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How to Start an Online Boutique (A Complete 10-Step Guide)

Danielle Willatt
WRITTEN BY
UPDATED
November 25, 2021

Does running your own online boutique sound like a dream come true? Then this article’s for you.

 

You might be tempted to jump straight into curating clothes or accessories – but hold up! Let’s start at the very beginning and get this right.

 

This playbook will cover everything you need to do to launch your own online boutique – from research and business registration, to finding manufacturers and making that first sale!

 

 

The good news is that it’s never been easier and cheaper for anyone to start selling online.

 

10 Steps For Starting An Online Boutique

 

Step #1: Choose a product niche to sell in

 

Let’s start right at the basics: deciding what your boutique will sell.

 

It’s always best to choose a niche that you’re at least a little passionate about. Not only will you have more fun, but you’ll already have some sneaky insights on the topic.

 

You may be tempted to stock your store with products for a mass audience, but if you’re just starting out, try to choose one area of focus. Pick a popular category and brainstorm out its niches. For example:

 

  • Clothes
    Vintage, loungewear, street, 90s fashion, cottagecore, workwear…
  • Accessories
    Hats, bags, belts, sneakers, phone cases, eyewear…
  • Beauty
    Natural, cruelty-free, Korean skincare…

 

If you hope to sell trending products, try browsing online marketplaces like Etsy and Amazon, or check trends on Google Trends.

 

A good approach is to target a small, but growing market. Check the key competitors in this space and see if you can find a gap or a problem that isn’t currently being met.

 

Once you’ve picked your niche, you can narrow down your ideal customer base. Do you want to sell vintage to gen Z? Luxury menswear? Now’s the perfect time to write up a profile of your ideal customer (here’s how).

 

 

Step #2: Choose your eCommerce model

 

Next – pick a operations model. This is going to affect how your business operates and where you’ll obtain your products.

 

Common models for online boutiques include:

 

  1. Reselling from a wholesaler
    You purchase products from a wholesaler and resell them at a marked-up price.
  2. Hand making
    You make the product yourself and sell to customers directly.
  3. Work with a manufacturer
    You design your product, then get a third party to produce it for you to sell.
  4. Whitelabelling
    A form of manufacturing, where you put your own branding on an existing product.
  5. Drop shipping
    You’re a middleman who sells, but never touches stock. The manufacturer is responsible for sending the product directly to the customer.
  6. Print-on-demand
    A form of dropshipping where you sell custom designs. The product is printed and sent directly to customers after an order is made.

 

When you’ve chosen the right model for you, it’s time to sit down and write up a business plan. This is where you flesh out the full scope of your business: from your market research, to your financial, operational and marketing strategy.

 

If done right, it’ll force you to think through every detail of how you’re going to run your business. You can easily find free business plan templates online to get you started.

 

 

Step #3: Pick a name for your online boutique

 

It’s time to decide on a catchy name for your boutique! Remember, your name should embody the feeling of your brand.

 

Make sure you love it, and that your target audience will find it – well – cool. Sound it out to some people you value the opinions of, and get their feedback. You don’t want to be cringing at it one year down the line!

 

You’ll also need to check the name hasn’t already been taken. You should check the official registry in your country, but I recommend you also run a Google search to see what comes up. You should also use a domain name checker to check if the domain (i.e. your desired website URL) is available.

 

 

Step #4: Register your business

 

Next is to consider the legal shenanigans.

 

Start by choosing which business entity you want to operate as. Popular options for online boutiques include sole proprietorships, partnerships or limited liability companies (LLC).

 

Sole proprietorships are the simplest business type – if you’re happy to operate under your personal name, you won’t even need to file any formal paperwork. The downside is that this entity does leave you vulnerable, since you can be held personally liable for any financial or legal troubles your business runs into. LLCs, on the other hand, offer liability protection.

 

Do some research to make sure you fully understand which entity is best for you.

