An e-commerce site can become your way to financial independence.
But like any business, it has starting costs.
How much will you have to pay to open an online store?
And what's the most affordable way to do it?
Many companies that develop e-commerce sites will tell you that it will cost you at least $2-3k to start an online store. But this is simply not true.
The same rule applies here as with any other website: the more work you are prepared to do yourself, the less you'll pay. And vice versa: the more work you want to be done by others, the more expensive the site.
In this post, I'll break down the costs into several categories. They cover both the initial expense of creating a site and the monthly operating costs. In each section, I'll explain how to pay as little as possible.
An online store needs to be hosted on a web server somewhere, just like any other site. It comprises two things:
- Server space: you’ll need at least 5 GB to store all your files, pictures, code, user reviews, etc.
- Bandwidth: the total amount of data your site serves to visitors in a month.
Web hosting costs depend on how much space and bandwidth you need. In the beginning, your sales will probably be modest. So there's no need to overpay for web hosting.
In terms of hosting, most popular e-commerce platforms have different approaches:
1) WooCommerce: you need to host your site yourself. You can choose any hosting provider for this. A good provider should be both fast and reliable. This means it should have high uptime and low response time.
Hosting plans with large providers like SiteGround or FatCow start from $10-12 a month.
The first-year promo prices can be as low as $4/mo.
You'll also require an SSL certificate to protect your customers' data. Many web hosting companies offer this for free.
2) Shopify, BigCommerce: these platforms host your site, so you don't need to look for a provider on your own. You'll also get an SSL certificate for free. The Starter plan with Shopify costs $29 a month.
Minimum web hosting cost: $10/mo
Apart from hosting, you'll need to buy a domain name. That's the address of your store, like buy-bulldog-puppies.store. Many hosting providers – and Shopify – also sell domain names. Often, you can even get one for free for the first year. Otherwise, you can purchase it separately from a registrar like Domain.com or Hover.
The price of a domain name can vary from $10 to thousands of dollars a year depending on how simple and memorable it is and which extension you use.
Instead of overpaying for a .com address, you can get one with .store, .shop or another extension designed for e-commerce.
Minimum .store domain cost: $8 in the first year and $60 after that
The cheapest way to design an e-commerce site is to do it yourself on WooCommerce. It's basically WordPress, and you can use any free theme that's designed for e-commerce. The most popular are OceanWP, Astra and Hestia (see here for a list of good themes).
If you've never built a WordPress site before, don't panic. It's not that difficult, though you'll have to invest a few weeks of your time. But you'll gain a precious skill, as well. There are lots of good guides and videos online that explain how to do it.
One of the great things about using free themes like OceanWP is that they are completely responsive. So mobile shoppers will have no trouble browsing your items.
But what if you want something custom-made and not a template? Web design agencies charge about $5000 for a simple e-commerce site – but it's just the design. A full package with back-end and front-end development, business analysis etc. will cost around $50k.
Good news: you can also create a custom store website for free! You'll need to use a WordPress plugin called Elementor. It's a website builder where you can design pages from scratch and copy just about any design you like. See here and here for Elementor e-commerce design tutorials.
Free themes usually offer advanced features as paid extensions. If you aren’t using Elementor, you might need some of those to make your store run the way you want it to. Expect to spend at least $50.
If you've chosen Shopify, you can use their store builder. It features 10 free and 65 paid themes. There are also marketplaces like Themeforest and TemplateMonster where you can buy Shopify and WooCommerce themes for as little as $75.
Minimum design cost: $0
SEO & Content
Once you have your e-commerce site, you'll need to fill it with content and promote it. First of all, you'll have to create a unique description for each item in your store. Next, you'll need to work on your SEO (search engine optimization). This includes:
- Researching keywords and including them into the texts on your site;
- Creating a meta tag for each page;
- Getting quality inbound links;
- Researching your competitors, and much more.
Agencies charge over $1000 a month for such services. But, just like with everything else in e-commerce, you can do your SEO yourself. It takes time, but it's infinitely interesting. Plus, you'll learn a very useful skill. Here is a guide to get you started.
Minimum SEO cost: $0 (and a lot of your free time)
Promotional emails are one of the best marketing channels in terms of ROI. Abandoned cart emails are especially effective. In order to send these and other emails and build your list of leads, you'll need to use an email marketing platform.
All platforms include free email templates that you can customize. You can find many more on the internet.
Minimum email marketing cost: $0
What's the bare minimum you'll have to spend?
Are you prepared to work really hard on your e-commerce project for a few months? If yes, then your initial costs will be very low:
- Domain: $10
- Hosting: $120
- Design: $0 if using WooCommerce, a free theme and free plugins;
- SEO: $0;
- Email marketing: $0
Here we are talking only about the cost of taking your site off the ground. In your second year, you'll need to spend more on hosting, marketing and perhaps SEO. Plus, payment processing has its costs, too. But by that time these expenses will be hopefully covered by your revenue.
Yes, it's true: you can start an e-commerce site and spend less than $100. It's a huge amount of work – and a tremendous learning experience. Even if you decide not to pursue your e-commerce project, you'll have gained a lot of knowledge.
So why spend $50k when you can at least try to do it on your own?