Run your own Instagram boutique: Tips, tricks and how-tos

When I decided to open up an Instagram shop to sell clothes, I figured it would be an easy way to earn some extra cash. But just as with my Etsy shop, there were definitely surprises along the way — some good, some not so good. Here are a few (OK, a lot) of the things I've learned about selling clothes via IG:

Followers are EVERYTHING

For some reason I guess I just figured that my shop would grow organically and that people would find my stuff via hashtags. Ha. Ha ha hahahahaha. Sure, a few people did stumble on my shop, and I made a few random, lucky sales that buoyed me up and made me think, "This is going great, I don't really need to do anything else." But I soon learned the error of my ways.

It's not uncommon to see Instagram shops that don't even list a single item for sale until they reach 1,000 followers. I was too impatient to wait that long, but I did put things on hold at one point until I reached 500 followers. And even at that, I feel like I'm not reaching enough people. The impression I've gotten is that people follow so many IG shops that it can be hard to break through the clutter of their feeds to really make an impression.

Go ahead and spam

Well, spam may be a strong word. But posting often seems to be the norm. It's not enough to just post the items you want to sell, and let them sit there. I've seen shop owners simply re-post the same items over and over again. Others do flash sales, offering discounts for a limited time. Some of the most successful posts I've seen for clothes feature styling suggestions, pairing a certain item with a complete outfit to show it off to its best advantage. The point is, you have to find a way to keep putting your items out there.

S4S is your new BFF

For some reason it took me a looong time to cotton on to just how valuable the whole "share-for-share" practice can be. Since I still have a pretty low follower count, I usually look for a share-for-share that another seller has already offered, and jump on board. It's a painless way to get more eyeballs on your shop, at minimum. But savvy sellers find ways to use it to their best advantage: It's good to do a S4S right after you've posted — whether it's new items, a flash sale or a giveaway. Which brings me to:

Give, and ye shall receive ... followers

One of the first things I wondered was, "How the hell does someone even get to 1,000 followers without even posting anything?" One answer is, they host a giveaway. By pledging to give away some fabulous set of prizes when they hit the 1k mark, shop owners can rack up followers fairly quickly.

Giveaways can also work like share-for-shares, since the terms of the giveaway usually require entrants to share your post. I've seen people give away pretty much anything you can imagine, from little trinkets to a MacBook Air. Popular items include jewelry, nail polish and cute stationary items (i.e. Washi tape), which are pretty much within reach of anyone's budget. But presentation of your giveaway, as with many things, is key.

Everyone will call you "love"

The Instagram selling community is super, super supportive. People will go out of their way to be helpful and nice, especially if you are new on the scene. They will give you full-throated shoutouts and send customers your way. They will be understanding if you are late with a reply or an invoice (although not if you're late paying one — see No. 9). They will share personal stories with you about their kids and dogs and grandmas (and of course their favorite places to shop). A lot of them are super Christian; it's a thing. And they are very, very nice. This is the polar opposite of eBay, which I feel like is the Hunger Games of e-commerce.

Unless you cross them

As sweet as they are to their fellow sellers (and their good customers), IG sellers are also cutthroat when it comes to the business side of things. Many IG sellers only allow customers 24 hours (or less!) to pay an invoice; after that, it goes to the next person in line. Sellers that accept returns are extremely rare. In short, shop policies are overwhelmingly in favor of the seller, rather than the buyer. So don't be afraid to be blunt with your customers about what you are willing to do; chances are they won't bat an eye.

Find a photo format that works for you

There's no one right way to display your clothes for photographs. Some IG sellers model clothes; some put them on mannequins; some hang them on hangers or just lay them out on the rug. Some sellers put multiple shots into a collage; others rely on a single image to communicate to potential buyers. And any of these things can be effective, as long as the end result looks good.

Good clothing photos use bright, indirect lighting (not a lot of dark shadows), and show the clothes looking smooth and tidy. They key is to find something that you can replicate consistently. Try a few different things out and see what catches your eye — and don't forget to look at what other sellers are doing, too.

Collage, collage, collage

One of the discoveries I quickly made was that my (ancient) phone was not entirely up to the task of hosting my IG shop. For one thing: It can't take screenshots. So every time I do a share-for-share, I have to use my other phone and then upload the screenshot to Dropbox. It's not perfect, but it does work! Similarly, I've struggled to find a good collage app I like that will run on my ancient Android.

Right now I'm using PicCollage on my Android and PicStitch on my iPhone. I don't love either one, but I still reach for both of them often. Whether it's to post a collage of the newest items in my shop, to announce a sale or to let followers know I'm done posting new items, it's an indispensable tool.

Brands are king

I've mentioned before that I'm kind of brand-blind; I definitely don't buy clothes based on brand, unless it's to confirm how something will fit me. But, as on eBay, brands are a big seller on Instagram. People love the notion that they are getting a deal.

If you can offer a customer something from a hot, high-end brand at a fraction of the retail price, people are likely to respond. And if you can consistently offer clothes from a desirable brand (ahem Brandy Melville), you will gain followers who are loyal to that brand.

But cuteness goes a long way

Not trying to contradict myself, but some garments just transcend brand because they're on-trend or just plain adorable. If you (like me) don't have a lot of desirable brands in your closet (or your local thrift store), your best bet is to focus on pieces that stand out. A plain gray pullover or black skirt probably isn't going to cut it (unless you're willing to sell it for very, very cheap). You want to post things that are going to give buyers heart eyes and make them say, "I have to have that."

Be prepared to fail

Instagram shopping seems to favor impulse buys, which means it's an unpredictable business. No matter how much you put your stuff out there, or how low your prices are, you have to accept you may not ever find a customer for your clothes. So have a Plan B.

Maybe you'll just donate any unsold items to the local thrift store or clothing program. Maybe you'll try your luck in another online venue such as thredUP. Maybe you'll take them to your local consignment store. Whatever you choose, just make sure you're comfortable with the idea of making no money at all for anything you list. Because it's totally possible (ask me how I know).

If you've sold clothing via Instagram before, what do you think of these tips? What would you add? What has your experience been like?


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