How to Start a Store
A Step-by-Step Guide to eCommerce with Shopify and WooCommerce
A step-to-step guide on how to start your online store.
How to Start a Store: A Step-by-Step Guide to Shopify and WooCommerce
You've wanted to start an online store for forever—perhaps as a new venture or as a way to expand your existing physical business to the web. You've done your due diligence: you've picked out a name, developed your products and inventory, started your real business, and even looked through the top eCommerce platforms that could power your store.
But you're still not sure where to go from here. Online sales are intimidating, and there are so many new things that you've never had to worry about before: Product listings, SKUs, payment gateways, website themes, SEO, analytics, and more. It seems easier to just stick with selling products in your hometown or listing them on a marketplace site like eBay or Etsy.
That would work—but your own customizable online store gives you the greatest opportunity to brand your products, create a relationship with more customers, and put your best face forward from the first time people interact with your company. And it doesn't have to be that hard.
With this step-by-step guide, you'll learn exactly how to start your online store—and will be ready to confidently publish your product listings and manage your store by the end.
- What You Need to Set Up an Online Store
- How to Start a Shopify Store
- How to Manage Your Shopify Store
- What's Different with a WooCommerce Store
What You Need to Set Up an Online Store
At the core of any store are products, people, and payments. You list products for sale, attract people's attention, and then get them to pay you money and purchase the products.
In the real world, you could do that with a stand at a market, by getting your products carried by a major retailer or even by selling products door-to-door. Online, you have similar options, with online marketplaces, social media stores, and more that we've explored in our guide to starting an online store.
But the best option—the way you can feature products the way you want, get to know customers, and attract repeat business with your hands-on support—is by starting your own store. There are dozens of great tools for that, but we've picked two to feature in this tutorial that cover most use cases: Shopify and WooCommerce.
Shopify includes everything you need to start an online store, starting at $29 per month. In addition to managing your site theme and product listings, it also includes a payment processing service and can help you register your own domain name. You can even use its Point of Sales app to bring a digital face to your existing real-world store's checkout experience or manage your store on the go from Shopify's mobile apps.
WooCommerce, on the other hand, gives you even more flexibility for free—but with the additional complexity of running a self-hosted store. You'll be able to tweak and customize everything, but will also have to manage your own website and handle things like payments and domains on your own.
We'll start out with Shopify—it's the best option if you're still unsure which store to use for your tool—and then will look at what else you'd need to run the same store with WooCommerce.
How to Set Up a Shopify Store
Got a business name and some products to list in your store? That's all you'll need.
Just go to shopify.com, and enter your email address to make an account. Shopify will ask you a few survey questions about whether you have an existing store and then have you enter your name and address—where you should enter your business address, if you have one.
Shopify will automatically make a new site for your store at
yourname.myshopify.com—in fact, you can open it right now. But first let's dive right in and start adding your product listings.
1. Create Product Listings in Shopify
From the dashboard in the Products section, just click the Add a product button to start adding the stuff you want to sell. For each product listing, you can add:
- Title: a name for your product.
- Description: formatted text that describes your product.
- Images: photos of your product; include at least one.
- Date: an option to set a date when the product will be available. It's a bit hidden, but click the calendar icon beside Visibility to set a date for the product to launch (or, optionally, uncheck Online Store under Visibility to
- Product Type: the category of your product, perhaps
gadgets. Each product gets one product type, and you can choose from any product type or add a new one.
- Vendor: selling branded goods? This is where you'll list the brand name like
Tide, and each product can again only have one.
- Tags: keywords to identify your products in a less formal way, as an easy way to add terms like
winterto your products.
- Price: your product's price, typically not including sales tax for US-based stores. Check the Charge taxes on this product to have Shopify calculate sales tax automatically based on your business location.
- Compare at Price: want to list a suggested retail price or a price from another major vendor that's more expensive than your listing? Add that price here, and Shopify will show customers how much they're saving.
- SKU (stock keeping unit): a code to keep track of your internal stock of the product. You can add your own code if you have one, or make a new code for your products—it's just for your own internal management.
