A Beginner’s Guide to Online Retail: E-Commerce for Dummies

budget-conscious digital marketing
guide to online retail
Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

In a world disrupted by a pandemic, online retail sales exploded. Sure, more retail sales moved online over the last decade (as you can see below), but, with brick and mortar retail stores shuttered, people who never shopped online before faced the hard choice of dipping their toes in the online retail pool or doing without. Econsultancy cited a report showing online retail sales in the UK are up over 20% in April, with even higher increases (up to 140% in some shopping categories). In fact, except for fashion, almost every shopping category exploded its online sales, forcing high-profile bankruptcy filings for major brick-and-mortar retailers like JC Penney. Some reports suggest that as many as half of all brick-and-mortar retailers won’t survive the pandemic, as shown by major retailers like Macy’s closing many of its low-performing stores. So, if your retail business faces an uncertain future, we put together this guide to online retail for beginners so you can start selling online or increase your e-commerce business.

budget-conscious digital marketing
Image coutesy of Statista

Online retailing was never limited to products you can deliver without physical contact – such as travel, books, and music – or services, such as accounting, marketing, and consulting. Although, these virtual products always performed well, especially in the early days of e-commerce. But, the world of online retail is growing now more than ever before.

Consumers who were initially hesitant to trust online shopping or who preferred the immediacy of traditional brick and mortar stores faced the reality that in-store shopping was less convenient, offered fewer options, and wasn’t as critical for satisfaction as many believed. Consumers discovered the convenience of shopping without leaving home, of comparing a bunch of options in seconds, or shopping in the middle of a sleepless night, or ordering a product when you experience the need without waiting for time to go shopping. Consumers can shop while feeding the baby, walking the dog, or during a particularly boring Zoom meeting (just kidding … or am I?). Consumers are home so they can check the fridge to see if they need milk, measure that window for curtains, or get the opinions of friends and family before ordering. In some cases, consumers find online products cheaper or have a bigger variety to choose from than when shopping in a brick-and-mortar store.

And, like many other behaviors, once consumers tried online retail, they discovered its benefits and may never return to traditional stores in the numbers reflected in the past. Technological advances, such as VR, suggest an omnichannel marketing strategy that combines online and offline in a seamless customer experience, which is the future of retailing. Or, at a minimum, consumers will shift certain purchases online permanently. Thus, the ability to deliver goods to people’s doors benefits consumers and you’re missing the boat if your business isn’t optimizing its online retail potential. Now is the perfect time to set up a thriving online retail business – but where to start, and how do you give yourself the best chance of success? Here’s your guide to online retail, just in time to help you plan for your success.

Guide to online retail

Obviously, you don’t want to just jump into e-commerce because everyone else is doing it. But, you also don’t want to ignore e-commerce because no one you know is doing it. Hence, the best strategy is to make a plan based on data and research before you decide whether e-commerce is right for you and what tactics you’ll use to make key decisions. Use this guide to online retail as a starting point in making those decisions regarding tactics.

One of the biggest choices you face is whether to set up your own e-commerce platform or sell from one of the many marketplaces out there, such as Amazon. Below we’ll share information in our guide to online retail about these two options, as well as help for setting up either option.

When selling through your own site, you have more control and you earn all the profits from your sales, rather than sharing them with others as you’ll see in the options listed below. You’ll also experience less direct competition since you won’t compete with other brands side-by-side with your products as you do when selling from a marketplace.

When selling through a marketplace, you have an online retailer driving traffic to their website.

As you face this decision, think about physical stores and why most companies sell through a retailer rather than setting up their own store and selling their products there. It’s just really hard to attract enough traffic to your store to pay for all the overhead. Of course, these are manufacturers so they face a lot of expenses you won’t face as an online retailer (who are mostly resellers and service providers, not manufacturers). Selling through both a marketplace and your own website faces challenges such as channel conflict that may make this decision less favorable.

Here’s some advice for making the decision.

