biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies: Setting Up Your Online Shop

by Stephanie

Arianne Foulks  of Aeolidia

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from Arianne Foulks, owner of Aeolidia, a web and graphic design studio dedicated to helping small creative businesses. Arianne writes for the Aeolidia blog and is a regular contributor on Oh My Handmade Goodness. She has spoken at Altitude Design Summit and has upcoming classes with School House Craft in Seattle. Today Arianne is sharing her tips on what to plan for when creating an online shop. Thank you so much, Arianne, for this rundown! —Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump…

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When you’re ready to start selling online, you may feel overwhelmed with options. Just figuring out how to get started can be daunting. There are many things to consider, and in this article, I’ll provide an overview of the basics you’ll need to plan for – consider this a checklist of sorts, to make sure you’ll be starting out without missing a step! The methods you choose will depend on how much work you’d like to do yourself, how much you can afford to invest, and what stage you’re at with your business.

Choosing ecommerce software

You will need shop software to create the structure of your site – product categories, product detail pages, and, of course, the shopping cart and checkout process. Your choice will depend on features, pricing, customization options, and your own comfort level with building and maintaining a website.

If you are just starting out and don’t yet have an established business, marketplace-type shop solutions, such as Etsy, are a great way to get your feet wet. You can experiment with pricing, packaging, and shipping options without much investment.

As a more established business, you will likely find that you want more features, more flexibility, and the credibility that comes with having your own shop on your own domain. When moving from a marketplace to your own shop, the choice will be between hosted software (you sign up to use the third-party service) or self-hosted software (you install the software on your own web hosting account).

Emily McDowell’s portfolio and shop

At Aeolidia, though we historically have enjoyed being able to customize a shop to our heart’s content, we are now leaning heavily toward hosted ecommerce software, trading in a bit of flexibility for these advantages:

  • Customer support is often better for hosted software – since the company is managing everything for you, and is being paid to do so, they should also be prepared to answer your questions and help you get started.
  • You won’t be responsible for upgrades, bug fixes, security, or web hosting. These things can be a hassle when installing and hosting the software yourself.
  • Hosted solutions are becoming more and more customizable, with more tools for developers, and apps for shop owners to integrate into their shop.

When choosing a software program, make sure you look through the features list to see if it has what you need. If there’s anything unusual about how you plan to sell your items, accept payment, or price shipping, it’s worth checking in with customer support to ask about your particular situation before getting everything set up and finding you can’t use it. Some cases that may need special customization are: wholesale accounts, selling fabric by the partial yard, tiered pricing, and customizable products.

Setting up shop

You’ve chosen your software, but the fun doesn’t end there! Now you have some new decisions to make and things to set up. Plans should be made for the following:

1. Domain name: You will want to register your own domain name – preferably your business name with a “.com” after it, to make it simple for customers to remember. This way, you can have professional-looking email at your own domain, and if you ever decide to change the software program or web host you’re using, your site will still remain at the same URL, and you won’t lose traffic from search engines, links, or bookmarks.

2. Web hosting and email: If hosting the shop software yourself, you will need to purchase web hosting. If you’re using a hosted shop service, you won’t need to set up web hosting, but you will want to come up with a way to use email at your domain. You can sign up for Google Apps, set up email with your domain registrar, or find a web host that offers an email-only hosting plan.

Tammie Bennett’s shop and blog

3. Payment gateway: You will need a way to accept payment from your customers. Check to see what your ecommerce software works with. You may want to offer two different options, such as credit cards through Authorize.net and also PayPal. There are many payment gateways available, some requiring a merchant account. See our Q&A about accepting payments online.

4. Shipping settings: You can weigh each of your products and use automated shipping calculators, or you can set up flat or table rates for shipping based on order total, number of items, or some other method. You may want to integrate your shop with a service to print shipping labels. Consider offering free shipping at a certain order threshold, to encourage larger orders.

5. Tax rate: You’ll need to check the tax laws in your country or state to see which of your customers should be charged sales tax, how much, and what types of products are exempt.

6. Accounting software: You may be able to save yourself a lot of trouble come tax time if you sync your shop with a service like StitchLabs or Quickbooks, to track sales, profit, tax, and more.

