If you have a passion for fashion, starting an online boutique is a great way to turn your hobby into a lucrative business and maybe even a full-time job. Customers are increasingly turning to online boutiques for everything from shoes and accessories to loungewear and business suits. For online boutique owners, this means the opportunity to sell quality clothing from the comfort of their home with a minimum of overheads and a nice profit at the end of the day.
Are you ready to make your mark on the world and earn a living doing what you love? These steps for how to start an online clothing boutique will help you hit the ground running.
Step 1: Learn Some Basic Business Skills
To run a successful online boutique, you’ll need some basic business skills. You can think of these as the foundation on which your boutique business will be built. You can find dozens of small business skills courses on popular e-learning platforms that will give you the tools you need, including popular platforms like:
While there is an infinite selection of courses available, there are five basic skills that are particularly helpful when you’re starting an online business:
Learning how to network and team up with others who have complementary skills is essential for running a successful clothing business. Your skill set might lay in design, sewing or curating. But it takes a lot more than clothes to start an online boutique.
You’ll also need to find and work with other people who are skilled in logo design, web development, marketing, logistics, bookkeeping, tax planning and business growth. That’s where learning how to create a professional network comes in.
The second skill you’ll need to learn is how to manage your business finances. At the end of the day, your online boutique needs to be profitable and you also need to make sure you’re complying with business tax laws or you could end up spending more than you make.
At a minimum, you’ll learn how to keep your business finances separate from your personal finances, how to keep track of your business expenses, how to calculate sales tax and how to prepare monthly, quarterly and annual financial statements.
Thirdly, you’ll need to learn how to structure your work days and manage your time. Once you become your own boss, there won’t be anyone there to tell you what to do and when. It will be up to you to create a daily program and discipline yourself to follow it if you want to see results. For example:
- Get up early, do some exercise, listen to a business podcast and eat a healthy breakfast.
- Browse fashion news and social media stories in your niche.
- Post on social media (this can be prepared ahead and automated).
- Respond to messages received overnight.
- Get up-to-date on sourcing, purchasing and manufacturing.
- Prepare the day’s orders for shipping.
- Eat lunch.
- Respond to customer enquiries immediately during business hours.
- Meeting or conference call on Zoom.
- Dispatch the day’s orders.
- Make a to-do list for the following day.
- Go for a walk, relax, meditate and spend time with friends.
- Go to bed early (when you can) and get a good night’s sleep.
On a weekly and monthly basis, you’ll want to review your finances and see where you might be overspending or missing out on opportunities for revenue. Depending on your business model, you might also spend a few hours on some days meeting with suppliers, retailers, e-commerce contractors (writers, designers, marketers, etc…) and your bookkeeper and/or accountant. Make a list of tasks to do each evening before finishing work for the day and write everything down in your diary so you never miss an appointment.
When you launch a new online boutique, you’ll need to let your target audience know that you exist. Just like a brick-and-mortar store requires a good location, an online boutique storefront won’t be visible to most customers unless it ranks on the first search engine results page (SERP). Eventually, you may decide to outsource your marketing to a third party. However, you can make a great start by learning about some of the most effective kinds of marketing and how to use them:
- Search engine optimisation
- Content marketing
- Email marketing
- Social media marketing
- Paid advertising
Finally, as online boutique owners know, “you are the brand.” To launch your new business with success, you need to embody the brand in your own personal style, the way you think, talk and act, and how you present yourself to and interact with others.
It takes confidence, perseverance and excellent communication skills to start and maintain a new online boutique after the initial excitement has passed. As you work on yourself and improve your intra- and inter-personal skills, your business should benefit as a result.
Step 2: Explore the Landscape
With the foundations laid, it’s time to conduct market research and find out what the opportunities are. As part of your market analysis, you’ll want to make reference to:
- Clothing and apparel statistics (e.g. Statista)
- Fashion and clothing business-related news (e.g. Business of Fashion)
- Keyword trends using tools like Google Trends and Google Analytics
- Competitor analysis (SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats)
- Surveys conducted with friends and family
Your market research will help you identify an “ideal customer” to whom you will sell and the kinds of products they want to buy—including their age, gender, geographical location, occupation, interests, pain points and budget. You will keep your ideal customer in mind as you choose your boutique niche and create a plan.
Step 3: Define Your Brand
This is probably the most creative part of starting an online boutique—sitting down with a pen and paper and brainstorming to your heart’s content. Taking your ideal customer from step 2, get your creative juices flowing and jot down ideas for the following:
A Product Niche
“Jack of all trades, master of none.” For your online boutique, pick a niche and do it better than anyone else. Many of the top business opportunities in Europe relate to health and sustainability, so for a European target market, consider a boutique niche such as:
- Organic baby clothing
- Reversible jackets
- Fair-trade ponchos
- Curvy swimwear
- Recycled cotton socks
- Athleisure wear featuring the customer’s name
- Any other niche that you’re passionate about and that has a sufficient demand
A Business Model
There are four main business models for an online boutique. The one you choose should match your skill set, interests and goals:
- Dropshipping business. You market and sell third-party products, which are shipped directly to the customer.
- Pro: This business model is the easiest logistically and carries the lowest risk.
- Con: Because it’s the easiest option, dropshipping is also the most competitive business model and offers the lowest profit margins. There is also a risk of third-party suppliers failing, so it’s important to choose your suppliers well. In addition, there are a lot of scammers in this market, so you must be extremely careful.
- Print on demand. Customers order a basic T-shirt printed with their chosen design.
- Pro: Not very labour-intensive.
- Con: Limited reorder potential.
- White label. You purchase unbranded clothing and add your own brand markers before the sale.
