How to Start an Online Boutique: A Complete 2021 Playbook

Illustration of a boutique retail shop front that has its window display as options to click in a web browser

Starting an online boutique is an insanely profitable business venture for entrepreneurs. 

Statista estimates that the apparel and accessories online retail sector will generate over $153 billion in revenue by 2024. 

Digital innovation, technology, and changes in consumer spending have given online boutique owners an edge against the big players. No longer can corporate retailers dominate sectors and swallow up online businesses

The best part? You already have the tools to start an online boutique. You have access to the internet, which means you can create a beautiful online store and sell products at low cost.

This article will walk you step by step through how to start a successful online boutique, with insights and firsthand experiences from online boutique owners. 

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Things to consider before starting an online boutique

There’s no sugarcoating it: Starting an online boutique is stressful. Planning is an important part of launching a small business, as it decides how your business takes shape. The best online boutiques owners aren’t just creatives, they are also driven entrepreneurs. 

Some things to consider:

  • Starting an online boutique takes sweat equity. You won’t make your first sale overnight. But with dedication and by focusing your energy on the right tasks, you’ll approach your business with a sense of purpose and come out on top.
  • You’ll be faced with challenges, especially if this is your first business. It’s important to stay motivated and manage expectations about your progress. 
  • Consider legal aspects of your industry. Look into what business licenses and government regulations you need to operate. While there’s no specific license for owning a boutique, you may need a city, county, or state permit for taxes, purchasing inventory, and trademarking a brand name for your business. 

      A little planning can go a long way to launch an online boutique successfully. Let’s look at how you can take the next steps toward starting your business. 

      How to start an online boutique

      The best online boutiques in the industry weren’t thrown together overnight. Even with a little trial and error, these owners had a business plan and process for getting started.

      1. Choose a niche you’re passionate about
      2. Identify market gaps
      3. Write a business plan
      4. Develop your products
      5. Choose a brand name and logo
      6. Price your products
      7. Create your online store
      8. Figure out shipping
      9. Market your online boutique

      1. Choose a niche you’re passionate about

      Most people don’t start an online boutique because they think they can’t come up with a great business idea. Turns out, that’s not the obstacle you think it is. 

      You already have things you’re passionate about in your everyday life, be it gardening, crafts, cycling, skincare, etc. By considering starting a business around something you’re passionate about, you’ll do everything possible to make your online boutique a reality. 

      Julie Clark, founder of Province Apothecary, said it best in an interview with Shopify. After enrolling in school for aromatherapy and treating clients in her classes, the glimpse of working in skincare she received solidified her decision to pursue it as a career:

      I just fell in love with doing it all and just wanted that to be my life.

      To find a niche market for your online boutique, ask yourself:

      1. What do you like to do in your spare time?
      2. What’s a common frustration you have?
      3. Are they any products you can sell related to your hobbies?

      By narrowing down your passions and exploring those ideas, you’re already building your business. It also helps you do market research and decide how to position your boutique for success. 

      Pick a small but growing market and learn everything you can about it. Build expertise and share everything you learn. If you can create a body of content that connects with your audience, you’ll be well positioned to capitalize on it and grow your online boutique.

      2. Identify market gaps

      A successful online boutique won’t prosper on passion alone. Consider a problem in your niche market that isn’t currently being filled. Is it a natural skincare cream that cures eczema? Or a line of handcrafted tableware from local artisans in your area? Figure out what products should exist that aren’t being offered by big and small competitors. 

      Rhiannon Taylor, founder of RT1home, says in an interview with Shopify that when starting her home and gardening supplies boutique, she “quickly saw a need in the market for an indoor potting tarp. At the time, there were no high-quality products to prevent a mess when repotting plants.”

      In her research, Rhiannon discovered a greater need for more high-end gardening supplies. “When I started RT1home, you couldn’t find nice supplies anywhere in the US, online or in-store. It was all cheap mass-produced stuff from Home Depot.”

      I started creating accessories like tarps and coverlets because they didn’t exist. I was making stuff I wanted to use for myself because I couldn’t find it.

      Rhiannon also saw a need where “urban dwellers needed premium indoor gardening tools that were practical and functional.” Most city dwellers don’t have the space (or matching aesthetic) for clunky gardening tools. To combat this, she began curating premium Japanese gardening tools and reselling them in her store, which has proven to be a big hit with her target market. 

