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Looking to set up an online store and not sure where to start? This guide will introduce you to the best types of ecommerce platforms and how to decide which is best for your business.
Table of Contents
Put simply, an ecommerce platform is the transactional infrastructure for your online store. While a basic website might display products, the addition of an ecommerce platform allows customers to select an item and conduct the financial transaction that completes the sale. More complex ecommerce platforms provide sophisticated merchandising tools and targeted promotions, as well as ways to track and synch inventory. Platforms can also integrate with accounting and CRM software and shipping services.
Open Source platforms
Open source platforms are based on code that has been made freely available. Inexpensive and easily customizable, they are a popular option for small businesses. Marketplaces offer thousands of plugins and themes. Open source platforms are good for businesses who want to have developers on staff, or when the company wants to commit external developer resources.
Software as a Service ecommerce platforms
SaaS has a variety of benefits when it comes to security and stability. You won’t have to worry when new security patches come out, or that an upgrade to one part of your system will clash with another. A SaaS platform is great for businesses who want robust functionality without the expense of having a team of developers.
All open source platforms operate independently from hosting for the online store, so you can choose your provider and, theoretically, move if you outgrow your hosting service or find a better deal. Some companies own and manage their own servers for on-premise hosting, while others turn to third parties with competitive pricing. While the hosting may be cheaper on a third-party site, this option is likely to involve more time for set up and to maintain the site, particularly if you decide to move between hosts. It’s also likely to take longer to fix problems if there is finger pointing between the providers, with the platform blaming the hosting company and the hosting company blaming the platform.
Hosted & managed by the platform
Ecommerce platforms that include hosting enable you to get things up and running quickly, with quick scalability when you need it. These companies are pre-optimized hosting for ecommerce businesses, as opposed third-party hosts who serve a variety of online business such as video libraries, for example. Managed hosted environments also offer more stability than small hosting companies can offer. Look for details about the platform’s redundant infrastructure, network core, and connectivity to make sure your store stays open even with high traffic. Note: your hosting charges will likely increase as your business grows, but with a highly secure, stable, and scalable system you are less likely to have downtime that will hurt sales. You’ll also have a single person to call if you have a problem, making issues easier to identify and faster to fix.
Your business needs an ecommerce platform because it enables you to market and sell your products. Unless you’re selling only on a marketplace such as Amazon, eBay or Etsy, you’ll need a way to display your products, so customers can see them. Unless you’re expecting customers to send in old fashioned checks by snail mail or go through PayPal, you’ll need a way to process credit card transactions. If you want to sell products directly to customers, you’ll need an ecommerce platform. Having an ecommerce platform also provides a variety of other benefits, including building your brand, developing a long-term relationship with your customers, and managing operations such as inventory and shipping.
The best ecommerce platform for your business depends upon a variety of factors. How hands-on do you want to be with the technology? How many services do you want to be integrated into the platform? How many SKUs do you expect to offer?
- Small business – Is your business small by design? If you have a limited range of products, a solid customer base and no plans for dramatic expansion, it’s OK to keep things simple. You may not need all the bells and whistles of a platform designed to scale for growth. You may decide to keep it simple – it’s OK not trying to reinvent the wheel.
- Mid-market – Are you excited about the potential for growth? If you’re adding employees – or keeping the ones you have busy – you want a platform that can scale with your ambitions. If you’re currently a B2B business thinking about selling directly to consumers – or a B2C business with the option for increasing your B2B sales – consider selecting a platform that can manage both channels on the same site. Maybe your niche is selling highly specialized products, such as auto or computer parts, where specific information needs to be included with product listings. You might not be an enterprise business yet, but you want robust features and functionality that the big companies have without resorting to so many plug-ins that your site slows down. You also want to look at investing in functionality to manage inventory and integrate with other back office operations such as accounting and shipping. You’ll save money quickly.
