How to Start an Ecommerce Business in 2024: A Checklist

Buying products and services online is easier than ever but did you know it's almost as easy to start an online store of your own? You don't need any technical expertise to get started with an ecommerce platform.

This guide will walk you through the steps to set up a website that will allow anyone to buy your wares. If you're interested in bringing in some extra revenue – either as an individual or as part of a business – this is the guide you need to ecommerce.

What Is an Ecommerce Business?

Ecommerce means “selling online” and this generally means you run a web store where customers can click to buy products. While online marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon are common ways to retail goods online, in this article we're going to focus on how to build a business website with a section for selling products or services.

There are lots of platforms that can serve as a foundation for your online business. The most widely known are: Shopify, Square Online, Wix, as well as the “buy” buttons on social media channels.

It doesn't just have to be physical goods that you sell, but your ecommerce site can take payments for digital content, video consultations, in-person events, and other services.

Here's a screenshot from the website editor of the Square Online ecommerce platform:

website editor basic menu view

Square Online took over Weebly in 2018 and incorporated its website builder tech into its online selling tools. While platforms like Shopify and Wix charge monthly subscription fees, Square Online allows you to sell online on its free plan. You'll only pay a fee per transaction, meaning you lower the risk of making a financial loss when sales are low.

Did You Know?

Ecommerce made up 15.6% of all US retail sales in Q3 2023.

How To Start an Ecommerce Business from Scratch: Step-by-Step

Right from the get-go you'll need to answer the question: “What's my business for?” There's no point diving into color schemes and logo design before you've identified your market niche.

This is the basis of all the following decisions:

  • Who is my customer base?
  • What is unique about my brand?
  • What is my budget for the business?
  • Which tools and third-party services will I need to invest in?

1. Do Your Research

Starting a new venture is exciting, and you'll likely find inspiration from a real-world problem you've noticed. Your business will aim to fill that gap in the market. There are customers waiting to buy your products, but you'll need to get to know them first.

Listen to the consumer because this will ensure you don't spend money on goods people don't want. Listen to what they want and build your product around them. It's best not to assume you know the answer.

Stuart Davis Co-Founder, Dubs Universe

Even if you already have a physical business, you need to research the online landscape of competitors in your niche. If you want to sell sportswear, ask yourself which other retailers already offer these products. Take note of what could be improved upon; perhaps there aren't enough fabric options, or a lack of clothing in certain sizes.

Then make sure to run your product ideas by some members of your target audience. When you really understand the type of person you're trying to sell to, you're ready to launch your online brand.

2. File Your Paperwork

You want to stay on the right side of the law from the beginning, so make sure you understand business regulations. This is the crucial step that Chef Pii, the creator of Pink Sauce, missed. Unfortunately, her delicious creation was not FDA approved, and concerns about the safety of the sauce badly damaged her business' reputation.

Check all of the relevant regulatory info surrounding the product you're looking to sell. If you intend to set up online gaming, make sure you're aware of gambling laws. If you're selling alcohol, you need a license. Be aware of the storage needs of your products; do they need to stay chilled, and how can you achieve this during transportation?

Next, you need to register your business and set up your taxes. Yes, you've got to pay taxes for all income you make – even if it's online. It's a good idea to seek the advice of a legal expert and a tax professional right away.

3. Source Your Products

At this stage, you're ready to start ordering samples, looking into packaging options, and considering profit margins.

If you don't have a lot of physical storage space available, and you're looking to keep operations lean, you can look into dropshipping. This means you manage customer orders but never handle the products yourself. Once an order comes through, request that your supplier sends the item directly from their warehouses. You'll save yourself a lot in overhead costs (inventory management, packaging supplies, and so on), but this does mean you're likely to be selling generic products that are sold across the web.

a lefthand menu with options for product management and the main window shows four products with product costs and retail prices
A Wix app called Modalyst has a searchable library of dropshipping products.

You may need some patience when it comes to sourcing the right stock, but it's a chance to develop your creative entrepreneurial skills.

Finding reliable suppliers who could provide quality pop culture merchandise was challenging. Some suppliers were inconsistent, leading to stock shortages. To get around this, I am sourcing materials to create my own products, which means I can provide a reliable and high-quality service.

George Patient Founder and Editor, Merch Mates

4. Explore Ecommerce Platforms

We've written many individual guides about choosing an ecommerce platform because every type of business has different needs. So it's a good idea to consider a few different ones rather than aiming for the cheapest or the biggest name. Check out our review of the best ecommerce platforms for small businesses for inspiration.

Most ecommerce platforms are a type of website builder, which means you can put together a website using a drag-and-drop editor. It's simpler than you think and you don't need to touch a line of code.

screenshot of Wix web design editor with a lefthand menu and a main workspace with a highlight box around the selected design element on the home page
Wix allows you to edit the colors, fonts, images, and placement of your web page design.

We recommend Wix, an easy-to-use ecommerce platform suitable for most small business leaders. While Wix has a free plan, it won't let you take payments until you upgrade to a premium plan. Luckily, you can get 10% off subscription plans with the code: GET10!

