9 Steps on How to Start an Online Thrift Store Business

Brad Nakase, Attorney

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When Kristina was a child, her mother used to take her to local thrift stores to try on vintage clothes for fun. Even though it was just dress-up, Kristina developed a passion for antique clothing and jewelry. Now an adult, Kristina is interested in starting her own thrift store. However, Kristina does not want to run a cramped, stuffy store like those she used to visit with her mother. She would like to bring the thrift store into the modern age. Her dream is to sell unique vintage clothing online through her own website. However, Kristina is not sure how to start her own online thrift store business. She does not have much experience with coding or websites, and she is worried she may not have the right skills to turn her dream into a reality. Luckily for Kristina, it is possible to start an online thrift store business by following a few easy steps.

What Are the Steps Involved in Starting an Online Thrift Store?

The internet has changed the business landscape for many industries, not least the thrift store business. Long gone are the days of cramped, musty stores filled with retro clothes. Now is the time to take one’s passion or thrifting online, offering sleek, modern internet stores for fashionistas and collectors around the world. Online thrift stores not only offer new avenues for creativity, but they also offer an opportunity to expand a business and find new customers across the globe.

Using ecommerce platforms such as Shopify and Squarespace, an entrepreneur can follow their dream of creating a thrift store for the next generation. Just like any business, there is a lot of work involved in getting a store up and running, even one centered on online business. Luckily, there are easy steps one can follow to turn that dream thrift shop into a reality.

These steps can be summarized as follows:

  1. Find a niche
  2. Create a brand
  3. Set up the shop
  4. Source products
  5. Store products
  6. Take professional photos
  7. Price products
  8. Set up shipping
  9. Start marketing

This article will review the details of each step, thereby helping the aspiring thrift store owner get started. By following each of these steps, an entrepreneur can look forward to finding business success with their online thrift company.

Step 1: How to Research and Find a Niche for an Online Thrift Store

Anyone who has visited a thrift store knows how overwhelming an experience it can be. Clothes strewn everywhere, shelves and shelves of random accessories and knick-knacks, and boxes of junk lying all over the place. It can be hard to get one’s bearings in such an environment. How do you even find what you’re looking for? You could spend hours hunting through piles of trash to find that something special.

An entrepreneur interested in starting an online thrift store should seek to provide a completely different experience. It is wise to consider offering a curated selection of products, instead of the random junk that one often finds in physical thrift stores. In any case, most customers have in mind what they would like to buy: sweaters, shoes, dresses, or accessories. An online business owner has the chance to simplify the thrifting process for customers. By reducing the “sifting” process, a business owner can directly offer shoppers the products they want.

In general, an online thrift store owner should keep in mind the world “curated.” It is a good idea to choose a type of product to stock and to get as niche as possible. For example, perhaps a thrift shop owner decides to focus solely on jewelry. To make their selection even more niche, they focus on vintage jewelry. Not only does this focus let customers know exactly what to expect from one’s shop, but it also makes the store look put together and organized.

Example: Lana is planning on starting her own online thrift store business. One of the things she does not like about shopping at physical thrift stores is their disorganization. She is never able to find the products she wants among all the rubbish. For her own thrift store, Lana is planning to focus on selling jewelry. However, she worries that having a mix of modern and vintage jewelry is still too varied. Because Lana has a background in art history, she has a passion for older jewelry. Therefore, she decides to focus her thrift store on vintage jewelry, for which she will have a specific clientele.

Step 2. How to Create a Brand for an Online Thrift Store

Once a thrift shop entrepreneur has decided what they want to sell, they can next focus on creating a brand. A brand is not just a name and logo; thought must also go toward the vibe of the business and its target audience. To figure out a brand, a business owner can consider the following questions:

  • What is the business’ target audience? Who will love these products? What is their gender, age, and lifestyle?
  • What sets the business part from other sellers?
  • How will the target audience discover the store?

When it comes to deciding on a brand name, it is best to think of something short and memorable. This is easier said than done, of course! Think about names like Etsy, Asos, and Poshmark. These are simply, cute names that people remember easily. Once a business owner has come up with a good name, he or she can check with their state’s business filing agency to ensure that it is available for use. One should also check to make sure no one has already trademarked the name for use.

