If you’ve ever dreamed of making a living selling online, having the right strategy and executing that strategy well can turn that dream into a reality. Do you want to sell your own handmade, branded, curated or upcycled products? Perhaps you love the idea of working from home? With the right products, the right strategy and the discipline to see it through, anyone can learn how to sell products online successfully—including you.
Step 1: Choose the Right Products to Sell Online
The number one most important thing if you want to be successful with online sales is choosing the right product. You might love creating abstract art from pressed flowers, but if it doesn’t store well, ship well or there isn’t a large enough market for it, your costs will soon outpace your income.
There are several ways to find a winning product idea, and once you experience success with your main product, it becomes easier to expand your offerings with related products and accessories.
Commodities are the easiest place to start because people always need them. In fact, the top recession-proof online industries involve commodities. For guaranteed sales, consider selling things like:
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Soap and body wash
- Shaving accessories
- Skincare products
- Socks and underwear
- Clothing basics
- Baby goods
- Pet goods
- Cleaning products
- Vitamins and health supplements
- Home medical supplies
- Healthy snacks, drinks and meal kits
To differentiate yourself from your competitors and create a high-value proposition for online shoppers, consider developing a new product line that fulfils customers’ basic needs and also satisfies aesthetic, health, social and environmental concerns.
For example, hair and skin care products can be:
- Dermatologically tested
- Made with organic ingredients
- Infused with botanical extracts
- Packaged in recyclable bottles
- Made locally
Socks, underwear and clothing basics can be:
- GOTS or OEKO-TEX® certified
- Made from sustainable fabrics
- Coloured with natural dyes
- Social enterprise projects
No matter which commodity you choose, there is always a way to make it your own so that you know you’re bringing something valuable and unique to the table. As an added bonus, you’ll probably enjoy marketing and selling your product more, too.
The other main type of product that people sell online is something that appeals to a niche market. This includes things that aren’t necessarily daily essentials but strike a chord with a significant number of potential customers.
Consider offering things like:
- Party decorations
- Pocket knives
- Luxury goods
- Personalised gifts
- Fair trade items
- Wooden hand tools
- Hobby kits
- CBD products
- Subscription boxes
- Gaming accessories
Because niche buyers tend to be highly engaged and have a decent amount of expendable income, products for a niche market can be priced higher than middle-of-the-line commodities. Niche products also lend themselves to a subscription business model, which is a great way to generate reliable monthly recurring revenue (MRR).
Other Ways to Find Product Ideas
Besides choosing a commodity or niche item, there are a few other ways to think of a unique product to sell online.
An Opening in the Market
Rather than copy what others are already doing, look for a gap in the market that you could fill. For example, is there an item that others regularly import but doesn’t exist in your home country? Consider manufacturing and selling that product locally (import-tax-free). Or perhaps there’s an item that sells well in other online stores but the current offerings are of a low quality. That’s where you can step in with a more desirable alternative.
This idea is similar but different. What is something that frustrates you or others in your circle? Create the solution and you’ll likely have a winning product on your hands. WhatsApp and Decibullz were both created to solve a problem and ended up experiencing overwhelming success.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, flights and tourism-related sales plummeted as demand grew for hand sanitiser, face masks and loungewear. As you think about product ideas, read the news and pay attention to events that are happening in your town, city, country and world region. Offering products that are currently needed and avoiding those that aren’t will help your online store ride the wave.
Up-and-Coming Industry Trends
Visionaries, inventors and pioneers can find success with online selling by offering a product that’s new or on the rise but isn’t yet mainstream. For example, Tom’s Tumbler was the first tumble trimmer, and although others have developed the idea further, Tom cornered the market on keywords early on such that new players need to refer back to him in order to be found online.
Step 2: Choose a Fulfilment Model
There are three main fulfilment models for online selling enterprises. When choosing a fulfilment model, take into account how much space you have for storing inventory, your specific skill set and how easily you can package and ship goods from your location.
Make Your Own Products
If you enjoy making things by hand and really getting to know your customers, this could be the ideal fulfilment model for you. Consider an in-demand niche like wedding cake decoration, personalised baby gifts or ethical handmade jewellery.
