How to Start an Online Boutique: A Step-by-Step Guide
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Window shopping looks a whole lot different today than it did five years, or even five months ago — which means there’s never been a better time to launch an online boutique.
With the convenience and safety online business offers, it’s no wonder people are more likely to scroll through their smartphones than they are to get in their cars and drive to the store.
Plus, ecommerce makes it much easier to launch your business and make money without the additional expense of a physical store. Of course that doesn’t mean you don’t still have to put in a lot of work to get your business started.
The good news is that we’ve compiled everything you need to get your online boutique up and running, from how to choose your product niche to mass marketing tips from the experts.
Online Boutiques by the Numbers
Before we get started, let’s review the definition of an online boutique. Basically, it’s a small shop that typically sells fashionable clothing or accessories through the internet. For instance, an online boutique might sell highly specialized products at a significantly higher price point than what you’d find in a traditional brick-and-mortar department store.
And one of the most appealing aspects of an online store is the growth potential. According to Statista, the value of ecommerce apparel sales in the United States is projected to grow to 100 billion U.S. dollars in 2021.
Additionally, in 2019, online fashion sales accounted for almost 30% of total retail ecommerce sales in the United States.
More and more shoppers are going online to purchase clothes, shoes and accessories — and this is especially true right now with many brick-and-mortar retailers temporarily closed.
As you can see, now is a great time to start that online boutique you’ve been dreaming about. And to make launching your online clothing business much easier, we’ve identified some important traits and skills.
Skills and Traits Needed to Start Your Online Boutique
1. Passion and drive.
Do you love spending your weekends scouring vintage shops for unique finds? Are you obsessed with coordinating your shoes with your outfits? If so, this passion for fashion will help you succeed.
Running a small business isn’t easy. When you’re knee deep in tax paperwork, you need passion and drive to keep you going. So before you make any kind of time or monetary commitment, make sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing — and you have the drive to succeed.
One of your most valuable assets is your network. Because even though you’re an expert jewelry designer, you might not know how to set up an LLC or design a professional logo. Through the power of networking, you can find people who do know how to do these things — and enlist their expertise.
If you’re new to networking, that’s okay. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Sign up for LinkedIn and join some relevant groups for small business owners.
- Become a member of an association, such as your local America’s Small Business Development Center Network (SBDC).
- Attend a conference to connect with other boutique owners and entrepreneurs, like this year’s Make It Big conference.
- Join an online community to ask questions and get inspired, like the BigCommerce Community.
Also, don’t forget to reach out to your friends and family. They’re a great resource for expanding your network.
3. Digital marketing.
As a business owner, you’ll need to wear a lot of hats. While you don’t have to be an expert in everything, it’s extremely helpful to have some background in digital marketing.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever to learn about digital marketing online. There are some great resources you can tap into to get familiar with search engine optimization (SEO), paid advertising, social media, email marketing and more. Here are a few options you can check out:
- DigitalMarketer offers everything from tips and tricks to full certification courses on a wide range of topics.
- HubSpot Academy has a full library of online certification courses, covering everything from content marketing to digital advertising.
- LinkedIn Learning includes easy-to-watch video courses that provide an introduction to digital marketing topics.
You can also search for blogs that cover digital marketing topics or watch YouTube videos from experts.
4. Business finances.
Similar to digital marketing, it’s helpful to have an understanding of your startup costs before you open an online store. The good news is that you can also do research online and take classes to gain a better understanding of how to manage your finances. Some things you’ll want to focus on include:
- Understanding your credit score.
- The different types of business loans.
- How to manage a budget.
Also, keep in mind that many people make mistakes along the way — and that’s okay. You just want to do everything you can in the beginning to set yourself up for success.
5. Time management.
The best part about being your own boss is that no one is telling you what to do. However, that means you’re responsible for getting everything done. And passion and drive can only take you so far. If you can’t manage your time, you’ll burn out fast.
Make your time a priority and work on developing this skill. Also, take advantage of the many books, apps and tools designed specifically for managing your time.
To have a successful online boutique, you need confidence. Believe that you can do this and don’t let negative thoughts get in your way.
If you’ve never read the story about how Sylvester Stallone persevered to get the movie Rocky made, you should check it out (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending).
