Starting an online store can seem daunting, especially if you’re on a tight budget.
But did you know that it is possible to start an online store for free?
In this step-by-step guide, we’ll walk you through the entire process, including setting up your store, choosing a payment processor, and marketing your business.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get started!
Disclaimer: Even though you can start an online store for free, remember that you’re starting a real business. At some point, you will have to invest not only your time but also your money in it!
How to start an online store for free in 9 steps
Online stores are becoming increasingly popular as people shift their shopping habits to the internet.
Some people think that starting an online store is costly.
However, the truth is that setting up an online store doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.
With time and effort, you can create a professional-looking store ready to start taking orders. And the best part is that you don’t necessarily have to invest any money to start!
Here are the nine steps of starting an online store for free in 2023:
- Choose a fulfillment method
- Decide between a general, niche, or one-product store
- Pick out the right products to sell online
- Define your ideal target audience
- Find a free supplier
- Pick a free or low-cost ecommerce platform
- Design and brand your online store
- Set up your payment gateways
- Promote your store with free marketing methods
Whether you want to do dropshipping or in-house fulfillment, start a general or niche store, or target the US or Europe, we’ll go over all those options and more so that you know what to do.
And, of course, we will focus on starting an online store for free. It’s not ideal, but definitely possible!
However, if you do have some money to invest in your online store, we recommend checking out our ‘How to Start an Online Store: The Definitive Guide (2023)‘ article, which is more detailed and discusses our recommended (paid) tools and platforms.
1. Choose a fulfillment method
Before getting into action, you will have to define your plans further.
‘Starting an online store for free is not detailed enough!
Online stores can use various methods to manage their inventory and order fulfillment. These are called ‘fulfillment methods.’
There are three main types of fulfillment methods:
|Fulfillment method||Short description||Pros||Cons|
|Dropshipping||Sell products without keeping them in your inventory.||Quickly test various products.||Less control of the fulfillment process.|
|Little start-up costs.||Long shipping times.|
|Low-risk.||A lot of competition.|
|Print on demand||Sell self-designed products that are printed on demand.||Ability to (partly) design products yourself.||Lower profit margins.|
|As easy and low-risk as a dropshipping store.||Returns can be challenging.|
|Your store is only as good as your designs.|
|In-house fulfillment||Manage the fulfillment of your products yourself.||Full control over the fulfillment process.||Requires more time and money to start.|
|Great opportunity to use custom packaging.||Distracts you from other tasks.|
|Learn more about the whole fulfillment process of an online store.||You are responsible for everything.|
The first step is to choose the one that’s right for you.
We recommend picking dropshipping or print on demand, as they’re the best fulfillment methods for starting an online store with no money (you don’t have to invest in products upfront).
If you can’t choose between dropshipping and print on demand, take a look at this infographic:
No matter which method you choose, remember that starting an online store takes time and effort. There’s no such thing as a ‘get rich quick scheme’ in ecommerce!
2. Decide between a general, niche, or one-product store
Now that you know how to fulfill orders, it’s time to move on to the next step: deciding between a general, niche, or one-product store.
Again, for a quick overview of the three, take a look at this table:
|General store||Sell products in various categories (e.g., Amazon).||Take advantage of product trends.||Marketing can be more difficult.|
|Reach more people.||It’s challenging to build a loyal customer base.|
|Niche store||Focused on a single niche (e.g., REI with the hiking niche).||You can focus on a specific target audience.||It can be hard to pick a niche and stick to it.|
|You can start social media theme pages.||Less freedom.|
|Upselling is easier.|
|One-product store||An online store that sells mainly a single product (e.g., Snooz).||Dedicate your focus to a single product.||It’s crucial to sell a winning product.|
|It’s easier to optimize marketing campaigns.||No possibility of upselling or cross-selling.|
|Improve your conversion rate.|
If you can’t decide between these online store types, let us give you our recommendation.