Buy Wholesale and Add Your Own Branding (White Label Goods)
Perhaps you like the idea of developing your own brand but don’t have the interest or know-how to make the products from scratch. Using this model, you can buy basic unbranded products in bulk and add your own labels and packaging.
White-label product ideas include things like print-on-demand T-shirts, personalised puzzles, fair-trade handicrafts, initialled handkerchiefs and home decor. You’ll need space to store inventory and basic labelling tools to create professional-looking product labels and branded packaging materials.
Online sellers who don’t have the space for inventory or who want to work while travelling could consider a dropshipping model. Customers place an order on your website for products made by a third party, you pass the order on and the third party ships directly to the customer.
While it helps if the manufacturers and customers are located in the same country (in case there are back orders or shipping problems), you can essentially sell anything to anyone, anywhere—all while you’re sipping on a sangria in Spain!
Step 3: Create a Brand for Your Online Business
Once you’ve chosen a product to sell, it’s time to create your brand. Developing a brand image is essential for setting you apart from others who sell online. It also helps you connect with your target market.
As part of this step, you will need to:
- Conduct market research about your target market and competitors. Who is most likely to buy your products? Who are your competitors? What are they doing well? How will you differentiate yourself from the competition?
- Develop buyer personas. What is the gender, age, profession, income and location of your ideal buyer? What is his or her family like? What does he or she value? How much does he or she want to spend? Keep your ideal buyer in mind when setting prices and writing about your products.
- Choose a business name and register it with your country’s chamber of commerce. Your business name should be easy to pronounce and remember, describe what you do and be clearly different from the names of other businesses in your niche.
- Choose a tagline. This communicates your core mission, tells others what you’re about in a nutshell and helps potential customers relate.
- Design a business logo. It’s worth getting your logo designed professionally. It should be unique, eye-catching and communicate your brand.
- Choose theme colours for your website. Do you want your website to feel exciting? Calming? Active? Relaxing? Choose colours that create your desired feel.
- Develop a brand identity. Just as you develop a buyer persona, you also need a persona for yourself. Are you an eccentric inventor? A professional mum? A herb expert? A pet aficionado? Communicate this persona throughout your content and web design.
The stronger your brand identity is and the better you orient your website and communication to your target market, the better you will connect with potential customers and convert leads into sales.
According to a Rakuten survey of 1000 marketers from around the world, around 25% of the money spent on marketing is squandered on strategies that are ineffective. Having a clear idea of the buyer persona you’re trying to reach and connecting with those people effectively will save you time and money and hopefully lead to more sales.
Step 4: Obtain Necessary Licenses for Selling Online
The internet can often seem disconnected from the real world, but yes—you still need to register a business and obtain the necessary licenses and permits before you start selling online. E-commerce businesses in Europe, for example, will need:
- Business registration
- A certificate of incorporation (for public companies)
- A tax number
- A VAT number
- An EORI number (for imports and exports)
- A merchant account through a merchant account provider so that you can accept credit cards
When you sell products online, you will need to abide by the EU E-Commerce Directive and the General Data Protection Regulation. You will also need to pay sales tax and income tax and follow all of your country’s laws.
Step 5: Set Up Your Online Store
To sell online successfully, it’s important to have your own online store. With your own store, you can craft your own message and communicate your values and won’t be at the whim of the kinds of algorithm and policy changes that plague social media platforms.
If you have a brick-and-mortar store, your online branding and product offerings should be consistent with your existing business. Alternatively, you can start your business online and develop an in-person presence later on by visiting conferences and trade shows.
The most popular platforms for starting an online business range from completely customisable, code-heavy solutions like WordPress with WooCommerce to beginner-friendly platforms like Wix and Shopify.
In every case, you’ll need:
- A homepage
- An “about us” page
- A FAQs page
- A contact page
- Category pages
- Product pages
- A blog (optional but highly recommended)
Product images should be clear, well illuminated and include shots from multiple angles. Each product and category page should be filled out with “copy”—written content that combines moving descriptions that compel the reader to buy.
To sell through your online store, you’ll also need a PCI-compliant payment gateway that accepts all of the major payment cards plus alternative payment methods like e-wallets.
This payment gateway will be linked to your merchant account so that you can see detailed sales reports for each month and manage your transactions using more advanced merchant services like fraud prevention and chargeback mitigation tools.