Set up your own site

One way to sell products online is through your own dedicated website. The benefit of your own website is you have total control over your business. You determine how to display your products, what prices to charge, what currency and credit you’ll accept, and your delivery terms. If you need a website, you can hire a developer or build one yourself using my DIY website ebook that steps you through the process with images and suggestions for resources to make your job easier.
DIY website design
The downside of selling on your own website is that you have total control over your business. Since the site is your own, you’re responsible for driving traffic to the pages, which is hard when you’re competing with millions of other web pages on the Internet. How does your target market find you on this crowded superhighway?

You’ll need great SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which means you’ll need fresh content on a consistent basis, just to get started. Then you’ll need easy-to-use navigation, fast load-time, mobile-friendliness, and a host of other elements just to stand a chance of getting traffic and driving sales. Even with this, you need digital advertising on Google, as well as on social platforms to help your target market find your website.

Speaking of social platforms, you need pages/ profiles on the social platforms where your target market hangs out, content optimized for those platforms, influencer marketing, and a lot more. Then, you’ll need graphics, video, and other visual elements to grow your community on these platforms. You really need to hire an agency to put all the necessary elements together then you need someone to manage everything (the website, social media, and advertising) on an ongoing basis.

This isn’t for the faint of heart, but, heck, all the profits are yours alone.

Use massive platforms

An alternative to building your own website is to set up profiles on established retailer marketplaces and sell from there. Examples of these massive platforms are Amazon and eBay. Etsy is also a good option if you create bespoke items or Fiverr if you offer services such as marketing, accounting, copywriting, etc.

While you generally pay a percentage of your sales to these marketplace owners, they do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

  • They drive traffic to your product pages
  • The marketplace handles all the transactions, so you don’t have to worry about payment. Consumers are also more willing to provide financial information, such as credit cards, to the marketplace since they trust them
  • The platforms involve templates, for the most part. These templates make adding your virtual storefront of products to their sites much easier
  • Many marketplaces offer education and training resources to help you succeed

Marketplaces enable you to trade off the reputation of the existing site, which helps build customers much more easily and quickly than striking out on your own. Look up guides about how to sell products on Amazon for beginners to find additional resources as a guide to online retail.

Build trust and reliability

Anyone who runs a successful online business will tell you that good customer feedback is everything when it comes to attracting retail customers and keeping existing customers coming back. Consumers can’t touch and feel your product before buying and, especially if you’re selling from your own website, they don’t even know the products exist. Reviews are critical for making sales, so much so that Amazon has stringent rules governing reviews to ensure fake reviews aren’t manufactured to unfairly support your product. As you can see in the image below, gaining good ratings/ reviews has a huge impact on building consumer trust in your brand for all ages, especially younger consumers. Also consider that the number 1 factor impacting trust, delivering quality products and services, greatly impacts gaining good reviews.

customer trust
Image courtesy of Edelman

With the growth of review sites such as Trustpilot, Yelp, Google Local, and many more, gaining reviews is now a goal unto itself. Having a few bad experiences made public by disgruntled customers can sink your online retail plans, but having no reviews is almost as bad. So, in addition to gaining sales, you also need to encourage buyers to review your products, which is often harder than getting the sale in the first place. Think about incentives that drive customer reviews or contests to encourage them. Make reviewing easy and be sure to post reviews on your website or conform to the requirements established by marketplaces to post reviews.

To guard against bad reviews, it’s important to ensure you’re fully prepared to deliver the products you offer and have contingency plans in place to handle common problems such as delivery delays, damage in transit, or stock outages before you start your online retail business! Whether you sell through your own website or through a marketplace, create a clear customer service system so you’re able to quickly respond to any issues and keep your reputation intact as you build your retail business.


Online retail is a fast-growing industry with great potential for new business owners to carve out their own niche in the market. However, as with any new venture, it’s very important to do your research, select the best platform for you to sell your goods, and make sure you’re fully prepared before you begin selling.

Consult a business insurance resource as well, to protect products prior to shipment and in transit, which insulates your business from catastrophic loss. Insurance also protects your business from other potential financial situations that threaten to close your business. Consider a business insurance resource to help you make a good insurance choice.

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