In this section, we will cover the basics of e-commerce, including the components that make up a typical online store.
Online Stores: A Basic Overview
Essentially, online stores mimic brick-and-mortar ones, and an online store will typically have everything its physical counterpart does:
- Product displays and information
- Checkouts and payment processing
- Customer service-related features (help pages, ways to contact staff, and so on)
One of the easiest ways to ensure that your online store has all the features and functionality it needs is to build it with an all-in-one solution for e-commerce.
Such options will come with things like product pages, a shopping cart, and templates for your website. Many will come with bonus features like accounting tools, inventory and order management, and so on.
Types of E-Commerce Software
As we briefly mentioned above, there are many different types of e-commerce solutions available. The following are the options you are most likely to run into:
- All-in-One Solutions: With an all-in-one e-commerce solution, such as Shopify or BigCommerce, you get everything you need to launch your online store. While the specific features and functionality will vary from one software vendor to another, you will (at minimum) get the tools you need to craft your website, display your goods, handle checkout, and process payments. This is the bare minimum, however, and you will likely get much more — accounting tools, email marketing tools, inventory management, and more.
- Shopping Carts: If you already have a website for your small business, and you want to add e-commerce functionality, a shopping cart might be what you need (though some shopping cart suites, such as Volusion, offer website building functionality, too). You can think of shopping carts as a third-party tool that integrates with and works alongside your website. This option allows you to launch an online store without having to revamp your website. Typically, shopping carts allow you to create product pages, add checkout features, and handle payments.
- Platform-Specific Options: There are some e-commerce options available only to those on the appropriate platform. For example, WordPress users can build online stores using a plugin called WooCommerce.
First, we want to be clear that plugins are not necessarily inferior to stand-alone solutions. For example, WordPress users who opt for the WooCommerce plugin are certainly *not* at a disadvantage when compared to users of Shopify, Magento, or BigCommerce.
WooCommerce offers WordPress users pretty much everything that other stand-alone options do (and possibly even more). What makes WooCommerce an especially good option for WordPress-hosted sites is the easy integration and the support for extensibility (allowing for users to built on the default options as necessary).
You might not be on the WordPress ecosystem, so WooCommerce might not be an option for you, but most content management systems (CMS) or specialized environment, there is likely to be plugin options you should consider. These plugins are likely to work right out of the box. After all, one of the perks of ecosystem-specific plugins is that you are almost guaranteed a successful integration.
Proprietary vs. Open Source E-Commerce Tools
Regardless of the type of tool that is best for your needs, there are likely to be paid, proprietary options, as well as free, open source options.
Open Source Tools
For a small business owner, you will likely find the price of open source tools to be appealing: **free**. However, there is more to choosing the appropriate e-commerce solution for you than just price.
- Easy Customization: Open source tools are fully customizable — anyone can make changes to the source code, so if there is a large enough user base, there are likely to be many improvements to the original offering. With enough knowledge, even you can change the app as necessary (though we do not pretend that this is an easy feat or something busy small business owners might be interested in).
- Support: The biggest downside to open source tools is the variability in support offered. First, you are unlikely to have dedicated support — you will not be able to simply pick up the phone and call or send an email and have your questions answered. You will need to search around on your own and do your own troubleshooting. You might be able to crowdsource answers via community forums, but like we see, there are no guarantees.
With that said, we do not want to make it seem as if support is extremely difficult to come by. Some of the more popular options have robust communities that can rival the offerings of companies shipping proprietary software. For example, Magento users can access the thriving Magento Community, where there are lots of people trading ideas and helping each other out.
Proprietary tools are essentially those for which you have to pay before you can use. Prices for these options can range from just a couple a dollars to thousands. There are options that are one-time purchases, while others operate using a subscription model.
Given the availability of open source tools, why might you opt for a paid, proprietary option?
- Best Fit: Well, first, the proprietary solution might be the one that best fits your needs. No two options are identical, so if you find something that is not free, yet meets the needs of your business better than all other solutions, it would be worth it to opt for the paid option.
- Support: Second, proprietary software tends to come with guaranteed support. You will be able to get in touch with the vendor, who will likely have a support team dedicated to ensuring that their customers can do what they need to do. The quality of support may vary, but it would be rare to find a vendor that did not offer support at all.
- Bonuses: Finally, proprietary tools may come with a host of extras that few open source tools could match. For example, open source all-in-one e-commerce solutions are unlikely to offer web hosting, while a software-as-a-service (SaaS) option will likely bundle web hosting with the tool itself.
If you want to get an online store launched with as little hassle as possible, there are few (if any) open source solutions that can match proprietary options. You get what you pay for, and some of what you pay for are professional services.
