How to start selling online

In this guide, we’ll cover the fast approach to selling online. Learn which platforms you can use to sell items, and how to open an online store within a marketplace, or with a print on demand supplier. We’ll cover the basic elements that will help you with how to start selling online as quickly as possible. This guide is for entrepreneurs who want to go live quickly, so they can start learning about their target audience sooner. 

How to start selling online

How this guide raises your game.

  1. Learn about product sourcing options such as making, creating, trading and services, as quick ways to approach how to start selling online.
  2. The e-Commerce pros and cons of using channels like marketplaces and print on demand to make your products available for sale quickly.
  3. Read about the basics of payments and delivery, and how you can build your knowledge in these areas quickly.

In our guide to online store strategy, we outlined that you can choose to go fast, or you can choose to go full in your approach. 

With the “full” strategic approach, you take the time to carry out market research.

You analyse the opportunity, and build out a business case and marketing plan for your e-Commerce activity. There’s a clear and well-thought out brand activation set of activities. 

But sometimes, you may see a more immediate opportunity that you’ll miss if you take too long in planning.

Or, you just want to start selling as soon as possible to see how your ideas work with customers. 

Fragile delivery

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How to start selling online – The fast way

So, there’s also the “fast” approach when it comes to how to start selling online. You sacrifice quality and perfection in return for speed to market.

Your aim is to start selling as quickly as possible. The lessons from actually being live and available can then be built into your future strategy and plans, based on how well you sell.

Which approach you take depends on your business goal, and your own preferred working style.

The more research and planning you do, the more likely you will succeed in the long run. But the faster you go, the earlier you’ll get feedback from real customers and be able to refine your plans.

What you need to go fast

There are three must-have items before you can sell online. 

You need to have something to sell. 

You need somewhere to sell it. 

And you need to make sure you can manage payments and delivery. 

For the entrepreneur who wants to move fast, the good news is there are ways you can do all of these things quickly.

Sprinter on their markets ready to go

And when we say quickly, we do mean quickly. Some of the ways we’ll cover could have you with items for sale online in less than an hour.

You need something to sell

So, your first task is to decide what you want to sell. Your options here are either to make, create or trade products. Or, you can also decide to sell services online.

Let’s look at each of those options in more detail.  

Making products

You may already make your own products, and sell them though traditional (non-digital) retail channels. So, you could be looking to learn how to start selling online as a way of expanding the reach of your customer base, and reducing your dependence on retailers. 

Factory worker

Or you may just have an idea for something you can make to a good level of quality and for a decent cost, that you think online shoppers will want to buy, so you can sell it profitably. 

In both cases, this makes you a product “maker”. You physically create a tangible product. You store that product, and when the customer orders it, you make the arrangements to deliver it.

Generally, product “makers” fall into one of two categories. 

So, you might produce bespoke and individual items, that are one-offs for people to buy. So, for example, arts and craft producers who make jewellery, or create paintings or sculptures. Typically here, these are high value items, because they are one-offs. There’s no real challenge with ‘stock’, because each item is a one-off. When you look at marketplaces like Etsy and Gumtree, these are the typical “made” products you’ll find. 

Or, you can be the type of product maker who produces multiple items. When you manufacture or produce at scale, you are often keen to learn how to start on online store, so that you have more control over your e-Commerce sales. So, for example, many vineyards have extended their cellar door service to setting up their own online store.  

Creating products

Another option is when you create products using technology. These products are often 100% digital products, or they are created using digital technology and then applied to real-world objects. 

Many of the skills we cover in our creative skills section lend themselves to this type of online selling. 

So, for example, if you have good enough writing skills, you can sell books and how-to guides on channels like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, or through marketplaces like GumRoad and Podia. 

If you have good graphic design or photography skills, you can create images and visuals which you can then work with Print on Demand suppliers to place on “blank” merchandise items like T-shirts, homeware and art boards. 

Pocket Rockets Bring it On Mens Black T-Shirt Spreadshirt

And, if you also know how to create great video content, you can create and sell training courses through sites like Udemy and Teachable.

