Sell Online Guide
In an increasingly digital-age it’s very rare for those with a physical product or high street presence, to not take advantage of the many channels there are to sell online. Selling a product online allows you to reach a wider audience and new customer pockets, with 41% of the world’s global internet users purchasing products online in 2014. But if it’s an area you’ve never explored, it can be overwhelming.
Perhaps you started out with a local shop, but know that you could have a much wider audience. Or you already have an online presence but want to explore where else your product could be seen. Whether you’re self-taught, a novice or just curious, this guide will give you a comprehensive overview of where to sell your physical or digital product online and the many channels available to you. Take a look here if you are looking for other ways to make money online.
Firstly, there is no shortage of places to sell your product. The difficulty is choosing which ones suit your brand and will enhance the offering you may or may not already have. When choosing a physical shop presence, your first thought would be to find the location best for attracting potential customers. The same is true for online. Here is one of the top tier levels to consider before you begin looking at the many platforms available:
If you want to set up a full website where people can come to view your products and your products only (as opposed to a marketplace such as Amazon or eBay), then you’ll need to choose between a hosted or self-hosted ecommerce platform.
A common analogy used to understand the difference between self-hosted and hosted ecommerce solutions is the difference between buying and renting a house. When you rent a house (hosted), you are tied to the wishes of the landlord. You can live there, but you probably can’t paint or make physical changes to the look and feel of the property. If the landlord decides to sell up or change the property, you could lose access or be forced to leave. The benefits of renting a house however, are that you can test the water before you decide to buy and you can change houses with minimal fuss or cost.
In comparison, your own house (self-hosted) means you have the freedom and benefit of choosing exactly how you want your house to look, where it is and how quickly you want to extend or build on what you have. However, having your own house is also expensive and means that you are liable for making improvements and fixing anything that breaks.
In terms of a hosted platform, the benefits and disadvantages are much the same. A hosted platform, such as Shopify or BigCommerce, is like renting a space to sell your products, hosted on someone else’s server. The benefits of this, are that the platforms are usually very easy to use, even for beginners.
For self-hosting, on platforms such as WooCommerce and Magento, you would run the software from your own platform or machine (for example, within WordPress). This gives you far more scope for customisation – where you, or someone you hire, can make changes to the look and feel of your online shop front. The downside, is that if you don’t have experience with code this may be difficult and/or expensive to manage and understand.
Now you understand some of the options available to you, let’s look at a few of the self-hosted and hosted platforms that are currently out there.
Perhaps one of the most well-known ecommerce platforms, Shopify is a Canadian commerce company, that reportedly has over 120,000 merchants and traders who use its hosted ecommerce platform. The Shopify platform makes setting up a professional online shop fairly simple, with a great range of designs to choose from and a strong technical infrastructure to build upon. Some of its unique benefits to consider include:
Example of a stationary and craft shopfront created in Shopify (via Pop Chart Lab)
Shopify templates and design
Shopify makes it easy to select and install a theme that will determine what your online shop looks like. Most of the themes are ‘mobile responsive’, meaning that your shop will adjust its size and shape depending on whether the user is viewing it on a mobile, tablet or desktop computer. This ensures that they have a great experience with your shop and can purchase products regardless of which device they use to view them on.
Shopify’s basic package starts at $29 (there is a lower-tiered plan than even this but it doesn’t enable you with an online store, just a Facebook page or button). This allows you to get a full store up and running with unlimited support, however many of the basic features you may need to run your store are then charged as add-ons to the cost.
Shopify SEO, support and marketing
Shopify offers a strong level of support to its customers, through email, phone and live chat as well as forums and tools such as its ‘Ecommerce University’ which allows newbies to learn the ropes more easily. They also offer access to their ‘Shopify picks’ Twitter page and marketing campaign, which is a daily product stream to help promote products to over 39,000 followers.
Most Shopify sites are also optimised for SEO, helping to increase traffic to your storefront. This includes having rich snippets (the text that comes under the website when you search in Google) and optimisation for speed and responsiveness (both aspects that Google takes into account when deciding whether or not to surface your page).
Shopify processes all transactions and customer credit card details with 256-bit SSL encryption and is also level-1 PCI compliant. This means that customers can shop with you securely without having to worry about who is gaining access to their details. It also backs-up your website automatically, ensuring that nothing is lost in the event of a technical glitch.
