How to Choose the Best eCommerce Platform
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When you’re looking for the right eCommerce software for your business, you’ll find a bewildering variety of options to choose from. Maybe you have a startup. Or, an established business is looking to add a new online store.
Which eCommerce platform is the right choice?
This article offers some insight so you can quickly find the best ways to sell online for yourself.
Find the platform to fit your business, don’t try to fit the business into the platform
If you sell online, choosing the best eCommerce platform in the most important decision you’ll make. The right choice depends mostly on the type of business, and how you plan to grow it.
It’s especially important to avoid hidden costs, and to coordinate ordering, inventory and drop-shipping processes.
To give you the quickest and clearest insight, we’ll cover the highlights of the most popular ways to sell online, ranging from large traditional platforms to small niche players.
Everyone knows the biggest names –
There are also a herd of niche options –
Before choosing a platform
In order to sell online, you can either join a marketplace or build your own store.
- Join a marketplace
- Build your own store
Join an established marketplace
It’s super fast to start selling in established marketplaces like Amazon, eBay and Etsy.
You won’t have to work so hard to drive visitors to your store.
However, it’s more costly over the long term, in several ways..
The drawbacks of platforms like Amazon, eBay and Etsy
The restrictions on design, advertising and branding create serious limitations for many businesses.
You can’t build a truly independent brand by selling through eBay, Amazon and Etsy.
The gatekeeper owns your customer
The deal-killer is the fact that big dinosaur marketplaces hide merchants from their customers.
Without owning a customer’s information, you’ll never own the customer.
That’s a major competitive disadvantage for merchants who sell only through marketplaces.
Build a store
This pathway is more difficult and expensive to start with. Yet, it ultimately gives you stronger branding and much more control over customers.
That’s because the store isn’t built on land owned by someone else.
To say it bluntly – Etsy, eBay and Amazon can’t suddenly close your store and freeze the account for a petty infraction.
Fewer gatekeepers & middlemen
Want to make more money and grow quickly?
Slim down or eliminate those fat intermediaries standing between you and the customers.
Gatekeepers and middlemen have a bad habit of charging higher fees than their services are worth.
The solution is to build your business brand on a platform that you control, where you have access to customer information.
Have the best of both worlds?
If you’ve already established your main business brand offline, then use channels and marketplaces like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, eBay and Amazon to build traffic and gain more sales without neglecting your core brand.
Choose an eCommerce platform, not a marketplace
Many people have made big bucks through Amazon, eBay and other gatekeeper-controlled marketplaces.
Let’s not complain too loudly.
Still, we recommend finding a more-or-less independent way to sell instead of relying on a marketplace.
That’s why this article is focused on platforms instead of marketplaces.
OK, you’ve decided to build your own store.
Since you’re building a storefront instead of using a marketplace, you’ll need to think about hosting.
There are two ways to build the store:
- Shopping cart software from a hosted source, or
- Self-hosted software from an open-source
By using shopping cart software from a hosted source there are fewer complications, but you’ll have less control.
Self-hosted shopping cart software is more complex, but it lets you control more of the marketing and sales processes.
Most of the major eCommerce platforms are hosted.
By using a hosted platform for eCommerce, you’ll have fewer worries about vulnerabilities such as security, site crashes, PCI compliance, and backups.
If you want to concentrate on selling merchandise instead of tweaking software, then choose a hosted platform.
Another option is to host your own store. For example, let’s say you decide to use WooCommerce with WordPress. You’d buy hosting space on their server, and use their software to build the store.
Having this control also brings some responsibilities. You’ll have to manage your own security and PCI compliance.
Customers may hold you responsible if credit card data is stolen.
In summary, for most entrepreneurs, we recommend using hosted shopping cart software.
It lets you concentrate on running the business and taking care of customers.
Apps & extensions
Next, let’s look at apps and extensions.
Apps may be free or paid. Keep in mind that paid apps can be very helpful for growing your business.
Some major platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce have app stores where they sell extra functionality to meet your needs.
Extensions and apps provide these tools:
✔ Marketing & sales
✔ Fulfillment & shipping
✔ Ordering & inventory management
✔ Customer care
Find the best eCommerce platform to fit your business model
We’ve learned that it’s always faster to use the right platform to fit your core business model instead of trying to change the business to fit into a given platform.
The best strategy is to decide from the beginning how much functionality you’ll eventually need.
Which features are central to your business model?
Find a platform which offers the standout features needed to serve your business model now and well into the future.
Also look for easy integration with existing apps.
For example, if you’re already using QuickBooks for business accounting, then choose a platform with an app or extension that allows instant integration.
Highlights & features of eCommerce platforms
We’ll consider the most popular ways to sell online.
Let’s start with the best-known traditional platforms. Then we’ll take a quick look at those with specialized niches.
These traditional platforms can usually offer all the functionality you need.
Shopify is the right choice for many sellers. Setting up a store is quick and intuitive.
There are plenty of designs to choose from, so you won’t need to hire a web designer.
Yet, you can also optimize store designs to increase customer conversion rates.
Shopify offers many downloads, apps and features including support for both offline and online operations.
This platform is so popular because you can sell any type of product or service, and it’s easy to integrate.
It provides intuitive order tracking and fulfillment. Plus, it supports multiple online payment options such as PayPal or credit and debit cards.
If you already own a brick-and-mortar store, Shopify’s easy-to-integrate Chip and Swipe Reader is a great offline solution.
Scaling up your business is also easy. You can sell directly through Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites.
You can get updates within the platform, such as through Facebook Messenger, or use a dedicated store with separate POS system.
Shopify’s pricing is based on monthly billing with a variety of payment plans.
They also offer a free trial period to test the platform before making a commitment.
Ease of use, plenty of features, and affordable pricing make Shopify an overall great choice for new businesses or existing companies that want to sell online.
BigCommerce hosts more than 50,000 online sellers, including notable enterprises such as Toyota cars and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
BigCommerce has positioned itself as a cloud-based platform with fast-growing brands.
For sellers with limited technical knowledge, this platform offers plenty of functionality.
The features include order fulfillment and online payment support, analytics, and coupon programs.
BigCommerce offers a two-week free trial with access to all features.
However, there’s a drawback – Although you can set up an entire store, customers can’t actually buy anything until you upgrade to the platform’s paid plan.
There are three choices for pricing plans. Keep in mind that the standard plan allows you to accept PayPal and credit cards, but there is a 1.5% transaction fee.
You can avoid the transaction fee by switching to the BigCommerce Plus Plan, which has a higher monthly fee.
For high-volume sellers and special situations, the platform offers custom pricing plans.
The only other drawback is the scarcity of free themes for your store. There are only a few free themes.
You can easily customize a theme and create a unique storefront, yet there’s a premium cost for doing so.
BigCommerce offers a clear advantage in scalability – You can offer anywhere from 10 products to 1,000 and still keep the operating processes very simple.
The platform is also known for tight security. They use powerful anti-hacker hardware firewalls, and SSL to protect customer information.
Overall, BigCommerce is a great choice to host most online businesses.
WooCommerce is self-hosted and offers plenty of DIY functionality.
It’s so popular with designers and developers because it’s highly customizable.
WooCommerce is an open-source platform built atop WordPress. More than one-fourth of all websites are said to be powered by WordPress.
So, you can easily build your store and use available plugins if you already have experience with the WordPress content management system.
As mentioned earlier, WooCommerce is self-hosted. So, before using it you’ll need to choose a web host and pick a domain name for the business.
After that, just install and activate the plugin to create a basic store with limited features.
To add more functionality, you can install extensions including Google Analytics, product-bundling tools, MailChimp and others.
WooCommerce offers maximum flexibility because it lets you pick and choose the exact features you want.
This platform is very easy and intuitive if you have previous experience with WordPress.
If you aren’t already using WP, there’s a potential drawback – The learning curve may be steep for beginners without previous eCommerce experience.
Squarespace is a great choice if you want to prioritize the style and appeal of your user interface. You’ll achieve a truly unique store design.
Squarespace is hosted, so you can run the business without tech worries.
The main advantage is its visually-intuitive interface, which is simple and easy to use.
Squarespace is the best way to create an eye-catching website that truly reflects your personality.
There are several hundred templates, and they’re fully customizable.
This platform may be lighter in features than some other options, yet it produces very impressive UI results.
Also, integration with payment systems is easy.
If your business needs a creative, artistic storefront, this platform is a good solution.
The pricing is relatively cheap when compared with some other platforms.
There’s a basic plan which gets you a domain name and allows unlimited sales without transaction fees.
The premium plan offers many more features and is priced a bit higher.
Unique benefits of the platform include the ability to have multiple designs on the same site.
The platform also allows flexible product arrangement, so you’re not limited to standard category views.
The structure is friendly for SEO purposes, and optimized for mobiles. Content management and analytics are easy.
Squarespace has plenty of advantages, yet it has a major drawback – Limited options for payment processing.
The platform only offers a single gateway option, which is Stripe.
This is a problem for many sellers because it means there’s no integration with the big marketplaces like Amazon.
If you’re looking for fast online growth, you should try a different option.
On the other hand, if you’re a boutique store owner with a niche market, and you’re not worried about scaling up, then Squarespace is a smart option.
The smaller platforms
Ranking in popularity after the biggest four mentioned above, there are several smaller eCommerce platforms.
Each has its relative strengths, which we’ve highlighted below.
BigCartel stands out for their appeal to artists and creatives.
Volusion makes recurring purchases especially easy.
3DCart offers good functionality for multi-channel sales.
Magento has plenty of extensions, and offers multi-channel selling through third-party apps.
Yo!Kart is known for its multi-vendor sales functionality.
ShareTribe excels in letting you create entirely new marketplaces.
Gumroad specializes in digital products.
Cratejoy focuses on subscription boxes.
Selz is known for selling websites and blogs.
NuOrder is notable for B2B sales
Celery specializes in pre-orders.
Sellfy is focused on digital downloads.
Pulley is also known for digital downloads.
Subbly has good subscription capability.
Summary and takeaways
If you decide to sell through an online marketplace such as Amazon, eBay or Etsy, it’s easy to start. Yet, the future is limited because there’s always a gatekeeper between you and your buyers.
If you sell through an eCommerce platform like those described here, then your main choice is between building the store atop a hosted platform or hosting it yourself, such as with WooCommerce.
On a hosted platform you can focus on selling and won’t need to worry much about tech issues. But if you want more control and flexibility, then host the store yourself.
In any case, you’ll find the features you need by taking a closer look at one or more of the eCommerce platforms listed throughout this article.