Starting a ecommerce boutique

NH writes:

I’ve been a fan of your site for some time now and really enjoy your informative articles. I’m planning on opening a contemporary women’s apparel and accessories boutique that caters to women sizes 8 to 18. However to keep overhead down in the beginning phase of the business I’m thinking of starting it as an ecommerce boutique. I wanted to know if you have any information or advice on starting a venture like this. I believe I can start it small and maintain the inventory (around 200 units) in my house and handle shipping through UPS. Please share your thoughts…

I’m not qualified to reply. We hope I may impose upon you to respond because I get several queries a month. Most helpful would be any book suggestions, sites, or specific advice you think is useful. Thanks!

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  1. Dana says:

    The mechanics of building a site are not complicated and don’t have to be expensive. This is a very do-able situation for a one person, home based biz. The major challenge is getting people to find your site. This is not a “if you build it they will come”. You must have a strategy for getting the word out about your site from th onset. Off to work but will post more later.

  2. bethany says:

    It is really early here in LA and I haven’t finished my tea yet, so this might not come off as the most articulate entry but here it goes:

    There is a huge difference btwn starting an online store and a regular store.

    Lets start with a regular store, which seems to be this DE’s goal. First of all, she has to figure out if there is a need for a store in the size 8-18 in her area. If there is, she needs to proceed with the usual- target market, target income, etc of her customer. Then she needs to order merchandise that coincides with that target market. Marketing, of course, would also follow the target market.

    Now an online store starts the same: is there a need for an online store that serves sizes 8-18? What is the target market. But remember, an online store serves THE WHOLE WORLD! I think it is a vastly different market. Most online stores that have a regular store started the regular store FIRST and then added the option of shopping online. It just gives that regular store another way to move merchandise that they already have.

    So I would caution this DE to really do her homework for BOTH ventures and see which one is more feasible.

  3. Suzanne says:

    contemporary women’s apparel and accessories boutique that caters to women sizes 8 to 18

    My advice would be to know your market and figure out what they want, and then give it to them. (Not the other way around — making things and then trying to convince people they need them.) Along with knowing your market, you have to know where they “live” on the internet so you can do ultra-accurate target advertising.

    Building a site is not a big deal, there are a zillion carts, the one I use is free (zen cart), you just have to pay someone to host it. Just a fast google should find you this kind of information. And then the carts themselves have how-to-build info along with them.

    The bigger problem is thinking if you just set up a store people will seek you out. The internet is a big, big place. You have to almost build the site in response to the demand, not the other way aroudn.

  4. Benita says:

    Hi there,
    If you don’t know much about building an online shop, you should take a look at
    You can start out with one of their templates and then as you become more familiar with websites and online stores, then you can customize. The best part is that inventory is taken care of for you.

    Hope this helps.

  5. Kate says:

    I don’t know how much this helps you, but my sister has an online store that sells an herbal product for menopause. It doesn’t do well enough yet to support her on its own, but it is turning a steady profit and getting better all the time. The comment above about getting the word out is really on point, it wasn’t until she started actively advertising that the business started to take off.

    Anyway, she has a contractor who compounds her product and packages it for her, and another who handles fulfillment (she has more orders to ship than she can handle while keeping her day job & spending time with her kids). She has a great relationship with those contractors.

    The problem? The web hosting business that actually ran the “webstore” for her. They didn’t provide the service at the level she needed, and because she didn’t do her homework she had trouble moving her “store” to another web hosting business because the first company owned the copyright on the store design. She probably wouldn’t have had so much trouble at first if she had been a little better informed about how web hosting and online stores work.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Dana says:

    I too know people who’ve owned sites developed by someone who then held them hostage. In this case, web designers, not hosting companies. Think very hard and ask lots of questions of anyone who is designing a site for you.

    In terms of the technical stuff, I have a couple recommendations. Hosting at places like Dreamhost, is cheap, easy, and you won’t be held hostage. Go Daddy has cheap domain names, hosting, and SSL certificates. I love Cartkeeper for shopping cart software that is really sophisticated but at the same time cheap and easy. Network Solutions is great with small businesses. Just took an SEO class with them. Prices are good and if you happen to be a Ladies Who Launch member, you get discounts.

    Words of advice: have your site designed with the intention that you will be able to update your own product, photos, content, prices, at will. Might be a little work in the beginning but flexibility is important, as is cash. You can always train someone else later as you get busier. Avoid Flash and splash pages (this goes back to SEO, search engines don’t read pictures). And most importantly, as everyone else has said, your site has to have a purpose. What will you provide that shoppers can’t get elsewhere? Service? Product? Price?

  7. Jan says:

    I published my website 2-1/2 years ago, found at Daisy Janie. Once the website was “up” and the novelty of telling everyone and their brother that I had a website wore off, I waited and waited for traffic, then I waited and waited for orders. The harsh reality sunk in: no matter how much or little I paid on hosting and/or design (that part can be done on the cheap and look professional), the *real* work and $$$ came when I got into promotion and search engine optimization. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising, so I figured out (like reinventing the wheel) how to get as much free traffic to my site as possible. I did a ton of PR work in researching/emailing (not to mention creating the kit and line sheets) to get my site under the noses of webzine editors for mentions, linkbacks and press credits (and they’ll all want a complimentary sample…budget that, too! [editors for glossies are usually kind enough to send it back]). I learned html code so I could effectively update my website on my own….I learned the big SEO mentioned above so I could get my site moved from a ranking in obscurity to the first page of Google for handmade handbags…I learned graphic design so I could make my own banner ads for blogs….I learned photography editing so my images would look professional….I learned that there are sooooooo many layers to each of these processes and no webhost or designer will ever tell you this b/c they want want your cash. I can’t even begin to fathom the opportunity cost of taking on these tasks…every minute of every freaking day! My son went from 7-1/2 to 10 while I was sitting in front of this screen (as I am now!), and I missed it all.

    In the end, you’re either spending time or money on something. Spend your money on rent, a great storefront sign and lighting, print ads, sharp business cards, inventory (of course), a great POS system…tangible things that will contribute more directly to your return on investment. Spend your time with your family and friends. They can stop by your store anytime they like….the same cannot be said for an ecommerce store that will steal your life if you’re not immediately successful. And I don’t mean to be so harsh; just want you to know there’s more to it than you think…like others have mentioned.

  8. dosfashionistas says:

    If you haven’t done ecommerce at all, the easiest way to get your feet wet and make your mistakes as cheaply as possible is eBay. You have a built in customer base, world wide, looking for your product (we are assuming that your product is one that people really need and are looking for), the format is easy to use, and you can learn a great deal and make some money while you work toward a more exclusive venue. It still gives me a thrill to send something I designed off to England or Greece. Good luck.

  9. Sarah M says:

    The comments above are diverse, but all true. Best advice is that it all boils down to planning and research to create a professional site. Your site should reflect your company image and branding. Better to have no site than a bad one.)

    If your plan is to open a storefront, having a website and/or ecommerce site is still beneficial. Research the costs of what you are aiming for and see if the numbers work. One of the women above spent lots of time and money on figuring it out herself. I suggest spending some time doing research (interview at least 3 website design companies & ecommerce, including online like or ebay). In the end, spending the money on hiring someone to create and maintain a great site that is SEO friendly and website owner friendly (you are able to edit back-end with text and photos, etc) could be worth it.
    (I compare it to doing work on my house. There are some tasks I can do and will save money by doing myself. But there are other things that I might be able to do, but are very time consuming and/or I don’t really feel comfortable doing. In that case, I hire someone.) Value your time.

    While you are researching, you can test the waters with or ebay or some of the others listed in comments above. You can sign up for free or reduced rate trials.

    If you do start a website: learn about SEO, advertise on quality online related sites, subscriptions and shopping emails (like Shefinds, Daily Candy), and work on getting reciprocal links.

    Good luck.

  10. Holly says:

    I recommending using someone that knows how to design a good site with SEO. If the site is your only store front to the world, you should make it a good one. Make sure it is easy to navigate through and makes people feel secure giving you their credit card information. I used They know what they are doing and have done a lot of fashion sites. I recommend budgeting for a good site since it is your store.

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