Opening an Online Boutique
In the US alone, it’s predicted there will be over 300 million online shoppers in 2023. So, now’s the perfect time to get your online boutique up and running. However, that could prove a tricky endeavour if you don’t know where to begin.
But don’t fear! With our extensive ecommerce expertise, we’ve got everything you need to build a beautiful (and profitable) boutique, all in one place. We’re talking detailed guides on creating business plans, registering your boutique, designing your brand, choosing an ecommerce platform and marketing your products. For a quick overview of the article, check out seven steps to success:
How to Start an Online Boutique:
- Create a Business Plan
- Design Your Brand
- Register Your Online Boutique
- Decide What to Sell and Source Suppliers
- Choose an Ecommerce Platform
- Set up Your Online Boutique
- Market Your Online Boutique
Think of this article like your personal shopper; it’ll tell you what steps you need to take and which components you need to bring together in order to create a successful brand image online. Let’s get started…
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Creating a business plan is like drafting a blueprint for a construction project – it’ll help you plan for the journey ahead and should tell you from the start whether or not your business idea will succeed.
Whether you’re looking to sell t-shirts or tuxedos, your business plan should include details on your financial plan, marketing campaign ideas, and overall business model, as well as various other mapped out strategies. Here are six things to include in your plan:
As time goes on, you can start to be more flexible as you get to know your business better – and that’s a good thing! Don’t be afraid to adjust your business plan over time. Katrina Parsons, founder of mother-and-daughter clothing boutique Me & Maeve Grace, remembers how her business strategy has grown since day one:
And when we spoke to Ben Stinson, the head of ecommerce at Diamonds Factory, he gave us similar advice:
Not every aspect of your business plan will go as you expect it to, so I’d suggest building contingency into your proposal, and to reflect this flexibility with some additional budget. Ultimately, build your plan with the customer at the heart of what you’re doing – whether it’s design, customer experience, or logistics – and a coherent business strategy will appear.”
With over 1.8 million online retailers in the US today, you need to create an online brand that helps your boutique stand out. You could be selling the trendiest clothes in the world, but consumers will soon forget about your business if your brand sucks.
What do we mean by brand, then? Your brand is what your business stands for – its purpose, vision, mission and values. In this section, we’ll cover four important ways to develop your brand:
- Develop brand values
- Design a logo
- Choose your colors
- Deliver trust
Develop Brand Values
Your brand values guide your overall message and personality. Think of them like your principles. Developing values will help consumers identify with your brand and, if their values align with yours, they’ll choose you over the competition.
The core values at the sustainable clothing brand, Everlane, encompass ‘radical transparency’ which involves partnering with ethical factories and sharing stories about those relationships.
Another example is the online boutique PinkLily (see below), whose values centre on bringing brightly colored joy to fashion-savvy, social-media-using Americans with sustainably-made products.
Design a Logo
Your logo is how consumers will recognize your online boutique. It should represent your brand and communicate your values. Aside from looking awesome, your logo should be legible at any size, and still be effective on any background or in any color.
I tried my hand at designing logos for my imaginary online boutique store using templates on the free tool BrandCrowd. As you can see from my lacklustre designs, you’re probably better off hiring a professional designer or using Tailor Brand to create a logo that truly stands out.
Choose Your Colors
As a fashion expert, you’ll understand the power of color. The same goes for your brand image – color is everything. More specifically, consistency in your colors is everything.
Amy Filippaios is the founder of luxury hair extensions shop Simply Hair UK. She tells us that it’s important to consider the bigger picture when choosing a color scheme:
Consider how your brand colors will translate to physical products, and where they will appear. For example, if you are offering beauty services, then your brand colors will only appear on printed flyers and your website. However, if you are a retail business, these colors will apply across your product range and packaging – and, in a retail store, your shop’s interior design.”
Psychology plays a big part.
Do you want your online boutique to appear luxurious? Clean? Fresh? Eccentric? It all comes down to your choice of color.
We’d always recommend choosing one primary color, and a complimentary secondary color. Check out the infographic below for some colorful inspiration…
Fashionable items aren’t the only things you should deliver; you need to deliver a trustworthy brand image to your customers. This means responding to negative reviews, being transparent on your pricing, and sticking to your promises on delivery or returns.