7. Security: Most hosted software will provide an SSL certificate to encrypt and protect credit card data as it is sent to your site, but if you’re using your own web hosting, you will need to purchase and set this up yourself. Some basic tips on keeping your site secure are here.

8. Site design: Depending on your software, you’ll likely be able to choose from some free design themes, buy premium themes, alter themes with a design tool, or build your own design with HTML and CSS.

1canoe2 shop

9. Content: Getting all the technical, accounting, and policy decisions out of the way is important, but a large part of setting up a shop website lies in gathering and preparing your content, and planning your site structure. You’ll need cohesive and compelling product photography, informative and tempting product descriptions, as well as text for your home page, about page, and other informational pages.

If part of your content and marketing strategy includes a blog or a mailing list, you’ll need some ideas for what to post there, as well.

10. Maintenance: The day-to-day job of running a shop is not particularly glamorous. If you don’t like the idea of adding content to your site, updating product info, packing and shipping orders, and doing customer service, you’ll need to hire some help!

11. Promoting your shop: I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a plan to promote your website. Building the website is a good beginning, but you will need to get the word out about your shop, and you will need to do so regularly and consistently. Our most successful website projects have been the ones where the shop owner came to us with a great marketing strategy, or who worked with our team to develop one. You’ll want to get Google to notice you, as well as have your shop shared on blogs and social media.

Hiring help

With the tools and software currently available, it’s fairly easy to set shop up online by yourself. However, I’m a big proponent of doing what you’re best at, and delegating the rest. Unless you’re a web designer and developer, the best way to have a professional, user-friendly site with a design that is custom to you is to hire an expert.

Most software programs will offer ways to connect with people who can get the job done. It’s also a great idea to ask your friends and colleagues who they hired to build their website, or check for website credits on sites you admire (our little credit link plus friendly word of mouth is how we get most of our business).

It seems like a lot of work, I know, but much better to start with a good plan rather than jumping in blindly! What questions do you have about online shops? Anything particularly mysterious that you’d like to have clarified? If you’ve already gotten your shop set up, what have you learned that may be helpful to share with new shop owners?

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  • So many great tips and ideas to get started with an online shop. I currently use Big Cartel to sell our products, for many of the reasons you mentioned but it is limiting long term because there aren’t so many developers that work with Big Cartel. In the future, when our product range expands we’d love a custom site by Aeolidia!

  • After going through the exercise of having two websites built, I have learned the hard way there are so many things you do not know about until after the site is built. I respect Arianne and her company Aeolidia because they are professionals and have the process down to a science. I have always used a hosting company and have been happy with the service of Go Daddy. Thinking of all the various social media names you are going to need and getting them in advance of building your site is key. Getting halfway through a project only to find that ‘your name’ in one of the social medias is unavailable is frustrating and makes your company less seamless. Having the use of one name throughout the project is ideal for promotion. Another point Arianne brought up is Promoting Your Shop. That is key. Having a plan so that you can have the information ready to put out there every day is so important. Having professional photographs to draw from is terrific. Always updating your content and talking about it is important. At the time when you need these elements, you are so tired of making decisions and answering questions that you may lag on this. But you cannot. One last thing I learned in choosing a website, Etsy Shop, WordPress plus shop, know what the requirements are of your vendors. Some will not let you sell their product on Etsy. You have gone through this entire exercise and find out this piece of information at the end. Then what do you do. Hiring a professional saves you from these types of crisis. My dream is to one day have an Aeolidia site. Kudos to you Arianne.

  • These are such great tips! And I completely agree with tip #11 – getting your site up is half the battle. The rest is all about actually getting it out there.

  • It is just wonderful to see you here Arianne! This is a fabulous guide for anyone wondering how and where to get started with their own online shop, it can seem so daunting in the beginning. I am in awe of how you and your team make the internet + selling online more accessible and beautiful for all of us creatives.

    I’ve been so lucky to get to work with you first as an OMHG contributor & as a client over the last year while you built our new community website. I’ve worked with many collaborators over the years but I have never experienced the level of clear communication, attention to detail and integrity that the Aeolidia crew brought to the project. The way you all translated my wild creative dreams & community brainstorming into something practical + tangible is magical. Thank you a million trillion times!

