Factors to Consider When Choosing an E-Commerce Platform
Choosing the right e-commerce platform for your website is now easy task. There are hundreds of different options available with options in all different price ranges and with varying features. If you’re overwhelmed at the process of choosing the right platform for your site, or for the site of a client, the decision usually becomes much clearer once you’ve determined what is most important for your site. In this article we’ll look at some specific questions to ask yourself, or your client, to help lead to the right choice. Make sure that you take the time to make a wise and informed decision, because changing platforms down the road can often be a time consuming and costly experience.
General Categories of E-Commerce Options
Before we look at the factors that you need to consider, let’s first take a look at the general categories of e-commerce platforms. Most of the hundreds or thousands of e-commerce platforms out there will fall into one of these six categories.
1. Enterprise E-Commerce
Enterprise e-commerce systems like Magento’s Enterprise Edition are feature-rich and robust systems that are typically used by large or fast-growing companies. Of course, with the advanced features and capabilities comes a higher price tag.
2. Hosted Platform
If you’re looking for low maintenance e-commerce platform that can be easily and quickly deployed, a hosted platform may be a good fit. Popular hosted platforms include Shopify, Bigcommerce, Magento Go, and Highwire. With a hosted platform you will be paying a monthly fee, and the company providing the e-commerce platform will also host your site. This means that instead of dealing with separate companies for hosting and e-commerce you will only be dealing with one company that handles both. Hosted systems are also typically very quick and easy to get set up with nothing to install manually. This makes a hosted platform an attractive option for small companies looking to minimize the amount of time needed for the owner or employees to dedicate to managing the website.
3. Open Source
Open source e-commerce platforms like Magento’s Community Edition and osCommerce are free to download and use. The popular open source platforms also have strong user community’s, which can be beneficial in terms of add-ons and finding answers to your questions. The downside to open source platforms is that no customer support, or very limited support, is available. Also, you’ll need to install the system on your server, which can be intimidating and even difficult in some situations.
There are a growing number of e-commerce platforms that are designed to be extremely simple and easy to use. In most cases these systems won’t include all the bells and whistles of a more robust solution, but for websites and blogs that simply want to sell just a few products, the ease of use may be more important. Popular simple options include DPD, SendOwl, and E-Junkie.
WordPress users have the option of using a plugin to add e-commerce functionality to any site that is powered by WordPress. Some of these plugins and free and others must be purchased. Most of the popular free e-commerce plugins will provide the basic functionality needed with additional plugins available for purchase to provide added functionality. Some of the most popular WordPress e-commerce plugins include WooCommerce, WP e-Commerce, Jigoshop, Cart66, and Easy Digital Downloads. WordPress isn’t the only CMS that offers plugins or add-ons for e-commerce. Ubercart can be integrated with Drupal, and ExpressionEngine users can get e-commerce functionality from Expresso Store.
The last option is to build a custom e-commerce platform specifically for your websites. This is generally the most expensive option, and with all of the existing e-commerce platforms available it’s generally not necessary to use a custom platform for the vast majority of businesses.
Factors to Consider
Now that we’ve taken a look at the basic categories that most e-commerce platforms will fall into, you may already have a better idea of what will be the best fit for you. At the very least, you can probably eliminate a few of the categories that won’t work well for your site. But now we’ll take a look at some specific questions that you can ask yourself or your client to help lead you to the right option.
1. What is the Budget?
I don’t normally advise starting with the budget when it comes to making decisions for your website, but because there is such a drastic difference between the high and low end here, I think it makes sense to get an idea of your budget first. That way you can eliminate the e-commerce platforms that won’t be a good fit based on the budget, and it can make the process of narrowing down a little easier. If you determine later that your planned budget won’t allow you to get what you really need, you always adjust the budget accordingly and re-consider the options that would fit into that new budget.
When it comes to e-commerce platforms, the most costly options will typically be custom and enterprise solutions. At the low end of the spectrum would be plugins and simple platforms. It’s possible that you could use a free WordPress plugin, although it’s likely that you would need at least one add-on that would have to be purchased. Simple platforms like DPD, SendOwl, and E-Junkie come with no upfront costs and low monthly fees. The monthly cost will depend on factors like the number of products that you are going to offer and how much disk space you need to store your files (if you are selling digital files).
Free open source platforms like Magento and osCommerce will come with no cost to use the system, but many users will need to hire someone to install it and set it up. Design and development costs are also something that you will need to consider. With the simple solutions and plugins you will generally be able to use them with any website, so if you already have an existing site you may not need to re-design it.
Hosted platforms will generally fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to cost. The monthly price will depend on which platform you choose, and which plan suits your needs. For example, Shopify‘s plans range from $14 – $179 per month. With most hosted systems you can save some money in design and development costs by using a pre-made template or theme. Shopify offers a number of themes for free, and a larger selection of professionally-designed themes can be purchased for under $200. Bigcommerce offers more than 100 different themes, and you can also customize some of the design elements, such as colors.
2. What Will You Be Selling?
The type of products that you will sell can also have an impact on your decision. Some e-commerce platforms are better than others for selling digital downloads, and others will have more flexibility for selling physical products.
Simple e-commerce platforms like DPD, SendOwl and E-Junkie have been created with digital products in mind. They will host the digital products that you are selling, and they’ll provide a secure download to your customers right after the purchase. For sites that will be selling a relatively small number of digital products (generally under 100 different products), any of these options can be a great choice. They also include features like limiting the amount of days a customer has to download the product, or limiting the number of times the product can be download. This helps to prevent theft and fraud. You can also reset purchases for customers who need to download the product after the download has expired.
Some WordPress plugins are also excellent options for selling digital products. Easy Digital Downloads is a free plugin that is simple, but includes all of the basic functionality for selling downloadable products. There are a number of add-ons that can be purchased if you need additional functionality.
If you’re selling physical products you will probably be looking for features like inventory control, advanced shipping and tax calculations, and possibly different shipping options. Most open source, hosted, and enterprise platforms will include a great set of features for selling physical products. Most plugins and simple platforms will also allow you to sell physical products, but the features and options may be a little more limited.
3. How Many Different Products Will You Sell?
The needs of your e-commerce website will be impacted by the number of different products, and product variations, that you will sell. A website that is selling 3 different downloadable e-books will have much different needs than a website that is selling thousands of different physical products.
From my experience, the simple platforms like DPD, SendOwl, and E-Junkie are best for small shops. If you’re selling hundreds or thousands of different products it can become a little more difficult to manage your online shop with these platforms.
Likewise, if you only plan to sell a small number of different products, enterprise and open source platforms, as well as custom platforms, may be overkill. They are likely to include a lot of features that you don’t need, and that can make the management of the site a little more cumbersome.
4. Where Do You Want to Host the Site?
Hosted platforms can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. If you don’t have a strong preference about where you host your site and you’re looking for a low maintenance option, a hosted platform like Shopify or Bigcommerce makes a lot of sense. However, in some situations it will not be ideal or even possible to have Shopify or Bigcommerce host your site. If you need to host your site somewhere specific, you may need to eliminate hosted platforms from consideration. However, if you’re open to hosting your site wherever it is the best fit, a hosted system may make your life a little easier. Most plugins, simple platforms, and open source platforms can be used by a website on just about any host.
5. Will it Need to Integrate with Your CMS?
Most websites use some sort of content management system. Some e-commerce platforms will also provide CMS capability, and others can integrate with various CMSs.
Hosted e-commerce platforms typically will include CMS functionality. For example, Shopify, Highwire, and Bigcommerce all include CMS functionality to allow you to manage the whole site. Shopify and Highwire also allow you to manage a blog on the site.
Having CMS functionality is a great feature, but if you already have an existing site using another CMS you may prefer to integrate the e-commerce platform with your existing CMS. This is one of the reasons why WordPress e-commerce plugins are popular. Also, simple solutions like DPD, SendOwl, and E-Junkie can be used with just about any CMS.
6. How Customizable is It?
There may be certain things that you will want or need to customize. The customization could involve the look of the shopping cart pages, the design of the site theme or template, or the functionality of the platform. Custom platforms, of course, offer complete flexibility, but they are not cost effective for most small businesses. Open source platforms typically offer a good deal of customization, but you may need an experienced developer to make those changes.
Hosted platforms are generally not very flexible in terms of customizing the functionality, but they often offer a lot of flexibility in terms of the look or design of the site. Bigcommerce, for example, allows some customization to their templates.
7. Can You Find a Good Designer/Developer?
Finding a good designer and/or developer is a priority for many e-commerce sites. If you’re using an open source platform like Magento or osCommerce there will be a rather large community of users that includes designers and developers. Hosted platforms Shopify and Bigcommerce both allow designers and developers to join as partners so that they can be easily found be clients looking to hire an expert. If you’re looking for an expert, their list of recommended experts is a great place to start.
If you’re using the WooCommerce WordPress plugin you can find an expert through the Woo Workers search.
8. Are Themes/Templates Available?
While simple platforms and plugins will typically be used with your existing site’s theme or template, using a hosted platform, and enterprise platform, or an open source platform will almost certainly require you to use a template of theme. You could use on that is free, purchase a premium theme or template, or have one custom designed for your site.
