If you sell products online, there are two basic ways you can get those products in front of paying customers: you can rely on a third-party platform (such as eBay, or social platforms such as Facebook) or you can create your own online store with one of the many ecommerce platforms out there today. While you may think that tapping into the reputation and traffic of an established platform will boost sales, more often than not, it will end up costing you in other ways.
Note: Every few months I update this article so you will only see the ecommerce platforms that are currently the best for small businesses. The last update was January 2016.
Here are a few, quick reasons why you should avoid relying solely on third-party platforms instead of building and maintaining you own online store with ecommerce software:
- Platforms such as eBay, Facebook, Pinterest, etc, constantly change there terms, conditions, and even their setup on whim- often without giving any warning to their users. Many of these new terms can make business on the site practically impossible. For example, take a look at the comments sellers are leaving on my Alternatives to eBay article.
- Your customers are not yours; they belong to the platform. You can’t collect customer data, such as email addresses, which means you have a much harder time building customer relationships.
- There are no distractions from competing sellers.
- Once a potential buyer has visited your site, you have the chance to run a re-targeting ad campaign on social networks and other websites.
The Three Kinds of Ecommerce Platforms in 2016 to Choose From
That said, once you decide to start looking into ecommerce software solutions, you will find that there are many options to choose from. Though it may seem overwhelming on the surface, once you are clear about your needs and goals, it is much easier to make a decision. Ecommerce platforms typically fall into three groups.
1. Hosted Ecommerce Website Builders. Hosted shopping cart software allows you to create a professional-looking online store without having to install an ecommerce solution on your own website. In most cases, you can still use your own domain url and have it point to their service. (A few platforms, however, will just give you a customized a url like: businessname.softwarename.com. So, if this will make a difference to your credibility and sales, then make sure you research this before you get started.)
The greatest benefit to this set up is that it is practically hands-free. You don’t have to worry about things, such as software updates, file storage, security certificates, or other technical snafus. The biggest drawback, though, is that they are subscription services where the monthly fees are based on product number and sales volumn. If you are really just starting out this option can be costly. But the piece of mind may make it worth it.
2. Self-Hosted Shopping Cart Software. The next option is self-hosted shopping cart software. Self-hosted ecommerce platforms allow you to install a shopping cart on your own website’s server. If money is a big issue at the beginning, yet you have a little time to set things up and maintain the platform, then self-host shopping cart solution may be a very good option since most of these platforms are free to download (you’ll pay, however, for add-ons and extensions).
3. WordPress Shopping Cart Plugins. The last low-cost alternative to hosted ecommerce solutions is WordPress shopping cart plugins. Since WordPress is currently the most popular content management system, it makes sense to use ecommerce software that automatically integrates with a platform you are already comfortable with. The plugins lsted below all have free downloads with reasonably-priced paid upgrades.
Just a note before you go any further: This list is primarily geared towards small, independent online sellers, micro business owners, artists, and designers who have general tech savvy, but not on the level of developers. They also have limited time and money, to invest in their online stores. So if you fit this description, keep reading. This list is for you 🙂
How Do You Choose the Right Ecommerce Software Solution?
If you want to make a good choice for your online store’s shopping cart, then you have to first be clear about what features and setups are absolutely vital to you. Here are a few things to conside:
- What is your level of tech savvy?
- Can you afford re-occuring costs? Do you have any money upfront to invest in a solution?
- How much time do you have to setup and customize your online store?
- Do you need high-quality template designs?
- How many products do you need to sell and how many (if any) variations of the product exist?
- How many additional features will you need, for example: coupons, discounts, social media integration, reporting, review systems?
- How many customer payment options do you need?
That said, let’s dive in to your options…
Which Hosted Ecommerce Website Builder is Right for You?
These 10 ecommerce platforms offer hosted shopping cart solutions as well as website builders. Some are easier to set up than others, some offer more features, some are less expensive, some are geared towards a certain type of products, while some offer more integrations.
If you need a modern-looking online store supported by an assortment of sophisticated features and tools, then Bigcommerce has what you are looking for. Bigcommerce is one of the leaders in ecommerce platforms, currently powering over 95,000 online stores. They offer a lot of impressive features, such as social media integration, abandoned cart savers, integration with email responders and newsletters, coupons and discounts, unlimited product variations and different customer segments, product wish lists, and product reviews. They also offer 24/7 customer support, which is a big plus. Their standard package is $29 a month, plus a 1.5% processing fee; the more advanced package is $79 a month, without transaction fees.