No physical costs

The advantage of these types of products is that you only need the time and expertise to create the content in the first place. There’s no upfront money required to “make” or store the products, They only exist digitally and not physically, until a shopper actually orders them.

But this “easy” approach to products, also brings its biggest challenge. Because it’s relatively easy to start, there’s lots of competitors in that space already. You’ll be competing against thousands of other people who have had the same idea.

So, you need to focus on making the quality and relevance of your created product stand-out and be different.

We’ll come on to how to do this shortly.

Trading products

Another option for how to start selling online quickly, is to become a trader of other people’s products. You become an online retailer and only sell other people’s products. You buy products from other sellers, and then try to sell them on to new buyers at a profit. 

So, you might search out unique and individual items like antiques, for example. You try to pick up a bargain, that you then promote and re-sell at a higher price. 

Or, you buy larger quantities of goods to get a bulk wholesale discount. And then sell them on in smaller quantities at retail price.  

Unless you know the category you sell in really well, and know that this model works, it’s not the best way to start with how to start selling online though. And that’s because there’s a much easier, and less risky way to do the same thing. 

Dropshipping

With dropshipping, you set up your own store website, and showcase items that you know you can buy from a manufacturer or supplier at wholesale prices.

But your selling prices are at a retail, not wholesale levels.

When an online shopper buys from you at the retail price, you then “buy” the product from the manufacturer on their behalf at the wholesale price.

You forward the details, pay the manufacture the wholesale price, and they send the product to your online buyer. 

In this case, you’re essentially acting like the “marketing and sales” team for the manufacturer. You earn your profits on the difference between your store (retail) price and the (wholesale) price you pay the manufacturer. 

You can find these types of suppliers all over the world. But, China is the most well-known source as they have low manufacturing costs. So, you can buy at low cost from China, but sell at a much higher retail price in other countries. Typically, the difference between the retail and wholesale price can be in the range of 100% to 200%.

It’s an attractive sounding model, because you don’t have to have any cash tied up in stock. You don’t pay for these goods until you place an order. And, you make the profit between the retail price your customer pays and the wholesale price you pay the dropshipping company.

Dropshipping challenges

The challenges though are that you still have to find customers who want to buy the products you are selling. And those dropship suppliers will also sell to other online retailers, so you won’t necessarily have products that are different or distinctive.

You have to find a drop shipping company who are reliable enough to send out the right goods to your customer.

Because if an order goes wrong, the customer will come back to your store to sort it out. And any refunds, or returns, that’s something that you will have to manage.

And, you have to set up your own online store website, which has to be able to accept payments and provide communications to the customer about the delivery process.

This can be difficult to set up quickly.

Fragile delivery

Selling services

Your final option to sell online is where you sell services. 

These services usually fall into one of two areas. Either they take place entirely online, or the online sale triggers an action in the “real” world. 

So, entirely online services might be something like computer software that you download. Think of tools like virus checkers and apps. You never physically touch these items. But, you buy them via an online store, or via an online marketplace. 

A lot of financial services transactions work this way. Think about home insurance or car insurance, for example. You enter all your details and buy the policy online from the insurance companies online store. Yes, you’ll probably get a physical copy also sent out in the mail, but that’s all triggered by what happens online. 

In some cases, you can even sell the results or outcomes of an already carried out service. 

So, for example you might create graphic design elements like icons, website templates and fonts, for example. You can sell these through creative marketplaces like Envato.

Or, if you create photography, you can sell the images through sites like Adobe Stock and Shutterstock

Non-digital services

Services you sell online, can also be non-digital. They can trigger manual actions which are carried out in the “real” world. 

So, you might for example sell cleaning or gardening services through an online store. The buyer places the “order” on your store, but it triggers you to then go carry out the service in the real world. The buyer is buying the “time” it takes to deliver the service, and the guarantee you will deliver the service. 

There are many other categories that work like this. 

Think about takeaway food delivery from sites like Uber Eats and Menulog for example. Though you are buying a physical product (the food), you’re also buying the service (the food delivery). Those combine, and are sold through an online store. 

You need somewhere to sell it

Once you have identified what you want to sell, the next step is to identify where you will sell it. 

The easiest way is to sell to an online retailer like a Bricks and Clicks supplier, or a Pure Player. 