  • Great advice, Arianne! I especially agree about using hosted ecommerce — running a business can be a staggering amount of work without having to deal with technical issues as well. Hiring experts is also a policy I embrace wholeheartedly!

  • This is a great resource! When I set up my shop 2.5 years ago I didn’t find anything this detailed to help me.
    To add to this list I’d like to re-emphasize the importance of good product photography and lighting. And I think a minimal background is really key. You want your product to be the focus. Often just a simple product shot on a white background will look beautiful and be enough.

  • Isa, Big Cartel seems to discourage developers with their simplicity (for instance, you can’t host any graphics to make the website look right on Big Cartel), but we have managed to make a handful of very lovely Big Cartel shops! The platform is purposefully very limited, but can be a great starting place.

  • Scarfshop, yes, the “content” part of getting a website started can be so daunting. Copywriting and photography are key, and I’m always surprised to see a beautiful website with dim and blurry photos or hastily written product descriptions. We decided early on that we wanted to provide those services as well, so clients would have a resource when stuck at the “adding your content” phase of website projects.

    P.S. I have your scarves bookmarked right now and I’m deciding on a color – small world!

  • Bee, it is so true that planning ahead of time can save you a lot of grief later! I’m a big proponent of just jumping in with both feet, but when a project takes so much time and investment, it only makes sense to test things out and come up with a solid plan in advance.

  • Yes, Anndreea! There is nothing sadder to me than building a thoughtful, beautiful, user-friendly website and then… nothing! It sits and gathers dust. Having a budget and a plan for marketing your site is vital to its success.

  • This is a basic overview and its a good one. I think there are a lot of people who would like the nitty gritty specifics and some concrete recommendations because in most cases, I find people will atleast make an attempt to get a shop up themselves before going to anyone else.

    A good place to start is understanding WHY its so expensive to get an ecommerce built for you, and the advantages/disadvantages of owning/controlling your site vs a hosted option. First, lets look at the hosted solutions: shopify, big cartel, big commerce, magento go, etsy. These are good because, as stated above, they come with support (and how good the support is varies) and upgrades, you don’t need to worry about being hacked. Unfortunately, most of these services are somewhere in development, and so when you ask for a feature, you’ll often hear “its on our roadmap” which isn’t particularly helpful. Features are developed based on demand, not your demand, but overall demand. You also don’t own your data. While security is less of a risk in a hosted platform like these, they are not infallible to security risk, and when someone gets into them, they get access to everyone’s sites. The biggest reason people choose not to work with a hosted solution is incompatibility with their pricing/shipping structure. A great example is combined tiered discounting, ie “buy four 5$ items and get a fifth free” or “buy three soaps and get a %20 discount”. To date, no hosted solution can do this and its a pretty popular discounting method at craft fairs. The author makes good points above, and if you CAN use a hosted method: DO.

    There’s something the author above doesn’t mention as a side benefit to Etsy: the internal marketing engine. Etsy has a global marketplace, like eBay or Amazon. So, they’re doing some of the work to help you get your items in front of people using categories or terms. There’s a lot to be said for that and if Etsy works for your structure, I wouldn’t be eager to move out onto my own.

    So now we talk about software. These are software that live online and there’s a finite list of them worth talking about. First, ZenCart. Its available in every cPanel, so people tend to head that way and spend a ton of time setting up shop, but are ultimately disappointed. Its clunky, outdated. poorly structured and vulnerable to attack in a million ways. Pretty sure it still stores credit card numbers, which you should know is 100% illegal and completely susceptible to exposing customer data. So skip that.

    I’ll talk about three pieces of software worth taking a look at. First, WordPress. Here’s how you know you can use WordPress: do you run a site that sells things, or do you run a store? If you run a site, that also happens to sell things, you can go with WordPress, and use a plugin. A great example: a blog that sells ebooks. I would paid WordPress with something called Easy Digital Downloads. Its simple, fast and inexpensive (free, you pay for add ons) and its JUST for digital products. Need more than that? Your business or school wants to accept donations or sell tshirts? Use WooCommerce as a plugin to WordPress. its the most developed and supported of the plugins with a ton of add ons.

