[UPDATE] Wholesale Inventory buying guide for new store owners added July 2017.
So you’ve decided to finally start that online boutique you’ve been talking about for years.
But as you get deeper into the process of starting your online business, you realise that there’s so much more to figure out than just opening a Shopify account.
You need to learn:
The Online Boutique Owner’s Handbook
- How to validate your online boutique idea (before your launch)
- How to decide on your (most profitable) online boutique business model
- How to create your ideal customer avatar (and why it’s important)
- How to decide your brand’s positioning and choose your market segment
- How to curate your collections and find quality wholesale suppliers
- How much inventory you should buy when you’re just getting started
- Questions to ask your wholesaler (before you spend a dollar)
- How to manage business expenses (while still turning a profit)
- How to operate quality control and customer service (without being taken advantage of)
- How to get quality images when you’re not a professional photographer (and you can’t afford to hire one)
And these are just the essentials. Yikes!
I know exactly how you feel, I’ve been there. That’s why – How To Online Boutique: The new & aspiring online store owner’s handbook – exists.
From the big picture overview to deeper expert insights – with some video and cheeky visuals thrown in for good measure. You’ll find the handbook brimming with tips and advice, made easy to find with the handy chapter guide.
How To Online Boutique: The New Store Owner’s Handbook
How to validate your online boutique idea (before you launch)
Validating your business idea is not an art or a science. It’s a discipline.
But because it presents an extra step, which, if you’re proven to be totally wrong could lead to disappointment. Sadly, it’s a discipline that mainly new business owners never learn.
Often to their financial peril.
Maybe it’s never occurred to you to validate your idea, before you turn it into a business?
Maybe you’re so sure you’re onto a winning thing that you can’t see the point into doing a marketplace test, before you launch.
Or, maybe, you have no clue what it means to validate your business idea, why it matters, or how to do it? If you fall into the former and latter camp, but want to change that, I highly recommend you start here.
Before finalising your product idea make sure you take some time to research sales platforms like Amazon, Ebay and Etsy. You can often get ideas about what products do well, and which never quite take off – from brands online sales channels with no shortage of traffic.
- How to validate your business idea
- How to do product research on Amazon
- How to build a pre-launch mailing list
How to decide on your (most profitable) online boutique business model?
You might not know this, but there are many different options available to you when it comes to Ecommerce.
And there are people selling thousands of products a month (their own and other peoples) without ever having a traditional Ecommerce shop. Not that I’d recommend that.
That’s why choosing the online business model most suited to where you are can be confusing. Especially if you’re not sure what your options are, the pros and cons of each, and if or how they all work together.
But remember this, you’re not stuck with the business model you use to launch your brand.
You can and should adapt you as and your brand grow. But if the idea of bringing in additional revenue streams without extra work or costs appeals to you, you’ll want to read this:
Personally, I’m a big supporter of the Authority Ecommerce business model, but more on that later.
Look at how much time you have to invest in your business each week, alongside your existing skill set, and your cashflow situation.
If you find yourself lacking in any or all of these areas, you definitely should consider adding affiliate marketing into the mix.
- Which online boutique business model is right for you. Store, blog, affiliate or hybrid?
- What is affiliate marketing?
- How to create an affiliate programme for your brand
How to create your ideal customer avatar?
In order to validate your business idea, you’ll need to at least have a think and come to some decisions about who your ideal customer is.
But once you know you’re onto a winning concept, that’s the time you’ll really want to sit down and dig deep into your ideal customer persona.
You need an in-depth insight into: who they are, their likes, dislikes, wants, needs, challenges and views on style and fashion, (your niche here)
With this clear picture of your customer in mind, every time you consider a new product you can run it past the filter of: would (your ideal customer’s name) want this?
Quite often if your gut instinct says NO, you’re probably right.
Don’t buy product just because it’s cheap, cute, or because you personally like it. This business model will leave you with lots of unsold stock that you end up having to sell at steep, steep discounts, if at all.