First, let’s get out of the way that you can start all three of these stores for free.
However, we still recommend starting with either a niche or a one-product store.
This will allow you to focus on promoting and selling one or a few product(s) without worrying about managing many different products.
Remember that the more products you have, the more work you will do to manage your store.
Also, having fewer products listed on your store makes it easier to run your store for free or at least cheaper. For example, some suppliers have a free pricing plan for stores that list fewer than 25 products!
3. Pick out the right products to sell online
In our opinion, your products, together with your supplier and marketing, are one of the most crucial aspects that determine the success of your online store.
It’s normal that some products are relatively easy to sell while others are fairly hard to sell.
The ‘easy’ products are also called ‘winning products‘ and often have some common properties:
Keeping an eye on properties like these is key in deciding what products to sell!
The best free product research tools
This step is already the point at which most people start investing money into their new business.
They start buying product research tools, which help them discover winning products.
That’s because finding winning products can be time-consuming and complex. This is especially true for beginners, who often don’t know what to look out for when searching for products to sell on their online store.
Of course, finding winning products without research tools is also possible. But the great news is that some product research tools can be used for free or on trial!
Here is an overview of some of the best free product research tools:
|Research tool||Pricing||Read Review||Try Out?|
|AliExpress Dropshipping Center||Free||AliExpress Dropshipping Center Review||Click here|
|Thieve||Free / $15 / $49 per month||Thieve Review||Click here|
|Sell The Trend||$39 per month||Sell The Trend Review||Free 7-day trial|
|Niche Scraper||$49.95 per month (or $13 per month with our discount code)||Niche Scraper Review||Use code ‘DoDropshipping’ for 75% off (register here)|
4. Define your ideal target audience
Once you’ve figured your products out, it’s time to start defining your target audience.
Your target audience is the specific group of people you target with your marketing campaigns. It is a group of people with similar interests, hobbies, ages, or gender that you expect to purchase your product.
It’s essential to find your ideal dropshipping audience because those are the people with the highest chance of purchasing your products!
And this isn’t just our opinion. For instance, Philip Kotler, an American marketing expert, even said the following:
There is only one winning strategy. It is to carefully define the target market and direct a superior offering to that target market.Philip Kotler
The most common methods to define your target audience are developing a buyer persona, analyzing your product’s benefits, or simply testing different audiences to find the best-performing one.
For a detailed step-by-step guide on defining your ideal target audience, check out this article!
5. Find a free supplier
When starting an online store, you must find a supplier, regardless of your store type.
Suppliers can be divided into ones suited for dropshipping, in-house fulfillment, or print on demand stores.
However, because you’re looking to start an online store for free, we will focus on dropshipping and print on demand suppliers for now.
First of all, make sure to learn how you can spot a good supplier. Here’s an infographic to help you:
Let’s look at some of the best free suppliers out there now!
Best free suppliers for dropshipping stores
First, let’s check out some of the best dropshipping suppliers that you can use for free.
We’ve made an overview of them in the table below. By clicking on ‘Read Review,’ a new tab will appear where you can read our review of that supplier, including things like their pros and cons!
|Supplier||Primary Location||Pricing||Read Review|
|01Supply||Worldwide||$0 to $99 per month||01Supply Review|
|Modalyst||US/EU||$0 to $90 per month||Modalyst Review|
|Spocket||US/EU||$0 to $99 per month||Spocket Review|
If you are especially interested in suppliers that are located in a specific region, you can find them here:
- Best suppliers in Canada
- Best suppliers in the United States
- Best suppliers in Europe
- Best suppliers in the United Kingdom
- Best suppliers in China
- Best suppliers in Australia
- Best suppliers in New Zealand
However, be aware that the suppliers in these lists may not be free!
Best free suppliers for print on demand stores
The suppliers we mention aren’t suited for print on demand stores.
When running a print on demand business, you need a supplier that is able and willing to customize their products according to your designs.
