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Like many other small business owners, you’ve probably considered selling your products or services online. And why wouldn’t you? Deciding to start an ecommerce business is a great way to expand your customer reach and increase brand awareness. Shopify predicts an increase in worldwide ecommerce sales from $1.3 trillion in 2014 to $4.5 trillion in 2021.
With that kind of upside, investing in an ecommerce operation is almost a no-brainer. However, just because you have an ecommerce store, doesn’t mean customers will use it. For an ecommerce store to succeed, users must find it trustworthy and easy to use. Plus, you need to be able to manage your store in the simplest and most cost-effective way possible. In order for that to happen, you need to align your business with a top-notch ecommerce platform.
Ecommerce platforms are software applications that allow an online business to manage their website, sales, and operations. They exist because building an online store from scratch is an expensive and cumbersome process. Most ecommerce platforms offer an affordable plug-and-play solution for businesses looking to create an online store.
However, with more than 100 providers of ecommerce platforms, how do you select the right one? Well, a lot of it depends on the type of business you operate, as well as other factors like your budget, technical experience, and the functionality you need to be able to sell online.
To help you through the decision-making process, we’ve compiled this ultimate guide to ecommerce platforms. We’ll explore how ecommerce platforms work and what to look for when choosing the best ecommerce platform for your small business. We’ll also break down 10 of the top ecommerce platforms on the market and discuss what kind of businesses they might be best suited for.
The secure transmission of products, information, and funds is at the heart of the ecommerce business. But modern ecommerce software must be able to perform many additional functions, such as encryption, marketing, and order logistics and fulfillment. In addition, there are many different ecommerce models, such as business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), and consumer-to-consumer (C2C).
The way the modern ecommerce website works is a customer browses a catalog of products that have been uploaded onto the ecommerce platform. Each product should contain a picture, description, and SKU code.
When the customer finds a product they wish to purchase, they should be able to add it to their online shopping cart. The shopping cart is a piece of ecommerce software that takes note of the item being purchased and updates the product database accordingly. Most ecommerce platforms have a shopping cart baked into their product.
Ecommerce payments are typically done using a debit or credit card, which means the merchant needs a payment gateway. A payment gateway is a software application that plugs into your ecommerce platform to authorize online payments securely. The merchant will also need a merchant account, which is a special type of business bank account that allows the merchant to receive funds from processed credit card payments.
Some payment gateways and merchant accounts are sold separately from ecommerce platforms, whereas other platforms offer in-house payment processing or payment gateway integration as part of their product.
Once payment is made and the order is placed, the ecommerce platform should be able to manage the logistics around the delivery of the product. Some ecommerce platforms also provide shipping services, while others allow for integration with an outside service provider.
A top ecommerce platform should be able to perform all these functions while providing the customer with a branded experience. This means your online store should mimic your business’s marketing and should give you the ability to provide quick and efficient customer service. Moreover, the best ecommerce platforms for small businesses will also offer tools, in addition to the essentials, to grow and promote your store—from abandoned cart recovery to social media integrations to loyalty programs and discounts.
Now that we have an overview of how ecommerce platforms work, let’s look at the different parts of an ecommerce platform to see how they contribute to the overall experience of your online store. When trying to decide the best ecommerce platform for your small business, you’ll want to consider how these factors will play into your specific needs and how the platform you’re thinking about will or will not meet these needs.
There are many different types of ecommerce platforms available to small business owners. There are ecommerce platforms for larger B2B businesses, as well as those with a web-builder base that are probably more suited for the smallest of businesses. As we mentioned earlier, the type of business you’re looking to start, industry, technical experience, budget, and more, are all variables that will factor into what type of platform you need. However, one big difference to consider in the industry is ecommerce platforms that are software as a service, or SaaS, compared to those that are open source.
With a SaaS ecommerce platform, you essentially pay a monthly fee for access to their service, which gives you the ability to set up and run your online store. Typically, SaaS platforms are more or less all-inclusive, with a great amount of ecommerce functionality built right into the platform. Additionally, SaaS ecommerce platforms handle your web hosting, updates, security, PCI compliance—in essence, anything that’s involved on the back-end, more technical side of your online store.
