How to build an Online Store: 11 Easy Steps to start Selling Online
Building an online store is a fantastic way to make a bit of extra money. But it’s difficult to know where to start.
The good news is you don’t need lots of money, time or technical knowledge to build an online store.
Ecommerce sales currently account for 17.2% of all retail sales, with online shopping itself growing 13.7% year-on-year. There’s really never been a better time to get online.
That said, you need to know how to build your online store effectively. You need to know what tools to use, and how best to use them.
By following our easy steps, you’ll soon have a functioning online store of your very own.
Ecommerce platforms are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to build an online store. Our top three are Shopify, Wix and BigCommerce. These builders power millions of stores which have been built by ordinary web users, so you’ll be in good company.
You don’t need any coding knowledge, you can stop using the services whenever you want and you can sign up to a free trial before you commit to investing!
In this guide, we’ll show you the best way to create an online store.
Online store builders and ecommerce website builders – what’s the difference?
We refer to Shopify, Wix and BigCommerce as ‘ecommerce website builders’ and ‘online store builders’. There’s nothing to be confused about. These terms both mean the same thing: they’re referring to platforms that help you create an online store.
When starting an online store, the first step is choosing the right online store builder.
There are loads of online store builders out there. Some are cheap, some are expensive, some are reliable, and some… aren’t.
With so many options to choose from, we thought we’d make it a little easier to pick the right one for you. We’ve listed our recommended ecommerce website builders here:
Above are just the top five ecommerce website builders, based on our research and testing. There are many more ecommerce platforms out there, including:
- Volusion – read our review here.
- GoDaddy – read our review here.
- 3dcart – read our review here.
- Big Cartel – read our review here.
Why Should You Use Online Store Builders?
Gone are the days where you had to throw hard-earned dollars at a computer programmer to help you start an online store.
Using an online store builder will let you:
- Host your store, giving it a place to live on the internet
- Let you buy or connect your domain name – yourstore.com, for example (Wix eCommerce will even give you one for free for a year)
- Keep your site up and running, making sure your store doesn’t crash
- Sort out security certificates to keep your customers’ details safe when taking payments and handling their data
Yes, but what about Magento or WordPress?
The downside is that building a store on WordPress needs much more technical skill. You might even need to hire a developer, which gets very expensive.
Ecommerce website builders are incredibly ease to use. Our recent survey found that despite some initial doubt, 83% of you would be capable of using a website builder.
Which Ecommerce Website Builder Should You Choose?
We know the choice can feel overwhelming, but it all comes down to the purpose of your online store.
Having researched each ecommerce website builder thoroughly, we’re in a great position to tell you which platforms match your needs.
If you need a large-scale store, or even have big aspirations to scale up, you’ll want to use powerful platforms like Shopify or BigCommerce.
These ecommerce website builders help you sell in bulk, and have powerful analytical tools to help you track your finances, marketing campaigns, and onsite visitors.
If you just want a website to sell a few products on, then website builders like Wix, Squarespace and Weebly are the perfect fit.
They’re super easy to use, let you customize the design of your website freely, and give you the capacity to sell online.
Our comparison chart gives an at-a-glance view of the best online store builders in the market.
If you really don’t know which ecommerce website builder to go with, don’t worry. We’ve put together a short four-question quiz. It will help you zoom in on the best builder to start an online store.
Looking to build a website without an online store?
This guide focuses on creating an online store. The steps are specific to ecommerce. You can get general steps for building a normal website here.
Step 2 is to sign up for a free trial and start experimenting. If you’re serious about building a successful online store, this step is essential.
Follow the links below to sign up for a free trial:
- Shopify – try a 14-day free trial
- Wix – try a premium plan free for 14 days
- BigCommerce – start a 15-day free trial
When playing around with ecommerce website builders, ask yourself:
- Is it easy to choose a template/theme and make custom changes?
- Are the templates suitable for your business?
- Is it easy to add products and categorize them?
- Can you edit the navigation to include sub-menus and new pages?
You want to find a platform that’s not only easy to use, but offers everything you require. Once you’ve decided what you need, spend some time looking over our comparison chart to find a builder that ticks all your boxes.
After that, take it for a spin! The key is to work out which builder you find to be the most natural to use, and which is the best fit for the type of store you want to build. Don’t just try one – take a few for a test drive and see which suits you best.
Once you’ve tested a few builders and are happy with your choice, step 3 is to sign up to the right plan so you can get building.
Different levels of plans come with different features. As you’d expect, the more you pay, the more you get. Which plan suits you best depends on the size of your business and your growth ambitions.
