One of the biggest and often most stressful decisions when starting or growing an ecommerce business is choosing which platform to build your ecommerce website on and with so many options out there, it can seem like a very daunting decision to make.
So that is why I thought I would create an all in one (you could call it an ultimate?) guide to choosing the right ecommerce platform for your business as someone who has been through this process multiple times (some times more successfully than others!).
- What is the Best Ecommerce Platform?
- Types of Ecommerce Platforms
- 16 Things Consider When Choosing an Ecommerce Platform
- 1. Product Management
- 2. Order Management System
- 3. Payment Gateway Options
- 4. Shipping and Delivery Options
- 5. Integrations
- 6. Marketing Tools
- 7. SEO
- 8. Hosting, Performance & Security
- 9. Mobile
- 10. Location
- 11. Theme Customization and Design
- 12. Support
- 13. User Interface
- 14. Price
- 15. Multi-Channel Selling
- 16. Analytics
What is the Best Ecommerce Platform?
Simple answer…. There isn’t one!
I get asked this question so many times by people who are trying to choose which ecommerce platform to go for and there simply isn’t a ‘best’ as there are many factors that come into play when choosing an ecommerce platform and it is about finding the right platform for YOU and YOUR ecommerce business.
I really can’t stress this enough as what works for one business might not work for another as each business is different and each has its own requirements, so a better to question to ask is “What is the best ecommerce platform for my business?” and really, only you can answer that question.
But I created this guide to help you answer this question by giving you a list of things that you should think about, so that you can form a better idea of what you need from an ecommerce platform and once you know what you need, you can start the process of finding a platform that matches your requirements.
Types of Ecommerce Platforms
One of the first things to think about when choosing an ecommerce platform is the different types of ecommerce platform that are out there:
1. Custom Built Website
This is the most expensive option as it requires the platform to be created from scratch and these will often require a team of coders, programmers and designers in order to be able to achieve what you need.
Many of the big ecommerce websites (Amazon, Asos, Ebay etc) fall into this category as they need a platform that does exactly what they need it to but this in most cases is not the ideal solution for most ecommerce businesses as the combined cost, time and ongoing requirements just don’t make it a viable option.
2. Self-Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
A very popular option for many ecommerce businesses is self-hosted ecommerce platforms, which to put it in simple terms means you buy some hosting and then install a piece of free, open-source software to build your ecommerce website.
One of the benefits of using open-source software is that users or developers get access to the source code of the software, which gives them more control over the website but there are some pros and cons to this:
Open-source software for ecommerce websites also falls into two categories, which are:
1. Dedicated Ecommerce Platforms
Some open-source ecommerce platforms are designed from the ground up for ecommerce, these include:
These dedicated platforms usually come with a better selection of ecommerce features as standard.
2. Content Management Systems
Often abbreviated to CMS, content management systems are designed to help users build websites, without needing to code it themselves and popular CMS are:
But nearly all CMS don’t include ecommerce as standard and the functionality needs to be added by installing plugins or modules such as:
- WooCommerce (WordPress)
- VirtueMart (Joomla)
- Drupal Commerce (Drupal)
There are multiple options for each CMS when it comes to adding ecommerce functionality (just to make things more confusing!) and while the CMS may be free to use, some of these ecommerce options aren’t.
3. Hosted Platforms (SaaS)
An option that is growing in popularity every year is hosted ecommerce platforms, also known as Software as a Service (Saas), where you pay a monthly or annual subscription and get:
- A Website Builder
- Ecommerce Hosting
- Maintenance, Updates and Performance taken care of
There are many different options when it comes to hosted platforms but some of the more popular options are:
As with self-hosted ecommerce platforms, there are pros and cons to using hosted options:
Some fully hosted platforms such as Ecwid and Bigcommerce offer integrations with self-hosted WordPress sites, which allows users to combine the flexibility of the WordPress CMS with the benefits of a fully hosted ecommerce platform to for an almost hybrid option.
Other platforms such as Shopify with Shopify Lite and Payhip also offer a form of integration with CMS with the use of Buy Buttons, which offers a simple checkout option to users of many different other platforms.