But, here you have little to no control over how your products are then sold.

To get some control and learn how to start selling online, your options are marketplaces, print on demand / dropshipping and direct to consumer. 

e-commerce 5 key channel options - on a x-y graph against level of complexity and control

Marketplaces

Marketplaces are sites designed to bring online buyers and sellers together. As we cover in our guide to online retailers, big players like Gumtree, ebay and Etsy allow you to list products for sale. 

This list of products under your seller profile essentially becomes your online “store”. You normally start with these sites by registering as a user / buyer, and then editing your profile to set yourself up as a seller. 

Gumtree

With Gumtree for example, the process of selling is actually when you create an “ad” about the product you want to sell.

You create the product name, choose the categories it appears in, set the price, add images and descriptions and include your contact details.

Lastly, you then choose from the many additional options to “boost” your advertising. 

Your ad then appears as a “product page” within the overall Gumtree online “store”.

The buyer is able to contact you, and you sort out payment and delivery between you. 

Online retailer strategy - Gumtree home page

ebay

With ebay, you create a seller account and then list items for sale. You can add a profile picture and cover image.

For each item you want to list, ebay guides you through the process. 

First it looks for similar items which have sold before, so it can pre-fill some of the data for you. You then edit and update the pre-fill data to make it more specific to your item. 

So for example, you need to state if the item is new or used. You need to upload images and write your own product description. Then, you need to set the pricing and delivery options. 

Online retail strategy - ebay home page

Once you’re happy, you list the product for sale. You get 40 listings a month for free. Any more, and you pay a small fee. And if you have a store subscription, listings are included in the cost of the subscription.

Etsy

And finally, on marketplaces, you should also consider Etsy, if your products are handmade, vintage or related to arts and crafts.

With Etsy, you get to choose a shop name and description, set up a background image which can include a logo and for each product you list, you can add descriptions and up to 10 images. 

These types of marketplaces work best when you want to sell unique items that have a relatively high price.

So, you find a lot of cars and electronics equipment for sale on Gumtree, and ebay for example. And Etsy by design, is focussed on handmade and vintage individual items. 

 

Online retailer strategy - Etsy home page

Where these types of “stores” work less well though is for products where you want to drive multiple and repeated sales.

Once your product sells through these marketplaces, you need to list it again to sell another one. This can be a very inefficient way to sell, if your business is to create many items of the same type.

Print on Demand

Print on Demand is an online selling method where you create designs that you can apply to a range of basic merchandise items like T-shirts, hoodies, coasters, stickers and phone covers. You create digital mock-ups of the design on the item, and when the online shopper orders the item, your design is printed on to the basic item and sent out from the Print on Demand supplier. 

It has some advantages over marketplaces, since it doesn’t need you to produce individual items to sell. Your design exists in the digital space. The Print on Demand supplier keeps stocks of the “blank” merchandise products. They only create the product with your design when an order comes through. The Print on Demand supplier takes care of payments and delivery. They even take care of any customer service issues. 

Similar to the dropship model we described earlier, you essentially work like the “sales and marketing” function of the Print on Demand supplier. You pay for and do all the marketing work to drive the sale. You take a commission on the design (typically 10% to 20%) and the supplier takes care of everything else. 

This helps keep costs low. Many people like this approach as a way to learn how to start selling online, because it narrows the focus of what you need to worry about. It becomes all about marketing and the designs you create. 

Because the website, payment and delivery system is set up already, and you just need to fill in the template to add your products, it’s one of the fastest ways when it comes to how to start selling online. You can have products for sale in less than an hour. 

Print on Demand suppliers

Print on Demand suppliers like Redbubble and Spreadshirt let you set up a store within their site, where you can list all your designs.

You have options to name the store, add cover images, create names for all the products, and make some adjustments to the price and the product description.

While you don’t have the same flexibility as if you created your own store from scratch, you do have some options to make it look more unique. 

You can read about some of our very early experiences working with these types of Print on Demand suppliers when we first started our own store.

And we recently reviewed some of the back-end payment and delivery performance of the big Print on Demand suppliers in this article.