Also, once a business owner has come up with a unique name, he or she should immediately reserve the handles on any social media sites they plan to use. For example, if the business will be named Antique Rose, then the owner should register the handle “@antiquerose” on Twitter or Instagram.

Even before one has set up shop, it might be a good idea to begin promotion and marketing. This is especially the case if one is selling clothing or accessories. A business owner could start posting pictures that match the brand’s image on blogs or sites like Pinterest. These “mood boards” can generate viral excitement for a future business. Once the store launches, there may already be customers waiting to buy.

Example: Cassidy is planning on starting an online thrift store that sells vintage dresses. She wants to create a brand that people will remember, thereby creating a following online. She has given her business a catchy name: “Once Upon a Time Designs.” In order to create her brand, Cassidy is posting pictures of her dresses on an Instagram page dedicated to the business, Quickly, people come to her page to see cute, antique designs presented in modern ways. She gains a following of people who comment on her posts that they are eager to buy her dresses.

Step 3: How to Launch an Online Thrift Store

Before officially launching an online thrift store, a business owner will need to have a stock of at least a few products to sell. Don’t worry! This article will discuss the issue of sourcing in the next section. However, it is useful to think about how one wants to sell the products even before buying them.

There are three different methods a business owner can consider when setting up their online shop, which will be discussed below.

Using an Ecommerce Platform

For new sellers, Ecommerce platforms are an easy way of setting up a website. Even though there is a cost involved, they are very powerful tools that are easy to use. A business owner is able to choose a template and customize it to their liking. This step does not require any tech skills, so there is no need to be intimidated. All that is required to use these platforms is a small monthly fee.

The following are some benefits of using an ecommerce platform:

  • Easy and convenient for beginners to create a store
  • Online support team available to help with tech issues

The following are some disadvantages of using an ecommerce platform:

  • There may be transaction fees, depending on the specific platform
  • While self-hosted platforms may be cheaper, a business owner must pay for domain, hosting, and other components separately

There are a variety of ecommerce sites available to online business owners, some better than others for thrift stores. A thrift store owner will want to find a site that specializes in design elements, fashion website templates, and marketing features.

One of the best ecommerce websites for thrift stores is Shopify. This site is great for stores that have large inventories. This is because it has complex backend technology and simple, streamlined shipping abilities. Shopify scores well when it comes to offering fashion industry features and excellent marketing capabilities. Another great ecommerce site is BigCommerce. This site is ideal for online business owners who tends to sell fashion products in bulk.

Using a Self-Hosted Platform

Business owners with a little more time on their hands, as well as technological skills, may wish to build their own ecommerce site using a content management system (CMS). WordPress is an example of a popular CMS used to build commerce websites. This strategy gives a business owner more control over their website and is overall cheaper to create and run. However, unless a business owner knows how to code, it will be hard to customize the site to the degree one wishes. For this reason, building a website using a CMS is not recommended for beginners. Those who are adventurous enough to try this route should be prepared to spend a lot of time setting up the site. However, there are rewards for those who succeed. For sites set up using a CMS, there are endless possibilities for customization and originality. But the bottom line is that a business owner should do what is comfortable for them.

Let’s review some of the pros of creating a self-hosted platform:

  • Total ownership and control over the website
  • Unlimited ability to customize features and design

Now let’s review some of the cons of creating a self-hosted platform:

  • Must pay for a domain name, web hosting, and security
  • Must have skill in coding and web design

Selling Through Marketplaces

Another method of selling online is to use a marketplace such as Amazon or eBay. This strategy allows a business owner to get a feel for the industry and attract the attention of a lot of customers. These sites are also very convenient to use. However, competition on these sites is fierce. Also, a business owner will have to pay sellers fees for each item sold.

So, even though marketplaces like Etsy have advantages, they are not a great option if a business owner wants to create a long-term venture. Marketplaces generally do not offer the scalability and brand-building abilities that serious businesses will need.

However, it is entirely possible for a thrift business to sell on its own ecommerce platform as well as on a marketplace. This is truly the best of both worlds.