Shopify mobile app and credit card reader
As well as a strong online product hold, Shopify also offers an offline version with a point-of-sale credit card reader that plugs into your phone, allowing you to make sales on the go. This can be paired with a barcode scanner and receipt printer where needed. The Shopify mobile app also allows you to track orders, and manage inventory, ensuring that you’re not tied to an office to manage your store.
Any bad points?
If at some point you do decide to to move away from Shopify, the platform doesn’t let you download your data to move it to another system therefore you would lose everything you have built – not ideal.
BigCommerce is an extremely popular online shopping platform for small to medium sized businesses. This started out as software for self-hosted ecommerce but has since evolved into a hosted shopping platform. Some of its benefits include:
Example of an organic beauty brand shopfront created in BigCommerce (via Glam Nation)
BigCommerce was previously known for having designs and templates which were slightly out of date but has recently addressed this with an upgrade, meaning that it’s easier than ever to get a slick looking shop front on the platform. There are over 100 themes available, some of which are free (in a similar model to Shopify) and mobile responsive.
BigCommerce’s basic shop front plan begins at $29.95 per month which is around the same price break as various other ecommerce stores. The benefit of using BigCommerce is that it offers far more features for free in its basic package than other sites such as Shopify. With other ecommerce platforms, the additional tools and upgrades are there but they have to be paid for, which can all add up to a higher monthly fee. The additional features BigCommerce offers includes built in shipping dates, gift vouchers and 24 hour support as well as some email marketing tools.
Bigcommerce has a strong SEO selling point, with fast page loading speed which is vital for customers and search engine optimisation. BigCommerce also allows you to integrate with Google Shopping to bring shoppers in, as well as using your product reviews to help increase ranking. The platform also integrates various marketing channels you might need for email, social media and multi-channel, and gives you access through apps to third-party platforms such as MailChimp.
For support, BigCommerce is on par with the other big ecommerce sites, with 24 hour phone, live chat and email support as well as ‘BigCommerce university’ for learning.
Bigcommerce is level 1 certified PCI compliant, so you (and your customers) don’t need to worry about the protection of their data and you can choose to either share a SSL certificate or have your own.
BigCommerce offers a handful of options that allow users to manipulate their stores and stock, that Shopify does not. BigCommerce also has its own app programme, where storeowners can add additional features. For those who have some knowledge of coding, or are willing to learn, BigCommerce offers capabilities that could help ensure your site never ‘outgrows’ the platform it is built in. In a nutshell, if you have big (realistic) plans for your online shop – BigCommerce may be the way to go. BigCommerce also has a much larger international presence than Shopify, therefore if you are based in Europe or Australia, or eventually want to expand your presence that way, BigCommerce already offers a wider set of shipping options.
Any bad points?
BigCommerce was one of the platforms that didn’t include transaction fees on any of its plans but has recently dropped this, with the basic plan now accruing a 1.5% transaction fee for all purchases (Shopify charges 2% but reduces this if you are a larger user). The BigCommerce fee does go when you upgrade to a higher-level plan but this still puts BigCommerce on a level-playing field with other ecommerce platforms who also charge a basic transaction fee.
BigCommerce also has a much lower selection of responsive theme templates (only 2 out of 16 of the free themes are responsive) than sites such as Shopify which is where it really falls down, considering the importance of responsiveness to Google and general user experience.
WooCommerce is fairly new to the marketplace in ecommerce years and is popular due to its easy integration with blog content management system WordPress, which you may already be familiar with. According to the channel’s homepage, they now run 30% of all ecommerce sites, which is pretty impressive for a newbie!
(Porter and York, a website built using WooCommerce)
Benefits of WooCommerce:
Disadvantages of WooCommerce:
Those who are already familiar with WordPress, or wish to use it to build their website and online store. A low-cost option for small to medium businesses, but not those looking to grow to huge scale.
Magneto is undoubtedly the leading platform for self-hosted ecommerce solutions and was acquired by eBay in 2011, which goes to show what a success it has had in the online world.
(Mothercare IE, built in Magento)
Benefits of Magento:
Disadvantages of Magento:
This is a well-established platform for those looking to invest in their online shop for a long time or to eventually expand into the next Amazon. With everything you need to scale and modify, it can create a unique, well-oiled place to sell your products online.
osCommerce is also a popular option for ecommerce sites, with a huge community of developers and other users who offer free help and support for the platform.