Redbubble back-end - how you can adjust behind the scenes with a Redbubble account

Just because you can sell, doesn’t mean you will sell

While this sounds quite easy to do (and it is), it’s not a guaranteed way to drive sales. You should bear in mind, that just because you can create a merchandise design, that doesn’t mean you will actually sell any. It’s a very cluttered marketplace, and you need to have good marketing and design skills to stand out.

You need marketing skills to identify the target market, and to build your brand identity. And you need good graphic design skills to create interesting designs that will appeal to that target audience.

It is possible to outsource the graphic design skills. On freelancer sites like Fiverr, you’ll find people offering these services. But the marketing skills, you can’t really outsource, you need to work out

The clearer you have a target market in mind, the easier it is to create designs with that target market in mind.

You should look at what types of merchandise designs sell well online by looking at, for example, Amazon bestseller lists.

You obviously can’t copy other designs.

But, you can use the ideas behind them for inspiration. 

Amazon best sellers screenshot as example of digital data source

Look for passions and interests

You want to focus on areas, where people have strong passions and interest.

People will only buy designs about topics they genuinely have a deep interest in. They buy the design to show off this interest to others. Think about it. They will only pay for something that feels totally relevant to them. 

So for example, animals and pets are a common area. Because, people love their pets, and want others to know it. There’s lots of merchandise designs around cats and dogs. 

Designs that are specific to jobs and professions are also very common. This is especially true where people feel really strongly about the work they do. So, professions like nursing and teaching attract a lot of merchandise designs. 

And finally, you’ll find lots of merchandise designs about specific games and hobbies like poker or chess. We’ve even done a few of those ourselves.  

Pocket Rockets - All in - Women's T-shirt - Spreadshirt

Be careful of trademarks and copyright

You’ll also find areas like sports, movies and music as merchandise design topics. With these areas, you need to take a bit more care to make sure your designs don’t infringe on any trademarks and copyrighted material.

So, for example you can create designs about say football or rugby. But, if you create a design that references specific football or rugby teams, you might be infringing on their trademark. And that can lead to legal challenges.  

You can create designs related to genres of movies, and even sometimes lines of dialogue or plot points. But, you usually can’t use actor or character images without permission.

And similarly music-wise, genres of music and sometimes (but not always) lyrics might be OK. But band names and specific songs, you generally can’t use. 

Challenges of Print on Demand

The big challenge of print on demand is to find customers and create designs they will want to buy. The underlying items – T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs etc – are not what sells the product.

They are mass produced and generic. 

It’s the ability to have a deep understanding of the target audience, and to have the creative skills to create designs that connect with that understanding in an appealing way.  You need to try and build your brand identity so that consumers know who you are, and what you stand for. 

This can be difficult when you only have limited control over the product listing on the Print on Demand supplier website.

Most of the Print on Demand operators will offer some degree of customisation on the ‘front-end’ of the store. Logos and cover images for example. But it will be more limited than if you ran your own online store. 

It’s likely you will also operate the store with the POD company’s URL domain set-up.

 

Spreadshirt back end - what the shop management page looks like

So even if you drive traffic to the store, if you eventually decide to set up your own URL, you will not be able to take the domain authority search benefits with you.

It can also be a challenge as you need to build the media profile of your brand and designs, but you need to pay for this out of the commission fees you get on items sold. On a $30 T-shirt, this might be $3 – $6 per T-shirt. But, as we show in our guide to online retailers, you may need to spend more than that to get the reach, the click through rate and the conversion on the sale.

Print on Demand is a very competitive marketplace. There are millions of designs available. Print on Demand can be lucrative if you have strong design skills and know how to make your brand stand out. But most stores make little or no money whatsoever.

Drop shipping and Direct-to-Consumer

As we cover in our guide to online retailers, dropshipping is where you set up your own online store website and use a dropship supplier to receive and dispatch orders. Direct-to-Consumer is where you also manage the manufacture, storage and delivery of the orders. 

As we cover in our guide to online store websites, there are ways to set up store websites relatively quickly. You can use template based systems like Shopify, WooCommerce, and Big Commerce. But the added complexity of creating bespoke products, store designs and system integrations, make it difficult to launch the full store experience quickly.

