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Some of today’s most successful businesses started with a brilliant idea. Consider Art Fry, the inventor of Post-it notes, or Kevin Plank, the brain behind Under Armour’s quick-drying workout gear.
These entrepreneurs had a moment of inspiration where they noticed a problem that needed solving, invented a product, manufactured it, and sold it.
But sometimes, successful businesses start not from a specific idea but simply from the founder’s desire to start a business.
This approach to entrepreneurship has become increasingly common as it’s become easier and more cost-effective to sell products online.
Neither type of business is “better” than the other. It doesn’t matter incredibly much if you have a brilliant idea just come to you, or if you do a bunch of research and launch strategically into a category of your choice.
What most determines a business’s chance of success is the planning and execution behind it.
If you're one of the thousands of people who know you want to start an eCommerce business but aren’t sure what to sell online, we have a few ideas for jumpstarting your thought process.
In this tutorial, we walk you through multiple consideration points that will help you choose the best products to sell online in 2017, with quick assignments that include questions to help you narrow your focus, choose a popular product niche, and tap into current trends.
Before diving into this post, you may be in the process of choosing an eCommerce platform. BigCommerce offers a number of advantages, and we have professional BigCommerce themes available to help you make a great online store quickly:
1. What Types of Products to Focus on?
First, you need to decide whether to focus on commodity products, unique products, or a combination of both.
There are two broad types of products, and both can sell well:
- Commodity Products are those nearly everyone needs and regularly re-ups on—think food, clothing, toilet paper, etc.
- Unique Products come from the artisans of the world, and include products like handmade soaps, one-of-a-kind jewelry, and pieces of art you find on sites like Etsy.
Amazon Is the Leader in Selling Commodity Products Online
Look to Etsy for Ideas on Selling Unique Products Online
Which of These Types of Product Should You Sell Online?
Your first thought may be that selling commodities is less risky than unique items and would bring in more income, as they’re items that everyone wants, needs and regularly purchases.
But keep in mind that if you sell commodities, you're competing with the Amazons and Walmarts of the world who can get similar inventory in bulk and offer it for a cheaper price than you.
Selling a combination of both types of products is often a great idea.
The unique items in your shop can help build your brand and a loyal following, while commodities may attract people to your store or increase the amount spent on each purchase.
Selling Unique + Commodity Products (Quick Assignment)
Figure out the sourcing strategy that works best for you. Here’s a quick set of questions to help you with choosing what types of products to sell online:
- Where can I access unique products (e.g. online marketplaces, make them myself)?
- What sorts of unique products have I bought in recent months?
- What commodities tie in with those unique products in a natural way (e.g. domestic candy to go along with my specialty import or homemade candy)?
- What products on my list can I access most reliably?
- Which products can I make the biggest profit margin on?
- Which will be easiest and least expensive to ship?
2. Identify Popular Items
Spend some time across multiple weeks browsing through these lists of best sellers to get an idea of what eCommerce trends are currently taking off in 2017 and where audience interests may be evolving to next.
Then, consider which types of these items offer the best profit margin and do a competitive analysis to learn how many other people are selling them and how they market them.
Your success is all but solidified if you can become the next trendsetter by releasing a product or brand that’s ahead of its time. Stay up to date with business news by following eCommerce and technology blogs, keep tabs on the latest products changing the game, and consider how you could further innovate on ideas better and sooner than others do.
Google Trends can help you out here. Similarly to a stock market ticker, Google Trends will show you search query volume and trending topics for any keyword. Toggle specifically to “Google Shopping” to see what is populating most often for their shopping queries.
This tactic has worked well for brands like Flash Tattoos, which was able to predict the flash tattoo trend and own the domain and top keyword positions.
It has also worked well for brands like Fugoo–which began using Bluetooth technology in speakers long before many others. Today, you can find the Fugoo product throughout the globe (online and in stores).
Selling Popular Products (Quick Assignment)
Let your research inform the products you pick. Here’s a set of questions to help you out:
- What are today’s most popular products, and what were the best sellers of six months ago?
