How to start an online store for next to nothing

Woman with shopping bags

Note that this post contains a few affiliate links. Most of the things I recommend are free. If you manage to host somewhere for free, let me know, I’d be interested too.

Once in a while, everyone gets an idea for something they’d like to sell online. Then the question arises where you can sell it for maximum profit. The first option is local websites like Junkmail or Gumtree, but then people assume you are either a scam artist or selling secondhand products. So, you drop your price accordingly.

The other alternative is selling through Takealot or Loot, but these have a few barriers to entry and might require a massive amount of stock. There are also international options like Amazon, eBay and Etsy, but with the shipping costs to get your product in other countries you price yourself out of the market.

When you start an online store, it gives you the freedom to control the number of sales per product, keep all the profit and build a brand that people trust. This sounds daunting and if I did not start writing this blog I would not even know where to begin. But this really is not rocket science and much cheaper than you think.

Step 1: What are you selling

You will either be selling products you made or something that you can get for cheap and sell for a profit. If you are doing the latter, you probably have a good idea of what you want to sell. My only advice is to stick to things you enjoy doing and would be doing anyway. If you are crocheting beanies while you are watching television anyway and everyone you know already has one with their name on it, that is probably what you should be looking at.

The next step is to find out whether it is a good idea to sell beanies. Enter a website called Uber Suggest. This is the website I use to test the popularity of keywords. It’s run by a very friendly bald guy and it is totally free. According to Uber Suggest, 210 people search for crochet beanies in South Africa per month.

The score on the right tells you how easy it is to rank for this search (lower = better). So, according to our bald friend, you have a 79% chance to rank for this search in South Africa. If you were to start selling patterns for your beanies however, you would get more traffic and it is easier to rank. This is an iterative process, but one you need to go through before you spend a year running a beanie business only to find out no-one is looking to buy unicorn beanies.

Once you have decided on your niche, you should search for something Google calls Google Trends. This is another free tool and really easy (and interesting). This shows you the search volume for your niche over time. Double check that it is something growing in popularity so you don’t enter a dying niche.

Step 2: Choose a domain name

This is easier said than done. I ended up narrowing my blog name down to three names and letting my wife choose since I was over it by day 5. Choose something short, easy to remember (and spell) and is available as a .com website. So in other words, learn from my obvious mistakes. If you are only going to be selling locally, then you can opt for a .co.za domain, which is a bit cheaper.

Don’t buy the domain since most hosting platforms will give you a free domain with your hosting package (including the ones I’ll recommend later). Check whether it is available in the meantime and whatever you do, avoid buying a domain from someone. It is ridiculously expensive and you will be able to think of something great that is free. Subscribe as soon as possible (even if you don’t start building your website yet) since your domain will need to age before you start getting traffic

Step 3: Choosing a hosting service

There are a few good options. When considering hosting services the two main things to look out for is up-time and speed. A good up-time will ensure that your users can always reach your website. Speed will ensure that your website is quick to navigate and that Google will prioritise your website. This will ensure a continuous stream of organic search traffic to your website.

One of the best hosting services out there is Bluehost. They ensure good speed and has a guaranteed 99.9% up-time. At $2.95 (if you use this link) per month, they are also cheap. You will need to sign up for two years. This will allow you to host one website for which you will get the domain name for free.

Another great option is Hostinger. Their uptime is marginally lower than Bluehost, but their speed is insanely good. For $2.15 (if you use this link) per month, you can host as many websites as you want and get one domain for free. You will need to sign up for four years.

At this stage, I am hosting locally through Afrihost. They are quite affordable at R75 per month, and you are on a month to month contract. This is ideal if you are testing the water. At some stage you will want to move, as Afrihost shared hosting is rather slow. I’ve optimised my website as much as I can, the only way it can get any faster is by changing the hosting service. I should be with Bluehost or Hostinger within the next two months.

Step 4: Making your website

After your hosting platform has been activated and you have received your free domain name, you can start building your website. This will be done on your hosting platform through something called a control panel. Here you activate WordPress.

