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How to Start Selling Products Online Successfully (In 2017)

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Opening an online business is as easy as a few clicks, which is why the Internet has been flooded with aspiring retailers in recent years.

But launching a successful store is a whole different story. To do that, it takes a dedicated level of research, planning, and strategy that not everyone is willing to commit to.

It doesn't make sense to put in the work and effort of launching a store, only to see it fail. Doing the proper initial product research, taking the right steps at launch, and marketing your online store strategically are how you set yourself up for long-term success.

Here’s the deal: selling yourself short isn’t an option. It’s go big or go home, and it starts right here.

If you’ve decided you’re ready to put in the work it takes to successfully launch and run an online eCommerce business for the long haul, we’re here to help. 

Are you ready to learn how to start selling products online
Are you ready to learn how to start selling products online? (photo source)

This how-to guide can get you up and selling products online successfully, from pre-planning what to sell to launching your online store and beyond. Learn how to start selling products online with a successful strategy that's effective in 2017. 

Deciding on the "What" and "How"

Determining What Products to Sell Online

First things first: what product are you going to sell?

With so much competition in today’s online marketplace in 2017, this decision is the most crucial one you’ll make and will impact every other element of your business, from how you ship to how you store your inventory.

Feeling overwhelmed? Take a step back and make some smaller decisions first:

1. What Am I Passionate or Knowledgeable About?

Play to your strengths. Starting a business is already a challenge; don’t add extra stress by venturing into an industry you don’t know or care about. By doing a bit of self-reflection, you’ll be able to narrow down what you’re passionate about and therefore willing to invest all of your time into selling.

As an example, let’s take a look at the online brand Highway Robery. The brand uses images of its founders, and their passion for their project is clear on the site as well as in their voices.

“Highway Robery really feels like an extension of who we are and our personalities,” says co-founder Evan Streusand. “We love coming up with new ideas, and this particular project has got our minds going in a million different directions. From the fabrics we want to use to the photo shoots we’re planning down to the text we want to use on our website –– it’s all exciting at the moment. Oh, and puns. We love puns. Expect us to use a lot of them, be they good or bad!”
Highway Robery online product store selling unique fun robes
Highway Robery online product store selling unique, fun robes.

Learn more about how to leverage your passion to start a business that plays to your strengths: 

2. What Pain Points Could I Solve for My Customers?

What better way to demonstrate value to your customers than by helping them solve everyday problems? Think about what small but annoying wrenches get thrown in your day, and then research what currently exists on the market to mitigate those issues. You may be able to improve on existing solutions or come up with something entirely different.

As an example, look at the story behind Karen Rzepecki’s invention of the reCAP Mason Jars Pour Cap.

reCAP Mason Jar
reCAP Mason Jars: innovative online product.
“Our story began with salad dressing,” she writes. “After creating yet another oily mess with the lid and ring, I searched for a pour cap that would fit my Mason Jars and allow me to shake, pour, and store dressing.”

Rzepecki realized there wasn’t one, so she went ahead and created something all her own.

As many do, Rzepecki used reusable, eco-friendly mason jars for food storage. However, when trying to shake, pour and store items, things got sticky. To alleviate the issue, Rzepecki created a simple lid with a spout that fit both large and small-mouth mason jars and took her new product online.

3. Are the Products I’m Considering Viable and Practical?

Factor in everything you would need to successfully sell and ship your products. If the products you have in mind are huge, fragile or have short lifespans, these are all things that will considerably affect your business costs and operations. You must also consider where you would source your products from to ensure they’re viable ideas.

Tortoise Supply does a particularly good job of providing details around who they are, how they care for and ship the animals they sell, how customers should care for them, and more. As a result, they’re considered a thought leader in the pet shop space, offering a personalized and convenient experience that their customers prefer to local pet shops.

Tortoise Supply unique online product
Tortoise Supply unique online product.

After all, who knew you could ship turtles?!

Manufacturing vs. Dropshipping

Your product supplier plays a large role in your business operations and costs, so it’s imperative to figure out where you will source your products before making a final decision on what to sell.

You don’t want to launch your business and realize your products are hard to come by. You also don’t want to get up and running and realize the manufacturing cost of your product results in virtually no profit margin for you.

Most retailers choose to either source a manufacturer or work with a dropshipper, each with their owns pros and cons:

Pros and Cons
Manufacturing
Dropshipping
What is it? (Manufacturing vs. Dropshipping options.) 
       
Working with a manufacturer to create specific products for your store.
Purchasing someone else’s products and selling them through your own store, relying on them to also fulfill orders for you.
Pros
  • Low cost per unit
  • More control over quality of products and branding
  • Low overhead costs
  • Less work for you, as you don’t have to worry about shipping and returns
  • Low risk of losing money on overstocking
Cons
  • High startup costs; must invest in creating your own products
  • Longer time to launch as your products must be designed, created and tested
  • May buy more products than you are able to sell, losing you money
  • Low margins
  • High competition
  • Lack of quality control
  • Potential of inventory issues if your dropshipper runs out of stock

There are quite a few reputable dropshipping companies, should you choose to go that route; this guide to choosing a dropshipper can help you find the best fit for your business.

