Overwhelmed trying to choose exactly how to launch your online store?
Wish someone would explain in plain English what all the choices to actually run your online store?
I wrote this original guide to choosing an ecommerce platforms in 2012. But a lot has changed in the past 4 years. Online storeowners have better options in nearly every respect.
But that doesn’t make the choice any less daunting. Most ecommerce companies sell with features and price. But like buying a house – price and features do not tell the whole story.
They don’t tell you if this software is a good choice for your store. There is no such thing as the “best ecommerce platform” or the “best ecommerce software.” There’s only the best choice based on your goals, resources and preferences.
Here’s my guide – updated for 2016 – to what you need to know to make an informed choice when choosing a ecommerce software for your online store – so that you can make the best choice for your store.
Disclosure – I receive referral fees from companies mentioned on this website. All data and opinion is based on my experience as a paying customer or consultant to a paying customer.
What You Need To Know Before Choosing Ecommerce Software
Just like shopping for a house, car or business location – you have to look at what you are shopping for, what you want, what you need and what the tradeoffs are among all your choices.
Getting The Features You Need
At it’s core – “ecommerce” software is simply a bundle of very specific website features. They are –
- Listing & displaying products.
- Allowing customers to place products in a shopping cart.
- Allowing customers to place an order with the products in their shopping cart.
- Collecting payment securely for the order.
- Providing the storeowner with order information.
But usually you’ll want features above and beyond. You might want design features, better security, marketing tools, and maybe the ability to sync with your inventory system.
Or not – you might have a single product and want ultimate convenience and lowest cost.
But that’s the point – there will be tradeoffs that may or may not matter. The end goal is to figure what you need, what you want – and what you want to pay for those features.
Evaluating Core Tradeoffs
The first, and most important, tradeoff is between maximum convenience and maximum control. Once you make that decision, we can start looking at tradeoffs among different options.
The tradeoff between convenience and control is common in software. Software becomes “easier” when it has fewer options. The more options a user has – the less convenient software becomes.
Think of it like buying somewhere to live.
The absolute most convenient place is a hotel room. It’s safe and furnished with room service. But can you repaint the room? Nope.
On the other extreme is raw land. You have unlimited control to do whatever you want. But is it convenient? Nope.
And in the middle, you have a mix. An apartment has some freedom – but you have landlord. A condo has even more freedom…but you have a HOA and shared property.
A house has even more freedom…but you have more responsibility and you have to deal with an existing building.
Here’s a graphic to illustrate –
Now that you have a sense of what you need and a sense of the core tradeoffs – let’s look at some specific providers to further narrow your search.
Ecommerce Platform Choices
Aside – like any simplification, this breakdown removes some nuance. But, I think the overall tradeoff holds up well. Here’s a selection of specific providers for each bucket along with what they do well and what you should look for.
100% Convenience // 0% Control
This part of the spectrum allows you to list your products and take orders and payment. But you are able to control very little of your customers’ experience. You are also unlikely to have your own domain name or your own brand.
However, you can usually list your products with no complications – and usually with no upfront fees. Additionally, usually the software provider will also provide customers. It’ll be a place where customers come to the platform and find you – so you (ideally) have to do less marketing.
Aside – note that many storeowners start out with these platforms and maintain a presence on them even once they’ve launched a store on another platform.
Even though Amazon did away with their Web Store program – you can still sell directly on Amazon. The sign up process is straightforward and cheap. You control very little except your product and your price but you also tap into Amazon’s enormous audience. Check out the Amazon Sellers program here.
eBay is the original ecommerce marketplace. Even though they don’t have the hip-ness of a few years ago, they allow a very convenient platform for online storeowners. And like Amazon, they can bring a lot of customers to your page simply because you are on their platform. Check out eBay here…
Etsy is limited to artisans rather than traders but they make setting up and running a store extremely simple. You can customize your page somewhat – but it is and always will be “an Etsy page” rather that your store. Check out Etsy here…
70% Convenience // 30% Control
Next up on the spectrum are providers that allow for more control – especially with having your own domain name. However, like an apartment, you are still living on someone else’s space and have to ultimately play within their rules.
