How to Start an Online Thrift Store

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Starting an online thrift store is a business idea we love for a number of reasons

First, it’s a booming industry, with thrift-style businesses raking in around $17 billion a year in the US alone. Second, it’s a great move towards sustainability. And third, compared to other ecommerce businesses, the setup is super simple and relatively risk-free. No developing and ordering stock to worry about, and none of the hefty costs that come with it.

But even the best business ideas need meticulous planning to make work – which is why we’ve developed a thorough guide to serve as your manual throughout this exciting process. Here are the steps we’ll be walking you through:

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

Stick with us, and you’ll feel motivated and empowered to start your online thrift store in no time. And, most importantly, you’ll have clear, actionable steps to follow for every part of the process.

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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, clothes could be the type of product. Women’s clothing would make this more niche, and ‘Retro women’s clothing’ would be better still. Remember: curated, curated, curated. You want your online store to look really put together.

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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.

Choosing a brand name

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!

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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 you virtual shop, there are three different routes you can go down:

  1. Use an ecommerce platform

Our verdict: “We recommend ecommerce platforms 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”

Ecommerce platforms are the easiest way for new sellers to set up their own 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

Our top ecommerce platform for thrift stores would be Shopify. Each item you’ll be selling is likely to be different, so you’ll end up with a lot of different products on the site. Shopify is simply the best equipped to handle this, and to manage your inventory seamlessly – meaning you’ll never accidentally sell the same thing to two people! Shopify plans start at $29/month.

We’ve put several popular ecommerce platforms through our extensive research process, and here’s how Shopify performed:

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.
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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.

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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
5’ x 10’ $75.95
10’ x 10’ $122.15
10’ x 20’ $200.50

…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!

If you use an ecommerce platform such as Shopify, a lot of the hard work is done for you, because you can sync your inventory across all sales channels. So if you’re selling on marketplaces like eBay and Etsy, as well as through your own store, you can still manage all your stock through your main site, meaning you won’t accidentally sell an item twice.

If you’re just selling across marketplaces, you’ll need to keep an eye on this yourself. Pen and paper, or even spreadsheets, will only get you so far – at some point, you’ll want to look into ecommerce management software. Not only is this far less manual, but it’ll collect data which will help you ‘stock up’ for peak times, or hold off on stocking up during quieter periods.

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6. Take great product photos

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.
  1. Invest in a white ‘sweep’ background 

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
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7. Price your products

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.
  1. Invest in a white ‘sweep’ background 

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

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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 have your own website, you can set this up to be calculated automatically as the customer goes to check out, based on ‘rules’ and variables that you predetermine. 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.

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.

  1. Dropping off vs picking up parcels

Look out for carriers which have an option to collect parcels from you, rather than you dropping them off to 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.

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:

  1. Labels and packaging

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.

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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
  1. Social media 

Social media, and 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.

  1. Paid marketing 

Paid marketing is not essential for your business’ success, but PPC 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.

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How to Start an Online Thrift Store: Summary

By now, you’re feeling super motivated and positive about the prospect of starting your online thrift store – and with good reason! It’s a booming, sustainable industry, and you have our guide to help you carve out your very own part of it. 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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About Hannah Whitfield

Hannah Whitfield

I’m Website Builder Expert’s Content Manager, which means I’m in charge of checking everything written for our site, as well as writing my own articles.

I started writing about the wonderful world of the web around two years ago, and haven’t looked back since. Put simply, there’s never been a more exciting time to get online. Having tested all of the best website builders and ecommerce platforms on the market, I’m in a great position to help you do just that!

I hope you find our articles helpful, and please feel free to pop me a message with anything else you’d like to see here on Website Builder Expert.

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