Step 1: Planning your online boutique
If you’re researching how to start a boutique, you should know upfront: You’ll need a business plan.
But, don’t let the idea of a lengthy business plan scare you off; the type of business plan you’ll need will vary, depending on whether or not you’re using it as a guide to keep you on track, or as a means to an end—to pitch for funding or a loan.
If you’ve got enough funding to start your business without seeking a loan from an angel investor or a bank, you’ll be fine with a leaner business plan geared toward helping you solidify the planning process for yourself.
What’s in a lean business plan?
Whether you operate a traditional retail store or an online boutique, there’s one thing all businesses need: a good business plan. Think of a business plan as a map for your business, outlining your goals and the steps you’ll take to reach those goals. A solid business plan is critical for new businesses seeking financing from investors or traditional lenders like banks and credit unions.
A lean business plan should include information like:
- Executive Summary: A brief, 1,000-foot view of your business plan and what’s in it. (Pro Tip – write this last)
- Company Description: As you might have guessed, a short description of your company, what it does, who it targets, and revenue model.
- Market Overview: Information about the niche audience and customer type you’re entering. Also compare competitors who are already in the space. What are they doing well? Where can you be better?
- Sales & Marketing Strategy: Where are your target customers spending their time online? How are you going to reach them? Is it through influencers? SEO? Social Media ads? Determine (specifically) what you’re going to do, how much it’ll cost, and what you need to get started.
- Operating Plan: Your org structure, facilities and equipment needed, staff required, and how your day-to-day operations will look, and what that’ll cost.
- Organization & Management Team: How management will be structured and what your management team brings to the table. Even if you’re a sole proprietor, here’s where you can list your key partnerships. Do you have a CPA who helps with your taxes? Even if they’re not actually a member of your business, it’s good to list out resources.
- Revenue Model: How you plan on making money. Make sure you also know how your potential gross profits. (total revenue – costs)
- Financials: An estimate of your starting and operating costs.
For anyone who’s bootstrapping their business (funding it themselves), this is usually enough for you to have a map of where to take your business. If, however, you need to present your plan to outsiders to get funding, no sweat. A lean plan can easily be converted into a full-length, formal business plan.
Step 2: Decide on the platform for your boutique
First stop: Choose your domain
Choosing your domain name is a vital step in creating an online boutique that is professional and memorable. Your domain name is essentially the online version of the address of a brick and mortar store. It usually has your company name in it and tells people where to find you.
Top Tips for choosing a domain name:
- Keep it as short as possible – this helps customers remember your boutique so they can easily return to it
- Make sure your company name is prominent – you want your company name front and central for brand recognition
- Target your area – if your boutique will only be selling locally, consider adding your city or state to make it easy for customers to find you e.g. if you’re only selling in california: www.thecaliforniacandleco.com
- Avoid numbers and hyphens – these are often mistaken or forgotten when people hear your domain name, so to make sure all those interested in your boutique actually get there, cut them out.
Tips for choosing a website builder
When choosing which is the best website builder to start your online boutique with, we recommend you take a couple for a test drive before making a final decision.
While you’re taking them for a test drive, it’s a good idea to mull over the following questions:
- Can you get to grips with the interface quickly?
- Is there enough support available if you get stuck?
- Which template designs do you like?
- Are there enough design options?
- Is it easy to add new pages and products?
- Which apps and add ons will you be able to add to your site?
- Which online store builder will help you grow your boutique?
- Is the ecommerce plan within my budget?
- Is there a fair refund policy?
- How many people are using the builder?
- Do their customers review it well?
You want to start your online boutique quickly and simply without breaking the bank.
A case for Shopify
One website builder not covered in our original article about best website builders is Shopify. It’s a great option for online boutiques, and also has an impressive range of themes. Although it should be noted that some templates may be a little on the pricey side.
Choosing how your website will look (aka finding the right template)
It’s worth previewing a few templates that you like the look of. Have a poke around the product pages and see if they have features that are right for your boutique.
Put yourself in the shoes of a customer and see if the template is easy to navigate.
You want to make sure it’s as simple as possible for your customers to find what they’re looking for, as this will make them much more likely to make a purchase.
Some quick tips on web design
Add your boutique’s branding and logo to instantly engage visitors
Upload custom imagery to market your own goods and increase sales
Add new pages, specifically an ‘About’ page and a blog – both of which are great for sharing expertise, personalizing your brand, and building brand awareness.
Add a contact form – If you’re investing in a blog and content development for your brand, this is a great way to get recurring customers. By capturing their email from a contact form on your blog, you can create beautiful newsletters to re-engage customers and create more sales each season. But be careful not to spam them with emails. That’s the fastest way to kill your email marketing campaign.
Set up your online payments
To start making money from your online boutique you’ll need to set up a payment processor. This allows your customers to pay via credit or debit card, or through services like Paypal.
If you’re using Wix, head to the store manager on the left-hand side of the editor and click ‘Manage Your Store.’ From there you can easily navigate through connecting a payment.
To access payment options on Squarespace, simply go into your settings on the left-hand side of the editor and scroll down until you see ‘Payments.’
Shopify includes an integrated payment processor called Shopify Payments. It allows you to manage and track your money in real-time, directly in your dashboard.
All the builders in this guide allow you to accept payments with credit or debit cards or via PayPal. Shopify also supports payments through Amazon Pay as well as a bunch of other payment processors.
Ultimately the choice is yours. But out of all options, Shopify Payments is the most robust and comprehensive choice. That’s not to say other website builders aren’t up to par. If you decide SquareSpace or Wix is the best fit, their payment processing platforms will still get the job done.
Step 3: Sourcing your inventory
Before you launch your website and begin to make sales, you have to find and purchase inventory to stock your online store.
There are a few ways to source inventory.
One of the most common ways to source your inventory is by using a wholesaler. With the wholesale option, you can purchase items in bulk at a reduced rate. Typically, the more you purchase, the more you save. Wholesale suppliers can easily be found in the U.S. and overseas with a quick online search. Try starting with typing the below into any search engine and begin there:
“wholesale” (insert your niche product here)
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider a wholesaler
- Do you want to vary your shipping charges per region? – For example, nationally and internationally?
- Do you want to offer a flat rate? – The same charge for all products
- Do you want to vary your rate by product weight? – If you’re a boutique selling jewelry for example, this might be a good option for you, as a small pair of earrings won’t cost the same as a heavy bangle
- Do you want to offer your customers next day delivery? Will you charge more for this? – Next day delivery is a big draw for customers, so we advise having the option available if you can
- How do you want to package your products? – If you’re selling anything fragile in your boutique, such as handcrafts or home decor such as mirrors, it’s really important to make sure your products reach your customer unharmed. Make sure the packaging you choose will ensure they don’t get damaged en route
- Do you want to personalize your orders? – If you’re a small boutique, this is a great way to make your customers feel valued and encourage them to return. Why not include a little card in their order thanking them for their purchase
Create a list of possible wholesalers to use for your business and reach out to them asking about: available items, pricing, minimum order requirements, and shipping costs.
Pros of using a wholesaler
One of the biggest benefits of purchasing from a wholesaler is that you will have more control over shipping your products to customers. You’ll be able to control how products are shipped, as well as the packaging that your customers receive. This offers a better opportunity for branding your business.
Cons of using a wholesaler
However, purchasing your inventory through a wholesaler also has its drawbacks. This option may be more expensive based on minimum purchasing requirements. Packaging and shipping your own items could also add to your expenses. You could also incur additional overhead costs for the storage of your inventory.
If you don’t want to work with a wholesaler, dropshipping is another option to consider for your boutique. With dropshipping, a third-party supplier fulfills the orders of your customers.
Pros of dropshipping
The main benefit of dropshipping comes in to play during the order fulfillment process. Your customer places an order, the order is manually (or automatically) sent to your supplier, and the supplier is responsible for packing and shipping the order to your customer.
Cons of dropshipping
There are a few drawbacks associated with dropshipping. The supplier or manufacturer handles packaging and shipping, so you won’t be able to personalize the packaging and branding of your shipped orders. You may also have some issues with inventory. If you house your own inventory, you’ll be able to better account for what’s in stock, but a miscommunication with your dropshipping supplier could result in canceled orders or backorders, which could lead to unsatisfied customers.
Also, you have to consider that if something goes wrong, you are ultimately the face of your brand and you will be liable. If the wrong item is sent or there’s another issue with an order, this reflects poorly on you, even if it’s the supplier’s fault.
Bonus: Check out Esty
Is there an Etsy shop that you think would be perfect for your boutique? Send them a message and see if you can work something out.
Also worth looking into is Etsy Wholesale—developed precisely for connecting makers with sellers.
No matter what route you take, it’s important to properly vet any supplier you’re using for your boutique. Request samples to check out the quality of products, find out if you’ll have a dedicated contact to reach when there is a problem, and work with reputable businesses with a history of success in their industry.
Step 4: Register Your Business
Before you start peddling boutique items, you’ll need to register your business. For an online boutique, the process isn’t too difficult.
Choose Your Business Structure
When you start your business, you’ll need to select your business structure. For an online boutique, your best options are to operate as a sole proprietorship or limited liability company (LLC). An individual can operate as a sole proprietorship without having to file paperwork.
The benefit of setting up an LLC, which will protect you in most cases from being held liable for your business’ debt. However, you often protect yourself with liability insurance, which is drastically cheaper to maintain than an LLC. You may also opt to operate as a corporation, which may be necessary idea if you plan to bring on outside investors. Otherwise a sole proprietorship (or general partnership if you’re a team) or an LLC are sufficient for most cases.
File State Paperwork
To form an LLC or corporation, you’ll file paperwork with a state. For most business owners, this will be the state where you live and the business is formed, although a few states, such as Delaware, have incentives for out-of-state businesses to register with them. You’ll not only file documents within this state but also pay a filing fee, which varies by state.
You may also want to apply for an EIN (employee identification number) from the IRS. If you’re going to get a business checking account, it’s common for banks to request one. It’s free, but not required for a sole proprietorship.
Take Care Of Finances
If you don’t have one already, it’s advisable to open a separate (preferably a business checking) bank account to keep your business finances separate from your personal finances.
Meet Sales Tax & Licensing Requirements
As an online seller, you’ll have to collect and pay sales tax for transactions that occur within your state. You can learn more about the requirements in your area by calling your state tax department.
You should also consult with city or county authorities to find out about business license requirements in your area, and DBAs (doing business as), which are often required from City governments if you’re operating under a different brand name than your own legal name.
A quick recap for you after digesting all that information:
Squarespace’s templates make it a great choice for the design of your boutique. And their ecommerce features make it really quick and easy to start selling online.
If you’re going for a boutique on the larger side (over 50 products), then Shopify is your best bet.
Make sure you finalize both your shipping model, your business structure, and legal paperwork, and your domain name before really diving into the website builders and platforms.
And remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So even if this seems like a lot (and it is), take one step at a time.