Let’s review the pros of using marketplaces to sell:

  • Easy and free to begin selling products
  • Potential to attract big audience

Now let’s review some of the cons of using marketplaces to sell:

  • Sellers fees
  • String competition

Example: Betsy is working on creating her own online thrift store, through which she will sell women’s shoes. While Betsy is tempted to create a platform through Shopify, she wants her website to look especially unique, with plenty of customization options. Luckily, Betsy’s sister got a degree in computer science, so she knows how to code and design websites. Betsy hires her to design her own self-hosted platform. However, Betsy knows friends who often buy clothes, shoes, and jewelry from Etsy. Betsy does not want to miss out on this market, or the chance to advertise her business to all the consumers who frequent Etsy. So, not only does Betsy sell her shoes on her own website, but she also sells them on Etsy. This works out well because often, customers will find her on Etsy and then visit her website.

Step 4. How to Source Products for an Online Thrift Store

When finding products to stock one’s online thrift store, it is crucial to not invest too much money at the start. Even though this can be an exciting step, it is important to begin with a small collection. This is beneficial because it allows the owner to see what sells well and what does not before buying more. For example, if no one wants to buy lacey dresses, then a business owner does not want to be stuck with two hundred lace dresses.

There are a few different methods by which one can purchase stock for their thrift store. Depending on the type of product being sold, some sources will be better than others. Sources for stocking online thrift stores include the following:

  • Brick and mortar thrift stores
  • Yard sales and garage sales
  • Estate sales
  • Craigslist
  • eBay
  • Clearance sales
  • Flea markets

One good idea is to go a bit outside of town to less-frequented thrift stores. It may be possible to find great items here that others have not bought yet. If one is focused on supplying high-quality garments or items, then one may wish to visit thrift stores in well-off neighborhoods.

When a thrift shop owner finds a great product, it can be tempting to buy it right away. However, there are a few checks that one should run through prior to doing so:

Examine the Product’s Condition

It is wise to check the item for any signs of wear, such as stains and rips. It may be easy to spruce up some items, such as shoes in need of a shine. However, it is best to avoid items that cannot be easily repaired, such as a dress with a coffee stain.

Take a Look at Online Prices

While a thrift shop owner may like an item, potential customers must also like it. One way to check this is to search similar items online and see how they are selling. What reviews are people leaving? Is this type of outfit ugly or in style?

Check Labels

For business owners who are specializing in vintage or antique products, it is necessary to be well-versed in labels. One should know the difference between a 1996 Versace purse and a 2012 Versace purse, for example. One should also be able to identify a real Louboutin from an imitator. This way, a shop owner can accurately advertise a product and not accidentally purchase fakes.

After an online thrift shop owner gathers their first curated collection, the next step will be to tidy up the items. Clothes will need washing, shoes will need shining, and jewelry made need repairing. When handling delicate materials, it may be best to consult experts, or at least to Google how best to clean them.

Example: Sofia is interested in starting her own online thrift store, through which she will sell vintage handbags. In order to build up her stock, Sofia thinks about the best ways to source her purses. She decides to visit local thrift stores and flea markets, where she finds unique, used purses from past decades. Before buying them, Sofia makes sure to check similar bags online to see how they sell. Luckily, she finds that her favorite bags do well in the online market, with people leaving enthusiastic reviews. Sofia buys her favorite purses and sets about cleaning them. Some require restitching, and Sofia takes them to a tailor to have them fixed. When Sofia discovers that one of the purses is a vintage Dolce and Gabbana, she makes sure to verify its authenticity. This way, she can advertise it on her site as an authentic Dolce and Gabbana purse from 1998. 

Step 5. How to Store Products for an Online Thrift Store

Once a thrift store owner has their stock collected and ready to sell, the next step will be to decide how and where to store it. When the business is in its early stages, it may be appropriate to store items in a spare room or wardrobe. However, it is likely that soon one’s house or apartment will be overrun with thrift store stock. Therefore, it is a good idea to think of a more permanent solution.

Most online retailers will rent a storage unit for their stock. When it comes to renting storage units, prices vary. The following are average prices one can expect to pay based on square footage:

  • 5 feet by 10 feet: $65 – $75 per month
  • 10 feet by 10 feet: $105 – $125 per month
  • 10 feet by 20 feet: $180 to $215 per month

One should note that these prices might be much higher in large cities.

How to Create a Storage System

Just as important as identifying space to store items is creating a system for tracking inventory. A business owner should stock inventory in a way that matches how it is categorized on the website. This means that clothing should probably be divided between men’s and women’s or by season. Clothing can be further subdivided into type, such as skirts, jackets, and socks. Having an organized storage system like this makes it easier to locate items when they sell. You don’t want to spend three hours trying to locate a hat!