If you’re looking to create an ecommerce store, you will need a paid plan. Uploading and selling products requires more complicated software than building a normal website.
Plans start at just $8 a month (Weebly’s Starter Plan). That’s less than an large pizza from Domino’s!
When learning how to make an online store, a rule of thumb is: the more products and revenue you have, the better plan you need.
Can You Build An Online Store For Free?
Yes! Big Cartel’s free plan currently allows you to sell online without having to pay any monthly fees. Be warned, though – its free plan is incredibly limited.
For starters, you can only sell 5 products with one image displayed for each. It’s fine if you want a really basic online presence to sell through, but if you have ambitions to grow, you’ll want to upgrade to a premium plan.
This chart looks at three of the most important ecommerce features: multi-channel integration, abandoned cart recovery, and SSL certificates.
Not sure what the features in our chart mean?
Let us explain…
- Multi-Channel Integration
…is the ability to sell across social media, like Facebook and Instagram, and/or marketplaces, like Amazon or eBay. With social media’s popularity constantly rising, selling through different channels is now more important than ever.
Shopify and BigCommerce let you sell directly through Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Amazon, eBay and many more. Squarespace currently give you license to sell on Instagram too.
- Abandoned Cart Recovery
This is a huge feature. We’ll go into greater detail in just a moment, but here’s the lowdown: if customers leave your website with items still in their cart and without checking out, cart recovery will send them an email to keep them engaged.
More than 3 out of 4 online shoppers leave a website without completing a purchase, and BigCommerce claims it can help you recover 15% of lost sales. Not bad!
- SSL Certificate
SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates secure the data travelling through your store, and mean your customers look at your site in ‘HTTPS’. The safer customers feel when browsing your store, the more likely they are to spend money.
Still not sure which plan is right to help you start your online store?
Ask yourself these questions:
How Many Products Do You Plan On Selling?
If you’re not planning to sell a lot of products, a simpler plan with lower rates may be suitable. There’s no product limit on any of BigCommerce or Shopify’s main plans.
However, the more products you sell, the more upgrading to an advanced plan makes financial sense.
This is because of transaction fees. If you’re generating a lot of dollars in revenue, even a slight drop in fees can boost your bottom line.
How Much Do You Want To Pay?
To start an online store, you’ll need an ecommerce plan.
Shopify Basic and Standard BigCommerce both cost under $30 a month, whereas Wix eCommerce starts at $20. If products are flying off your virtual shelves, these sums seem very trivial.
Don’t worry if you’re not sure which pricing plan to sign up to. Speak to an advisor at your store builder and they’ll be able to help.
What Features Do You Need?
Remember, different stores have different needs. Shopify and BigCommerce may be more expensive, but they offer more features. Wix eCommerce is good for the bare essentials.
The more you pay, the more you get.
An example would be greater customer segmentation on BigCommerce’s Plus plan. You can keep loyal customers coming back by setting up a rewards program.
A domain name is the bit in a URL that identifies your store’s name.
A good domain name is key to launching a successful online store. It builds trust with customers and helps establish your brand.
Let’s say you’re Nike (we can all dream). Below is Nike’s URL, with the domain name in bold:
This is the primary domain. It’s what customers see in the address bar and Google searches. Think of your domain name like the sign that hangs above a real-life high street store.
4 Tips When Choosing A Domain Name:
- Pick the right country code – if you’re selling to US or international customers, choose a .com domain. Country-specific codes are only really suitable if you’re selling to consumers in that country.
- Avoid brand names – including a brand or product name in your domain can get you into legal trouble.
- Be unique – play with words to stand out from the crowd, but don’t be too obscure. You’ll risk losing search traffic from customers looking online for your products.
- Add a keyword – adding a popular search term to your domain name helps you climb search engine rankings. The higher you rank in Google, the more traffic you get; the more traffic, the more sales.
For example, if you sell personalized t-shirts, include ‘t-shirts’ in your store’s URL. You’ll attract new customers who happened to be searching for t-shirts.
Our tip: Once you’ve registered your domain name for the year, set a calendar reminder to renew it before the expiry date.
Already Own A Domain Name?
If you already own a domain name, don’t worry. You can transfer the name to your online store builder and cancel the agreement with your original provider.
Or, if you want to stay with your domain provider, you can link your domain to your builder page. To do this, contact your current domain provider.
For ease of use, we’d recommend sorting out a domain with your builder. It makes learning how to build an online store from scratch even more straightforward!
With templates (sometimes known as themes), you can make your site look good without being a design expert, or touching any code!
