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8 simple steps to take your brick-and-mortar store online
Online shopping is the future—and the future is definitely here.
If you’re a brick-and-mortar retailer, it’s increasingly difficult to remain relevant without an online store. Customers expect the convenience and variety of online shopping, and meeting your customer’s expectations is essential to remain in business.
Last updated3 Jan 2023
Reading time17 min
Moving your brick-and-mortar store online is far easier than you think. Compared to the financial risk and varied set of skills you need to master to successfully open an offline store, setting up an ecommerce business is a piece of cake.
What’s more, online stores help you quickly learn about your customer’s behavior, which helps you build a clear picture of how to deliver the best possible experience and service. With the power of customer insights, your website can become your most profitable sales outlet yet.
This article gives you everything you need to start your voyage into the world of online selling, with a comprehensive step-by-step list of tasks to tackle.
3 compelling reasons to open an online shop
Here’s why opening an online shop can be an excellent return on your effort.
1. Get a larger reach (on a small budget)
The biggest reason to open an online shop is that it helps you expand your potential customer base almost overnight, and with few overheads, ultimately enabling more sales and creating more profits.
With an online store, your area of reach isn’t limited by geographical location or who can visit you during opening hours. Your digital shop front will work for you 24/7, for anyone with a Wi-Fi connection—even whilst you sleep.
The internet is awash with success stories about brick–and-mortar stores that use ecommerce to scale efficiently. Take the Bia Candle Company, for example, which launched in September 2019. Bia Antunes started selling candles to local boutiques in Sarasota, but when the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on in-person shopping, she decided to invest in an online shop. Despite starting with very few resources, her platform blew up. Whilst the pandemic crashed economies worldwide, she landed a regional deal with Whole Foods.
2. Build business resilience
As the headlines love to remind us, these are uncertain times. But most people agree that online retail isn’t going anywhere. Take your business online and it’ll become resilient to a spectrum of factors that could threaten a physical store—from the soaring cost of renting, heating, and staffing physical premises, to weird weather that keeps shoppers in their homes, to global recessions. Not to mention freak factors like pandemics.
What’s more, creating an online shop helps you retain customers. It gives them another buying channel if they move away from the area, or become too busy to visit during your opening hours. As every retailer knows, it’s much cheaper to keep a customer than make a new one—so this customer retention strategy is a worthwhile investment.
Going digital: a proven way to shore up a business against external factors
In 2020, Joseph Boo’s father owned a supermarket specializing in Asian groceries. When Covid-19 hit, he was left with a warehouse of rotting veg and no way to shift it. Joseph set up Asian-Veggies.com to recover his fathers’ costs. Though the pandemic supermarket closures are now over, Asian-Veggies.com has grown exponentially. The Boos expanded to a 7,000-foot warehouse to meet demand. The business wasn’t just saved—it flourished.
3. Work flexible hours
After you set up your online store, running it is a lot more time efficient than brick-and-mortar retail. Choose online instead of in-store selling, and you’ll no longer need to man a counter or manage staff to do that for you. You can use the time you don’t spend physically ‘keeping shop’ on more fulfilling or profitable areas of the business. There’ll be extra time to develop new products, improve your marketing, or simply enjoy life outside of work.
For example, Florent Schmahl’s parents ran a market stall in France selling vegetables. When the market closed temporarily, Florent helped them move it online. The Schmahl family’s online shop made 23,000 euros in their first month. This was slightly more than their typical month, and they only needed to work two days a week instead of five. Since Florent’s parents were nearing retirement age, this was a real lifestyle asset—and helped them keep their business without compromising their health.
As we’ve seen, taking your store online helps you increase your sales, recession-proof your business, and reduce your working hours—it’s a fantastic investment of your energy. Here’s everything you need to consider to break into the lucrative world of ecommerce, split into eight digestible steps:
8 steps to set up an ecommerce shop
There’s a lot to consider when setting up an online store, but don’t be overwhelmed—one of the benefits of opening online is that you can afford to take it slow. There aren’t as many up-front costs with ecommerce as there are with in-person selling.
Begin by investing small amounts of time and money. After trialing a few products on your ecommerce website, you’ll learn what works for your customer base, then you can add more products, run more ads, and invest more time in perfecting your site's design.
