This is how to start an online boutique for dummies that will cover the most important aspects of starting an online boutique from scratch and finding success quickly.
The idea of starting an online boutique store sounds very sexy and you can probably see yourself shopping for some really cute stuff to sell in your boutique…and getting to have some of that for yourself as well.
The reality is very different though. People who run successful boutique stores online are often not what you imagine them to be.
Most of the time your store will not even sell stuff you like yourself. You will spend a lot of your time managing your online store, fulfilling orders, sourcing (or creating) products and dealing with a whole host of customer, fulfillment and sourcing problems.
This guide will deal with the bigger picture issues and give you a bigger overview of what it really takes to be successful with an online boutique.
My goal is that by the end of this guide that you will have a really good understanding of what you need to do to really get started.
If you are looking to start an online boutique and you are filled with fears and doubts, that’s okay. There will never be the perfect time to start. Now is as good a time as any.
There’s a multitude of skills required and most of them you can learn as you go. The main skill needed is that you have a passion for business.
If your passion is in fashion, then this is not necessarily the best option for you. Starting an online boutique store is a business and unless you have keen interest in the business side of it you will struggle.
Most of your time will be spent on things other than the actual products you will be selling. Don’t let the sexy idea of running your own online boutique mesmerize you.
With that in mind, lets dig into how to start an online boutique for dummies.
How To Start An Online Boutique For Dummies in 7 Steps
- Find Your Market/Niche
- Source or Create Products For That Market
- Create a Name and Brand
- Set Up Your Online Store
- Legal Requirements
- Getting Traffic To Your Store
- Fulfill Orders
- Growing your online boutique store
1.Find Your Market/Niche
This is where most would-be entrepreneurs trip over. This is why it is the first step and arguably the most important when starting any business.
You are NOT starting a business for yourself.
Your business is not there to fulfill your needs or to indulge in your curiosities and passions for certain products or ideas. This could be part of it but should never be the main focus.
We often see “success stories” of people who had a passion for something and then pulled it off as a business. This is the exception rather than the rule.
The rule is that you are not other people. This means that what you like and what you want is almost never a reflection of what your market wants or needs.
The main focus of any new business, especially starting an online boutique is about people. It’s about serving people by fulfilling some need or desire they have.
You need to find your audience and clearly define who they are and exactly what THEY want. Knowing who your potential customers are from day one will help inform every decision you make about your business.
A lot of people throw around the idea of always putting your customers first. The problem is that they put their customers first at the wrong stage of the business.
Trying to sell products to customers who do not want to buy those products is the hardest job in the world.
Selling products to customers who are already searching for what you have to sell and who love what you have to sell is easy and effortless.
You can save yourself a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money by really understanding and defining your niche and your market UPFRONT.
Most people make the massive mistake of starting with their product(s). They then go looking for people who want to buy what they have.
If you start with a niche market; a clearly defined group of people who share specific wants, needs and desires then all you have to do is to find the right products to help fulfil their needs.
Do not fall in love with products and hope that others will share your love for it. If you want to start an online boutique that succeeds quickly you need to drill down to a very tight and very specific niche audience.
The secret is to start as small and as tightly focussed as you possibly can. Growing and expanding is something to worry about later on.
You can sell designer breastfeeding pillows to new moms and that would be a pretty tight niche but how about setting yourself apart and selling designer breastfeeding pillows to new moms with twins?
The purpose of thinking that small and targeted is not to be small but to find a ‘hole’ into a much bigger market.
Always keep in mind that people shop for boutique items because they are unique. Make sure that what you have to offer is unique in some way.
Here are some quick tips to help you define a clear niche market.
- Are there competitors online who are already successfully selling what you want to sell? (you want to see at least a few strong competitors as that is a good sign).
- Create a ‘customer avatar’. This is a fictitious character that represents your ideal customer. What are their demographics? What do they love? What do they hate? Etc. This customer avatar will help inform all your decisions.
- Does your ideal market hang out online? Where do they hand out and can you reach them?
2. Source or Create Products For That Market
To start an online boutique you will obviously need products to sell. If you did a great job in step 1 and know exactly who you are selling to then finding products to sell will be much easier.
One of the great challenges for an online boutique is in buying stock that you can not sell. Not only will this tie up your capital but it can quickly cripple your business. Without cash flow your business is dead.
There are essentially two ways to go about it when starting an online boutique. The first is if you design and create your own products and the second is if you source your products and/or buy it wholesale.
→ Creating Your Own Products
Creating your own products can be incredibly fulfilling creatively and has a lot of benefits when starting an online boutique.
Hand-made one-off products fit perfectly into a boutique shop because people are already looking for and expecting unique products that are not freely available commercially.
When you make your own products you have complete control over the quality which is a big deal. People expect a level of quality when they buy from a boutique store.
The biggest challenge however is that making the products will take up large chunks of your time. Running an online boutique requires a lot of time away from creating products.
If you make your own products you will soon run out of time and unless you can get some help you will start burning out pretty quickly
Many online boutiques become a victim of success where they get too many orders to be able to keep up – especially if you are a one-man or one-woman production team.
→ Wholesale, Suppliers and Sourcing Products
If you have zero skills in making your own products then that is perfectly okay. Most online boutiques are simply a collection of thoughtfully curated products.
There are a number of ways for you to source products that you can sell. Finding reliable wholesalers and suppliers can be a challenge.
One of the biggest challenges is to commit to large amounts of stock upfront. It is often the only way to get your cost price down enough to turn a decent profit.
Being stuck with unsold stock is far worse though as that can completely cripple your business.
If you are starting an online boutique on a budget then you need to commit to small amounts of stock and find suppliers and wholesalers who work with small boutiques.
Trade Shows are great places to connect with wholesalers and suppliers. You can also try and find independent designers and always try and negotiate prices and quantities.
Unless you have a big budget to play with, I would recommend you only source stock on consignment.
When you get stock on consignment you basically only pay for the stock that you sell. This has a huge advantage in that it frees up your capital and greatly reduces risk.
Your profit margins will be much lower though but it is a small price to pay to remove the biggest risk factor when starting an online boutique store.
Sourcing product will be one of the most time consuming tasks there is in starting an online boutique. In some cases you could find just one great supplier and they can take care of all your product needs, but most of the time you will need several suppliers as you start growing.
Never over extend yourself on buying inventory.
3. Create a Name and Brand
Once you have a very clear picture of your niche market, your ideal customer and your products you can start thinking about the name and the branding of your online boutique.
The reason why you need to know your customers and your products first is because you name and branding will stem from that.
Naming and branding a store is both an art and a science.
→ The Science
The science behind branding relates to how you can craft your name and your message to suit and appeal to your ideal customers.
This is why the first step is so important because it will help inform your branding, your name, your logo and everything else that helps to communicate what you sell and whom you are selling it to.
→ The Art
The art of branding is all about how you creatively interpret all the different aspects of your ideal customer and your products into a congruent message that appeals to them.
Branding is NOT a logo or a company name. Branding is the message that your name, your logo and your philosophy conveys to a potential customer.
It is often a very subtle message and requires a lot of creative thinking to portray your branding effectively.
Branding helps customers to instantly connect with your products and your ideas in an indirect way.
Always keep in mind that you are starting an online boutique – you are not starting the next Gucci or Nike.
As a boutique you need to appeal to your small and tightly focussed audience and have a name, logo and image that appeals to them. Something that oozes quality, handmade and explosive is what people look for and expect in a boutique store.
4. Set Up Your Online Store
Step number 4 in how to start an online boutique for dummies is where things get real. Many people start here and try and figure out the first three steps when it is already too late.
If you do not have any technical skills then this step can be intimidating. I get that. It is however not that hard at all. There are literally hundreds of online tutorials where you can learn almost anything for free.
You could pay someone to do this for you but I would urge you to at least learn the basics.
You essentially have tow options when setting up your online shop. The first is to set up your own shop on your own domain (ww.MyShop.com) and the second is to set up your shop within an existing marketplace like Amazon, Ebay or Etsy.
You most certainly could do both but when you start you should focus on just one.
→ Set Up Your Own Online Store
Setting up your own online store is by far the most challenging. You will be responsible for almost every aspect of your store which makes it much more demanding.
It does however give you complete control over every aspect of your boutique store.
Shopify is the most popular shopping platform and is a hosted solution. This means that you simply pay a monthly subscription to Shopify and they host your store on their servers.
They also take care of all the transactions etc and will wire you your money (minus the fees) once or twice a week.
