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From Brick & Mortar to Ecommerce

How to Start Selling Physical Goods Online


This is a list of tasks that a local brick & mortar retailer will need to do to start selling products on the Web. This guide aims to help you sell goods online and ship orders worldwide.

The tasks are labeled with 4 priority levels. The required tasks are the things every online retailer needs to do. The recommended and optional tasks will make your ecommerce life easier, but they're not absolutely necessary for selling online. The advanced tasks aim to create an efficient system for high volume sellers.

Have a question, comment or suggestion about this guide? Email me at onlinebusiness@aboutguide.com.

1. Get Broadband Internet Access (required)

Dial-up access won't do when you're doing business online. You'll need to be online to create product listings, upload pictures, process new sales, email customers, and almost everything else. A fast, always-on Internet connection is a must-have for any business working online.

Get the lowest priced DSL plan from your phone company. (Probably in the $50 range, with some kind of discount for the first few months.) You don't need a bigger plan unless the connection feels slow and you upload or share big media files (pictures, videos).

2. Register a Domain Name (recommended)

Your domain name is the web address of your website and the part after the @ sign in your email address. For example, the domain name of the New York Times is nytimes.com.

You don't absolutely need a domain name to sell goods online. However, having an email address like greg@yourcompany.com is a lot more professional and trustworthy than a free email address like gregscompany@yahoo.com.

Since they're cheap (less than $10 per year) and easy to register, I suggest registering a domain name even if you don't plan on building your own website.

All of the following domain name registrars offer a quality service at reasonable prices: GoDaddy, Register.com, Enom, EasyDNS, Yahoo! Domains.

More tips on choosing a domain name for your business.

3. Buy a Shipping Scale (required)

An accurate scale is important from the get go because the weight of the product determines how much it will cost to ship.

Buyers are looking at the total cost (price + shipping) of buying your product, and if your listed shipping weight of the product is too high, you'll price your products out of the market. On the other hand, charge too little for shipping, and you'll have to pay the difference out of your own pocket.

What you're looking for in a scale:

  • Remote or extended readout display.
  • Adequate weight range for your products.
  • Attachments for rolls and/or envelopes.
  • Big enough surface area for your products.
  • Tare / zero out function.
  • Digital readout for precision.

The Ultraship line of scales has served me well.

4. Buy a Digital Camera (required)

You don't need a fancy expensive digital camera or a full studio setup. All you need is a basic digital camera ($100-200) with the following minimum features:

  • At least 1 megapixel - Yup, that's all. That should not be a problem with any digital camera these days.

  • Macro capabilities - So you can have ultra-close zoom for detailed pictures.

  • Flash disabling - The picture always comes out worse using the built-in flash. Indirect sunlight makes for great lighting. If you want to buy indoor lights, check out this product photography guide first.

Shop for Digital Cameras

5. Buy a Decent Computer (required)

You obviously need a computer to do work online. Use these guidelines to get a desktop for under $500 or a laptop for under $1000.

  • Monitor - Go bigger, it's worth it. Look for 19" - 22" LCD monitors for the best deals.

  • Memory (RAM) - Splurge! Get at least 1 Gb of RAM. 2 Gb is better and would not be a waste of money. RAM makes everything feel snappier.

  • Processor (CPU) - Tend to go cheaper. Spend the money on RAM or a bigger monitor.

  • Storage (hard drive size) - Get at least 100 Gb for a desktop, and at least 60 Gb for a laptop. Raw product pictures take up a lot of space.

  • DVD-RW Drive - Make sure you can burn DVDs to make data backups.

  • Operating System - Any will do. XP, Vista, Linux, OSX... they all work.

6. Buy a Laser Printer (required)

You will need to print on two types of paper:

  1. Regular 8.5" x 11" paper for packing slips, reports, general purpose printing.
  2. Self-adhesive labels for pre-paid postage and address labels. Shop for Laser Printers.

Compared to an inkjet printer, laser printers are faster, quieter, prints noticeably sharper output, and the ink doesn't smear when it gets wet. It's worth the upgrade.

Printing your own postage from the office is a huge time saver. It might be worth it to get a dedicated label printer. (I like the Zebra LP2844 - fast enough and prints 4"x6".)

If you're not buying a dedicated label printer, get a laser printer that has two trays so you don't have to constantly swap out the regular paper for self-adhesive labels.

7. Setup Your Email at Google Apps (recommended)

This step is high up on the list, even before we list a single product for sale, because email is required for creating accounts with vendors. It's also the primary method of communication on the Web.

You could use a free email address from Yahoo, Hotmail, or Gmail instead of bothering with a domain (see #1 above) and setting up your own mailbox. But using an email address at your own domain is what separates the pros from the amateurs.

I recommend creating a Google Apps account. It lets you manage your company's email addresses from a central location. You can also add other free services like instant messaging, document and spreadsheet editing/sharing, and group calendars. (Two alternatives to Google are Zoho and Microsoft Office Live.

8. Create a PayPal Account for Payment Processing (required)

PayPal is a very popular way to pay online. Think of it as an online wallet. On eBay, it's the preferred way to pay for both sellers and buyers.

With a PayPal account, you can accept payments via PayPal or a major credit card (Visa, MC, AMEX, Discover).

PayPal also offers a free application called MultiOrder Shipping that lets sellers pay for and print postage labels in bulk. (Unfortunately, it only supports USPS and domestic U.S. shipments at the moment.)

9. Get Free Shipping Supplies From USPS and UPS (required)

The US Postal Service (USPS) and UPS are the two biggest carriers for shipping orders. Both integrate seamlessly with third party selling software (including eBay). That lets your customers calculate custom shipping quotes based on their location.

Both also offer free shipping supplies for their customers. You just need to create an account at usps.com and/or ups.com, and you can start requesting free shipping envelopes, boxes, customs forms, labels, and more.

The UPS advantage over the USPS is tracking. UPS provides accurate global, door-to-door tracking on all their packages. But they cost more than the USPS. Ship globally or high value items? Check out UPS.

10. Sell a Few Things on eBay via Auction (required)

eBay is by far the largest online marketplace where sellers and buyers gather, and it's a great place to start your ecommerce business. Start by listing a few small, inexpensive, easy-to-ship items at auction. By selling products one at a time (via auction or fixed price listing) lets you slowly learn about the ecommerce sales (creating effective listings), and gives you time to buildout your fulfillment pipeline (packaging, shipping, returns).

Even if you ultimately decide to build your own ecommerce website, you should still sell on eBay. Its millions and millions of unique visitors a month can't be ignored.

Also try to buy a few things. It's helpful to see the ecommerce process from the buyer's point of view.

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