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How to start an online shop

10-minute read

Simply Business Editorial Team

Simply Business Editorial Team

16 June 2021

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Getting your retail business online is more important than ever. Maybe you run a bricks and mortar shop already. Maybe you’re just getting ready to start. Either way, this step-by-step guide will take you through the different options for setting up an online shop.

Decide on your platform

When setting up your ecommerce business, you essentially have two options – launch your own website or use an existing platform.

If you already have your own website, or want to launch one, you may want to add in an online shop to that, and there are several platforms that can integrate with your existing site or act as their own standalone website.

Pros of this option

  • existing customers can find you easily
  • you can stand out from the crowd with your own brand
  • you have a greater level of control

Cons of this option

  • it requires some technical know-how
  • it’s up to you to do all your own marketing
  • if people don’t visit your website already, it’ll be harder for them to find you

If, however, you don’t have a website of your own, or you don’t feel comfortable with adding an online shop directly into it, you can use some existing ecommerce platforms, like Amazon, eBay, or Etsy.

Pros of this option

  • it’s easy to set up
  • you get access to a huge pool of potential customers
  • you can make use of the tools those websites offer

Cons of this option

  • you’ll be in among a lot of other retailers
  • you have less control over the set-up and how you personalise it
  • you’ll need to work out how to re-route your existing customers to this platform

We’ll delve into both of those options later, but if you already know which one is better suited to your needs, feel free to skip to the relevant section using the links below.

Listing products that sell

Whatever way you decide to set up your online store, there are some things you’ll need to do to create listings that sell.

Practice your photography – whether it’s the lighting, or how the item is modelled, try to show your products in a way that’s both desirable and practical. Seeing how a dress looks on, or how a cabinet sits in a particular space, will give buyers a better idea of whether it’s the right product for them.

Nail the description – when you’re describing your product, you want to make sure that you’re talking through all its plus points, while also giving the practical details such as dimensions, weight, colour, and care instructions.

Make use of available features – whatever platform you use, there will be features that help you increase your chance of making a sale, such as listing similar items, showing product reviews, or recommending other products to buy alongside it.

Postage, packaging, and returns

Whether you decide to use your own website or an existing online platform, you need to think about how you’re going to get your products to your customers – and what to do if they want to return them.

The first question to ask yourself is who you’re going to use to send your items. Some options are:

Different companies offer different prices, and it’ll depend on how much you have to send, what you’re sending, and how often you’re sending them.

It’s important you pick a carrier that can best meet both yours and your customers’ needs, so have a look at what they offer before you make a decision.

Our guide to the best courier service in the UK can help you to choose the best provider for your small business, while this article on international shipping can help you understand the process. When it comes to tax, make sure you’re aware of VAT changes post-Brexit if you’re posting products abroad to the European Union, and further afield.

And if you’ve got a cake and baking business with an online shop, you’ll probably want to just offer local delivery. You’ll still need to think about how best to package your cakes though, and if it’s worth selling baking accessories too.

You'll also need to choose suitable boxes and packaging materials so your product arrives safely.

Postage and returns policies

If you’re selling through a third party website, there will be rules that you have to agree to about your postage, packaging and returns, so make sure you familiarise yourself with those.

Selling through your own website means you’re in charge of deciding the rules and letting your customers know about them. They can protect you if you get into legal trouble around your postage and returns, and they set expectations for your customers – if you’re clear that the wait time is two weeks, you won’t have people contacting you within five days asking why their package hasn’t arrived.

You may also choose to offer free postage and/or free returns – or have these as a bonus if people spend a certain amount or take part in a particular event.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you balance the cost to you with how much you’re earning from each sale, and what sort of behaviours you want to incentivise in your customers. For example, if you run a clothing business and want to enable people to try on lots of options, free returns will make that more appealing.

Don’t forget everything else

The online shop front of your business is a huge part of how you get customers, but it’s certainly not the only part that matters when it comes to your business as a whole.

While you’re getting that up and running, make sure you’re also thinking about the other aspects, like your suppliers, your business plan, and the tax you may have to pay – not to mention the online retailer insurance you may need for things like your stock.

But don’t worry – we have a guide to starting a business from home to help you get to grips with all of those aspects, as well as the online part of your business.