Because of the costs and complexity, for dropshipping and direct-to-consumer, you should really go through the full online store strategy process.

Neither channel works well with a fast approach.  

You need to manage payment and delivery

Marketplaces

With marketplaces, there’s usually a one-to-one transaction between you and the buyer. Some, but not all of the marketplaces will support payments with options like PayPal for example.

But with marketplaces, you are almost always accountable for arranging deliveries. So, that means you need to think about both storage and shipping options. 

At the most basic level, you might arrange to meet the buyer face to face and exchange payment and goods directly. But, this only works if you live in the same area.

More likely, you will send items through the post, or via a courier. Couriers will likely be more convenient, because they’ll come to you to collect items. But they’ll also be more expensive than shipping through the post. Either way, you need to factor in the cost of shipping, as well as any protective packaging into the overall price. 

Print on Demand

If you use Print on Demand suppliers, payment and delivery is normally managed for you. This takes away the challenge of managing these services. But, it also takes away an element of control over ‘your’ store. 

While the online shopper might follow and like your designs, their interaction is with the Print on Demand website. They pay via the Print on Demand site, and the order is shipped from the Print on Demand supplier. 

So, you have no opportunity to use these touchpoints to deepen the connection with the target audience. You have less data about these consumers compared to when you manage the payments and delivery yourself. 

Setting up payment and delivery systems can get complicated. In our guides to online store websites and order to delivery, we cover both topics in more detail. But, for anyone going for a fast approach to how to start selling online, there are a couple of areas to focus on.

Payments – your own online store

Payments in an online store are normally taken through what is called a Payment Gateway. This is a piece of online software that manages the customers payment details in a secure way.

It becomes part of the check-out process on your website. After the customer has picked their products and completed their contact details, the section where they add their credit card details is managed by this payment gateway. 

This gateway can be embedded into your site, so that to the online shopper they see the whole check-out as part of your store.

Or it can sit separately to your check-out. So, sometimes you’ll see when checking out online a message like “Please wait, we are transferring you to another site”. That’s the Payment Gateway. 

The Payment Gateway systems checks that the credit card is valid, and is not stolen or otherwise fraudulent. You can adjust the “rules” for what you will accept as valid when it comes to credit cards.

Credit card payment

Red flags on payments

So, there are some ‘red flag’ details that can make some credit cards riskier. Cards from certain countries, for example. Or where the cardholder address and the country the transaction is coming from don’t match.

The payment gateway software provider will generally take a % fee for each transaction to cover their costs. This usually also includes the fee to be paid to the credit card provider. However, you should check this as it’s not always the case. In general, you’d expect between 2% and 5% of the price to be taken as transaction fees. So, you do need to make sure you have this factored in to your business model.

There are many payment gateway providers out there. As rates and levels of service adjust over time, and new entrants appear, it’s beyond the scope of this guide to recommend any specific one. The % fee they take is obviously a big consideration, but don’t underestimate the level of service they provide either.

If technical issues come up with the payment gateway and how it interacts with your site, you need access to their technical support to resolve issues. If the payment gateway is not working properly, you won’t be able to take payments, and that means no sales. Clearly, that’s not a good thing.

Check out reviews from existing customers, and see who has the best mix of price and service. We don’t endorse any specific gateways, but here are three we’ve used in the past that are worth checking out to get you started. . 

We cover the topic of online store payment gateways in more detail in our guide to order to delivery.

Delivery

Unless you sell through a “local” marketplace like Gumtree or Facebook Marketplace, it’s likely you won’t delivery directly to the customer. So, you will need help with deliveries. 

Logistics and delivery companies can help you set up storage, packaging for shipping and access to a courier or postal service.

Check out which ones serve your area, and check out both prices and levels of service. It’s worth asking for a quote on the business if your level of sales are high enough. 

Delivery driver handing over a brown package

Deliveries are one of the reasons drop shipping is popular as an e-Commerce business model. With dropshipping, the supplier takes care of storage and delivery. You only need to get involved if there are any issues.

