How To Sell Products Online: A Small (Or Aspiring) Business Owner’s Guide

Online marketplaces not only help sellers reach a wider audience of potential buyers, but they also offer a year-round sales venue beyond seasonal street fairs, craft bazaars and art shows — one that doesn’t rely on good weather or holidays. And for small businesses, online sales are more important than ever, especially during the pandemic when social distancing has become the norm. So, if you’re a business owner — or aspire to be one — you’ve likely considered selling your products online.

Whether you are starting an online business or already own one, we hope you find these tips on how to sell products online helpful. 

To help small business owners and side hustlers navigate the world of online selling, we have assembled this guide to reputable eCommerce platforms and online marketplaces.

How Do I Start Selling My Products Online?

If you already run a business, you’ve done a large part of the legwork to start selling your products online. You have a good idea of what to sell and how to price it, so now it’s time to figure out the best ways to market your products and sell online. On the flip side, if you’re in the early stages of your business, then you may need to lay some groundwork before you launch full-speed ahead as an online retailer.

The first thing to consider is what you should sell and how you’ll source it. Successful online businesses range from behemoths like Amazon, which sells everything to everyone, to smaller niche businesses like etrailer.com, which focuses on products for RVers and truck enthusiasts. Some business owners choose to find wholesale sources for in-demand products that they can mark up and sell online. Other small online businesses often start as a way to make hobbies pay for themselves.

Sometimes it helps to start with your personal interests when considering product ideas for your online business. For instance, Matthew Creasey of Chester, Vir., had long cultivated an interest in antique stained glass. He discovered that he had more than just an affinity for the colorful art form. He had an aptitude for making it himself. Creasey crafts custom stained glass creations and repairs Tiffany-style lampshades, skills that grew into an online business called Nevis Glass.

Initially, Creasey sold his stained glass windows and art at in-person craft shows. But with the onset of the pandemic, he began using Facebook and Instagram to showcase his products, selling stained glass creations to people along the Eastern Seaboard. He now plans to set up an online Etsy shop. While selling online has widened Creasey’s target market by introducing new customers to his artwork, he has had to navigate new challenges as an online retailer — shipping, for instance. Stained glass is fragile, so Creasey needed to find a reliably safe delivery method and obtain the right type of insurance. He also needed a way to accept credit cards. With the new shipping costs and credit card transaction fees, Creasey had to rethink pricing to maintain sustainable profit margins for his online business. As he discovered, turning a hobby into a paying side gig wasn’t without its share of challenges, but it also has rewards.

By selling his products online, Creasey can continue funding his hobby while also making extra income. If you’ve also found your creative outlet, you too may want to monetize it with an ongoing business. Whatever you decide to sell online, you want it to be profitable. Your gross profit margin — the difference between your product costs and their selling prices — needs to provide you with sufficient funds to pay yourself (and any employees) and to cover the cost of future merchandise, overhead (internet charges, warehousing, etc.), shipping charges, taxes, and, of course, any fees that you might pay to list your items. So consider how those costs affect your profit margin when setting your prices to ensure that your business will generate enough profit to maintain success.

Is Online Selling Profitable?

While Nevis Glass grew organically beyond what Creasey had originally planned, you may want to proactively plan your business development strategy. There are many ways to make money online, but selling products online can be tricky. Doing some back-of-the-envelope planning and undertaking a bit of market research can help.

As a starting point for your pricing strategy, try a profit margin calculator. But don’t stop there. You’ll also need to take some time to search for and understand your competitors. Who’s already selling similar products? Are their prices in line with what you expect to charge? How much do they charge for shipping? Are shipping costs and transaction fees built into product pricing, or are they charged later in the purchasing process? How do you think either of those strategies would affect buyer behavior?

Use your intuition and reactions to other online retail stores to inform you on how prospective customers may respond to your offerings. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t like to pay separate shipping and handling fees, for instance, then you may want to build those costs into your product pricing. On the other hand, if you tend you look for the most inexpensive items up front and consider shipping costs a necessary evil, then it might pay for you to add those fees at the end of the transaction.

Some experimentation can help you find the best pricing strategy for the items you plan to sell. For unique antiques and works of art, it may be more difficult to compare prices. For a commodity like recycled cell phones, however, it will be comparatively easy to see whether you’re in the ballpark with other online retailers.

What Products Can I Sell From Home?

Thanks to the fact that many consumers go to the Internet for anything and everything, the types of items that can be sold from a home-based online business are practically infinite. From household goods and flea market finds to used vehicles and furniture, garden tools and recycled books to old vinyl records, really just about any personal property can be easily sold online. The trick is to find something profitable, in demand, and enjoyable for you. One exception, however, is firearms. In many states, they cannot be sold without conducting background checks on prospective buyers. Other categories that might require licensing, or even be prohibited, include (but aren’t limited to) alcohol, adult goods, weapons, homemade foods, some cosmetics, flammable items and living creatures (pets and exotic animals).

If you aren’t sure whether the products and services you plan to sell online are regulated, then check local regulations. Look into your state and locality rules before selling to save you from unexpected, embarrassing or costly visits from the authorities.

How To Sell Products Online Successfully

Of course, even the best products and the most trustworthy sellers won’t be profitable if customers can’t find them. To find and maintain long-term success, online retailers must show genuine concern for customers, market their products well, display business acumen, and do some initial legwork. When you can execute on these things and have a good product to sell, the payoff can be handsome. Here are some more tips to help make that happen.

Focus on Customer Service

Consider what makes you happy when you buy online. Give customers multiple ways to find your merchandise and buy from your business. Provide a quality guarantee and a reasonable return policy if a customer is not satisfied. Be available online via social media, website contact forms, email or even by phone. Some website platforms even offer the ability to chat online with customers. Whatever you do, respond to customers promptly and consistently. This is key to getting positive customer referrals and reviews (see below), which will help your business thrive.

Optimize for Search Engines

Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo (among others) help customers find what they want to buy. And many online marketplaces have built-in search engines to help customers find the products they’re looking for. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a process that makes your website or product listing discoverable to searchers whose queries match your product offerings. For example, potential Nevis Glass customers may search for well-known manufacturers of art glass products like Tiffany, Fenton or Chihuly. To optimize his product listings for this type of customer, Creasey might compare his Etsy-listed products to these manufacturers. Rather than just “stained-glass lamp shade,” he might describe it as a “Tiffany-style stained glass lamp shade.”

Track Your Success

As you grow your online store, you can track your success and build on it by using platforms like Google Analytics. These insights can help you determine which web pages draw the most attention, which marketing tactics have worked best overall, and which ads have not only brought in the most traffic, but the most sales. When you track these types of metrics, you’ll better understand where to spend your marketing dollars.

By updating your online store and adjusting your marketing efforts based on these analytics, you can make incremental changes that will ultimately pay off in customer retention, new business acquisition, and long-term profitability.

Ask For — and Respond to — Reviews

Word-of-mouth is a common way to boost business, especially in a niche with like-minded customers who enjoy discussing their passions. Consider how you’re more likely to try a restaurant when friends and neighbors rave about it. Likewise, online testimonials and reviews help businesses thrive by creating legitimacy and credibility. They often encourage prospective customers who are on the fence to make the leap and click “buy.” So, don’t hesitate to ask customers for positive feedback that you can share on your website and other marketing materials.

But what if you receive a bad review? Use it as a learning experience for how you can improve your listing descriptions, products or service. If possible, find a way to make it right and then respond to the review. According to one survey, 70% of consumers are more likely to use a business that responds to negative reviews. It allows you to publicly apologize to your customer and then share how you’ve taken steps to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again, giving any future customers peace of mind.

Where Do I Start?

We’ve done some research and compiled a list of online platforms and online marketplaces that offer a variety of ways to sell merchandise. These include Amazon, Etsy, eBay and others with different approaches to online retailing. You might find that one is ideally suited to help you become the next Jeff Bezos!