Let’s take a look at how it’s done:
1. Research your online store’s viability
Creating a brilliant ecommerce experience is a process of trial and error, figuring out what works for your customers and business. However, running background research helps you make a strong start. Here’s how:
Ask your users what they think
If you already have a website without a shopping section, use a tool like Hotjar’s Surveys to find out how your visitors perceive your digital presence. You might like to know whether your website visitors would consider buying from you online, how they came across your business, and what they think the design says about your brand. This helps you determine product-market fit, so you design an ecommerce store that aligns with your customers’ preferences.
Decide which products to launch with
It’s best to launch your store with a very small selection of products, then widen it out once your platform's established. To choose which, consider the 80/20 rule. This states that, in ecommerce, 80% of your sales often come from 20% of your product line. Make an educated guess about what your 20% best-selling products would be, based on your time in brick-and-mortar retail.
Run competitor analysis
Whatever you’re selling online, chances are someone else is already selling it successfully. Carefully analyze your competitors’ websites to learn how to position your product. Make basic notes on key concepts—like pricing, product descriptions, website layout, and product photography.
Consider your resources
Creating an online shop is cheap—but not free. You'll need to budget anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars to launch your store, plus the cost of maintaining it month on month.
Set-up costs will depend on whether you plan to pay a monthly fee to a hosting platform or ask a developer to code your website from scratch. You’ll also need to think about the cost of storing extra inventory, postage and packaging, and web hosting.
Also factor in how much time you’ll have to run your daily operations. Will you be able to handle packaging and posting online purchases yourself, or will you need to hire an extra pair of hands?
2. Create your website
Creating your online store doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Here’s how to start, and the factors you’ll need to consider.
Choose a platform to host your online store
First, decide on an ecommerce platform to host your online store.
Over a million online stores use Shopify, and it integrates with most website builders and popular customer insights tools like Hojtar. If your business already has a Wordpress site, the WordPress plugin WooCommerce is a solid bet. If you’re planning on selling large quantities of products to businesses, BigCommerce might be for you.
Pro tip: large platforms usually offer support for every aspect of running an online business, from designing the look and feel of your shop, to taking payments, to organizing shipping.
The most popular options are popular for a reason—and are your best bet. Check out this rundown of the top 13 best ecommerce platform options to quickly understand the lay of the land.
The alternative is to hire a developer to custom code a store for your business—either by employing them or by using a freelancer-sourcing website like Fiverr—but this will be expensive. It would also make you reliant on consulting a web developer when you inevitably need to change your site.
Decide how you’re building your website
It’s perfectly viable—and easy—to create your whole online store through an ecommerce platform like Shopify, Wix, or Squarespace. However, if your vision for your business includes more than just product listings and a home page—if you’d like to start a company blog, for example—consider creating a website to host your online shop.
There are some great website builders out there that allow you to create websites without understanding a single line of code. For a simple one-page site, Carrd is cheap, user-friendly, and integrates with Shopify. Webflow is a more versatile no-code option, with plenty of tutorials available on YouTube.
You might also have to pay for web hosting. That is, rent space on a hosting provider’s server so that your website has somewhere to ‘live.’ However, many website builders offer this service as standard, which doesn’t cost more than $5 to $20 per month.
Get a domain name
If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to buy a name for your website. To do this, go to a domain name registrar and type in the name you’d ideally like to have. It should be something recognizable so that your current customers can find you easily—your business’ name + .com is a classic formula. The price to purchase a domain name typically ranges from $2 to $20 per year, but many services offer a discount on the first year.
Common providers to check out include Domain.com, GoDaddy, and Namecheap.
3. Design your online store
The next step is to bring your vision to life. The fastest way to design a great online store is to use one of the templates your ecommerce platform offers. These are usually designed by professionals to follow best practices in user experience (UX) design—that is, to give customers an intuitive and enjoyable browsing experience.