Understanding the "Who"

Scoping Out Your Competition

You likely did a bit of competitive analysis when you were researching which products to sell, but now that you’ve determined your offerings, it’s time to dive deeper into the current state of the market.

Find out what companies are offering similar products, what makes them unique from one another, how they market themselves, and who they target.

Start by filling in a chart or spreadsheet with the names of eight to ten of your top competitors. Here is a format you can follow: 

Store Name
Tagline / Mission
Product Offering
Sales Channels Strengths / Weaknesses
Competition Category
Competitor 1 

Competitor 2

Competitor 3

Quick Tip: In Competition Category, you can go a few levels deeper and note your competitors by: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Then use this guide to complete your comprehensive competitive analysis.

Finding Your Target Market

Learning who your competitors are can also help you home in on your target market and buyer profiles. To sell successfully, you need to be acutely aware of who you’re trying to sell to and why they would want or need your product.

Use demographic and psychographic information to map out your target market segments: 

Demographic Info

  • Age
  • Location
  • Gender
  • Income level
  • Education level
  • Marital / family status
  • Occupation
  • Ethnic background

Psychographic Info

  • Hobbies
  • Interests
  • Behaviors
  • Values
  • Attitudes
  • Lifestyle

Read our Envato Tuts+ definitive guide to buyer personas for more detail on mapping out your target customers: 

Getting to Know the Do's & Don'ts

After all of your hard work getting your online product business off the ground, don’t let it fall apart due to a lack of legal research. Make sure you consider these nine online business laws before starting to sell your products online:

  1. Product Inventory: Where will you be holding all of your stock? Depending on how much product inventory you’ll be holding at one time and where you live, there may be zoning codes and lease and deed regulations that could prohibit you from keeping stock in your home.
  2. Licenses and Permits: At the minimum, you’ll need to apply for a business license. There are numerous online resources like LegalZoom you can use to learn if there are additional licenses or permits you’ll need.
  3. Shipping Restrictions: Are you planning to sell any of the following: fresh fruits or vegetables, perfume or cologne, nail polish, perishables, cigarettes, alcohol, or any type of aerosol? These are only a few of the items that come with shipping restrictions. Some carriers will not fulfill these items at all, while others require extra payment and paperwork to do so; read the fine print on each carrier’s website carefully.
  4. Taxes: Business taxes vary greatly between country, region, state, and city; but know that there will be some type of tax law you need to be aware of when starting an online business. The important thing to remember is that tax laws don’t just apply to where your business is headquartered; it also matters what you are selling and where your target audience resides.
  5. Payment Processing: When choosing a payment processor, like PayPal or Square, there are a few things you should look into, including fees (i.e. per transaction, per month, setup fees, and termination fees); fraud detection and prevention features; and most importantly, whether the processor has limitations involving specific products.
  6. Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents: Don’t let someone else take credit for your hard work, or risk accidentally stealing another’s work. Find an organization that can counsel you on the difference between these three property rights and whether or not you need apply for any of them.
  7. Insurance: Don’t try to navigate the complex world of business insurance on your own; speak to an agent to help you figure out what types you truly need, such as product liability, commercial liability, and professional liability.
  8. PCI Compliance: Most eCommerce platforms come with built-in PCI compliance, which protects you against data theft, but do your research to make sure your platform offers it, as it’s required.
  9. Age Restrictions: All online businesses must comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a multi-regulation law that is aimed at keeping children’s personal information safe. Depending on what you’re selling, multiple parts of the act may apply to you, including the inability to collect information from children under 13 and verification requirements for age-restricted items.

The Main Event: Launching Your Online Store

Now comes the exciting part of how to sell products online: seeing all of your back-end work come to fruition through the creation and launch of your online store. There are just a few more weighty decisions to make before you “open your doors.”

Choosing and Configuring an eCommerce Platform

There are many eCommerce solutions on the market that you can use to sell your products online, and it can be overwhelming to know which one may be right for you.

ECommerce Platform Checklist

Use this checklist to ask the right questions when searching for a platform:

  • How user-friendly is the platform?
  • Does it offer reliable hosting, even during traffic spikes?
  • How in-depth and accessible is the support offered, and is it free?
  • Will the platform support the type of products I’m selling?
  • Is there a limit to how many products I can sell, or are there any transaction fees?
  • Can I operate multiple channels and sell directly to my customers on Facebook, Amazon, and eBay from one central location?
  • How do I manage inventory, and is the interface easy to figure out?
  • What are the corresponding payment processing options? Am I forced to use one over my preferred vendor?
  • What options can I offer for shipping, and are there any plugins to streamline fulfillment?
  • What are my options for themes, and are they customizable and mobile friendly?
  • What SEO support is offered?
  • Does the platform integrate with third-party apps? And if so, how many does the typical store need? This will affect overall platform cost.
  • Are there open APIs that would support my business as it grows?
  • What are the built-in user experience features that will improve my customers’ experience while shopping on my site, like security and search, and are there additional costs?

