online shopping

How to set up an online shop

By Mark
Last updated
13 June 2022

Online shopping has become a massive opportunity for many businesses.

The Coronavirus lockdown forced a rapid change in consumer behaviour, seeing people move away from traditional “bricks and mortar” shopping.

If you are ready to join the ecommerce industry, it’s never been easier to start an online shop. We’ll guide you step by step through all the important decisions you need to make, and how to open your online shop.

Research your competition

Before you even start your new online shop it’s essential that you research your competition.

  • Establish who your main competitors are online.
  • How does their product compare to yours in features, price and info provided?
  • How does their delivery compare in price and speed?
  • Can you offer anything different or better than them?

Customers will browse your competitors’ shops or see their products in Google shopping feeds, so how do you persuade them to buy from you? Profiling your different types of potential customers is a great way of establishing what make them buy.

For example, if you’re selling a high-quality product at a high price, your customers will not be influenced by credibility (your brand, reputation, reviews) over price. In contrast, FMCG customers will be price led so can you offer lower prices, or faster delivery?

Once you’ve finished this work you can plan out your strategy for product range, pricing, delivery and your shop’s design and positioning.

Decide your marketing strategy

How are you going to drive traffic to your site?

Many businesses don’t plan their marketing until after their online shop is live which is very much the wrong way around.

The other reason you need to have a marketing plan is the most obvious one – if you don’t advertise your website, no-one will know you exist.

Your online shop will not automatically appear in front of people, you need to make that happen with marketing. Make sure you factor in a good budget for marketing and don’t spend everything on building your new online shop.

The most common digital marketing tactics for online shops include:

  • Google Shopping Ads – These are ads that appear at the top of Google searches and show a product image, title, offer and price in the ad. They normally convert well and once they are set up don’t need too much management. Traditionally these have been paid placements, however Google is in the process of making these free which is great news for online businesses.

  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – The aim of SEO is to get your shop on page 1 of organic search rankings for your best keywords. SEO is an activity that can take time to show results but if you know what keywords work best for you, it will be very cost effective in the long term.

  • Google Search Ads – Search Ads appear in Google searches for the keywords you want to advertise for. They are text ads as opposed to visual Google Shopping Ads but can work well if your market is not ultra-competitive.

  • Social Media Campaigns – The main social media channels include Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and are essential to increasing awareness of your online shop. Social media tactics typically include posting offers, competitions, sales etc as these are more likely to be shared and clicked on. Facebook groups are also a great way of engaging with your customers and keeping them informed.

  • Email marketing is often overlooked but it’s very effective in keeping your brand in front of all customers who have purchased from you and persuading them to return to your store.

Brand your business

If your business doesn’t have a brand, now is the time to address that. Don’t decide on a name until you know you can buy a good domain name for it, you can easily check domain availability on many websites such as 123-reg.

When creating your brand refer to your overall plan. For example, if you are selling high quality products at a premium price then your brand needs a luxury, high end look. Your brand is key in establishing credibility and trust with your customers.

Your brand is not just your logo, it’s also the style of your copy and images you use on your website. It’s vital to spend some time on this and hire a brand designer if you have the budget. Good branding and design is a proven “trust” factor and getting it wrong will damage your sales potential.

shopping products

Choose a platform for your online shop

When setting up an online shop we’d recommended choosing an established platform such as WooCommerce for a self-hosted shop or Shopify if you’d prefer software as a service (SAAS). We’ll focus on these in this article, however there are other options available such as OpenCart, Magento, Bigcommerce and many more.

Self-hosted has the advantage of more flexibility in design and functionality with lower ongoing costs, at the trade-off of a higher setup cost. SAAS comes with many advantages such as lower setup cost, less maintenance and a plethora of features “out of the box”, though tends to have higher running costs and additional functionality can be costly.

Whichever option you choose, it will allow you to set up an online shop at a reasonable cost, and for most small businesses both options are equally valid.

Choose a secure payment provider

You’ll need to decide what payment provider to use to process secure card payments on your online shop. There are many options to choose from including PayPal, Stripe and WorldPay.