- Barcode: if you're selling branded goods, or already have your products in a store, they'll likely have a UPC code. Or, if you're selling books, they'll have an ISBN code. Add that there to keep your stock organized and help customers search for products in your store.
- Weight: your product's shipping weight, to calculate shipping prices.
- Harmonized system code: a code published by the US International Trade Commission to identify your products for international customs. Could be helpful to add for each product if you plan to sell internationally.
- Variants: options for your product, including size and color, which you can add to your listing. Be sure to include info about each variant in your product description and images.
You could list everything—or you could make things simple and just list the core items: Title, Description, Photo, and Price. Everything else is extra, but they can keep your store organized and help customers find what they're looking for.
Some options will show up as you're working. Say you add variants to your product. Shopify will add sub-listings for each one, where you can customize each variant's price, SKU, and barcode numbers.
When you're done, save your product. You can now add more products or jump to the next step and continue setting up your store.
Adding each product by hand can be time consuming, so Shopify offers a simpler option: Import. Back on your main Product page, click the Importbutton in the top right corner to bulk import product listings. If you already had a store on eBay or Magento, click the Import products from another platform link and follow the steps to bring those products in.
Otherwise, you can import products from a
.CSV spreadsheet file. Check Shopify's import guide for tips on setting up your spreadsheet, as you'll need columns for your product name, price, description, vendor, and more. Also, make sure each product has a unique name, or Handle as Shopify refers to the product name with imports.
2. Organize Products Into Collections
Adding all that info to each product is time consuming. It pays off, though, because it gives you a simple way to create Collections or sets of products in your store.
Shopify uses Collections to let you group your products, feature them on your homepage, and make it easier for customers to find items that go together. You could make a collection of all your blue products, say, or group a gadget and the accessories that go with it. You could make a random collection of your favorite products or the newest things in your store—it's your choice.
To add one, click Products in the side menu and select Collections. Add a name, description, and image as with a product. Then, you can choose to manually select items for the collection, or you can add conditions—the best way to make categories that you don't have to manage. Just choose the product variables to watch—the product tag, vendor, or weight, a word in the name or description, or whether it's in stock. Then enter the words or values to filter for, and add any other conditions you want.
Say you want only blue products that are in stock from Vendor X. You'd add a condition for
Product vendor is equal to Vendor X, a condition for
Product tag is equal to blue, and a final condition for
Inventory stock is greater than 0. Then you can choose to display the products alphabetically, in price or date order, or however you'd like.
3. Add a Domain Name
The best part about having your own store site is customizing it to showcase your branding. There are two ways to do that: with your own domain name and with a custom theme.
Your site's Domain Name—or the address customers will type in their browsers to visit your store—is perhaps the most important. You need something unique, ideally a name that's still available with a
.com extension, as that's what most people will expect when they type your site's name in.
Shopify includes an Add a Domain button in your dashboard, where you can either add an existing domain name or buy a new one. If you already own a domain name, just click the Add button and enter your domain name. Then in your domain registrar's settings, you'll need to set Shopify's IP address as your A record—follow Shopify's steps to setting up your domain to get it right.
Or, to make things easier, you can buy a domain from Shopify for around $13/year. Enter a name you'd like to use for your site, and Shopify will register it or suggest alternate domain names if that one's not available.
Your store also needs an SSL certificate along with your domain to enable secure transactions, so your customers can safely enter credit card numbers and other private info even over open WiFi networks. As a nice bonus, Shopify will obtain one for your domain, so you don't have to worry about that.
4. Customize Your Store Theme
Now that you have a domain name and product listings, it's time to make your store look great with a Theme, a customized design that changes your site's entire design and layout.
Back on the dashboard, select the Themes button to customize your existing theme (the default white Debut theme) or select a new theme. Shopify includes 6 default free themes, along with a Theme Store where you can choose from dozens of free or paid themes from designers around the world.
Select the themes you like to preview their details and variants, as some themes include multiple color or typography options. All themes on the store are guaranteed to work with Shopify's core store features, and some also include extra features like a video slideshow, zooming photos, Instagram and other social media integrations, drop-down menus, and more.
