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How to Start an Online Store

How to start an online store, depicted by an image of an online store

Introduction

In this guide, I will describe how to start an online store in 10 steps. In addition, I will give you all the tools and links you need to get started.

Before Corona, e-commerce was optional for brick and mortar stores. After COVID-19, e-commerce will have to be a part of every retailer’s business strategy. So if you are a business owner or starter, follow this guide to embark on your e-commerce mission.

First, I will discuss the “Why” and “What” of online stores and then move to the “How.” In the How-To section, I will give you the tools to build and maintain your online store.Β 

You can use this guide in almost every country, but it focuses on Vietnam.

If you are a shop owner, you should set up Google My Business (GMB). A correctly configured GMB can give your business a considerable boost in foot traffic.

People very often use local search to find products they can buy near them. With Google My Business setup, people can find your shop.

Table of Contents

Pros and Cons

Benefits of brick and mortar stores

The benefits of a Brick & Mortar store are often the disadvantages of the Online Store. And you have to address these when building your e-commerce channel.

  • Visibility: A physical store is visible to the local community and visitors. Having a good shop location is comparable to showing up on the first page in Search Results for Web Shops.
  • Product exposure: In a Brick & Mortar store, people can experience your products. They see it, feel it, hear it, and smell it.
  • Trust: People prefer to buy products from people, instead of from a computer. And a store full of customers inspires trust.
  • Types of products: Some products are more natural to sell in a real-world store. Examples are:
      • Cars, because you can test drive them.
      • Fashion, because you can try it on.
      • Beauty Products, because people can smell it, and see how it looks.
      • Fresh produce, because you can see the freshness.
      • Fresh fish, because you can see they’re still alive and smell fresh.
Benefits of Brick and Mortar Stores as compared to Online Stores

Online Store Pros

The COVID-19 crisis exposes some substantial benefits, not felt before. But even before Corona, starting an online store had some important benefits.

  • πŸ”§ Salespeople in a physical store can use tools from the online store. Some examples are:
      • Order fulfillment
      • Payment processing
      • Catalog and Inventory search
      • Get customer insight
      • Lookbooks
      • Customer management
      • Communication
      • Analytics
  • πŸ—Ί Location: you can sell your products anywhere. No longer do you have to depend on local foot-traffic.
  • πŸ’³ Payment: you will have new payment options. For example, many people use PayPal, but you can not use it in stores.
  • 🌎 New sales strategy options: Selling online increases your options. Now only the world will be the limit. Also new possibilities open up: instead of charging for a single product, you can now offer a membership. You can avoid all logistics by using Drop-shipping.Β 
  • 🎁 New options for products and audience. An online shop expands your audience. This allows you to fulfill new needs. So you can expand your offering with new products.
  • πŸ’΅ Cost reduction due to scale. By adding an online sales channel, you can sell more products and reduce the costs per product.
  • πŸ• Your online shop is always open. People in any timezone can now easily shop in your store when it is convenient.

Online Store Cons

Building an online store does have its disadvantages. But with the right plan, you can start your online store.

  • πŸ™ˆ To be visible on the internet requires much effort and time. But the rewards can be high.
  • πŸŽͺ It is more challenging to present products effectively. You have to use photos, videos, or other media. Successful shops often use professional photographers to showcase their products.
  • πŸ’Ή Online shops use different marketing and sales techniques.
  • πŸ’» You need to familiarise yourself with new software and methodologies. Examples are Digital Marketing, Analytics, and Content Management Software. Finally, your store needs a server that serves your content on the web.
  • πŸ’Έ Selling online requires some investment of time and money. Although some platforms offer free options, they often lack essential tools. Almost all platforms have paid add-ons to the underlying fees. And you will need at least some of them.

Maturity Levels of Online Stores Infographic

E-Commerce stores have development stages. It starts simple and becomes more complicated with every stage. Being aware of these levels can help you set expectations for starting your online store.

An example of level 1 is your local bakery that has a Facebook page to display its products and location. An example of level 9 is Amazon. It has distribution centers around the world and fully localized websites for each country.