- Pro: Great for brand awareness and diversity of product offerings.
- Con: You don’t have complete control over the product design or quality.
- Custom cut and sew. You size, cut and sew every item of clothing yourself to the customer’s exact specifications.
- Pro: You have complete control over product quality, and little to no material is wasted. You can create a look and a style that’s entirely your own.
- Con: This is the most labour-intensive option for you and the most expensive option for customers.
A Business Name
For your business name, choose something that’s simple, memorable and communicates what your brand is about. Check your business name ideas with your country’s business registry, social media handles and check web domains for availability.
A Motto or Tagline
Create a catchy line that describes your business in a nutshell. Remember DeBeers’ “diamonds are forever”? The right tagline can have a huge impact!
Your logo is an eye-catching symbol that represents your brand and creates continuity across marketing channels. A graphic designer can create a logo based on your ideas and examples of logos you like.
Your theme colours are the colours you will use for your online store, product tags, social media accounts and marketing emails. The happy, eye-catching colour selection used in the Google symbol provides a great example.
Step 4: Perfect Your Product
Online boutiques are only as successful as the clothing they sell. Before you start to sell online, spend time sampling clothing brands and/or trialling different fabrics and cuts. The best fabrics and clothes to sell are those that hold their shape well in the washing machine, don’t pill or release any dye and are flattering, long-wearing and breathable.
Then, develop an accurate sizing guide for your online boutique along with instructional videos on how to take each measurement correctly. Your customers will appreciate being able to buy the right size on their first try.
Step 5: Create a Business Plan
Once you know how much your clothes will cost you to buy wholesale or make and you know how much your ideal customer is willing to spend, put those two pieces of information together—allowing for a healthy profit margin—and create a business plan for your clothing store.
In addition to financial forecasts, your business plan should include information about your business structure (sole trader, partnership or limited liability corporation) and how you plan to differentiate yourself from your competitors.
Step 6: Obtain the Relevant Business Licenses & Funding
This is where the rubber hits the road. You will finally register your business entity and secure funding to cover your startup costs. In Europe, businesses have to register with the local business registry or chamber of commerce to obtain a business license.
Then, you’ll need to register for your value-added tax (VAT) number for sales tax, a business tax identification number, and an EORI number if you plan to import and export your clothing. If you’re not sure where to start, a local lawyer can usually help.
Step 7: Open a Business Account & a Merchant Account
Once you have a business license, a VAT number and a certificate of incorporation (if relevant), you can open a business bank account, get a business credit card and start building your business credit score.
Finally, you will need to get a European merchant account through a merchant services provider to provide a secure checkout for your online boutique. Choose a payment provider that can support e-wallets and alternative payment methods to maximise your sales.
Step 8: Build Your Online Store
The quality and functionality of your e-commerce storefront are the main factors (besides the products themselves) that will encourage your website visitors to make a purchase. Setting up your website doesn’t take too long, and as long as you have high-quality photographs, a user-friendly interface and a responsive customer service team (you!), your customers should have a positive shopping experience.
Choose a Platform
There are several platforms that small business owners can use to build an online boutique website. WordPress is one of the most popular web hosting platforms, and the vast array of templates and plug-ins means you can build an entire business website without ever touching a line of code. Just note that WordPress has somewhat of a learning curve, and you must integrate a separate e-commerce system (Woocommerce, in most cases) to start selling products.
If you want something simpler, it’s best to choose a “drag and drop” ecommerce platform with all-inclusive web hosting and ready-made plugins. Popular options include Shopify, WooCommerce and Magento.
Add a Secure Payment Gateway
After you’ve chosen a platform for your clothing store and purchased a domain name, add a secure payment gateway that will allow you to accept all of the most popular payment methods as well as provide merchant services to help you track your sales and growth.
At this point, you’ll also need to create privacy, shipping and returns policies, automate your transactional emails and find a shipping company that will deliver your products to your customers quickly while keeping shipping costs to a minimum.
Add Your Products and Fill Your Website with Keyword-Optimised Copy
Once you’re set up with your own website, it’s time to add categories and products to your online boutique storefront! Here, a picture speaks a thousand words—it’s worth investing in professional product photography to make your website stand out.
After adding photos, create web copy for each product page using the keywords you identified in the research stage. This will help your website rank well and bring your first organic visitors.
Step 9: Launch Your Online Boutique
Your online boutique is ready to go. Now celebrate with a bang! Micro-influencers and social media campaigns can start to build excitement about your online store before the grand opening. Then you just need to mark the actual launch with a press release and go live.
Your first customers might be family and friends—that’s totally okay. Give them a great experience, ask them for reviews, and word should soon start to spread. Offering small discounts to thank customers for leaving a review is a great way to build up “social proof.”
Step 10: Promote Your New Business
Now, get into the swing of regular marketing, producing content and staying in the public eye. After adding analytics plugins and tracking cookies to your website, execute your marketing strategy. In most cases, this will include a mix of:
- Search engine optimisation
- Content marketing
- Email marketing
- Social media marketing
- Video marketing
- Paid advertising
Over time, track your web traffic to identify the channels that brought the most and least traffic and the channels that brought the most conversions. This will help you to refine your marketing strategy and direct your dollars to advertising channels that lead to sales.
Step 11: Sell, Listen, Improve and Grow!
You’ve followed all of the previous steps for how to start an online clothing boutique. Now it’s time to provide consistently exceptional customer service, execute your business plan, listen to feedback from your customers and continue to improve.
No one will get everything right the first time, but your willingness to learn, refine, grow, seek advice when needed and make up for your mistakes (quickly and with a smile!) will ultimately help your online business succeed.