- Enterprise – Whether new to online sales or well-established in the market, enterprise-sized companies need to be mindful of wasting time and money on an undersized platform. You want something that is scalable, that can handle large inventories, unlimited categories, product attributes and custom fields. Look for an enterprise platform that can manage multiple sales channels on a single site. Combining B2B and B2C sales will make it easy to synch inventories and manage promotions. You’ll also want to maximize your options, ERP automation, and CRM integration. And don’t forget to be on the lookout for fun extras such as product visualizers that will help build and reinforce your brand. Enterprise operations aren’t as nimble as smaller companies. You need to think about your long-term strategies. With existing customers, you have a brand to protect and to build.
- Startup – Are you awash in venture capital or bootstrapping with your bro? How confident are you in your idea? Don’t skimp on your technology investment. If your business takes off, you don’t want to be slowed down by a platform migration. If you build on a hybrid SaaS platform with a lot of native functionality, it will be easy to add features as your business grows. You don’t want to be held back by your ecommerce platform.
When comparing ecommerce platform features and software packages, these can vary on each ecommerce platform so it’s important to consider which are most important to you.
Design and Building Features
- Customizable site designs and themes – The quantity and quality of templates will vary by platform. Many open source platforms have thousands of options to choose from, but how many do you really need? Look at template themes that come out of the box with popular functionality such as Hero Sliders, Product Carousels and Ajax Add To Cart. This will reduce the number of plugins you need on your site, which can help your online store’s page speed and stability.
- Ease of use / user experience – Do you find the interface intuitive? Take a tour of the platform and see how to do the most common items, such as managing products. You want it to be easy to use, but you also want to explore some of the more advanced functionality.
- Mobile site optimization – Customers today want to be able to shop on their smart phones and tablets. Make sure the platform you choose is optimized for use on mobile devices.
- Applications or plugins – Merchants often turn to plugins or modules when an ecommerce platform is missing certain features. Plugins can be a fast and easy way to add functionality – the alternative to custom coding – and there is a varied and vibrant selection of free plugins to choose from. They are also great for those whom are new to website building because they help make a website look more professional easily and cheaply. In contrast, Miva stores use just a few modules because the platform has extensive native functionality. With Miva, you don’t need plugins to add faceted search or combination facets that allow you to create robust shopping tools such as year, make, model lookups for auto parts. Within the platform you can also send abandoned cart emails and wishlists that increase conversions.
Product Management & Marketing Features
Look for these core components of ecommerce that are key to building sales on your online store:
- Promotions and discount codes – Many of the basic sites will only be able to do these with plugins. A more sophisticated system will let you configure coupons with restrictions for date, number of uses, and per shopper use, as well as configure upsell products based on basket content.
- Inventory and catalog management – Do you have thousands of SKUs that fit highly specialized purposes, such as auto parts or printer cartridges? On an advanced platform you’ll have the opportunity to create an unlimited number of different categories, and then organize them into tree-like structures using a drag-and-drop interface. You’ll also be able to set up custom searches. This helps your customers find what they are looking for – and presents suggestions for additional products. On the backend, an advanced system will let you sync inventories, manage shipping, and integrate with your CRM system.
- SEO optimization features – Look for more than just the option of adding metadata and keywords. URI Management tools give you control over your page URLs, while Schema tools enable search engines to display content such as pricing and imagery. You’ll want to be able to automatically create both redirects and Google sitemaps.
- Availability groups – Controlling which products and pricing are seen by different individuals or customer groups gives you the ability to serve both B2C and B2B customers on a single platform.
- Social Media integration – You want to be able to seamlessly cross promote your online store through the most relevant social media sites. Whatever they happen to be at the minute. At a minimum, this includes the ability to place ‘Share’ buttons on product pages. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+ each offer plugins. But the reverse is true – you want to be able to highlight and moderate content from customers and fans.
Development & IT Features
Finally, as you shop for an ecommerce platform don’t forget to run these by your IT department. These are the main issues they are likely to care about.
- Hosting environment – Outlined above, the key decision is whether you want the ability to shop around for hosting services with the intent to save money or have the convenience of going with a platform where the hosting is included. A hosted environment may be a bit more expensive but it’s likely to be a lot more stable and secure.
- PCI compliance – The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) applies to companies of any size that accept credit card payments. If you intend to accept card payment, and store, process, and transmit cardholder data, you need to host your data securely with a PCI compliant hosting provider. While PCI DSS compliance isn’t required by federal law, it is by some states. And it’s simply the right thing to do.