However, if you plan to run a larger business that needs tools such as inventory management, you'd be better off using Shopify. There's a short, free trial with Shopify that lets you get a feel for its dashboard and web designer.

On the other hand, you can always hire a web design professional if you're looking for a custom web store. Although this option is more expensive, it shaves off any time you'd need to invest in the design and maintenance of your own site.

5. List Products

Next, it's time to start adding your products to your online store. I've found Squarespace has the smoothest product upload process, so let's run through that as an example.

Click on “Commerce” in the left-hand menu, then the “+” symbol next to “Products.” A dialog box will appear and you click the type of product you're adding. From there, it's a two-step process to add the main product details (the name, image, price, and quantity available).

A menu with title Create your first product. Text field for product name, with the option to add an image below. A preview appears on the righthand side.
Squarespace eases you into the product upload process.

Bulk Uploading Products

You may be able to bulk upload products if you import them using a CSV (spreadsheet) file. You'll have to check whether your chosen platform will allow you to do this.

For instance, with Shopify, it's not immediately obvious how to import your products – which you'll need to do if you're transferring from another platform or have too many to upload one by one. But don't worry, we've located the button you need to make this happen.

Click into the “Products” menu on the left-hand sidebar and the “Import Products” option will appear.

screenshot from Shopify user dashboard with lefthand menu showing "Products" highlighted. In the main window the "Import products" button is highlighted in between two other buttons.
This is where you can find the option to bulk import products when using Shopify.

Adding a Store to a Wix Site

If you already have a Wix website, you can add a Wix Store by going to “Edit Site” then click on “Add Elements” (click the big “+” symbol in the left-hand menu). Scroll down the menu options until you find “Store” and a dialog box will appear asking you if you want to add a Wix Store. When you click on this option, it will add a new section to your site that's prepopulated with placeholder products, search filters, and a shopping cart icon in the top right corner.

Then go back into the “Store” menu to find the different ways to list products.

four vertical menus with icons on the lefthand side, then "Add elements" in the next column along. The word "Store" is highlighted. In the next menu along "Grid product gallery" is highlighted at the top of a list of product display options. A preview of the grid product gallery appears on the righthand side.
You can add a Wix store from within the website editor.

6. Choose How To Ship Products

If you're selling physical goods, you've got to consider how you'll get them to your customers. This is known as “fulfilment.” Ecommerce platforms generally support you in this regard by giving you the option to connect with delivery services directly or via apps.

Shipping options are listed in Squarespace. You can choose between flat rate, depending on weight, carrier calculated at FedEx, UPS or USPS.
Squarespace gives you the option to add your own shipping specifications or calculate them from third-party providers.

You can usually add different shipping options per item, meaning you can limit delivery of precious items to deluxe shipping options, and have more robust items sent in less sturdy packaging. Remember that lower shipping costs can improve successful checkout, so it's a good idea to offer a variety of shipping types.

Your access to shipping options are heavily dependent on the amount you're paying each month for your ecommerce platform. You can learn more in our Squarespace pricing guide.

Connecting to a Brick-and-Mortar Store

These days you can also connect your ecommerce platform to your physical business. This can mean offering in-person pick-up options such as reserve online and pay in-store. We've outlined these connection options in our Square Review, which gives you a clearer idea of combining your webstore with a point of sale (POS) device.

A leading competitor in the online and offline sales space is Shopify; read of our Shopify review for an alternative to Square.

7. Market Your Business

There's a lot you can do to boost website traffic (meaning the number of visitors who land on your site). Tools like Wix allow you to create and publish social media posts with eye-catching templates.

You should be promoting your store through a “link in bio” on your social media. This means adding the URL to your store in the channel description (such as your Twitter bio). You can also add “Buy” buttons to your Instagram and Facebook posts, or import your products to a TikTok Catalog. These all offer your social followers a simple way to browse and buy using a cell phone.

two screenshots from instagram side by side. The image on the left shows the search results of "gothic necklace" and a highlighted square around the shopping icon on a post in the center. The image on the right shows a highlight box around tagged products within one post.
This is how shopping on Instagram appears to a user when you've tagged your products.

Using Google Tactics to Increase Traffic

It's a good idea to create a Google Analytics account and connect your website to it. This will enable you to track visitor numbers and how they found your website. You can also use it to analyze online sales and monitor the value of your advertising spend.

You should use “search engine optimization” tactics to improve the visibility of your website to search engine users. To learn more about this, take a look at our guide to the best ecommerce platforms for SEO.

How Much Does It Cost To Set Up an Ecommerce Business?

To use an ecommerce platform it will cost you around $30-$160 per month in subscription fees. If you need advanced features such as complex inventory management, this will cost closer to $300-$400 a month.

If you were to hire a web developer to build you a custom web store, it would cost roughly $3,500-$4,500 plus tax. This is worth bearing in mind when you weigh up whether to use a DIY platform or hire a professional.