Open-source ecommerce platforms, on the other hand, are generally free and must be downloaded and installed manually. This means, therefore, that you’re responsible for acquiring your own web hosting and maintaining the other aspects we mentioned with regards to your software. Unlike SaaS platforms, however, open-source software is completely customizable, as they give you full access to their code to edit, modify, and add to as you see fit. Although open-source solutions are often considered free ecommerce platforms, they can, in fact, end up being more expensive than SaaS options, depending on your development and maintenance needs.
For small business owners, the price will be a huge consideration when it comes to the best ecommerce platform. The main expenses associated with ecommerce platforms are the monthly subscription fee and transaction or processing fees. Some bare-bones ecommerce platforms don’t charge a monthly fee, but almost all will charge a fee to accept credit card payments. This fee is usually a small percentage of every online purchase.
Typically, the higher your monthly fee, the more features you will have access to on your ecommerce platform. Subscription fees can range from a few dollars per month to a few hundred dollars per month, depending on the service. The best ecommerce platform for your small business will fit your budget, but if you’re looking to start a successful online store, you certainly want to look for a solution with a robust feature set that will help you with your operations.
As we mentioned above, open-source options are usually considered free ecommerce platforms—however, even though the software is free to download, costs will include web hosting, security, upgrades and maintenance, as well as any associated development costs for starting, customizing, and running your online store.
When looking for the best ecommerce platform, you’ll want to consider how many products you’re going to be selling. Some platforms adjust pricing depending on the size of your catalog. For example, ecommerce platform Ecwid will allow you to sell only one product using the free version of its service, but for $15 per month you can sell up to 100 different products. Some top ecommerce platforms, on the other hand, will allow you to sell an unlimited number of products regardless of your subscription plan.
Along these lines, you’ll also want to see what types of tools the ecommerce platform offers to help you list your products and manage your inventory. Does the platform provide a bulk upload option? Does it offer SEO optimization for product listings? How does it handle product variations and modifications? Answering these and similar questions will help you get a sense of how different ecommerce platforms will work for your inventory—which is especially important if you have a large or growing operation.
Are you selling a product or a service? If you’re selling a product, is it digital or physical? If it’s a physical product, how big is it? Do you want to sell to people outside of your country? The type of product you will be selling is important to consider when selecting the best ecommerce platform, as certain solutions will be better suited for different types of products and services. Additionally, the types of products and services you’re selling will also impact shipping costs, as well as taxes.
Since shipping and taxes will be a tedious, but essential piece to your online store operation, you’ll also want to determine how any ecommerce platform handles these aspects. Although not all ecommerce platforms offer shipping services and automatic tax calculations, some of the best ecommerce platforms will provide these tools, or at least, give you the option to integrate with third-party solutions.
Most ecommerce platforms will offer you a variety of themes, both free and paid—so that you can customize the appearance of your online store. Some will also allow you to edit the source code so that you can further customize your store’s look and feel. You’ll want to ensure that the look of your store will appeal to customers and draw them in to browse and purchase your products.
Additionally, you’ll want to determine not only the design options an ecommerce platform offers but also the editing method as well. If you have little or no technical experience, the best ecommerce platform for your small business is going to be one that offers drag-and-drop or “what you see is what you get” editing. On the other hand, if you can edit code or have a dedicated development resource, you might prefer an open-source platform or one that allows for HTML editing.
As we briefly mentioned above, some ecommerce platforms are hosted, whereas others require self-hosting, meaning that you find web hosting and manage the software yourself. Self-hosting provides more control over your online store, but with all of the different elements involved in maintaneance, it can be quite time-consuming and even expensive.
Hosted ecommerce platforms, on the other hand, offer hosting for their customers via off-site providers like Amazon Web Services. This type of service is also known as cloud hosting. Most ecommerce platform providers offer cloud hosting as part of their service. Again, with hosted ecommerce platforms, the provider is responsible for security, updates, and maintenance—meaning you can devote your time to other aspects of your online store.