How to decide on your brand positioning and market segment
In my experience customers fall into different segments, especially when it comes to fashion and accessories:
There’s the bargain hunter. They buy often, but are rarely willing to spend over a certain amount.
They like throw-away cheap fashion, and are not particularly loyal to any specific brand or boutique.
There’s the mid-range customer, who considers quality and wearability when they make a new purchase.
They still want a good quality product for a fair price, but they are not as easily swayed by deep discounts because ‘cheap’ is not their no #1 priority.
Then there’s the high-end customer.
They are financially fluid, often fiercely loyal to brands and boutiques who meet their style needs – with great customer service to boot.
They may not shop every month, but they tend to buy in hauls and buy products build to last, so they’re looking for quality pieces that they will wear for years to come.
These customers are not as price sensitive, and while being aware of trends, still retain a very clear personal style.
Where you position your online boutique depends on a few things: your business model, your budget, and your branding.
It can be tempting to go the ‘cheap and cheerful’ route as this seems to be an easy way to get started. But this space is also fiercely competitive and carving out a loyal following for yourself can be hard.
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Likewise, positioning yourself as a high-end boutique can also present early stage challlenges.
Your initial outlay is going to be much higher for stock, especially if you’re not able to make a large purchase order to take advantage of real wholesale pricing.
While brick and mortar stores will often negotiate consignment deals with new designers to test stock before committing to a P/O, these agreements get much harder to broker when you only retail online.
Decide which end of the market you want to play in from the beginning.
But remember, it’s much easier to have higher prices and offer lower priced products to an already loyal and engaged money spending audience, than it is to pitch yourself to the lower end of the market, then start throwing in random, premium priced products.
- How to create a brand people care about
- How to position yourself as a luxury brand
- How to increase the perceived value of your product
How to curate your collections and find quality wholesale suppliers
Your collection needs to look and feel like a collection. But this can be hard to achieve when you’re working with lots of different suppliers and sources.
well, you’re seeing things at different times, and have no real idea what they will look like when laid out side-by-side in your online store .
Think about those sale stores you go into where you’re faced with hundreds of different options, and none of them seem to go together.
How often do you find yourself buying from those places? Errr… I heard you roll your eyes and whisper, ‘NEVER’.
So you need to be careful that your online boutique doesn’t become the digital equivalent of that experience.
Create a mood board of the inspiration for your current collection for your online boutique.
Next, create another board with pictures of all the stock you plan to buy that reflects that inspiration – then, work out how those pieces work together.
While you can do this digitally with tools like Pinterest, I’d actively encourage you to try and do it manually – as it’s so much easier to move things around.
Just this simple process will eliminate a lot of weak product selection and help you see what’s missing. This really is a crucial part of curating any collection, whether you design it yourself or buy it piece by piece.
How much inventory should you buy when you’re just starting out?
Deciding on the right answer to this question can be really confusing for many.
You don’t want to buy too much stock, for obvious reasons. But at the same time, you don’t want to have too little stock in case you sell out and can’t meet the demand.
You also need to think carefully about how long it takes you to receive each new wholesale order you place, especially if you’re working with overseas suppliers.
I recommend that you err on the side of caution in the beginning.
Always buy a sample before you place your first order. And even then, only buy enough inventory for you to make your first a few sales (and get feedback). Once you know you have a winning product, price and supply chain, you can place bigger orders.
Questions to ask your wholesaler before you spend a dollar?
You can spend days and weeks researching wholesalers.
Hours, crafting the perfect outreach email – often with no response. So it’s completely understandable that the first time someone seems keen to work with you, you lose your mind and common sense goes out the window.
You’re so keen to make progress, that you forget to do some due diligence to make sure this a good potential partner. Or, like most newbie store owners, you’re not even sure of the right questions to ask?
Make a list of the questions that are most important to you before you speak with your supplier, but also make sure you search their site to see if the answer can be found there.
Always follow up on your emails within 3-5 days. Wholesalers are busy people and sometimes it’s not they don’t want to work with you, they just forget to reply.
How to account for business expenses (while still turning a profit)
Slim profit margins are fine to test the market on a new product, but they are not sustainable in the long term if you want to keep offering that product and you don’t want to go broke.
Then there’s shipping costs – which can be a major point of friction, especially for international customers – if you don’t absorb at least some of the cost.
With all the ‘little things’ you end up shelling out on in the beginning, and all those monthly subscription services you sign up to (many of which you don’t need) it can be easy to let the accounting get away from you. And before you know it, you’ve got no profit, no cashflow, and messed up credit. This is bad.
Remember this: the long-term success of your online boutique all depends on your understanding of your numbers, so make a note of everything in a business accounts spreadsheet.
It’s also worth reviewing all your monthly expenses every quarter to make sure you’re actually getting real value out of the things you’re paying for each month.
Try and bake in a little extra profit into all your products to allow you to offer free shipping over a certain spend, and also to account for any costs in getting products to you.
But don’t forget, unless you are using a product fulfilment centre running an online boutique does not give you the same sort of flexibility as some other business models. Lastminute.com holidays? Think again!
- Ecommerce toolkit: 67 tools you’ll want to know about
- How to do small business accounting
- Best shipping apps that integrate with Shopify
How to manage quality control and customer service (without being taken advantage of)
It’s pretty much impossible to run an online boutique without running into some quality control issues at some point.
But those problems become even harder to manage and regulate if you’re not able to touch and see all of your merchandise. That’s why if you’re considering dropshipping as part of, or as your primary business model – you need to seriously think about that.
A bad reputation for offering poor quality products can quickly ruin a new online boutique. And this is where a non-negotiable commitment to providing excellent customer service will either make or break your new business.
If your customers face looks like this when your product arrives… you’re doing it wrong!
And while you want to make sure you’re protecting your business and not letting shady customers get away with ripping you off.
There are times when you’ll need to adopt a offer a no-quibble returns policy, suck up the loss, and learn your lesson.
But if you’d like to avoid dodgy dealers, you might like to take advantage of my wholesale supplier black-book. This treat contains 60+ vetted suppliers alongside their contact details.
If you’re in anyway unsure about a supplier ask them to send you a sample – whether you’re buying wholesale or drop-shipping. Reputable suppliers and wholesalers who stand by their product will – though prepared to pay for it.
- Best customer service tools for small businesses
- How to deliver amazing customer service
- How to protect yourself against frequent credit card chargebacks
How to get quality images when you’re not a pro-photographer (& can’t afford to hire one)
Quality imagery is what makes the difference between a boutique which looks professional and high-end, and one which looks suspect.
If you’re buying your inventory wholesale, even if you’re photography skills are mediocre at best, you should still aim to take your own pictures.
But if you’re drop-shipping inventory directly from your wholesaler, and never get to hold the physical product in your hand this presents an even bigger challenge, as you don’t get to control your brand’s visual image.
To make sure you’re not completely at the mercy of your supplier, always order samples so you can check quality and shoot your own images – even if that means you have to pay for them.
Many new online boutique owners fall into the trap of creating online stores that they themselves would not buy from.
The shops are ugly. Have a poor user experience. Are bulging with bad quality, non-branded images. And it’s know wonder their customers are running to hit the back button.
If you’ve got your products in your hands, spend as much on quality imagery as you can afford, and try to get as much and as many marketing assets from those images as you can.
Great product photography rarely comes from the wholesaler. And if you’re serious about your business, at some point iPhone pictures won’t cut it and you’ll need to invest in regular inventory shoots.
Still not opened your store yet? Shopify’s FREE 14-day trial is the way to go.
As a location independent entrepreneur and Ecommerce business owner, I’ve personally faced all the above challenges when it comes to sourcing products and suppliers for my online boutique.
That’s why throughout this post you’ll find links to two highly useful tool I think you’ll kick yourself if you miss.
Both of these tools with save you hours of time and stress when you’re just setting up your online boutique, so I’d recommend you use one or both of them to benefit you.
That’s it for today folks, but the comments are open for your questions and if you found this post valuable please share it with others.
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