Shopify is one of the most popular ecommerce platforms on this list, powering more than 175,000 online stores. One of the biggest pluses is their impressive collection of 100+ designs and templates that can be easily customized and set up. The platform also comes with a hefty assortment of tools and features. It easily integrates shipping with every major carrier and will give your customers tracking information for their orders. Shopify supports powerful SEO features, unlimited products, automated tax rate calculations, discounts and coupons, flexible shipping rates, inventory management and much more. The major downside, however, is the cost. Monthly fees for most small sellers will range from $9 to $79, plus 2.25-2.9% and 30 cents per transaction fee. So, this would only be an option for those sellers with a large sales volume.
If you are looking for a reasonably-priced, feature-rich solution with great 24/7 customer service, 3DCart may be for you. The platform is currently used by 17,000+ store owners. They offer a wide array of features, including a loyalty program, product reviews, real-time shipping, integration with many third party apps and affiliate programs, and a blogging platform.The monthly fees range from $19.99 to $65.99 with no transaction costs.
Squarespace allows you to you build a fully integrated and a visually-stunning e-commerce website. It says “Build it beautiful” on their homepage, and they mean it. You can showcase and sell your products with any of their award-winning, mobile-friendly templates that you can easily customize with their powerful drag-and-drop editor. If you can pay for the whole year upfront, then fees range from $8 to $26 a month, otherwise it will be $12 to $36- still pretty reasonable. The biggest downside to Squarespace is that only integrates with Stripe for payments, and Stripe’s fees are hefty at 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction.
Volusion is one of the oldest hosted ecommerce platforms, and it still packs a powerful punch. It sports professional design and marketing features, business tools and good 24/7 customer support. The platform has everything a seller needs to create and and maintain a successful online business in an easy-to-use user interface. They offer many great features, including SEO, integration with social media, product ratings and reviews, daily deals and discounts, email integration, powerful inventory management and the ability to integrate with over 50 payment gateways. Monthly fees range from $15 to $135 and are a bit cheaper if you can pay on an annual basis.
Like Squarespace mentioned above, Wix allows you to easily create a beautiful and modern online store and website even if you are not a designer and you don’t know how to code. The platform offers over 500 beautiful and professional templates for different industries that can easily be customized with its drag-and-drop ecommerce website builder. They also offer solid support via email, phone, their knowledgebase help center, and an active forum. Yearly plans range from about $12 to $16.
Webs is another platform with senority, having been around for almost 15 years. Webs offers a no-nonsense, easy-to-use website builder with drag-and-drop capability. One notable feature is that Webs also allows you to build membership sites directly on their platform. Plus, Webs has an App Store that allows you to integrate a wide array of powerful third-party apps and tools. Their prices are reasonable, ranging from $12.99 to $22.99 a month. The biggest downside to Webs is that they only offer about 50 templates for you to choose from.
Ecommerce Website Builders for Artists, Designers, and Crafters
If you are an artist, musician, designer, or crafter then you may want to take a good look at the platforms listed below. These platforms cater specifically to artisans.
8. Big Cartel
Big Cartel is one of the most sought after ecommerce platforms for clothing and tee-shirt designers, bands, record labels, jewelry makers, crafters, and other artists. So far, almost 1 million artists and creators have used Big Cartel to get their online stores up and running. BigCartel offers a good set of basic features, including mobile-optimized templates, inventory tracking, discount codes, custom domains and order management. With monthly fees ranging from $9.99 to $29.99 (and a free basic version for up to 5 products), Big Cartel is certainly one of the least expensive, hassle-free options for artists and crafters.
Though it may not be as popular as Big Cartel, Indiemade is still a compelling choice for artists looking to showcase and sell their creations. The platform is very easy to use and is backed up by a great tech support team. Plus, their collection of simple, clean themes nicely bring together various forms of content, including text, images, video, and audio. This is in conjunction with ammenities such as a blog, galleries, and an event calendar. You can even integrate your listings with your Etsy storefront. The platform is also soft on the wallet, with monthly fees ranging frm $4.95 to $19.95. The only major downside is that you can only accept customer payments via PayPal, which can get a bit costly.
Storenvy is a bit different from the other hosted ecommerce website builders mentioned on this list, but it’s definitely something to consider if you are in the fashion industry. Storenvy works like a “social network” for shopping. A customized, independent online store is completely free to set up, but it also has a highly trafficked marketplace where you could potentially sell your products right from the start. However, if you choose to sell through the market place, then you’ll have to pay a 10% fee on every sale. Stores are quick and easy to set up, mobile-friendly, and allow you to create discount codes and coupons. The biggest downside: you can only accept payments via Stripe and PayPal, which means you’ll be paying 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction.