They all charge different rates for processing customer payments and adding it to your bank account. For example, Stripe’s minimum charge is 1.4% of the amount paid plus 20p for each transaction. Some payment providers also charge monthly and set up fees, they may also require internet merchant accounts.

Shopify also offers its own payment service, WooCommerce supports most major secure payment providers via plugins.

Check comparison sites online to show you the pros and cons of each payment provider.

Whatever payment provider you choose make sure your online shop platform supports it before signing up (many do trial periods before you commit).

Delivery and shipping

Determine your delivery costs and how orders will be shipped to your customers, if you have special delivery requirements such as table rates, weight-based shipping, or courier integration, make sure you check your platform of choice can support this.

As mentioned above, researching your competitors’ delivery charges is a good way of deciding what you charge. Customers will shop around and hidden / high delivery costs are big consumer turn-offs.

Possible delivery options:

  • Flat rate. A single rate for each transaction which is great if you’re selling lots of similar products such as books, vinyl, Betamax tapes.

  • Free Shipping. This is often offered as an incentive to spend over a certain order amount, though might want to offer free shipping for all orders and factor the cost into your product pricing.

  • Bespoke delivery prices depending on weight, size, location. This is ideal if your product range is broad, but you’ll need to find a platform that supports this function and spend time configuring the permutations.

  • Click and collect is ideal for local stores where it’s easy for customers to call in and pick up their order.

Many online shop platforms allow you to integrate with shipping calculation systems as well as drop shipping / courier companies to make this easier for you.

And there’s always the option of payments on invoice too if your shop has a B2B emphasis.

Set up your online shop

You’ve chosen your ideal platform and you can now start to finally build your shop. Here are the key activities:

  • Plan your navigation and product categories. If you have a small product range, this will be straightforward. However, if you have a large number of products then you will need to plan how you will categorise them to make it easy for customers to find what they want. For example, if you have a large range of power tools as a category then you’ll need to add subcategories underneath e.g. drills, sanders, saws etc. to make it easy to navigate. You’ll also want a good search facility to back this up.

  • Set up your store. Shopify is fairly easy, WooCommerce is a little harder but if you’re happy setting up a Wordpress site then all you need to do is install the WooCommerce plugin plus any extra plugins you might need. If setting up a store doesn’t sound like your thing, then hire a website developer to do it for you.

  • Design the look. Hopefully you have a brand, product categories and imagery to work from so now you can design your store. There are plenty of off the shelf templates for both Shopify and WooCommerce that you can use as starting points, or you can go bespoke.

  • Configure your new store. This includes creating content pages such as terms, delivery info and setting up currency, delivery options, contact details etc.

  • Add all your products. If you’re adding a lot of products with images this can be a time consuming task, though depending on your platform it may be possible to import data to save you a job.
shopping payments

Product pages that sell

Creating product pages in a platform is straightforward, however adding the right content will make or break your sales. Customers are more likely to buy from your online shop if your product pages inspire confidence and give them everything they need.

Key success factors for product pages are:

  • High quality photographs. If your images look unappealing and amateurish then people won’t want to buy your product.

  • Good product descriptions that provide useful information. Depending on your product, explanatory images and video can also be very effective here. Product pages also serve as great landing pages for Google Ads and SEO, so don’t cut and paste descriptions from other websites – Google will penalise your ranking for duplicate content.

  • Show delivery costs and taxes up front, hidden charges are a huge cause of cart abandonment so be transparent and keep the sale.

  • Testimonials and reviews on product pages establish credibility and trust, another big buying factor online.

  • Make sure your website is incredibly easy to use. Clear navigation, signposting and “Call to Action” buttons (e.g. Add To Cart, Checkout) help customers complete their purchase, so everyone wins.

Essential pages

Your online shop needs lots of support pages apart from the product pages. Potential customers will have lots of questions:

  • How do I return an item?
  • Do you do refunds?
  • How do I contact you if I have a problem?
  • How much is delivery and how long will it take?

As such, we would recommend adding the following pages to your online shop:

  • Deliveries and returns. Set out your delivery guidelines, what people do if they need to return a purchase etc.

