In this guide, we’ll cover the basics you need to know about how to sell physical products, no matter where you are in the world. There are typically 2 main ways you can sell physical goods online, from anywhere:
- By making/sourcing and shipping products yourself
As with selling pretty much anything online, there are 3 key things you need to figure out to successfully sell a physical product online:
- How to create/source a product that people really want to buy
- How to price your product so that it sells well
- How to market the product & get traffic to your site to make some sales
This is a basic (read: for those just getting started with selling physical products online) but comprehensive “Getting Started” guide about making money from selling physical products and goods from anywhere you choose. Let’s get started….
Step 1: Create or Source Your Product
For many, this is the most exciting part…creating or sourcing a product you’re proud of to share with the world. Before you get too excited and start creating, pay close attention to the next section since this is what will very likely make or break your online shop success.
Selling A Product That People Want To Buy
This is one of the make or break aspects of online sales success; you may be wildly enthusiastic about the Alpaca wool toe warmers you’ve hand-knitted from locally-sourced wool but is there really a big & hungry enough market for them to sell well (enough to make a profit)?
The other aspect to consider when it comes to deciding whether to create your own products or drop ship products is the profit margin.
The profit margins are typically very low on drop-shipped products (for example, we made around $2 per t-shirt on a site which sold ethically-printed t-shirts) which means that for you to make any kind of decent income, you’ll need a pretty high volume of sales (which will require you to be a very effective marketer and traffic generator for your site) or find higher margin products.
It’s at this stage that some market research is useful. The following places are always useful for market research:
- Amazon – useful if your product is the kind of product which is also available on Amazon. Be sure to check out any consumer reviews too which can contain some nuggets of wisdom & vital customer feedback.
- Ebay – great for figuring out what’s popular and in-demand and what sells quickly when put up for auction on the site.
- Existing retailers whose sites are awful – these could be great potential partners, whose products you could help sell on your own site (or help improve their), in return for a cut of the profit.
The above could tell you how well your potential product is likely to sell based upon current market demand; this step, while boring, is essential if you’re going to create and source products which will actually sell and make you some income.
Creating your own products
If you’re the creative type, then you may decide to make the products yourself. While this doesn’t always lend itself as easily to a “work anywhere” lifestyle, it is possible – you’ll need to consider the following:
- Availability of materials you need on location or whether you’ll need to transport them with you.
- Any customs/entry restrictions that may be applicable to any source materials you carry.
- The weight/dimensions of the equipment/materials you’ll need to transport.
- How you’ll deliver your products to customers.
Unless you’re planning to head into the wilds of the jungle, the chances of you sourcing the materials you need are usually pretty good unless you use specialist items.
The profit margins on products you create yourself are typically higher than on drop-shipped products, unless the cost of materials you need is high – and don’t forget to incorporate postage costs which are often forgotten and can eat heavily into the profit margins.
Sourcing products on location
Another popular option is to source products on location e.g. local handicrafts and then ship them out to overseas customers.
The primary aspects you need to consider here are tax or customs duty on the items you’ll be exporting and any export or import restrictions. You will also need to bear in mind the fact that you may well be breaking tourist visa conditions, if you’re carrying out business activities and acting as an “exporter” of goods while on location.
While this is a viable model, it’s one that requires careful research and serious consideration if you plan to move around frequently, since the authorities will very likely require you to have a business visa and/or trading licence in order to operate your business and export (local) goods overseas.
This is by far the simplest option for “work from anywhere” entrepreneurs. Drop shipping is basically a means to sell goods which you never physically handle yourself. For example, you simply market the products but the orders, stock and delivery are handled by a third party.
We did this with the t-shirts & other clothing items from Then There Were None – which enabled us to get Jonathan’s custom illustrations printed on to high quality products, which were then printed & delivered by the third party company. We set the price, which includes our mark up and are paid that commission for every sale we make.
Step 2: Set Up Your Shop
There are a number of options to consider when choosing the right online shop platform from which to sell your products. There are 3 different aspects to think about:
- Your storefront
- Where the purchase transaction is made
- Where/how the order is handled
The above aren’t necessarily the same thing, especially if you’re drop shipping or using a third party platform to sell your products from.
As an example, consider our former site, ThenThereWereNone. This was purely a storefront – a place where we showcased the products on offer. When someone actually clicked on a “Buy Now” button for the t-shirts or wearable products, they were taken through to one of the drop shipping/third party suppliers we’d carefully selected.
On the other hand, we also sell some of Jonathan’s collage illustrations directly from his Studio site – this is the storefront, the financial transaction is handled by Paypal and we then handle the order and shipping. It’s a pretty manual process but it works fairly smoothly.
You’ll need to decide whether you’re going to use your own storefront or use one provided for you.
Websites To Sell Products That You Create and/or Source
If you’re creating your own products and you’d like to use a third party platform to help sell them from, the following are some of the most popular ones:
- Etsy – for crafty sellers (US-focus)
- Folksy – for UK crafty sellers
- Dawanda – for European & UK sellers
Websites To Sell Dropshipping Products
If you’re planning to use a third party to manufacture and ship your products, the following are popular Print-on-Demand services which allow you to customise the products available:
- Redbubble – for photos, prints & cards
- Cafepress – a full range of products including t-shirts, mugs and other clothing
- Zazzle – similar to Cafepress
- Spreadshirt – a European-based version of Cafepress
- Skreened – ethically-sourced/manufactured t-shirts & other clothing
With each of the above sites, you’ll need to create a profile and will then be able to set up your own shop, hosted on that site which displays the products you offer in your “shop”.