Depending on your business type, you may need to hire a photographer to take product photos ($10-$90 per image). You may want to look into SEO content writing services to roll together marketing and blog production costs. You can expect to pay around $100-$250 per article or blog post.

If you want to use WordPress, you can use WooCommerce and adapt your site into an online store. Our analysis of WooCommerce vs Shopify outlines why this will cost you around $40 a month.

Can I Start an Ecommerce Business for Free?

You could start your ecommerce business for $0 upfront fees if you use Square Online's free plan. This entitles you to a website builder tool and the ability to take payments for products or services online. However, you will have to pay payment processing fees.

How Much Does a Website Cost?

There's more to web costs than the price of your monthly subscription. Make time to dip into our guide on the cost of a website to get a better understanding.

Tips for Running Your Online Business

Here are some quick tips to help keep your ecommerce store profitable:

  1. Ask customers to leave reviews you can publish
  2. Update your stock levels so customers aren't disappointed
  3. Keep an eye on your competitors to see what alternatives you could offer your customers
  4. Add an email subscription with regular updates and offers
  5. Avoid large files such as videos and huge images – this will slow down your site

Get to Grips with Basic SEO

Websites thrive on “SEO,” which refers to the set of practices used to manage content and technical health. Search engines only show the highest quality web pages to users. This means you've got to do your best to send the right signals to Google, Yahoo, Bing, and others.

Here are our top tips for SEO on your ecommerce site:

  • Build links between your website and other high quality websites
  • Regularly publish expert content such as how-to guides and blog posts
  • Target keywords (search phrases) that matter to your customers
  • Don't publish spam, low quality content, or links to phishing websites

The technical set up of your website matters to search engines, too. This means you need a sitemap, a navigation menu that's easy to use, and a system of page redirects.

If you want to know how well your website is loading (for instance, its speed and stability), you can use a Google tool called Page Speed. From there you can research how to improve loading speed or work with an SEO professional to move your scores into the green.

Core Web Vitals Assessment: Failed Expand view Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) 2.4 s First Input Delay (FID) N/A Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) 0.14 OTHER NOTABLE METRICS First Contentful Paint (FCP) 2.2 s Interaction to Next Paint (INP) N/A Time to First Byte (TTFB) 1.2 s Latest 28-day collection period Various mobile devices Many samples (Chrome UX Report) Full visit durations Various network connections All Chrome versions
You can test the loading speed of your website using Page Speed from Google.

Make Use of Free Tools, AI, and Automation

To save yourself time and money, you can take some creative shortcuts with some free online tools. These are must-have efficiency boosters when you're running a small business solo or with a limited team.

As we've outlined in our Wix review, there are lots of handy business tools included in a Wix subscription, such as:

  • Customer relationship management (CRM) for email marketing automation
  • Logo maker to define your brand identity
  • Freelancer marketplace to hire creative talent

You can find out more about AI tools such as text writers, task assistants, chatbots, and web design creation in our guide to the best AI website builders.

Build Your Online Business with Confidence

There's never been an easier time to put together a professional-looking online store. Whether you want to use a full website, or just add “shoppable links” with an easy buy button on social media, there are affordable options for you.

There's no need to pay more than you should, but you need to be aware of all the individual costs ecommerce can entail. Make sure you thoroughly understand the charges that come with payment processing, including currency conversion fees and secure data transfer.

You can easily compare ecommerce platforms in our ready-made guide. There, you'll find it simple to weigh up the pros and cons of the best platforms on the market.

Ready to compare features of ecommerce platforms?

FAQs

How much do you need to start a ecommerce business?
The main thing you need to start your ecommerce business is time rather than money. You can get started with a free website builder plan, and only pay card processing fees when you make a sale. If you want to start with premium website features then you'll need at least $1,000-$2,500 for product photography, professional copywriting, and a secure ecommerce platform.
What is the first step to start an ecommerce business?
Research. You should not rush into starting any kind of business without a thorough understanding of the costs, risks, and market pressures involved. There are lots of aspects to consider, including the cost of production, where to store your inventory, how to ship your products, and whether you can offer better prices than your competitors.
Are ecommerce businesses profitable?
No, not all ecommerce businesses are profitable. Just like any business, there's no guarantee that your investment will deliver a financial return. While shoppers are increasingly turning to the web to make purchases, it also means there's more competition to entice those buyers.

You can reduce your chances of making a loss by choosing a lower-cost platform such as Square Online, Jimdo, or WooCommerce. Consider whether you know enough about your market niche before you decide to invest.

Written by:
Sabrina Dougall
Sabrina is a business journalist whose career began in news reporting. She has a master's in Investigative Journalism from City University London, and her work has appeared in The Times, The Daily Express, Money Saving Expert, Camden New Journal, Global Trade Review, and Computer Business Review. She specializes in writing about SEO (search engine optimization). Having run her own small business, Sabrina knows first-hand how critical digital marketing is to building a client base and local reputation.