- Scalability – If you have a deep inventory of products, look for a platform that can scale up to manage high volumes of SKUs. These tools include the ability to add an unlimited number of categories.
- Customer service support – Many open-source platforms offer little or no customer service or support. Are you comfortable with that – or would you prefer a platform with a responsive customer service department that can answer questions and help solve problems? Check what hours support is available. On some platforms, hours are limited. On others, help is available 24/7. There may come a time when you need it.
- Resources & Tutorials – Check what resources are available for new users. Forums? Documentation? Video tutorials? Open-source platforms have large crowd sourced developer communities, but the quality of the info can vary. The more sophisticated platforms will have their own Reference Guides and Getting Started guides which are apt to be professionally produced and up-to-date with the latest version information.
Ready to start looking at specific ecommerce platforms? If you’re a mid-market or enterprise business – or a startup with ambitions – you’re likely to be considering these companies:
- Miva – Ranked #1 for Results by G2 Crowd, you’ll have an in-house team to guide you through the design, build, migration and launch of your site. Manage B2B and B2C channels on the same site. There is native support for merchandising, inventory, and checkout. The SaaS hosted and managed system offers easy upgrades, scalable processors, and super-fast page load speeds. Security on the site includes built-in PCI compliance and patch free protection. Payment options include MivaPay, a native credit card wallet plus major payment gateways. Miva provides 24/7/365 in-house tech support.
- Magento Enterprise – Ranked #14 for Results by G2 Crowd. Licensing starts at $75,000 and costs can climb to $500,000 in the first year. Custom site design is done in open source code, with extensions required for basic ecommerce functionality. Third-party hosting is required. Open-source platform requires plugins and patches, which drain CPU resources and result in slow-loading pages. Magento upgrades often break stores and extensions, and soft security on the site has been vulnerable to hacks and data breaches. Payment transaction failures and checkout issues require lots of patching.
- Shopify Plus – Limited B2B channel options on Shopify, and adding one requires sub-domains. Out-of-the-box functionality is very limited and is restricted by plan type. The user interface relies on expensive third-party apps and developers for heavy lifting. The platform is mainly oriented towards small business, with less developed functionality for larger enterprise merchants.
- BigCommerce – Ranked #7 for Results by G2 Crowd. Built-in features are limited, and access to Faceted Search, Dedicated SSL and API access is restricted by plan. There are significant issues with account access and site personalization, and only rudimentary catalog modifications. Performance is hampered by plugins and patches, which slows page speeds. There is no native credit card wallet solution.
Is switching to Miva right for your business? Download the Complete Guide to Changing eCommerce Platforms whitepaper to find out.
Are there free ecommerce platforms?
Yes, but, they usually aren’t actually free. You’ll need to pay for hosting. You’re likely to need to pay for some custom development. You’re likely going to need to pay for some plugins. The truth is, “free” platforms can end up being more expensive than paid platforms. (Watch this webinar for more information.)
Do I need a programmer to use an ecommerce platform and what languages are used?
If you’re keeping it simple, you might be able to do it on your own. Each ecommerce platform is different in the language they use, but most are built in such a way that someone who is somewhat tech savvy can put together a website. But you’re likely to want extra technical help at some point. Therefore, it would be wise to evaluate your options for development support when choosing a platform – even if you don’t need a developer right away. Look for in-house Professional Services and third-party agency partners that can help you grow.
What is a payment gateway?
A payment gateway is the online equivalent of a credit card swiper that you use in a retail store. Payment gateways shouldn’t impact your choice of an ecommerce platform. Braintree and Square make it super easy to start processing payments. Authorize.net gives you the flexibility to work with nearly any merchant services company.
Find out how your online store can benefit from a move to the Miva platform. Book a time with a Miva Solutions architect today.
About The Author
Elisa Williams is a journalist and communications strategist who combines storytelling with solid research and analysis. A contributing author to the Miva Blog, Elisa has written for a wide array of consumer, business and technology publications, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Computer Life and Inc. Her marketing and content development work includes supporting technology companies that specialize in ecommerce, financial services and big data.