16 Things Consider When Choosing an Ecommerce Platform
Once you have decided on the type of ecommerce platform that you are going to go for, it is time to start narrowing the options down and below is a list of things that you should consider when choosing an ecommerce platform.
1. Product Management
Simply put, without products, you don’t have an ecommerce website and that is why product management is so important when it comes to choosing a platform and some of the important things to consider when it comes to product management are:
Can You Sell Different Types of Products?
Ecommerce covers a broad number of product types including:
Whichever product type you are selling, you need to know whether the platform offers this as a core function or if you need to install an app or an add-on in order to be able to do this.
Also for things like Digital Products and Online Courses, can you store the files on the platforms servers or do you need to host them externally?
As you will see throughout this list, a lot of narrowing down the list of platforms is finding answers to questions.
Can You Add Product Variations and Options?
Not all products are sold the same and if you are selling products with different options such as size, color etc, you want to know whether or not you can add these to your product listings and also:
- How many different variations you can add?
- Can you set different prices for the variations?
It is the same if you offer customizable products, does the platform allow you to add an option to your product listing where customers can add their customizations such as a text box or upload button for pictures.
Do They Have Inventory Management Tools?
This is mainly for physical products as you only have a finite amount of stock and you need to be able to manage this effectively, so can you:
- Easily set and update stock levels?
- Manage your inventory in bulk or do you have to do it on a product by product basis?
- Can you update more than just stock quantity in the bulk editors?
When you are just getting started with a small number of products, this might not seem very important but if your business starts to grow and you have hundreds or even thousands of products, you want to know that your platform has the tools to allow you to easily and efficiently manage your inventory, otherwise you could end up wasting a lot of valuable time.
2. Order Management System
The second system that is very important when it comes to choosing an ecommerce platform is the order management system as being able to quickly and efficiently manage your orders can make life a lot easier and some of the things you want to consider are:
- Can you bulk update order statuses?
- Can you easily go in and view/edit orders?
- Do they allow you to print order invoices directly from the dashboard and can this be done in bulk?
- Can the invoices or packing slips be customized to include branding?
- Can you export your order information?
- How easy is to process and manage returns and refunds?
3. Payment Gateway Options
Getting paid is kind of important, ok its VERY important!
And when you are just getting started, the two basic options that should be offered are PayPal and a credit card processor such as Stripe or Square and you want to make sure that at a minimum the platform offers these.
But as your business grows, it may be the case that you could save a lot of money on transaction fees by switching to another payment gateway that offers more customized pricing, so you want to check on the payment gateway options that are offered to see if they offer a wide range of options or are just limited to a couple.
Another thing you may want to consider in the future is introducing flexible payment options such as those that the likes of Klarna offer as this offers your customers a few more options, so check to see if options like this are also available
4. Shipping and Delivery Options
If you are selling physical products, you want to know what options are available from the platform when it comes to setting up your shipping methods, can you:
For some stores this may not be a major thing, especially if you just offer a flat rate or free delivery but as each store is different, you may need more complex shipping options.
If you have a preferred shipping partner, you may also want to check if they offer any integration with them to help streamline the process, either as a core part of the platform or as an add on features or app.
The delivery options can also apply to digital products as well as there can be different ways for customers to get access to these products and does the platform offer:
When you are growing an ecommerce business, it can become very beneficial at some points to integrate your ecommerce website with third-party business to help streamline your workflow, there are many different integration options but some popular integrations include:
- Accounting Software – automatically importing sales, order and refund information to help product monthly, quarterly or annual accounts
- Shipping Software – automatically import order information so you can buy and print shipping labels in one go
- Email Marketing Software – add customers to email lists so you can re-target them with promotional emails
- Analytics – integrate with third-party analytics software such as Google Analytics to help you analyse your sites traffic
- Reviews – let customers leave reviews of your business on third-party review sites such as Trustpilot or Reviews.io
When checking on the integrations that a platform offers, check to see if these integrations are free or paid for options and if they are paid, how much do they cost and how are you billed.