The E-Commerce Market in Vietnam 2020 Infographic

The Online Stores or E-Commerce Market in Vietnam in 2020 has a value of over 6 billion USD. That is only 3.4% of the retail market, which is 180 billion USD in 2020. And E-Commerce is growing at double digits! Mobile Commerce, as a subset of E-Commerce, takes over 50% of the pie.

Widespread adoption of E-Commerce is hindered by Vietnam’s digital and physical infrastructure. Logistics takes almost a third of revenues for E-Commerce companies. Amazon spends only one-tenth of revenue on logistics.

The annual average amount that the Vietnamese spend online is USD180. This is the lower than in most countries. Shoppers are very cautious and a majority will check reviews and compare prices before buying.Β 

Mobile-first: over 50% of E-Commerce is performed via a smartphone. Social Media Mobile Commerce is an important trend. Close to 70% of e-shoppers used Facebook to buy.

Fashion and cosmetics are the most popular categories on these media.

Step 1: Set Clear Goals when starting your Online Store

Set Goals for your new Online Store

Write down what you want to achieve with your online store. Your goals have to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Here are some examples:

  • Sell <type of products> online to <audience / buyer personas>
  • <Number of> unique visitors in the first <number of> months from <geographical area>
  • <Number of> paying customers in the first <number of> months from <geographical area>
  • <Number of> people signing up for email newsletter.
  • <Amount of> revenue in the first year.
  • < percentage of> visitors that buy from website (conversion rate).
  • < percentage of> confirmed satisfied customers.
  • < percentage of> visitors that sign up for email newsletter (conversion rate).
  • <Percentage of> customers that return to the webshop within <time>.
  • <Percentage of> secondary conversions of customers within <time>.
  • Get <number of> 4-5 star reviews on products in <time>.
  • Get <number> of relevant and valuable backlinks in <time>.
  • Post <number> of Blog articles related to my products every <time>
  • Get Google Page-speed for mobile higher than < percentage>, and desktop higher than < percentage>.
  • Get all listed products, categories, posts, and pages optimized for SEO before <time>.

Step 2: Market research, Competition, Target Market, Buyer Personas

Now, it’s time to do some marketing research. Who is buying your products now, and how is that changing when you take your products online? This is an essential part of the process to start your online store.

Buyer Personas

Create one or more Buyer Personas. Buyer Personas are fictional persons that represent a generalized image of your ideal customers.

  • Give your Buyer Personas a name and include a picture or avatar.
  • Gender, age, location, income, job.
  • Use of online channels: email, social media, messaging.
  • The person’s goals related to your store.
  • Issues that keep them from reaching their goals.
  • Their possible reasons for not buying your products.

Having Buyer Personas will later allow you to target these with high precision in Search Ads, Display Ads, and using Content Marketing.

Buyer Personas for your Online Store

Product Demand

People may be buying products in your physical store. But will they buy them online too? So how can you find out if your products will sell online?

Keyword research can give you the answers. In keyword research, you enter, for example, “buy coffee-mug online.” This key-phrase indicates a clear buying intent. In the results, you will find how many people use that search query. You can filter the results by geographical area or other. This volume gives you a good indication of demand.

It will also tell you how difficult or costly it will be to rank high for using that keyword. This data gives you insight into the competition. Some will provide you with suggestions for other keywords you might want to consider.

For highly competitive online products, you can consider using long-tail keywords or key-phrases. They will give a lower volume of searches but can be less competitive.
Ideally, you want to find Keywords or Keyword Phrases that closely relate to your products, that have sufficient search volume and low difficulty (competition).

The result is a list of keywords or key-phrases to use for your landing pages, homepage, blogs, or other content.
You can do this research with tools like Semrush, Google Search Console, Moz, or Ahrefs.

Product Demand, How to start an Online Store

Competition

When you start selling online, you expand your market, but also your competition. Do Google Searches for every product you plan to sell. See who your competitors are. Collect the following information on each of them:

  • Product and company presentation, image and design, photography, video.
  • Product pricing.
  • Services offered.
  • Delivery options and pricing.
  • Customer reviews.
  • Where it shows in search results.
  • Use of search advertising and display advertising.
  • Warranties or guarantees.
  • Return policy.
  • Privacy policy.