With Wix, Squarespace and Weebly, it’s very similar. You’ll start by choosing a template, which are split into different categories. Each category represents a different industry. For example, you’ll have templates for Blogging, Business Services, and Online Stores.
How Do You Pick The Right Template?
Ask yourself these three questions to find out which template is right for you:
- What features do you want your store to have?
- What style of homepage do you want?
- How do you want customers to move around your store?
Let’s look at these in more detail…
What Features Do You Want Your Store To Have?
Features are a key part of how to build an online store. Ask yourself what’s important to your online store: do you need maps, galleries, or an about us page? What about videos on your homepage?
Some templates come with more features than others. Think about what features your store needs, then make a list.
When searching for a theme in your builder’s marketplace, filter by features. Narrowing down the options can help you find the theme that best suits your needs.
What Style Of Homepage Do You Want?
Your homepage is the first thing your customers see. It’s like your shop window.
Customers should be able to tell from one glance exactly what type of business you are.
Your homepage could be a simple image, a slideshow or a video. Decide which to choose based on your business goals.
For example, stores selling luxury products should let stylish images do the talking. Stores selling more complicated products might want a simpler image, accompanied by more text.
How Do You Want Your Customers To Navigate Your Store?
Most shoppers will leave a website after 10-20 seconds. It’s crucial they can find what they’re looking for without any hassle.
A smooth navigation bar is integral. It lets your customers move around your site easily and will reward you with more sales.
A clunky navigation is like a road with loads of potholes and no street signs. Customers will get frustrated because they won’t be able to find what they’re looking for.
Lay your pages out left to right, starting with the most important page. Don’t include pages that aren’t important to your business – include them as dropdown menu items.
Your navigation bar should also be easy to read. Internet users scan a page in an “F” shape, so stores that have a distinctive header and sidebar on the left of the page work best.
When it comes to color, you want something that’s inoffensive and that fits your industry. Read our guide on picking the perfect color here.
Once you’ve selected a template/theme, head to your store’s admin tool to start customizing.
Customizing is easy, and you can change just about anything. This includes your:
- Text Size and Font
- Color Scheme
- Positioning of Products
- Embedding Social Media
The list goes on.
Most online store builders will also allow you to embed apps. These are found in the app market, and can be used to cover any features you need that the platform may not already have inbuilt.
Want to see an example of a good ecommerce store theme in action?
Here’s one we made ourselves, in use on our own Shopify store:
Now you’ve created a stylish online store using a template, you need to add your products.
The main things you need to add a product are:
- Weight (for physical products)
- File (for downloadable products like ebooks).
Different ecommerce website builders have different limits on:
- The number of products you can upload
- The number of options for each product (the same product but in a different size or color)
- The number of product variants (a combination of two options: for example, a blue t-shirt in size medium)
Make sure you check that each builder’s limit meets your business’s needs.
Shopify and BigCommerce let you sell unlimited products on their cheapest pricing plans, but other ecommerce website builders may limit you on lower-tiered plans.
Three key ingredients to uploading great products are:
- Product descriptions
- Product images
- Product categories
Below we’ll take a look at all three.
How Do You Write Winning Product Descriptions?
Your product descriptions need to be convincing, but here are three things to avoid:
- Complex jargon
- Long sentences
Here’s an example of a good product description:
The retailer presents the technical features of their tool box, then explains its benefit to the shopper.
Another thing to keep in mind when writing product descriptions is SEO (Search Engine Optimization). This is where you will rank in Google when customers search for products like yours. The higher you rank, the more traffic you get.
The more traffic, the more sales. Include some of the keywords relating to your product when writing descriptions. Say you’re selling vintage trainers – include ‘vintage’ and ‘trainers’ in the description.
How Do You Take The Best Product Images?
Like the description, your images should accurately reflect what you’re selling.
Here are a few pointers when learning how to make an online store that looks good and sells.
- Use high-quality images – never select images that are blurry or too small
- Make sure each image is the same size – Use a tool like Photoshop to resize your images to the same dimension
- Take your own photos – Use a good smartphone (like an iPhone X) to take your own photos, if you can
- Provide a 360-degree option – make sure customers can view your products from all angles
- Add product variation images – make sure shoppers can look at the product in the full range of colors
- Add a zoom option – give your customers the chance to view your product’s detail (This is a feature you’ll want to check your chosen builder provides)
Last – but by no means least – ask: are your product images optimized? Images are a great way of showing off your products. But the more images your store has, the longer it can take to load.
Finding the right balance between top-quality images and site speed is crucial.
What About Building Product Categories?
The easiest way to create category ideas is to ask yourself: what would you want if you landed on your site?
