How to Start an Online Thrift Store in 2022

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Task time:
4 - 5 hours
Difficulty:
Easy

With these nine steps and an ecommerce platform like Shopify, you can create a next-gen thrift store.

  1. Find your niche
  2. Create your brand
  3. Set up shop
  4. Source products
  5. Store your products
  6. Take great product photos
  7. Price your products
  8. Set up shipping
  9. Create a marketing plan

Our guide will support you at every stage, from choosing the right ecommerce builder, all the way to publishing your website and setting it live! Stick with us, and you’ll feel motivated and empowered to create your online thrift store in no time.

Ready? Read on to get started!

1. Research and Find Your Niche

If you’ve ever been to a thrift store, you know it can be pretty overwhelming. Clothes crammed onto racks, boxes of knick knacks on the floor… You have to sift through a lot of junk to find an item you like.

You want your online thrift store to give a very different experience. To do this, you need to keep in mind the idea of offering a curated selection of items. This is where you’re adding value for your customers; you’re cutting out the ‘sifting’ stage, and bringing the products they want directly.

Keep the word ‘curated’ front and center in your mind, whenever you’re developing your thrift store – or choosing your stock. You’ll want to hone in on a type of product, and if possible, take things even more niche.

For example, shoes could be the type of product. Men’s shoes would make this more niche, and ‘Retro men’s sneakers’ would be better still. Remember: curated, curated, curated. You want your online store to look really put together.

More Information

  • Interested in selling ‘retro men’s sneakers’ for real? Be sure to check out our guide to how to sell shoes online first – it contains everything you need to get your boot business off the ground, in just nine simple steps!
  • Alternatively – if handbags and personal accessories are your thing – take a look at our guide to selling purses online.

2. Create Your Brand

Now you have an idea of what you want to sell, it’s time to put some thought into your brand. This isn’t just your name and logo, although that’s certainly part of it – on top of that, you’ll want to put some real thought into your vibe, and your target audience.

Here are some questions you’ll want to ask yourself in order to establish this:

  1. Who is my target audience? Think gender, age, interests, and lifestyle. Who can you imagine loving your products?
  2. What’s my USP? What makes you stand out from other sellers?
  3. How will my target audience find my store? We’ll cover marketing in more detail later on, but it’s worth giving some thought to this from the off.

More Information

  • We go in-depth with the experts on identifying a target market and show you how to put together a customer profile that will help you market your products or services.

A good brand name should be short, memorable, and unique. Choosing one is no easy task! You can contact your state’s business filing agency to check for businesses with the same name in your state, or use this database to search for names trademarked at a national level.

We’ll cover how to register a business a little later on, but we recommend the first thing you do is grab the handles you want on any social media sites you plan to use.

We’ll also cover promotion and marketing later on, but there’s no reason to wait until you’ve set up shop to start this – especially if you’ll be selling clothing. Start posting images that fit your brand image to create a ‘mood board’ of sorts, and generate a buzz for ‘something coming’. That way, once you launch your store, you won’t be starting from scratch!

3. Set up shop

Good to know: Depending on where you’re based, and the type of business you’re setting up, you may need to apply for some licenses at some point. Read our guide to business licenses for more info.

Of course, you’ll need at least a few products to actually launch your shop (we’ll cover sourcing stock in more detail in the next section), but it’s helpful to think about how you want to sell your products before you even start buying them.

When it comes to setting up your virtual shop, there are three different routes you can go down:

1. Use an Ecommerce Platform

Our verdict: “We recommend ecommerce platforms like Shopify or BigCommerce to most new sellers as they’re really powerful tools, but super easy to use and set up. While they’re not technically the cheapest option, they’re hugely convenient, and relatively inexpensive”

If you’re a new seller, Ecommerce platforms are the easiest way to set up your website. You select and customize a template (no tech skills required), and pay a small monthly fee to the platform.

Pros Cons
Easiest and most convenient way for beginners to create their own store Depending on the platform, you may have to pay transaction fees
Dedicated support team on hand to help Self-hosted platforms may work out cheaper (see option 2), although your have to pay for different components (domain, hosting etc) separately

We carried out specific research into the best website builders for the fashion industry, identifying platforms that offer a strong design focus that aligns with building your brand, top of the range fashion website templates, and the advanced marketing and promotional features it has!

Our top ecommerce platform for thrift stores is Shopify, which scores an overall rating of 4.6/5 overall. It’s ideal for stores with larger inventories, because it supports variants, complex backend management, and also streamlines shipping capabilities. Shopify scores highest for areas like additional functions, marketing, and quality fashion industry features.