  • Contact us. Explain how people can you contact you and hours of business. Ideally you want to list your telephone number, email address, contact form and postal address. Live chat is a great option too if you have the resources to run it. Not having these details will make some people wary about buying from you.

  • About us. Some customers may want to know more about your company such as your history, your credentials, why people buy from you, brand values and quotes from key people. All these things help establish trust, and if you’ve an interesting story to tell then even better.

  • Terms and conditions. Always a good move to add these to your online shop in case of disputes.

  • Frequently asked questions (FAQs). List out all the questions you know people have or may ask you and show the questions and answers on this page. It’s worthwhile doing as its more supportive content that will encourage people to buy from you.

  • Privacy statement. This is a legally required statement saying how your company collects and handles customer data. Example privacy statement.

Test your shop

This is vitally important, before you go live make sure everything works.

If customers have problems buying from you, they are unlikely to return. We recommend asking people to try out your shop, get them to search for products and carry out test purchases (all payment providers will have a test mode so you don’t have to worry about card details for this). Watch or film their activities to see what issues may need addressing.

Below is a checklist of common things to check before going live:

  1. Checkout and payments. Does this work smoothly? Try a test payment to make sure customers can easily pay and everything works as it should. Once you go live, repeat the check with a live payment, just in case. You can always refund it.

  2. Content. Check all content for mistakes, typos, blurred or missing images, broken links and that nothing is missing.

  3. Functionality. You may have specialist functionality on your website such as delivery calculators depending on location. Test these thoroughly to avoid frustrated customers.

  4. Navigation. Go through all your navigation such as pull-down menus, search bar, feature boxes etc. Make sure they work as expected and that it’s easy to find your way around the website. We’ve seen big brand websites fall into the trap of looking amazing yet being impossible to navigate, which ultimately loses sales from frustrated customers.

  5. Mobile. Most online shoppers now use their smartphones to browse and buy, so it’s vital their experience is a good one. Don’t just rely on testing your shop on your own phone, use online tools such as the Google Mobile tool

  6. Different browsers/devices. Some websites don’t work well in different browsers or devices. We recommend testing your website for the main browsers Explorer, Edge, Chrome, Safari and Firefox to make sure you reach a broad audience.

  7. Speed. If your online shop is slow to load then customers will get frustrated and not buy. You can test your website’s speed test your website's speed and it will also give tips on how to improve the speed of your website. It is worth noting that this is an automated test and the recommendations are not always practical, however it’s a reasonable indicator if you have serious problems.

  8. Schema. Your shop should be using structured data to help search engines discover your products, most good e-commerce platforms should include this and it should be built into good templates. You can check your pages with Google’s rich snippet tool.

  9. Settings. Double check all your settings are correct before you go live including language, currency, time zone, deliveries etc.

Lastly, never plan your marketing campaign to coincide with launch day. Give it at least a few days to spot any niggles you may have missed while working on the shop, better to wait than lose your customer base because the checkout is broken.

And remove your test products!

Build a customer base

Attracting and retaining loyal customers will be key to the success of your online shop.

We’ve already covered marketing tactics, also consider look at how you can attract first time customers through incentives to make the leap into their first order. These could be limited time discounts for new users, social media promotions and competitions, refer-a-friend discounts or doing something extra special for your first customers to encourage positive word-of-mouth.

Once you have some customers, email marketing and Facebook groups are powerful tools to keep them engaged. Email marketing is often an underrated marketing activity, however it proven to work and extremely cost effective.

You only need to send one out once or twice a month, certainly don’t overdo them as people will stop opening them. It’s also worth having a template professionally designed as shoddy emails can undermine the whole experience.

Your emails should strike a balance of promoting your products and also having interesting content such as product / category reviews, competitions, industry news, funny or interesting stories.

Use a reputable email marketing provider such as Mailchimp or Campaign Monitor that integrates with your ecommerce platform. This will give your emails the best chance of reaching your customers as well as saving you time on building email lists and managing subscriptions.

Good luck building your online shop.