The 2019 Edelman Brand Trust Report found that ‘brand trust’ is one of the most important ‘buying considerations’ for consumers, with 81% of participants saying they ‘must be able to trust the brand to do what is right’.
Before you start selling clothes and earning cash, you’ll need to register your online boutique to avoid getting penalized or fined. No one likes a visit from the taxperson, do they? Thankfully, registering your boutique is quite simple. Here’s what you’ll have to do:
- Choose your business structure
- Register with your state
- Sort out your finances
- Meet the tax requirements
Choose Your Business Structure
The type of structure you choose depends on the size and type of your operations. You can choose to operate as a:
- Sole Proprietorship – run the whole store on your own, under your own name, with full liability for its legal obligations, with very little paperwork required.
- Limited Liability Company (LLC) – you’re not personally liable for your boutique’s debts, offering your business greater protection.
- Corporation – ideal if you’re planning to scale up and work with investors.
Register With Your State
Chosen the LLC or corporation structure? You’ll need to register your business name within the state you’ll be operating in. You should also check whether you need a licence to sell in your state.
If you’re operating as a sole proprietor and want to operate under a different business name from your personal name, or DBA (Doing Business As), you’ll need to register your DBA with your state, too.
The rules and procedures differ from state to state, so it’s worth checking your state laws online.
Sort Out Your Finances
Before you start selling, regardless of your business structure, you’ll need to apply for a sales tax permit and obtain a federal tax ID number from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Also, if you’d like to register or trademark your business or logo, you should talk with the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Meet the Tax Requirements
Once you’ve started making money in the future (woohoo!) you’ll need to adhere to the tax requirements for your state. To do this, you’ll need to find your state department on the IRS site, ring them up, and learn about the tax and licensing requirements.
We mentioned in the ‘Create a Business Plan’ section that you should find a niche. What we mean is you should aim to sell products that differentiate your store from the everyday boutique bunch.
Not sure what to sell? Whatever niche you choose, we’d recommend going green where you can. Studies show that 74% of 18-29 year olds prefer to buy from sustainably conscious brands. So, whether you’re selling sustainable saris or biodegradable boots, you’ll prove popular and trustworthy among most consumers.
Once you’ve found your niche, you need to source a supplier (unless you plan on making the clothes yourself, of course). You can use a wholesaler, which involves storing and shipping items yourself, or become a dropshipping company and sell another supplier’s products through your own website, allowing the supplier to take care of storage, packaging, and shipping for you. But how do they compare?
Use a Wholesaler
The more traditional route, using a wholesaler involves agreeing on a certain amount of inventory and storing those items yourself, whether it’s in your basement or warehouse. You’ll then need to package and ship items yourself. We’d recommend using wholesale if you want to have control of your logistics and brand image.
|Wholesaler Pros|| Wholesale Cons |
|Clothing is often simple to store in your own house or warehouse|| More overheads than dropshipping, with storage, packaging, and shipping costs to consider |
|Full control over packaging and shipping which can help you build your brand the way you want|| Required to buy items from wholesaler in bulk which can be costly in the short term |
|Ability to assess the quality of items before you send them to customers|| |
To find a wholesale supplier, all you need to do is Google search [your niche] + ‘wholesale’. You’ll then find a whole list of potential suppliers to get in touch with. You can also use sites like Alibaba to find reputable suppliers at cheaper prices. We’d recommend contacting both international and domestic suppliers and see which works out cheaper for your boutique.
Become a Dropshipper
Don’t like the idea of packaging and shipping on top of your other duties? Then you should think about starting a dropshipping business. This business model allows you to partner with suppliers and sell their products through your own website. As a dropshipping business, you take a percentage for each item you sell.
|Dropshipping Pros|| Dropshipping Cons |
|No need to find or pay for storage (it’s included)|| You cannot assess products for damages etc before sending |
|Shipping and packaging is taken care of for you by the clothing supplier|| It may take longer for customers to receive items because shipping is out of your control |
| Less control over the shipping logistics than with wholesale which makes it hard to enforce your brand image |
Vetting: Is the Supplier up to Scratch?
When figuring out how to start an online boutique, make sure you vet your suppliers. Just to be clear, we don’t mean getting them neutered (hey, just being safe).
