becoming a designer: opening an online store

November 14th, 2011

I think for a lot of independent designers online stores work quite well. You don’t need a physical store, you don’t lose part of your profits through wholesaling, and you can connect directly with your customer. The downside is that you need to find a way to draw customers to your store in the first place (but that’s a topic for another day!). If you decide that an online store is the way to go, you are left with a number of options – I obviously can’t tell you about all the options, but I do know about the ones I’ve tried, and have some general advice.

  • Get your own domain name, and if possible try and host the store yourself. By which I mean, you need a website and a web host (ie a place to store all the background info that creates your site). I use JustHost and really like them. Buying a domain name is not that expensive (a friend of mine just bought their own domain name through google for $10), and I honestly think that if you don’t have your own domain then people are not going to take you seriously. Hosting your store yourself puts you on a different level than say having just an Etsy store.
  • Make sure whatever platform you use, that is is easy for you to use and easy for your customer to use. If it’s hard for you to navigate and maintain, then it’s going to be hell running your store, and you could end up overselling, or not filling orders, or doing a host of unprofessional things. Similarly, if it’s difficult for your customer to navigate your store then they’re unlikely to feel comfortable buying something, or worse they may not be able to figure out how.
  • Think carefully about where you want to go, and set yourself up from the beginning to get there. Do you want your store to be your main website, or do you want a website that’s separate from your store? Do you have a blog and do you want your store to be linked to it in an integral way? Are you starting small with the intention to get bigger – then make sure your store has room to grow and will work for a small as well as large number of products.
  • Don’t be afraid of spending money, because you’ll have to spend some. Unfortunately, there is pretty much no way you can run a store for free. Basically if you are going to take peoples money, you will need to pay someone to do that for you. All of the options I am about to discuss involve using Paypal for transactions- which I like because its easy to use, their fees aren’t too ridiculous, and since everyone is familiar with paypal they trust it. Having said that, everything I’m going to talk about is a low cost option. There are a lot of other people who can help you create a store if you’re willing to throw money at it, but I think for a lot of people low cost is the answer in the beginning.
Etsy seems to be the obvious choice for a lot of new designers. I personally, am not a huge fan of using Etsy. It’s a great site, but in my opinion it sends the wrong message if it is your only store. On the plus side, it’s a relatively cheap store front, and it’s incredibly easy to start your own store. Plus they will help drive some traffic to your store. There seems to be a very large community of people who support and love Etsy. I think it’s a good place to start if you want to test the waters, and see if you’re actually interested in having a line – but I really wouldn’t recommend staying there for long.
This is an option I looked into when I first opened my store, but found it too frustrating – having said that, some people really like it. If you are not familiar with wordpress, it’s a blogging platform. Actually, it’s the blogging platform i use :) The great thing about wordpress is that lots of people have created plugins for it, that extend the platforms scope beyond just blogging. Recently, a lot of plugins have been created to turn a wordpress blog into a store. The nice thing about this is that if you are used to blogging and wordpress, then listing items is as easy as writing and posting a blog post. The downside (in my experience) is that it can be a bit buggy. There are free plugins you can use – I’ve tried them, and honestly they suck. However, there are a number that you can pay for that are quite popular – but personally i think (and as with all of this, it’s just my opinion) that this is a risky option and that if you are going to spend money to manipulate a blog into being a store, then you might as well spend money on a real storefront. Something that was custom designed for that purpose from the beginning.
This is a fairly easy solution that everyone has access to. If you have a website or a blog then you can simply create products in your Paypal account. They will generate some html code for you to paste into your website, that will show a “Buy now” or “Add to cart” button for customers. It’s quick and relatively easy. This is the option I used when I first opened my store. My husband created my website for me, and then we populated it with the appropriate buttons. Remember?
This is not a bad option at all, but it still has it’s issues. It can look a little unprofessional if you’re not careful, but you can design your own buttons to make it blend with your store better, and it can be a little hard to keep track of your products and inventory in the Paypal interface, but honestly, it’s pretty good. You get the benefit of having a store completely in your control, even if it is a little cumbersome. If I hadn’t found my current store host, I would probably still be doing this.
I don’t know how many people have access to this option – but there are a lot of shopping cart providers out there, and my web hosting allows me access to a few for free. I tried to set up my store with I believe Zen cart when I first started my store, and I wanted to kill someone I found it so frustrating. I really don’t know much about it, except that I did not find it an easy thing to do.
And now we come to my personal choice. I use Big Cartel, and have been for a while, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Not only that, it seems to be the most popular choice with a lot of independent designers. I like it for a lot of reasons. When you’re starting out and have under 5 products, it’s free. When you grow and have more to sell they have very reasonably priced plans. They enable you to sell instant downloads (honestly, this is a very hard service to find, and they do it soooo well through Pulley). You can fully customize your store (on paid plans), you can use your own domain name, and it uses paypal checkout so it’s trustworthy. I have nothing but good things to say about Big Cartel. I think it allows you a cheap store front, thats easy for everyone to use, and allows you enough customization that you don’t look like an amateur. The only issue i see, is that if you are used to something like Etsy where they bring a fair bit of traffic to your store, you won’t have that anymore.
This is what my store looked like when I first started using Big Cartel – I never had a small enough number of products for the free version, but the next plan up was $10 a month and that suited me fine for quite a while.
And here it is now, with a lot of customizations and lots more products. I still love Big Cartel, and it would honestly be my number 1 recommendation to anyone wanting to open a store.
I hope you found all this info helpful!! I’ve tried to cover as much as I could, but if you have a question about opening an online store that I didn’t cover, please feel free to ask in the comments! XOXO