Just over 32% of all cyber-attacks are targeted at ecommerce businesses, which means cybersecurity should be a top priority. You certainly don’t want a customer to fall victim to fraud while shopping on your site. Therefore, you’ll want to consider what security measures different ecommerce platforms offer. As we just discussed, many hosted platforms are going to include robust security features—that the provider handles and monitors—as part of your service.
Specifically, you’ll want to look for ecommerce platforms that have multi-layered security, are at least Level 1 PCI compliant, and use SSL certificates. As a merchant, you can enact additional security measures by monitoring transactions, using an address verification system, and requiring a CVV on credit card payments.
Part of what makes the top ecommerce platforms so powerful is their ability to integrate with a variety of other software. This type of functionality can streamline an array of tasks related to managing your online store. Common ecommerce platform integrations include ecommerce marketplaces (think Amazon and eBay), payment gateways, social networks, content management and point of sale systems, and email newsletter services.
Some ecommerce platforms offer greater integrations options than others, so you’ll want to consider what additional tools you may need when determining the best ecommerce platform for your small business. Moreover, you’ll also want to consider that many providers charge an additional fee to integrate with third-party applications. Therefore, it’s worth considering whether a platform with greater built-in functionality is more cost effective than one that simply offers a wide variety of integration options.
Ecommerce purchases via a mobile device accounted for 34.5% of total ecommerce sales in 2017, and that number is expected to rise to be over 50% by 2021. This being said, you’ll want to be sure the ecommerce platform you choose offers store templates that are mobile-responsive and optimized for different devices—including desktop, smartphones, and tablets.
Additionally, if you’re a business owner on the go, you may also want to consider ecommerce platforms that offer their own mobile app, so that you can edit your store, manage orders, or view transactions easily using your mobile device.
Finally, since you’ll be working with your ecommerce platform every day, you’ll want to make sure that you have access to expert support that can assist you with problems as they arise. Ecommerce platforms offer customer support in a variety of ways—from talking directly to a representative to using how-to guides and documentation resources to participating in a forum community specific to that particular software.
Ideally, you’ll want to work with top ecommerce platforms that offer 24/7 customer service via multiple channels of communication (phone, text, and live chat).
So, considering all of these different factors involved in finding the right ecommerce solution, you may be asking: what is the best ecommerce platform for small business? As you may have discovered through our discussion thus far, however, there is no single best ecommerce platform—all ecommerce platforms have their benefits and downsides and the best option for your business will depend on your specific situation and needs.
This being said, there are certainly particular software options that stand out as top ecommerce platforms for small business owners. Based on feedback from business owners across the country and our own research, we’ve compiled this list of the 10 best ecommerce platform options for small business:
You’d be hard-pressed to find a small business owner who doesn’t enjoy selling on Shopify. The platform’s ease of use and abundance of features makes it a perfect solution for anyone looking to get into the ecommerce game.
The Shopify platform offers a drag-and-drop store builder, unlimited products, over 100 custom themes, order logistics, mobile optimization, marketing features, a comprehensive sales dashboard, inventory management, discounted shipping rates, cloud-hosting, 24/7 customer support, and integrations with over 2,200 applications, including over 100 different payment gateways.
However, Shopify charges an additional fee if you don’t use their in-house payment gateway, Shopify Payments. In addition, Shopify uses their own coding language called “Liquid,” which can be harder to customize.
Prices range from $9 per month for the Shopify Lite plan (social media selling only) to $300 per month for the Shopify Advanced plan, which offers great functionality. Credit card fees range from 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction to 2.4% + $0.30 per transaction.
For small business owners just getting started in ecommerce, the Shopify Basic plan ($29 per month) will satisfy most of your needs.
“Shopify is by far my favorite ecommerce platform because it offers all the options and tools to help my business succeed,” says Frank Roberson, owner of custom clothing and accessories store The Bloodhound Shop. “The simply built, powerful platform allows me to focus on creating new hand-drawn designs instead of the back office headaches and work that can bog down the creative process.”