Vetting involves investigating the supplier to ensure they’re suitable for the standards of your online boutique. Here are some of the best ways to vet your supplier:
✓ Request samples before you buy to check the quality.
✓ Ensure the supplier provides a point-of-contact for whenever something goes wrong.
✓ Investigate the supplier’s history and reputation by searching through user reviews.
Now it’s time to build your online storefront. In the same way you source a supplier, you need to make sure that your ecommerce platform is the right fit for your boutique. Does the platform have the tools, templates, and prices to suit your business model?
There are two main choices when it comes to picking an ecommerce platform: use an ecommerce website builder, like Shopify, or use WordPress with an ecommerce plugin, like WooCommerce.
Having tested over 50 website builders and ecommerce platforms, we’re experts in ecommerce. Thanks to our in-depth research, we’re in the best position to help you find which ecommerce platform is the right choice for your online boutique. We’ll walk you through both options next!
Use an Ecommerce Website Builder
An ecommerce website builder is an online tool that’s designed to help people build their very own online stores – without needing any tech skills!
To create a store using an ecommerce builder you simply sign up, choose a pre-made template you like, customize the design and settings, add your own products, and publish your store. No coding, developers, or web designers needed.
Ecommerce website builders are best if you:
- Want to build your store quickly
- Don’t have coding skills
- Prefer easy-to-budget costs
- Are keen to start building today
Check out the table below for a summary of ecommerce builder pros and cons:
|You have hands-on help and support available to assist you anytime you feel stuck.||If you're planning a custom or complex store, you may feel limited by an ecommerce builder's capabilities.|
|You can easily customize your storefront to suit your branding without any coding knowledge or paid help from a professional.||Starter prices for ecommerce builders usually land between $20 and $30 per month, which can feel like a lot to new businesses.|
|All the tools and features you need to make your boutique successful are already built into the platform, ready to be used.||Some ecommerce website builders charge transaction fees.|
If an ecommerce website builder sounds like the right fit for your needs, we have some recommendations for you! Check out the table below to compare the top three ecommerce builders on the market. Each one has earned its place in our rankings by performing well throughout our thorough research process.
| ||Wix eCommerce||Shopify||BigCommerce|
| Overall score /5 ||4.7|| 4.7 || 4.2 |
| Best for... ||Best ecommerce website builder|| Best for large online stores, selling 10+ products || Best built-in features |
| Starting price (billed annually) || $23/month || $29/month || $29.95/month |
| Free trial/plan? ||Free plan (you’ll need to pay in order to start selling, though)||14-day free trial||15-day free trial|
| App market || Yes || Yes || No |
| No. templates || 500+ (80+ online store-specific themes) || 70+ || 100+ |
Shopify is an impressive and beginner-friendly ecommerce builder that’s best for large online stores, selling 10+ products. It also offers a 14-day free trial, so you can try it risk-free.
Shopify scored 4.7 stars out of 5 in our research. Here’s what Katrina of Me & Maeve Grace had to say:
“I did a lot of research, and ended up choosing Shopify for its ecommerce functions and ease of management. I’m extremely happy with it, and although I have zero experience coding, I can very easily manage all parts of my website on my own.”
Shopify is a solid choice for any boutique owner. It’s simple to use, has great customer support options to help fix any issues, and enables you to sell on social media which is crucial for reaching new fashion-lovers online.
Shopify’s features include:
- Multichannel selling
- Sell unlimited products
- Discount codes and gift cards
- 1,200+ apps
- Supports 100+ payment gateways
- 24/7 customer support
Shopify’s pricing plans range from $29 to $299 per month.
Wix is the best website builder with ecommerce functionality. That is, Wix is first and foremost a website builder that has ecommerce price plans.
Wix scored 4.6 stars out of 5 overall in our research.
Ideal for users with a creative eye, Wix’s intuitive drag-and-drop design tools will make building your boutique feel like a breeze. It’s a great option for starting a small online boutique.
However, if you plan to aggressively scale your online boutique, or you’re moving your large, well-established brick-and-mortar business to the online space, then we’d recommend using Shopify or BigCommerce.
Wix’s standout ecommerce features include:
- Product zoom
- Product videos
- Supports over 15 payment gateways including PayPal, Stripe, and Square
- Wix Ascend – automate your marketing workflow and create campaigns
- 200+ apps with 50 within the ‘online store’ category
Wix’s ecommerce plans range from $23 to $49 per month when billed annually.
