How to Start an Online Boutique
Everything you need to know about starting an online boutique
Research & Refine your Business Idea
If I asked you to picture an online boutique, what do you think of? Would you imagine an online equivalent of a full clothing store? Shirts, tops, and blouses; pants, shorts, jeans; dresses, skirts, and possibly evening wear. Plus jewellery, bags, shoes, and other accessories.
Perhaps this boutique would cater to a specific era, such as the Victorian years. Or maybe it would be specific to a certain style, such as Vintage Hipster. Whether it’s a business that sells men’s, women’s, or children’s clothing, you could likely conjure up an image of a person dressed head to toe in one of these outfits.
There are online boutiques such as these and perhaps that’s your dream, but unless you have unlimited financial resources and a social media following in the thousands, chances are that starting up a large online boutique that resembles an upscale Walmart would not go over well.
Instead, think small.
How about a virtual store that sells workout tank tops with “fitspirational” sayings? Or a business that has endless varieties of colourful, patterned socks? You could start up a store that caters to the athletic business man who bikes to work or maybe supply pregnant women with the best, waterproof raincoats that don’t make them feel like elephants.
As you plan out the details of your online boutique, it would be wise to start small. Specialize in a specific market, an area of fashion that you are experienced in and passionate about. If you can’t see yourself talking about men’s silk underwear for years, then obviously don’t start there.
Maybe you have a passion for everything plaid, including men’s underwear. Maybe that’s your starting point.
As with most new ventures, it’s best to start with one potential top seller. This not only makes things less financially stressful but it also helps you narrow down your target audience. Rather than trying to reach everyone with your marketing campaigns, you’ll be able to focus your attention to only the gym rats. Or the business men who also do Crossfit. Or hipster lumberjacks.
Next, decide how you will get your products. If you’re not making up your own custom merchandise, you’ll have to find a wholesaler or a dropshipping label company to work with.
Taking the wholesale route will give you more control over quality, packaging, and customer service. However, you’ll have more upfront costs and you’ll require some sort of storage system.
On the other hand, dropshipping lightens up your initial financial cost. However, it can make customer service more difficult since you’re dealing with a middle man, plus you have very little control over shipping times and packaging.
Next, focus on providing quality. Quality everything.
Supply your customers with quality products and excellent customer service. As mentioned, this is easier done if you purchase clothing through a wholesaler but we realize this isn’t always the best option for everyone. That’s why it’s important to work with a dropship company who shares the same values as you do and who is also willing to send you samples of their products on a regular basis.
Excellent customer service goes without saying. Without quality customer service, you’ll lose customers who might already be on the verge of writing off your boutique and one negative review can go a long, long way.
Now, it feels like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, doesn’t it?
Before we even purchase or ship out our first t-shirt, we need to sit down and create a business plan. How will you fund the initial operations of your business and what strategies can you come up with that will help your boutique be successful? A detailed plan is essential and we’ll talk a little more about some of the specifics that you’ll need to include in your plan.
Creating your Business Website
Since we’ve clearly identified that we’re creating an ONLINE boutique, it goes without saying that you’ll need to set up a website. However, depending on your budget, you may not be able to hire a web design team to build one for you from the <html> up.
Your next best option is to choose a simplified, drag and drop, ecommerce website such as Wix, Weebly, or Squarespace. They provide templates for online businesses so you don’t need to know any coding in order to set up your virtual shop.
You could also choose to set up shop on Etsy, eBay, or Amazon but it’s much harder to create a brand for yourself on these third party platforms.
When you hosting your own store on the domain name you purchased, you can express yourself in almost any way you can think of. You want your potential customers to see your boutique as something completely unique from anything else they’ve seen.
Once you name your boutique and purchase your domain name, you should begin to consider things such as:
- how can I make my website mobile friendly?
- where will I get images to upload? Will I take pictures myself or hire a professional?
- what methods of payment will I accept?
- if carrying wholesale products, how will I be shipping my products and what will I charge?
Setting up a website isn’t as hard as it may sound, in fact, many hosting providers have tailored their service around small businesses who may not be tech savvy. We suggest going with BlueHost to host your website, their service is simple and easy to use/setup and they’re currently offering 60% off hosting, including free domain registration.
Additionally, creating a blog on your website is also a great way to attract organic traffic and expand your business. Check out our full guide on the best and easiest way to setup a WordPress blog here.
Get Ideas for your boutique business name!
Marketing Your Business
Since fashion is based on appearance, we know it’s your images that will do the selling for you. Instagram and Pinterest are the platforms that will work best to attract your ideal customer.
Instagram is a social media platform that is more about the actual image and less about the caption underneath it. You’ll need to make sure that you post beautiful pictures that not only highlight your products but also your brand. When people click over to your profile, what kind of vibe (ie. brand) will they sense?
Pinterest is less of a social media site and more of a place to find and organize ideas. Here you can show your customer how to create his or her perfect outfit using the products from your store. The sky is the limit here! If you can photograph it and make it appealing, you can pin it!
For both platforms, it’s not essential to focus on sales with every single post. Don’t look at creating sales on social media as a sprint. Rather, you’ll want to attract customers who like your brand and your products. This builds a loyal customer base where your customer gets to know you and you get to know your customer.
Using social media as a selling tool requires that you show up consistently, show your audience what they want to see, help your potential customers by solving their biggest issues, and answering their questions.
Chances are that if you’re planning to set up an online boutique, you follow others on social media who do the same. Consider reaching out to the people who already have their businesses established. You can offer to host a post for them and ask if they’d do the same for you.
Social media is all about influence, so if you can build a relationship with people who have influence, you’ll be two steps ahead of all the other start ups.
You can also use social media as a tool to direct traffic to your website. One of the best ways to stay in touch with your customers and potential customers is to send out a regular newsletter. Gather email addresses at your website and add coupons, sales, and new product updates to your newsletter.
Setting Goals and KPI’s
KPIs are key performance indicators and they can help you set goals and move forward in your business.
Before you even have your online boutique up and running, you can use the KPI concept to keep you on track. The process of deciding and planning for your online store can take several months and having a KPI to help you stay focussed on your goals can be helpful.
Rather than worrying about making your first sale before you even have your first product in your hands, use measurable goals that you can achieve in short periods of time to get to your first product.
Then set goals as you work towards creating a brand identity.
Then make your website. And then move on to marketing and eventually, sales and tracking social media and advertising trends.
The most important thing about KPIs is that they are specific, measurable, and attainable. You can’t expect to have a six figure month in one year if you have start up bills and loan to pay.
Keep your goals small and review them often. Always have a plan to get better and become more successful.
Plan your Finances
Starting an online boutique doesn’t need to cost thousands of dollars. But you will need some equity to start off with.
Once you’re ready to make a business plan, consider paying an expert for business advice. He or she can help you decide how you should register your new business.
You can register as a sole proprietor or a limited liability company (LLC). Each of these has its benefits and drawbacks. An expert can explain these to you.
A business expert can also help you create a detailed business plan. Your plan will talk about start up costs and what kind of strategies you hope to use in order to grow your business. This is where your research will pay off!
At this point, you should have created a separate business bank account. A business expert can guide you through this process. But, how will you get money if you don’t even have a pair of plaid boxers to sell?
You have some options.
You can be working and making money during this time.
You can apply for a small business loan.
You can look for an angel investor who will then have a stake in your company.
You can try crowd funding.
You can ask family and friends if they would be willing to help you out. If you take this route, make sure you draw up a contract that details exactly how you will repay them.
Creating a logo and a website will also cost money. It is possible to do these things yourself or you can find an inexpensive freelance designer on an online job board like Upwork.
You should also add the cost of hiring a professional photographer to your business budget.
And don’t forget about marketing and packaging! You can rely on free social media for only so long. Eventually you’ll need to spend money on sponsored posts and ads.
Adopt an Entrepreneurial Mindset
How do you feel now about opening an online boutique?
If you’re excited, chances are you’re a natural entrepreneur.
If you find yourself thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of work! I’m not sure I have the persistence to make a website and curate the products and upload the photos and start a new Instagram account,” maybe starting an online business isn’t for you.
Entrepreneurial types are a special breed of people.
They need to be creative. If plan A, B, C, D, or E doesn’t work, they have to come up with plans F through Z.
They are tireless. Initially, many entrepreneurs work full-time while pursuing their own business on the side. Balance isn’t something most entrepreneurs tend to do well.
They don’t give up. When things get tough, they persist. They find a second wind – and a third and a fourth – and push through until they see results.
They’re constantly learning. Not just about fashion trends but also about the ever changing world of online marketing and social media algorithms.
They keep their customer in mind. Through it all, entrepreneurs have a passion to share their product with the world. And at the end of the day, the thought of making someone happy is often what gets them through the tough times.
You may or may not feel you have an entrepreneurial mindset. That’s okay. It can be developed. Read books, listen to podcasts, get on mailing lists designed to help small businesses. There’s a lot of great information out there on creating an entrepreneurial mindset and learning that change is a part of it is a great first step.
Other things to consider when starting your online boutique
Most clothing retailers and small businesses set up as an LLC but it is not absolutely necessary. An LLC protects you from legal and financial liability.
A sole proprietorship is easier and faster to set up but that means you will always be alone in the business. If you plan to grow, an LLC is the way to go.
Next – and before you purchase a domain name – you’ll need to check to see if the business name you want is available. You’ll also need to register your business and get a business number for income tax purposes.
Another thing you should consider is to have a meeting with a lawyer who is knowledgeable about online small businesses. You can gain valuable advice from them that will help keep you and your business safe and free from legal allegations. You should also check with a lawyer to make sure you have any permits or licenses that you require, depending on the state, province, or country you live in.
Accounting & Bookkeeping:
The best way to keep track of your finances is by using an online accounting software such as QuickBooks. There are other accounting program available for small businesses. Do some research or talk with an accountant to see which program would work best for your business needs.
If numbers aren’t your thing, consider contracting out your accounting and bookkeeping to someone who knows what they’re doing. This can save you time and time is money!
As your business grows, you may find that you’re struggling to keep up with everything on your plate. If you’ve registered as an LLC, you can consider hiring help.
A virtual assistant can help you with posting on social media and/or returning customer care emails. A VA can be hired for a certain number of hours a week so you don’t need to immediately commit to having the responsibility of a full time worker.
Consider your biggest fans on social media. They’re already familiar with your products and your mission. If that avenue doesn’t work out, consider looking for contract freelancers to help you out. Upwork is an online job bank where you can find virtual assistants.
If you’re selling wholesale, you may need to hire someone to help you with packaging and distribution. You’ll need a reliable person who respects the mission and brand of your online boutique. It will be your responsibility to pay your workers fair wages as well as set clear expectations as to the job they need to do.