Check out all of Shopify’s scores below to see how it fared in our testing:

Best for Larger Thrift Stores

4.6

out of 5
Top Choice
Ease Of Use

3.5 out of 5 stars

Design Functionalities

3.7 out of 5 stars

Website Features

4.4 out of 5 stars

Sales Features

4.7 out of 5 stars

Value For Money

3.5 out of 5 stars

Help and Support

3.8 out of 5 stars

Customer Score

4.8 out of 5 stars

Our second recommendation is BigCommerce. If you have a dedicated online business, selling physical fashion products in bulk,BigCommerce might be for you. This is especially true if you’re already selling across multiple online locations, using email marketing, or wanting to set up promotions. Bigcommerce scores a very respectable 4.5/5 overall, so it’s hot on the tails of Shopify for best ecommerce provider in the fashion industry.

Take a look at BigCommerce scores below to see how it compares to Shopify:

Best for Purely Online Thrift Stores

4.5

out of 5
Top Choice
Ease Of Use

3.3 out of 5 stars

Design Functionalities

4.1 out of 5 stars

Website Features

4 out of 5 stars

Sales Features

4.6 out of 5 stars

Value For Money

3.5 out of 5 stars

Help and Support

3.4 out of 5 stars

Customer Score

3.4 out of 5 stars

2. Use a Self-Hosted Platform

Our verdict: “If you have a little more time on your hands, and are quite tech-confident, you could try building a site with a CMS (content management system), such as WordPress. This gives you greater control over your site, and could work out cheaper – but you won’t be able to take advantage of the scope for total customization unless you know how to code, which is why it isn’t something we generally recommend for beginners”
Pros Cons
You have total ownership of and control over your website You’ll need to pay for a domain name, web hosting, and security measures separately
Possible to completely customize the look and features of your site (provided you have the technical know-how) Not as easy as the other two alternatives

We’ll say straight off the bat that building an online store the ‘traditional’ way, i.e. by using a CMS, isn’t something we’d recommend for beginners. Yes, there’s ‘endless scope for customization’ – but unless you have a very specific look in mind, chances are this isn’t something you’ll benefit much from. It’ll also take much longer to set up.

3. Sell Through Marketplaces

Our verdict: “Selling through marketplaces – such as Amazon or eBay – is a great way to get a feel for your industry, and get a lot of eyes on your products. They’re also really convenient. That said, the competition is fierce, and you’ll have to pay sellers fees on each item.”
Pros Cons
Easy and free to start selling Sellers fees
Large potential audience Tough competition

Marketplaces like Etsy, Amazon, and eBay have obvious advantages, but if you’re serious about making this business a long-term venture, they won’t have the scalability and brand-building capabilities that you need.

Top tip! You can get the best of both worlds by adding an integration for your marketplace of choice into your own site, meaning you can easily sell across the two platforms.

4. Source Products

Now we get to the really fun part! Well, we think so, anyway. It’s time to source your stock!

Don’t invest too much money in your stock at first – start off with a small collection, so you can get a feel for what’s selling well before you buy more.

There are a few ways to go about this, and some methods will be ruled out by the type of product you want to stock, so pick and choose as appropriate:

  1. Thrift stores
  2. Yard/garage sales
  3. Estate sales
  4. eBay
  5. Craigslist
  6. Clearance sales
  7. Flea markets
Top tip! For an even better haul, try going to thrift stores that are either a little further out of town (where great items are less likely to be snapped up immediately), or in well-off neighborhoods (where the quality of stock is likely to be higher).

Once you see an item that fits your brand criteria, it can be all too tempting to snap it up straight away. But before you go ahead and purchase it, run through the following quick checks:

1. Look at The General Condition

Check the item for any stains, or signs of wear and tear. Some things can be spruced up easily, but it’s best to steer clear of items with any real damage or stains.

2. Browse Online Prices

You’ve got a great feeling about this item, but what would your customers think? They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and you can get a feel for which camp your item would fall into by looking at how much similar items are selling for online.

3. Check Labels and Hallmarks

If you’re selling vintage or antique items, it pays to know your labels. Can you tell the difference between a 70s Laura Ashley label and a 90s one? Do you know your real Chelsea anchor from its imitators? Take the time to check these things out in the shop before buying.

Once you’ve gathered your ‘first collection’ of items, take them home and give them some serious TLC.

If you’ve bought clothes, make sure you wash them, but be very careful when dealing with old or delicate material – it’s always best to do a quick Google first. If you’ve bought anything else, give it a wipe down before proceeding.

5. Store Your Products

So once you have your lovely clean stock ready to sell, you’ll run into the next question – where should you store it?

Where to Store Your Products

When you first start out, a spare room/cupboard/wardrobe/rail should work fine. However, your roommate/parents/significant other/cat probably won’t take too kindly to having your whole place overrun with stock, so it’s good to have something more permanent in mind from the start.