BigCommerce boasts more built-in features than Wix or Shopify, which means you don’t need to mess around with finding, installing, and paying for apps. BigCommerce also offers a 15-day free trial, and excellent SEO tools to help search engine users find your boutique more easily.
BigCommerce scored 4.2 stars out of 5 overall in our research.
Its advanced features make it less beginner-friendly than Wix and Shopify. So, if you’re inexperienced with computers then you should probably steer clear of BigCommerce.
BigCommerce’s features include:
- 65+ payment gateways including Stripe, PayPal, and Square
- Supports mobile payments including Apple Pay
- BigCommerce’s Shipping app offers 80% discounts for USPS, DHL, and FedEx
- Abandoned cart recovery emails
- Multichannel selling
- 600+ apps
BigCommerce has similar pricing to Shopify, but you’re less likely to spend so much on apps with BigCommerce. BigCommerce’s price plans range from $29.95 to $224.95 per month, when billed annually.
- Shopify Review – read our in-depth review for more detail on Shopify
- Shopify Pricing Review – see which pricing plan is right for your boutique
- Wix eCommerce Review – learn more about Wix eCommerce with our detailed review
- Wix Pricing Review – find out which Wix plan is best for you
- BigCommerce Review – learn more about BigCommerce with our detailed review
- BigCommerce Pricing Review – does BigCommerce represent good value for money?
Use WordPress With an Ecommerce Plugin
WordPress is a popular open-source platform that powers over a third of websites. People like WordPress because it gives you ultimate customization over your website. WordPress is like a blank canvas – it takes longer to build your site, but you have total control over what you create.
To build a store using WordPress, you first need to find hosting for your website. We recommend Bluehost because it has the best WordPress specific hosting plans on the market.
Once you’ve found hosting, you need to install WordPress, choose and install your theme, then add any plugins for features you might need. We recommend using the WooCommerce plugin (with Bluehost’s WooCommerce hosting) to create your store, as WordPress doesn’t come with ecommerce features built-in. WooCommerce is powerful, flexible, and scored 4.2 stars out of 5 in our testing.
WordPress is best if you:
- Have plenty of time to learn WordPress and perfect your store
- Need a complex or custom website
- Have some basic coding skills
- Want total control and customization over your online boutique
WordPress is used by beginners and developers alike, but is it right for you? Check out its pros and cons below to learn more:
|You have total customization control over your website.||While coding isn't essential, it is helpful for getting the most out of WordPress.|
|WordPress is free - there are other costs involved, but it's possible to keep costs very low.||If you need support, you'll either have to rely on forums, or hire someone to help you out.|
|You can create a very large or complex website with WordPress, without running into limitations.||Building with WordPress takes time to do properly, from finding the best web host to securing your site.|
If you’re excited to make a start with WordPress, we have a couple of recommendations for you, based on our research, to help you take the first steps. Find out more about why we recommend WooCommerce and Bluehost below.
WooCommerce is an open-source ecommerce plugin, that’s specifically designed for WordPress. We recommend choosing WooCommerce because it lived up to its reputation when we tested it ourselves – it scored 4.2 stars out of 5.
WooCommerce is free, like WordPress, and comes with all the power and flexibility you would expect from an open-source ecommerce plugin. It’s also easy for total tech novices to get started on, because it has a helpful setup wizard that walks you through setting up your store.
If you decide to use WordPress to build your online boutique, installing WooCommerce is the natural choice, and one we can highly recommend.
Choosing a reliable hosting provider is essential for the success of your WordPress website. Bluehost not only topped our rankings as the best overall web host, it also steals the title for best WordPress hosting provider, scoring an impressive 4.8 stars out of 5!
Bluehost has been officially recommended by both WordPress and WooCommerce. This is because it offers WordPress-specific plans, which include:
- Automatic WordPress installation – Bluehost actually installs WordPress for you, which is much easier than trying to do it yourself manually.
- Automatic WordPress updates – WordPress is prone to security issues if you forget to update your site regularly, so Bluehost does it for you.
- 24/7 expert WordPress support – you have WordPress experts on-hand to help you with any issues, no matter what time or day it is.
Bluehost offers shared WordPress hosting, for small sites, and managed WordPress hosting, for larger businesses. It even has WooCommerce-specific hosting that automatically installs a WooCommerce and a storefront theme for you.
It’s now time to set up shop. Literally. No matter which ecommerce platform you pick, there are some steps you must take when starting an online boutique. In this section, we’ll show you how to:
- Choose a domain name
- Add product photos and descriptions
- Create product categories
- Optimize your checkout page
- Set up a payment processor
- Organize shipping
Choose a Domain Name
Your domain is the unique URL address for your website. For example, ours is websitebuilderexpert.com. Your domain name should accurately reflect your business, helping the user to understand what type of website they’ll be visiting.
You’ll need to buy and register your domain from a domain registrar. If you choose to host with Bluehost, you’ll get a free domain for the first year with any of its WordPress plans. Wix will provide you with a free domain name if you sign up for an annual plan, too.
A few well-known registrars include Domain.com and NameCheap. Once you’ve purchased and registered your domain, you can easily connect that domain to your online boutique through your chosen ecommerce platform. Think of your domain as your phone number, and your website as the cell phone.
The cost of your domain will vary depending on the URL suffix you choose – .com .net. org etc. – and the registrar you use, but a domain usually costs between $10 and $20 per year.
Add Product Photos and Descriptions
We’re sure that the beautiful items in your online boutique could sell themselves, but writing a good product description is vital to boosting sales and keeping customers happy. Studies show that 50% of shoppers have returned an item because the product didn’t match the description!
The perfect product description will appeal to your target audience, focus on the benefits and not features, be truthful and accurate, and appear digestible and scannable for users in a rush.
You’ll also need to take product photos. If you don’t want to hire a photographer, then you’ll need to ensure your photos are high-quality, and with the right lighting so users can see exactly how the product looks.
Look out for the extra features that come with each platform to make the most of your images. For example, combined with your excellent photos, Wix’s product zoom feature would really help to improve the shopping experience for your customers.
Create Product Categories
In the same way you’d group items together inside your physical boutique store, you’ll need to organize your products into categories on your online store. Doing so will, again, help to improve the shopping experience, which should keep customers coming back for more!
Whether you’re selling t-shirts, ties, or tank tops, your customers should be able to find what they want quickly and easily. Each of the ecommerce platforms we discussed make it easy to create product category pages – for example, Wix eCommerce has a product pages editor that lets you organize details and categories in just a few clicks:
Optimize your checkout page
We’ve talked about how ecommerce website builder templates make it easy to design stylish pages for your online store. But we haven’t talked about the most important page: your checkout page.
21% of shoppers abandon their carts at checkout because the checkout process is “too long or complicated.” The good news is, that’s roughly one in five shoppers that you can get back by optimizing the checkout process on your website.
You can take big steps, such as offering discounts, or small steps, like reducing the amount of information shoppers need to fill out. Whatever you do, it’s all about providing the most efficient customer experience possible. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve covered our top 13 tips for checkout page optimization, with a special focus on how you can improve elements like design, payments, and shipping.
Set up a Payment Processor
For your online boutique to grow, you need to get paid. Setting up a payment processor allows you to take payments online by connecting your website to a checkout system.
The most popular payment processors include Stripe, Square, and PayPal, and all three of the ecommerce platforms we mentioned enable you to connect with these providers.
Payment Processing Costs
Wix and BigCommerce impose zero transaction fees themselves, but you’ll need to pay transaction fees for using Stripe, PayPal, or Square, which costs 2.3% plus 30 cents per transaction. Shopify supports over 100 payment processors, but it does offer its own method, Shopify Payments, which comes with zero transaction fees.
WooCommerce automatically offers PayPal and Stripe from day one, and has integrations with around 140 other payment gateways for you to choose from, including Square and Amazon Pay. It also has its own payment gateway called WooCommerce Payments, which is free to install.
Shipping products? We’ve got a step-by-step guide for that. However, we’ll quickly run you through the essentials. Unless you’re operating as a dropshipping company, you’ll need to organize your own shipping logistics.
You’ll need to decide whether you want to offer free shipping, flat-rate, or real-time shipping (when customers are automatically charged the real-time carrier rates). You’ll also need to create shipping labels to enhance your brand image (which can be done on Shopify, Wix, and BigCommerce), and create a clear returns policy.