This is where you need to decide whether these profiles alone are sufficient or whether you’d also like to create your own “storefront” which is the option we went for with Then There Were None.
Benefits of your own storefront (website)
There are a few benefits to creating your own online storefront rather than simply using the profile/ready-made store profiles on your chosen service, these include:
- Full control over the branding and look & feel of your store
- A more customised, personal user experience
- A platform to engage with customers & potential customers (e.g. a newsletter sign-up box, a blog with comments etc.)
Drawbacks of your own storefront (website)
While we would personally always recommend building your own shop front, there are a few drawbacks which may put some people off, these include:
- Unless you have the skills yourself, you’ll need to pay someone else to set up and design your website for you, especially if branding and customer experience are important to you; this will obviously require some upfront investment.
- You’ll need to maintain both your online shop profile and your own website and ensure they’re kept in sync; again, this may require investment/outsourcing to someone else if you don’t have the skills yourself.
The decision is yours – but ensure you’ve considered your long term strategy and how important it is to you to build up a solid, loyal customer base and be able to control and contact your customers easily. These will ultimately determine whether you’re happy with an online profile, hosted on someone else’s site or whether you’d prefer to build a business on a platform you own yourself.
Step 3: Launch & Market Your Product
Now the easy part is done (!), it’s time for the hard work to start. This is the part that many online entrepreneurs forget about…how they’re actually going to get customers and make sales.
Assuming you’ve got your website/online shops set up and everything else is ready to go, here are a few creative ideas to help you get your first customers – some are obvious, others not but if you’ve got no customers right now, it can’t hurt to give it a go, can it?
Work your existing circles of influence – you already have a network you can leverage even if it feels like you don’t…your friends & family. You never know who knows who and the first rule of networking is to let your friends & family know what you’re selling. Even if they only initially buy something to support you, you’ve made a sale…congratulations, you’ve made a sale! Every little thing counts and asking your friends and family to help spread the word is the first, simple step you can take.
Set up a Facebook page – depending upon the type of product you’re selling, a Facebook page is likely to be one of the most suitable social media platform to promote it – largely because there’s a wide range of people in different demographics which usually covers the kind of audience you’ll need.
If you’ve got the budget for it, you can use Facebook ads to deliver highly targeted ads (by country, by age, by interests etc.) to spread the word about your shop. Also, ask your friends & family to “like” the page and help spread the word.
Use creative approaches – one of the things that we’ve done is to make a list of charities who use donate buttons. Jonathan’s going to create some custom “Donate now” buttons for our site and then offer them to the charities to use (since many of them are awful!). While it may not have a massive impact, every small bit counts and at the very least, we’ll be helping out charities we support anyway.
1,000 true fans – this is the strategy we’re pursuing with Then There Were None and Jonathan’s art. The theory is that you don’t actually need an audience of thousands or millions to create a sustainable career, you just need 1,000 “true” fans (the number is actually arbitrary and can differ) – who will buy everything you product/create. The key to building 1,000 true fans is to deliver a fantastic product, an awesome customer experience and treat your customers like your best friend, going the extra mile and over-delivering wherever you can.
PPC – depending upon your product and target market, it may well be worth trialling a PPC (Pay per Click) campaign on Google Adwords since your sales volume is going to depend largely on the volume of traffic hitting your site. The other option is to try advertising on other, relevant sites in your industry which is often cheaper than PPC and can yield just as good results.
SEO – as with any website, you should pay close attention to the SEO properties on your site if you’d like to rank well in the search engines for people looking for your product. This is especially important if your product is unique and you stand a good chance of being at the top of the search engines.
I can almost guarantee that if you try at least 2 or more of the above (ideally all of them), you’ll begin to build a customer base.
If not, then you’ll need to reassess what’s not working & why:
- Why aren’t people responding to what you offer?
- Is there a strong demand for it?
- Are you targeting the wrong people?
- Are you packaging it in the wrong way?
- Is it priced correctly?
- Are you reaching the right people effectively?
The key thing about marketing, other than making sure you do it on an ongoing basis, is to always evaluate what you’re doing and how well it’s working.
Establishing healthy marketing activities at the beginning is the key to a long term, profitable business selling your products from wherever you are – do your best not to fall into the trap that so many small business owners do…they only market when they need new business.
Marketing is an ongoing thing that you need to do constantly, even when you’re at your busiest…you never know when the lean times are going to come and having a consistent pipeline of clients will help you ease over these.
And Finally, Before You Hit The Road…
Running a location independent business that sells physical products, while you live and work anywhere, is not easy but it is possible. The most important priority is to focus on testing your systems and processes *before* you hit the road.
Iron out any glitches and ensure you research your destinations before you go – especially if you’ll be relying on overseas postal services and/or manufacturers…if necessary do trial runs before you commit to somewhere for the longer term.