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
Awesome advice Patrick! Really great overview of what you can do with each platform 🙂 .
Great article indeed, very handy overview!
[…] Rauland wrote a great comparison of some popular eCommerce platforms this week, which includes advice on when each is […]
I second Beka’s comment Patrick, another great post. Keep ’em coming!
This is a great post and good timing as it’s time to start monetizing my blog. I am wondering if you might have a recommendation for a platform if I want to have a “marketplace” of affiliate products. For example, I’d like to sell WP themes with aff links. Do you know of a good solution for this? I really want something that has a products page with filterable thumbnails that click to product pages. I started to use a portfolio gallery but didn’t know if this was the best solution.
For something like that I’d actually use WooCommerce. It will look like a store with categories and product detail pages but you can use External Products which don’t have a buy button and instead link (with your affiliate link) to any url.
WooCommerce is free – might as well try it and see what you think.
In the next couple days I plan on writing up a tutorial on managing affiliate links with the Redirection plugin. Not necessary but it makes your links cleaner.
Thanks Patrick! And I look forward to the writeup on the plugin too as well as why it would be beneficial for cleaner links 🙂
Here’s the tutorial to cloak your affiliate links (which makes them a bit prettier).
Hi Patrick, I have a gift delivery business which requires a fairly different sort of checkout process. I need both the buyer’s details AND the recipient’s details at checkout. This would mean ideally two separate pages or “forms” at checkout. I am currently with Weebly which was great and very user-friendly for designing the website from the point of view of someone who does not know much about coding etc. But the checkout page is too simplified and only allows for one set of information. So … my questions to you are: Is it possible to customise a Weebly site, if I got a computer programmer to do it? If not, which platform would you suggest I import the site to? (PS, the payment part of it is fine and not needing any customisation, just the billing and shipping info fields.) THANK YOU.
You can customize very little with a hosted platform. Easy to use but impossible to customize. You could use a self-hosted platform like WooCommerce and customize the checkout however you want with a developer. There’s even a Checkout editor extension that allows you to customize it yourself.
I also recommend you read up on hosted vs self hosted platforms.
Does these ecommerce platforms has inbuilt plugin for caching machanism.
All e-commerce platforms are going to be different in that regard. Some will have caching built in and some will need something extra. With WordPress (WooCommerce) you’ll have to install a (free) caching plugin. With a hosted service they’ll have something built in.
I’m so happy I found your article before I spent more hours trying to take my squarespace website e-commerce. I create personalized jewelry (my bread-and-butter:) in addition to pieces that do not require customization. The name charm necklaces I create have a lot of variants (three which would affect the price, the rest do not), such as 10 stone choices to choose from (2 come free with each necklace purchase), four different border choices for each name charm, and a couple more. I am trying to keep all of it in a drop-down format (would rather not have a form which is what squarespace offers) with a space/bar for each charm where the customer may type in the name for each charm. I looked at Magento and cannot figure out if I could use the free “Community” option as opposed to the “Enterprise” option which is way out of my league price-wise for my very small business. I plan to check out WooCommerce, too, but was wondering if you could offer insight on this. I have loved the clean design and ease of use that squarespace offers, but desperately need to move on to a commerce format! Thank you so much. I look forward to reading more articals on your site! -Suzanne Myers http://www.suzannemyers.com
I think every platform is right for a certain situation. I love WooCommerce because you can do just about anything with it. And it’s much easier to setup than Magento. Did you read the article mentioned above about hosted vs self hosted? I think that’s one of the first things you decide. If you decide on a self hosted option then I think you should go with WooCommerce.
I hope that helps! 🙂
This is all super interesting and smoe of it is really useful to me – some of it not so as my basic knowledge is so poor – very new to the game!
If anyone has anywhere they would recommend to learn the basics but in fine detail regarding coding, data syncing, basically website basics I guess I would be so greatful.
Thanks Patrick, its definitely going to be a site i come back to for info : )
What perfect timing. You’re just in time for LinkedIn’s Week of Learning. I wrote about it here.
Basically a free week of learning coding, e-commerce, web, etc. There’s a ton of courses on there. I’d take at least one this week. The quality of the courses is really high. 🙂
Thanks, Patrick! Very helpful tips and a fantastic article full with detailed points. You just won a new regular reader! – Jessica