You’ll need to pick a shipping carrier to deliver the goods, too. The most popular carriers in North America include:
It’s worth visiting each website and comparing the shipping rates to see which suits your business best.
Congratulations! Your online boutique is now signed, sealed, and almost delivered. Why almost? Well, you now need to market your boutique and build a loyal base of customers. Below, we’ll discuss the most important marketing methods you should use:
- Email marketing
- Social media marketing
- Brand ambassadors
- Trade shows
Your mailing list is a direct line to your customers. With email marketing, you can keep your brand fresh in the minds of consumers by dishing out deals, sending fresh content about your seasonal trends, and much more.
Wix Ascend is ideal for creating email campaigns, with the ‘Basic’ price plan enabling you to create five email campaigns and send your newsletter to up to 9,500 email addresses per month. If you’re on Shopify or BigCommerce, you can also use apps like MailChimp for your email marketing.
If you use Bluehost and WooCommerce together, you get a double bonus. Bluehost gives you a Microsoft 365 Mailbox free for 30 days on its WooCommerce plans, and WooCommerce has easy integrations with marketing solutions, including MailChimp.
To gain email addresses, you’ll likely need to offer your website visitors something in return whether it’s access to your newsletter, a discount deal for first time visitors, or to participate in a competition.
Whichever type of content you send via email, you’re sure to see your profits rise – email marketing generates $38 for every $1 on average, which is a 3,800% ROI (return on investment).
Social Media Marketing
For your fashion business to thrive in 2020, you must advertise on social media. It’s a no brainer. There are 3.5 billion active social media users, and 71% of consumers who’ve had a positive experience with a business on social media are likely to recommend the brand to friends and family.
To start, we’d recommend that you set up a Facebook Store. This will allow Facebook users to buy your products directly from the social media platform. It’s like opening a second online store, but with much less hassle.
Boutique clothing items will really shine on image-led platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. On both platforms, you can upload photos of your items and attach a ‘buy’ button which takes users directly to your online boutique. Advertising on social media is all about bringing social media users’ attention to your products.
You can easily install integrations to market across social platforms using WooCommerce. Shopify and BigCommerce offer social media integration with all of the above platforms as a built-in feature, but in order to sell on Facebook through Wix, you’ll need to download the ecommerce app, Ecwid.
In the world of marketing, sometimes the oldest methods are just what your business needs. Word-of-mouth referral marketing involves users encouraging other users to try a certain brand or service, and hiring a brand ambassador is one of the most effective ways to get this done.
Unlike a social influencer who you pay to demonstrate using your products to their own followers, a brand ambassador is someone who promotes your brand by word-of-mouth on a long term basis, either for free or for a fee.
Ideally, these people have already bought and enjoyed your products and have a strong social media presence which they can use to promote your products online.
To find an ambassador, you can reach out to your most loyal customers and invite them to start an ambassador relationship, or you can use tools like CrewFire or BrandChamp to find an ambassador and create a referral marketing program.
Attending fashion trade shows and events is a great way to network and expand your business. Whether you strike up a relationship with an investor, marketing agency, or a new set of customers, these shows can be a goldmine of opportunity.
Starting an online boutique demands plenty of hard work, but if you stick to our step-by-step guide and use our ensemble of tips, you’ll soon have an online boutique to boast about. Let’s recap those steps…
How to Start an Online Boutique in 7 Steps
- Create a Business Plan – estimate your costs and think of your strategies.
- Design Your Brand – develop your brand image with a logo and brand values.
- Register Your Online Boutique – file the right state paperwork before you sell online.
- Decide What to Sell and Source Suppliers – find and vet clothing suppliers for your boutique.
- Choose an Ecommerce Platform – pick a platform that suits your specific needs.
- Set up Your Online Boutique – get your boutique ready to sell items and accept payments.
- Market Your Online Boutique – use tactics like social media and email marketing to gain new customers
When opening an online boutique, you’ll find it’s the work behind the scenes that can really help your business to grow. Sourcing and selling trendy threads is important, but we’re talking about things like strategy planning, brand building, and marketing campaign management.
While fashion never ends, it’s sadly time to bring our guide to a close. We hope to browse your online boutiques in the future, but for now it’s farewell, fellow fashionistas!