One of the most important steps when starting an e-commerce business is choosing an e-commerce platform. Switching to a different one at a later stage is a major undertaking, so getting it right from the beginning could save you a tremendous amount of time at a later stage in the future, as your business grows and expands. For most budding online retailers, this choice is a hard one. There are many alternatives with a seemingly vast array of different features to consider, and a solution that works great for one store is not necessarily the best option for another. Most online store owners tend to focus more on the commercial aspects rather than the technical details, but this makes your choice of platform no less important. If you don’t plan ahead, you will eventually reach a point where one of those technical details suddenly becomes a barrier for growth.
The two primary tracks
Although there is an extensive range of different e-commerce platforms available, there are two primary approaches:
1. Specialized e-commerce platforms/shopping carts:
There are plenty of platforms that are essentially turnkey storefronts, focusing on shopping cart and inventory management. This specialization is very beneficial for beginners, because the platforms contain everything you need in terms of commerce-related functionality. However, not all of them scale very well, which could cause trouble as your business grows. Some also have clear limitations when you want to publish other types of content than product pages and basic company information.
2. Content management systems with shopping carts:
In the reverse situation, an established content management system (CMS) can be extended with shopping cart functionality. A CMS is designed from the ground up to let you publish and edit all types of web content, but has no integrated shopping cart. In other words, all e-commerce-related tools must be added on top of its basic functionality. While this gives you greater freedom to customize your entire website, it takes more time to get started, and usability could be affected by this layered approach. In addition, there are pros and cons with all individual solutions. Some platforms are more actively developed than others, and their functionality will vary. Looking at the big picture, you should base your platform choice on your own needs – and not just your immediate requirements, but also the long-term ones.
Open source – not just for DIYers
Most of the web actually runs on open source software – it is present in everything from server operating systems to publishing tools. Open source means that the source code is freely available and can be edited by anyone with the right knowledge. What it does not mean is that everything associated with open source is free to use. A fair share of the entire web development industry consists of services related to open source software. In our context, an open source e-commerce platform must be customized to some extent for each individual retailer.
If you actually are a DIY coder, open source software is of course a tremendous asset. However, the majority of online retailers enlist professional developers or purchase ready-made solutions to get their store up and running.
Specialized e-commerce platforms
Most developers specialize in their chosen platform, whether it’s a proprietary solution or open source. Proprietary platforms must be evaluated and compared individually, but some of the most common open source alternatives are:
- Magento – Magento is an eBay-owned company and one of the largest e-commerce solutions worldwide. It is available in an open source Community Edition as well as an Enterprise Edition targeted at large businesses. What separates Magento from many of its competitors is that it includes a CMS.
- PrestaShop – PrestaShop is not quite as sophisticated as Magento and probably best suited for small to medium-sized stores. The platform itself is open source, but there are both free and non-free modules available for extending the platform’s standard feature set.
- OpenCart – OpenCart also uses modules and templates that can be tailored for each individual store. It is developed from the ground up to make it easy to get started, but has no built-in CMS.
CMS with Shopping Cart
Unlike pure e-commerce platforms, where the shopping cart features are front and center, there are options built the other way – by extending the functionality of an existing content management system. The most popular publishing tools, all of which are open source, are WordPress, Joomla and Drupal.
- WordPress – WordPress started out as a blogging tool, but has evolved over the years and is now the most common CMS on the web. There are several different shopping carts available for WordPress, including the popular Woocommerce and WP E-Commerce. A common objection to using WordPress as a starting point for an e-commerce business is the security aspect. The popularity of WordPress has made it an equally popular target for hackers.
- Joomla and VirtueMart – Joomla and VirtueMart is a popular combination because it unites Joomla’s powerful CMS features with a perhaps equally powerful e-commerce platform. Although there are other shopping carts for Joomla, VirtueMart is by far the most used alternative.
- Drupal – The third most popular CMS on the web, Drupal, is frequently used in combination with Drupal Commerce, which can be used to build a full- featured online store without compromising on the CMS features.
Find What Works for You
The best approach to finding what best suits your store is to look at, compare, and if possible, try out demos based on the various e-commerce solutions. Here are a few examples of the platforms we have mentioned.
- Magento – Enterprise Edition, Community Edition • Drupal + Drupal Commerce
- Joomla + VirtueMart
- WordPress + Woocommerce
- WordPress + WP E-Commerce
Many proprietary platform vendors will let you try their solution with no obligation to buy. Since you will be spending a lot of time with your platform of choice, it is well worth the time and effort if the offer looks interesting. Also ensure that the platform is equipped with all the features you need – or might need in the future. Some examples of such features could be:
- Mobile devices – Does the site look as good on smartphones and tablets as on a computer screen, and is it just as easy to use?
- Language support – If you want to expand internationally at some point, this could be a very important factor.
- Versioning – Does the system save earlier versions of the content, making it easy undo accidental changes?
- User management and privileges – If several people in your company will work on the site (now or in the future) it should be possible to set different permissions for different users.
- Backup – When you pay for a turnkey solution that includes web hosting, make sure that there is a backup policy in place. If your platform is self-hosted, set up automatic backups in your hosting control panel.
- Creating and editing content – Is it possible to create and edit content with a user-friendly WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) editor?
- Site speed – A site with a lot of content always takes a bit longer to load, but this can be partially alleviated using caching technologies. In short, this means that the pages do not have to be generated dynamically for each user.
- Video – Is it possible to add video to the product pages?
- Social features – Are there built-in features that let your customers share product pages and other content on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter?
- User Reviews – Customer reviews and ratings are useful features for interacting with your customers, while at the same time boosting your store’s credibility.
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – Is it easy to add the titles and descriptions that show up on Google’s search result pages? Are the URLs formatted using explanatory text (good), or dynamically generated lines of seemingly random numbers and characters (not so good)?
- Returns, payments, customer database, etc. – In addition to order management, does the platform offer integrated solutions for other everyday aspects of your business, and/or can it connect to other applications?
- Themes and modules – Is it easy to customize and enhance your site using different themes and add-on modules?
- Prices and packages – How does the pricing look compared to the competition? Are there fixed rates available for e.g. making the site multilingual?
- Analytics – Is it possible to add your own Google Analytics tracking code?
- Security – Is the platform safe and secure, and is it perceived as safe and secure?
In addition to the above, your business could have specific needs, depending on your product range, how you want to display your content, and not least your plans for the future. Once you find a platform that meets your requirements you will be well prepared – not just for getting started, but also for long-term growth.