Whether you're just starting to think about selling online or looking for ways to scale your business, learn what makes an e-commerce platform the right fit for your online store.
One of the biggest decisions you'll make as an online business is choosing an e-commerce platform to build and manage your website and online store. Fortunately (and unfortunately), you've got options.
A boom in e-commerce – an estimated 2.64 billion shoppers will make at least one online purchase in 20231 – means that dozens of solution providers are ready to help businesses like yours. The million-dollar question is: Which e-commerce platform is the best fit for your business?
To help answer that, we'll walk you through the basics of e-commerce platforms, including the different types and how to conduct your own e-commerce platform comparison.
An e-commerce platform is a digital solution that allows businesses to sell products or services online.
These online commerce platforms typically offer features that let you create and manage the front- and back-end of your store, such as:
Hosted e-commerce platforms, or software as a service (SaaS) platforms, provide an end-to-end e-commerce solution. Not only can they host your online store on their servers, but they also offer drag-and-drop templates, built-in features, and robust integrations so you can set up and manage your business with ease.
You’ve probably heard of a few: Shopify, BigCommerce, and Wix are all popular hosted e-commerce platforms.
While these providers make it straightforward to get started with e-commerce without requiring extensive technical knowledge, they offer limited design and functionality customization.
Self-hosted e-commerce (also known as open-source) platforms, such as Magento, WooCommerce, and OpenCart, offer customizable solutions with open-source frameworks.
Although this option provides more control and flexibility than hosted e-commerce alternatives, keep in mind that you’ll need to host your site on your own servers, as well as take care of tasks that may require hiring a developer, such as security, technical updates, bug fixes, and maintenance.
Marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy enable businesses to start selling online by listing products or services directly on the platform.
While marketplaces offer the convenience of a built-in customer base and infrastructure for getting started, they often charge fees or commissions for every transaction.
In recent years, social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and even TikTok have introduced e-commerce features that allow businesses to sell directly on their apps.
Social media platforms may provide a wide reach and deliver users with a seamless shopping experience but expect to face fierce competition, murky algorithm changes, and limited control over branding.
There are dozens of e-commerce platforms available to businesses — and knowing how to choose the right one for yours will be key to landing sales.
Look for an e-commerce platform that fits your type of business. Some specialize in helping companies sell specific types of products, from handmade items to software to electronics. Others are tailored to businesses selling products vs. services or digital goods vs. physical goods.
For example, if you're selling e-books, you'll need an e-commerce platform that allows online shoppers to download materials from your site after submitting payment. If you're selling personalized jewelry, you'll need intuitive product page templates that show off your work and allow shoppers to customize products.
Pro tip: looking at your competitors' websites to see if there's an e-commerce platform they commonly use can help you identify specific options.
Giving online shoppers payment choices at checkout can be a deciding factor in whether they go through with a purchase, so it's a good idea to make sure that your e-commerce platform is compatible with various payment options.
For example, some e-commerce platforms allow you to promote consumer financing options like installment payments. This can be especially important for converting sales of higher-priced items like auto parts or luxury apparel.
Payment processing won't be your only compatibility checkpoint. If you're looking to streamline several areas of your business — social media, email, SEO, inventory management, marketing, accounting, analytics, shipping — into a single location, you'll need to make sure that each solution provider plays nice with your e-commerce platform via an application, plug-in or API.
Don't make assumptions — look at solution providers' websites and contact sales reps with your compatibility questions.
Another important choice in picking an e-commerce platform is knowing how much customization and control you need.
With a hosted platform, a third party hosts a series of applications and makes them available to you on a subscription basis. Meanwhile, with a self-hosted platform, you build from scratch exactly what you need or want in an online store.
To determine which is best for you, start by answering the easy question: Do you have extensive coding experience or technical staff? If you do, take a look at self-hosted platforms. They give you control over the underlying code so you can customize your site to your heart's content.
If not, hosted platforms, marketplaces, or social media platforms may be the way to go. They provide design, hosting, storefront setup, payment processing, promotions capabilities, security features, and more, all in one solution. Best of all: You don't need to have any coding experience.
If you're selling casually and intend to treat your store as a hobby, you may not need to worry about scalability. But if you want to make your e-commerce business a full-time gig one day, consider choosing a solution provider that can support your business's growth. Specifically, look into inventory capabilities (and pricing), plug-ins, and global expansion.
If you're selling several hundred SKUs, remember that some platforms are priced according to the number of product listings. High volumes of product listings can also slow down some platforms and lead e-commerce websites to return poor search results.
In addition, think about all the places you'd like to list your products. Many hosted and self-hosted solution providers specialize in scaling businesses to specific platforms, including social media, marketplaces, and mobile messaging apps. If your goal is to sell globally, consider an e-commerce platform that can help you optimize for different languages, currencies, and tax rates.
When making your e-commerce platforms comparison, here are some features to consider:
E-commerce platforms help businesses like yours get products to market quickly and cost-effectively.
In addition to the items above, keep in mind that prices and access to customer service vary widely across platforms depending on the components you piece together to create a streamlined e-commerce experience.
Once you're up and running, you'll be ready to reap the rewards of your investment, like less stress, higher sales, and happier customers.
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