Customize your template to create a sense of alignment between your brand identity in-store and online. If the tone of voice, color scheme, and illustrations reflect your in-store shopping experience, then your existing customers will feel confident that they’ve found the right website and are more likely to make a purchase. Here’s how:
Build for your audience
Who usually buys from your brick-and-mortar shop? Design your online store with your current customers in mind. Create ideal customer personas and outline their goals and pain points. For example, if your customers tend to be senior citizens, bear in mind they might be wary of online scammers and require extra reassurance in the product copy. They also might be more likely than average to use digital accessibility tools like screen readers.
There’s no substitute for talking to your customers and asking what they’d like to see. Use a product experience insights tool like Hotjar’s Feedback widget to get feedback in real time, and understand how your users feel about your site and their buying experience.
Offer clear and descriptive product listings
Your product listings are the equivalent of your sales team. Make sure your listings are as comprehensive as possible so your customer can fully understand the offer at hand.
This should include a gallery of high-resolution product photographs—images are a key factor when making a buying decision for 93% of consumers. Also include informative and well-spaced product descriptions, which answer all the common questions a customer asks before buying your product. For example, if you’re selling clothes, consider adding a sizing chart to help customers feel more confident their order will fit.
Choose a behavior analytics tool to monitor your site
It’s worth setting up behavior analytics on your ecommerce site from the beginning to gain valuable insights into your audience and what they do on your store as soon as possible.
Hotjar, for example, integrates easily with most major website builders and ecommerce sites, like Shopify, Wix, WordPress, and WooCommerce. It lets you watch recordings of what your customers do on your site—like whether they rage click on an image that they think takes them somewhere or can find the ‘add to cart’ button easily. Watching buyers try to purchase products helps you discover areas where your website isn’t as user-friendly as it could be.
For example, web design agency NerdCow watched Hotjar Session Recordings on one of their product pages and noticed that users were getting stuck on their search bar. There were too many fields, so their customers couldn’t easily find what they were looking for. Nerdcow changed the bar’s appearance—and their conversions tripled.
Regularly checking up on your customers with behavior insights is the surest way to ensure your ecommerce store is providing a brilliant user experience. With regular monitoring, you can examine and refine your customer experience, which will lead directly to more sales.
4. Think through the logistics of order fulfillment
Getting your products into the hands of your customers can be a logistical puzzle. To reduce teething problems, start with a small range of products, and expand your selection once you’ve got robust systems in place. Here’s how:
Make an inventory management plan
Create a plan to keep track of the products you sell online, and what remains in stock. Many ecommerce platforms offer an inventory management tool to track this automatically, but if you also run a brick-and-mortar store, you’ll need to tally this with your existing system, to account for both outlets.
You also need extra stock to accommodate your second sales premises, and somewhere to store it. This will create more stocking expenses, and could make you more vulnerable to risks if your product suddenly goes out of demand.
To minimize the risk of being left with more goods than you can sell, explore whether dropshipping would work for your business. This is an ecommerce model where you outsource manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping to a third-party seller.
Choose an order fulfillment process
Who’s going to pick up your products from the shop and put them in the post, in a package addressed to the correct customer? Even if you plan to do this yourself at first, you might need to hire extra help when your online store grows.
Figure out your shipping process
The next logistical issue to think through is shipping. To get started, weigh and measure your first product in the packaging you plan to ship it in. Use these numbers to check the price of shipping your product with popular shipping providers. You might need to limit the countries or states you sell to at first, so that you can give customers an accurate estimate of delivery costs.
If your brick-and-mortar store already has a local following, you could also offer free in-store pickup. Customers who value their face-to-face relationship with your store will be glad of this option.
Pro tip: whichever shipping method you choose, communicate your shipping policy clearly on your website. Ensure your policy's easy to understand and position it in an obvious place on your store—on product pages, in the shopping cart, and perhaps in a footer section too. Take a look at Shopify’s shipping policy template for inspiration.
Choose how customers will pay
You’ve done competitor research, calculated shipping costs, and factored in the labor of order fulfillment—so, now you can choose a suitable price for your first ecommerce product. Once you settle on a figure, it’s time to select how customers will pay. If you’re using an ecommerce platform builder like WooCommerce or Shopify, getting paid will be straightforward. You just have to connect a bank account, and select the payment methods you’d like to enable.
