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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? Ecommerce 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. In order for that to happen, you need to align your business with a top-notch ecommerce platform.
An ecommerce platform is a software application that allows 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.
There are more than 100 ecommerce platform providers, so how do you select the right one? Well, a lot of it depends on the type of business you operate. We’ve evaluated the major ecommerce platform providers to determine which is the best option for small business owners, based on their needs.
To ensure you are making an informed decision, let’s first learn a little bit more about how ecommerce works.
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 catalogue 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 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.
Payment gateways and merchant accounts are usually sold separately from ecommerce platforms, but payment service providers like Stripe and Square can bundle both of these services together and integrate with an ecommerce platform.
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 good 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 that you should have a way to provide quick and efficient customer service.
Now that we know 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. While you read, consider what types of functions and features would satisfy your business’s needs.
The main expenses associated with ecommerce platforms are the monthly fee and the transaction fee. Some bare-bones ecommerce platforms don’t charge a monthly fee, but most will charge a fee to accept credit card transactions. 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. We don’t recommend trying to cut costs when it comes to selecting your ecommerce platform. A good ecommerce platform can be such a boon to your business that it should pay for itself.
Consider how many products you sell when selecting your ecommerce platform. Some platforms adjust pricing depending on the size of your catalogue. For example, 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. The best options allow you to sell an unlimited number of products.
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? These are important questions to ask when selecting your ecommerce platform, as they all impact shipping costs. Although some ecommerce platforms don’t offer shipping, you will want to consider the expense as part of your overall online retail budget.
Part of what makes ecommerce software so powerful is its ability to integrate with a variety of other platforms. 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.
Note that there is typically an additional charge to integrate third-party applications with your ecommerce platform.
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. This is important, as customers will engage more with a website that appeals to them visually. If your store is not aesthetically pleasing, customers might not even pay attention to your products.
An ecommerce website can either be self-hosted or hosted by the ecommerce platform. If an ecommerce platform is self-hosted, the merchant must find a hosting deal and install and manage the ecommerce software themselves. This provides the merchant with more control over their online store, but can be quite time-consuming.
Hosted ecommerce platforms 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.
Just over 32% of all cyber attacks are targeted at ecommerce businesses, which means cybersecurity should be a top priority. If a customer falls victim to fraud while shopping on your site, you can guarantee they will never patronize your business again. Thankfully, most ecommerce platforms provide robust security measures.
When shopping around, look for platforms that have multi-layered security, are at least Level 1 PCI compliant, and use SSL certificates. Other security measures you can take as a merchant include monitoring transactions, using an address verification system, and requiring a CVV on credit card payments.
You will be working with your ecommerce platform every single day, so you want to make sure you have expert support that can assist you with problems as they arise. Ideally, you want to work with an ecommerce platform that can provide 24/7 customer service via multiple channels of communication (phone, text, and live chat).
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. Because of this, you need to work with an ecommerce platform that has a mobile optimized website.
At this stage you should have a good understanding of how ecommerce works and what to look for when shopping for an ecommerce platform. Here are our picks for the best ecommerce platforms for small business owners. Our selections are based on feedback from small business owners across the country and our own research.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a small business owner who doesn’t enjoy working with 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 with all the bells and whistles. 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 e-commerce 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 e-commerce 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.
If Shopify is one of the most complete ecommerce platforms on the market, BigCommerce is in close competition. The ecommerce platform offers almost all of the same functionalities as Shopify at a very similar cost. You can’t really go wrong working with either, but if you were to choose BigCommerce over Shopify, you may stand out more thanks to variations in themes and design.
BigCommerce makes it easy to set up and manage your store using a 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, 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).
Note that most of BigCommerce’s themes are sold separately. Pricing ranges from $29.95 per month (2.9% + $0.30 per transaction fee) to $249.95 per month (2.2% + $0.30 per transaction fee).
Volusion is another easy to use ecommerce platform that won’t charge you as much in monthly fees as Shopify or BigCommerce. However, the lower-cost plans limit the amount of products you can upload, and also restrict your monthly bandwidth, meaning you could be charged extra for a traffic spike.
On the positive side, Volusion offers a variety of themes—11 of which are free—marketing tools, sales analytics, 24/7 customer support, shipping logistics, customer and inventory management, and integration with major ecommerce marketplaces.
Pricing ranges from $15 per month to $135 per month with a 2.15% fee per transaction. Note that Volusion only works with PayPal and Stripe for payment processing.
“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.
WooCommerce is a free open-source ecommerce platform that you plug in to your WordPress site to turn it into an online store. Because it is open-source, it can be customized in whatever way you desire, although this may require some technical knowledge to do. WooCommerce is a great option if you are looking to monetize a website.
Despite being a plugin, WooCommerce comes with a variety of features. Users have the ability to upload an unlimited number of products, integrate with over 400 applications and manage inventory and shipping.
Although the plugin is free, WooCommerce will charge extra for cloud-hosting. It can also only work with PayPal or Stripe for payment processing.
“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/WordPress are free.”
If you run your business by yourself, or if you sell just a limited number of products, Squarespace offers you 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.
There is also 24/7 customer support, robust sales analytics, free cloud-hosting, and marketing tools. Squarespace works with Stripe as their payment gateway, which sets their transaction fee at 2.9% + $0.30. Prices range from $26 per month for the Basic Squarespace plan to $40 per month for the Advanced plan.
Once you have found the right ecommerce platform for your business, the fun part comes next! Build out your website, upload your products, and get to selling. If you need some help getting started, check out Fundera’s guides to:
Finding the right ecommerce platform should make everything that happens after much easier to manage.