We cover the dropshipping approach in more detail in our guide to online retailers, but for those looking to go fast on how to start selling online, below are a list of useful sites to research. These either offer advice and tools for dropshipping or are well known as places to connect with potential dropshipping partners.

The difference between available for sale and actually selling

The three areas we’ve covered above – something to sell, somewhere to sell it, and payments and delivery – are what you need to focus on to be available for sale.

But as we’ve already mentioned, being available for sale doesn’t actually mean you will sell. 

So, what other factors can you work on, at a fast pace to make your “available for sale” products more likely to sell?

To answer that, you need to think through e-Commerce experiences.

e-commerce planning process - 5 key steps in e-commerce experience

E-Commerce experiences

As we cover in our guide to the e-Commerce planning process, it’s important to understand what needs to happen from the online shopper point of view when it comes to selling. 

First off, you need to have clear digital media activities where you can make potential shoppers aware of your products, designs and your store.

You need to be clear who the potential shoppers are with market research, even if only secondary research. And you need to be able to create advertising that will generate interest in the products. 

You have the most influence on the online shopper experience here, because you control the marketing activity. But, remember, you also pay for that marketing activity. So, it’s important to work out the different costs within your online store business model that come into play to make sure you stay profitable. 

What options do you have to play with?

When you sell through marketplaces or print on demand sellers, as we’ve discussed already, you can make some adjustments to how the actual store and product pages look and what they say.

You can set product names, images and product descriptions. And you can usually make some adjustments to price, and what products are available, such as which colours or sizes you will set. But your options to influence other parts of the e-Commerce experience are limited in both these channels.

With Print on Demand suppliers for example, they manage payments and deliveries. They also manage the quality of the base products and of the printing.

You have no control over the quality of the actual product they produce, just the design. And, as every other designer who sells through that Print on Demand supplier accesses the same back-end systems as you, there’s no way to make yourself stand out here. Your only point of difference is in the marketing and the designs. 

When you dropship or manage the whole online store system yourself, you can control how payments and deliveries work. You can add extra services that can make your overall offer different and more attractive. So faster, or cheaper delivery options for example, or deferred payment options. 

We cover these sorts of e-Commerce selling techniques and sources of competitive advantage in our guide to how to get more sales online. You can read more there about how to use marketing, UX, pricing and delivery to sell better online. 

How to start selling online – conclusion

In this guide, we’ve stripped out the key three things you need to learn about how to start selling online.

Something to sell.

Somewhere to sell it.

And, the ability to manage payments and delivery. 

But as we’ve also made clear, being available for sale, doesn’t necessarily lead to sales.

It’s important that however you start selling online, you do see it as the “start” of your journey. Because, it’s an on-going process to find ways to improve your online sales. 

The faster ways when it comes to how to start selling online typically come in channels where someone else takes on the complexity.

Australian invention Facebook Post

So, with marketplaces and print on demand suppliers, key areas like payments and delivery are easier because someone else does it.

But, as we’ve also shown, an easier life when it comes to online selling, also means you have less control and less options to adapt.

As your understanding and expertise in e-Commerce grows, it’s likely you’ll want to start taking more control to give yourself more options. It’s easier to scale when you have more control over all elements of the e-Commerce experience. So, you can start to plan out setting up your own store website, for example. And you can plan out and look for ways to improve the order to delivery process.

The first steps when it comes to how to start selling online are always the most daunting. But once you get the basics in place, your knowledge goes up.

And, that means so does your confidence and competence at selling online.

Three-brains and e-Commerce

We have worked on many e-Commerce projects and have good experience across strategy, working with online retailers and building D2C stores. We know how to connect these expertise areas back into driving your brand marketing and growing your sales. 

If you want to know more about how we can support your e-Commerce to grow your business through our coaching and consulting services, click the button below to send us a message.

We can coach you to reach the top of your competitive game.

D2C Online Store Status dashboard
Click to download the pdf

Downloadable D2C status dashboard

Setting up an online store needs you to define your strategy and plan, work out the sales and marketing and also set up the whole operational side of the business including the finances and the delivery / supply chain model. It can be complex to manage.

That’s why we’ve used this project dashboard to great success in the past to have a simple one-page summary of the key actions require to set-up and manage a D2C online store. Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

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