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Here at Merchant Maverick, it’s our goal to help you compare ecommerce platforms so you can decide on the best software to suit your business needs. To that end, we’ve compiled a guide to everything you should know when shopping for an ecommerce system.
What Is eCommerce?
eCommerce involves the buying and selling of products and services on the internet, as well as the accompanying transfer of data and currency in the process. While our first mental image of ecommerce may be as simple as “people shopping online for stuff,” the real definition is much broader. eCommerce encompasses several dimensions:
- Types Of Products: Physical or digital products may be offered, and the sale of services counts as ecommerce as well. Any of these product types may be sold on a one-time basis or offered as subscriptions. eCommerce also encompasses donation collection, and sometimes even internet banking and money transfers.
- Flow Of Commerce: The flow of goods and services can work in multiple ways, including business to consumer (B2C), business to business (B2B), consumer to consumer (C2C), and even consumer to business (C2B).
- Distribution Arrangement: Any time a business is involved, products can be sold at the wholesale or retail level. Another consideration is which party stocks and/or distributes inventory. In the case of dropshipping, for example, the product is manufactured and shipped to the consumer by a third-party.
- Venues: Online sales are most commonly offered via standalone websites operated by the seller, or through online marketplaces that gather multiple sellers together in one virtual spot. A subset of ecommerce is mobile commerce (mCommerce), which involves transactions completed via a mobile device.
The Benefits Of eCommerce
Most businesses these days need to set up one or more modes of online commerce in order to stay competitive. There are many advantages to ecommerce as a sales channel, especially compared to traditional brick-and-mortar, in-person sales. These include:
- Location independence
- Access to a global pool of buyers
- Unlimited open hours
- Lower operating costs
- Targeted marketing opportunities via increased data collection
- Increased audience for niche products
What Is An eCommerce Platform?
An ecommerce platform is a type of software program that facilitates the creation and ongoing management of an online sales channel — typically an online store. Although online marketplaces such as eBay, Etsy, and Amazon could technically be called ecommerce platforms as well, we’re usually referring to software that allows sellers to set up standalone ecommerce operations if they wish.
At minimum, eCommerce platforms allow you to accomplish the following:
- Manage products on the back end via an admin panel.
- Provide buyers a way to view products on the front end.
- Provide buyers with a virtual shopping cart to which they can add products.
- Facilitate the checkout process (which sometimes involves directing the buyer to a separate payment processor site to complete the transaction).
Types of eCommerce Platforms
Open-Source VS Software-As-A-Service (SaaS)
Open-source platforms require you to download and install the software on a web hosting server. You then have the ability to customize all aspects of the front and back ends of your system via access to the source code of the software. While the software itself is often free, we don’t recommend this option for ecommerce novices or those who cannot hire a developer to manage the technical aspects of the platform.
Software-as-a-Service platforms handle web hosting on your behalf. These platforms require no special downloads or installations, nor any coding knowledge to make most customizations. You typically pay a monthly subscription to the service for access to the software, site hosting, and ongoing tech support.
At Merchant Maverick, we typically recommend SaaS ecommerce platforms to first-time sellers, as ease-of-use is of primary importance.
Plugins VS Full Website Builders
Plugins: It’s not actually necessary for an ecommerce platform to provide the ability to build a complete website. Some ecommerce software platforms may be added to an existing website as an integration (a.k.a., app, plugin, widget, etc.), appearing to the end-user as a set of dedicated product and checkout pages within a site, or even accessed through simple, embeddable “buy” buttons. In these cases, your sitebuilder tool may be through a third party.
Full Website Builders: By the same token, it’s very common for ecommerce software to have some degree of web design functionality, with many offering the templates and tools to set up and customize a complete website. A SaaS ecommerce platform will then host this website for you.
eCommerce Platform Features
There is no “standard” set of features for an ecommerce platform, besides the basic functions we’ve already discussed. The needs of sellers can vary quite widely, so it’s important to check which features of a given ecommerce platform are available at which subscription level.
Below are common features offered, from the perspective of the backend/admin of the software, as well as the components your customers interact with directly on your online storefront and through the checkout process.
- Sell multiple product types (physical, digital, services, subscriptions)
- Configure product attributes and variants (size, color, material, etc. and their combinations)
- Set product categories
- Bulk product import and export
- Inventory management
- SEO tools
- Create and manage invoices
- Analytics & reporting dashboard
- Manual order creation and editing (virtual terminal)
- Purchase and print shipping labels at a discount
- Mobile store management app
- Email hosting
- Email marketing campaigns
- Blogging tools
Storefront & Checkout:
- Guest checkout (without creating an account)
- Real-time calculated shipping rates
- Automatic tax calculation
- Offer coupons & discounts
- Abandoned cart recovery
- Multilingual storefront
- Checkout on your domain
- Single-page checkout
- Expedited checkout with saved customer info
- Point of sale app
- Product Q&A
- Product ratings and reviews
- Wish lists
- Gift registries
- Filtered product search
- Digital and physical gift cards
- Customer segmented pricing (e.g., for B2B sales)
- Customer financing options
- Loyalty/rewards programs
No ecommerce platform provides all of the above features straight out-of-the-box. Most platforms rely on an app market to expand offerings. A platform’s app store may offer connections to individual feature modules, and/or integrations with third-party software platforms for shipping, accounting, marketing, point of sale (POS) systems, etc. Note that any third-party software you connect to your store may have its own monthly subscription fee.
Web Design Templates
If an ecommerce platform lets you build a full website, you’ll typically choose a starting template or “theme.” Many ecommerce platforms with site-building capacity offer a selection of both free and paid templates. You’ll then have access to theme editing tools which allow you to customize the layout, look, and feel of your site to varying degrees.
How To Choose An eCommerce Platform
While the decision of which software to use is ultimately up to you, there are a few key factors you always must consider when comparing and selecting an ecommerce platform:
Monthly subscription systems can be quite different from platform to platform. Understand what factors determine the different pricing level, and how the platform’s packages will scale along with your business. Some platforms offer a free plan with strict limitations on product numbers and feature access, but you will likely need to budget for some sort of monthly subscription if you’re serious about selling long-term. Along with this monthly fee, some platforms charge their own commission per sale as well.
Parameters for subscription levels within a given platform are often based on one or more of the following:
- Available features
- File storage
- Monthly or annual store revenue
- Number of product listings
- Number of transactions per month
- Platform’s commission per sale
- Number of staff accounts
- Customer support (available channels, priority level, etc.)
You’ll need to connect an online payment gateway in order to accept payments from customers. A few ecommerce platforms offer a self-branded payment option, and many offer a large selection of additional payment processors from which to choose. Make sure the ecommerce platform offers one or more good options for your country, business type, risk level, etc., and know the rates you’ll be charged. A common starting processing rate for ecommerce is 2.9% + 30¢ per transaction. Check out our guide to the best online credit card processing companies or our online payment processing comparison chart for more information.
Features & Add-ons
Understand the difference between the core features of the software and features that must be obtained through additional integrations. For any features you’re sure you’ll need, investigate the flexibility and overall robustness of the tool. For example, if you need a discount engine to offer complex “Buy X Get Y” discounts, it will be worthless to you if it only lets you configure straight dollar amounts and percentages off of individual items.
Ease Of Use
The best way to test ease of use is with a free trial of the software. Thankfully, most ecommerce platforms provide this. User-friendliness is always subjective, but here are a few important dimensions to think about:
- On-Boarding & Store Setup: If you like your hand held throughout setup, look for the availability of a setup wizard or other in-dashboard tutorials of the software.
- Dashboard Navigation & Feature Manipulation: Check your level of comfort with finding and manipulating features like inventory and order management, discount creation, etc.
- Coding Skill Requirements: With most SaaS ecommerce platforms, you can customize the basics of both your admin and storefront without coding. However, advanced customization can require advanced knowledge. Push the limits of non-coding customizability during your trial.
If you’re looking at ecommerce platforms that also function as full website builders, pay very close attention to:
- Template/Theme Options: Browse the theme marketplace and get a feel for several templates you could see yourself using. Ensure the designs are modern, fully mobile-responsive, and engaging, while also offering any practical features necessary for your products and industry.
- Customization: The theme editing tools provided by different ecommerce platforms vary widely regarding how much you can alter without injecting code. Therefore, find out if and how you can add/delete/move elements within page layouts, alter colors and fonts, etc.
eCommerce is a round-the-clock endeavor requiring some form of round-the-clock support. Email/web tickets, live chat, and phone are the three channels most commonly offered, with phone support being the rarest. User reviews of customer support for ecommerce platforms are usually all over the map, so test the various customer support channels for yourself. Also, make yourself aware of any other self-help resources provided by the company and user community (e.g., knowledgebase, tutorial videos, courses, forums).
The Best eCommerce Platforms
Ready to compare ecommerce platforms? We’ve already fleshed out comparisons of several great options to get you started! You can start by taking a look at some of our favorites in our main comparison chart above, including links to the full reviews of each platform if you’d like to learn more.
If you’re interested in comparing powerful ecommerce platforms that also have online storefront building capability, we’d also recommend you check out our article: The Best Ecommerce Platforms For Your Small Business. If you’ve already settled on an ecommerce platform that offers advanced web design capability, and you’re particularly interested in your online storefront and how your customers will interact with it, check out our article: Find the Best Ecommerce Website Builder For Your Business.
The best of luck to you on your ecommerce journey!