What to sell online

It’s no secret that there’s money to be made online. Since the first online sale back in 1994, the e-commerce industry has ballooned, with some sources predicting that businesses will rake in nearly $375 million in e-commerce revenue in the United States in 2020.

These days, more than 25 percent of the world’s population is online and ready to shop, and over half of shopping experiences begin online — even if they don’t end there. If you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur looking to start or grow your business, leveraging the internet is a no-brainer.

Even if you have nothing more than a gleam in your eye and a curiosity about the best things to sell online, opportunity awaits.

But first, you need to consider which products are in high demand and which align with your overall business goals and objectives (if this is relevant). To decide if you have what it takes to sell online, ask yourself the following five questions.

5 questions to ask to figure out what to sell online

1. What do people want?

Investigating if there’s an actual want or need for anything you’re considering selling — whether it’s online or on shelves — is a vital part of the product development lifecycle that many cash-strapped and time-strapped startups and entrepreneurs may be tempted to ignore.

Failing to conduct market research — when you do your homework and collect the vital background information that underpins your product — can be a death sentence for your business.

To properly gauge what to sell online, who to sell it to, where to sell it, how much to charge, and so on, you need to gather data from primary sources (i.e., survey or focus groups with your customers) and secondary sources (trade associations, government resources, academic studies, etc.). In both cases, you’re trying to figure out whether you have a viable product or whether you need to pivot and make some changes.

2. What’s selling best on popular shopping sites?

Another way to get some insight into the best products to sell online is to pay attention to what’s hot on the big third-party marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy, and eBay.

Amazon, for example, has a “Best Seller” section that puts top-performing products in each category front and center.

Alternatively, you can search for a particular type of item (like “water guns”), and the site will attach an orange “Best Seller” tag to the products that customers are purchasing most often.

Etsy, which has made a name for itself as the go-to destination for creatives selling their products, also labels best-selling products with a little orange tag.

While this isn’t nearly as scientific as conducting your own formal research, looking at these big sites is helpful — they invest a great deal in ranking the products they prioritize, label as best selling, and promote. If you’re looking to get some new ideas for things to sell online or just need some general big picture knowledge, this can be a great place to start.

3. What’s trending in online searches?

If you think you might already have an idea of a few things to sell online, using tools like Google Trends to corroborate your hunch is always smart. This free and easy-to-use reporting feature allows you to see how often people are searching for particular terms. You can filter by country and time period, and even compare two terms against one another.

For example, if you’re trying to decide whether to sell toasters or toaster ovens, you could look at Google Trends to see how often people have searched for each over the course of the last year. Looking at the data, you can see there’s almost twice as much search traffic for toasters. What’s more, it’s clear that overall search traffic for both items is increasing, which is always a positive sign.

Google Trends isn’t the only tool that provides this type of data, but it is an excellent free option for those who don’t want to make more of a financial investment in this area.

4. What are my competitors selling?

Another vital part of choosing what to sell online is investigating potential competitors.

Often referred to as a competitive analysis, this process is not meant to dictate which products you add to your offering. Instead, doing a deep dive into what your competitors are selling, how much those items cost, how they market their goods and services, and what their sales tactics are should give you a lay of the land and help you identify your own product’s strengths and weaknesses — as well as how to position it with your customers.

Keep in mind that there are direct competitors (those who have products that could act as substitutes for your own) and indirect competitors (those who have products that aren’t substitutes but could fulfill the same want or need).

5. What should I ship?

While you can certainly sell almost anything under the sun online, taking elements like size and weight into consideration is nonetheless important. Large, unwieldy items not only demand adequate storage space, but they also can come with hefty shipping fees.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t open that e-commerce site devoted to washing machines you’ve been dreaming of; it just means that your business plan should take these realities into account — and you should develop solutions that still allow you to earn a profit while keeping your customers satisfied.

On the other hand, if that sounds more complicated than it’s worth, you might want to limit your business to smaller, lightweight items in the beginning.

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