When you build your store strategy, you can use it to ensure a competitive advantage in as many aspects as possible.

Competition, How to start an Online Store

Step 3: Sales Strategy

There are several different e-commerce strategies you can use. You can combine several if it suits your needs.

  • Traditional online shop: you sell products online via your website, and get them in the hands of your customer. Example: Amazon.
  • Social Media vendors sell products online via Social Media channels, like Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.
  • Membership: people pay a monthly or yearly membership fee and receive your product with a specific frequency or get access to the service. Example: Netflix or Dollar Shave Club subscriptions.
  • Drop-shipping: people buy products at your store, and a third party delivers them directly to your customers. Example: Oberlo. The advantage is that you don’t have to worry about sourcing products and deliveries. The disadvantage is that you have little control over the process and quality. And building a strong brand will be very difficult.
  • Marketplace: people buy and sell products via your website. The seller usually handles logistics, and payments go through the marketplace owner who charges a fee per sale and sometimes a membership fee. Examples: eBay, Etsy.

A typical sales strategy for retailers is a traditional online shop with its website, supported by a Social Media sales channel like Instagram and a Marketplace sales channel like Amazon, AliExpress, Tiki, Sendo, or Lazada.

Sales Strategy, How to start an Online Store

Step 4: Inbound Logistics / Product Sourcing

Existing retailers will have their sources and logistics already setup. But if you add new products that better suit your online audience’s needs, you have some work to do. Your options are:

  • Produce in-house: an example is a small jewelry shop that makes their jewelry.
  • Source locally: there are producers or wholesale companies that serve your needs. The logistics are simple and are relatively low-cost.
  • Source Nationally: in-country producers and wholesalers can provide you with the products you need with relative ease. Logistics is a bit more involved and costly.
  • Source Internationally: a typical example is sourcing from factories in China using Alibaba. Finding good producers or wholesalers is easy, but choose with care. Visiting the factories before buying large quantities is highly recommended. There are many excellent guides for sourcing safely via Alibaba.

Some critical themes to consider when sourcing internationally are:

  • Import duties
  • Import regulations, HS-Codes, limited products
  • Logistics responsibilities and transfer of responsibilities
  • Insurance
  • Transit warehousing
  • On-time delivery
  • Logistics security
  • Logistics costs
  • Supply chain disruption (example: COVID-19)

How many products you source depends on:

  • Your sales predictions
  • The actual sales
  • The time needed to replenish your stock
  • Your storage capacity
  • The producer’s minimum order quantities
  • Your financial resources
Inbound Logistics and Sourcing, How to start an Online Store

Step 5: Outbound Logistics / Fulfillment

Fulfillment Logistics for your new Online Store

Customers expect short delivery times from your online store. A day or two after ordering is common. Customers want the ability to track their orders. They need to feel confident in your ability to deliver on-time.

Delivering on-time requires a finely tuned process from receiving an order to delivery.
The steps involved are usually:

  1. Customer places order
  2. Order arrives in store administration
  3. Store retrieves product from storage or warehouse
  4. Product is packed
  5. Address label printed from store admin or logistics provider
  6. Transporter is contacted for pickup or arrives at a predetermined regular pickup time
  7. Package is picked up for transport
  8. Transport to the last-mile warehouse (via road, rail, sea, air)
  9. Last-mile (km) transport to the customer
  10. Customer accepts, signs and sometimes pays cash on delivery
  11. Delivery is confirmed to store
  12. Customer support and maintenance stage

Parts or all of this process can be outsources to third parties. Making this decision early on is vital because it can affect your choice of e-commerce platform.

You ideally want a platform that integrates with your logistics and payment providers. And your local provider may not offer this integration, further complicating your order and fulfillment process.

Before you start, check how fulfillment is going to affect your bottom line. Can you price these costs into your products? Or at what order value does it become viable to offer free shipping?

Tracking software should allow you to accurately track your packages and the on-time performance of your provider.

For International and Intercontinental sales, you should consider contracting fulfillment centers near your customers. That changes your sourcing requirements too. Now, your shipments have to be divided over the fulfillment centers.