6. Marketing Tools
A hugely important part of ecommerce is marketing, so you want to know what marketing tools the platform offers to help you try and generate as many sales as possible and when it comes to marketing tools, it can be broken down in to two categories:
1. Onsite Marketing Tools
These are marketing tools that help you either improve conversion rates for new visitors/customers and also tools to try an convince that customer to come back and buy from you again, such as:
Many people underestimate the importance of these types of tools but they can be very helpful in getting more paying customers and you want to see which of these features that the platform offer.
2. Offsite Marketing
In many ways, these are more important than the onsite tools as these types of tools are used to try and increase the amount of traffic to your site and more traffic usually means more sales. Some of these types of tools can be:
When it comes to offsite marketing, you really want as many tools as possible as you never know what is going to work for your business and the more tools you have available, the more experimentation you can do.
It is also worth checking if these features are included for free or whether they are paid add-ons.
SEO or Search Engine Optimization can be a very effective marketing strategy for ecommerce businesses when done right as it brings in the holy grail of traffic, which is organic traffic and this in most cases is the highest converting traffic, especially when they are coming to product pages as the customer is usually in buying mode.
When it comes to SEO, at a minimum, you want to the platform to offer the ability to:
The above are very basic SEO tools but are not offered by all platforms. There are also more types of SEO tools that can be very useful, including:
If the platform offers a good range of SEO features, it can be very beneficial to an ecommerce website and although it takes time to see results from an SEO marketing strategy, the pay off can most definitely be worth it.
8. Hosting, Performance & Security
I’m sure you have visited lots of websites in your time and I bet that you have got frustrated and annoyed by a website that is slow to load and you have ended up clicking off and visiting another site because I know I have!
And Google have done their own research one this and as you can see from the graphic below, a 2 second increase in load time can increase the chances of a visitor from clicking off your site by nearly 60%.
And this is why the hosting and performance of the ecommerce platform is so important as the quicker the site loads, the higher the conversion rate as the graphic below shows, a 0.1 second improvement in site speed lead to a 8.4% increase in conversions and an average order increase of 9.2% (Deloitte Research 2020), which is a big increase for 0.1 seconds!
Now most ecommerce review sites don’t really give you much help when it comes to the performance of the platforms but EcommerceGold is a bit different (blowing my own trumpet here!) and we try and test live sites of all the platforms that we review and publish our annual results for the Fastest Ecommerce Platforms, which also includes all of historical testing as well.
When it comes to hosting, you also want to look at the security of the hosting and if you are using a self-hosted platform, you want to use ecommerce grade hosting and with hosted platforms, you want to see what security measures they use for their hosting.
When it comes to checking out the hosting that ecommerce platforms offer, you want to be looking for:
It is very important to check on the hosting environment of your store as it is basically the foundations that it is built on and you want these to be as good as possible.
Mobile has already been mentioned in this guide but it is an incredibly important part of ecommerce as visitors on mobile devices now makes up over 50% of the worlds website traffic and it has been growing year over year.
And this is very much translating to the world of ecommerce and according to eMarketer, this is only going to continue to grow with US mobile sales expected to grow to over $700 billion a year by 2025 and mobile sales making up 44.2% of all ecommerce sales.
So it is basically a necessity that ecommerce platforms perform well on mobile devices and if you want to see how well most of the popular platforms perform, then check out our annual Fastest Ecommerce Platform testing, which covers both mobile and desktop performance.
Where you sell to and the location of your platform are also something you need to think about.
For businesses looking to sell internationally, you want your platform to offer a range of tools that make international selling easier, such as currency conversion and language translation along with a hosting setup that makes your site accessible for users around the world.
But for businesses looking to sell just to their local markets, it can be better to go for a locally based platform as they usually offer country-specific tools, integrations and have a better understanding of the local market, which can make selling a lot easier.
11. Theme Customization and Design
Design is an important part of ecommerce as it helps with the first impression of your business and you want it to look sleek and modern and not like it was made in 2005 and this is where the theme selection and customization comes in.
And I can tell you from experience that not all platforms are equal when it comes to design and customization, some are very good and others are very bad and you want to know if:
Basically, you just want to know how much control you have over the look and feel of your site and how much customization you can do yourself.
Now this does only apply to hosted ecommerce platforms as self-hosted ones generally don’t include support for the platform, although you should get some support for the hosting.
But when it comes to support, you want to know that:
- The platform includes different support contact options such as live chat and email, it can also be very useful to have phone support as well
- How quickly they aim to respond to email support tickets
- What times the support team for the live chat and phone support are available
- That the support teams are easy to contact
And you know only want to know this information before you sign up but you want to test it out when you are trialling the company, so when you are in the free trial or using the free plan, contact the support teams and ask a few questions to see what response you get as you don’t want to wait until you are all paid up, only to realise that the support isn’t very good.
13. User Interface
When you are running an ecommerce website, you need to admin dashboard to be easy to use as you will be spending a lot of time using it and it very much comes down to personal preference as to which ones you find easy to use but some general guidelines are:
This is where trying a few different platforms out can be very helpful as you begin to get an idea of you like and also need from an admin dashboard.
One tip from me is that if you are struggling to click with a dashboard or are just finding it frustrating or hard to use, it is best to move on and try another one as you need to be comfortable using the platform as there are enough stresses when running an ecommerce website and you really don’t want your admin dashboard to be one of them.
I’ve put price quite a way down the list on purpose as it shouldn’t be a driving factor as to why you choose one platform over another but it is still something that needs to be considered as budgets do play a part in running a business, obviously!
But when we are looking at the price of the platform, there are few things you need to consider:
As you can see, there is much more than just the monthly cost and you need to figure out how much the platform is going to cost, so that you can budget for it and to help you out, we created a handy little Website Cost Calculator that allows you to factor most of these costs in.
15. Multi-Channel Selling
To be successful in the world of ecommerce, you really need to be looking at having multiple sales channels as you may not be able to reach your whole audience by just being on Google or Facebook and that is where multi-channel selling becomes very important and you want to be able to manage all of these sales in 1 dashboard.
A theme you may have noticed through this list is efficiency as it saves times and money and managing multiple different dashboards can not only be confusing but also difficult, especially when managing orders, stock and doing your accounts.
When it comes to multi-channel selling, there are many options to choose from including:
It can be useful if the platform offers a range of options like those mentioned above and even though you may not be thinking about using them currently, they could become an option in the future as your ecommerce business is an ever evolving entity and you never know where your most lucrative sales channel may be.
Ecommerce is a data driven business, you need to see what is working and what isn’t and while third-party tools such as Google Analytics can be very useful, direct analytics from your store can often be the most valuable.
This is where the analytics tools that ecommerce platforms offer come into play and you want to quickly and easily be able to access analytics such as:
But this is really the bare minimum and if you want to base your business decisions on data, then you need more advanced analytics, such as:
Depending on the integrations you have on your site, you may also be able to get data from things such as email marketing campaigns, ad campaigns and social media. But when looking at the analytics that the platforms offer, you want them to provide you with good data that you can use and not vanity metrics that some offer.
Choosing an ecommerce platform is hard and I’m not saying that even if you follow this guide that you will get it right on the first attempt (I know I didn’t!) but going into the process a bit more clued up on what you should be looking for can make the process simpler.
One big bit of advice I would give is that if you find a platform that offers all the features that you need and you find it easy to use, then go for it, even if the price is more than you had hoped to pay/budgeted for as the extra expense will often be worth it in the long run because you really want to avoid moving platforms once you are up and running.
This is also a question I get asked a lot, which is “should I start with X platform then move to Y platform once I start getting some sales?” and the answer is NO!
Moving platforms is a tricky process (think of it kind of like moving house), there is lots that can go wrong and you can lose any momentum you had begun to build, sometimes it can be like starting from scratch. Instead think long term and ask yourself, do you think the platform grow with the business? If the answer is yes, then you could have the foundations of a very fruitful relationship!
But I hope this guide has been helpful as I have tried to include everything I could think of in it to help you with this challenging process.