- What are the common threads among these items (e.g. they’re knockoffs of a popular brand, they’re seasonally appropriate, they’re geared toward teens)? Can that help me predict what will be popular next?
- How can I create a new twist on the best-selling products of today? Are there any less-saturated offshoots (e.g. accessories to a hit product)?
- What trends do I see taking shape among my own friends or family (e.g. resurgence of board games or picnics in the park, new favorite TV shows)?
- What does Google Trends search data reveal for queries around those terms? Is the trend rising or falling? How long has it been rising?
3. Carve Out a Niche
Shoppers have access to buy anything and everything with just a few clicks, so what can you offer them that no one else can (or in a way that no one else has)?
Part of running a successful online business in 2017 is recognizing that competition is rampant. If you want to succeed, you must stand out from other online retailers, and a great way to do so is by carving out or catering to a niche.
Focus on selling products to a particular segment of the population or to people with a particular interest.
To illustrate, let’s look at a couple examples of brands that have found success by focusing on niche needs and populations: Prepper Gear and Spinning.com.
Outdoors and Survival: Prepper Gear
Sports and outdoors retail is experiencing some of the fastest growth of any market segment in the United States. While the opportunity for success is huge, the competition is fierce.
How could a small brand possibly stand up to industry giants like Nike and Patagonia? To do so, they must carve out their own niche.
Prepper Gear doesn’t just supply basic camping supplies; their messaging and products cater to those who want to be prepared for the worst. Other outdoors brands also sell first aid and camping food, but Prepper sets itself apart by positioning these products as “survival tools,” an approach that has led to fast growth and high-impact brand recognition.
Health & Fitness: Spinning.com
Spinning.com has become the world’s largest cycling brand, partly for a simple reason: they do more than sell cycling supplies.
Their website is a spinning community, helping visitors not only buy gear but also find free classes and meet-ups and connect with other cyclists.
One way to approach finding your niche is to think about some of your favorite brands: Why do you faithfully return again and again to shop with them?
Many times it has to do with the quality or availability of products, but there are also those brands we shop with simply because we are attracted to the look, voice and personality of the brand itself.
Successfully finding your niche, catering to a specific audience and being unique relies heavily on your ability to create a brand that speaks to your target audience.
Selling Niche or Passion Products (Quick Assignment)
Use this set of questions to jumpstart your thoughts on choosing niche or passion products:
- What are my passions or hobbies (list five)?
- What do people tell me I’m good at (list three things)?
- What products do I currently use to support those passions or hobbies?
- What would improve the experience of pursuing my passion (i.e. improved access to certain products, improvements to the products themselves, connection to a community of people with similar passions, etc.)?
- Are there other, underserved groups who may be interested in similar products for different reasons (i.e. the Prepper Gear example)?
4. Give Old Items a Fresh New Life
You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to build a successful business. Sometimes it’s as simple as breathing new life into an old item or revisiting an old idea with fresh eyes.
Every trend that goes around comes back around—that is something you can count on.
One way to give old items a new life is to literally resell them; think vintage clothing and furniture. Another way is to take an old or overlooked idea and think about how you could make it better by upgrading it or creating an innovative use for it.
Take, for example, small retailer Bread & Jam, which specializes in creating “jolly good things” like printed cards, home goods, and personalized gifts.
While selling coffee mugs and tote bags is not revolutionary, Bread & Jam’s creative approach to updating classic gift items has worked quite well for their brand.
Each piece they created relies on whimsical and positive messaging with simple but sweet designs, turning something as simple as a notebook into a humorous and eye-catching product.
They also clearly know their target audience: women around ages 25 to 40 who are sharing common life experiences like getting married, being young professionals, and having kids, while needing to remain organized and chic through it all.
Selling Old Items With a Fresh Take (Quick Assignment)
How might you incorporate your talents, sense of humor, personality or resources to make something old new again? Answer this set of questions:
- What are my talents or special abilities that might help with product development (e.g. painting, sewing, engineering, writing, designing)?
- What unique or rare resources do I have access to (e.g. welding tools, items acquired on global travel, old books or photographs)?
- What restoration or upcycling projects do I already do in my daily life, if any?