As always, make this decision with your customer’s preferences in mind. It’s best to offer them several options, since almost 9% of shoppers will drop off if their favorite payment method isn’t available. Popular options to try out include Paypal, Mastercard, mobile wallets like Apple and Google pay, and Shopify’s own gateway, ShopPay. Bear in mind that most platforms and payment gateways will take a small commission from every sale.
5. Manage customer support
Your customers expect to be able to reach you with questions about their purchases. When you’re just starting out, put your store phone number and a business email address in a visible place on the website. Monitor these during store opening hours, and, if you’re flooded with requests in the future, consider hiring customer support staff to respond to emails.
Follow these tips on how to manage customer support and minimize requests, so your business can create an amazing shopping experience:
Create an FAQ page
If there are common questions people often ask about your product in-store, create an FAQ page. For example, if you sell candles, one of the common questions might be, “Do you offer a gift-wrapping service?” Even if your answers aren’t always what the customer wants to hear, an FAQ page takes the pressure off of your customer support system.
Refund and return policies
At some point, customers will be unhappy with their purchase and demand a refund, so it’s important to plan how you’ll deal with this from the beginning. As with shipping information, ensure your returns policy is easy to understand and find. Link to it in multiple places on your site, including your product listings, shopping cart, and perhaps the FAQ page.
Thinking through this policy might just pay dividends—up to 66% of shoppers say they would spend more with a generous return policy.
6. Check you’re obeying the law
Before setting your store live, confirm you’re not breaking any laws. This prevents you from getting fined—or worse, shut down. That said, if you’re using a large ecommerce platform like Shopify, Wix, or WooCommerce, their comprehensive help centers explain how to stay compliant.
Investigate which taxes you’ll need to pay (which might change if your customers live in another location than you do) as well as the privacy and consumer protection laws in your area. If you’re selling anything abroad, check if your product can legally cross borders. Products like alcohol, nail polish, and CBD items, for example, are not allowed to move between some countries.
7. Test your store, then set it live!
Before you start driving traffic to your store, go through the purchase flow yourself to test that everything works. Most ecommerce platforms like BigCommerce and Shopify have a special ‘test mode’ for this, using a password-protected version of your site.
Check that you can purchase your product, request a refund, and also test which error messages appear if you use an incorrect card number.
For extra security, ask a few friends to make purchases on your site, and report back on any difficulties they have. Once you’re confident everything is working, set your store live!
8. Optimize your online shop
Once your store is open for business, you’ll probably spend the first year figuring out how to make it profitable. That’s pretty much a right of passage with any new retail outlet.
During that time, run regular website analyses to understand how to serve your customers better, and what changes could encourage them to purchase. The art of turning your site’s visitors into customers is known as conversion rate optimization, or CRO. Here’s how to optimize your site for maximum conversions:
Collect user feedback
Don’t underestimate the power of asking your customers how you could do better. Use a tool like Hotjar’s exit-intent Survey to understand why visitors decide to leave without buying anything—at the exact moment they leave your site. When you start to notice patterns in your users’ feedback, you can make an informed decision about what needs to change on your site.
Run A/B tests
One way to verify that your CRO tweaks are effective is to run A/B tests. This is when you show one version of your website to half of your visitors, and another version with a tweak designed to increase conversion to the other half. To split your audience like this, you can use a program like Google Optimize or Optimizely.
The best way to come up with hypotheses for A/B tests that are likely to work is to use a customer insights tool to see how your website visitors are behaving. For example, Hotjar’s Heatmaps tool shows you where visitors tend to linger on a webpage, and where they don’t spend much time.
If you notice, for example, that customers often hover in the middle of the page of your ecommerce store, but don’t usually scroll down long enough to find your ‘Add to Cart’ button, then running an A/B test will help you move the CTA into a ‘warmer’ zone.
Bring your brick-and-mortar store online to transform your business
Bringing your real-world store into the digital sphere might just be the best business decision you ever make. Compared to brick-and-mortar retail, the learning curve is shallower, and the potential for scaling up your business is exponentially greater.
It may seem daunting to master a new way of selling, but, at its core, ecommerce success is all about giving your customers what they want—just like running a physical store. If you regularly seek out insights into your customers’ needs, and constantly make small improvements to better serve them, your store will be making big sales numbers in no time.
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