    But lets say you answered that you are not a site selling things, but a store. Skip WordPress. Its not ideal for you. Now you need to decide what is: and its likely to be something like Magento or FoxyCart. Magento is HUGE. Its important to know that ahead of time: its a massive system, you need to choose hosting very carefully (I’ve only found one I liked, SimpleHelix) and specifically for Magento, and there aren’t a ton of people who competently work on Magento. SO why do people use it? Because its so huge and powerful and does things like the combined tiered discounting above (via an extension from a UK shop). FoxyCart is another system like this. So why use them? Because you’re a shop with futzy pricing or shipping or extenuating circumstances. That’s the only reason, and you need to know that it comes with a huge price tag. Though Magento has a community version for free, customizing it will cost you at minimum 8-10k.

    Worth addressing here, though there’s a ton more is gateways. This is the MOST confusing thing for shop owners. Yes, there is Authorize, which has higher fees and cuts, but the reason developers love it is that it WORKS with everything and has great support. its worth it. What you should not do is accept your bank’s offering. Almost all banks offer this type of solution and that “its so easy to integrate with any system” and they are unilaterally wrong. However, there are new products on the horizon. Doing what Square has done for offline sales, Stripe is exceptionally exciting and I highly recommend it. Its super simple, well designed online processing. https://stripe.com/

    Lastly, this didn’t cover SEO at all. You need to choose a system with great SEO and you need to commit to it. The number 1 reason people will find your store is SEO and Google Sitemap. DO NOT ignore these tools.

    So much more to say…..

  • I just started using storenvy as an e-marketplace, and have been very happy so far! Its totally free (no listing fees or percentages) but you can also pay for fancy extras, like using your own domain name.

  • I’m in the process of having a new web store designed and set up by Aeolidia and I’m so happy to be working with them! Great advice here Arianne.

  • Wow lot’s of helpful info here! Arianne, I totally agree with your observations with BigCartel. I used to be there before they changed the way templates were designed, and agree they seem to discourage development now. It has more control than Etsy but less than 3Dcart (what I use) or another hosted ecommerce solution.

  • We’re so excited to Arianne join us at School House Craft – obviously a wealth of knowledge! We also LOVE LOVE LOVE the site Aeolidia create for us!

  • Excellent post Arianne! There’s so much to consider when setting up an e-commerce site. Everyone at Aeolidia was so helpful setting up my site for me 3 years ago and continue to provide wonderful customer service!

  • Super helpful post! I have not set up an online shop yet but I am thinking about it in the next coming months. It’s great to have some ideas on what to think about when starting off. Thanks!


  • Great post Arianne! As a designer, I often think “Oh, I can do that myself” but I am quickly learning that leaving certain tasks to the experts is more valuable than gold these days!

    I also like how you mentioned that Etsy is a great place to start. I currently have an etsy shop and where it has and continues to be successful over the past 2 years, I can’t help but wonder if it limits my growth potential. Yes, it has an internal marketing engine as and while this is all fine and good, but do you really want to run a boutique shop that can be compared to something you find on ebay? Maybe, but again– that is a choice that should be made with your ideal client in mind and the consideration of the impact that these choices could potentially have on your brand.

  • Thank you Arianne, for this excellent roadmap for starting an ecommerce site. Aeolidia was my first choice when I was setting up my ecommerce site (Bespoke Custom Gifts) two years ago but they were overbooked at the time and It took me several tries to find someone else competent! I found many things here to be true– I needed a custom-built site because we have a lot of personalization and customization options, but we are now running a shop for another business on Shopify and I think it’s terrific–IF you don’t have a lot of customization/choices (you’re limited to 3!) It has a lot of fantastic features that I wish I had! If you are hiring a web designer/developer, one thing to realize is that those can be two different people. I was trying to find a one-stop shop, which didn’t end up working out for us, but the designer I eventually found led us to a fantastic programmer. I know it all seems so overwhelming at first, but just take it one step at a time–and this is a fantastic blueprint! (And Amanda’s comments offer a lot of great specifics too!) There is STILL so much I am struggling to learn, but great series like Biz Ladies have been a huge help! And Arianne I was thrilled to meet you in person at Alt Design and I still hope I have a chance to work with you!