You can view a demo of the theme to see if you like it—and with paid themes, click the Preview button to see what your store would look like with that theme. Then, purchase the theme and click Install. From the Theme Manager page, you can then customize the theme.
Shopify themes are designed to be simple to edit with your own text, colors, images, and typography. They're built around Shopify's product listing tools, especially product collections. That's where the collections you made before come in handy; most themes let you choose a featured category to list on your store's front page and promote to your customers.
While you can't move, say, an image to any spot on the page you want, you canrearrange, add, or remove sections to customize the front page. Say you want to customize the description of your store, and add a video under that.
You'd click the Rich text box in the left sidebar, and add the text you want with basic formatting. Then, go back to the main menu and click the Add Section link near the bottom. Select Featured Video, click Add, then enter a link to your video on YouTube or Vimeo. Go back again to the first tab, and you can drag that new video section to right underneath your store's description.
Most Shopify themes make the most of your images, using an image for your store's name or logo, as the main banner on the front page, and to showcase your products and collections. For some extra branding, you can also tweak your store's colors and fonts, choose if your shopping cart shows up in a separate page or as a popover tab, as well as include links to your social media accounts from the General Settings tab.
Just select the item you want to change, and tweak each setting with a live preview on the right. You can change colors for most parts of your site, choose from a select of Google Fonts typefaces, pick between a drawer or full page for your shopping cart, and add banners to your checkout experience.
One thing you should add: a Favicon. That's the small icon that'll show in the top of the browser when people visit your site, or in the bookmarks list when they save it to visit later. It's a tiny way to make sure people know they're on your site. Just grab your logo image, then use a site like Faviconer or Favicomatic to convert it into a favicon. Download that image, then add it to your Shopify store design here.
5. Add Store Info
When editing your theme, you may have noticed a message about needing to remove your site's password to start accepting orders. That's nearly your last step to get your store launched.
Just click the password link—or select Online Store and then Preferences in the menu, and you can remove the default password that keeps your store under wraps while you're setting it up. On the top of that page, you'll also want to add a name and description for your store.
You can also add a Google Analytics code to track your store's traffic, although Shopify will keep tabs on your site traffic for you with its own Reports if you want to keep things simple. And if you plan on using Facebook Ads, you can add a tracking pixel to see if your ads are bring in real customers.
You'll be asked to select a paid plan to remove the password, and once you've done that, your store will be ready for customers. There's only one more thing: payments.
The simplest way to get paid in Shopify is with the built-in Shopify Payments gateway. Your store will use it by default, though you'll need to add your bank info to get paid. Just click Settings -> Payments, select Complete Account Setupunder the Shopify Payments box, and enter the rest of your personal info along with your bank account info.
And that's it. Your store is now open, and customers can buy your products and pay you directly. It was simpler than you thought, wasn't it?
How to Manage Your Shopify Store
Your basic store is plenty to get started, with product listings, a customized theme, featured collections of products, and your own domain name. Shopify will email you whenever you get a new order, and you could ship the orders to the address in that email.
To run an efficient, well-maintained store, though, you'll want to put a bit more work into Shopify. Here are the tools you need to keep track of your sales, add more info and features to your store, and let your store take care of itself with automations.
Manage Your Orders
By now you should have the Shopify menu down pat: you'll hover over the left side of the screen, select the item, and then click the sub-item you want. To see your orders, just select Order, and you'll jump right to the Orders sub-page. You can open any order, see which ones are paid and which still need shipped.
Just open your first order that needs to be shipped, and look through the page. You'll see the products ordered, the total paid, the customer's shipping address, and even a risk analysis where Shopify tries to detect if an order is fraudulent. You can add a comment or note on the order—perhaps to list something the customer said or to note which specific product you sent them—and can add tags to categorize that order. Then, click Continue to print a shipping label with pre-paid shipping from your postal service, or you can make your own label and just mark the order as shipped.