In addition to this checklist, there are four main concerns you should consider before deciding on a platform:

1. Cost

ECommerce platforms don’t always come cheap, but this is one area where you don’t want to pinch pennies, as your platform literally powers your business.

Most providers offer tiered pricing with various benefits at each level, so consider what you really need to succeed, including security, analytics, payment processing, and checkout preferences.

Also, some providers offer SaaS, while others offer on-premise hosting. SaaS means “software-as-a-service,” and is cheaper and more scalable than on-premise, which requires buying your own servers and having a savvy in-house tech team. 

Tip: Use BigCommerce’s total cost of ownership calculator to compare SaaS vs. on-premise costs.

The Shift to SaaS
The Shift to SaaS in eCommerce.

2. Scalability

Pick a platform that can grow as you do. It’s hard to predict how quickly and in what way you may grow in the coming years, but it’s a good start to pick a platform that is SaaS rather than on-premise, has open APIs, and comes with reliable support.

Use a platform’s case studies to help determine growth. Also, chat with partners and experts in the arena to understand growth capabilities. For instance, SEO might not be as important to you when you launch, but if a platform has a ceiling on your future growth because of lack of this functionality, that’s a big deal from the very beginning.

3. Usability

The platform you choose for selling your products online should make your life easier, not more difficult. Choose one that is intuitive, easy for you to understand, allows you to centralize your inventory and orders, and has customization and available integrations to streamline and automate parts of your business.

4. Design

Some platforms are more customizable than others, and you deserve to have your store look precisely as you dreamed. Pay attention to theme and plugin options and the cost of customization.

Make sure you focus on the right design to best highlight your products, rather than going for the “coolest” looking website, and keep it clean and easy to navigate both on web and mobile devices, as with the Eazywallz site shown here:

Eazywallz example of a clean eCommcer website thats setup for mobile
Ensure your platform will automatically optimize your website for any device.

You can find great BigCommerce themes to work with on Envato Market with professional features, or browse through this curated selection: 

Final Decisions: Before You Start Selling Products Online

You’ve got your platform, products and business process figured out; all that’s left to do is piece together the final elements. There are a few more components of how to sell products online that are also important. Don’t forget these key considerations:

1. Define Your Fulfillment Process

If you decided to use a dropshipper, you’ve got this covered; if not, sit down and map out exactly what your shipping and return processes look like. Here are a few tips for fully thinking through fulfillment:

  • Consider integrating a shipping app like ShipperHQ that will allow you to compare carrier rates, print shipping and return labels, and stay on top of returns.
  • Create a direct and comprehensive shipping and return policy and include it on your website. Having clear policies will help reduce customer confusion and save you time on customer service.
  • Offer multiple shipping options. Why do so many shoppers choose Amazon? Because the ability to get quick shipping can be just as influential as the price of shipping when it comes to getting customers to convert. Don’t lose a sale due to long fulfillment times.
  • Write out your entire shipping process, including what happens when you get an order, what shipping materials you need and how you’ll source them, how to represent your brand through packaging and presentation, and how to organize your inventory to make packing and shipping products easy.

2. Set Up Analytics

Even if you’re new to the eCommerce world, it’s vital that you learn to interpret the analytics that let you know how you’re performing.

Your platform likely comes with built-in analytics that help you see how many visitors are coming to your site, where they’re coming from, how your marketing is doing, and what they’re searching for on your site. 

This is just the beginning; there are tons more metrics you can track to help you set and reach specific goals. And if you need to learn the basics of how to set KPIs for your business, jump into this comprehensive guide: 

3. Spread the Word

The day has finally arrived for you to share your products online with the world. But you can’t simply publish your site and expect the traffic to come pouring in; you need to create a marketing launch strategy for getting the word out about your new endeavor.

Driving traffic to your site and retaining those customers could be a complete how-to guide of its own. But to get you started, begin considering these five elements of marketing your site. How will I...

  • Drive traffic (social media, email campaigns, paid ads)?
  • Convert traffic (onsite promotions, abandoned cart emails, automated product suggestions)?
  • Get customers to return (loyalty programs, promotional emails)?
  • Measure success (sales volume, sales figures, conversion rates, return customers)?
  • Repeat success once I’ve found it (quarterly reviews, documented strategy, ROI analyses)?

Social media, email campaigns, paid ads and content marketing are a few ways to start driving traffic; check out this guide to proven ways to drive and convert traffic for deeper insights.

Final Word 

Starting an online business that sells products in 2017 isn’t an endeavor you can take on half-heartedly. But there are clear things you can do to set yourself apart from the competition and lay the foundation for success. 

While it's challenging, there is a path to selling products online that has a better chance of winning. The most important thing to remember is to monitor your actions and tweak accordingly. By analyzing what is working for you and what isn’t, you can continue to hone your strategy until your business is effectively running itself. Good luck!

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