“I’ve tried a number of other ecommerce platforms… and there are none with a cleaner and simpler store interface and product page aesthetic than Shopify,” says Nate Masterson, owner of health and beauty business Maple Holistics.
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Although there’s no doubt that Shopify is one of the best ecommerce platform options around, there are also reasons why a Shopify alternative might be a better fit for your business. BigCommerce, 3dcart, and Volusion are among the top ecommerce platforms in general, and in fact, offer plans that are very similar to Shopify. Therefore, if you’re looking at Shopify (or even if you’re not), either of these three platforms is worth considering, as well.
As we mentioned, BigCommerce is in close competition with Shopify as a top ecommerce platform, offering almost all of the same functionalities at a very similar cost. You can’t really go wrong working with either, but if you were to choose BigCommerce over Shopify, you might find advantages from variations in themes and design, as well as more options for payment processing.
On the whole, BigCommerce makes it easy to set up and manage your store using their visual store builder. You can upload an unlimited number of products and customize your site using one of BigCommerce’s 80 different themes, or by editing the source code. Other features include 24/7 customer support, multi-layered security, single-page checkout, marketing tools, shipping logistics, cloud-hosting, conversion optimization tools, and integrations with a wide array of third-party applications, including most major payment gateways (at no additional cost).
You should note, however, that most of BigCommerce’s themes are sold separately. Pricing for the three core plans that BigCommerce offers ranges from $29.95 per month to $249.95 per month. Additionally, BigCommerce gives you the opportunity to work with a variety of payment gateways, but they also offer special rates from Braintree, which start at 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction and reach as low as 2.2% + $0.30 per transaction.
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Like BigCommerce, 3dcart provides many of the same capabilities as Shopify and offers extremely similarly priced plans. However, with over 200 built-in features, there’s no doubt that 3dcart is one of the most feature-rich ecommerce platform options you’re going to find. Even with their lowest-priced plan, you’ll receive functionality such as one-page checkout, saved carts, unlimited product variants, and real-time shipping rates.
Overall, 3dcart allows you to set up your online store by choosing from over 80 themes (about half of which are free) and customizing it using HTML. All 3dcart plans include a free domain name, shopping cart functionality, unlimited orders, a Facebook store, built-in blog, unlimited bandwidth, and more.
Additionally, 3dcart gives you the ability to choose from over 100 different payment providers—and like BigCommerce—offers discounted fees if you use one of their payment partners. The 3dcart plans range from $19 per month to $229 per month, with a discounted rate if you opt for an annual plan. In terms of payment processing, the discounted rates offered from 3dcart partners can range from 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction to as low as 2.5% with the higher-level plans.
Therefore, with the immense functionality, affordable plans, and payment processing options, 3dcart is certainly one of the top ecommerce platforms available for small business owners—remembering, of course, that their themes require HTML editing.
Whereas BigCommerce and 3dcart are both extremely similar to Shopify and compete in terms of feature sets, Volusion, albeit closely priced to Shopify and offering the same essentials, is perhaps the more simple and easy-to-use ecommerce platform. Volusion offers a variety of themes, many of which are free, as well as marketing tools, sales analytics, 24/7 customer support, shipping logistics, customer and inventory management, and integration with major ecommerce marketplaces.
The Volusion plans, however, include an annual sales limit, and also dictate your payment processing, shipping, and customer support options based on which of the five plans you have. These plans range in price from $29 per month to $299 per month, with a discount option if you purchase three months at a time.
Although Volusion has limited payment options overall, they do work with top providers like Stripe, PayPal, and Authorize.Net, as well as offer their own in-house option, Volusion Payments. If you choose to use Volusion Payments, in fact, you’ll see some of the lowest processing rates around, at 2.15% + $0.30 per transaction.
Therefore, even though Volusion may not be as advanced as Shopify in some respects, it certainly gives you the opportunity to save money on credit card processing, as well as offers a platform that is simple, intuitive, and extremely user-friendly.