It is also a good idea to have a system for keeping track of inventory. This is especially important for thrift stores, which often stock one-of-a-kind items. Once a particular product is gone, it’s gone for good. One does not want to risk accidentally selling a one-of-a-kind sweater to two customers. That would be a little awkward to sort out!

In general, ecommerce platforms provide business owners with excellent inventory management tools. This is part of the appeal of these sites; they offer all-in-one convenience for startups. In particular, Shopify offers the ability to manage products on all sales channels and to sync stock quantities automatically.

Example: Chloe is starting her own online thrift store, through which she sells vintage earrings and necklaces. In recent months, Chloe has put together a stock of antique jewelry to sell. Now, she just needs to find a space to store it all. Because Chloe has an infant son, she does not want to store the jewelry in her house where it presents a choking hazard. Chloe decides to rent a small storage unit for $70 per month. The unit allows Chloe to stay organized, having a devoted space for her stock. She also invests in an online system for tracking inventory. This allows her to monitor how many bracelets she has sold and how many remain. This way, Chloe never oversells an item.

Step 6: How to Take High-Quality Product Photos for an Online Thrift Shop

After a thrift shop owner has collected their unique stock, the next step is to take high-quality photos of the products. It would be a mistake to rush this step. It is not enough to whip out one’s iPhone and snap some quick shots. While it is not necessary to buy fancy photography equipment, there must be adequate preparation and time put into the process.

The following are some tips a business owner can use to take great photos of their stock:

Use A Lot of Light

When taking pictures of a product, it is important that the shot is well-lit. Natural light is the best option, but if that is not possible, one should set up a lot of artificial lights. Good lighting will show all the details of a product when it appears online.

It is important to remember that using flash does not make up for poor lighting. In fact, it should be avoided at all costs.

Get a White “Sweep” Background

A white background is the best way to show off a product. It is not distracting, and it shows off the colors and qualities of the item best. The same shade of white should be used for all photos, rather than a hodgepodge of off-whites. Having different shades on one’s website can look tacky and disorganized.

It would be wise to invest in a large roll of white paper, called white backdrop paper. This can be rolled out behind a product, creating a perfectly blank background for a photoshoot.

Use a Smartphone, But Edit Lightly

When first starting out, there is nothing wrong with using an iPhone (if one puts time and care into the pictures). However, it is important to avoid using filters. A business owner should avoid over-editing the photos. Filters can make colors look off or garish. Products should appear as they do in real life.

Take Pictures from All Angles

When it comes to advertising a product, the more pictures the better. An item should be shown from every side. There should also be close-up shots to show fine details, such as a fabric pattern or a jewelry clasp. There is nothing wrong with showing imperfections. In fact, customers will appreciate the honesty. A good rule of thumb is to have four photos for each item.

If a business owner is selling clothing, it would be best to have models wear the items. This gives customers an idea of how they fit and what they look like on people. It is not necessary to hire professional models. In fact, a business owner can ask friends or family to model the clothes.

Example: Madison is starting her own online thrift store, through which she sells vintage clothing. When Madison first collects her stock, she decides to put clothing on a mannequin and take pictures using her iPhone. The photos come out looking terrible: unlit, blurry, and lifeless. To solve this problem, Madison invests in white backdrop paper and professional artificial lighting. She is also careful to use the proper settings on her iPhone, avoiding flash and filters. Madison asks a few friends to model the clothes for her website so that customers can see how they look on real people.

Step 7. How to Price Products for an Online Thrift Store

When deciding on the price of a certain item, a business owner should consider overall costs. First, the owner paid an amount to acquire the item. They then have to account for packaging, shipping, as well as transaction/seller fees. There are also the costs of website subscriptions and storage unit rent. These costs must be considered when pricing stock.

A business owner should also consider their competition. If there are a lot of sellers in one’s space, then it is important to make prices competitive. This means that if a certain type of shirt is selling for $10 on other thrift sites, a business owner should consider selling their shirt for $9 or $10 too. However, if the owner’s particular shirt has sparkles, then it may be more unique. In this case, the owner could charge a bit more since fewer sellers can offer the sparkly shirt.