Shopify is incredibly easy to use and very reliable. It does come with monthly subscription costs though which starts at $29 but quickly adds up once you start adding some apps to improve its functionality.
A second option is Woocommerce. Woocommerce runs on WordPress which is the world’s most popular CMS and it is all free.
There are however other costs. You will need to get a web host to host your WordPress installation. You may also need a theme and some plugins but most of these are one-off costs.
Woocommerce is much harder to set up and maintain and I would not recommend this unless you have some technical knowledge or experience.
A third option you could consider are site builders like Wix that now offer online stores. These tend to be very user-friendly with very simple drag-and-drop functionality.
The reason why I personally don’t like it is because it can be very limiting once you start growing. In terms of cost it tends to be roughly the same as Shopify though.
The biggest challenge with setting up your own online shop on Shopify or Woocommerce is the fact that you are responsible for everything.
You will need to generate your own traffic either via paid ads or via SEO and this can be a huge challenge.
→ Set Up Shop on Etsy, Amazon or Ebay
The biggest advantage of setting up your shop on existing marketplaces like Amazon or Etsy is the fact that you can plug into the traffic and customers who are already there.
Amazon is the biggest online shop with millions of active buyers. Getting your products in front of these people will make selling much easier.
If you are starting an online boutique then Etsy is probably the best fit. Etsy is the world’s biggest marketplace for handmade and unique products and that fits perfectly into the idea of a boutique.
Etsy users are passionate about handmade and one-of-a-kind items and there is proof of concept on Etsy. There are hundreds of boutique shops on Etsy selling anything from handmade candles to handmade hair clips.
The best part about Etsy is that it is free – or almost. They charge a $0.20 fee for every listing and then take a small fee on every sale you make.
Etsy is so easy to use and they take care of almost everything. This allows you to pour all your energy into your products.
If you want to open an online boutique where you make and sell your own products then Etsy is the perfect place for you.
Amazon has Amazon Handmade which is similar to Etsy. Its not free and not as easy to use as Etsy but allows you to tap into Amazon’s gigantic buyer base.
5. Legal Requirements
This is the part of business that scares most people. Checking all the boxes in terms of taxes and legal requirements is important.
It is often filled with jargon and can be hard to understand. This how to start an online boutique for dummies can not give you all the exact legal requirements simply because it varies so much.
Every country and every state will have different legal requirements for businesses. I suggest you look up the small business section in your local state to get some guidance on what is required from you.
Most states have fairly good guidelines that spell it out in simple language.
Some of the basics include the following:
Business Name – you will need to register as a business in your local state. This will register you for tax purposes and identify you as a business (usually an EIN).
Seller’s Permit – some states and/or countries require a seller’s permit or a reseller’s permit. Some do not require this when selling online while others only require it for certain products.
Taxes – Taxes make up a big part of any online business. The Nexus tax in the USA is quite complex and something you need to make sure you understand – especially when selling on Amazon.
If any of this jargon is above your head, you should get an accountant or tax lawyer to help you. You can often pay them an hourly rate and just sit down with them for an hour or two just to get all your questions answered.
6. Getting Traffic To Your Store
By far the most important part in how to start an online boutique for dummies is traffic. Traffic is the lifeblood of any online business. Being able to get people’s attention online is the new commodity.
You may have the best shop with the best products but without traffic you have no business.
Before you even set up your online shop you need to have a clear plan on how you are going to get traffic to your store. The idea of “build it and they will come” is a pipedream.
There are essentially three ways in which you can drive traffic to your online boutique.
→ Marketplace Traffic
Marketplace traffic is when you tap into the existing traffic on marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy and Ebay.
This is by far the biggest advantage of setting up shop on Etsy or Amazon since they already have a massive customer base. This allows you to focus almost exclusively on running your store.
While you can buy ads on Etsy and Amazon, you can succeed massively without spending a dime on ads.
Ebay has become a bit of shit hole in my honest opinion. There are just tons of Chinese sellers flogging all sorts of crap.
As a boutique store the only real avenue that I see working well on Ebay is if you sell vintage stuff. For some reason this sells very well on Ebay. For most other boutique type products I would give Ebay a miss.
→ Search Engines and Pinterest
Driving traffic through search engines and Pinterest is the by far the best way to get free traffic to your store.