“Though no platform is perfect, Volusion remains my choice because of the way I can integrate the sales process into many other aspects of my business, such as remarketing, cart abandonment, email list building, email marketing, and order fulfillment procedures,” says Erin Jump Fry, owner of Fancy Fortune Cookies.
So far, the top ecommerce platforms on our list have been SaaS solutions; however, depending on your specific business, an open-source platform may be a better option. If you’re looking for one of the best open-source ecommerce platforms, therefore, you might consider PrestaShop.
PrestaShop is free to download and is one of the most approachable open-source ecommerce platforms with the greatest out-of-the-box functionality. Once you’ve downloaded PrestaShop, you can modify and edit the software code to customize your online store, as well as utilize add-ons from the PrestaShop marketplace. On the whole, PrestaShop includes a variety of essential ecommerce capabilities such as one-page checkout, abandoned cart emails, inventory tracking, payment processing integrations, price rules, coupons, discounts, and more. Moreover, PrestaShop gives you the ability to run multiple stores from one interface, as well as includes specific functionality for international selling.
Since PrestaShop is free to download, the ultimate cost will depend on the payment processor and web hosting you choose, as well as any development resources you need to set up and maintain your store. Therefore, if you have easy access to a developer, have technical knowledge yourself, or are simply willing to pay the costs to create a truly unique and customized online store, PrestaShop may be the best ecommerce platform for your small business.
As far as free ecommerce platforms go, WooCommerce is an open-source option that is free to download—plugging into a WordPress website to turn it into an online store. Because it’s an open-source solution, like PrestaShop, it can be customized in whatever way you desire—although, once again, it may require some technical knowledge to do so.
Despite being a plugin, WooCommerce comes with a variety of features, giving you the ability to upload an unlimited number of products, integrate with over 400 applications and manage inventory and shipping. Therefore, if you already have a WordPress website, WooCommerce is a great option for testing out ecommerce and monetizing your site.
However, although WooCommerce is free to download, you will have to pay extra for cloud-hosting. Furthermore, WooCommerce only includes PayPal or Stripe as payment processors, unless you choose to download an added extension, which may cost an associated fee.
“Our favorite platform is WooCommerce because of how customizable it is,” says Michael Greenspoon, creative director of marketing firm Brand Revive. “You may have to pay a developer to get it up and running and integrated. Long term though, that cost offsets because WooCommerce [and] WordPress are free.”
If you run your business by yourself, or if you sell just a limited number of products, Squarespace might be able to offer all the functionality you need. Primarily known as a website builder, Squarespace’s ecommerce platform allows you to manage customers, shipping and inventory, sell subscriptions, and recover abandoned shopping carts. Plus, with Squarespace’s base in building business websites, their templates are clean, professional, and easily customizable. Additionally, Squarespace offers templates specifically for different business types, including blogging, restaurants, musicians, photographers, and more.
Squarespace also includes 24/7 customer support, robust sales analytics, free cloud-hosting, and marketing tools. Squarespace works with Stripe and PayPal as their payment gateway options, which set their transaction fees at 2.9% + $0.30. For the three Squarespace plans that offer ecommerce functionality, prices range from $26 per month to $40 per month. If you opt for the $26 per month plan, however, you’ll also have to pay Squarespace an additional 3% transaction fee.
This being said, if you don’t need extensive capabilities from your ecommerce solution, and instead, would rather focus on the look, feel, and design of your business website, with the possibility to sell online, Squarespace might be the best ecommerce platform for you.
Similar to Squarespace, if you need a simple, approachable, and affordable platform to get started in ecommerce, Square Online Store might be a good fit. As part of the Square product suite and powered by Weebly, Square Online Store gives you the ability to set up an online store quickly and easily. With Square Online Store, you can choose from a handful of free themes, customize the theme for your business, and start accepting payments with Square almost immediately.
All Square Online Store plans include a free SSL certificate, unlimited products, product options, inventory management, automatic tax calculations, Instagram integration, and more. Plus, and perhaps most notably, Square Online Store syncs seamlessly with Square POS, certainly making this a top ecommerce platform for small businesses who already use Square.