We recommend no more than five categories. Any more and you risk confusing your shoppers with too much choice.
Here are the key things to consider when building your product category page:
- Price Range – displaying price ranges on your category page adds clarity and prevents customers browsing products they can’t afford
- Featured Products – a good way of leading your customers down your preferred shopping path
- Filtering Options – let your customers filter by size, price or brand name. The more options you can give them, the happier they are and the more money they will spend
- Give Extra Product Information – your customer has navigated to a specific section of your store. It’s fair to assume they want more information about the products they’re viewing
Next, you need to set up your payment method. This is a crucial part of converting a browser into a buyer.
Ecommerce website builders make this easy for you. They optimize the process so you can hit the ground running with the best (and most effective) payment options.
Ecommerce website builders help by connecting you directly to multiple different payment options, such as PayPal, Visa, Apple Pay and Mastercard.
What Payment Options Can I Add?
The three most popular ways to accept payments on your ecommerce store are:
- Merchant account and payment gateway – you partner with a bank, then they accept payments for you and channel the money into your business bank account
- Payment gateway packages – you use all-in-one software, which will connect your store’s shopping cart to the card processing network
- Simplified credit card payment processing – you use a service that integrates with your store’s checkout, such as Shopify’s own payments gateway. Your shoppers won’t have to leave your site to complete a purchase
How Do I Choose The Best Payment Method?
Work out how many sales you expect to make and what type of person will be buying your products.
Find out where your customers are from. If you have customers from different countries, make sure you meet each nationality’s needs. Shoppers in Canada, for example, have different payment preferences from shoppers in Texas.
Don’t pick a payment method without working out your store’s needs first.
What About Security?
Security is a big worry for online shoppers. But you can take all their worries away if you make your site secure. And it’s easier than you think!
Online store builders sort this out for you with SSL certificates.
SSL stands for Secure Socket Layer. It encrypts your users’ data, making their online shopping experience with you totally secure.
Most ecommerce platforms include this in their plans, but if they don’t, they will have it as an add-on.
So, what does this look like? Have another look at the homepage for the store we made using Shopify. You can see the green padlock circled in the top left corner:
This has two important benefits for your business:
- Customers will feel safe shopping on your store.
- Google will reward your store with higher rankings.
Shopify, for example, comes with inbuilt SSL Security and gives you access to over 100 payment gateways. These include Visa, PayPal, Amazon and Apple Pay.
How Much Are These Payment Options Going To Cost?
Different payment methods come with different fees and charges.
Fees are often rolled together, so take time to untangle them. Make sure you’re clear on exactly how much you’ll be paying and what you’ll be paying for.
Credit card fees are unavoidable. They’re levied by the card provider (Amex, for example) and then passed on by the builders.
The general charge for using payment processors varies, typically from around 1% + 10p per transaction to 3% + 30p per transaction.
If you use Shopify’s own processor, Shopify Payments, all transaction fees are waived on their end.
This means if you were to accept a credit card payment of £100, you’ll only pay the rate of 2.2% + 20p on that payment, direct from the individual payment processor.
You’ve added products and payment options for customers to buy them. Next up is making sure you can deliver those products.
To understand how to build an online store, you need to understand how shipping options work.
Different ecommerce website builders come with different shipping options. See the table below for more info on which options each ecommerce website builder provides:
To begin shipping products, you’ll need to add an origin address and package types. Below, we cover the boxes you need to tick when setting up shipping on your store.
What Is Your Shipping Origin Address?
This is important if you ship products from an address that’s not your office. You should input a separate shipping origin to ensure shipping rates and taxes are correct.
Once you’ve added your address, you can print shipping labels and get quotes.
What Shipping Zones Do You Want To Ship To?
Shipping rates vary between the countries and regions (zones) you ship to. Online store builders let you charge different rates to customers depending on which zone they’re in.
If you’re a US based store, for example, you can charge cheaper shipping to customers in a state closer to your distribution center.
Your store builder admin page will show which zones you ship to, along with all of your individual shipping rates.
What Are The Different Shipping Options?
Once you’ve set up where you want to ship products, you can decide how you deliver them.
It boils down to understanding the types of shipping that are available:
- Free shipping – if you can afford it, free shipping is a fantastic selling point. Quick tip: offer free shipping over a certain order amount. This could offset the costs to you of offering free shipping, and top up your average order value.
- Right for: You, if you can afford it. Get your calculator out and check. If you’re selling cheap products, it’s more difficult to make free shipping profitable, so it works best when selling luxury items.