Squarespace is most well-known for allowing you to build websites. But – they have ecommerce functionality as well. They offer some versatility with limits. You can have ecommerce functionality seamlessly integrated into a website.
Weebly is a direct competitor to Squarespace and has a similar setup. You can upgrade your account to include ecommerce functionality. They have a decent feature set with drag and drop functionality as well.
If you already have a website, but want to sell a few products there are also “bolt-on” solutions that provide ordering and payment functionality.
All three of these allow you to paste a snippet of code on your existing website which reroutes your customers through their payment systems.
It’s super-convenient and provides some control for you (since you have it on your own website). However, you also don’t control the checkout experience. You also can’t build out a shopping cart or a true product catalog.
50% Convenience // 50% Control
This group (usually known as “hosted ecommerce platforms”) provides as much control as you can have before you have to have your own server. The biggest advantage here is that you have customer support, seamless “onboarding” and advanced tools.
However, you do have to play by the provider’s rules – and they can get a bit pricey.
Running a store with these providers is like owning a condominium or leasing a storefront in a mall. The plumbing and “big stuff” is taken care of. You can pretty much do what you want since you do fully own your property. However, you’re going to run into condo association rules and fees.
They’re affordable and have the infrastructure for tiny shops to international brands. They also have features for merchants who sell both on and offline. But again – you won’t have root server access to make any change imaginable. Check out Shopify here…
Their setup is also a bit more intuitive than Shopify and they have a robust feature set – even if their app and theme store is smaller. Like Shopify, they do have limits as a hosted ecommerce platform. Check out BigCommerce here…
However, they also have additional parameters and extra fees compared to Shopify / BigCommerce. Check out Volusion here…
30% Convenience // 70% Control
In this group, we run into the world of running your own website on your own server. That is not as complicated or as daunting as it may sound. Buying hosting means that, yes, you have an additional item to worry about.
However, you have significantly more control over both your costs and your features.
Options in this group are like owning a house. You are responsible for everything, but you can also do anything you want. You have the choice to call a plumber or take care of the problem yourself. You can add on, remove or change anything. The only real constraint is your budget.
I wrote a full guide on creating an ecommerce website with WordPress + WooCommerce here. It’s straightforward to install and use (even for beginners). It can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Check out my guide here…
Magento is one of the most used ecommerce platforms out there. It’s free for small stores, but paid for enterprise customers (like North Face).
It has tons of features – but in my experience, it takes a good designer/programmer to get the most out of it. They offer a small paid hosting plan where you can use a “lite” version of the program. Check out Magento here…
Other “Plugin” Shopping Carts
There are a myriad other “bolt-on” solutions that you can add to an existing website. These solutions are dying out because they don’t have the convenience of the PayPal button and they still don’t integrate completely into your existing website.
That said, you can do whatever you want with them. Here’s a couple options.
OpenCart is possibly the simplest (that’s good and bad) of all the shopping carts. It’s free, and is a program that you install on your web host. It’s supported by an open-source community, which means it will be around as long as people contribute. It has plenty of easy-to-implement templates for the actual website.
Zen Cart is one of the oldest and well-supported eCommerce platforms on the Internet. It’s free, and has lots of features, but is also seen as quite complicated for someone with no programming experience.
0% Convenience // 100% Control
What if you have a huge budget and very specific needs? Well, that will mean hiring a developer (or learning code yourself) and leasing a dedicated server.
In our analogy – you’ll be buying land and building even your house from scratch. This is the route of some ecommerce startups that have a very specific feature set and vision in mind. In addition to the cost, you’ll also have a myriad other considerations. But this is still a route some businesses take.
It’s very common at the Enterprise ecommerce level, though even at that level, you still have choices & tradeoffs to make.
- Define what you are looking for.
- Consider what tradeoffs you are willing to make.
- Evaluate specific providers.
- Do a trial period.
- Launch your store!
Be sure to check out my ecommerce quiz which will help sort your options.
After you launch your store, check out my marketing guide for ecommerce websites here.