13 Responses

  1. Este says:

    Thanks for the advice!

  2. Sarah says:

    This is a great post with tons of valuable information! I’ve often wondered if Etsy would be the right way to go, but after reading this, it seems it may be better to start off on the right foot using Big Cartel.

    It seems the only drawback to using Big Cartel would be trying to generate traffic and sales. What would you recommend as far as that goes? I know a lot of bloggers that use sponsorships as a way to get people to their store, but I’m not sure how effective that is in terms of getting people to actually buy your product. How did you get started with advertising for your online store?

    This is all so great for me! I’m no where near opening my own online shop, but I love reading things like this. It really helps me put things into perspective and realize how much work it’s actually going to take if I really want to do it. Thank you for sharing your insight!! :)

    • Meg says:

      I’m so glad you found it helpful Sarah! It really is so hard making all these decisions when you don’t know what other people have done! Yeah, the no traffic thing is hard with Big Cartel. To be honest, I’ve been lucky in that my brand has grown mostly through word of mouth.

  3. Kristen says:

    Wow, thanks. In starting my own hand-knit line, I just set up my domain through oneandone.co.uk and my personal website through weebly.com and found both very user-friendly. Having your domain is really satisfying. My site is a work in progress, but you can see it at kristenorme.com. When I get to an online shop stage, I am definitely considering Big Cartel. Thank you so much for this guide, incredibly helpful.

    • Meg says:

      Hi Kristen! Your site is looking great so far! i adore the dress on the homepage – it’s gorgeous!

      I’m so glad i could be a little help :)

      All the best with your line, i hope you let me know how it goes!! xoxo

  4. Karrie says:

    Great advice ~ Thanks for sharing!!

  5. mil says:

    Thanks for the tutorial in e commerce! For those of us from another generation this is a whole new world….
    I dont want to start a store but I am fascinated be the process! Congratulations and well done on all your achievements.

  6. Nina says:

    I had a hard time deciding which site to pick for the online shop I want to open (it’ll be a while before I actually start selling stuff, but I’m slowly preparing everything :)). I decided to use storenvy.com (found it through google), I think it’s pretty new so that might be a “con”, but it does give you many possibilities to customize the layout, lets you use your own domain name for 5$ a month (you still have to buy a domain name from a host though!), is free no matter how many items you have (i think) and lets you create different ahipping “classes”. I also think it’s fairly easy to understand (as a seller). i guess you could compare it to bigcartel (which is my second choice, still thinking of maybe switching to bigcartel…)
    Thank you for this series by the way! I really enjoy reading about what goes on “behind the scenes” of an independent designers line :)

    • Meg says:

      Thanks for the info on storenvy – that’s one i hadn’t heard of! It sounds like they have some pretty great features! i’m really thrilled to hear there are some more options out there :)

      And thanks for the feedback on the series, i really love knowing it’s helping some people in a small way.

  7. Lo Hood says:

    This is just the best advice! Thank you Megan! I am currently on Etsy but do not only want to sell jewelry but vintage as well so I believe that my next step will definitely be big cartel. (I mean I thought of having 3 etsy stores (personal, jewelry, and vintage…that would just be crazy). This came at a perfect time to remind me that I need to push to keep growing and I think that is certainly a push in the right direction! Thanks again! :) -Lo

    • Meg says:

      I’m so glad you found it helpful hun!! I really didn’t want to poop all over Etsy -I hope i didn’t discourage you, because it is a great site – and honestly, for vintage, Etsy is wonderful – because i think most people go there first when looking for vintage clothing, so it’s nice to be included in their directly.
      (by the way, your necklaces are goooorgeous xoxo)

  8. chie says:

    hi meg! thanks for this post. im enjoying reading this series:)

    this post is great, because im thinking of switching off from etsy some day. my concern is how i can draw traffic to my site without the help of etsy – i’d be interested in knowing how you do it!

  9. [...] set up my website for me using a wordpress blog and paypal buttons- and we were ready to go. [...]