For most online retailers, that means renting a storage unit. Here’s how much you can expect to pay for a storage unit (on average):

Size Average Monthly Cost in the US (standard and climate controlled prices)
5’ x 10’ $65.23 - $76.30
10’ x 10’ $107.28 - $126.08
10’ x 20’ $179.59 - $217.26

…but expect these prices to spike in large cities.

Create a Storage System

We’d argue that creating a system for storing and tracking your inventory is as important as finding the space to do it.

We think it makes most sense to store your stock in a way that matches how it’s categorized on site. If we take clothing, that probably means splitting it out into mens and womens (if you offer both) and then grouping by season or clothing type. This makes it easy to locate an item when you need to send it off.

You’ll also need a system for tracking inventory. This is vital for any ecommerce business, but particularly for thrift and vintage store owners; once your one-of-a-kind product is gone, it really is gone!

Ecommerce platforms generally have impressive inventory management tools, because part of the appeal is the all-in-one convenience of selling on your own website. And we were particularly impressed by Shopify’s features, like the ability to manage products across all sales channels, and automatically sync stock quantities, helping your business stay on track.

6. Take Great Product Photos

pin striped dress product photo from Thrifted

If you’ve followed our advice, you should now have a lovely selection of clean stock that you’re really proud of.

That’s why rushing your product photos is a mistake. You don’t need any fancy equipment to get this right, but you do need to prepare and take the time to get it right.

We’ve actually written a whole guide to taking great product photos, so we won’t go into tons of detail now. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Use Lots of Light 

A well-lit product makes for a great shot. Natural light is best, but failing that, just put on as many lights as possible, and keep them as close as possible to the product as you don’t distort the shape.

Good to know! Flash is not a good substitute for poor lighting, and should be avoided in product photography at all costs.

2. Invest In a White ‘Sweep’ Background 

Women's Thrift Store Clothing

White is the best color for showing off any product, as it’s the least distracting. And when we say white, we mean pure white – once you end up with different shades of off white, you’ll immediately lose that ‘put together’ feel.

If you can, we suggest investing in a big roll of white paper (google ‘white backdrop paper’) which you can roll out behind the subject of your photo. This will give the perfect ‘nothingness’ background, free from the angles you’d get against a white wall.

3. Use Your Smartphone, But Go Easy on The Editing

Modern smartphones have such sophisticated cameras that there’s little point in investing in something more high tech, especially at first. But steer clear of all filters, and generally edit your images with a very light touch. Once you overdo this, the colors in your images won’t match up with the products, and your pictures could start to look garish or mismatched.

4. Go From All Angles – Yep, Even the Bad Ones! 

Unless you’re showing a very simple product, one image is unlikely to be enough. Aim to take a picture from every side, and go up close for important details or detailing. And don’t shy away from showing imperfections – honesty is the best policy! Aim for at least four photos for each product.

Top tip! If you’re selling clothing, it’s best to have a model wearing the clothes if possible. Of course, this doesn’t need to be a professional model – rope your friends in, and have some fun.

7. Price Your Products

1. Cover Your Costs 

This may sound super basic, but when pricing your products, it’s important to think about your costs as a whole. Yes, there’s the price you paid for the item, but you also need to factor in packaging, shipping, any transaction/seller fees, and even a portion of your fixed costs (i.e. costs which won’t change from month to month, like a website builder subscription or storage unit rent).

2. Check Out The Competition 

If you’re selling in a competitive space, you’ll need competitive pricing to match. If you’re selling something a little more unique or bespoke, you have a bit more freedom, but it’s still worth checking what similar items are selling for online.

3. Know The Worth of What You’re Selling

This goes back to knowing your labels and markings. Don’t accidentally sell something for less than it’s worth because you didn’t check properly!

8. Set Up Shipping

The last piece of the logistics puzzle is to get a robust shipping system in place. And again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we already have a super-comprehensive guide to walk you through the finer details of shipping your products, but here are a few key pointers and considerations:

1. Free vs Real-Time vs Flat Shipping

Firstly, you’ll want to commit to how you’re charging your shipping – at least to start with.

Free shipping can definitely be an enticing option for shoppers, but if you go down this route, make sure you’re definitely covering the cost of shipping in the cost of your items. We also recommend you set some conditions, such as a minimum order value, and only allow this within the country that you’re based.

With a real-time shipping charge, you’re basically calculating shipping charges for an order based on the weight and location. Every popular shipping carrier will have a calculator tool that you can use to check this, like this one from FedEx.