So, here are some of our top picks for free print on demand suppliers:
|Supplier||Primary Location||Pricing||Read Review|
|Printful||Worldwide||Click here||Printful Review|
|Printify||Worldwide||$0 to $29 per month||Printify Review|
|Art of Where||Canada||Free||Art of Where Review|
For more print on demand suppliers, check out our article on the 15 best print on demand companies!
6. Pick a free or low-cost ecommerce platform
Your ecommerce platform is the base on which you will build your online store. Choosing a platform that is easy to use, has excellent features and has good reviews will help you to build a successful store.
The fact that you’re looking for a completely free ecommerce platform makes this more challenging but not impossible!
We usually recommend using Shopify for starting an online store. Although the platform comes with a 3-day free trial (which you can extend once as well), it costs $29 per month after it ends.
However, one the plus side, Shopify has some great free apps and free themes, so you may also save some money there!
Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a completely free ecommerce platform, here are three great options:
Sell The Trend Shops
Sell The Trend Shops is an ecommerce platform you can currently use for free!
Even better, you get the following advanced features with Sell The Trend Shops:
- A dropshipping store ($30 per month value at Shopify)
- A complete store automation tool (+/-$50 per month value)
- A customer reviews app (+/-$10 per month value)
- A currency converter app (+/-$10 per month value)
To learn more about Sell The Trend Shops, check out our full review here!
Ecwid is an ecommerce solution that you can combine with a platform like WordPress, Wix, or Weebly to start selling online for free.
It offers live support, an Ecwid app store, and even an Ecwid mobile app to manage your business on the go!
Ecwid merchants have already accumulated over $4.6 billion in revenue, so the potential is definitely there.
By using Ecwid’s free plan, you will miss some features. For example, you are limited to just ten products in your store and won’t have access to Ecwid’s support:
Shift4Shop (free for US merchants only)
Shift4Shop is a relatively new platform that, according to its homepage, has 200,000 customers and processes approximately $200 billion annually.
However, the free pricing is the part where Shift4Shop steals the show.
Shift4Shop’s free plan includes hosting and a long list of features that are usually only available for higher-priced plans elsewhere:
Well, if you have a sharp eye, you have already seen it in the small letters at the bottom of the pricing page.
The free plan is only available for US customers!
So, if you don’t qualify for the free plan, you will end up paying a monthly fee similar to Shopify’s.
7. Design and brand your online store
Have you signed up for an ecommerce platform?
Now, it’s time to design and brand your online store.
One of the first things to do is think of a name for your store.
When doing so, it’s important to pick a unique, short, and memorable name related to your niche.
You could also use a name generator if you’re looking for inspiration. For instance, check out Namelix or Shopify’s Business Name Generator!
Tip: Check out this article for ten tips on choosing the perfect name for your online store!
Next up, it’s time to design and build your online store.
Make sure to spend some effort on this. You don’t want to give your visitors the impression that you created your entire store in just a few days!
Take your time to get some awesome product images, craft an irresistible product description, and design a nice logo.
Also, don’t forget to get your online store’s free business email address.
While building your store, it’s a good idea to take some inspiration from some of the best players in the industry. You can find some great inspiration here:
- 8 Product Description Examples for Ecommerce (+ 5 Tips)
- 14 Awesome Shopify Homepage Examples
- 23 Most Successful Shopify Dropshipping Store Examples
8. Set up your payment gateways
Keep going; you are almost there!
One of the last steps of starting an online store is setting up your payment gateways.
Once this step is finished, you can start focusing on getting your first few orders!
A payment gateway enables a customer to buy something from your online store on your checkout page (for example, via a credit card). It handles all money transactions for an online store.
There are multiple payment gateways out there that you could use for your store. When picking one, it’s important to consider the following:
- Does it accept your store’s business model? (Some payment gateways don’t support dropshipping stores.)
- Does it work with the country and currency of your target audience?