Now, some orders won't follow through—you'll have customers get started checking out and quit halfway through, or others who want to give you a direct order instead of ordering through your website. For the former, check the Abandoned orders page where you can see what those people ordered and can email them to encourage them to come back. Then, in the Drafts page, you can add orders over the phone or send an invoice to a customer for a custom product.
Add Extra Pages
Your store will include a few pages by default: your store's front page, a catalog of your products along with a page for each product, and perhaps an About page with details about your store. It'll also have a checkout page, which customers will see when they're ready to pay.
Want more—perhaps a way to share news with customers or a page to outline your company's history? Just open your Online Store page, and select either Blog Posts or Pages to add to your site.
Blog posts work just like blog posts in a WordPress, Medium, or Tumblr blog, and are perfect for sharing news or updates. You'll write a post, with a title, featured image, and tags for organization, and can include tables, images, text, and more in your post itself. Blog posts will then be shown in reverse chronological order with the newest post on top.
Pages, on the other hand, stick around. They're the pages in your store's top menu, and where you'll put things like contact forms, store info, directions, history, and anything else you know won't change often. The page editor works much the same as the blog post editor, with one addition: a Template selector. Your theme can include custom templates for different pages, and you can pick from those styles here.
Want to include a Contact form in your store? Most themes include a Contact template—just make a page to gather contact info, and select the Contacttheme. If your theme doesn't include a Contact page, you can add one with Shopify's theme code editor—or, you could just use any online form builder app to build a contact form, and then add its embed code to your Shopify page. That's a great way to add a customized form to your store, too, if you want to survey your customers or gather other data.
Sell in More Places
Your online store is a great place to sell products and put all your marketing efforts into one place. The only problem is, you'll have to attract customers to your store. That's tough—and sometimes it's easier to just put your products where customers already are.
That's what makes selling products on marketplaces so appealing—and Shopify can help you do that while still managing everything through your main store site. Just click the + icon beside Sales Channels in the Shopify menu, and you can add integrations for marketplaces including Broochy, Houzz, and Wanelo, along with social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. You can even add Shopify to Messenger to chat with customers and close sales right inside of Facebook's Messenger chat.
You could also simply share links to your blog posts and product listings on social networks. Shopify's integrations, though, let you do more. Its Facebook integration, for instance, automatically lists each of your products in a new Shop tab on your Facebook Page—and can even let customers purchase a product directly from Facebook while adding the order to Shopify along with your other orders.
Already have another website, perhaps a blog that has a large following? Shopify provides Buy Buttons that give you an embed code for any product on your site. You'll select a product or collection, choose how you want the product listing to appear, and then copy the HTML embed code to paste into your site. Shopify even includes a popover shopping cart, so customers can make their full purchase without knowing your existing blog or site isn't a real store.
Speaking of real stores: if you have a local business, you can use Shopify's Point of Sale channel to manage that, too. It gives you mobile apps that you can use to ring up purchases and process credit cards in person. You can then track your inventory for online and local sales together to make it easier to run your store.
Add Features with Apps and Integrations
Need more features? The Shopify App Store is filled with tools that help you do almost anything you want with your Shopify store.
Say you want to sell your products on Amazon and eBay too. There are apps for that, both to import your old listings and to cross-post your new products from Shopify to the other marketplaces.
The core extra tools come from Shopify itself. Check the Shopify profile on the App Store to find Shopify's social integrations, tools to add reviews or downloads to your products, a barcode builder and script editor, and more. Shopify keeps their core app focused on helping you quickly build a great store—and keeps the extras here as add-on apps. And for anything else you might need, there are 3rd party apps for free or paid that you can add to your store, or you could build your own with the Shopify API.
Another great option is using Shopify integrations from Zapier, an app integration tool that works with 750+ apps. You can use it to connect Google Sheets, QuickBooks, MailChimp, Slack, and hundreds of other apps to your Shopify store. That way, you can use your favorite tools to manage accounting, print labels, email customers, and more without having to copy and paste anything from your Shopify store.
Say you want to get an SMS notification whenever you get a new customer—and you want to add your new customers to your MailChimp email list. With a Zapier account, just make a new Zap (what we call worfklows between apps on Zapier), and select Shopify's New Customer option as the trigger.
Then, in the next step, select SMS as the app, and fill in the template to have Zapier send you an SMS message with info about your new customer. Click the + icon beside the Message field to add info from Shopify—perhaps the customer's name, order amount, and more.
Now, add one more step, this time choosing MailChimp (or another email newsletter app) to send your customers your newsletter. Select Add/Update Subscriber, then select the customer email address field to the Subscriber Emailfield along with any other data you want to add.
Turn on the Zap, and now whenever someone new buys something at your store, you'll get an SMS notification and they'll get added to your email newsletter list automatically. It's a simple way to make your store work for you in the background.
You can make your own Shopify integrations, or check out these popular integrations to get started:
What's Different with a WooCommerce Store
When you want to run your own store, there are two main ways to run your site: with a hosted service or a self-hosted service. A hosted eCommerce service like Shopify makes running a store site much like using any other app. You'll pay a bit more, perhaps, but will have little to manage besides product listings, order fulfillment, and customer support. Starting a site and getting your first sale only takes 5 steps, and there's little you have to worry about getting right with security.
Self-hosted eCommerce apps like WooCommerce are cheaper—WooCommerce itself comes for the low price of free. But it's traditional software you have to install and run on your own website's server. You'll need a bit more technical skills and will have to manage your site and keep it secure on your own. In exchange, you get more flexibility. You can tweak everything on your site, changing your checkout experience and catalog layout any way you want.
It's a tradeoff that many find worthwhile—and if so, WooCommerce is the simplest way to get started with the self-hosted eCommerce adventure. It's a free WordPress plugin that you can install onto an existing WordPress site, and only takes a few more steps than Shopify to start selling products.
To use WooCommerce, you'll need:
- A server or hosting account
- A domain name and SSL certificate
- Extensions for your payment gateway and an account with the payment service
If you already have a WordPress blog, you could just install the WooCommerce plugin. First, though, make sure your site has an SSL certificate which you can get for free from Let's Encrypt (and that your site shows
https:// in your browser address bar), as that's a requirement for selling products from your site.
If you don't have a WordPress site yet, you'll need to get that set up first. Sign up for a hosting account—Digital Ocean is a great option that we'll use for this tutorial. They offer VPS (virtual private servers) with WordPress pre-installed starting at $5/month, which makes it easy to get started.
Create a new Droplet (Digital Ocean's name for VPS servers), select the One-click apps tab, then select WordPress. Select the location and server size you want (the defaults are fine unless you have a preference), then create the Droplet. You can add your SSH key (or an encrypted way to identify yourself without a password—see GitHub's SSH documentation for more details) to login directly—or Digital Ocean will email you a password for your site and you'll need to login via SSH and change that first.
Now it's time to setup WordPress. Visit your site, select your language, then add your store's name, and create an account in your WordPress site. You can then log in and add pages and blog posts to your WordPress site—that's all you'd need to do if you just want a basic site.
For a store, though, you need to also install WooCommerce. Select Plugins -> Add New in the left menu, search for
woocommerce, then click its Install button. Click Activate once it's installed, and WooCommerce will open its setup screen.
Here, click through the options to set your store's location, currency, units, and payment services. You can pick from PayPal, Stripe, Bank Transfer, and Check payments by default—and if you use PayPal, just enter your PayPal email account and it'll be automatically added to your store. For Stripe payments, you'll need to add your Stripe account key to the WooCommerce settings; for any other payment gateways, you'll need to install their extensions and set them up later.
Manage Products and Orders
WooCommerce includes all the tools you need to list your products, organize them with categories and tags, and manage your orders and customers. But remember: your site is a WordPress blog first, with WooCommerce added on.
As such, the top Posts and Pages sections are where you'll add your About and Contact pages, and publish blog posts with news about your store. Then, further down you'll see a Products menu entry, where you can add and manage product listings. Each product includes a normal WordPress style page, with as much text and info as you want.
