When you want to jump into e-commerce, one of the biggest decisions you will have to make is about the selling platform to choose. Even if you have a winning product, choosing the wrong platform can lead to frustrations and stifle sales.
Luckily, choosing the right platform is easier when you know your needs.
Before we continue, it’s important to know that there is no absolute “best” ecommerce platform for all businesses. Your specific business needs, technical capability, features needed, budget, and other factors should be carefully considered prior to choosing a platform.
In this article, we look at the most important things you should put in mind when evaluating the various platforms in the market.
Factors to Consider When Choosing an Ecommerce Platform
There are tons of ecommerce platforms in the market. You may already be familiar with some of the common ones such as Shopify and WooCommerce. However, these are not the only options to choose from. Platforms such as Magneto, Volusion, BigCommerce, OpenCart, VirtueMart and others may be suitable for you based on your requirements.
Before starting to read reviews of ecommerce platforms to determine the best for you, consider the following factors:
- What are your goals?
- Self-hosted vs. cloud hosted
- Back end features and integration
- What is your budget?
1. What Are Your Goals?
Like is the case with any business, you have to know your goals for the store. For example, you should know the kind of products you will be selling, your target market, marketing channels, and so on. Knowing these things beforehand can help you eliminate some of the ecommerce solutions in the market.
For example, if you are planning to sell digital products, choose a platform with that capability. If you will be incorporating email in your marketing strategy, a software that can be integrated with your current email provider will be ideal.
While it may seem too early to lay down your store’s plan, this step will guide you to the right ecommerce platform to choose. Consider both the immediate and long term requirements of the store. From there, decide the most important functionalities you will need and those that you can do without.
2. Cloud Hosted vs. Self-Hosted
Decide whether to go for a cloud solution or a high-end, self-hosted solution. Knowing how the different solutions can be deployed and their costs is critical to determining the platform that will be suitable for your business.
a) Self-Hosted Solutions
Self-hosted ecommerce platforms come with a variety of features and at different price points. A good example is the free WooCommerce WordPress plugin that you can install and configure in minutes.
There are also various fully featured ecommerce platforms, like Magneto Enterprise Edition, that cost a low five figure sum for a license. These enterprise platforms require experienced developers to set up, configure, customize and deploy.
Self-hosted solutions do not have as many restrictions as cloud solutions. In most cases, the only limits are your agreement with your Internet Service Provider (ISP), your hosting resources, development budget or technical ability and terms of the ecommerce software license.
Most providers allow upgrading or scaling up of self-hosted solutions to offer extra functionality or features, which may not be possible with cloud solutions.
Enterprise level eCommerce solutions are more likely to allow sophisticated functionality. For example, you may be able to access the computer code behind the “out-of-the-box” software. As a result, it is possible to build a customized experience for your customers and take advantage of advanced functionalities in the administration backend. However, this usually comes at a cost, which explains why only large companies go for enterprise level ecommerce solutions.
Pros and Cons of Self Hosted Solutions
The pros of self-hosted ecommerce platforms include:
- You can easily add new features to your store “off the shelf” or through various “extensions”
- You can make your web store unique with advanced functionality and custom branding
- The solutions are scalable and can grow with your business to handle large transaction or volumes of products with an increase in your customer base
Below are the cons of self-hosted ecommerce solutions:
- Potential security issues if you are using a ‘free’ or open source shopping cart. Be vigilant and ensure the software you want is used widely, well maintained by the developer and has no security issues.
- High costs. The costs can be quite high, and can run to several thousand dollars per year for some providers.
- You require a strong hosting to run the self-hosted ecommerce solution. This means additional costs, which may depend with the type of ecommerce solution you choose. For example, you may have to pay extra for dedicated IPs, SSL certificates, etc. Moreover, the self-hosted hosting solution may not be able to deal with seasonal spikes in traffic, unlike is the case with cloud providers.
- There are additional costs involved when taking personal information and processing payments with a self-hosted solution. Customers will expect your store to be compliant with the security standards offered by other ecommerce websites.
- To ensure the ecommerce software is up to date and secure, you may need to hire a developer on a retainer. You may also need to upgrade the software from time to time. The upgrades can lead to downtimes.
- If you are not a developer, you will need to hire one to create a branded website, implement the features you need, test and deploy the website in its hosting environment. This can be costly than what you would incur with a cloud solution.
b) Cloud Hosted Solutions
If you do not have the budget to hire a software developer to configure your ecommerce solution, consider cloud platforms.
Cloud hosted solutions can be easily deployed by anyone with minimal technical knowledge of running an online store. The platforms also allow customers to pay for the products they want from an online store.
Cloud ecommerce solutions are perfect for many small businesses. The solutions provide enough basic features to get you started with ecommerce.
There are five main cloud ecommerce platforms in the market. These are:
- Big Commerce
- Magento Small Business
Ecommerce cloud solutions come with different features but also have some limitations. For example, some platforms offer a fixed number of design layouts and templates, which may not be suitable for your branding needs. There may also be a limit on the number of products sold, amount of traffic that your site can handle, limited payment methods available, etc.
If your business growth will be restricted by the limits placed on web design, traffic or need for specific features not offered by a generic cloud shopping cart, choose a self-hosted solution from the start.
Pros and Cons of Cloud eCommerce
The pros of cloud hosted ecommerce solutions include:
- Most cloud service providers can handle increased traffic peaks due to special promotions or seasons.
- The platforms are secure since all the security features are handled by the provider. The subscription fee includes the industry standard processing of payment cards (PCI-DDS compliance) and SSL security.
- No infrastructure maintenance or upgrade fees will be on you. The provider upgrades the software in the background with minimal interruption of the service.
- Cloud hosting providers usually offers high standard technical support.
- With most providers, anyone can set up a store without having to hire a developer or ecommerce specialist.
The cons of ecommerce cloud solutions include:
- The cloud service may not have the ability to scale to meet long term growth needs of your business.
- Most cloud ecommerce solutions have limited templates that are not easy to customize, brand and add unique custom functionalities.
- If the provider removes a feature that your business depends on or goes out of business, there is nothing you can do. This can devalue your investment in ecommerce,
Your store design should make it easy for customers to buy. One golden rule of ecommerce is to make it as painless as possible for a customer to buy. For example, it should not take more than 3 clicks or pages for a visitor to find what they are looking for or complete their intended action.
Some platforms only provide the backend technology of processing orders. Examples of these include Shopify and WooCommerce. With these two platforms, there are hundreds of themes you can use for the frontend.
If you choose a platform that also provides the frontend theme, consider the layout. Choose a simple layout that will make it easy for visitors to place orders.
To stand out in your industry through branding, look for a paid theme that works with the platform you have chosen. You can also add extra feature on your theme through custom programming.
Backend Features & Integration
Scalability and Add-ons
When choosing an ecommerce platform, think like a startup. Allow room for growth! You may not need some features at the time, but may require them in your next stage. Therefore, go for an ecommerce platform that will be able to handle your immediate, short term and long term goals.
For example, you may be starting your store by selling only a few products. However, after about 6 months, you may want to expand your product line to contain hundreds of SKUs. Will the ecommerce platform be able to handle the anticipated growth and allow seamless integration of extra features?
WooCommerce is a good example of a platform that can easily support your store, no matter what growth stage you are in. For example, the platform allows you to easily add advanced features to your store such as:
- Order and inventory management
- QuickBooks or other accounting software
- Email marketing (e.g. shopping cart abandonment emails)
- Social sharing
- Related products
These extensions can be easily installed to your WooCommerce store and are easy to configure
Inasmuch as a platform may be popular or you may prefer its look or feel, think about the future. You will be surprised at how fast your store can grow. When you experience exponential growth, the platform should be able to handle the increased activity at your store.
Payment, Shipping & Security
Before selecting an ecommerce platform, think about logistics. For example:
- How will customers pay for your products?
- Will you be charging tax?
- For shopping costs, how will they be calculated?
- Does the ecommerce platform integrate with the shipping carrier you will be using?
Your target market should help you decide the payment methods and shipping options to go for. Make sure you support the payment method that majority of your target market prefer. For example, if you are selling worldwide, you want to accept credit card payments rather than bank transfers or EFTs.
Also, secure your store with SSL. Some platforms like Shopify take care of the security of your website. With others like WooCommerce, the security will be up to you. Weigh your options carefully to know the best platform that will suit your needs and provide value for your money.
Depending on how technical savvy you are, you may want a developer to help you troubleshoot various issues on your store. You may also be comfortable using the knowledge bases and resources provided by the ecommerce platform you choose.
Some platforms, for example, WooCommerce offer comprehensive online support. Others are not straightforward on how to seek assistance. Many issues can come up that may affect your store’s functionality. Carefully consider the support offered by the platform you will be choosing.
What is Your Budget?
For small businesses, budget is usually a deal maker or breaker. Consider the costs you will incur with the specific ecommerce platform you want to implement.
Generally, cloud hosting solutions charge a monthly fee for their services. You can upgrade or downgrade your subscription based on the services you require. Some providers also have one-time setup fees, which can be in the thousands. Find out about any upfront fees you may be charged for the platform you would like.
With self-hosted solutions, the costs may not be recurring but can be quite high. This is because you will have to cater for nearly everything, from setting up the platform to maintaining it.
Costs of Self-Hosted Ecommerce Solutions
Some of the key costs to consider if you are going the self-hosted route include:
a) Design and development
You may need to hire a designer to help you with:
- Setting up and managing the web hosting environment
- Customizing the store layout and design
- Choose plugins, extensions and features
- Integrate the store with your legacy order management or CRM system
- Integrate the payment gateways
The above costs can be quite expensive depending on the hourly rate charged by the developer and the time involved.
b) License cost
While you can use free eCommerce plugins like WooCommerce, you may have to pay to get advanced features. WooCommerce offers a host of free and premium plugins to extend the capability of your store.
It may be necessary to add various security features on your site. For example, you will need an SSL certificate if you will be accepting credit card payments. The cost of the certificate ranges from free to thousands of dollars.
d) Hosting requirements
You need a hosting solution that has the capacity to handle the amount of traffic you expect at your store. Hosting services that can handle much traffic can be quite expensive.
e) Maintenance costs
Your store has to be kept up to date and secure. This may mean entering into a monthly or annual maintenance contractor with your developer.
Decision is Yours
Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine which ecommerce platform will be right for you. Your current and future goals should point you in the right direction when comparing ecommerce platforms. Ideally, you want a platform that has the most important features and functionality your store requires.