And logistics doesn’t necessarily stop after the delivery to your customer. After all, a customer could decide to return the product to you for a variety of reasons. Excellent customer service demands that this process is also finely tuned from the start.

Some products may require technical support or training, which you can offer online or offline.

Example logistics and fulfillment providers in Vietnam:

Step 6: Payment Options

From your Buyer Personas, you know what payment options are available to them.

Secondly, make sure your store platform supports the payment method.

Finally, you will have to set up an account with the payment provider, and connect it to your platform.

Consider one or more of the payment methods listed below, depending on your market. Note: this list contains providers in Vietnam.

Electronic Payment Options

In Vietnam, most people use Debit Cards (1.3 per capita). Credit Cards are rare (0.1 per capita). Digital Wallets are growing at a rate of almost 30% per year in Vietnam.

Now, 20% of Vietnamese have access to some form of Digital Wallet.Β  Another 20% use cash for online orders (cash on delivery). 22% of online shoppers use bank transfer to pay for online orders.

At a minimum, you should try to support MasterCard and Visa. PayPal can be useful to have due to its 300 million users. Many countries have country-specific payment systems. So you should check what payment methods are used mostly in your market.

Step 7: Sales Channel Selection

To sell your wares, you have a choice of sales channels:

Which sales channel you choose for your online store depends on your products, customers, competitors, sales strategy.

If you want to have full control over pricing and presentation, avoid third-party platforms, like Sendo or Tiki.
The next chapter is for vendors who choose to build their own e-commerce website.

Step 8: Tools Selection

If you decide to start your online store, here are some tools you can use.
Start with the end in mind. Since changing your platform after some time, can be labor-intensive and expensive.
To create your E-Commerce website, check out our advice in the chapter below. We suggest you use one of the following:

All of these e-commerce platforms need a dedicated server (computer), permanently connected to the internet (hosting). You can rent a connected server and install the required software (self-hosted). Or you can get an installed and managed version, that you fill with your content (hosted).

Self-hosted websites can be cheaper and offer more flexibility. But they require considerable technical expertise and experience.
Hosted solutions are much more accessible since the host takes care of the technical details. But they are less flexible and often more expensive. You may not have access to specific settings and tools.

Web Development Tools

Our Advice

For most beginning online stores, we suggest Shopify. It is straightforward to use and requires very little technical knowledge. It is also very flexible, due to the many available extensions. It already has built-in payment options.

For companies that want more flexibility, we recommend the combination of WordPress with Woo Commerce. It requires a bit more technical knowledge. And with increased flexibility, comes increased complexity. Choose the hosted version if you want to keep it as simple as possible.

Note: WordPress.com is the hosted version, while WordPress.org is the self-hosted version. Many hosting companies offer WordPress hosting.

Don’t take this decision lightly, because it determines the success or failure of your online shop.

For companies with IT departments, some of the other options might be more suitable to serve particular needs. Volution and Magenta are very reliable and customizable options.

We recommend the Hubspot Content Management System for medium-sized companies that sell services and who don’t need the online payment and checkout options. Hubspot offers a complete Content Management System that does not require add-ons.

Step 9: Attracting and Holding Customers

Marketing

So your new online store is ready and filled with products. People can pay using their preferred method. And you can get the products to your clientele on time.

How will you attract strangers to visit your store? And when someone visits your store, how will you turn them into customers?

Traditional Marketing

You can use traditional marketing to promote your online store. You can start by sending a press release to local newspapers, to announce the opening of your online store.

You can do product demonstrations in locations with high foot traffic and show your wares at various events related to your market.

You could place advertisements in magazines and newspapers, and use flyers to spread the word.

Digital Marketing

After you have set your business goals, it is time to determine your strategy for Digital Marketing. Get out your notes on the Buyer Personas and segmentation.

Depending on your earlier market research, you know where to find your potential customers and what channels to use to promote your business.

