How to Sell Things Online: A Step-by-Step Guide

Launching an online store is exciting, but it’s also a daunting task. This guide will help you understand online selling and how to successfully launch your e-commerce store.

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Updated November 20, 2020

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The online retail business is booming. U.S. retail e-commerce sales for the second quarter of 2020 were $211.5 billion, a whopping 31.8% increase over the first quarter of the year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Granted, COVID-19 probably had a lot to do with that, but the pandemic has only accelerated what has already been a clear trend: People are increasingly eschewing brick-and-mortar stores for shopping online.

But keep in mind that you're entering a crowded and competitive market. In fact, research estimates that between 80% and 97% of e-commerce businesses fail. That's a sobering reality that shows how important it is for you to truly understand what you're getting into.

If you’re looking to get in on the action and start an online store, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about selling on the internet.

Do you need a business license to sell online? The short answer is yes. Every business that sells products, including online, must have certain licenses and permits. These include seller's permits, reseller's permits, general business licenses, employer licenses, and professional and industry licenses.

Not all of these are applicable to every business, and laws vary by state, so it's wise to consult with a lawyer to make sure you've checked all the boxes and are operating entirely within the law when your e-commerce store goes live.


What to consider before trying to sell products online

Right now you want to know how to sell products online, but the question you should ask first is whether you’re ready for selling online. Here are a few things to consider before jumping in with both feet.

Decide on your product offering

What product will you offer? It seems like a simple question, but some people haven’t given proper thought to it. Their product may be poorly defined, or it may already be offered by many others on the market. Focus your efforts narrowly to begin with, and then find your niche.

For example, Amazon started with just used books before expanding to the global retail empire that it is today. Figure out what energizes you, and look for unique selling points, such as being eco-friendly.

Choose the right platform

We’ll get into this in more detail in a little bit, but you will need the right software platform to be successful in the online marketplace. Choose an e-commerce platform that fits you specifically, not necessarily the most popular one. Lots of good options exist, and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Try a few of them out before settling on one — it will be the most important tool in your new business.

Ensure secure payment processing

Payment processing is a logistical headache a lot of new business owners don’t think about at first. However, it is vital to guarantee secure payment processing to protect both your business and your customers.

Fortunately, you have many secure payment options to choose from today, from the old standby of PayPal to newer options, such as Venmo and CashApp. Explore cryptocurrency as well, which is growing in popularity and reliability (although generally, you’re better off with more traditional forms of payment).


3 best e-commerce platforms where you can sell things online

When considering the best places to sell online, you’ll need to choose from some excellent e-commerce platforms. These selling sites and apps have lots of features that every online business owner needs, from marketing to web hosting to payment processing. Here are The Blueprint’s top three best-reviewed e-commerce platforms:

1. Wix eCommerce

Wix has made a name for itself in recent years as a top option for small business owners who just want a quick and easy way to design professional-looking websites. Wix eCommerce offers additional tools beyond web hosting and site design, such as a coupon builder, search engine optimization, and even an abandoned cart feature that automatically emails customers who leave items in their cart.

A screenshot of Wix eCommerce’s coupon feature.

Wix eCommerce’s coupon creator allows you to find new ways to lure customers. Source: Wix eCommerce software.

2. Shopify

This popular platform is a great option for small businesses, even if you don’t know how to use it. That’s because Shopify is simple to use and offers the best support of all options. It's good for tech novices and offers a free trial so you can give it a try first. Shopify is the ideal choice for business owners who don't want to spend a lot of time in coding or custom design but just want to get a functional site up and ready to sell.

A screenshot of Shopify’s website listings.

If you don’t want to start from scratch, you can buy sites that use Shopify outright through the listings page. Source: Shopify software.

3. Ecwid

For those who want to sell online for free, Ecwid is a top choice. This is a good option for first-time sellers and startups new to the game and want something easy and free. Ecwid can be used as a store plug-in, so you can quickly modify any site into an e-commerce store. It's also easy to scale, so it can grow with your business.

A screenshot of Ecwid’s shipping dashboard.

Ecwid’s shipping dashboard allows you to adjust a variety of different delivery settings. Source: Ecwid software.


5 tips and tricks for making your first online sales

If you sell items online, be prepared for hard work. It can be a grind marketing your business and building your customer base. Here are five tips and tricks for getting those critical first online sales.

1. Tap into your existing network

The best way to get off the ground is to reach out to people you know. Approach family and friends in person to tell them about your venture, particularly if you think your products would be of interest.

Don’t go overboard to the point they get irritated with you, but don’t be shy about asking either since they’ll probably want to support you and help you get your first sales out of the way. Branch out to social groups, local communities, and even workgroups. Don’t be timid about marketing yourself.

2. Leverage social media

Social media is tricky, but you should utilize its strengths. It’s a great way to communicate a brand to people you know and who follow you, as well as to start a conversation with potential customers who don’t know who you are. Connect with those who share your interests and position your brand with similar ones. It’s a way to build gradual momentum over time and should be part of a complete marketing strategy.

3. Organize a launch contest

Make launching your company an event with as much fanfare as possible to get the word out. Set up a contest at product launch to raise brand awareness and secure your first sales, as well as to begin to develop a relationship with important individuals. Contact your existing network to get those people involved and consider throwing a party as part of the launch.

4. Utilize established online selling platforms

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to, so consider using established platforms, such as Amazon, Etsy, and eBay, to sell your goods. Link your website, social media, and email campaigns to online platforms. By hitching yourself to these established names, you can strengthen brand awareness and enhance business in the future.

5. Invest in online ads

It’s hard to spread the word entirely through word of mouth and networking, at least at the start. Use online ads to drive traffic to your online platform.

Search engines, such as Google and Bing, allow you to target specific search keywords for ads, so you direct them to your clientele and avoid wasting money on ads that have limited impact. Depending on your target market, ads on Facebook and Twitter will also help drive traffic to your site.


Draw up a comprehensive online sales strategy

Buying and selling online takes preparation to get right. You must devote significant time to drawing up a business plan, define and develop your product, create a marketing strategy, and figure out every aspect of how you’re going to succeed in this incredibly competitive industry.

It’s not enough to have a dream and some gumption. Start the hard work of preparation now so you don’t pay for the lack of it later. Often the difference between success and failure is planning, so be sure that you’ve spent enough time determining whether you’ve got the necessary capital, product, and strategy to succeed.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Randi Zuckerberg, a former director of market development and spokeswoman for Facebook and sister to its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Amazon, Etsy, Facebook, Microsoft, PayPal Holdings, and Twitter. The Motley Fool recommends eBay and recommends the following options: short January 2021 $37 calls on eBay, long January 2022 $1920 calls on Amazon, long January 2021 $18 calls on eBay, short January 2022 $1940 calls on Amazon, and long January 2022 $75 calls on PayPal Holdings. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.