(Huntington Beach Bicycle Company, built on osCommerce)
Benefits of osCommerce:
Disadvantages of osCommerce:
Those looking to get setup with a small shopfront, perhaps for the first time, which won’t need to be scaled at a later date
As well as your own hosted and non-hosted website shop, there is also the option of an online marketplace. These are a good choice if your interest is to solely sell products, as opposed to start a business or develop a well-known brand. This is because marketplaces such as Amazon, Etsy and Ebay allow you to quickly add a catalogue of products and sell at low-cost with minimal support or background knowledge needed. They also give you access to their wide search database and customer flow, giving you steady trade without you having to spend time or money marketing your products. Let’s take a look at what some of the platforms have to offer:
Selling products on eBay
Ebay is an ‘anything goes’ type of marketplace, where you can find everything from vintage tables, through to hair extensions. If you can sell it, it can go on Ebay. This makes it an open platform for any type of online business but does make it slightly more difficult to cut through the noise and reach a specific audience. Ebay will also allow you to sell across the world, allowing you to expand your popularity worldwide. However, as well as being fiercely competitive, eBay will take 10% of any sales you make, which for most businesses, can seriously lower the profit margin. This can make it more expensive than selling through your own online site, especially if you’re working with more expensive items. Due to eBay’s bidding nature, the buyer is also not required to pay instantly, which can lead to wasted time and annoyance when you have to relist or resell an item.
Using Amazon as your online marketplace
Selling through Amazon gives your product a level of authenticity which many shop owners spend years trying to build. This is because the products look and feel like ‘Amazon products’ to the user, even when they are being sold through a third-party such as yourself. The fees on Amazon can be more or less than other sites, depending on if you are selling high-quantities, where you will pay a flat listing fee per month, as well as a fee based on the variable rate of what is being sold. Generally, Amazon is chosen by most sellers as a leading place to sell products, particularly for electronics, books, DVDs and similar.
Selling products on Etsy
Etsy is a dedicated marketplace suited to a niche group of users, primarily those who like to buy vintage or handmade items, although it has more recently extended its offering into digital products such as website themes and custom-design services. Due to its nature, Etsy buyers often have more cash to spend and it can be a gold-mine if your product fits the target audience (hint: cat related swag does particularly well). Whereas eBay has a fairly impersonal feel, Etsy is more easily personalised and can allow a seller to setup products without any background knowledge or technical experience which can in turn, make their offering more appealing to the customer. The downside of Etsy is that as well as listing and final sale fees (as seen on all marketplaces), you also have PayPal fees to contend with, which can subtract money from the total profit.
Other marketplace options:
There are various other marketplaces and stockist websites which can help your product to be seen. Regardless of what you are selling, there is likely to be a niche marketplace or stockist out there to suit and can lead to more success than selling on Amazon or eBay alone. This includes ASOS Marketplace for those selling fashion, Feel Unique and Cult Beauty for skincare products and Not on the Highstreet and Handpicked Collection for unique items, often sold as gifts.
The difference with niche marketplaces is the cost to sell, which is generally much higher than more established online shops and also the selection process to have your offering approved. With access to such a large, targeted customer base, these sites are keen to retain their authority with that audience and therefore will often make you apply or adhere to a strict selection process before you even begin to have a chance to sell.
When it comes to selling your product online, the choices are endless. The real detail is in making a choice that suits you, your offering and your customer and then building it from the ground up into an online shop front that you’ll be proud to call your own.
It’s worth familiarising yourself with a few key terms that will crop up again and again when you begin to look into the world of selling online. Here are just a few to get you started:
Ecommerce – Electronic commerce, more commonly known as ‘ecommerce’, is the exchange of products or services using an online network or platform such as the Internet.
Pretail – selling a product or service online, often before it has launched or been released in offline channels such as a shop. This is something commonly seen in digital products, in order to get a better feel for product-market fit, allowing ‘early users’ or interested customers to sign-up for a product or service before it has been launched.
Social commerce – a type of ecommerce where products or services are sold directly through social media channels such as Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram. This is becoming more relevant, as social sites such as Pinterest and Twitter invest in their ecommerce capabilities.
Algorithm – in ecommerce and computing in general, an algorithm is a computer-generated programme used to predict consumer behaviour or surface particular products, services or images based on what it thinks the consumer might like. This is used on platforms such as Amazon, where each user sees a different homepage, driven by their previous behaviour and purchasing.
SEO – ‘search engine optimisation’ – the process used to help Google recognise your website and what it is selling, in order to allow it to provide users with the most relevant information available. This involves everything from the content you add on your site, through to the title and name used and individual details entered for each page or product.
Responsive – When a website can change its size and functionality in response to whether a customer is using their mobile, tablet, computer or laptop to view it. Responsive websites are important as they make the user’s experience better, making them more likely to buy and are also shown more frequently in Google.
PCI Compliance – If you sell products online and take payments from major branded cards (Mastercard, Visa etc.) then you need to ensure you’re PCI Compliant. This ensures safety for the person who is buying from you, that they have a secure place to pay, and safety for yourself as a seller. The PCI compliance guide goes into further detail about what is needed and when, but if you are using a self-hosted platform, this is definitely something to bear in mind (on a hosted platform, such as Shopify this is usually taken care of for you).
Hosted storefronts are an easy way to set-up your own Web store and a good option for small or individual sellers who aren’t quite ready to invest in a large ecommerce website. Storefronts — a managed service — make it easy to create and manage a store because you don’t need any HTML or programming skills, and you can customize the storefronts to suite your business needs.
1. BigCommerce. A storefront solution that lets you create your own Web shop — plus you can sell on Facebook and eBay with BigCommerce. Extra features include multi-channel retailing, mobile commerce, SEO and easy upselling.
2. E-Junkie. A shopping cart and digital delivery system for publishers who want to include buy-now buttons to sell digital goods. You store the files on E-Junkie’s servers, and buyers receive an email with instructions to download the product after making a purchase.
3. GoEmerchant. Use it to build an ecommerce store, or you can purchase the Buy-Me Button plan to add payment options to an existing website.
4. Mercantec E-Commerce Express. An entry-level storefront and shopping-cart service that lets you sell in a number of places including your own site and on eBay.
5. Miva Merchant offers full ecommerce hosting and just about everything you need to start an online store – all in one package. You can upgrade accounts as your business grows.
6. Payvment. This Facebook-wide shopping cart system offers an admin area built directly into Facebook to manage your storefront, inventory and sales. You can customize the Facebook Shopping Tab for your Facebook Business Page.
7. ProStores. An online ecommerce platform that lets you design a storefront that fully integrates with eBay.
8. Shopify. This hosted service lets sellers accept credit card payments, use their own domain and customize their store design. It also features built-in analytics that helps sellers track progress.
9. TabJuice. A social commerce platform that you can use to bring products to Facebook. This storefront application adds a customizable shopping tab to your Facebook Business Page.
10. Volusion. An all-in-one ecommerce solution that lets you design and manage your online storefront; plus it provides tools for marketing, merchandising and CRM.
11. Atomic Mall. An online marketplace that features fixed-price, make-an-offer and Web store listings.
12. Bonanza. Sellers create booths of items (similar to a Web shop) and list products at a fixed-price. Buyers can also submit an offer to purchase.
13. Ebay. The world’s largest online marketplace with more than 94 million active users. On eBay you can list items via auction or buy-now format, and you can also manage your own eBay-hosted storefront.
14. Etsy. An online marketplace offering Web shops for handmade and vintage items and also supplies for making handcrafted items.
Free local classified-ad sites are a good choice for online sellers who have larger items that are difficult to ship. Most general categories on classified sites don’t charge a fee to list, but special categories (such as adult services) are usually fee-based. Classified-ad sites take no responsibility for the transactions and you deal with local customers face-to-face to complete a sale.
15. Backpage. Covers more than 400 cities and regions from the United States, Canada and Mexico. Backpage is free for posting ads; the adult entertainment and personals categories are fee-based.
16. Craigslist. Choose a location site from cities located in the United States, Canada, Asia, Americas, Europe, and other International cities. Most classified ads on Craigslist don’t cost anything to place, but some specific sections for some cities do carry a fee, such as job postings, brokered apartment rentals, and adult services.
17. eBay Classifieds (Kijiji). eBay Classifieds in the United States (and Kijiji in Canada) is an eBay-owned network of classified sites for specific countries including the United States, Canada, China, Taiwan, Germany, India and others.
18. Facebook Marketplace. On Facebook, Marketplace, which is operated by Oodle, helps people buy and sell items in a trusted environment (e.g. within your network of friends).
19. Hoobly. Integrates a local classifieds market into a national marketplace. This lets consumers look for general ads and then be more specific about location. Ads placed on Hoobly are free; however you may opt to place a Premium Ad, which is posted to a paid area.
20. OLX. An established online classified site available in more than 96 countries in 40 languages. Ads are free, but the site offers paid options that appear at the top of search results.
21. Oodle. Pulls millions of listings from all over the Web. Consumers can place an Oodle ad for free, by creating an online account. When you post to Oodle, your classified ad may also be posted to hundreds of other sites.