 

Regardless what entity you choose, it’s important to separate your personal and business finances. To open a business bank account in the U.S., you may be required to apply for a 9-digit employer identification number (EIN), via the IRS’s official website.

 

Finally, it’s important to check if there are any additional business licenses and permits you need. Check your official government website, or find yourself a nice local business lawyer to discuss your gameplan.

 

 

Step #5: Start building your online boutique brand

 

Right – let’s dip back into the fun stuff. It’s time to start building your brand!

 

Ever noticed how the most successful online boutiques have very distinct personalities? Strong branding helps you stand out from a sea of sameness.

 

You need to decide on a unified aesthetic for your brand. Do you want to be modern? Dreamy? Edgy? Luxurious?

 

It’s a good time to revisit the customer persona you created in Step #1. What inspires your customers? Who are their style influences? Browse visual inspiration (Pinterest, design blogs, other brands), and create a moodboard – whatever helps.

 

Your brand aesthetic will help you decide what products you sell in your boutique, as well as how you present them in your marketing. Everything should feel cohesive – from your website color scheme, brand logo, and your tone of writing.

 

For example – One DNA is a boutique who’s brand essence is to offer clothing that ‘defies social constructs’.

 

One DNA website

One DNA has a strong brand identity of empowerment.

 

Their store is stocked with unisex fashion and empowering slogans. Their models that are racially diverse and often androgynous. Everything feels cohesive.

 

Another famous brand, Reformation, is all about being sustainable and self-aware. Their cheeky tagline embodies this: “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2”.

 

They write witty captions and tackle environmental issues. Their marketing and products are all in alignment.

 

reformation pushing sustainability in their branding

Sustainability is pushed in their messaging.

 

So, decide what YOUR brand will embody.

 

It’s a great idea to develop an official brand ‘style guide’, which is essentially a rule book on how to communicate your brand on marketing materials.

 

 

Step #6: Start sourcing your products

 

Unless you’re making your own products, you’ll need 3rd party suppliers. And you need good ones!

 

Here are some typical places to source local suppliers or manufacturers:

 

  • Visit local markets, trade shows, networking events, and exhibitions.
  • Visit local vintage and antique shops.
  • Look up local producers on Google and Yelp.
  • Look through manufacturing directories.
  • Visit merchandise marts, i.e. large shopping centres that allow businesses to buy wholesalers.

 

If you’re open to international partners, you can:

 

  • Browse online marketplaces who sell at wholesale prices, e.g. Taobao and eBay.
  • Message artists on social media or places like Etsy Wholesale.
  • Google manufacturers for your product who sell at wholesale rates.

 

If you’re doing this step properly, it will probably take some time for you to find the perfect partners. However, it’s definitely worth it.

 

Reach out to multiple candidates and always try to meet them in person whenever possible. If they’re overseas and you’re unable to go to them – arrange a video call and request samples to be sent to you. It’s very important you can hold the products in your hands in order to quality-check them.

 

I’ve written more at the end of this article on how to vet suppliers.

 

 

Step #7: Decide how you’ll ship your product

 

Next – decide how your amazing products are going to reach your customers.

 

Customers these days have high expectations (no thanks to Amazon’s 2-day promises) and there’s nothing that makes people madder than expensive shipping or slow delivery.

 

pug on a chair staring out of a door waiting for parcel

Source is @alayajunior on Instagram

 

When choosing a shipping provider, don’t just consider their prices – check how fast and securely they can deliver too!

 

Most people rely on reputable services like the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS, but you can also check a shipping rate comparison software like ShipStation. Some eCommerce platforms (that we’ll get to in a second) will help you streamline shipping through an interface.

 

Make sure you also consider what your returns process will be.

 

 

Step #8: Price your products

 

There are loads of tried and tested strategies you can use to set your prices.

 

Many beginners like to start with the most simple method of cost-based pricing. This is where you quite simply set a price that’s based on your unit costs, with your profit margin put on top.