You can also read our guide to creating a marketing plan for your business, to make sure you're reaching as many potential customers as possible. Meanwhile it’s worth researching your legal obligations as a business owner, even if you're running it from your own home.

Adding an ecommerce platform to your website

If you already have a website and want to add in an online shop function, or want to build one from scratch, these are some of the options out there at the moment:

Let’s take a look at some of the main features of each of them:


Shopify is known for being easy to set up and run, with a dashboard area for quickly adding products, customising the look of your site, and more.

As well as getting your products online, it also provides an area for managing your customers and their details, orders, and gives you rich data on the performance of your online shop.

Even if you’re not particularly web-savvy, Shopify can still be a great option. They’ve made it as easy to use as possible so you can set up your own online shop without having any design or development skills.

Features of Shopify in the UK include:

  • unlimited orders, products, file storage, bandwidth
  • 24/7 support
  • a website that works on mobile devices
  • use your own domain name
  • accept credit cards
  • a drag-and-drop online website builder
  • a full blogging platform
  • multiple languages
  • customer profiles and accounts
  • search engine optimisation
  • product reviews and gift cards
  • social media integration and the option to sell on Facebook
  • inventory management
  • digital products and product variations
  • no transaction fees when using Shopify Payments


While it’s not quite in the same league as Shopify, BigCommerce also boasts a clean dashboard and clear directions for getting your online shop built in minutes. Once you’re up and running, everything you need, from products to orders to customer details, is available in the sidebar.

On top of that, BigCommerce also has a range of marketing settings, analytics, and other modules where you can optimise your online shop.

Features of BigCommerce include:

  • unlimited products, orders, file storage, and bandwidth
  • 24/7 live chat support
  • visual store builder
  • accept payments from PayPal, Stripe, Apple Pay, Pay with Amazon and more
  • manage orders and inventory
  • sell via Facebook, Pinterest, eBay, Amazon, and Square POS
  • multiple marketing features
  • get found on product comparison sites
  • encourage return visits with email marketing
  • SEO features


If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, you could do worse than Ecwid. They and BigCartel are the only ones who offer free versions, and Ecwid’s offers a lot more – if you’re just starting to dip your toe in the water of online selling, this could be a good option for you.

Like the others, they have a site builder that helps you get everything ready to go. The side menu gives you access to all the other areas of the admin panel where you can adjust the design, manage products, see your order and customers, and so on.

Other features you get with Ecwid include:

  • from 10 to unlimited products
  • unlimited orders, file storage and bandwidth
  • 24/7 support over live chat or phone
  • sell on multiple sites, blogs, and social networks
  • customer address book
  • smart shipping calculator
  • integrates with WordPress, Joomla and more
  • track inventory
  • 40 different options for accepting payments


Getting started with Volusion is pretty simple – there’s a step-by-step wizard guiding you through the setup. Like the others, it has a simple dashboard that you can use to access the main areas, such as managing your orders, customers, inventory, marketing efforts, design, and reports.

Here are the main features that you get with Volusion:

  • options to sell up to 100 or unlimited products
  • unlimited orders and file storage
  • unlimited bandwidth
  • 24/7 support through chat, phone, and priority support
  • visual website builder
  • accept credit cards
  • ratings and reviews
  • newsletters
  • import and export products
  • built-in SEO as well as all-in-one SEO tools
  • reports
  • social media selling tools
  • accept payments with Stripe, PayPal, and Amazon
  • handle shipping rates
  • abandoned cart reports and checkout recovery
  • eBay and Amazon integration
  • phone orders, CRM, and batch order processing
  • a dedicated account manager


3dcart sets you up right with an interactive video and a set of sample products in your catalogue to help you start. You can examine how these products are structured, what the example descriptions look like, and how that might influence your own products

Adding in products can be a little intimidating, as the product creation panel has a lot of features packed into a small area, but it shouldn’t take too long to get used to.

