Gone are the days when building an online store means custom-making one from scratch.
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Today, even beginners can put up an online store, sell products online, and actually make a profit – all within a few hours.
However, for an ecommerce business to succeed, one must address a few major decisions such as selecting the best ecommerce platform.
What is an ecommerce platform, exactly?
An ecommerce platform is a software technology solution that allows you to build a storefront (a client-facing online business that sells products or services), manage sales, and handle operations in a single platform.
These platforms contain various tools for an individual or company to run a business from scratch, expand from a traditional brick-and-mortar store with an online version, or replace an ecommerce solution that isn’t working.
Types of Ecommerce Platforms
Comparing ecommerce software can be downright confusing, especially since minor differences in features (such as load time, SEO, speed, etc.) could impact the success of your store.
Imagine uploading all product images and descriptions, plus designing your site’s theme or layout only to find out later that the backbone of your store cannot handle the load. Or you’d need to pay an extra $100 or more every time traffic to your site increases.
To choose the best ecommerce platform for your business, you should first learn about the two major types of platforms available:
1. Open Source
If you’re familiar with open source software, you know that these tools are freely available for anyone to use as is, or edited for further coding. It was built for the developers to play with, so programming skills is a major requirement for those planning to use an open source ecommerce platform.
Open source ecommerce is built with an original source code, which was then modified or redistributed to fit a company’s business model, ecommerce requirement, and other factors.
Examples of open source ecommerce platforms: Magento, OpenCart, WordPress with Woocommerce (or another similar plugin)
Pros of Open Source ecommerce Platforms
- Mostly Free – The biggest benefit of going the open source route is the upfront savings you get. Most of the time, you only need to download the software and install it in your system. (Don’t skip the cons part though, since there’s a catch with its “free” price)
- Highly Customizable and Scalable – Magento is the choice of many enterprise-level companies because of how customizable and scalable the platform is. Note that bigger companies have the funds to hire programmers who could turn an open source project into a fully-customized, branded online store and maintain the security of the site day in, day out.
Cons of Open Source ecommerce Platforms
- Hidden costs – Unless you are a highly-skilled programmer who can tweak code as you please, you may need to hire someone to customize an existing code, edit a paid theme, or add more features manually. Hosting is another expense that would eat up your monthly budget, since it could go as little as $20/month to a whopping $200/month.
- Continuous maintenance – Because an ecommerce site involves monetary transactions, the site should be free from bugs, hackers, and other threats. And since the code was created by someone else, it’s important to check the code and install updates regularly for your ecommerce site to be secured at all times.
- No customer support – If you plan to build the online store on your own, going this route won’t give you any technical support aside from user advice on forums and other similar resources.
Open source ecommerce platforms are best for companies with plenty of time before launch and a lot of resources (budget and talent), which may include an in-house team of programmers or tech support.
2. SaaS (software-as-a-service) or hosted ecommerce platform
SaaS ecommerce platforms are hosted, maintained, upgraded within a single company. Users pay a monthly fee for the software, hosting and continuous service (add-ons, themes, upgrades, and so on). Depending on the SaaS company and plan you choose, monthly fees may range from as low as $5/month to over $200/month.
The biggest advantage of open source ecommerce platforms versus its SaaS counterpart involves the level of customization. However, more and more SaaS companies are offering in-house customization services for users who want a one-of-a-kind ecommerce site.
Examples of SaaS ecommerce platforms: Zoey, Shopify, BigCommerce and Volusion
Pros of SaaS ecommerce Platforms
- Fully-managed – Non-techies would rejoice for SaaS ecommerce platforms because many of the features are managed from within the platform. From setting up the online store, to hosting issues, day-to-day operation, technical support, and a whole lot more. You don’t have to look for answers to problems as you go along, since you can either ask an in-house tech to work on your problem, or ask them to assist you through it.
- No need to outsource or hire people – Because part of the monthly fee that you pay a SaaS ecommerce provider includes ongoing maintenance or upgrades to the software, there’s no surprise expenses or retainer contracts you’d have to worry about. Shopify and other SaaS stores provide drag-and-drop site builders perfect for anyone to use even without programming knowledge.
- SEO and marketing – SaaS platforms have modern technology and up-to-date marketing trends built into the system for all merchants to use. This is important; since building the online store is just one part… encouraging people to visit (and hopefully buy your product or service) is the other side of the coin.
- Secured – SaaS platforms are always on top of bugs, security patches, and other threats that could be left unnoticed on open source platforms. Giving your customers a secured site at all times is important to gain (and keep) their trust.
Cons of SaaS ecommerce Platforms
- Custom Services are Expensive – SaaS ecommerce platforms have slowly been offering customization services to users who would want more features that aren’t included in the chosen theme. Unfortunately, this service isn’t affordable yet.
- Extra Cost as Store Succeeds – Because this kind of ecommerce platform includes hosting, fees would increase whenever your traffic (the amount of people visiting your store) improves.
SaaS platforms are best for small to enterprise-level merchants, but be aware that the bigger and more resource-heavy your ecommerce project is, the higher monthly fees your online business would incur.
Top Ecommerce Platforms
You’d likely discover over 20 ecommerce platforms and tools (like shopping cart plugins, etc.) during your initial research. But if you want to find out the most used ecommerce platforms that merchants from all over the world use, here are the top 4 (in no particular order):
Shopify is a Canadian-based company that has been around since 2004. It’s the most popular SaaS ecommerce provider today, and there’s no stopping this solution from being the go-to solution for small-scale to enterprise-level merchants.
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Pros of Shopify:
- Comes with a full CMS built-in
- PCI compliant
- Tons of free themes, extensions and plugins included in the monthly fee
- Abandoned cart recovery
- Mobile-friendly apps and features (to encourage mobile-based users to shop)
- In-house tech support
- Allows users to manage their stores from their phones
Cons of Shopify:
Shopify’s coding language (known as Liquid) is a challenging language for developers and not many programmers specialize on it so far. As such, customizing Shopify themes can be costly.
Reasons to go with Shopify:
- If you want to turn your Facebook page into an ecommerce store, link Shopify for $9.
- If you’re not planning to make a highly customized storefront
- If you’re OK with a monthly fee in exchange for site security, in-house tech support, and overall peace of mind
Woocommerce is very different to other platforms on this list because Woocommerce is a plugin created in 2011 by Mike Jolley and Jay Koster to turn any WordPress-based website into a functional online store. While the WordPress plugin itself is free, extensions and premium themes come at an extra cost.
Pros of Woocommerce
- Secured – Although WordPress is open source, Woocommerce was built to provide a secure payment gateway – a must for any ecommerce site.
- Newbie-friendly admin panel
- Add as many product categories as you want
- Tons of extensions and plugins
Cons of Woocommerce
The main problem with Woocommerce isn’t about the lack of features. However, as your store grows and requires additional functions, you’d be able to find extensions on Woocommerce for a fee, but the more you add a feature on top of the plugin, the slower your ecommerce site becomes.
Reasons to go with Woocommerce
- If you want to add a store to an existing WordPress site
- If you don’t require feature-packed ecommerce store (or if you’re willing to pay extra for one)
- If you have basic coding skills
- If you only sell a few products and don’t plan on adding to your inventory in the future
Launched in 2008, Magento is an open source ecommerce platform known for its massive community, reliability and scalability. It is the platform used by big brands like Huawei and Burger King.
Pros of Magento
- Free to use
- Over 9000 free and premium extensions and plugins, including social media extensions
- Highly customizable and scalable
- Huge community of programmers with plenty of resources (videos, tutorials, etc.)
Cons of Magento
The major problem of using Magento and other open source platforms is that a higher level of programming skills are required to handle the platform. There would be additional costs, such as:
- $20,000/year if you buy the Magento Enterprise version
- In-house programmer salary
- Expenses for outsourced skilled talent
- Fees for third-party plugins
Reasons to go with Magento
If your store will have massive amounts of products and the potential to bring in a ton of traffic, Magento is the way to go. That’s the reason many enterprise-level stores stick to this ecommerce solution.
BigCommerce is home to Toyota, Martha Stewart and other SMEs. It boasts launching over 55,000 online stores since its launch, giving merchants without coding skills a quick and user-friendly method of building an ecommerce store from scratch. BigCommerce has in-house experts of Google Analytics and AdWords.
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Pros of BigCommerce
- Integrates with Facebook stores, eBay, and Google shopping, among others
- Built-in analytics, newsletters, coupons and so on
- Integrated marketing and SEO tools
- No transaction fees
- Mobile-friendly and responsive themes available (free or premium)
- Quick wizard set-up
Cons of BigCommerce
- Limited free themes
- Limited third-party integration
Reasons to go with BigCommerce
The most attractive thing about BigCommerce is the access to experts in web design, Google Analytics and AdWords. If your business plan mostly relies on online advertising, BigCommerce and its team will be able to help you launch your store and boost its traffic and sales as well.
The Best ecommerce Platform for Your Business
If you have the people and funds to custom-make an ecommerce site, then the possibilities are endless with open source platforms like Magento.
However, if you need to launch a site within the day or require only a basic-featured online store, go for SaaS solutions like Shopify or BigCommerce.
For merchants who want to link an existing WordPress site with a new online store, adding a plug-in like WooCommerce can work effortlessly.
At the end of the day, there’s no one-size-fits-all ecommerce solution. The best ecommerce platform for you doesn’t have to have dozens of features, especially if all you need is to build a secure and functional store to sell just a product or two.
If you’re weighing costs of operating an ecommerce store, think about the domain, hosting, SSL certificate, UX, maintenance, documentation, third-party fees for payment solutions like PayPal, and so on.
Of course, these costs will be on top of the fees involved in your chosen ecommerce platform.
Factors such as budget, business plan, resources available, CMS used and ecommerce requirements (storage space, safety protocols, and site design) would determine which ecommerce platform is best for your needs.
Just remember that your decision would affect your store’s traffic, revenues, and future success (or failure), so choose wisely.