You can then input a different shipping price for each item, or if you’re using a website builder like BigCommerce, it automatically gives you carrier quotes to help you effortlessly choose between a flat-rate shipping fee or rates depending on weight – making free shipping easy. A lot of online marketplaces, Etsy and eBay included, will also offer shipping calculators to make your life easier.

Calculated shipping is a bit more effort, but is helpful for stores selling large items with different weights, like furniture, where the shipping cost will likely vary a lot from item to item. On Shopify, calculated shipping is available on all plans using USPS and Canada Post at the checkout, helping you save on costs.

A flat shipping rate is the easiest option. This involves calculating a rough average price for your shipping, and then just adding this cost to every delivery as standard. This way, you might lose a little money shipping some large orders, but overall it should all balance out and save you a lot of time and hassle.

2. Dropping Off vs Picking Up Parcels

Look out for carriers that have an option to collect parcels from you, rather than you dropping them off at the drop off point. In the early days, dropping off parcels probably won’t take up too much time, but it’s nice to have the option if orders really ramp up later down the line.

Ecommerce website builders make this especially easy. For example, with Shopify you can sit cozy at home or in your business and manage shipping without going to the post office. All you need to do is combine Shopify Shipping with an existing shipping carrier.

Oh, and on a related note – pick a carrier with a drop-off point that’s near to you, or your storage area! The novelty of saving 20¢ per parcel will soon wear off once you’re schlepping an extra 20 miles each day to drop off your parcels.

Here are some popular shipping carriers to compare:

3. Labels and Packing

The best packaging for your product should be lightweight, as close to the size of the product as possible, sturdy, and protective. While branded packaging is a really fun idea, it might be best to stick to the regular stuff until your brand feels a bit more certain and established. You can bulk buy most packaging from sites like Amazon.

Whether you set up your own website or use a marketplace, your shipping labels should be auto generated, and it’ll just be a question of printing these out.

9. Create a Marketing Plan

Building a beautiful store is one thing, but making sure people actually get to see it is another. So with that in mind, marketing isn’t something you should leave as an afterthought!

Top tip! If you have your own site, be sure to connect it with an analytics platform (we use Google Analytics) so you can closely monitor your site’s performance, as well as the impact of your marketing efforts. Here’s how to get started with analytics.

Here are the components you’ll want to build into a strong marketing plan:

1. SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

Give your site the best possible chance of featuring on page one of Google’s search results for terms related to your products by helping Google to understand what your site is about, and sending some extra positive signals.

  • Use a free keyword tool like Google’s keyword planner to find out popular search terms in your industry, and include these throughout your site
  • Use a free image compressor to make your image file sizes as small as possible, which in turn will make your site as fast as possible
  • Add a blog, and post to it regularly – this could help draw in extra traffic, but also demonstrates that the site is current and being worked on actively

Website builders lend a huge helping hand when it comes to SEO. For example, both Shopify and BigCommerce are evenly matched when it comes to SEO tools like meta descriptions, mobile-responsiveness, and SEO guidance. But where BigCommerce wins is in offering extra keyword suggestions and support – helping your business rank higher.

2. Social Media

Social media, particularly Instagram, is probably the most powerful tool at the disposal of any new ecommerce business – particularly one selling to a younger demographic.

Building your Instagram following should start long before you open your store, or even before you have any stock, when you can start building a ‘buzz’ and reposting images that fit your aesthetic.

Once you open your shop, post regularly. Show new in stock, behind-the-scenes pictures of shoots, and just shout about your favorite products. Encourage customers to tag you in pictures of them wearing your clothes, and repost these to your stories.

Both Shopify and BigCommerce allow you to integrate your social media to your website. Though Shopify allows you to more easily integrate your Instagram both automatically and manually, it also offers apps that can make your gram feed shoppable, so customers can effortlessly buy your products.

3. Paid Marketing

Is not essential for your business’ success, but PPC (pay per click) or social media ads are something you may want to consider a little later down the line. This could be when you’re sure you have a great structure and system in place, and you have a good feel of what proves popular on your site.

How to Start an Online Thrift Store: Summary

Thrift stores are a booming, sustainable industry, and you have our guide to help you carve out your very own part of it. Even better, with ecommerce builders like Shopify or BigCommerce, you can get your thrift store up and running in no time! Here’s a reminder of the key steps to take you from idea to selling:

The 9 Steps To Starting an Online Thrift Store:

  1. Research and find your niche
  2. Create your brand
  3. Set up shop
  4. Source products
  5. Work out a storage system
  6. Take great product photos
  7. Price your products
  8. Set up shipping
  9. Create a marketing plan

We won’t keep you any longer, so go ahead and get started on step one. And once you’ve built your store, please come back and show us – we’d love to see it!

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