- What are the transaction fees?
- How is the customer service?
Don’t forget that you can combine multiple payment gateways to offer your customers multiple payment options.
The best payment gateways for your online store
Wondering about the best payment gateway for your online store? You will find it here!
|Payment gateway||Price rating||Read Review|
|Shopify Payments||Cheap||Shopify Payments Review|
|Amazon Pay||Expensive||Amazon Pay Review|
|Google Pay||Cheap||Google Pay Review|
|Apple Pay||Cheap||Apple Pay Review|
The best way to pick a payment gateway is by going through the following steps:
- Find out which countries you would like to sell to and the most popular payment methods in those countries.
- If possible, pick some of the more popular payment gateways like Shopify Payments or PayPal.
- If you have trouble with those, you can always try and test some of the smaller ones.
And remember that payment gateways will always charge a transaction fee for their service. However, this fee only occurs when you’ve made a sale.
So, just consider it in your profit margin calculation, and you will be good!
Note: Don’t forget that it’s often also possible to accept Bitcoin and other cryptos on your online store. You can check out this article for more details.
9. Promote your store with free marketing methods
An online store is nothing without proper marketing strategies. You must promote your business (for example, via ads) to attract customers and receive orders.
Without marketing, shoppers simply will not find you.
There are 12-24 million online stores in the world, but only around 650,000 of them generate more than $1,000 in annual sales.Source
Luckily, there are multiple strategies you can use to attract visitors to your online store for free.
Just keep in mind that these free traffic tactics will take time and consistency. Don’t expect to start today and see traffic tomorrow already!
Here is a list of some free marketing methods you can try:
- Search engine optimization (SEO). Build a blog on your online store or optimize your store for search engines! (More info here.)
- Instagram/Facebook. Build an organic Instagram or Facebook page, advertise your store in Facebook Groups or sell on the Facebook Marketplace.
- Pinterest. Advertise your online store by posting content on a Pinterest account! (More info here.)
At last, if you do want to invest some money into marketing (we recommend it), here is a nice infographic that can help you choose the marketing method that fits you:
FAQs about starting an online store for free
Now that you know all steps required to start an online store, let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions about the process:
What are the best purchases when starting an online store on a low budget?
One of the most important investments is a good domain name, which can help to give your business a professional feel. Also, consider investing in a good ecommerce platform like Shopify. It will be the foundation of your online store!
How do I get customers to my online store?
One of the best ways of getting customers to your online store for free is by using Pinterest or implementing SEO. In terms of paid marketing methods, we recommend experimenting with Facebook Ads, Google Ads, or TikTok Ads.
What makes customers happy?
Three main things make customers happy when shopping online. First, they want an easy shopping experience. Next, they appreciate online stores that offer excellent customer service. And lastly, they want to feel like they’re getting a good deal.
Can I start Shopify for free?
You can start a Shopify store for free by signing up for a free 3-day trial. Once it ends, you can even extend your trial with these tips here!
Before we go to the conclusion, we’ve created a quick summary of this article for you, so you can easily remember it:
- It is possible to start an online store for free, but you must make some concessions.
- Remember that you’re starting a real business. So, you will have to invest your money in it sooner or later!
- If you want to start an online store for free, it’s best to choose the dropshipping or print on demand model.
- CJdropshipping and Printful are great examples of free dropshipping or print on demand suppliers.
- Currently, the best free ecommerce platform for most people is Sell The Trend Shops.
We hope you enjoyed our guide on starting an online store for free. However, we have to repeat the following:
Starting an online store is the same as starting a real business.
Yes, it’s a lot cheaper to start in comparison to opening a retail store, but you’re still starting an actual business!
This means that, sooner or later, you must spend money to make money.
Thank you for sticking around till the end. If you have any further questions for us, you can always ask them in the comments below.
Have a great rest of your day!
Want to learn more about ecommerce?
Ready to move your online store to the next level? Check out the articles below: