It's surprising how many people recommend just one e-commerce platform – a solution that should work for everyone and every store. They may be brilliant developers or sales people but they probably aren't trying to solve your problems. You need to choose a platform that fits your needs.
You should first choose if you want either a self hosted or a hosted platform. After that you should look at your products. The type of products you have will determine the features you need. There are plenty nice-to-have features like pretty reports, order management, & newsletter integrations but you first have to make sure the platform can sell your product.
There are a few questions that I typically ask people about their products that determine what platforms I recommend.
1) How Many Products Are You Selling?
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that an author selling their first e-book is going to need a very different solution than a bookstore with thousands of books. That's why figuring out how many products you're planning on listing is one of the first questions I ask.
Avoid the Cart If Possible
If you only have a couple products it's best to avoid platforms that have a cart. E-Commerce vendors are always looking at making the checkout process as streamlined as possible – by eliminating the cart you're doing just that. Look into options like PayPal buttons & Gumroad. You can integrate those solutions with just about any type of website adding the buy button where ever you want on a page.
Automatically Add Products to Your Store
The nice thing about a full blown e-commerce solutions is that once you add a product to the backend it will automatically be added to all of the right places on the front end. A product detail page will be automatically created, the product will be listed on the right category pages, and it will show up in search results. If you have more than a dozen products I recommend a full blow e-commerce platform. Good solutions for this are WooCommerce, Shopify, and Bigcommerce.
Charges for Number of Products
Some hosted solutions will charge you for the number of products you have in your store. The Shopify Starter Plan, for example, limits you to 25 products. Most self-hosted solutions don't care how many products you have.
2) Are Orders Shipped out, Picked up, Digital, or Multiple?
It's definitely worth asking yourself how you deliver the products.
If you're shipping products how are you calculating shipping costs? Most stores offer the ability to add a flat rate shipping charge to an order. This a great starting point but you'll probably want to look into getting live quotes from USPS, UPS, or FedEx. Not all e-commerce platforms have this functionality built in. WooCommerce has a $79 / year extension, Shopify forces you to setup an external account (with its own pricing), and Bigcommerce has it built it.
If you have virtual products like ebooks, mp3 files, or zip files, you'll probably want a system that can automatically send the user a unique link the retrieve the download. If you're selling something that needs to automatically update (like software) that's a rare feature which you can use to eliminate the more basic platforms. If you need to sell software I highly recommend WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads which both have extensions that cover this use case.
Some suppliers allow retailers to send them orders and the supplier will send the products to the customer directly from their warehouse, this is called drop shipping. From the retailer's perspective it's fantastic because you have less work to do and you don't have to store anything. Drop shippers often need specific data in a specific format. Printful which prints custom t-shirts, posters, & mugs allows drop shipping through Magento, Shopify, Storenvy, Opencart, and WooCommerce. If you don't use one of those platforms you'll have to custom code it yourself.
The same goes for any drop shipper. Make sure your platform integrates with their service or you'll have to pay for a custom integration.
3) Are You Selling A Subscription?
You may want to charge someone for a monthly magazine subscription, or maybe you want to sell online videos. There's a ton of sites out there that do this right? It should be easy? You'd be surprised how amazingly complex it is to charge someone on a recurring basis. It get's even more complex if want it to work with multiple payment gateways and not just one or two. Support for recurring billing is pretty dismal across the e-commerce platforms.
- Bigcommerce can't do it at all
- Gumroad technically has subscriptions but you can only send emails to the subscribers. You can't do anything on your own site like have private content.
- Magento supports subscriptions but only works with two payment gateways
- Shopify can do it with, RecurHub, a 3rd party app which starts at $19/mo and only works with one payment gateway
- PayPal has recurring payments but you have very little control over the subscription schedule and amount.
- WooCommerce has the most flexible and cheapest subscriptions support.
4) Do You Have Configurable Products?
It's one thing to sell a poster which comes in one size with no options. As soon as your products have options, even basic ones like size or color, things start getting complex. Does your e-commerce platform support variable products? Does it support products with multiple attributes like size and color ex. a medium red t-shirt. Can you have separate prices for each variation? Can you upload an image for each variation? Can you have separate inventories for each variation?
In general the more variations the more heavy duty e-commerce platform you're going to need. Shopify will always try to keep things basic which is why they limit you to three attributes. So you can sell t-shirts with as many different colors and sizes as you want because thats only two attributes. You couldn't however sell sports jerseys with gender, style, color, and size. You'll have to use one of their 3rd party apps to do that.
WooCommerce & Magento are both very configurable and you can sell a product in any number of ways.
5) Do You Need to Sync Inventory with Another Store?
You may have multiple online stores or you may have a brick and mortar store and a website. When you have overlapping products and inventories it's important to sync data. Otherwise you're spending your entire day syncing data. Unfortunately there aren't many plug and play solutions. Without doing some custom coding on your end you're going to have to use a system that's built for this.
Tradegecko syncs inventories & integrates with several accounting solutions. It works great with WooCommerce & Shopify but not Bigcommerce.
Brightpearl syncs inventories, manages orders, manages your customer history, and does reporting. It works great with Shopify, Magento, & Bigcommerce.
You may not care about syncing inventory if you have different products in each store. But if you're shipping products it's really convenient to have all of the orders in one place. There are several solutions for this, one of the most popular is ShipStation which integrates nicely with WooCommerce, Shopify, & Magento.
The products you sell will determine the features you need, that's why you should always start an e-commerce conversation with the client about their products. Then ask about other needs (which are really wants).
We'll get into other features like newsletters, coupons, dynamic pricing, pre-orders, and more in a future post but while those are all great-to-have, they aren't necessary. Being able to sell your product is most important functionality in an e-commerce platform so don't get excited about all of the bells and whistles before making sure it can handle your basic needs.
Photo Credit: H is for Home