Features and Functionality
We have mentioned briefly that e-commerce tools offer all the features and functionality you need to launch an online store, but what specifically do we mean? Here are some things you might expect to come with the option you choose.
Some e-commerce options come with the web hosting you need to serve your website/online store. Depending on the vendor and package you choose, you may also get uptime guarantees, where the host promises that your website will be online at least a certain percentage of time (if not, they will compensate you accordingly).
At the most fundamental level, an online store is simply a website where people can go to buy things. If you do not already have a website, many e-commerce suites will offer you the ability to build a new website.
You probably have an idea of what you want your website to look like, so be sure to check out the themes provided by the vendor before signing on the dotted line. It is okay if the perfect theme is not available — you just want something that is close so that you can make minimal changes.
If you think that you might change your theme at a later date, can do you so easily? Some vendors allow you to change themes with minimal fuss, while others require you to start your website over if you go down this path.
Finally, drag-and-drop editing of themes is a great feature offered by some. You may want to look specifically for something like this.
In a way, product displays are a subset of website pages, but we wanted to single this out for several reasons.
First, product pages differ from normal web pages in that you are likely to use the sample template or theme over and over again. If your vendor offers bulk product page editing, this means that you can spend less time working on the small stuff for your website (such as editing text, cropping product images, and so on).
Second, product pages have special needs that ordinary web pages might not. For example, a product page would have images and text, but you might also want to include things like a section for people to leave reviews, video capabilities, and dynamic displays of other products you sell in which your users might be interested.
Product-specific themes are likely to include all of these options already, so you will not have to spend as much time designing these pages.
People find it frustrating when they see items that are sold out. People find it even more frustrating if they can successfully complete a transaction, only to be told later that the product(s) they wanted are actually sold out.
To prevent this from happening, many e-commerce solutions include product or inventory management tools. In addition to allowing you to track your stock, this information can be used to dynamically update your site — if you sell out of something, the product no longer displays. Alternatively, if you are low on stock, you can display this prominently and encourage your users to make their purchase now.
Shipping and Delivery Integrations
If you are selling physical goods, are you sending your inventory out yourself, or are you drop shipping?
If you are handling the shipping of goods out, you will want to be able to do things like pay for and print shipping labels at home, package tracking, and the ability to calculate and include shipping costs with the customer’s order total at the time of purchase.
If you are drop shipping, you will want to be able to integrate with your provider so that, as orders go in, the shipper handles all the logistics without any additional management from your part.
If you are selling digital goods, does your provider offer storage for the original product? How does the vendor handle digital rights management (DRM)?
Payments Integration and Processing
One of the most features of an e-commerce tool is its payments-related functionality.
Some options, like Shopify, are capable of handling payments itself — but be aware that depending on the option you implement, you may be subject to transaction fees that are typically about 2-3% of the transaction total.
Others, allow you to integrate with a third-party, such as PayPal or Venmo, for payment processing. These vendors themselves may charge transaction fees.
Essentially, there are two primary questions you will want to have answers to when setting up your shop:
- Who is processing my payments?
- What types of payments (cash on delivery (COD), debit, credit card, etc.) will I be able to accept?
- How much will I have to pay in terms of fees for such services?
Other questions you might want to ask include:
- How will the payment processor deliver the funds it owes to me?
- How frequently do disbursements occur?
Other Features and Considerations
In addition to the features we mentioned above, there are other aspects and bonuses a company might offer that you will want to consider.
Some companies bundle professional services with the purchase of an e-commerce solution. You might get things like onboarding assistance, website review, and SEO and marketing tips and tricks. You might also get advertising credits and discounts on services provided by the vendor’s partners.
Many companies offer either free trials or money-back guarantees (if they do not offer trials). Our reviews will mention if a given company offers other.
Ease of Use
One of the most important criteria with which an e-commerce solution should be judged is ease of use. As a busy small business owner, you probably do not have time for technological challenges or multiple, lengthy phone calls to the vendor for customer service/technical support.
We understand that evaluating ease of use can be tricky, especially for vendors that do not offer free trials. As such, Digital’s reviews will include such information if it is available.
E-Commerce Platform Comparisons
Now that you know the basics of online selling and e-commerce tools, it is time to choose the best option for you.
Digital.com knows that small business owners need to be agile when getting a store set up.
Choosing the right e-commerce platform is critical when you need to hit the ground running. And the right platform will help you to grow, market your business, avoid downtime, and expand your product catalog.
We take the pain out of comparing e-commerce solutions by placing all of the key information side-by-side. If you are not sure whether to buy web hosting, or use a hosted platform for your store, our expert advice will make the decision clear.