      Identifying market gaps isn’t a one-off thing for any entrepreneur. Rhiannon’s employee in Japan is regularly looking for new tools to sell, while she continuously tests and prototypes new products in the U.S. based on the needs of the brand’s ideal customers. 

      3. Write a business plan

      A business plan will guide your journey when creating an online boutique from home. It also validates your idea and helps you think through things efficiently. Take the time to solidify your strategy, spot potential obstacles, understand what resources you’ll need, and clarify your business idea before launch. 

      Ask yourself: What is the goal of my online boutique? Do I want to be a brand sold in retail outlets like Urban Outfitters? Do I want to be a high-end brand sold exclusively in my ecommerce store

      If you want to start an online boutique, it’s critical to learn how to write a business plan. The following template will help you get there. 

      Free: Business Plan Template

      Business planning is often used to secure funding, but plenty of business owners find writing a plan valuable, even if they never work with an investor. That’s why we put together a free business plan template to help you get started.

      4. Develop your products

      It’s clear you’ve got a lot of choices to make when starting your online boutique. Beyond the products you want to sell, the biggest decision you’ll make is what business model to follow. Your business model helps determine what products you’ll offer and your future operational expenses.

      Common models for developing products are:

      • Dropshipping, where a third party makes products and fulfills orders. You never hold inventory.
      • Manufacturing, which involves an overseas company that develops your product and ships to your home or warehouse.
      • Reselling, which involves buying other brands’ products through a wholesaler and selling them in your store. 
      • Handcraft, or creating products and fulfilling orders on your own.
      • Print on demand, which is similar to dropshipping, but you design the products (like t-shirts or pillows) and the third party makes it and fulfills the order. 

      Online boutique owners can mix and match different models to meet their needs. As we saw with RT1home, the boutique resells Japanese goods and designs its own products from scratch. 

      In Rhiannon’s case, local manufacturing was non-negotiable for her. “After a decade working with big corporations who heavily manufacture overseas, I have no interest in producing products like that.” 

      Even as RT1home has seen record sales over the past year, it’s stayed true to its local production business model. Rhiannon continues manufacture certain products in-house, while also working with sewers and local producers to turn mock-ups and sketches into reality. 

      If your boutique will rely on manufacturers, here are some tips for finding the best fit:

      1. Research Google, Yelp, and manufacturing directories to find local producers. 
      2. Reach out to a few candidates at once. Email or call direct to set up an appointment. 
      3. Meet potential producers with professional mock-ups and prototypes. Communicate that you have a vision for your business. Don’t show up with rough sketches and random ideas.
      When you’re first starting out, you have to prove yourself to producers. Most don’t do one-off projects. They won’t waste their time on your business if they don’t think you’ll be a long-term client. You need to show them you have a great vision and solid product ideas.

      Sourcing suppliers and manufactures is a unique process, but it’s one of the costs of starting a business. Sometimes it’ll feel like you're hitting a brick wall, but with patience and perseverance, you’ll find the perfect partners for your online boutique.

      Resources 

      5. Choose a brand name and logo

      If it looks like your products can be created with reasonable costs, you’re ready to start building a brand. This means choosing a business name, a logo, and a slogan, if needed. Customers like brands with a captivating story, so include that in your public profile.

      Let’s look at the story behind Silk and Willow, an online textile boutique.

      Silk + Willow story

      Silk and Willow’s story connects with many of us who’ve searched for creative outlets in life. We’ve all had jobs we weren’t too thrilled about and knew there was something more we could be doing. It’s inspiring and relatable.

      Its business name embodies the feeling of the brand. It’s simple and memorable. Potential customers can easily find the brand online and help tell their story.

      You could pay some agency thousands of dollars to find a name that’s fresh, relevant, and on-trend. Or you can use Shopify’s business name generator and find relevant, untrademarked business names for free. 

      6. Price your products

      Choosing a price point for your products is one of the cornerstone decisions you’ll make. It affects every area of your business, including deciding on a target audience cash flow and profit margins, sales tax, and understanding what expenses you can manage. 

      Figure out a pricing strategy that aligns with your market. Decide on a price that funds your production costs, but don’t dissuade the customers you’ll need to launch a successful online boutique. 