The big challenge however is that it takes a lot of time and effort. Getting your store to rank for certain keywords requires meticulous keyword research and optimizing every page on your store for particular keywords is imperative.
Getting a new store to rank for competitive keywords can be a massive uphill battle and often takes 6 months to a year before you start seeing any significant amounts of traffic.
With Pinterest you can also get free traffic to your store and it usually takes a lot less time than Google. Pinterest however needs constant updating and pinning and there is a fair amount of strategy involved to succeed.
Free traffic is never really free. Although you don’t pay for click directly, you indirectly pay with your time and effort to get the free clicks.
Unless you target low competition keywords that are largely untapped I would not recommend this as your primary strategy for getting traffic to your online boutique.
→ Paid Traffic
Paid traffic is by far the quickest and easiest way to drive targeted traffic to your store. Facebook Ads and Google Ads are the two most popular platforms and both can be good for different reasons.
It really depends on what you sell. Facebook Ads is all about interruption marketing and getting people to make impulse purchases.
Google Ads and more specifically Google Shopping Ads is all about targeting people who are already looking for what you have to sell.
Both these ad platforms have a huge learning curve and they are both quite sophisticated. Unless you have a budget of at least $1000 to $2000 to learn the in’s and out’s I would not recommend it.
Buying traffic is all about achieving an ROAS (return on ad spent). If you spend $1 you want to make back at least $2.00 and most often $3.00.
Not only do you need to account for your ad spent but you also need to account for your product and fulfilment costs.
As a rule of thumb you want to spend 1 third on ad costs, one third on product costs and one third is for profit.
Paid traffic is not for everyone. You may want to consider getting an agency who specializes in doing either Google ads or Facebook Ads or both. It is pretty much a full time job just running ad campaigns and will leave you very little time to work on the actual business.
7. Fulfill Orders
Order fulfillment is essentially everything that happens from the moment someone makes a purchase in your boutique until the day they receive their parcel in the mail.
Order fulfillment depends a lot on how you source your products. If you make your own products then you need to plan very carefully to make sure you can keep up with orders during peak times.
If you source your products from a supplier or wholesaler then you need to make sure you plan for inventory appropriately
Packaging and shipping is a really important part of running an online business. You need to always keep your customer experience in mind.
A beautifully packaged parcel that gives people instant satisfaction with their purchase is what you should strive for.
I like the idea of ‘over delivering’ by always giving customers something better than they expected. Think about ways in which you can present your products in a really special way.
Also think of ways in which you can add extra value to your customers. A handwritten note, a coupon for their next purchase or even a small gift will go a long way.
The real secret to success with an online boutique is to have repeat customers. What’s even better than repeat customers are fans. When people really love your products and your brand then they become fans.
Fans will talk about your boutique and your products and tell all their friends. Your goal should always be to build a tribe of fans as they will become your customer base and buy every new product you release.
Shipping is also a critical part of your online boutique. You need to make sure that you get products to customers fast and that they receive their products intact.
How To Start An Online Boutique For Dummies – Conclusion
I hope this how to start an online boutique for dummies guide has given you a good overview of what is really important. I did not cover a lot of the ‘how to’s’ because that is really not all that important.
Most of the technical stuff you can learn or easily find answers to online. Sometimes this gets frustrating but pushes through it. You will need to stretch yourself and learn new things if you want to have a successful online business.
These ‘bigger picture’ ideas are the really important stuff. I speak from the experience of many failed online stores.
Every single one of these 7 steps are essentially and I can trace every failure back to one or more of these.
Understanding your niche and your customers is probably the most important piece of the puzzle. This will inform your branding, your image and your products. If you get this wrong then everything else will be an uphill battle.
The next most important part is traffic. I love Etsy for this very reason. Getting traffic is free and relatively easy. There is a learning curve though and you need to understand how Etsy works and how to get your piece of the massive traffic pie.
I’ve had stellar success with Shopify store as well but that is a very different ballgame. You will spend at least 50% of your time on getting traffic to your store. Facebook Ads and Google Ads are great.
You can scale a store very quickly but you can also get in the hole in a bad way if you don’t manage your ROAS carefully.
At the end of the day, the most important ingredient of starting an online boutique is enthusiasm. If you are enthusiastic and motivated you can push through all the obstacles.