Ultimate Ecommerce Website Guide
Chapter 2: How to Choose the Best Ecommerce Platform
What is the best ecommerce platform?
One question that I have received over the years is, “What is the best ecommerce platform?” or ”What is your recommended ecommerce platform?”
Like any search for the “best option”, you are going to be hard pressed to find someone willing to say definitely “this is the best ecommerce platform”, until you have a little bit better understanding what the person asking is looking for.
The good news is there are many great ecommerce platform options for retailers to setup their online store. Most of the platforms have very similar features and functions, especially when it comes to the needs of first-time store owners.
However, before diving into all the options you have when it comes to setting up an online store, I would highly recommend understanding the two main types of ecommerce platforms that you will see in the market. These are “open source/self-hosted” and “proprietary/hosted” ecommerce platforms.
Let’s go into the difference in these first and then dive into the specific ecommerce software that is going to fit your needs in online retail and dropshipping.
Open Source/Self Hosted Software
This is software that is typically open for anyone to download, install and modify. It is given away for free in hopes that it will make money from paid extensions, plugins, hosting or other maintenance fees. Because of the code’s “openness”, this type of software commonly has a community of developers creating plugins/extensions that can also have a freemium model and can allow you to build a really powerful website for minimal cost. Because of the nature of “open source” code, it is also very flexible and you or your developer can modify the code in just about any way to have your site do just about anything. However, with free code and customization comes management of that free/custom code and the hidden fees can add up from the support and development costs you will incur to update and maintain the code. You will also need to host this code somewhere and depending on which host you choose, it is often up to you to manage any failures of your site, server, or other code-related issues.
Hosted platforms have become very popular as it allows the business owner to focus on marketing their business and the server/code management is for the most part maintained by the hosted ecommerce platform provider. It is however less flexible of a platform, and you will need to rely on “apps” in the platforms’ marketplaces for the functionality you seek. You can also develop your own apps to create custom functionality, but these apps can be more limited than open source plugins/extensions. This is dependent on what the platform allows the apps to access via their API, whereas open source code is much less limited by the access provided by the platform. Most ecommerce platforms built for small to medium size businesses start at around $30/month and can range close to $200-$300/month for more advanced features and higher volume online stores.
In Review: Open Source vs. Hosted / Proprietary
So you may be wondering which one is right for me. I think this answer is simple. If you are little more technical than the average person (or have the resources that are) and truly value flexibility, deep customization and ultimate control, open source software on your own server is for you. If you value convenience, hassle free hosting and affordable 24/7 support, proprietary hosted software is the route you should go. It’s worth noting that because more people fall into the latter category, the money is heading towards the hosted solutions and the community is following. The combination of more financial investment, a growing community, and the API connected world we live in, flexibility and customization is becoming more of a check in the boxes for both the open source world as well as hosted platforms.
So now that you know the difference in the two very different choices you have in ecommerce platform types, we’ve selected the two most popular platforms among our customers from both hosted and self-hosted for a quick comparison.
Open Source Ecommerce Platforms:
- Magento: This software is a household name and a leader in the ecommerce software world. Magento is extremely flexible with various extensions to make it one of the more affordable yet powerful platforms. However, “affordable” can have not so cost-effective expenses. Magento is known for having expensive development and hosting costs in comparison to other open source software out there. It does sit head and shoulders above most free ecommerce software, and although pricey to maintain, it is much cheaper than some of your enterprise ecommerce software options.
- WooCommerce (WordPress): There is a ton of misinformation out there about WooCommerce. Over the years, I have heard many people say it is “just a plugin” for WordPress. With a robust community of developers and powerful plugins as well, it is a platform in its own right. WooCommerce sits very close to accomplishing complex retail needs as much as Magento in addition to all the benefits of being on the WordPress platform. Some of those benefits include, the largest community of developers, cheap yet sophisticated hosting options, largest “plugin” repository and more. It also owns the crown of most used ecommerce software on the internet (reported from installs on websites).
Hosted Ecommerce Platforms:
- Shopify: Shopify is the fastest growing ecommerce platform for a reason. It has very intuitive software with great features and functions in the admin panel. It also has a large developer, design and retailer community providing top-of-the-line themes, apps and community support. Their support is also something I have been very pleasantly surprised with, which is vital when choosing a hosting platform. Shopify seems to be the clear leader for new small businesses needing an ecommerce site. One downfall, that may be quickly outdated after writing this, is they do not have a great way to manage a wholesale business and retail business from the same website (basically dealer and discount management). In order to effectively do this you need to purchase their Shopify Plus Platform which is typically outside the budget of most small retailers starting around $2,000/month. I have had better luck with other platforms, such as WooCommerce, in being able quickly accomplish this.
- BigCommerce: BigCommerce is a clear second out there in this space, however it has a solid base of fans that enjoy the platform more than Shopify for its more “traditional” ecommerce approach to the software. One example is it’s support for nested subcategories that most traditional ecommerce software has, but Shopify does not (instead uses “tags”). Also, because of their support for wholesale dealers and what some call a “better API”, BigCommerce has won over some that have considered themselves to have grown out of Shopify’s functionality. With both companies evolving at such a rapid software development pace, you will need to judge for yourself at the time of reading this.