Furthermore, Square offers their most basic plan completely free, only charging Square fees (2.9% + $0.30 per transaction) for credit card processing. Their paid plans, on the other hand, range from $16 per month to $79 per month. Therefore, if you’re a brick-and-mortar store owner thinking about breaking into selling online and you already use Square, trying out Square Online Store as an ecommerce platform is easy and affordable. Or, if you simply want a free ecommerce platform to start your online store, Square Online Store might be worth considering.
Although many of the solutions that we’ve discussed thus far allow you to sell digital goods, if you’re looking to create a solely digital-based business, the best ecommerce platform for you might be one that specializes in digital selling, like Sellfy. With Sellfy, you can quickly and easily build your online storefront, list your digital products, and allow customers to browse, buy, and download.
In addition, Sellfy gives you the option to embed products and buy buttons on an existing website you own or sell on social media. On the whole, Sellfy includes ecommerce essentials such as shopping cart functionality, secure payment options, and marketing tools—as well as digital product-focused features, such as the ability to create subscriptions, PDF stamping, limited downloads, and more.
Sellfy offers two plans, the Pro plan for $29 per month and the Pro Plus for $99 per month. For payment processing, you can choose either PayPal or Stripe; however, if you have the Pro plan, you’ll also have to pay Sellfy an additional 2% transaction fee.
Overall, Sellfy is a great ecommerce platform option if you’ll solely be selling digital goods.
Finally, if you have a wholesale, B2B, multi-store, or quickly growing ecommerce business, you’ll probably want a solution that can accommodate those needs. If your online store falls into one of these categories, therefore, you might consider AmeriCommerce as the best ecommerce platform for your small business. AmeriCommerce, as you may imagine, is an ecommerce platform that specializes in multi-store functionality, as well as wholesale and B2B capabilities
With AmeriCommerce, you can build your online store, choosing from over 60 free themes and customizing your site using a “what you see is what you get” editor, or using HTML or CSS. Additionally, and perhaps the most unique component of AmeriCommerce, is that all of their plans include the same features: unlimited staff accounts, multiple sales channels, advanced pricing options and product variants, a workflow rules engine, marketing tools, and more. Furthermore, all of their plans include their wholesale- and B2B-specific tools, such as manual order entry, volume discounts, multiple customer types, and restricted access options. Plus, all AmeriCommerce subscriptions give you the ability to manage any number of stores from a single dashboard.
The only difference, then, between the AmeriCommerce plans, is the number of products you can sell, your storage capacity, and bandwidth. AmeriCommerce offers five plans, ranging in price from $24.95 per month to $299 per month. The first plan starts with 100 products, two gigabytes of traffic, and 250 megabytes of storage, whereas the most expensive plan offers unlimited products, 50 gigabytes of traffic, and five gigabytes of storage.
Moreover, although AmeriCommerce gives you the option to work with over 50 different payment gateways, you can also choose to use their in-house processing, AmeriCommerce Payments. If you use AmeriCommerce Payments, your credit card processing fees will range from 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction to 2.4% + $0.30 per transaction, depending on your plan.
With their unique plan structure, advanced feature set, and overall usability, AmeriCommerce is certainly a top ecommerce platform option for those who need the types of functionality it offers.
At the end of the day, with all of the options for ecommerce platforms out there, choosing the right one for your business is an important decision. And although all solutions will have their benefits and drawbacks, the best ecommerce platform for your small business will be the one that most closely meets your needs and budget. Therefore, as you go about exploring the top ecommerce platforms on the market, you’ll want to know what you’re looking for in terms of a range of factors, from price to type of platform to payment processing options to specific tools and capabilities.
This being said, the 10 ecommerce platforms on our list are a great place to start and can accommodate businesses of all shapes and sizes. Ultimately, however, only you can determine the best ecommerce platform for your small business—and once you’ve made that significant decision, you’ll be well on your way to building out your website, uploading your products, and getting to selling and operating your online store.