Here’s what else 3dcart brings to the table:

  • sell unlimited products
  • unlimited orders, file storage, and bandwidth
  • 24/7 support over live chat, phone, and priority support
  • mobile and social ready
  • integrate with eBay, Amazon, Google Shopping, Facebook, and Shopzilla
  • upsell and cross sell
  • bulk import and export
  • product FAQs
  • customer reviews
  • waiting lists
  • detailed product reports
  • simple shipping setup
  • marketing and SEO features

Selling on an existing ecommerce platform

If you decide you want to go down the route of listing your products on an existing website, the first thing to do is to have a look through the options available and think about which one – or ones – best suit your needs. Below are the key details of existing ecommerce platforms if, for example, you’re comparing Etsy vs Shopify. Some of the options are:

Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail:

Selling on Amazon

Arguably the greatest retail operation ever, selling on Amazon gives you access to millions of potential buyers.

Amazon has two different selling plans – The Professional plan gives you the opportunity to sell an unlimited number of products and pay a £25 (excluding VAT) monthly subscription fee. Individuals pay no monthly fees, but instead pay £0.75 per item sold. Both Professionals and Individuals pay additional selling fees when an item sells.

You’ll get access to a manage orders tool, order reports, and, if you’re more tech-savvy, you can use Amazon MWS to be notified of events.

When it comes to shipping, Amazon notifies you when customers place an order. You can then use Fulfilment by Amazon and let Amazon do the shipping or handle it yourself.

Selling on eBay

While eBay is known more as a marketplace than a place for dedicated shops, there are more than 24 million buyers registered with them – and that’s just in the UK.

eBay lists its benefits as:

  • international selling tools to help you reach a global audience
  • a seller protection plan, so you can sell in confidence every step of the way
  • PayPal as a safe and easy way to get paid
  • a mobile app that allows you to list items and track sales on the go

As a professional seller, eBay has tools that will help you manage orders, track sales, and build your brand.

There are two fees you may have to pay when you sell over eBay. First is the ‘insertion fee’. This is the baseline fee to list an item, which is normally a flat 35p. However, you can list up to 1,000 items a month (at any start price) without paying any charge.

The second is the final value fee. If and when an item sells, you have to pay a flat 10 per cent of the final sale price, including postage. This applies to every item, including those listed for free.

Finally, if the buyer pays by PayPal, it usually takes 2.9 per cent of the total sale price, plus 30p per transaction.

Selling on Etsy

Etsy is particularly known for handmade goods, and might be a great option if you’re turning your hobby into a business, like candle making or artisan crafts.

When you register, Etsy directs you through the process of creating your online shop and choosing your language and currency preferences. When you specify your language and location, your Etsy listings will be more likely to reach potential customers in your area.

You’ll need to pick a unique name, and once you have that you can start listing your products and building your shop.

Etsy takes a lot of different fees, including listing, transaction, and payment processing fees, so make sure you take those into account when you’re pricing your products. You’ll also need to think about shipping, and whether you want to take advantage of Etsy’s marketing and promotion tools, which also come at a cost.

Our simple guide to selling on Etsy covers everything you need to know from how much it costs to how to create the best listings.

Selling on Bonanza

Bonanza may not be a name that you’re familiar with, but they claim to be – and have been voted as – the best place to sell online.

It doesn’t hurt that Bonanza is a lot more cost-effective than its competitors. There are no set-up fees and no listing fees. Even with Google shopping ads included, they come in cheaper than both Amazon and eBay.

On top of that, they also offer a customer marketing tool, a seller stats dashboard, and the ability to build your own web store. And if you decide to use Bonanza alongside another platform, you can easily sync up your shops.

Selling on Facebook shops

Facebook shops is a new addition to the ecommerce world, having only sprung up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s a mobile first platform that caters to small businesses and is distinct from Facebook Marketplace, which is geared towards peer-to-peer selling.

Have a read of our full guide to Facebook Shops.

Selling on Instagram

Instagram Shopping allows creators to tag products in photos and for customers to shop and buy items without leaving the app.

As the platform first started life as a photo sharing mobile app, it lends itself naturally to showcasing everything available in your shop’s online catalogue. You just need to have a business account to get started.

Our guide to selling on Instagram explains what to do step-by-step.

Useful guides to help you start your own business

Have you tried any of these platforms? Which do you like best? Let us know in the comments section.

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Simply Business Editorial Team

Written by

Simply Business Editorial Team

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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