WordPress is website-building software that allows you to make a website with absolutely no programming. You simply choose a theme, change the appearance by adding photos, pages and menus, which is really not rocket science. WordPress is absolutely free with all of these hosting platforms.

WordPress also has a massive amount of plugins that can be added onto the website. Plugins basically allow your website to do anything. This includes anything from making your website faster to linking your website to Google. Most importantly for our purposes, there is a plugin for making your website an online shop.

Step 5: Choosing a theme

Choosing the right theme for the website you want to start takes some time. You want something that is customizable and fast. Then I would also want my theme to be free. Some of the popular e-commerce themes are Storefront and Shop Isle. However, there are thousands to choose from, so don’t let me dictate what your website should look like.

Step 6: Make your website an online store

To make your website an online shop, you need Woocommerce. It allows you to add a shop page and load all your items. You can specify the price for each item and create variations like colour and quantity. The most important parts of this plugin, however, is the cart, payment processing and shipping options. You can choose to receive the money from the sales through various providers, including Paypal or Stripe. Both of these will charge a fee for processing the transactions. Woocommerce makes starting an online shop extremely simple and the best part, it is completely free.

Additional recommendations to start an online store

To ensure that everyone finds your website, it is important to index it with Google and ensure that your website has been optimised. This is called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and is critical to getting organic traffic. You can do a Udemy course on this to perfect it. These courses range from about R100 to R200 and for me, was money well spent. Otherwise, GIYF (Google is your friend).

The most important thing for SEO is to download a WordPress plugin called Yoast. It helps you to add search keywords and optimise your website based on Google’s requirements. It also allows you to index your website with all the biggest search engines. Note that it will take at least 6 months before Google starts prioritising your website and driving traffic towards it. Yoast keeps up to date with all the latest requirements and notifies you when you need to update a post for better rankings. Yoast should be the first plugin you install and it is free.

There is a lot of accounting software out there that you can use. Most people use either QuickBooks or Sage. If you do not need to pay any employees, I recommend using Wave Accounting. You can link your bank account, issue invoices and make financial statements. Wave is used online and is completely free.

To start an online store, you will need traffic. One of the best ways to do this (except for Facebook and Twitter marketing) is sending out a newsletter. For my newsletter, I use the plugin Newsletter. It helps you manage subscriptions and users. It also helps you build the newsletters. The plugin even does tracking of how many users open and click on posts or products. Best of all, it is completely free.

Extra

If you want to make changes to a page that your theme cannot do, Elementor is the answer. Is someone spamming your website with comments, Antispam Bee is the answer. If you want an all in one page speed optimisation tool that takes care of caching, minify and the rest, Pagespeed Ninja is the plugin for you.

Lastly, I recommend that every website owner should install Grammarly, since it is crucial that your website is professional, This includes using proper grammar. Grammarly edits your text while typing online, as if you are typing in Word, but better. All of these plugins are free.

I know this is a lot of information to process, but at least you’ll have an idea of how to start an online store. For a lot of the plugins mentioned in this post, there are alternatives. These are the ones I use. By using freeware to start an online store, you can easily start for less than R50 a month. The only service you should end up paying for is hosting which really is not that expensive. I hope this showed you that starting today is not that daunting. If this motivates you to start an online store, feel free to post a link in the comments for a bit of free marketing.

Be safe out there,

Hendrik

Quote of the week

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." – Henry Ford Click To Tweet

Endnote

Thank you for reading to the end. Apparently, the average person spends 8 seconds on a page, so you are special. If you have any suggestions, feel free to drop me a mail on the contact page. If I missed anything or you have questions, don’t hesitate to comment below. I might even notice it and respond. If you enjoyed this article and really want to throw me a bone, please share it.

Lastly, if you want to be bombarded with emails known as the newsletter I send out once a month (if I remember), please subscribe on the right. There are also links to my Twitter and Facebook pages on the right (or at the bottom if you are browsing with a phone). All information is based on my opinion and you can read more about this in the legal disclaimer.

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