The most important part of the Product listing, though, are the fields further down. There, you can add a Short Description, which is what customers will see first when they visit your product page. You'll want to add the most important info and sales copy for your item here—then, in the top post box, you can add further details about the product. In the same way, the Featured Image will show up first on your page and in your catalog, while the Product Galleryimages will show up inside your listing as extra images of the product.
WooCommerce includes a number of other fields to help you manage your products. There are the standard price fields, along with inventory, shipping weight and size, and custom attributes. You can link products, for a simple way to build Shopify-style product collections of items people might purchase together. Or, add tags to group your products by manufacturer, color, and more.
Orders work much the same way: you can see orders by going to WooCommerce -> Orders, and can view each one on its own WordPress-style page. And, being WordPress, you can add comments and extra info to the orders to track anything you want.
Customize Your Store
Your store still looks like a blog—so you'll need to install a WooCommerce theme to make it look and work more like a store. And the best one to start with is free: Storefront. It's a base theme from WooCommerce that includes all the core store features and lets you customize it to fit your style.
Just select Appearance -> Themes to open WordPress' theme selector, then click Add New and search for
storefront to find the theme. Install and activate it, then click
Appearance -> Customize to open the theme editor. There, you can tweak colors and fonts, change your store's title and copyright, and add widgets to showcase your new products, blog posts, and more.
For a fancier theme, you can purchase Storefront Child Themes, which use Storefront's core features with their own custom designs. You can also download and purchase other WooCommerce themes. Or, you can edit your store's code by hand to design your own store.
Just click Appearance -> Editor, and you can directly edit your site's
CSS in seconds. Or, select any other file from the theme to tweak its layout and design in code. It's a more advanced way to build your site—but you'll get exactly the design you want.
Then, there's one more thing you'll want to configure before launching your store: your front page. By default, WordPress puts your blog on the front page, but you'll likely want your store front-and-center. To do that, open the General -> Reading settings, select the option to have your front page be a static page, then select your Shop page.
With that done, your store is ready for business. You can add extra product listings, accept payments via PayPal, and manage your orders right inside of WordPress—all on your own server. And, if you want to blog, your store is running on top of one of the most powerful blogging tools.
Add Extra Features and Integrations
Need more features in your store? Just like Shopify, WooCommerce also includes extra tools, this time called Plugins. You'll purchase each plugin for a one-time fee, install it into your store, and then set it up to work the way you want.
You can get started right from your store. Just select WooCommerce in the menu and choose Extensions, then browse through the plugins available or click the price button to jump to its page on the WooCommerce site. There, you can buy the plugin and download it. Back on your own store site, you'll go to Plugins -> Add New, and upload the plugin manually.
Each plugin comes with its own documentation, so be sure to check that to make sure you install and set up each plugin correctly. It's a bit more work than adding a Shopify App, but with WooCommerce you can customize the plugins if you want with the same tools you'd use to customize the themes. It's a powerful way to build the store you want.
Or, just like with Shopify, you can use Zapier's WooCommerce integrations to build your own powerful automated workflows for your WooCommerce store. You'll first need to install the WooCommerce Zapier plugin into your store.
Then, you can connect your store to any of your favorite apps. Zapier could add your new orders to your accounting app, send out emails to customers and staff, and much more. Here are some integrations to help you get started:
Go Build Your Store
Starting an online store actually isn't that difficult—with Shopify, it just takes 5 steps, along with time to list each of your products. WooCommerce only takes a couple of extra steps, which shouldn't be too difficult if you're accustomed to managing your own website.
The hardest work is in running your actual business—as it should be. That's where your store add-ons and integrations come in handy. They take care of the most tedious work, letting you list your products in more places, and print labels or send emails without ever copying and pasting text. It's more than worth it to take the time to go through the best integrations for your eCommerce site and figure out where you can save time going forward.
After all, it may only take 5 steps to start your store, but you don't want it to take that many steps each time you get an order. Make your store work for you, and you'll get to focus on your products and customers. That's what you started a store for, after all.
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