- What are some commonly used products among myself and my friend group that could be personalized or remade (list three to five)?
5. Be an Impulse Buy
Online shopping has made it all too easy to complete a purchase without thinking it through. The ability for stores to save payment and shipping information and integrate one-touch checkouts has greatly reduced the barriers to checking out.
While this isn’t always so great for consumers’ wallets, this presents an opportunity for online retailers to profit by catering to impulse purchases and guilty pleasures.
Interestingly enough, people actually spend more on guilty pleasure orders and are more likely to become loyal to brands that fulfill these desires, like luxury clothing or sweet treats. Just make sure you’re doing so in a unique or competitive way.
Jeni’s Ice Cream fulfills online shoppers’ need for sweets while standing apart from other ice cream brands by creating uniquely flavored ice creams with wholesome ingredients delivered frozen to the customer's door. She caters to multiple desires of today’s shoppers: the desire for a unique, high-quality product, a guilty indulgence, and the ability to get those things without leaving the house.
Selling Impulse-Buy Products (Quick Assignment)
Play into guilty pleasures and you’ll likely find the mere suggestion of your product to an online shopper at the right time may be all you need to get sales rolling.
Start by thinking about your own impulses:
- What are my guilty pleasures (list three)?
- What was the last impulse buy I made?
- What keeps me from buying my impulse buy more often (e.g. health, convenience, price)?
- Is there a way I could remove that sticking point (e.g. healthier ingredients, delivery, budget-conscious or sharing-economy version)?
6. Make a Difference
It can be easier than you think to create an authentic and attractive brand, carve out a niche and spread the word about your store organically: tie it all back to a humanitarian mission.
Make sure you integrate the mission into the core of your brand, rather than create your brand and try to tack on a nonprofit component after the fact; it will come across as much more authentic and also ensure you are making a real, positive impact.
One example of a brand dedicated to making a difference is Fortress of Inca.
Fortress of Inca is a shoe company based in Austin, Texas, with both a brick-and-mortar and online store, as well as a distribution chain of wholesale buyers. Founder Evan Streusand discovered the beauty, quality and comfort of Peruvian handmade boots and shoes while traveling, and soon after realized his love for the shoemakers behind them as well.
He decided to bring these products to the U.S., choosing only to work with production factories that are fair trade, use natural and locally sourced materials, and give their workers good pay, paid time off, and health benefits.
Upon visiting Fortress of Inca’s site, it doesn’t take long to learn the mission behind the brand as it’s clearly stated on the Home page, the Our Story page and the What We Believe page and interwoven throughout blog posts.
The mission of providing fair jobs for fair work and supporting local businesses is built into every part of the company, from sourcing to production and even distribution, as many of Fortress of Inca’s retailers are small businesses.
While the beautiful and well-made shoes could likely sell on their own merits, the fact that this business deeply and authentically cares about making a difference is a huge factor in the success they have realized.
Consider what causes you care about or how your product could make a difference in the world. Try to choose a cause that is on-brand for your shop. For example, it makes much more sense for a water bottle company to donate a portion of profits to a clean water organization than to donate to a breast cancer charity.
Selling Humanitarian Products (Quick Assignment)
Do some brainstorming to figure out what products might fit your personal humanitarian values:
- What are the causes or missions that matter to me and my friends or family?
- If I already have a product idea, what types of organizations might naturally tie in, either in the production or distribution chain or through donation of proceeds?
- If I don’t have a product idea, what are some products that have a natural or “clever” tie-in to the causes that matter to me (e.g. bird-watching binoculars for forest conservation)?
- How are other products like mine produced, and how can I do better?
You don’t have to be the next Elon Musk to successfully start your own business—though having that creative and entrepreneurial mindset certainly helps.
What matters more is your dedication to your business and how you distinguish yourself from the competition, whether you’re selling a groundbreaking invention or finding a new way to revamp wrapping paper.
Spend some time thinking about what makes you unique as an individual, and then apply that to your search for products to build your business in an authentic, meaningful and strategic way. Your personality mixed with a targeted business strategy and a clear understanding of the competition—that’s the only recipe for success you’ll need.
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