How to Choose an E-commerce Platform

With storefronts closed and capacity levels capped by executive order, there has never been a better time to explore e-commerce. There are so many options for the seemingly simple task of opening an online store. To eliminate any confusion surrounding the online, e-commerce world, I’ll explore some of those options, dive into the details, and share a few of my recommendations.

First, I want to dispel the marketing miracles that are touted around e-commerce. A website is much like a storefront but one with no guaranteed foot traffic, no surrounding community, and no sign visible from the street. An e-commerce site doesn’t create sales on its own, which means marketing efforts still need to bring people into the store. As an experienced business, you have a number of advantages over a new business. You have an audience and hopefully, a way to get in touch with them. You have products and processes. You have relationships with customers, supplies, and partners like the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce. Most importantly, you have a trusted brand and reputation. All of those assets will help your e-commerce presence thrive.

The most overwhelming decision when creating an e-commerce site is how to build it. There are many systems, software, and businesses that exist just to help you sell your products and services online, but not all of them will be a good fit. The three main categories of options to explore are platforms, builders, and self-hosted. I’d like to share my top recommendations for each one, what they do well, what they do poorly, and what might be the best for you.

The first type of e-commerce option is the platform, such as Amazon, eBay, or Etsy. I call these “platforms” because they are systems with existing customer bases that you can choose to opt-in to. For most types of products, becoming a third-party seller on Amazon is a fairly easy and straightforward process. These platforms certainly take their cut of your sales though. For example, Amazon’s “referral fee” can range from 6-20% depending on the product category. However, you’re not just paying for the right to sell on the platform. You’re really paying for exposure to the audience of people that will go straight to Amazon for whatever they need. The best way to treat these platforms is similar to how you treat search engines. According to the “State of Amazon 2016” report from retail experience firm Bloomreach, 55% of people surveyed chose Amazon as the starting point whenever they are searching for a product. This built-in audience can be extremely valuable. Your marketing efforts should be focused on optimizing your Amazon store and product listing for the search terms people are using on the platform. The same advice is applicable for Etsy and eBay, making them the best choice if your target market fits their audience. For the majority of product-based businesses, Amazon is the dominant platform option.

The second type of e-commerce option is the builder. Builders are software systems that make it very easy to build a website with a store, add products, manage orders, and integrate with various sales channels. Many website builders, including Squarespace and Wix, have e-commerce options. However, I would recommend the e-commerce builder industry giant, Shopify. Shopify makes it extremely easy to pick a template, add a few products, and start selling online. Simple setups can be done in a week (or very long weekend), while more complex stores with customization might take a few weeks to completely build out. Support is available through the builder itself and through an engaged community. Pricing is pretty fair too, with a monthly subscription cost and a reasonable credit card transaction fee (2.9% + $0.30) per purchase. There are a few downsides though. For one, if you choose not to use Shopify’s payment processor—perhaps to link in your own merchant account or due to different international needs—you will pay an additional 2% per transaction. The most serious disadvantage is customization. Shopify will work for 80% of simple retail businesses, but once you need a more complex shopping experience, such as detailed licensing handling, heavily branded or intricate design, or other custom features, you’ll find that building into the Shopify experience requires serious development chops and may not be the most cost-effective route. You may also find yourself with two websites, one that promotes the retail business or blog and one that is the store. In fact, I recommend Shopify when the store’s requirements are: simple, low budget, fast turnaround, and the client is fine with a semi-templated experience. For many Shopify builds, I would recommend hiring a designer instead of a developer because the goal should be to pick a theme that fits your store’s needs and then create beautiful images to fill in that template.

The last option is the self-hosted e-commerce website. Self-hosted sites are wholly owned by you, and with that comes a ton of freedom and flexibility, as well as responsibility. Self-hosted options are abundant and can be heavily specialized. For example, working within the WordPress ecosystem, Tickera can create a full event ticketing experience, Easy Digital Downloads can sell memberships, ebooks, and other downloadable items, and WooCommerce is a fully-featured e-commerce experience. For clients that need heavily branded designs, specialized ordering or shopping experiences, and integration with multiple softwares or vendors, I recommend WooCommerce. WooCommerce powers just under 30% of all stores online, is open source and is fully customizable. If you see it online and want to recreate it, WooCommerce can do it. That means you can create any workflow for fulfillment, use your own payment processor, have the store look however you want it to, and more. However, with that plethora of options comes tradeoffs. Maintenance of the software is on your shoulders, the design and build process will take months, and the upfront development cost will be the highest of the three options.

There are, of course, many more facets to running an online business, including shipping, fulfillment, fraud management, and most importantly (in my humble opinion) marketing. As an existing business exploring e-commerce, you bring assets to the table that improve your store’s success. Once your store is up and running, leverage your existing customers, your partnerships, such as the one with the SCCC, and spread the news. In these COVID-19 times, I’m sure your customers will be happy to hear from you and support your digital store as it grows into the new year and beyond.

This article was featured in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Connections, the official magazine of the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce.