I've been reading (aka lurking) a lot of posts lately and a good deal of them seem to be about starting a web store. Recently I wrote an article on this subject and wanted to share it with all of you... if you have any comments/ critisisms please let me know so I can refine this and make it as good a guide as possible.
Do you want to start your own web store? Have you dreamed of quitting your 9-5 job for a truly profitable work-at-home one? While we can't guarantee you'll reach financial freedom, we can help you start up your own web store with just 5 simple steps. Follow this guide and you can have a fully functional store up and running in a matter of days!
Step 1 -- Get a product!
This may seem obvious, but every day someone asks me how to start a webstore even though they have no clue what it is they plan to sell! Although you can sell any product, some work better than others; products commonly found in major stores tend to be harder to sell, while rare, hand made, or highly desirable products can do very, very well. If you can obtain your product (or make it yourself) for less then the retail, shipping and tax costs then you have a winner. The product is the simple part so long as you always remember the golden rule: if a user can't save money buying it online they aren't going to order!
Step 2 -- Pick a shopping cart
There are generally two ways to approach shopping cart software: either you can build your own or you can buy or download a third party product. Building your own software is time consuming and can be extremely costly. Since shopping carts generally handle private data they have to be well written and extra secure, and since they also have a great number of features, development costs tend to be high. Of course if you build your own system you can control it down to the smallest detail, which allows you to better target your customers. Custom software requires you to balance cost with features and in the end only the larger, higher volume stores will really find themselves needing this level of control. For most stores, a third party program will more than suffice. With third party systems you have a whole range of options, from free programs like osCommerce to paid carts like X-Cart. Again, the choice comes down to control, features and cost. osCommerce is an extremely powerful and feature rich program, but it is geared towards developers. Free support is limited and in the end it's up to you to assume liability, perform upgrades, add features and do any other form of maintenance. Of course if you have a developer in house (or are a developer), osCommerce provides a great start towards running your own software; the look and features are all up to you and the cost is perfect! On the other hand, if you need something a little more user-friendly with more support and an actual warranty, we recommend a product like X-Cart. X-Cart is an affordable shopping cart solution that is very user friendly and will easily tie in with your merchant account. Using a third party shopping cart is the quickest way to get up and running and provides you with the most cost and time effective way to get your store up. You are however limited to someone else's license, someone else's timeline (for support and ordering), and someone else's interface.
Step 3 -- Get your site hosted
No matter how good your software is or how popular your product may be, you need a place to put your store and that place is a host.
Large stores expecting over 50,000 users or $5,000 per day should consider purchasing their own server. Mid-level dedicated servers generally run for around $150-$200 and give you absolute control over every aspect of your site. With a dedicated server you don't have to worry about your host overloading clients on the machine, you control the security settings and you can upgrade as you see fit. Of course running your own server means hiring a very technical and sometimes expensive system administrator to set things up for you. Many companies will of course do this for you, but unless your traffic and profit are high enough to cover the costs of network support, you don't want to go the dedicated route. We recommend ThePlanet for high quality, well priced servers with support that is virtually unmatched by anyone else in their price range.
For 99% of stores, a shared hosting account known as a virtual host will work. Virtual hosting comes in many flavors from many providers. For the most part you will need to decide between a windows host and a linux host. The majority of hosts use linux because of its open source environment and extreme control; linux is cheap, fast and has dozens of simple to use control panels that will help you run your site (some even include osCommerce or similar free shopping carts). Windows hosting is also a good option but is generally only ideal for people using ASP or Cold Fusion software or an Access database. Many hosts will offer you all in one e-commerce packages, which may or may not be worth your money. As a general rule, check out the individual costs of each service (hosting, shopping carts, merchant account, ssl and a domain name) before you sign up with anyone for the entire package. Also be sure that you are satisfied with the quality of these services and are not simply settling for the easy way out -- if you can't figure out how to use the software now, you will have major problems down the road. For a list of good hosting providers, check out www.browsehosts.com or www.webhostingchoice.com
Step 4 -- Accepting Credit Cards
Once you have your product, your software and your host you'll need a way to take your customer's money. While some stores accept only checks or paypal type systems, you should know that over 90% of customers choose credit cards when they have a choice! A merchant account allows you to accept credit card payments directly over your website without any delay or user interaction. Merchant accounts come in two flavors, 3rd party and direct (true). You can read about these types of merchant accounts here, but for the most part, you will want to use a direct merchant account. Having the right merchant account will save you money (lower rates) and reduce fraud and charge backs with advanced screening tools. When it comes to web stores we recommend you choose a direct (true) merchant account like www.e-onlinedata.com .
Whatever option you choose for your merchant account, be sure your shopping cart software from step 2 supports the merchant gateway. If possible, you will want to use a seamless integration method, which will allow your users to submit credit card data directly over your website, without making the user leave your website. Also be sure to review some common fraud prevention tips before you open for business. Finally, you will need an SSL certificate to go along with your merchant account. SSL certificates are used to encrypt your data and verify your business to the world. Without these documents hackers and other malicious users will have a much easier time accessing your client orders. You can purchase an SSL certificate from GeoTrust (via ev1.net) or InstantSSL for under $50. Many hosts may also provide SSL certificates for a low rate; just be sure the certificate is well accepted by browsers (over 95%) and costs less than $200.
Step 5 -- Getting Customers
No web store is complete without customers, and while there are many methods to getting business, they all focus on one idea -- promotion. From Pay Per Click campaigns to banner advertising, to print ads, phone ads and TV ads there is no limit to the type of advertising you can run. Always remember that the only acceptable advertising is advertising you can track. If you run ads online, track your click to sale ratio to discover how profitable your campaigns may be. If you run a radio, tv or print ad, offer a coupon code that you can use to track the results. If you're serious about turning your web store into a successful business then you need to take a serious approach to advertising. Once your store is up and running (and looking good), don't hesitate to purchase small ad campaigns all over the place. Track your campaigns and ditch anything not performing well; if you work hard and find some good deals you should be able to make a nice profit in a short time.
There you go, that's the basics to running your own store. Things can become very complex quickly, but if you stick to this plan and create a task list, setting up your store will be a quick and relatively painless process. As you put your store together don't hesitate to check out your competition or other random stores for ideas of what to do and what not to do. If you find yourself stuck feel free to drop me a line (pm or email) and get a bit of help or just some advice.
Current version of this article can be found at www.moderninsider.com/article37.html