While you might not need that level of confidence, you can take inspiration from his story and remember that even when things get rough, you can keep going.
10 Steps for How to Start an Online Boutique
- Decide your product niche.
- Find the best ecommerce platform for your online boutique.
- Create a business plan.
- Select a name and domain for your online boutique.
- Locate and vet your clothing suppliers.
- Create your website with an online store builder.
- Add products and descriptions to your online boutique.
- Launch your online boutique.
- Begin mass marketing.
- Revise, reinvent, and renew.
Decide Your Product Niche
While some creative entrepreneurs already know what they want to sell, you might have no idea. But that’s part of the fun — figuring out your product and niche.
So what do we mean by niche? When you’re starting an online boutique, you shouldn’t try to appeal to everyone. You want to target a small, specialized section of the population. Here are some examples for your business:
- Vintage clothes.
- Children’s clothes.
- Plus size women’s clothes.
- Men’s athletic wear.
- Hand-beaded necklaces.
- Metalwork rings.
- Stained glass earrings.
- Women’s purses.
- Men’s hats.
- Children’s shoes.
- Handmade scarves.
Also, think about your ideal customer. Keep them in mind so that you can ensure the products you offer will keep them interested. For example, if you decide to sell men’s athletic shorts and shirts, it wouldn’t make sense to then expand to selling women’s swimsuits. However, it would make sense to offer accessories like socks, jackets and shoes.
A great BigCommerce customer example is Modern Vintage Boutique. From the images and colors on their website, you can see who they’re targeting and the types of products they offer their customers.
Another important thing to keep in mind is customer lifetime value. It’s much more difficult to get a new customer than it is to sell to an existing customer. To maximize your profits and grow your online boutique, you’ll ideally want to offer products that keep your customers coming back to load new products into their shopping cart.
Find the Best Ecommerce Platform for Your Online Boutique
Now that you’ve got a product to sell, it’s time to build your store. For online businesses, this means your ecommerce platform. And there are some great options that make it incredibly easy to build an ecommerce website — even when you have no experience.
“You want a good partner that is not only going to be right for you today, but provide solutions for you to scale. It’s not impossible to change platforms but it is a lot of work and you make a big investment setting up your online business. So making sure you have the right platform partner is the #1 thing I encourage people to take their time understanding and ultimately making a decision on.” — Shayda Torabi, Owner, WithShayda, Restartcbd
Who is it for?
BigCommerce is for everyone. If you’re doing everything yourself as a solopreneur, the ease of use makes it simple to get started. On the other hand, if you’ve got an established business that you’re trying to take online, BigCommerce has the integrations you need to make the transition seamless.
- Robust SEO capabilities, giving you full control over your URLs, title tags, header tags and metadata.
- An integration with Instagram that allows your customers to make a purchase without leaving the app.
- Page Builder tool, which offers drag-and-drop functionality so you can make quick changes to your site
- Abandoned cart recovery, coupons and discounts, and single-page checkout are included out-of-the-box.
- 24/7 live agent support, as well as a dedicated help center and active community of merchants.
- Can handle up to 600 SKUs per product with 250 options for when you need to grow your catalog.
- Won’t charge you any additional transaction fees for using one of the 55+ supported payment gateways.
- A large partner network to help with everything from shipping and fulfillment to marketing and advertising.
Plans and Pricing
With BigCommerce, there are three plans you can choose from. Plus, there’s an additional option for larger businesses that need an enterprise solution.
Online sales per year.
Calculated on a trailing 12-month basis.
Up to $50k
Up to $180k
Up to $400k
As you can see, the plan you’re on depends on your online sales. However, you get access to an extensive list of features no matter which plan you’re on, which takes the headache out of selecting the right plan from the beginning.
Who is it for?
Out of the different ecommerce platforms, Shopify is probably the most well known. With a strong focus on ease of use, Shopify is an excellent option for small business owners looking to quickly launch an online store.
Stand out features
- Over 70 professional and responsive themes to design your website.
- Shopify Payments, which if you use it, lets you avoid the additional transaction fees you’d need to pay if you use a different payment gateway.
- More than 4,100 integrated apps to help you add additional features and functionality to your online store.