A seller should always know the worth of the items they are selling. This goes back to the importance of understanding labels. A seller does not want to accidentally sell a designer handbag for less than it is worth.

Example: Sean is starting his own online thrift store, through which he sells men’s shoes. He is careful to price his shoes to compete with other sellers. For example, if another business owner is selling a pair of loafers for $60, then Sean is sure to sell his own loafers for $50 or $60. However, Sean is not particularly strong when it comes to reading and understanding labels. As a result, he accidentally sells a pair of velvet Louboutin slippers for $100, when they are actually worth $900.

Step 8. How to Set Up Shipping for an Online Thrift Store

The last logistical step involved in creating an online thrift store is setting up a shipping system. The first part of this process is to decide between free shipping, real-time shipping, and flat shipping.

Free shipping is certainly appealing to customers, but the seller must ensure that the cost of shipping is factored into the price of the item. It is also a good idea to set a minimum order value, or only allows free shipping within the business’ country. A business owner does not want to absorb extraordinary shipping costs.

A real-time shipping charge is when shipping charges are calculated based on an order’s weight and location. Shipping carriers such as FedEx offer a calculator tool to determine costs based on weight and location. If a seller is using a website builder like Shopify or BigCommerce, the website will automatically provide a carrier quote. This will help the business owner choose between a flat-rate shipping fee and a rate dependent on weight. Online marketplaces like Etsy and eBay also offer shipping calculators to make these decisions easier.

This kind of calculated shipping requires some effort. However, it is useful for stores that sell large products like furniture, where shipping costs will vary significantly depending on the item. A stool, for example, will cost less to ship than a couch.

Using a flat shipping rate is easiest. A seller calculates the average shipping cost and then adds this amount to each delivery as standard. Using this method means losing a little money on larger orders, but it balances out in terms of saving time and stress.

A seller may wish to consider using a carrier than offers to collect parcels directly. This saves time of the seller does not want to deliver parcels to a drop-off point. If a business is receiving a lot of orders, this service may be beneficial. Shopify offers a service called Shopify Shipping, which connects with a local carrier to collect items directly from the seller’s home.

It is a good idea to pick a carrier that has a drop-off point nearby. No one wants to drive twenty miles to drop off packages!

Some popular shipping carriers include:

  • UPS
  • FedEx
  • USPS
  • DHL Express
  • Canada Post

When it comes to packaging, the best option is to choose something lightweight. It should also be as close to the size of the product as possible, as well as being sturdy and protective. There is nothing wrong with using branded packaging, but this may be a better option for an established business with money to spare. Basic packaging may be bought in bulk from sites like Amazon.

Step 9. How to Create a Marketing Plan for an Online Thrift Store

A business owner may run a fantastic online thrift store, but if he or she does not market it successfully, no one will know that it exists. Marketing is therefore an important step in setting up an online thrift store business.

One of the most important elements of marketing is managing SEO, or search engine optimization. SEO can ensure that one’s business appears on the front page of Google when a customer types in terms related to one’s products. To accomplish this, one can use a free keyword tool, such as Google’s keyword planner. This can help a seller learn about popular search terms in their industry. Once a seller learns these terms, they can include them on their site. Website builders like Shopify and BigCommerce can help business owners manage SEO. In fact, BigCommerce offers extra keyword suggestions and support. This ensures that one’s business ranks highly when customers search Google for products.

Social media is another major marketing tool. For thrift stores, Instagram is particularly effective due to its visual nature. Even before starting the official business, a seller can post images of items of Instagram, building a following. This way, when the business opens, there are already people interested in buying what they have seen on Instagram.

After opening the thrift shop, it is important to post regularly on social media to keep customers engaged. A seller can advertise their personal favorite products as well as behind-the-scenes photo shoots. It is also a good idea to engage customers by encouraging them to post images of themselves wearing clothes or jewelry and tagging the shop. Happily, Shopify and BigCommerce make it easy to integrate social media to one’s website.

Another method of marketing is pay-per-click, or PPC. These type of social media ads are a good option for well-established businesses.

Summary

Thanks to ever-improving web technology and social media, there is no better time to start an online thrift store. Ecommerce builders like Shopify and BigCommerce make it easy to pursue one’s passion for thrifting and to share it with others.

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