Why Getting the Right Platform Matters
E-commerce is all about delivering a great customer experience. Many of the world’s biggest online stores invest millions in developing their platform. For small business owners, making the right choice is crucial.
Here is why this decision matters:
- Moving from one platform to another is a huge undertaking for a small business; transferring products, metadata, and user reviews can be extremely challenging, or even impossible (but even if you could, we are certain there are other things on which you would probably prefer spending your time)
- Every time you switch platforms, there is a very real risk that your product metadata will be corrupted
- Hiring people to convert data between formats is expensive
- Even a small problem with converted data could crash your entire store — not only might your lose historical data (which could be important for things like forecasting and taxes), you could lose out on revenue if your site is not available when people want to buy
In all cases, it is far better to start as you mean to go on. You need pick a platform that suits your needs in the beginning so that it does not overwhelm you, and also ensure it has the features that you need to grow your business. It is a balancing act, and it is easy to get it wrong.
Digital.com has a team of writers who constantly check and review e-commerce platforms. That gives us unique insight into the market, and it allows us to help you make better choices so that you avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes.
How We Compare E-Commerce Platforms
All e-commerce platforms will allow you to build a small store very quickly, especially if you are just building a basic store with basic tools.
But the extra features they offer could make or break your site as it grows.
To avoid disruption and growing pains, you should take a holistic approach to evaluating what each platform can offer. Here are some of the key features to consider:
Ease of Use
Your e-commerce platform should offer good usability for you, the manager, as well as the customer. We have mentioned this previously.
You do not want to have to employ a developer each time you want to make changes. Equally, you do not want to confuse customers with poor navigation. A dated appearance can put off buyers who are used to a modern, slick experience.
Our reviews look at the back-end administration, the shopping process, and the overall design of the finished store.
When you set up an e-commerce store, choice should be at the forefront of your mind. Payment options are no exception.
You might pay for everything with PayPal, but your customers may have another payment method in mind. If they do not see an easy way to pay, they will back out and find another vendor. (Also, making it difficult makes people suspicious of the legitimacy of your business — this is not good, especially when repeat customers and customer referrals can be so important for a small business).
We compare the payment processing options from each platform, along with the relevant fees.
You probably have a reasonable idea of the number of products you intend to list now. What about in a year’s time?
If your e-commerce platform caps the number of items in your store, that could become a huge headache later. Sure; you can increase the limit by paying more. But will that be cost-effective?
Host platforms don’t completely negate the need for technical features. Uptime is one of the most important. It tells you how much downtime you’ll suffer before your host credits you.
Even a small difference in uptime can have a huge effect on compensation. Consider the difference between an e-commerce platform offering a 99% uptime guarantee, vs one that offers 99.99%. The former would allow for well over 7 hours’ downtime before you’d be compensated. With the latter, you’d get some kind of recompense after less than 5 minutes’ downtime.
With e-commerce, site speed is key, too. We know that tiny increases in speed cause huge increases in cart abandonment rates. So we factor that in when we write our comparisons.
Your e-commerce store is not an island. It needs to offer integrations with other services.
For example, you might want to segment your customer database according to past purchasing habits. The speed and simplicity of that process will be a critical factor in your marketing plan.
Likewise, you might want to automatically export product data to other sites. And you will certainly need to generate reports so that you can see how your catalog is performing.
We compare e-commerce platforms according to their integration capabilities. We look for integrations with mailing list providers, comparison websites, and Google’s Shopping platform. And we tell you if extra cost is involved.
If your store is offline, you’re not earning money. And if you can’t figure out how to solve problems, you’re going to waste time and money that you should be using to grow your business.
When you have questions, comments, or concerns, how easy is it for you to contact the vendor? When are they available? What methods can you use to get in touch?
Support is invaluable, and it is definitely something to which you pay close attention *before* signing on the dotted line.
Our reviewers compare each e-commerce platform’s support provision side-by-side. That way, you can ensure you’re getting the best help available.
Why You Can Trust Our Reviews
Our reviewers are experts — they include former marketing automation experts with Fortune 500 companies, small business owners, and owners of marketing agencies. They explain clearly what the pros and cons are so that you can make an informed choice.
E-commerce platforms are positioned according to the type of customers they want to attract. The right platform for a home-based jewelry company could be inappropriate for a growing electronics retailer. The right platform for someone selling tee shirts is probably not a great option for an author self-publishing their e-books.
Use our expert guidance to make the right choice now, and you will avoid problems later.
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We’ve listed our head-to-head e-commerce comparisons below. Find out what our reviewers think of each one. Just click on the title to go right to the comparison you’re interested in.