      7. Create your online store

      At this point, your new boutique needs a place to sell online. Shopify is a popular platform for this, with over one million businesses building and launching their online stores to date. 

      Starting an online store may seem like a daunting task compared to simply listing on online marketplaces, but it’s more profitable and rewarding when done right. You don’t pay high fees for making a sale or have to abide by any rules but your own. 

      For RT1home, Rhiannon recommends building your online store first, then listing on online marketplaces like Etsy. She says, “I built my first storefront on Squarespace, but as I started to grow, the website builder couldn’t adapt with me. I was constantly struggling to make changes to my store and integrate with other business tools. I’m not super tech-y, so it wasn’t for me.”

      Rhiannon’s experience with Squarespace motivated her to find a new ecommerce platform. “Getting set up on Shopify was so easy. I chose a Shopify Theme, customized it to fit my brand, and migrated my products over in no time. It was the best decision I made for my ecommerce business.”

      RT1Home product page

      She also recommends getting on social media to build awareness. RT1home was a brand started on Instagram, and Shopify’s social media integrations were key to helping it sell more online.

      RT1Home on Instagram

      In addition to an online store, Rhiannon recommends new boutique owners “not put all your eggs in one basket.” While she began on Instagram, it’s important to build a presence across multiple social media platforms, like Pinterest, Facebook, and TikTok. Rhiannon has also found success in writing blog articles and sharing tutorial videos on her ecommerce website. 

      No one will click on an Instagram post from two years ago and buy something. Evergreen content like blogs and videos, however, can drive leads and sales for years to come.

      Resources:

      Free: Shopify Store Trust Checklist

      Shopify’s research team conducted a series of in-depth interviews with North American shoppers to learn how customer trust is formed in online stores. This checklist is a summary of their findings, created to help business owners understand what essential aspects of their online store experience creates trust among customers, along with the trust-busting mistakes to avoid.

      8. Figure out shipping

      So far, you’ve put a ton of effort into creating an incredible customer experience. You’ve done the research, developed your products, and built an online store for your boutique—all to keep customers happy.

      But one thing that can ruin all your progress is a bad shipping experience. Shipping is a key part of your online boutique, from representing a major expense to how long an item takes to reach your customer. That’s why it’s so important to decide on a shipping strategy before you start marketing your new boutique. 

      Don’t sell yourself short on shipping. People want free shipping and shipping deals, but it’s expensive. I’ve seen a lot of new business owners lose money this way. Make sure you factor shipping into product costs if you go that route

      Rhiannon Taylor

      One way entrepreneurs are curbing shipping costs is by using Shopify Shipping. By using the service, you’ll get:

      • Discounted rates and save up to 88% on shipping rates with USPS, UPS, DHL, and more carriers. 
      • Faster order fulfillment by buying and printing shipping labels in Shopify so you can prepare packages in advance (and skip the post office lines).
      • Manage everything together by fulfilling orders in the same place you manage products, inventory, and customers. 
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      Streamline and save with Shopify Shipping

      When you ship with Shopify Shipping you get access to pre-negotiated rates with carriers in the US, Canada, and Australia, and you can manage your entire shipping process in one place.

      Get started with Shopify Shipping

      9. Market your online boutique

      The ultimate goal of marketing your online boutique is brand awareness. 

      You want to be known as the best seller for a product or niche. Your reputation is the unique intersection of your personality, skills, and experience that nobody else can compete with. Brands aren’t found, they’re created. 

      Once you’ve created your online store, market your brand on the following channels: 

      • Instagram marketing. This visual platform has become a go-to for online boutiques to show off products and find new customers. There are also many Instagram influencers happy to promote your brand in exchange for products. 
      • Search engine marketing. SEO helps people find you when they’re looking for particular products. Since they are high-intent buyers, you’ll get relevant traffic to your website that could lead to sales. You canachieve this organically or by paying for Google Ads.
      • Facebook ads. If you want to find a specific target audience for your products, Facebook ads can help you market to people who fit your profile. 
      • Influencer marketing. Partner up with YouTubers, Instagrammers, bloggers, TikTokers, and other celebrities to get your products in front of the right audience.
      • PR. Investing in public relations helps get conversations about your brand started with media outlets, customers, and retailers. In the case of Province Apothecary, Julie Clark explains to Shopify, “someone would see us in a magazine or newspaper and reach out to us to carry us. It helped to expand the brand quickly.”
      • Email marketing. Email is one of the best “owned” marketing channels, where you control the content and distribution. You can build an email list and send messages to new and existing customers to sell, educate, or build loyalty.

