What To Sell Online – Starting From Scratch

With so many online platforms and marketplaces, you might wonder ‘What to sell?’ But here is the truth. Selling online is not as easy as it was eight years ago. The market is now saturated with sellers and products. Like the image depicts, online shopping is like a night market where thousands of sellers are trying to grab the attention of any passerby that glances at them.

No doubt, marketing, branding and sales strategies play a big part in the success of your business. However, before that even starts, the first thing you need to do is figure out what to sell online.

Before we continue, I am going to distinguish two different types of sellers I’ve seen out there. There are a few more, but I will only focus on these two.


Brands generally stick to on product category, building an empire based on their focus. Cuura is a beauty brand. Rigid Fitness is a fitness brand. Brands usually spend more money in product development, often putting their logo on the products they sell.

Becoming a brand is not just about the products you sell, but what you represent and believe in. You encompass a lifestyle and focus on being recognised in your product category.

General Stores

Generally only stores sell whatever gives them good margins and high sales. They tend to search for ‘trending products’, purchase in bulk, ride the wave and get the money. Once the trend is over, they move on to the next.

Stores don’t really care about their brands. They tend to purchase whatever sells in bulk and as-is.

While this article can be used in both instances, it will definitely benefit Brands more than General Stores because this article looks more into longevity of your online sales platforms, rather than quick cash grabs.

Whatever you choose, you should take advantage of the reputation you have built from the sales of your last products.

What To Sell? – Choose a Product Category

The product category you choose to enter will define the future of your business – how you market, your profit margins, the amount of returns you receive, and the ability to upsell and resell. Here are some general ideas you should keep in mind.

Is there a market for your product?

Having a market ready and available means that you can lower down marketing spend as product categories have already been introduced. If you start a product with no market in Malaysia, you’ll be spending a lot of money trying to convince people to even try your product.

For example, starting an AI-based digital service will require a lot of marketing and PR dollars just to get people to understand what you are offering. You will have to discount your products drastically for people test it, and you don’t even know if they will stay.

Starting a business in shoes is easier as everyone knows what shoes are and there’s already a market. In fact, everyone needs shoes!

Is the category wide enough?

Some general stores tend to sell just one product at a time. There’s no problems with that. Even when you start a new brand, you might just start off with just one SKU. However, soon you will be out of potential customers and your growth will be stunted. Not every single person would want the same thing.

General stores will probably need to look for the next best / trending product to sell. Brands, however, have to create variations to cater to different tastes and needs.

As mentioned, keeping to the same product category means that you can take advantage of all the marketing and sales efforts you’ve put in to sell your previous products. For example, if you had success selling pure chocolate bars, then your next product can be chocolate pretzels, and you can ride on the name you’ve already established as a store that sells great chocolate.

However, imagine if your product category was too narrow and you’re only known for Yoga Mats. Besides designs, there really isn’t many other variations you can create.

How about repeat purchasing?

How many times do you buy the same gym equipment? For example, how many times do you buy a yoga mat, or dumbbells? Not many. Products like this make it hard to get repeat purchases from customers. In this instance, people would buy once and never return.

However, think of a brand like Decathalon or Sports Direct. They have a mixture of different products that let customers come back time and time again. Think of their line up of products;

  • Sports Shoes – You would probably buy once every year (at most!)
  • Sports Gear – Again, you will buy once.
  • Upgrade Gear – In places like Sports Direct, you would have a beginner version and an expert version!
  • Sports Clothing – Now this is one reason customers come back more frequently. Clothing is consumed far more often and need to be replenished.
  • Sports Tape and Heating Gels – Small items, but again, it is consumed frequently. You run out of this, and you’ll need to purchase more, and quick!

At the end, it is always cheaper to retain customers than it is to acquire new ones. Thinking about a product category that allows for frequent re-purchases will help lower marketing costs.

Is the profit margins sustainable?

This deals with the business theory of ‘economies of scale’. Your cost drops when you purchase in bulk. This is how bigger companies are able to lower prices. However, if you are small or if you are just starting out, you don’t have the capital to purchase so much inventory. As such, you will not have an optimal profit margin in the first few years of business.

You’re thinking, “Well, then I will just sell my products at higher price”. Sadly, you sometimes can’t. Prices in an already-made market are determined by your competitors. If your competitor charges RM 30 for a cream similar to yours, you can’t sell far beyond that without justification.

You need to make sure that even at higher production cost, your profit margins can sustain and help you grow. If not, you will be stuck in the same rut.

Can you compete in the product category market to sell in?

A small or unformed market requires a lot of marketing money to convince potential customers to try your product category. A ready-made market requires a lot of marketing money to convince potential customers to switch from your competitors and try your brand. Competing is tiring and expensive, but it can be done. You hustle, and hustle more.

For example, choosing to make your own running shoes will be difficult. Cost of production is high and the price you put is dependent on what’s being sold in the market. This means that your marketing spend will be quite low while trying to fight the ads from established brands like Nike and Asics.

However, there are always ways in. In Malaysia for example, there is a growing trend to “Support Local” and a market of customers who would pay more for Artisan products. Targeting this niche might help you grow faster.

Can you differentiate in the product category?

Think about the night market analogy. In each night market you’ve been to, you’ll see many vendors selling the exact same thing. If everyone is selling the same thing, why would they buy from you?

Differentiation sets you a part, literally. It means ‘to be different’. There are many ways to differentiate;

  • Quality
  • Price
  • Colours
  • Sizes
  • Design

Differentiation can be the smallest thing but have significant impact. At the same time, differentiation is not only about the product, but also your brand, sales and marketing strategies. For example, JD sports and Sports Direct are quite similar in what they sell, yet, they both are able to thrive in the market! How?

What To Sell – Conclusion

Congratulations! You have taken the first step to finding out what to sell online. In my personal view, people around you will always say to focus on something you love. I don’t agree.

I love guitars. Doesn’t mean it is a viable item to sell.

Instead, I say focus on a category you are interested in where you

  • Have no problem learning more about every single day
  • Feel can be improved / you can do better
  • You can do day in and day out for a long long time

Good luck on your journey and come back here for more updates. If you are ever in need of a fulfillment company, check us out!