Plans and Pricing
Shopify also has a number of pricing models available that are very affordable. Plus, they have their Shopify Lite option for merchants who simply want to sell on their existing blog site.
If you want additional features added to your plan, that’s when you’ll need to upgrade your Shopify account. Make sure you evaluate the features most important to your business before you decide on an ecommerce platform so that you don’t need to unexpectedly upgrade.
Who is it for?
WooCommerce is an open-source ecommerce plugin for WordPress. So if you’ve already got a WordPress website or blog and want to get your online boutique open quickly, this is a great option for you. Additionally, developers and experienced website managers will enjoy the level of control they get with WooCommerce.
Stand out features
- Because WooCommerce is open source, you have complete control to customize and manage your store.
- There are several Core Payment options that are free to use, as well as over 100 premium payment gateways you can choose from.
- Hundreds of extensions you can install for help with shipping, accounting, marketing and much more.
- A large community of WooCommerce Meetup groups that you can tap into for help managing your store.
Plans and Pricing
You don’t need to pay anything to get the WooCommerce plugin itself. However, with WooCommerce you do need to cover the costs of hosting, an SSL certificate and other features that ecommerce platforms like BigCommerce and Shopify include with their pricing.
Create a Business Plan
Now, it’s time to create your own business plan. This will be your guide that lays out your goals and the steps you’re going to take to achieve them. You can then show your business plan to investors and banks when you’re ready to get additional financial assistance. Below are some of the main elements you should include in the business plan for your online boutique.
1. Market research.
You probably did some market research when you were deciding on your product and niche, but now it’s time to dive even deeper into your target audience. Here are some exercises you can complete to fill out this section:
Create buyer personas
Really think about the specific customers you want to purchase your products. You can include demographic information, such as their age, geographic location and income. Then, take it a step further and document what social media platforms they prefer, who they trust most for product information, and information on their personal style.
Conduct a market analysis
This is where you can determine:
- Is there a market for your product?
- How big is the current market?
- How fast is the market growing?
Make sure when you’re doing your research you find numerical data to back up your claims.
Complete keyword research
How you talk about your brand and your products makes a big difference when you’re trying to get people to find you. You want to conduct keyword research to ensure you’re using the right terminology. Down the road this will also help with your SEO when you’re building your online store.
Perform a SWOT analysis
This is a great technique for sizing up your competition. First, you can identify your main competitors. Then, you create a table that reviews strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This will help you position yourself in the market against competitors.
2. Business model.
Once you have a good understanding of your ideal customer and the overall market, it’s time to decide on a business model. The model you choose will also help inform which type of business licenses you’ll need. When it comes to clothing and accessories, most online retailers fall into one of these four categories:
Print on demand
For this business model, you’re simply adding some type of logo or design to a clothing item when a customer places an order. And you can either do this yourself or use a third-party printer.
Custom cut and sew
This is the most labor-intensive and costly of the models because you’re making everything yourself — or paying someone else to make it for you.
Private label, also sometimes called white label, means you’re partnering with a manufacturing company who makes the product. Then, you can add your branding.
Dropshipping requires the smallest investment — but faces the toughest competition. Dropshippers are essentially middlemen who order from a third-party company for delivery directly to the customer.
3. Financial planning.
This is the part of your business plan where you estimate your costs and your revenue. Here are some questions you’ll want to answer:
- How much money are you investing versus what do you need from an outside source?
- What expenses are you anticipating (e.g. production, shipping, materials)?
- How are you going to price your products?
- How much revenue do you expect to earn in the first year?
If you’re not sure how to calculate these numbers, this is an excellent opportunity to reach out to your network and see if anyone can help you plan your financials.
4. Marketing strategy.
Finally, you can lay out a high-level marketing strategy. While there’s basic marketing that every business owner should do, this is your opportunity to define your launch strategy.
For example, you might want to focus heavily on influencer marketing to build anticipation and excitement. You can collaborate with micro-influencers to promote the launch of your online boutique on their social media platforms.
You should also ensure that you have a press release or some kind of plan for the big announcement.
Since there are so many ways to market your business, you want to narrow it down in the beginning and focus on the channels that will have the biggest impact for your target customers right away.
Select a Name and Domain for Your Online Boutique
Now, it’s time to make your clothing business a reality by giving it a name. While you don’t necessarily have to keep this name forever, it can be extremely costly to re-brand. So definitely use these tips when you’re thinking about what you’re going to name your store.
You want to stand out from the crowd, so make sure you choose an original name. Go back and visit your ideal customer. What do they care about? Can you tie that into your brand name? Tap into the emotional and aspirational aspect of your ecommerce business to help you come up with a unique name.
In addition to being original, you want your brand to have some personality. Infuse yourself and who you are in the name. For instance, if you’re selling t-shirts with funny sayings on them, come up with a brand name that will make people laugh! This will help you with the next tip, which is to make your brand name memorable.
Once you’ve put together some ideas that are unique and personable, the next tip is to make sure people will remember it. Of course, you don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons. So this is another opportunity to reach out to your network and get feedback on your ideas. That way, if there’s something you didn’t account for, such as how your name might translate to an audience in another country, you can change it now before you’ve made any investments.
Even if you’ve come up with the perfect, most awesome name for your store, you can’t do anything with it if it’s not available. Check for trademarks, domain name availability, existing social media handles and more to ensure you can proceed with your business name.
Locate and Vet Your Clothing Suppliers
This is where your products come to life. Because even if you’re making everything yourself, you still need supplies. And you want to make sure you’re balancing the quality of the supplies with your budget. Additionally, you want to make sure this is a business (or a person) that you can have a good relationship with since you’ll be working with them frequently.
Here are some things to consider when you’re vetting suppliers:
1. Quality of the clothing.
Is the quality of the clothing up to your boutique’s standards? Request samples to get a better idea how the products will look and feel.
2. Level of support.
Are you going to have a point person to speak with every week or month? Make sure you have a conversation with them so that you can evaluate their communication style.
3. Reviews of the supplier.
Does the supplier have a history of success? Check online for reviews or reach out to your network to see if anyone has worked with them before.
Create Your Website With an Online Store Builder
You’ve got your product, your ecommerce platform and your business name, now it’s time to actually create the website for your boutique. Before you start though, make sure you have a logo, brand colors and pictures of your products. This will make building your website much easier.
Another thing that makes building a website from scratch much less intimidating is drag-and-drop functionality. If you’re a BigCommerce customer, you can use the Page Builder tool to create a beautiful website that’s easy to navigate — without having to touch any code.
1. Choose a theme or template.
The first thing you’ll want to do is pick a theme or template for your website. Most ecommerce providers, including BigCommerce, have both free and paid theme options that you can customize for your brand. And if you do have an interest in changing the code within your theme, BigCommerce’s website builder allows you to make those changes.
2. Add products and descriptions.
Once you’ve got the basic template in place, you can add your products. Plus, you can apply the keyword research you did for your business plan to your product descriptions — which will give your SEO a boost.
Also remember to think about your product pages as an opportunity to let your personality shine. For example, you can give tips on how potential customers can wear the clothing. Can they use a scarf for their neck and their hair? Let them know!
3. Generate checkout policies.
This is where you share the rules for your online clothing store. Typically, this includes your policies for shipping, returns, sizing and promotions. You can find a great example of checkout policies from BigCommerce customer Dainty Jewell’s.
4. Select accepted payment providers.
You may not realize it, but selecting the right payment provider can make a big difference for your boutique business. They keep credit card transactions secure and improve the checkout process for enhanced customer experience.
BigCommerce works with a variety of payment gateways so that your customers can use whatever payment method they prefer, such as PayPal or Apple Pay.
Also, as a side note, when talking about payment ensure you have a plan in place for calculating sales tax. Even online shopping requires you to collect sales tax in either your state or the state your customers live in.
5. Determine shipping.
Finally, you’ll need to set up shipping so that your awesome products can reach your customers. While you might not want to put a ton of thought into shipping, it’s actually one of the most important parts of your ecommerce store.
Amazon has set the bar extremely high. Customers almost expect everyone to offer 2-day shipping, which isn’t really feasible for new online businesses. If a potential customer feels that shipping costs too much or their items won’t get to them fast enough, they could abandon their cart.