      All these channels may seem overwhelming at first sight. But if you build your online boutique on Shopify, you can access over 4,000 marketing and sales apps on the Shopify App Store. Most apps are plug and play, which means you just add them to your store and they start working right away. These apps are easy to use and help extend your store’s functionality to sell more online.

      Online boutique examples

      Now that you know how to start an online store, let’s look at a few best-in-class examples of online boutiques to inspire yours:

      RT1home

      RT1home online boutique

      RT1home is a Los Angeles–based boutique offering premium home and gardening supplies. Its products are a mixed collection of curated Japanese tools and US-designed and -manufactured soft goods. 

      Its website matches the minimal Japanese aesthetic its buyers align with. With owner Rhiannon Taylor’s background in product creation for brands like Ralph Lauren and Nike, the brand’s website reflects its urban dweller target market’s need for tools and accessories. Product pages include clear images, practical product descriptions, and short videos about how to use each product. 

      Silk and Willow

      Sillow + Willow boutique

      Silk and Willow’s online boutique storefront is designed for showcasing its eco-friendly aesthetic and keen eye for wedding decor textures. You can browse through the brand’s collection of plant-dyed silk ribbons, table linens, and handmade stationary, getting lost in each captivating detail associated with planning a wedding.

      The brand uses beautiful imagery and detailed product descriptions to connect with an audience looking for a space that “feels luxurious, and makes your celebration timeless and unforgettable.”

      Barking babies

      Barking babies online store

      Vancouver-based company barking babies is a boutique, spa, kennel, pet store, and puppy-training facility all rolled into one. It offers just about every dog-related service you can think of, putting a huge emphasis on the social aspect of dog health. 

      Much of the brand’s website discusses the importance of dogs socializing with each other. It combines photos of clients’ dogs playing with each other, paired with haute products that you can’t find anywhere else. 

      VICI

      VICI boutique

      VICI is a Shopify merchant on a mission to make on-trend styles accessible and affordable for all women. Built after the last recession, VICI uses its online store to showcase clothing, dresses, and accessories, as well as trending styles such as Florals & Frills and Bride To Be. Shoppers can browse through endless collections of bright, beautiful styles curated by the VICI style team and get style inspiration for their everyday wear. 

      Province Apothecary

      Province Apothecary store

      Province Apothecary was created to solve a common frustration Julie Clark had with medical skin care products. As someone who experienced a lifelong case of eczema, she was subjected to steroid cream after steroid cream, never finding a solution. She took matters into her own hands with Province Apothecary, developing certified vegan and ethically sourced skincare products, along with a physical location and skincare clinic.

      Julie has grown the natural remedies brand into a cult-favorite loved by Gwyenth Paltrow and Vogue magazine. 

      Want to start your own boutique business?

      Don’t sweat it if you see a lot of competition for your boutique startup. Like every type of business, you want to focus on finding the right niche and getting your products in front of the right people. It’s normal to start an online boutique with no money as a side hustle, then grow it into a full-time at at-home business. You can check our guide on how to make money online to get started.

      In time, you’ll learn more about what products sell, the kinks in your operations, and who your best customers are. The important part is to start your new business today and make your online boutique a reality.

      Illustration by Cornelia Li


      Ready to create your online store? Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify—no credit card required.

      Online boutiques FAQ

      Is an online boutique profitable?

      Selling clothing and niche products is a profitable way to make money online. Statista estimates that the apparel and accessories online retail sector in the US will generate about $153 billion by 2024.

      What are the best online boutiques?

      • RT1home
      • Silk and Willow
      • Barking babies
      • VICI
      • Province Apothecary

      How do I start an online clothing boutique?

      1. Choose a niche.
      2. Identify market gaps.
      3. Write a business plan.
      4. Develop your products.
      5. Choose a brand name and logo.
      6. Price your products.
      7. Create an online store.
      8. Figure out shipping. 
      9. Market your online clothing boutique.

      Do I need a business license to start an online boutique?

      You may need a seller’s permit (or seller’s license) to sell your products online. Most states in the US require a seller’s permit to legally sell online, but requirements and fees vary by state.
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