Of the hosted systems, Shopify and Bigcommerce tend to have the most attractive themes. Shopify has a themes store where you can buy themes (with a large selection available) if none of the free themes meet your needs.
If a quality theme/template is available, it can save you thousands of dollars as compared to paying for a custom design. Depending on your budget and the needs of your business, this may be a big factor in your decision.
There are also a number of templates available for the leading open source platforms, but the free ones are usually not very good quality. Alternatively, you could buy a template (see Magento themes and osCommerce themes).
9. What About Future Upgrades and Updates?
Another thing to consider when choosing a platform is the amount of time, effort, and cost that will be needed for keeping it up-to-date in the future. For example, open source platforms will release new versions every now and then, and you’ll need to upgrade your installation in order to keep it up-to-date. This can, of course, increase the cost and time needed for maintaining the site.
If you’re using a WordPress plugin for e-commerce you’ll need to keep both the plugin and WordPress itself up-to-date. New versions of WordPress are released several times per year, and most plugins are also updated frequently. The process of upgrading WordPress is pretty easy and quick, and many plugins also allow for auto updates.
On the other hand, one of the benefits of using a hosted platform is that all of the updates and upgrades will be handled behind the scenes with nothing required of you.
You’ll also want to consider your future needs. Will the platform grow with you and continue to meet your needs in the future? Will you be able to upgrade to a higher plan, if needed?
10. What Type of Support is Available?
You’ll also want to consider the type of customer support that you will be able to receive. With open source platforms and free plugins you will generally be limited to user forums for getting support, if needed. This doesn’t meet the needs of most businesses. Simple platforms like DPD, SendOwl, and E-Junkie all offer customer support through email or a ticket system. Hosted platforms also offer customer support. Shopify offers 24/7 support by email, phone, or online chat. Bigcommerce offers support by email, phone, and their community forum. Phone support is available seven days a week, but not 24 hours a day.
While paying a monthly fee for a hosted or simple platform may not seem like an ideal situation, that fee makes it possible for the company to provide a higher level of customer service.
11. What Type of Reporting is Included?
In order to maximize the profitability of your online shop you’ll need some reporting capability from your e-commerce platform. The reporting capabilities will vary pretty drastically from one option to the next, so be sure to look into the reporting capabilities of whatever platforms you are considering.
12. What is the Checkout Process Like for Customers?
The usability of an e-commerce website is critical to it’s success. The easier it is for visitors to make a purchase the more sales you will make. A complicated checkout process is very frustrating to customers, and it will result in lost sales.
Before selecting the platform to use for your site it is critical that you test the checkout process and make sure that it will be easy for visitors. Most platforms will have a demo that you can test, or you visit a live site that is using the platform, add a product to the cart and go through the checkout process. With some platforms the checkout process and shopping cart pages will be heavily influenced by the theme or template, and with other platforms it will be fairly similar from one site to another. Do your research on the checkout process and make sure it will meet the expectations of your customers.
13. How Easy or Difficult is it to Use the Admin Dashboard?
While the ease of use for the checkout process is important for customers, the usability of the admin dashboard will be equally important for making sure that the site is easy to maintain. Try to access a demo of the admin dashboard, or at least view some screenshots, before making a decision.
14. How Will You Market Your Products?
You’ll also need to consider how you plan to market your products, and be sure that the platform of your choice will work well with those plans. For example, if you plan on using a blog on your site you’ll want to make sure that you choose a platform that will allow this. Shopify would be a good choice since it includes blogging functionality, and of course, any WordPress plugin would also allow you to maintain a blog with WordPress. Simple platforms like DPD, SendOwl, and E-Junkie can be used with any CMS, so you could use them with WordPress or another blogging engine.
You’ll also want to make sure that your e-commerce platform will be able to integrate with your mailing list manager so that you can add customers to your mailing list automatically. For example, Bigcommerce integrates with MailChimp, Constant Contact, iContact, and Active Campaign.
Each platform will have it’s own features related to things like coupon codes and social media integration, so make sure that your preferred methods of promotion will work with any platform that you are considering.
15. Is it Mobile-Ready?
As more and more internet traffic comes from mobile devices it has become increasingly important that your shopping cart and checkout process is mobile friendly. For example, Shopify is mobile-ready for both customers and for site administrators. Their shopping cart is mobile friendly, and site owners can use a iPad/iPhone app for easily managing the site.
No e-commerce platform is right for every situation. While there are a lot of options and several different types of platforms to choose from, if you ask yourself the right questions it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process to choose the best platform for your website.
Published February 3rd, 2014 by Steven Snell