 

Calculating cost-based pricing

 

However, you should also factor in considerations such as what your competitors are pricing. Ultimately – you want to set prices that both help you make a profit, but that don’t scare off your customers! We’ve written about this in depth in this article here.

 

And remember, online sellers still need to collect and pay sales tax for transactions. A good eCommerce platform will manage this for you!

 

 

Step #9: Build your online boutique store

 

Now, it’s time to start setting up where you will sell your products.

 

Some boutiques prefer to sell on existing sites such as Instagram or Depop that are already popular. The downside (and it’s a big one) is that you’ll need to pay a commission to the platform, and you need to play by their rules. If their algorithms change or their site goes down – they can drag your online store down too.

 

If you prefer to have more control, consider building your own online store. These days, it’s really not that difficult. Most entrepreneurs simply use an eCommerce platform.

 

These platforms work as a virtual storefront for your customers, and provide you with an easy back-end interface to run your business.

 

We’ve reviewed a lot of the best eCommerce platforms (read our full comparison here) but we usually recommend Zyro for first-time store owners, as it’s the most basic to use. They have a great dashboard that helps you manage everything: from inventory and order tracking, to sales tax and customer service.

 

Here are 6 steps to getting your online boutique up and running.

 

  1. Sign up for your eCommerce platform
    Sign up for your eCommerce platform and pick your subscription plan. If you’re going with Zyro’s, you simply sign up for an account and upgrade to their eCommerce or eCommerce+ plan, which includes a domain name.
  2. Choose a theme or template
    Most eCommerce platforms offer pre-built templates that you can pick from.
     
    zyro built-in ecommerce template
    Simply pick a theme you like and customize it further. Zyro uses a drag-and-drop builder interface to let you personalize your store easily – no coding required.
  3. Add products to your store
    Next, add your products! Include a compelling product description, details, and some great photos.
     
    Adding product with zyro online store builder
  4. Customise important pages
    Make sure you’ve added key pages such as an ‘About Us’ page and ‘Contact Us’ page, and write out your checkout policies (e.g. your policies for sizing, deliveries and returns). If you’re struggling to come up with legal text, you can always engage a 3rd party service like Termly which can help generate policies and T&Cs for you.
  5. Add payment processors
    In order to allow customers to pay for products in their shopping carts, you’ll need to configure your payment processor. Zyro will let you easily set up options to pay via the most popular payment methods, including PayPal and credit cards.
     
    Adding payment processors with zyro online store builder
  6. Set up shipping
    Finally – select your shipping providers. Zyro allows you to connect to dozens of fast and reputable shipping services all over the world.
     
    setting up shipping with zyro online store builder

 

 

Step #10: Launch and market your online boutique

 

Ready to launch? Here are 4 things to make sure you do first:

 

  1. Set up your social media accounts
  2. Link up your Google Analytics
  3. Test all your functionality and links are working
  4. Set up your transactional emails so they’re ready when you get your first order

 

When you’re done – it’s time to go live! Congratulations!

 

However, the marketing doesn’t stop there. Building brand awareness is an ongoing process. I highly recommend you get familiar with the following:

 

  1. Social media marketing
    Online boutiques usually fare well on visual social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok.
     
    These places can be great places to show off your aesthetics, share reviews, share new drops, find new customers, and deepen your relationship with customers. You can also buy targeted ads.
  2. Content marketing
    Many online boutiques also launch a blog or a YouTube channel. You can use these mediums to go into more depth on topics that your customers find interesting. This is a GREAT way to get more eyes on your brand, and establish yourself as a tastemaker.
     
    Perhaps you can tell the inspiring story behind your company, share styling tips, or lookbooks.
     
    For example Australian boutique Arnhem regularly publishes blog posts that support their bohemian and free-spirited brand – from ‘style diary’ lookbooks, to tips on reducing waste.

     
    Arnhem
    If you want to take it to the next level, get familiar with SEO marketing. Learn how to identify keywords that have high search volume, and produce great content that answers these queries. This is one of the best ways to grow your organic traffic.
  3. Influencer marketing
    Reach out to influencers on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, or blogs. Get them to review your products, or hire them to produce content about it.
  4. Email marketing
    Get people to sign up for your email list (offering them a discount coupon in exchange works well). You can then send them newsletters to announce new products, special offers, or just to remind them how awesome you are.

 

 

Key Tip: How To Make Your Products Stand Out

 

We’ve covered the ENTIRE process of setting up an online boutique – but there’s something missing.

 

No matter how beautiful you’ve made your website, if your products don’t seem appealing, then no one is going to buy them!

 

In a physical boutique, customers can touch and try products before buying. With online boutiques, they need to make a purchase decision based only off the information you provide. That means that photos and descriptions truly make a big difference.

 

Just consider these 2 images – which product looks the most appealing?

 

lighting comparison between two product photos

 

Dingy lighting is almost always unflattering. Make your products shine by taking high-quality photos of them in good lighting and flattering set-ups.

 

Sure, you can hire a professional product photographer, but it isn’t always necessary. We’ve written a whole piece here on how to take amazing product photos on a budget – even with a smartphone.

 

And yes – images may tell a thousand words, but descriptions matter too! Make sure you complement the images with a compelling product description that can take away any doubts your customer has.

 

 

How To Filter Good Partners From Bad

 

Unless you’re making your products from scratch, you’ll need to rely on third-party companies. That makes it ABSOLUTELY crucial that you choose partners that are reliable.

 

Here are some things to consider when you’re choosing suppliers or fulfilment partners:

 

  1. What do other people say about them?
    Search for reviews online (Facebook reviews, Google, marketplaces, and general review sites) or ask your network/Facebook groups if anyone has partnered with them before.
  2. Will they meet my quality requirements?
    Even the scratchiest, flimsiest garments can look awesome in photos. Make sure you request samples so that you can hold the product in your hand, and judge the quality.
  3. How responsive are they?
    You’re looking for a business partner, so you need to have a good working relationship. Look how quickly and professionally they respond to your messages, and see how easy they are to get in touch with (e.g. are you able to speak to someone regularly?).

 

 

3 Examples of Great Online Boutiques

 

To round things off, let’s look at 3 final examples of online boutiques that we love.

 

1. Free & Easy

 

Free & Easy website

 

This Cali-born boutique offers distinctive merchandise that’s recognizable from a mile off. Their website is colourful and sucks you straight into its summery surf-aesthetic.

 

2. Organic Basics

 

Organic Basics website

 

Their strong branding reinforces exactly what their brand name suggests: wardrobe essentials made in organic fibres. Their site is filled with aesthetic photos and is very well organized.

 

3. FARFETCH

 

FARFETCH website

 

This boutique curates and sources luxury brands from all corners of the earth. Their branding is all about individuality and celebrating creativity. Every part of the experience of browsing their site – from the design to the web copy, gives off a premium feeling.

 

 

Time To Launch Your Own Online Boutique

 

We’ve walked you through the steps of starting a successful online boutique. You’ve learnt how to begin your research, set up your website, price your product, and more.

 

As you can see – setting up an online boutique takes work! However, it can also be incredibly rewarding and fun. These 3 skills will take you a long, long way.

 

  1. Patience
    You can’t expect to make your first sale overnight. Expect to invest some time and money before you see any return.
  2. Organizational skills
    Planning ahead and being methodical will help manage your resources effectively.
  3. Perseverance
    Every business owner will face challenges – it comes with the job. Remember your motivations and keep pushing forward.

 

So – what else are you waiting for? Go forth and sell!

 

 

 

Danielle Willatt

About The Author

Dani is an editor and writer based between KL and Mexico City. Sprung from the advertising and travel industries, she’s also spent the last 10+ years freelancing for a slew of creative online businesses around the world. Connect with her via LinkedIn.