Step 6: Consider Marketplaces and Social Media
Your online store is the place where you can really set the tone and establish a long-term relationship with customers via email marketing. However, there’s no reason to limit yourself to only selling there.
In addition to your dedicated store, you might consider selling through an online marketplace and on social media platforms. These online marketplaces take their cut of revenue and may charge a monthly fee, but they can be great places to become known—especially when you’re just starting out.
The primary marketplaces for online shopping include:
In Europe, top online marketplaces include:
When choosing a marketplace, compare the fee structures and product offerings to see which one would be most suitable and cost-effective for what you’re hoping to sell. If you want to sell e-books, for example, it makes the most sense to sell on Amazon. In contrast, customers usually go to Etsy to purchase handcrafted goods.
Social media is a great place to connect with potential customers in an informal setting, get to know them better and direct them back to your website. You can even sell directly on social media platforms too.
To start selling online via social media, create a Facebook business page, register with Facebook’s commerce manager, read the terms and conditions and complete the process to set up your storefront. You can also sell on other social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Pinterest and integrate your social media pages with your e-commerce platform (Wix, WooCommerce, Shopify etc.).
Please note: If you’re using multiple sales channels, it’s important to have an inventory management system that updates your database no matter where you make a sale. You don’t want to promise a certain item to someone only to discover it’s already sold out.
Step 7: Create a Marketing Strategy
Once you’ve built an online store and your products are ready to sell, you’ll need a solid marketing strategy to reach your prospective customers and let them know that you’re there.
Typically, an effective marketing strategy will include a mix of:
- Search engine optimisation (SEO) to boost your organic ranking
- Content marketing to reach customers who are already interested in what you offer
- Email marketing to connect with your existing customers
- Social media marketing to build community and generate traffic
- Paid marketing campaigns to become known, especially at the beginning before your website ranks on the first page of search engine results pages (SERPs)
- Video marketing to educate your potential customers and establish authority in your field
If you really want to launch with a bang, consider beginning your marketing efforts several months before you open the doors of your online store for business. You can build an email list with a freebie for signing up, run promotions and competitions and become active on social media. On the day that you officially open for business, celebrate with a live feed, video or time-limited discount and hit the ground running from day one.
Step 8: Automate and Outsource Tasks
Running your online store can be made more efficient by automating and outsourcing certain tasks so that you can focus on growth. Things like emails should be automated from the start, and you can outsource various other tasks as you grow.
Automating emails and social media posts saves you time and ensures you never miss a beat. Emails that should be automated include:
- Welcome emails
- Cart abandonment emails
- Invoices, receipts and shipping confirmation emails
- Follow-up emails requesting a rating and review
In addition to transactional emails, you can write your e-newsletter and social media posts ahead of time and set them to send (or post) on a certain date. Just be sure to double-check the email or post on the day and update the content if needed due to a more recent development, disaster, opportunity or event.
The strongest companies are made up of capable professionals working together. Identify what you do best and find others to take care of the rest. If your primary focus is on production, product selection or custom orders, consider finding other people to take care of:
- Bookkeeping and accounting
- Web development
- Graphic design
- Product photography
- Customer service
- Packaging and shipping
- Digital marketing, including:
- Keyword research
- Writing content
- Social media marketing
- Creating infographics
- Tracking key performance indicators (KPIs)
Step 9: Keep Improving
Once you start selling online, see each experience as a learning opportunity for growing and improving month on month and year on year. If at first, you fail, don’t give up! Analyse your strengths and weaknesses, make corrections where there’s a problem and respond to customer feedback. Choosing key performance indicators (KPIs) to track can help you see your growth and celebrate your achievements. Soon, you’ll be amazed by how far you’ve come since your first sale!
Online Selling Can Be a Lucrative Career
Based on 2022 estimates, there are approximately 12 million e-commerce stores operating online (excluding China) and more than 200,000 e-commerce companies in the United States make more than €100,000 per year. Taking into account that 74% of internet users in the EU shopped online in 2021, selling online isn’t merely a pipe dream—it’s just as real as opening a brick-and-mortar store.
To sell online successfully, choose a winning product, create an easy-to-navigate website with beautiful product photos, add a secure payment gateway and make your online business known through marketing campaigns and social media. If you execute each step well—consistently—and provide first-class customer service, your online store should be a great success.