The Best Self-Hosted Shopping Cart Software for Small Online Retailers
Below are several self-hosted shopping cart solutions you may want to consider. Most of them are open source programs that are free to download- though you may have to pay for add-ons and professional templates and perhaps someone to help you install and customize it all. Self-hosted ecommerce platforms are great for those sellers with their own sites working on a tight budget. But again keep in mind: although there are many feature-rich, free open source ecommerce platforms to choose from, it can be time-consuming to install and maintain them. So, choose your shopping cart solution wisely.
Magento Community Edition is the free, open source version of the Magento ecommerce platform trusted by the world’s leading businesses and brands. It currently powers more than 250,000 online stores. Merchants can access added features by installing extensions and themes from the huge Magento Connect marketplace. The platform is extremely scalable, flexible, and customizeable. Magento does not provide technical support for the Community Edition, however, so answers to technical questions must be found in the active user forum.
12. Zen Cart
Zen Cart is free to download and install, and it comes with some great basic features. Feature-wise it is pretty comparable to the other offerings in this space. But, Zen Cart’s user support is somewhat better. Another reason why Zen Cart remains a popular choice is that users can adjust some basic settings in the code if needed. It also has hundreds of well-developed plugins along with one of the most active forums around. It even has a comprehensive wiki.
OSCommerce is one of the oldest self-hosted platforms on this list. Feature-wise, it has an impressive collection of free add-ons- over 7,000 to be exact. Plus, the platform has a growing community of over 260,000 store owners, developers, and service providers. OSCommerce also offers statistics for products and customers, weight, price, and destination-based shipping modules, easy-to-use quick search and advanced search features, as well as product reviews. The biggest downside is that their templates are uninspiring and dated.
OpenCart is a robust open-source ecommerce platform with a pleasant user interface. It can handle more than one currency and language, offers the ability to create unlimited products and features and has many integrated payment and shipping options. There are also product ratings and reviews, multiple tax rates, great backup and restore tools and automatic image resizing. Plus, there are hundreds of professional, for-pay templates available. OpenCart currently supports over 13,000 plugins, but most of them will cost you.
PrestaShop is one of the most popular self-hosted ecommerce platforms listed here. Though it’s a relative new-commer, it has already supported more than 250,000 stores. It is an easy-to-use online ecommerce platform with an impressive built-in feature set. They also provide several high-quality low-cost or free plugins and professional themes that display beautifully across all screens. PrestaShop’s biggest feature, howerver, is its introductory courses that include product training and tips for running a successful online store. They additionally offer access to their active forum.
The last self-hosted ecommerce solution is XCart. XCart is easy-to-use, set up, and customize. There are no fees for transactions and no monthly fees for the basic edition. If you want to upgrade, there is a $495 fee for their business license. XCart offers mobile-responsive design, integration with many third-party applications, and a decent collection of well-designed templates. But, you’ll have to pay for them.
WordPress Shopping Cart Plugins
If you already have a website hosted on WordPress and want to add an e-commerce component, investing in a WordPress e-commerce plugin is the way to go. Below are four of the most popular WordPress e-commerce plugins.
WooCommerce is the most popular WordPress shopping cart plugin (it currently powers 30% of all online stores!) and for good reason. It’s packed full of robust features, including hundreds of free and commercial WooCommerce extensions, and it perfectly integrates into your self-hosted WordPress website, instantly converting it to an online store. The plugin itself is free to download.
Ecwid is a powerful, easy-to-use free eCommerce Plugin for WordPress that allows you to seamlessly integrate your online store with your current WordPress site without any coding or design knowledge. Ecwid also makes it easy to sell on mobile platforms, social sites and marketplaces like Google Shopping and Amazon. Plus, the plugin allows you to add your store to as many additional sites as you want and manage it all from one place. Ecwid is free for up to 10 products, and $15 to $99 monthly based on the number of products you sell.
Powering almost 50,000 stores, WP eCommerce is one of the most reliable open source solutions for business owners around the world. WP eCommerce is a robust, free eCommerce plugin for WordPress that comes with multiple functions and features, such as sophisticated reporting, shipping calculations, and integration with the major payment gateways. WP eCommerce has one of the most robust tax management systems of any eCommerce platform. With multiple tax classes and exclusions. The plugin is free for the basic version, and $99 for the Gold Cart version.
The last eCommerce WordPress plugin on the list is Jigoshop. Jigoshop is a well established e-commerce platform that combines broad functionality, easy migration options and professional support packages allowing you to convert your site to a fully dynamic online store. It offers great SEO features, the ability to add video to your product pages and statistics for your online store; it supports the use of gifts, coupons and vouchers, and is PCI DSS compliant. The free basic version is very basic, however, so expect pay a bit for some additional features.
Now that we’ve come to the end of my top 20 ecommerce platforms for small business, I’m turning it over to you. Have you had any experience with some of the ecommerce solutions mentioned above? Have any questions about them? Let us know in the comment section below.