If you’re a BigCommerce customer, you can collaborate with one of our shipping and fulfillment Partners to help ensure this won’t happen to you.
Launch Your Online Boutique
Once you’ve built your website, you can set up everything you need to launch your online store:
- Fill out your social media platforms with information about your boutique.
- Set up your transactional emails so they’re ready to go when you get your first order.
- Get your Google Analytics and tracking pixels set up to get data right away.
- Test all the functionality and links so that you know everything’s working correctly.
- Hit the actual launch button and go live!
It’s also time to put the marketing strategies you laid out in your business plan into action. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure you have some kind of press release ready that you can send out to generate additional buzz about your business.
Begin Mass Marketing
After you’ve done the initial push for your online boutique, you can settle into the day-to-day marketing activities. We’ve rounded up some expert advice to help you focus your efforts in areas that will make a big impact.
1. Social media.
Jessica Lago, manager of marketing and partnerships at iMedia, shares how you can succeed on social media.
“1. It’s okay to not use every single social channel out there. Pick the top 3 channels your target market is actively using and optimize your strategy for those. 2. If there is a shopping feature available on the social channel, take advantage of it. The shopping feature is an easy tool to set up and a seamless way to convert your followers who are already interested in your brand onto your site.”
If you’re a BigCommerce merchant it’s easy to put this into practice because you can now take advantage of checkout on Instagram.
2. Content Marketing.
Jordan Brannon, president at Coalition Technologies, stresses the importance of content marketing.
“People don’t consume products online (except, perhaps, in mobile or online games). People consume content. What are those product photos on your product listing page, if not content? What about the title and price and reviews? Content. What about the product description? Content. People buy content online, and hope a product follows.”
3. Email marketing.
Val Geisler, email conversion strategist, offers some great advice for how to approach email marketing.
“Get an email onboarding strategy in place (yes, I mean beyond confirming the order and shipping notifications) and go from there. It’s one of the reasons I built The Dinner Party Strategy™. It’s as simple as a handful of emails that focus on building a relationship with your new customers that goes beyond the transaction. That is, in fact, the magic of email marketing.”
Revise, Reinvent, and Renew
Now that you’ve launched your store, it’s time to dig into your data and analytics to understand what’s working and what’s not. Then, you can make changes and improvements, such as:
- Merchandising your best-selling products on your homepage.
- Testing new product copy or imagery on underperforming pages.
- Making changes to your cart where people tend to drop off.
- Adding product reviews and customer testimonials.
- Trying out holiday discounts and promotions.
You can also reach out directly to your customers to gain a better understanding of their specific needs and wants.
Build Engagement for Your Online Boutique
Once your store has been opened for a little while, you can go beyond the basics to build relationships with your customers and other brands.
1. Add an “about us” page.
These days everyone can sell a t-shirt. What shoppers want is a connection with the brands they’re supporting. You can build these connections on your About Us page. Write about what inspired you to start your business and how your passion for it keeps you going.
2. Partner with other brands.
A great way to grow your business is to partner with other brands. For instance, if you sell accessories, you can partner with another brand that sells only clothing to offer customers full head-to-toe outfits.
Additionally, you can cross-promote each other’s products on your website, social media and emails, creating a win-win for both partners.
Online Boutique Examples
If you need some examples of great online clothing stores, check out these BigCommerce customers.
Elka Collective’s brick-and-mortar boutique storefronts are specially designed for high-end simplicity with layered textures and natural tones to complement their clothing collections. And you can see how they’ve seamlessly translated that same aesthetic to their ecommerce store for online shoppers.
Plus, they use imagery and descriptions that will resonate with their ideal customer who “seeks quality, fashionable and relaxed garments to fit her lifestyle.”
2. Pop Threads
Pop Threads takes advantage of the fact that BigCommerce works great with large catalogs and multiple options so that they can offer their customers a wide variety of styles and sizes — everything from infant bodysuits to men’s 6xL.
As more and more customers turn to online businesses for their shopping needs, there’s never been a better time to open that boutique store you’ve been dreaming about. With the right combination of skills, a solid business plan and a flexible ecommerce platform, you can get your online boutique up and running in no time.
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