  • Im wondering has anyone used Shopify? Im currently developing my site through them and have yet to commit fully! Any feedback on these guys would be helpful! Thanks x

  • This post was soo helpful. I’m currently only on Etsy, but I will definitely be coming back to this when I’m ready to make to make the move to my own website for my shop. I don’t know if you have any expertise in domain name registering, but I’ve found that the domain I’m looking for isn’t in use, but it’s been registered. Is it worth it to go through a site like GoDaddy to try and buy it from them or should I just get more creative?

  • Lauren, this is not my area of expertise, but it’s always nice to have a domain name that people will be able to remember. It couldn’t hurt to see what the cost would be to purchase it from someone, but I wouldn’t recommend spending big money on it, since you can get creative with the domain name, or even consider re-naming or re-branding your business if it’s fairly new.

    I would only recommend spending a lot on a domain name if you’re extremely well-known (like Design*Sponge!) and are getting lots of confused visitors going to the wrong domain.

  • Yikes, I just got the story through the title, thank you. Sorry for the previous comment about the “after the jump” link. Thanks so much for all you guys do.

  • Wonderful post Arianne. I’ve eyed Aeolidia with great admiration for some time now, and if I ever switch platforms, it’s you guys I’ll be ringing up first.

    This is a huge HUGE topic and I love talking/learning about it. I have a self-hosted open source shop (Joomla w/ VirtueMart eCommerce plug-in.) Most days I’m satisfied with this set-up since I require some more advanced features (internationalization with multiple languages/currencies, digital products, etc.) but other days it can be frustrating to feel I have so little control.

    I’ve come to understand that there is a very clear trade off between the ability to customize and ease-of-use as a business user. I don’t know what I’d do if my Joomla guy ever disappeared.

    Last summer I went through a disastrous and expensive attempt at a platform upgrade. Here are some of my ‘lessons learned’:

    – Take *at least* a week to write down all system requirements both end-user (customer) and business-user (me/business owner), with use-cases if necessary! (some examples – Reporting: does the platform allow you to export different kind of sales/product data as excel spread sheets? or Translated listings: if a product listing is only available in one country/language can you ‘hide’ it in the different language/geography versions of the shop?)
    – If you’re going to upgrade to a new version of software – especially open source- read about it in user forums! We found out way too late that the newest version was full of bugs.
    – Content migration (getting all of your content from the old site to the new) is almost 50% off the work!
    – Research SEO impacts of switching/upgrading platforms

    I could go on and on, but one thing I do know – setting up your own web-shop is a BIG endeavor, best left to the experts!

  • makes it sound so easy to set up, right? I always thought configuring shopping carts and online stores would be difficult. However, apparently, all you need to do is install a plugin and execute a few cut and pastes

  • Great Post.
    Nowadays, its very easy to start an online shop.
    Its kind of get set and GO..
    Lot of options available in the market to choose from.
    However, there are certain things you need to take care.
    1) Choose appropriate name
    2) Build your brand
    3) Product Photography
    You may hire freelancers or agency to help you.
    Hatim Laxmidhar
    twiw.in | info@twiw.in

  • I just started using storenvy as an e-marketplace, and have been very happy so far! Its totally free (no listing fees or percentages) but you can also pay for fancy extras, like using your own domain name.

  • I would only recommend spending a lot on a domain name if you’re extremely well-known (like Design*Sponge!) and are getting lots of confused visitors going to the wrong domain.

  • Really nice rundown of all the available options for a ecomm store platform. I’m still deliberating between a few platforms, has anyone used Volusion as their platform?

  • Great post Arianne. I think you are right about transitioning towards hosted ecommerce platforms. We built a lot of custom sites for people of the years and they never were quite what exists today in packaged plans.

    The beauty of starting your site with one of these platforms is that you can focus on building your business and marketing rather than the nuts and bolts of building the site. We are helping most of our clients and students by telling them to go with something the makes more sense for them. From a price standpoint and timeframe, they are better served using a platform.

    Best of luck,