12 Questions About Starting An Online Store

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If you've ever asked the questions 'What software should I use?' and 'Why should I use X over Y?'. I always come back with the same answer; 'You're asking the wrong question.'

If you’re considering E-commerce for the first time, you need to start with the basics. In this post I will go over some of the initial things you should ask yourself about your online store. Then, once you have answers to these questions, we can talk about specific E-commerce products and solutions.

What is your budget?

Let's start with the uncomfortable part, money. There isn't much point  going any further if you don't know your budget. A budget allows you to focus your resources on features you need.

Obviously the bigger your budget the more you can get done right out of the gate. Does this mean that if you have a small budget you'll never have the store you want? Of course not.  

Your initial budget is where you start, not where you end. What you can afford today versus what you can afford as your business grows. If you have a small budget, start by investing in key features. As you gain customers you can increase your budget and invest in the extra features that will further meet the needs of your customers.

This involves prioritizing features and breaking up their implementation into project phases, each with their own budget. Phasing in your website in this way has many benefits. It gives you time to reevaluate your business position and needs of your customers before investing in each phase of the project.  Each phase is also an opportunity to evaluate the relationship and workflow you have with your web team.

Do you nee a digital strategist?

Now that I have segued into this subject nicely, you will probably assume that I'm biased on this topic. Why would I possibly say; 'No, you might not need a digital professional'?

While it’s true that in many cases I would recommend working with a professional, there are a few situations when you might not need external support.

  1. ‍You already know what you're doing, and it's a small project. Just be honest with yourself and make sure that you actually do know what you're doing and how much of your time doing the work will entail.
  2. Your business is a hobby.  If this is the case, then using a template and inexpensive E-commerce solution could be an option. 

Otherwise, if the project is going to be your main source of income, I would invest in a digital professional. How to go about picking a digital professional is a subject for another article.

What are you selling?

This is a loaded question because as you will see, it opens up into a series of other questions.

  • ‍How many different items do you have?
  • How many categories are there going to be?
  • ‍Are you going to be adding more products in the future? How many?
  • ‍ Are they going to be similar or different offerings?
  • Are all the orders handled in the same way?

The answers to these question have far reaching visual and technical design implications, and may alone be a good reason to work with a professional who can help you implement the most appropriate strategy based on your current and future product/service needs.

Who are you selling to?

Please don't say everyone...

Having a deep understanding of your target market will make everything easier. If we know who you're selling to we can make better decisions about the type of marketing channels to use. Not to mention the design and content considerations.

In considering your target clients’ needs, take follow-up on purchases as an example.  A simple automated thank you email confirming an order might be all you need for a causal consumer. In contrast, a larger business client might expect a follow up phone call or formal invoice.

You might think that this is getting off topic; but an E-commerce solution isn't just the back end platform for your site. It also includes the strategy and other technologies used to support all your business processes.

Who is your competition?

men arm wrestling

Knowing your market is important, and knowing who else is trying to sell to that market is equally important. Don't let your competitors dominate the online market place. Study what services and features they are investing in, and what their e-commerce strategy is lacking. Position your marketing and branding to differentiate yourself from your competition.

There's more to competition than just price. You also compete on quality, knowledge, passion, and customer care. Make notes about where you and your competition differ on all of these factors. You can use these points to differentiate yourself and prove to consumers why they should favour your business over your competitor’s.

Where are you selling?

Online stores are accessible from around the world. If you're not servicing the whole world then you need to make sure that's clear. You also don't want to give the impression you don't serve a particular customer if you do.

Be clear in your content. Having text that says "only shipping within Canada" or "now shipping around the world" makes it clear for everyone.

Dealing in different currencies also tells people what countries you ship to. Users also appreciate the convenience.

Sometimes an overlooked aspect of this is your domain name. If you have a country specific domain, but you want to have a worldwide client base, consider getting a ‘.com’ domain. Or you could use the specific country domains you plan on operating in; .uk, .ca, .au and so on. 

Do you also sell in person?

You will need to consider what Point of Sale (POS) you're going to use. Some E-commerce solutions like Shopify and Eciwid come with POS systems built in.

 If you already have a store you likely already have a POS and store inventory system. So finding an E-commerce platform that can integrate into your existing technology would be ideal.

Will you need credit card processing? (often called a Gateway)

Again, if you already have a store you'll probably have a processor setup. Check with them to see if they handle online sales. They might even recommended E-commerce solutions that they work with.

If you don't have a processor or you're looking to switch then there are hundreds of companies that process credit cards. If you're only online there are services dedicated to online sales. There are a lot of E-commerce reviews out there so do your research and you should be fine.  Some popular services include: Paypal, Stripe, and Braintree.

And of course, this is something that a professional can consult on if you are really unsure which processing client would best meet your needs.

What about shipping and taxes?

Booooo! The two things people hate dealing with the most when shopping online. Everything seems like it has a great price until the tax and shipping fee is added on… But I digress.

Make sure that the E-commerce solution you're looking at can support your country's tax rules and record keeping standards.  This is especially true for jurisdictions that have multiple taxes applied to a sale. Don't get in trouble with the tax man.

Shipping should be an easy thing to handle but it never is. Here are many of the key things to consider in a convenient bulleted list:

  • Calculation/Integration based on major carriers: UPS, FedEx, etc.
  • Weight-based?
  • Quantity-based?
  • Cost-based?
  • Per-item-based?
  • Free Shipping? (as a whole or on specific items/promotions)
  • ALL the options!
  • Tax on shipping? (did you think we were done with taxes?)

Pro tip: If you can manage a free shipping option, customers love free shipping!

Do you need additional extras / plugins?

Do you need help with accounting, marketing, SEO, or a CRM? Make sure to research the repository of extras available for hosted solutions to see if they have what you need. If you already use a technology for managing your business, as always, see if it integrates with an existing E-commerce platform.

And let's also not forget about Gift Cards and coupon codes.

The list of possible add-ons is never-ending.  Take some time to thoughtfully consider what your dream website would be able to do and have this list ready to discuss with a designer who can either help you narrow down the list, or find ways to integrate everything you want and need from your E-commerce system.

What kind of reports and analytics do you need?

The key to a successful website generally comes down to collecting data, analyzing it, and then acting on it. Without data you're operating blind. You won't know which strategies work better than others and will likely have difficulty making decisions on the future direction for your business.

This goes beyond just putting Google Analytics code into your website and watching the standard stats roll in. One important first step is to implement event tracking for your calls to action. Whether that be a newsletter signup form, a buy button, or a social media share button you need to track it.

User testing is a must for successful websites. There are many great services out there, like usertesting.com, that can give you great insight into your users’ behavior and help you make changes and improvements to your website based on feedback from real people.

Is support available?

If your site goes down do you have someone to call? Good 24/7 support can be a real value when something unexpected happens.

Service agreements with your design/development team can also provide value. Your relationship with the team should afford you some level of personalized service. 

For example, with my clients I offer service agreements to do standard bug fixes and also provide ongoing design and strategy review. This way we can make incremental changes to the site to keep it competitive over time.


I know that I have only scratched the surface on many of these topics. But I hope this provides you with a good starting point to begin thinking about your E-commerce project.

If you think I have missed any important points, or if you have a request for a future post topic please leave your thoughts in the comments. I would love to hear from you on this subject.

Alex Nichol
Alex Nichol
Vancouver BC, Canada

I am a Quality and Product leader at Webflow. I work to understand customer problems in order to advocate for iterative and tested product improvements.