Ecommerce is soaring: in the first quarter of 2021 alone, retail eCommerce sales amounted to over $215 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The good news? It’s a seller’s market: customers are buying, and it’s easier than ever to set up an online store.
The bad news? Everyone’s privy to this boom. Competition is stiff as online stores open left and right.
These days, selling great products isn’t enough to stand out and grab the attention of online shoppers. Successful eCommerce sellers need a website optimized to attract and convert customers. That includes everything from ensuring your website can be found by adhering to SEO best practices to compelling your audience to buy with effective copywriting.
Here’s a 10-step guide on how to build an eCommerce website from scratch, chock full of advice on making your store stand out:
1. Narrow down your business idea and target audience
It may seem obvious, but the first step in building an eCommerce business from scratch is refining your business’s niche. Whether you sell physical goods or digital products and services, it’s essential to pinpoint who will buy from you and why. The answers to those questions will guide the look, feel, and words of your eCommerce website.
The same product can appeal to completely different audiences, each of whom would gravitate toward very different websites.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example: Say you want to sell natural, plant-based protein powder. This might appeal to weightlifters who use protein to build up muscle mass. It could also speak to vegan households that only use products with simple, plant-based ingredients. Same product. Different audience. Different messaging.
Once you hone in on your target audience, Copy.ai’s Audience Refiner tool can help you brainstorm that messaging. First, add a product name and a short description to generate some initial results.
Hit “create,” and the AI will generate some possibilities within seconds:
In the above example, Copy.ai provides options for potential audiences to market to. After some tinkering and additional brainstorming, voila! We have our audience: vegan bodybuilders who want affordable, plant-based protein.
2. Choose an eCommerce website builder
The next step in building your eCommerce website is to choose your website builder. Your decision comes down to your skills and budget: for most solo eCommerce entrepreneurs without coding experience, the best bet is an affordable platform with low-to-no coding required. Here are a few of the top eCommerce platforms:
Shopify is a leading eCommerce website builder. It’s easy to use, and setting up your store requires absolutely no coding experience.
Pros: Shopify has a clear interface and features multiple affordable plans: Shopify “lite” starts at $9/month and Basic Shopify at $29. The platform features a built-in payment system, requires no coding skills, and offers many unique themes.
Cons: Shopify doesn’t offer as much customization as some other options out there.
Image source: Shopify
WooCommerce, a WordPress plugin, is a self-hosted eCommerce option. This means you host and own your own domain. It’s a great option for people who have intermediate coding knowledge because it provides more control over your website.
Pros: WooCommerce is a free, open-source plugin (though you’ll need to buy hosting, a domain, and possibly a theme, as well as any extensions that aren’t included). If you already have a WordPress website, adding WooCommerce is easy. It’s highly customizable with lots of flexibility.
Cons: WooCommerce requires some coding. Buying extensions can get expensive, and adding too many plugins will slow your website down.
Image source: WordPress
BigCommerce is an all-inclusive hosted option similar to Shopify.
Pros: BigCommerce features an easy-to-use interface, an affordable price point (BigCommerce Standard plan starts at $29.95/month), no transaction fees, and 24/7 support.
Cons: BigCommerce’s premium themes are expensive. Each plan has a cap on annual sales, and after that, you need to upgrade to a more expensive plan.
Image source: BigCommerce
Wix is a general website builder that can also be used to make eCommerce websites from scratch.
Pros: Wix offers tons of free website templates and designs for all levels of technical skill. The most affordable plan, Business Basic, is $28/month.
Cons: Once you start building, you can’t change your website template.
Image source: Wix
3. Create a branded store name and logo
Let’s move on to Step 3 of how to build an ecommerce website from scratch. Now that you’ve picked your platform, you need a store name that pops — something memorable that sets your brand apart.
Consider your product, your audience, and your values. What matters to you and your business, and what sets you apart? Write down some of the words that come to mind. Do you think your audience will respond to a punchy name or a serious one? Write everything down, and don’t worry about being silly. You can get rid of the bad options later.
If you’re stuck, Copy.ai’s Name Generator tool can help you with some ideas.
Gather your top ideas for names, and be sure to test them out: ask friends what associations they have with the name, and make sure to check for any existing brands and trademarks.
Once you’ve settled on your name, you need a logo. If you’re looking for more affordable options, browsing designers on websites like Fiverr and Upwork is a good place to start. You can also create your own using Canva.
4. Add the products you want to sell
Undoubtedly, one of the most important aspects in building an ecommerce website from scratch is the products themselves. Each product in your ecommerce store should have its own page, with a name, image, and product description.
Give products attention-grabbing names
Product names can be simple, quirky, or anything in between, depending on who your audience is and what they’ll respond to. Keep them fairly short (think 2-4 words) and practice saying them aloud to avoid hard-to-pronounce names. You can use Copy.ai’s Name Generator for inspiration here, too.
Add eye-catching images
Next, you’ll need high-quality product images. One option is to hire a photographer to shoot your products. In a pinch, use a smartphone to capture your product images. Make sure you have good lighting with a clear background and nix any blurry or low-res shots. BigCommerce and Shopify also have guides for DIY product photography on a budget.