Inbound Marketing / Content Marketing

Inbound Marketing uses engaging content to attract visitors and turn them into customers.
Content can be in the form of one or more of:

  • Blogs
  • Infographics
  • Photography
  • Art / Illustrations
  • Comics / Cartoons
  • Ebooks
  • Audiobooks
  • Recordings
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • TedTalks
  • Online Courses
  • Youtube Videos
  • Tik Tok Videos
  • Live Video

This content must be planned carefully in advance and support the phase your buyer is in: awareness, interest, consideration, intent, evaluation, or purchase.

The content needs to be of sufficient value to attract, support decision making, and feel good about a decision.

Content can also be repackaged and reused, for example, as an incentive to sign up for your newsletter.

The key elements to good Content Marketing are:

  • Consistency: branding, colors, typography, language, channels, timing
  • Find the frequencies that work best for each channel, and stick to it.
  • Engaging: make sure your posts have value or are entertaining to your intended audience.
  • Contains a Call-to-Action: provide a next step that brings people closer to your goal.

Social Media Marketing

Even if Social Media are occasionally getting some bad press, billions of people spend up to hours a day using it. So use this marketing channel to your advantage.

Which social media channels to use, depends on your audience and your products.
You can use social media to post (links to) your engaging content and connect with people relevant to your business.

Also, you can use social media advertising to target particular groups with your ad.

Email Marketing

99% of people check their email every day, often multiple times a day. It is a beneficial communication channel. The cost of sending emails is low, and the potential return on investment very high.

When people trust you with their email address, they expect to receive relevant, valuable, or entertaining emails from you. If you fail to meet expectations, they will automatically unsubscribe or divert your future emails to the spam folder.

If done correctly, you can get a high conversion rate from your email campaign.

Search Engine Marketing

Getting your business or products to show prominently on the Search Results Page, will improve the likeliness that they will click on your link.
There are a few ways of doing this:

Search Engine Optimization

Google’s (and other search engines) job is to provide the most relevant results to a person’s search query. It scans all websites for content and uses several algorithms to match a search query to the link that provides the best match.

To optimize your channel for Search Engines, you have to:

  • Make sure it can be found and indexed by search engines.
  • Offer quality content that matches people’s search queries.
  • Organize and structure your content, so it makes sense to people and search engines.
  • Ensure that your content loads fast and shows perfectly on large and small screens.
  • Use additional optimization techniques to improve how search engines see your content and how it will display in the search results.
  • Get other relevant websites and channels to link to your content. The higher the authority of the linking channel, the more it will influence your search result position.
  • Not try to hack your way to the top search results.

These techniques will help you to raise your rank in the organic search results for a given search query.

Featured Snippet

Above the organic search results, you will sometimes see a Featured Snippet. Google will show this when it gives the most direct and clear answer to a search query. So even though you don’t rank in the top 3, you could still end up above the number 1 search result!

Google My Business

When people search for a local business or product near them, it will usually show relevant entries from established local companies before others. So if you have a business that serves a local community, it is essential to set up Google My Business.

Search Advertising

Another way to show up prominently on the search result page is by using Advertisements. For example, you can Google Ads to display your content above or beside the organic search results. Your ad still has to be relevant to the search query to show.

Display Advertising

You can also choose to display your ads on other relevant websites. You can contact related sites directly with your pitch, or use an ad display network. Examples of ad display networks are:

Influencer Marketing

Influencers are people that have a large following on specific channels. They could be famous Youtubers, Movie Actors, Performers, Soccer Players, and others.

You can pay these people to mention your business or products. Companies report very mixed ROI results, using influencer marketing.

Step 10: Other Considerations

Make sure to include Shipping-, Privacy-, and Return-Policies on your website. A common way to do this is to include links to these policies on your website’s footer. In Google, you can search for “(privacy) policy generator” and find useful templates.

If you plan to import products, you will need an Import License. Some companies in Vietnam allow you to import, using their license. For a fee, of course.

In Vietnam, you are ‘technically’ required to register your business for tax purposes, and even your website must be registered. Once your business is registered, you can apply for your import license.

Conclusion

Having an excellent online presence is essential for any business. For retailers, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to sell successfully online. Starting an Online Store is a learning process, but one you should not put off.

Hire a Digital Marketing Agency to get you started, and you will be selling online in no-time.

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