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How to Start an Online Retail Business

How to Start an Online Retail Business

There’s never been a better time to start building an online retail business. Get your store up and running with these steps.

This last year has increased consumers’ reliance on ecommerce, which has also lit a fire in a lot of people to start their own online retail business.

Maybe that’s you, or perhaps you simply have a desire to be able to work remotely from anywhere in the world. You’ll take your idea and grow your online retail business with nothing more than a laptop and strong Wi-Fi signal.

Either way, you are living in the best time in history to start an online retail business. The technology, infrastructure, and information at your fingertips can all help you go from dreaming about a business to actually running one.

But where should you start?

There are three key chapters in the “I’m ready to start an online retail business” playbook.

  1. Identify your essentials

  2. Take the first steps

  3. Get the word out

As an online business owner for over a decade, I want to share an overview of each of these three key areas. You have the opportunity to start building your own online business today should you so choose, and these tips can help you along the way.

Identify Your Essentials

What’s your game plan?

Before you can build your own online retail business, you need to know three key elements.

  • What do you want to sell?

  • What will your product differentiator be?

  • What do you want your lifestyle to look like? (This is a big one.)

What do you want to sell?

Every business has a solution of some kind that they sell to customers. The process of creating that product or service, finding customers, and then making sales is what grows an idea into a company. Your starting step is to figure out what solution you can offer customers.

Some ecommerce businesses sell physical goods, such as clothing, books, gadgets, and gizmos. This is the type of business I’ve operated for over a decade: We create, sell, and ship motivational apparel. You have a physical product that you (or someone else) will send to the customer after they place an order.

Other online retail businesses sell digital goods, like online training programs, software as a service (SaaS), and virtual coaching. Unlike physical goods, digital transactions are almost instantaneous. As soon as someone purchases from you, they usually download the software or access the course immediately.

For some entrepreneurs, this is the easy step, and they already know what product or service they want to offer customers. Regardless of your situation, the first step to starting an online retail business is to determine what you want to sell. This step determines your operations and path moving forward.

How are you different?

If you’re creating a product that’s currently in the market, how will yours be different?

Many customers will already be familiar with products or services similar to your offering, so you need to determine how yours is better. Questions to ask include:

  • Am I selling something different than what’s out there?

  • If no, is my product more cost effective for customers, or of higher quality?

  • If no, is my product truly better? How will customers know?

  • How is my product different than anything like it on the market?

Answering these questions will help you refine your market positioning and marketing messaging.

What’s your lifestyle target?

This is an important question that most people overlook when they go into business for themselves. What is the specific lifestyle you want?

Do you want to travel without any worry of having to be in an office or tied to one location?

Do you want a specific income level? If so, what is it and how many units will you need to sell to reach that lifestyle?

Some entrepreneurs go into business for the freedom to be their own boss, while others want to make over a million dollars a year. You must identify your own, highly personal goals with the business in order to properly structure its operations to meet your desired outcomes.

Take the First Steps


The first thing you need after establishing your essential targets is your website. Think of your website like your company’s online “home.” It’s the main place you’ll drive customers to for sales.

To give yourself the greatest chances to succeed, your website needs:

  • A shopping cart, including a smooth checkout experience

  • A mobile-friendly design

  • The ability to integrate with your fulfillment software or have that feature built-in

Your customers are shopping from their phone. Your website must be easy to view and navigate, and it must efficiently process orders for mobile customers.

The last thing you want to do is work hard to get a customer to your website and have them fall in love with your product, only to lose them before checkout because of website issues. Make sure your website sets your business apart and runs smoothly on both the customer-facing side and the backend.


How will you get the products into your customers’ hands after they’ve completed a purchase? As simple as “I’ll ship it” sounds, take it from me: “Shipping it” is anything but a simple process.

You need to determine the logistics of shipping your products.

  • How will you ship your products? Canada Post, UPS, FedEx, DHL? Determine which carrier and levels of shipping fulfillment best get your product to a customer quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively.

  • Will you ship your products or will someone else? Many online retail businesses use third-party logistics (3PL) companies to warehouse and ship their products to customers after an order is placed. Other businesses want to manage the entire customer experience and choose to ship the products themselves. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, so determine which method works best for your brand, type of products, and target owner lifestyle.
  • How will you package your products? A key piece to fulfillment is deciding how you will package and ship your products. Do you want to use the least expensive, white mailer option or invest in colorful, branded packaging? How do you want the package to look when it arrives, and when your customer opens it? This is a major decision in the fulfillment process and can greatly influence the customer’s experience with your brand.


Another crucial element to getting started is determining your email software. Email is how you can communicate with customers with marketing messaging (like product sales or new releases) and order updates (such as order confirmations and shipping notifications).

A great email marketing software for online retail businesses should seamlessly integrate with your website and capture key data for continued messaging. Some customers will opt in to marketing messaging, while others will only want emails that are related to their orders. Either way, your email database will help build your email marketing list and can become a valuable data source for future marketing efforts.

The best email software will:

  • Integrate with your website and business software

  • Have automation features related to your online shopping experience such as abandon cart or new sign-up emails

  • Allow you to segment customers based on specific data, such as purchase history their location, and more

Email is the lifeblood of your business and should be treated as such. The more quality email addresses you have, the better chance your business has to succeed. One hundred thousand emails don’t do you any good if 99,999 of those recipients are not a fit for your product.

Focus on building your email list first. Social media channels come and go, but your email list — and those customers — will always be the most important data you can own.

Get the Word Out

If you build it (your online retail business), they (customers) will not necessarily come. You have to get the word out and market your business.

Too often, entrepreneurs introduce a new product and website to the marketplace, then sit back and wait on the flood of traffic and orders that are sure to come. They unfortunately wait until they run out of cash, then close up shop.

A great website for a great product is the foundation to building an ecommerce business, but then you must market it.

A successful online business will balance email marketing, social media paid and organic posts, and offline campaigns to drive potential customers into the sales funnel. You can use multiple channels in order to encourage prospects to visit your website and then convert into loyal customers.

But remember this: Most successful businesses didn’t start with multiple channels all at once. This is a mistake many new online business owners make. They try to do too much too quickly and end up not giving each channel the attention it needs to truly be successful.

Focus on getting a strong system in place in one channel to market your business before adding a second. Then, once that second marketing channel is sustainable and consistent, add a third.

Set up your email marketing, then focus on one social media platform or an offline campaign. Focus on using these select channels to get the word out. Slowly add in additional channels to help support your email and other campaigns. Grow your marketing with purpose.

There’s never been a better time to start building an online retail business. Get your store up and running with these steps. Focus and build out your game plan. Identify your key software needs. Start getting the word out. Put in the hard work, answer the hard questions, and do what it takes to win over customers, and you’ll be well on your way to running a successful online retail business.

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