Create exciting product descriptions
Great product descriptions are your #1 tool for selling products on your ecommerce website. They’re important for SEO (we’ll talk more about that later), and they’re an affordable, low-lift way to improve sales: Salsify found that 87% of shoppers rate product content extremely or very important when deciding to buy.
Your product descriptions should be detailed, engaging, and answer all the big questions. For our natural protein powder, the product description might include things like ingredients, where it’s made, and the protein-to-sugar ratio.
For effective descriptions, always keep your target audience in mind. Copy.ai’s Product Descriptions tool can help. Add a short explanation of the product, and the tool will provide possibilities for detailed descriptions. Pick and choose what you like and generate additional options until you have a description that hits the mark.
Last but not least, in this step, set your product price.
5. Optimize your listings for search engines
Search engine optimization (SEO) is important for all businesses, but it’s crucial for ecommerce websites: 39% of all global ecommerce traffic comes from search. Since your business is online, one of the best ways to find new business is to optimize your page, so it shows up when shoppers search keywords related to your product.
The first step for SEO is keyword research. The goal of keyword research is figuring out what words your target audience uses to search for products like yours on search engines (Google, Bing, etc.). You want keywords that have a high search volume but aren’t impossible to rank for. For example, it’s much more difficult to be at the top of the search results for “jeans” than it is for “plus-sized jeans New Jersey.”
6. Create your store’s non-product pages
So far, you’ve learned how to build an ecommerce from scratch and add your products. But your work isn’t done yet. If product pages tell the story of each of your products, the following pages speak to your business as a whole. Create as many pages as you like, but these are must-haves: an about us page, a contact page, an FAQ section, and a homepage.
The about us page tells customers who you are. It’s a chance to share your story and showcase your values. If you’re not sure what that looks like, use Copy.ai’s Brand Mission tool to help you nail down what matters to you and incorporate it into your story elegantly.
A contact page is pretty self-explanatory: it tells your customers how they can get in touch with you. Be sure to include your social media in addition to a direct contact link (like email and/or a phone number).
FAQs help cut down on the time you spend on customer service and answering queries. If you find you get the same question about your products a few times, it’s a good idea to add the answer to your FAQs. You can also include return policies, disclaimers, and shipping policies.
Finally, your homepage is your ecommerce website’s storefront: it’s the first thing customers will see when they walk in, so to speak. To stand out, you need a hero image that pops and an attention-grabbing headline.
Don’t worry about design yet: different eCommerce website platforms have different options for designing the homepage, and depending on the eCommerce website builder you chose, you might want to design your homepage after you’ve chosen your theme (we’ll cover that in the next section).
7. Customize your ecommerce store
Now that you’ve created most of the content, focus on designing your store’s appearance. First, choose a theme. The eCommerce store builders listed in the first section each offer a variety of free and premium themes to choose from. You can personalize things like navigation menus, fonts, colors, and homepage layout.
Remember, the ultimate goal of your ecommerce store is to make it easy for visitors to find and purchase your products. Make sure your menus and design prioritize easy-to-use navigation, informative headings, and engaging homepage photos.
One great way to test usability is to have friends try out your store and watch how they navigate it. Where are they clicking? Do they get stuck anywhere? Can they check out easily? A set of fresh eyes can do wonders to spot issues you missed.
8. Set up payments and shipping
Each ecommerce website builder works slightly differently, but they all offer integration with payment services like Square, Stripe, and PayPal. Shopify even has its own payment portal called Shopify Payments. Make it easier for your customers by accepting as many different payment options as possible.
If you’re making physical products (as opposed to digital), you’ll need to set up shipping. The ecommerce website builders listed in section two have integrated shipping, so setting it up only takes a few clicks.
Finally, you need to set up your store to automatically charge and collect sales tax. All ecommerce store builders are set up for sales tax collection. The rate you charge will depend on the country you’re located in (and the state, if you’re based in the U.S.) as well as your sales volume.
9. Establish a marketing presence
The next step in building your ecommerce website from scratch: marketing.
Set up your marketing strategy you launch, so you’ll be able to hit the ground running from day 1. The ecommerce platforms from section two offer different marketing integrations. BigCommerce, Shopify, and Wix offer marketing toolkits in their platforms, whereas WooCommerce has free plugins that integrate with various marketing tools, which vary in price.
A newsletter is a great way to capture leads and keep potential customers engaged. You can add a newsletter sign-up directly on your store page and use it to collect leads, offer discounts, and share news about new releases.
Because SEO can be so competitive for small businesses, social media platforms are becoming an increasingly popular place to market your products and build an audience. According to Statista, 48% of U.S. internet users aged 18 to 34 have made a purchase through social media, so it’s worth investing the time in a social media marketing presence (though that doesn’t mean you have to go all out on every platform).
You’ve built your ecommerce website from scratch. Nice job!
But that doesn’t mean your work is over. Small tweaks like updating the copy or adding new photos can have a big impact on SEO as well as the shopper experience. Once you make your first few sales, consider collecting qualitative (like reviews and customer surveys) and quantitative (like click-through and conversion rates) data. This type of information provides insight into your site's performance and areas for improvement.
Whenever you need to freshen up your website copy, add new product descriptions, or create new pages, Copy.ai has all the tools you need to do it quickly and easily. Get started today for free!