We’ve covered the high-level strategy of building an online store that makes real money here.
But how do you create the ecommerce website itself?
In this guide, I’ll cover the 9 steps you need to take to create an ecommerce site in this guide. I’ve broken this guide into four sections:
- The Prep Work — These are the things you’ll need to do before you start customizing your actual shop
- The Framework — In this section I’ll help you pick the right theme for your online store
- The Build — You’ll actually customize and create the ecommerce website in this phase
- Get Paid — Connect a payments processor to your store and set the right prices
More specifically, this guide includes:
- The one and only ecommerce tool we use to build our sites
- The payment setting that can accidentally reduce your revenue by increasing refunds and chargebacks
- The biggest myth of pricing and how real ecommerce website owners set their prices
- What to put on your homepage to convert more customers
- What an SSL certificate is and why you need one (also how to get one for free)
- How to create an ecommerce website that’s profitable
You don’t need to finish all four phases in a day, though you could take a rough first draft approach and whip through them in a day, then iterate from there. Your choice! Let’s get building.
The Prep Work: Before You Build Your Ecommerce Website
Before we get into the actual work, I need to make a quick note: I’m going to assume that you’re creating an ecommerce website from scratch.
If you already have an ecommerce store and want to transfer that store to Shopify, we have a detailed guide for that here.
There’s a bit of prep work to do before you start building your Shopify store (or whatever ecommerce software you decide to go with). Don’t skip this stuff — it’s the foundation of your online business and if you get it wrong, your ecommerce business will not succeed.
Step 1: Search for Your Domain
Before going any further, make sure your company name has a good domain you can grab.
I’ve started several stores in the past, had a company name picked out, and then had a terrible time trying to find my domain. Eventually, I went with a completely different name so I had to backtrack and change a bunch of settings, or even recreate my store from scratch.
The whole process goes much smoother if you make sure the domain you want is available from the beginning. Then you won’t have to redo anything.
My go-to resource for checking which domains are available is Namecheap, which is our pick for best domain registrar. A domain registrar is just a fancy name for a company that registers domains on your behalf.
Not only is Namecheap our favorite domain registrar, they also have a wicked fast domain search. Even when I’m not planning on buying a domain, I always use them to search for available domains.
Don’t Buy Your Domain Name Yet
Why? Shopify has the option of buying your domain for you. If you use Shopify to buy your domain, they’ll also configure the entire domain. There’s nothing you need to configure or set up, it’s super easy.
I use Namecheap as our domain registrar and to manage all our domains. I believe it’s the best out there. It makes sense for us because we have a ton of sites and domains that we manage. Once you’re managing dozens of domains, keeping them all in one location helps a lot. It’s easier to keep them from expiring, update their settings, and sell them if you want.
But if you only plan on having a couple of domains for your ecommerce site, buying them through Shopify is the easiest option. So hold off on buying for now and just check to make sure your domain isn’t taken.
Step 2: Start Your Shopify Free Trial
Now that you’ve made sure that you won’t have any trouble grabbing the domain for your company, head over to Shopify and start your 14-day free trial.
Why Shopify? Aren’t there other ecommerce site builders?
Yes, there are other ecommerce software options. To be honest, none of them compare to Shopify, it’s not even close.
Years ago, ecommerce sites used to be fairly difficult to manage and build. Then Shopify entered the category and completely changed the game. And in the last few years, they’ve added lots of advanced functionality so they’ll easily scale with you no matter how big your site gets.
Shopify completely outshines the competition in ease of use, feature depth, ability to scale, and price.
Whenever I build an ecommerce site these days, I immediately go to Shopify. I don’t give a second thought to any of the other options out there.
There’s no credit card required so you can get a good feel for how Shopify works without any risk on your end. The 14 days are also perfect for getting your site built. I recommend setting a goal to get your store live by the end of the trial period. Then you’ll be making money as soon as you start paying for Shopify.
The trial will ask you a few questions about your company name, your address, and other standard details.
Step 3: Get Your Domain
With your Shopify store created, it’s time to grab that domain you spotted earlier. The easiest option is to buy your domain within Shopify.
In Shopify, you’ll find a domains section that allows you to search for a domain.
Shopify sells .com domains for $14 per year. This is slightly higher than average. Most domain registrars will sell an available domain for $10 per year. If you’re creating your store from scratch and haven’t purchased your domain yet, I wouldn’t worry about trying to save $4 per year. Purchasing your domain directly from Shopify will save you the several extra steps you’d have to take to point your domain from your registrar to Shopify.
I also recommend that you purchase the .org and .net versions of your company name. So you should have three domains in total:
What if you want to manage your domains outside of Shopify? In that case, choose a domain registrar like Namecheap and buy the domain there.
Once you have your domain, you’ll need to configure a few domain settings to point the domain to Shopify. You’ll find detailed instructions on how to do this here.
If you’re pointing your domain to Shopify, do this as soon as possible. It can take a few hours for domain settings to go into effect so you’ll want to make the changes and confirm everything is working before you’re ready to launch your store.
The Framework: Use Shopify Themes to Create Your Ecommerce Website
Step 4: Choose Your Theme
Your Shopify theme determines how your store will look. It’s also how ecommerce stores are able to brand themselves using their site. You can also change the look and feel of your site without having to transfer off Shopify itself, simply by changing the theme.
There are three ways to get your theme in place:
Free Shopify Theme
Shopify has plenty of great-looking themes that are also completely free. They’ve gotten so good over the years that it’s often difficult to tell what’s a free theme and what’s paid.
Paid Shopify Theme
Shopify also has plenty of paid themes in its marketplace. Most of them sell for $180. They offer a more polished site and extra features than the free themes.
Custom Shopify Theme
Yes, it is possible to get a theme built from scratch. If you go this route, an ecommerce marketing agency can build your site however you want. It can be completely customized to match your brand.
The costs for a custom theme will vary widely. It depends a lot on how big of a business you have and your requirements. Pricing will range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to over a hundred thousand dollars for an enterprise ecommerce site.
My Recommendation: Create Your Ecommerce Website with a Standard Shopify Theme
Unless you already have a thriving business, it’s best to use one of the standard Shopify themes. This gives you the ability to get started without having to spend much money. Then once your business has taken off and you have a good idea for how to evolve your site and brand, you can consider a customer Shopify theme.
When we look for themes, we go to the Shopify theme store and rank all themes by popularity.
Then we start at the top and scroll down until we find a few that could work.
Ideally, you’ll find one that has a good “feel” for the type of customers your store will target. If you’re targeting men that spend time outdoors, a more rugged feel is ideal. If you’re selling luxury products, a polished and refined feel would be better. Don’t worry about getting this perfect — you only need a theme that’s “good enough” at this stage.
We typically don’t worry about the free versus paid Shopify themes. We’re more focused on finding the theme that’s a good fit. If it happens to be free, even better. If it costs us $180, we consider that a small cost and don’t hesitate to purchase the theme. If you’re watching every dollar and would prefer to stick to a free theme, you’ll still find plenty to choose from.
Once you’ve found the theme you want, get it installed on your Shopify store. That’ll make the next few steps a lot easier.
The Build: How to Create an Ecommmerce Site that’s Unique
Step 5: Create Product Pages
This is where you’ll want to spend the most time.
Product pages have a huge impact on how many of your website visitors end up converting to customers. And it’s one of the key parts of the business that you control. You can’t always control traffic. You can’t always control your suppliers. But you can control how much effort you put into making your product pages really high quality.
Let’s go through the key parts of a product page and how to make them amazing.
How to Pick the Right Product Name
Great product names have a huge impact on product sales. Just think of the legendary infomercial products like the Shamwow, Thighmaster, or OxiClean. Legendary product names are distinctive, instantly communicate the product benefit, and are easy to remember.
I’ve named my share of products and all I have to say is that this is a lot harder than it looks.
When I tried to name my first few products, it was really easy to fall into the trap of making the name too cute. There’s a fine line between a legendary name that resonates with your market and a cute name that everyone ignores.
This is why it’s generally better to focus on names that are clear instead of trying to be too creative. Until you have a lot of naming experience, it’s really easy to pick a name that falls flat.
A clear and boring name for a great product will still generate tons of revenue. A cute name will destroy it. So focus on clear names that your market will instantly understand.
How to Write a Product Description that Sells
This is your one to two paragraph pitch for the product. Really spend time on this copy.
Here’s a good structure to use in a standard product description:
- One or two sentences describing the problem that your product solves
- One or two sentences painting the dream of what it will be like when the product is solved
- Two to three sentences explaining how your product achieves that dream and the specific features that help accomplish that goal
This is a very common copywriting script that’s used for a lot of products, particularly any product that solves a distinct problem.
That said, not all products solve problems. Apparel is a great example. If I buy a trendy shirt, what problem am I trying to solve? None really. Instead, my purchase is aspirational. I’m aspiring to feel more confident, refine my identity, and change my look. In this case, it’s less about the product description itself and more about how the shirt looks and makes me feel. The product photos end up carrying more weight than the product description itself.
In other words, if the product description template above doesn’t work for your product because it doesn’t solve a distinct problem, don’t try to force it. Instead, use the photos to paint the dream your customers have the best you can.
How to Shoot Professional Product Photos
Photography standards have gotten super high these days. Everyone has an amazing camera on their smartphone and great photography has become super prevalent with Instagram, so ecommerce websites have to take their product photos really seriously.
Don’t skimp here.
Set up a small area to take high quality photos for your products and use the highest quality camera that you can get your hands on. Also make sure to take photos from multiple angles. If possible, you should also take a few photos of the product in action. If you’re selling bed sheets, take a photo of the sheets on a real bed. If you’re selling hiking shoes, take a photo of somewhere wearing them on a hiking trail.
Use your photos to paint the dream as best you can.
Step 6: Create Your Company Pages
After your product pages are done, there are a few more pages you’ll need to create.
Build a Simple Homepage with a Few Popular Products
The simplest and most effective way to approach your homepage on an ecommerce website is to feature your most popular products.
Take your most popular product of all time and include a giant photo of it along with a call to action to its product page above the fold. Then include the next 3–5 most popular products on the rest of the homepage. This ensures that new site visitors are exposed to your best products immediately, increasing the percentage of people who purchase.
Every six months or so, check your product popularity and rotate products as necessary.
Large ecommerce websites rotate their featured products at a much faster pace. As they should! They have a lot more customers and a product catalog that’s constantly changing. As you get larger yourself, you’ll also want to increase the pace that you change your homepage. Start doing quarterly changes, then monthly, then weekly, and so on.
Write a Compelling About Us Page
A lot of visitors will go to your about page to figure out who you are and what you’re doing. This is a perfect opportunity to tell your story and inspire your customers to join you on your mission.
Here are some questions and topics that you’ll want to cover on your about page:
- If there was a particular moment that changed your life and set you on your path to create this business, tell that story.
- Include any values or principles you use to build or select your products.
- If there’s a goal or milestone that you’re trying to achieve, share it.
- If you’re committed to living a certain lifestyle, paint that dream.
- Clearly define the type of person you’re offering products for.
Be authentic and write your copy as clearly as possible. The more that you can make this page resonate with your target market, the better.
Add a Contact Page
This page is nice and easy. Keep it simple: include your phone number, address, and a contact form for people to reach out.
The most important thing is to make sure that the contact form goes to an email address that’s actively being monitored. If you’re the only person working on your website, have it go to your email at that domain. For example, if I had a site called Sprout Candles, I’d create an email for email@example.com and have my contact form send messages there. That way I can respond to any customer requests really fast.
Once you gain traction, one of the first areas of the business that you’ll want help on will be customer support. Lots of ecommerce websites hire folks part-time or for a few hours each day to go through all the customer messages for the day. At that point, send your contact form to a generic support email that can easily be managed by anyone on your team. If I reached that point with my hypothetical business, I’d change the email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An easy and low-cost way to get a phone set up for your business is Grasshopper. They give you a public phone number that can route to any phone number of your choosing. In the early days, you’ll have it redirect straight to your cell phone. That lets you respond to any phone calls directly without having to post your personal phone number publicly.
Get Paid: Connect Payments and Set Prices in Your Ecommerce Site
Selling stuff — and getting paid — is the whole point of creating an ecommerce website. Otherwise it’d be a blog or a personal webpage, or even a hobby site. No matter how many hours of work you’re pouring into your website, if you’re not making sales and getting paid, your store isn’t a business; it’s an expensive hobby. This section is all about linking your payment processor and setting prices.
Step 7: Set Up Your Payments
One of the best parts of building your site on Shopify is how easy it is to set up payments. Shopify does just about everything for you — all you need to do is configure a few settings and tell Shopify when to send your money. It’s really that easy.
Those payment settings are under the Settings section in your Shopify account.
Go ahead and set up Shopify Payments:
Most of the info that’s required is pretty standard. It includes basic business info, some personal info, and your bank account so Shopify can transfer money to you.
There is one setting that you should pay close attention to for your payments: your customer billing statement.
Have you ever looked through your credit card statement, seen a charge, and thought to yourself, “What was that for? Did I get charged for something I didn’t buy?”
It happens to us all. With the number of online purchases we make these days, it’s easy to forget what we bought.
As an ecommerce store owner, the last thing you want is for your customers to get confused when they see your billing info on their card statements. If there’s any doubt or confusion, your refund and chargebacks will go up. The best way to avoid this is to make it as clear as possible which store the charge came from. Use the primary name your customers will recognize from your site. This will save you money and frustration later.
Also, we do recommend setting up PayPal on your site as well. Some customers prefer using PayPal since they don’t have to enter their credit card info all the time. Especially on mobile, it’s a lot easier to pay.
If you don’t have a PayPal account for your business already, they’re super easy to create. The only charge is the small percentage of each sale that PayPal will keep, which is standard across the industry. Go through the PayPal settings in Shopify and get it connected to your store and a PayPal option will appear in your checkout.
Now that you can accept payments — how do you know you’re charging the right amounts?
How to Set the Right Product Prices
The biggest myth about pricing is how businesses set prices.
As consumers, we always assume that a business figures out how much something costs, adds a fair percentage to make some profit, and that’s how we get the final price.
In reality, it never works like that.
Consumers are willing to pay certain prices and if that price has a good margin, there’s a business. If there isn’t a good margin, the business model changes or there aren’t any good businesses in that category.
Mobile apps are the best example of this. Regardless of what it costs to develop an app, people are only willing to pay about $5 for it. The app could do incredible things and literally change lives but it doesn’t matter, the ceiling is about $5.
So how do consumers figure out what they’re willing to pay?
Price comparisons. As consumers, we only understand relative pricing. When we try to evaluate if a price is fair, we find the nearest comparison and judge based on that.
“After all, as bargain hunters know, comparison shopping is a cinch online. The result is that merchants are leery of raising prices. The ease of entering the marketplace, regardless of location, further ratchets up the competition. At the same time, internet retailers can often operate at a lower cost than their brick-and-mortar competitors.” — E-Commerce Might Help Solve the Mystery of Low Inflation, The New York Times
Why is it possible to only charge $5 for a mobile app? All the other apps are about $5.
Why is it okay to charge $5 for a latte? Starbucks charges about $5.
If you try to sell me a t-shirt, I’ll instantly compare your price to the standards I’ve come to know. Cheap, plain t-shirts are about $5, nicer t-shirts about $20, and luxury fashion brand t-shirts $70–100. Depending on what kind of apparel company you have, I’ll compare to those benchmarks.
But if there’s a felt-need and reasonable price point, I’ll buy. This is one of the key factors to ecommerce success.
The bottom line is that every business needs to factor in the comparative pricing. Yes, you can stretch it a bit if you’re delivering more value. For example, some mobile apps charge $10 and make it work. But there are limits.
Find the best comparison price to your product, nudge the price up or down depending on your value, then set your price.
And as a ecommerce website owner, it’ll be up to you to decide if your business works at that price.
Step 8: Get Your SSL Certificate
SSL Certificates allow you to say that your site is extra secure. They’ve been around awhile and have become standard for any site that handles private information like email addresses and payment information.
In the last few years, Google has made SSL certificates more prominent in its Chrome Browser. Here’s what a site looks like with an SSL certificate:
Here’s what one looks like without it:
There’s a very clear trend that sites with SSL certificates are being highlighted while sites without them are getting subtle warnings. While SSL certificates used to a “nice-to-have” feature, these days they’re considered a requirement for any ecommerce site.
The last thing any ecommerce site owner wants is to make a customer hesitate because there isn’t an SSL certificate on the site.
We strongly recommend that you set up your SSL certificate when you create your site.
The best part?
Shopify gives you a free SSL certificate for your store. That’s right, it’s 100% included with your store.
Something to keep in mind for later on: there are different levels and types of SSL certificates. When getting a free SSL certificate, you’ll only get the basic options. More advanced SSL certificates come with extra monitoring, insurance, and extra security. Prices range from $150 to $2,000 per year depending on the exact package.
The only folks that should worry about the more advanced SSL certificate options are those that handle credit cards themselves (you’re not; Shopify is doing it for you) or run very large enterprise sites.
In other words, the free SSL certificate from Shopify is more than enough right now. If your ecommerce site gets super large, you can look at the other SSL certificate options later.
After you get your domain purchased or connected in Shopify, you’ll find an option to add an SSL certificate in your Domains area.
Step 9: Launch Your Store
The big day has arrived!
Everything is in place and now it’s time to launch your store.
Shopify stores are password protected by default, so no one has been able to see your store until now. If anyone tried to visit your store until this point, this is what they saw:
As soon as you remove the password protection, people will go straight to your real store without needing to enter a password.
Before Shopify will let you launch your store, they require you start one of its paid plans. You’ll still get full credit for your trial; the billing period won’t begin until after the trial ends. But you do need to get your paid account set up before you can open your store.
If you haven’t picked a paid plan yet, go ahead and do that now.
Then go into your store settings and look for the password section:
All you have to do is uncheck the “Enable password” box, save the settings, and your store will launch.
From here, it’s all about growing traffic to your ecommerce website, improving your products, and finding new products to offer. The better you get, the larger your business will become.
- Last updated March 12, 2019: I added in new headers and sections to improve the scannability.
- First published January 30, 2019