How to start an online retail business

If you’d like to start your own online retail business, here are some of the important decisions you’ll need to take.

Overhead shot of a woman's hands holding a tablet. The screen is showing an online retail website with the words 'Shop Now' and there are various accessories on the desk including photographs and a notebook

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Have you ever thought of starting your own business? You’re not alone!

The Covid-19 pandemic and the recent economic troubles have made people consider their employment options. Many are deciding that now is the right time to follow their dream of running their own business. Over 800,000 new businesses were launched in the UK in 2021, with micro-businesses with 1-9 employees accounting for more than 95% of all UK businesses. 

Many of these will be retail businesses and it’s much easier to start a retail business since the advent of the Internet. You don’t need to rent a shop on the High Street if you don’t want to and could even be able to start a business from home.

I used to run an online retail business, many years ago. It can be very satisfying but also very stressful. Yes, you get all the plaudits when things go well, but you also have to make all the difficult decisions and deal with any problems yourself. 

A woman sitting at a home office desk and looking at business paperwork on her laptop

So it’s important to make sure that you cover all the bases and consider all the factors when you’re planning to open your own retail business. I can’t cover everything in this one post, but here are a few of the most important tasks you’ll need to complete:

Choose your niche and products

First of all, you need to choose the niche market that you want to serve and the products you are going to sell in it. 

Trying to run a business without identifying a niche is incredibly difficult – you simply can’t be all things to all people. So look for a niche that is profitable, in-demand and which you are passionate about. That last factor will make it a lot easier to keep going when things get tough.

Then you need to choose your product line. Will you manufacture your own products or buy wholesale products to sell to your customers? You need to make sure that there will be demand for your products so you should carry out some market research. Make sure you’re asking the right people though, there’s no point in getting opinions from people who aren’t in your target audience.

Online retail concept image featuring brown paper cartons with a shopping cart icon on them

Organise packaging for your products

As well as choosing the products, you also need to organise packaging for your products. You’ll need to pick packing materials that reflect the style of your brand and which will appeal to your target customers. 

If sustainability is important to you and your customers, then this is an area where you can certainly make some careful decisions. Sustainable recyclable or compostable packaging materials will help to reduce the environmental footprint of your new retail business. Buying from a specialist packaging supplier like Tyler Packaging, who are experts with 40 years of experience in this industry, will make your purchasing decisions easier.

Don’t forget that if you are selling your goods online, you will also need shipping materials to make sure that your products are protected in transit and to choose a shipping method. Be sure to contact several couriers to make sure you get the best possible pricing for your business.

Choose your brand name

Picking your brand name is such an important decision and will have an impact on so many areas of your business from your packaging materials to your company logo. 

If you find it hard to get inspired, you could try searching on domain name registrars like 123-Reg, looking through lists of expired domain names or playing with domain name generators to try and find that all-important name. Check on the Companies House website as well to make sure that the name isn’t already in use by another business.

Once you’ve got your business name and registered your domain name, you can start to create your brand assets like your company logo. If you aren’t sure how to do this, you could either try using one of the customisable logo templates on Canva or hire a logo designer from Fiverrr. 

A middle-aged woman sitting at a table with a notebook, laptop and mug of coffee in front of her

Plan your marketing

You need to make sure that you get your message out in front of the right people (your customers) so a marketing plan is vital. 

Your website will play a key role in your marketing plan, even if you aren’t going to sell your goods online. So many purchases start off with an online search, so it’s important that your website looks good and is easy to find.

If you do want to sell your products online, you’ll need an e-commerce store. These can be set up really easily on sites like Shopify, Square and Squarespace. Each e-commerce platform has its own set of features and benefits, so take the time to look through them all and pick the right one for you.

Your website should be optimised for search engine traffic and if this isn’t something you feel confident about doing, it’s well worth hiring an SEO expert to look at your site. It’s best to hire one through personal recommendation or by looking carefully at reviews on Fiverr.

Other ways that you can promote your website or online store include:

  • Content marketing through a business blog
  • Online advertising like Google ads or Facebook ads
  • Working with social media influencers
  • Posting on social media
  • Affiliate marketing
Close up of a man's hands putting a coin in a piggy bank

Sort out the finances

Yes, it’s boring but making sure that your finances are in order is absolutely key to the success of your new business.

You should set up a separate bank account for your business and keep track of your incomings and outgoings through small business software like Quickbooks or Xero. This will make it easier (and cheaper) for your accountant to do your business accounts and taxes.

If you are planning to operate as a sole trader, you will need to register as self-employed with HMRC. It’s really easy and doesn’t take long at all. If you are thinking about running your business as a limited company, be sure to get professional advice on this. 

There are a lot of things to consider when you are planning to open a retail business, but the sense of achievement when you receive that first order is absolutely amazing. Good luck with your new business!