each item’s unique details. Be as precise as you can be about the dimensions, materials, weight, and craftsmanship of each item, and indicate when variation in pattern, color, or size is to be expected. That way you can celebrate points of difference as a benefit, and encourage customers to embrace the unique qualities of their items.
No matter what you sell, make sure your website clearly communicates your shipping policies, information about how your items are created, and details about how long customers should expect to wait before receiving their orders. Publishing clear policies is a good way to help consumers plan ahead and feel supported, avoiding unnecessary disappointment down the road.
Selling one-of-a-kind items? Check out our post on how to sell crafts online.
Eliminate inventory headaches
For sellers who would rather run an inventory-free business, selling non-physical products like content subscriptions, memberships, online classes, or digital downloads is a great option. You can leverage tools like Squarespace Member Areas to create gated content, meaning sections of your website will be behind a paywall.
If you’re selling physical products, you can partner with third-party companies who will manage shipping and inventory on your behalf. Print-on-demand services, for example, make it easy for independent sellers to scale up their businesses without having to take on unnecessary overhead. Instead of placing wholesale orders or buying in bulk, print-on-demand means that each time a customer places an order in your store, their items are created specifically for them. Print-on-demand is a great option for musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs selling branded merchandise or using an online store to support their main business.
Dropshipping is another no-inventory option that involves working with a fulfillment partner who packages and ships your products to customers for you in response to each order. Some dropshipping partners will store and manage your inventory on your behalf, but others are combined with print-on-demand services, meaning each time you make a sale, they create the item and ship it out. Dropshipping is an efficient way to run an inventory-free business, since it eliminates the middleman step of shipping items from a printer or distributor to you, and then from you to your customer.
Pre-order, custom-made, and commission-based selling are also all good options for no-inventory businesses. Those terms—and others like them—are all slightly different, but as a category, they imply that you are creating an item after you make a sale. Pre-orders allow you to anticipate how many units you’ll need to create before you even release a product, while custom and commission models work as a one-to-one process: a customer places an order, and you produce their item in response to that order.
Looking for ways to streamline your online store? Read our post on how to sell online without inventory.