- Flat rate – offer the same shipping rate, no matter the product. Flat rate shipping is very useful for marketing. You could promise ‘$5 shipping anywhere in…’ and choose your state, or even select the entire US.
- Right for: Stores that sell lots of similar items.
- Real-time quotes – calculate shipping prices by factors including order size, weight and destination. Customers like this option because it’s honest and transparent.
- Right for: Stores that sell products with different weights. It’s good for large items that would be expensive to ship for free, as you can cover your costs without charging too much.
- Store or local pickup – invite customers to pick up their order as an additional option. This is great for offering the personal, face-to-face business experience.
- Right for: Stores selling large products with a limited shelf life, or stores with a recognizable local presence.
- Rate by order price – for example, offer reduced shipping if customers spend a certain amount. It’s a great way to reward high-value customers.
- Right for: Stores with expensive items or lots of loyal customers.
By using online store builders, you can offer customers different levels of shipping.
If a customer wants, they can pay more to have their order delivered faster.
Shipping: Final Checklist
We know that’s A LOT of information to take in.
So here’s a checklist of the shipping essentials you should have sorted out when building your online store:
- Added a shipping origin address
- Partnered with a courier (Fedex, for example)
- Entered package weights
- Selected a shipping option (free shipping, for example)
Without proper settings, your store won’t be able to run properly.
Head to the Store Settings section of your platform and fill out your preferences for each of the following:
- Language: select the language your customers will see onsite
- Currency: choose your preferred currency
- Timezone: setting the right timezone helps track your orders
- Address: display your contact information
- Store Name: as it’ll appear on your store’s emails, homepage and online searches
- Contact Details: a public phone number and a customer-facing email address
- Order settings: set whether to add tax to your product price or not
- Product settings: you can decide which information to display to the customers, like product weight or rating
Overwhelmed? Don’t panic.
If you’re not sure what these and other more obscure settings mean, ask your online store builder’s support team.
You should now have added your products, customized your store’s template, set up your payment and shipping, and sorted out your store’s settings.
You’re very nearly there…
But there’s one important step to go before you’ve finished creating your online store: testing it.
Ecommerce website builders make it very easy to test and preview your online store before publishing.
Testing your store is the best way to make sure you’re satisfying your customers’ needs.
When previewing and testing your store, here’s the key things to check:
Does Your Checkout Work?
When testing your store, pay special attention to the checkout process. Make sure:
- Orders work across all payment methods
- Your shipping options and charges are correct and visible
- The items and price in your cart are correct
- Discounts/promotions apply
- Taxes show once a shopper enters their location
The simplest way to test your checkout is to place an order and then immediately refund yourself. This is also a good chance to test the refund process, as well as your email notifications.
Do Your Store’s Functions Work?
Next up is making sure your store actually works.
Make sure any clickable button or link is working. Hammering away on their mouse with no reward will frustrate your customers.
Your navigation bar should be easy to maneuver. It should feel like sailing around a calm lake, not swerving around potholed roads with lots of dead ends!
Ask friends and family to test your site and get some feedback.
Have You Checked Your Store’s Content?
Many merchants make the mistake of launching an online store that’s full of content errors. This makes your store look amateurish.
Go through your store with a fine-toothed comb and check for poor spelling and grammar. This is also a good opportunity to check all your pictures – make sure they’re all optimized for site speed and accurately promote the product.
Does Your Store Work On Mobile?
By 2021, mobile commerce is expected to account for 54% of all ecommerce sales. In short, it’s vital that your site works perfectly no matter what device your customer is using.
This is one of the biggest benefits of using an online store builder. They make it easy to check what your store looks like on different devices, as well as how it functions.
Your store needs to be responsive on mobile, tablet and desktop. You can test this in your builder’s preview mode, and toggle to the mobile icon to start experimenting.
Have You Tested Your Store On Different Browsers?
Your customers won’t only use different devices – they’ll use different browsers too. Online store builders support most major browsers, including Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer, so you should be fine.
Just take five minutes to check and make sure!
We hope this guide has shown you the important things to consider when starting an online store.
To summarize our 11 step process:
- Pick an ecommerce website builder
- Test the ecommerce website builder
- Choose a pricing plan that works for you
- Get a domain name for your online store
- Pick an ecommerce template/theme
- Customize your site
- Add your products
- Set up payment methods
- Sort out your shipping settings
- Sort out your online store’s settings
- Preview, test and publish your online store
Ecommerce website builders are very intuitive, easy to use, and help you launch a store without any technical coding knowledge or designing skills.
Start your online store-building journey with one of the free trials listed below:
That’s it, you’re all set! If you need any information on how to make your ecommerce store successful, read some of our handy guides below: