Searching for the perfect products, finding a color scheme that speaks to you, building a brand that embodies the style and look you, love—if starting an online boutique sounds like heaven to you, I’m not surprised. But you may be wondering, “what does it take to start a digital boutique?”.
Before you jump headfirst into hand-picking items and deciding on website fonts, let’s start at the beginning, and look at how to open a boutique online.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything from business plan resources to using brand ambassadors to help you build a social media following.
10 Steps to start an online boutique
While starting an online business can take a lot of time and investment, it can be condensed down to the following ten steps.
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 lean plan geared toward helping you solidify the planning process for yourself.
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.
We’ve covered business planning extensively in other articles on our site, so I’ll keep this section short and sweet.
To dive deeper into business planning, be sure to check out:
- How to Write a Business Plan
- The Different Types of Business Plans
- Lean Planning: Write your Business Plan in Under an Hour
- Estimating Realistic Startup Costs
- Women’s Clothing Boutique Business Plan
- How to Write a Business Plan for a Retail Clothing Boutique
Step 2. Decide on the platform for your boutique
Once you’ve gotten your plan in place, you’ll need to decide where you want to start an online boutique.
Do you want your boutique to take advantage of the great organic traffic on Etsy? Or, do you imagine having a little more control over your website, layout, and the general shopping experience?
There are pros and cons to both; ultimately, it comes down to what products you sell, and how much control you want, in terms of customizing your online storefront.
Need more info before you pick your eCommerce platform? I don’t blame you. Luckily, we’ve written extensively about all your options:
- 5 Steps to Starting an Online Business
- How to Start an Etsy Shop
- Should You Sell on Etsy, or Build Your Own eCommerce Site?
- How to Improve eCommerce Conversions
- Where to Sell Digital Products and Niche Products
Step 3. Pick a brand name you love—and can live with
Make sure you pick a name you’re totally in love with—that part of starting an online boutique should be a no-brainer. More importantly, however, make sure it’s a name you’ll be able to say, without feeling embarrassed.
Some businesses have names that are, frankly, a little cringe-inducing. Imagine telling all your friends about your new online boutique; does the idea of repeating the name “Sally’s Super Funky Vintage Duds” to everyone you meet make you want to crawl under a rock? Probably.
You’ll want to be able to say your business name proudly and make sure that others are comfortable telling their friends about it. You want it to be, in a word, cool.
Now, cool means different things to different people, and that’s okay! Just make sure when you pick it, you can own it.
And speaking of owning it, you’ll also want to be sure your business name is available. Do a quick Google search to determine if any business with the name currently exists and if all of the trademark licensing and registry information is up to date.
The process of picking a name will probably take a while. Relax. It’s all part of the planning process. If you need some help, check out the resources below.
If you need some more business name advice and inspiration:
- Resources and Tools to Help You Name Your Business
- How to Name Your Company
- The Complete Guide to Registering Your Business Name
Step 4. Create a cohesive aesthetic style
Now comes the really fun part: It’s time to dive into image curation.
Slightly different from branding (which we’ll get to in a minute), curating your image is all about developing your online boutique’s own personal style.
Who is your ideal customer? What do they love, like, and absolutely hate?
What colors, fabrics, articles of clothing, kinds of jewelry, and types of foods appeal to them?
Some of these questions may seem a little out of left field. After all, if you’re opening an online boutique focused on, say, beautiful handcrafted greeting cards, what does it matter what your ideal customer’s favorite food is?
Well, it matters for one big reason: Aesthetic cohesion.
You want all of your items to fit, and tell a story.
Their aesthetic is Southern-inspired, with touches of leather, metals, woods, and—you guessed it—bourbon. It’s warm, welcoming, and cohesive.
Your products should look unified on a screen together, so from the beginning, start thinking about the “story” your products will tell. Who are they for? What are the colors, textures, and styles of your ideal products?
Step 5: Develop your boutique’s unique brand
In the same vein as building your own cohesive personal style, you’ll want to focus on building your brand.
Your brand will be a combination of your cohesive product selection, your chosen name, the ideal customer you are targeting, and the overall look and feel of your website and social media platforms.
It’s easy to spot the differences right off the bat: Here are two boutiques with vastly different branding.
Is your brand fun, bubbly, and girly, with bright feminine colors and fonts? Adorable stationery, decor, and accessory boutique Declaration & Co. is a great example of this type of branding.
Or, maybe you’re going for sleek, clean lines and minimalism? Check out Thread Theory, a sewing, and menswear boutique:
Your brand goes further than just picking a cohesive style of products to sell. Your brand is everything you do, from the colors and fonts you use on your website, to the types of content you post on social media.
Branding is involved—but also a lot of fun! We’ve covered branding extensively, so we’ve got a lot of articles you should check out. You’ll find everything from a branding checklist to detailed how-to’s to help you build your brand.
To read more about branding, check out these articles:
- Business Branding Guide (our hub for everything branding related)
- The Definitive Guide to Building a Brand
- Branding Checklist: 10 Essentials Before Launch [Free Download]
- 4 Reasons to Brand Your Business
- The Importance of Brand Storytelling
Step 6: Make your products stand out
You can have the best branding, and the most cohesive, well-curated online boutique in the world—but if your products aren’t given their chance to shine, you’ll end up short.
What do these images have in common?
The products are the star of the show.
They are well photographed, without a lot of busy visual background noise, and they speak for themselves.
While making your site itself visually pleasing is one thing, don’t forget the importance of showcasing your products beautifully. This means high-quality photography, good lighting and backdrops, and potentially someone (or many someones) to model your products.
You’ve got several options, depending on your budget (and how DIY you feel comfortable getting):
Do it yourself:
If you plan on regularly adding new inventory, and would rather cut down on costs in the long term, consider the full DIY route. Though your entry costs may be higher, you’ll ultimately have total flexibility over your product photography. And need models? Look no further than a couple of friends.
Shopify’s article on The Ultimate DIY Guide to Beautiful Product Photography covers everything you could possibly need, from the camera to room choice, and everything in between.
Hire a professional:
If photography isn’t really your thing, you might feel more comfortable leaving it up to the pros. When looking for a photographer to shoot your product images, make sure you’ve evaluated their portfolio, and hire someone who is accustomed to product photography.
For more info on product photos (either DIY or done by a professional), check out these articles:
- The Ultimate DIY Guide to Beautiful Product Photography
- How to Take Gorgeous Product Photos
- How to Hire a Professional Photographer to Shoot Your Etsy Products
- Hiring a Professional Photographer to Photograph Your Products
Step 7: Decide where you plan to source your products
Now that you have a clear idea of what kinds of products you want to sell, and the cohesive brand story that your online boutique will tell, it’s time to actually start finding the perfect products to sell in your online boutique.
There are tons of ways to go about sourcing products, so don’t think of this as a complete list. However, I’ll go over a few of your options here:
Reach out to your favorite Etsy sellers
Is there an Etsy shop that makes the most gorgeous handcrafted soaps 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.
Connect with local artists and crafters
If you see products that you love at your local Saturday market, ask the makers if they would be interested in selling their products wholesale to you, to sell in your storefront.
Scour local consignment, vintage, and antique shops
The beauty of finding items for your store on consignment or via an antique store? You’ll be able to create a truly unique, handpicked shopping experience. If this suits your boutique’s style, it can be a great way to get started.
Overseas manufacturers often use eBay to sell goods at nearly wholesale prices, so it can be a good place to look.
Go directly to the manufacturer
Searching for your product at wholesale prices will often turn up plenty of results, and allow you to get your items from just about anywhere.
For more information about sourcing your products, check out these resources:
- How to Get Products for Your Boutique
- Maker’s Row (if you just can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, consider having it manufactured for you!)
Step 8: Determine how you plan to ship your products
Having a plan for shipping your products is crucial; if your shipping costs are too high, or your shipping time too slow, you’re likely to lose customers.
You’ll need to choose a shipping solution; in my research, I’ve seen ShipStation highly recommended.
More resources on how to ship products from your online boutique:
- How to Estimate eCommerce Shipping Costs
- How to Choose a Shipping Strategy for Your Online Store
- 6 Quick Tips On How to Ship Your Products
- How to Set Shipping Rates for Your Online Store
Step 9: Use social media
When it comes to social media, you’ll want to take full advantage.
Since you’re starting an online boutique, visual sites are likely to be in your best interest; this means Pinterest and Instagram at a minimum.
On Instagram, you’ll be able to share new arrivals to your store, share visuals that you feel encapsulate your brand aesthetic (so, don’t just advertise), and ultimately reach new customers.
Pinterest is another great place to do this; not only can you include products from your store, but by creating an engaging and inspiring Pinterest page, you’ll snag followers who might not have come via advertising alone.
Starting a blog on your site can also be a great way to position yourself as a thought leader in your industry.
Not only will this potentially get your boutique more exposure, as people will find your online boutique via links to your articles, but it will solidify your brand as a tastemaker within your niche.
To learn more about using social media to market your online boutique, check out these articles:
- Pinterest 101: Making the Most of Social Media’s New Kid on the Block
- The Ultimate Instagram Guide for Hair Salons (though the advice is geared at stylists, boutiques can follow many of the same guidelines)
Step 10: Use brand ambassadors to your advantage
Lastly, when it comes to marketing your new online boutique via social channels, it’s a good idea to consider leveraging other bloggers and thought-leaders to your advantage.
Contact a blogger or vlogger (video blogger) that you admire, who you believe embodies the look, ideals, and interests of your customer base.
You can either send them a sample of your product, offer them a discount code to share with their followers, invite them to write a guest article for your blog—the possibilities are endless.
Here are more helpful resources on the ins and outs of using brand ambassadors:
- How to Collaborate with Influencers
- How to Build a $120K per Month Ecommerce Brand in Less Than a Year
- Does Your Business Need a Brand Ambassador?
So, there you have it—virtually everything you need to start an online boutique.
It might seem like a lot—and really, it is—but the key is to take it in stride. With the right plan of action, you’ll have your dream online storefront open in no time.
You can also download our full Business Startup Checklist to discover the steps to starting any successful business.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated for 2020.