Setting up Shop: How to Choose an E-commerce Platform

You probably know more than you think about e-commerce platforms. For starters, just think about what you expect when you’re shopping online. The web page loads quickly, you don’t have to hunt too far to find the exact products you want and, if you’ve been there before, the website remembers what you looked at. It also tells you exactly what you need to know to help you decide whether a product is right for you.

Even if it’s not a big named site like ASOS or Zavvi you still trust it and feel confident (digitally) handing over your cash. In a nutshell, this is the type of vibe you should be trying to create with your own online store. The right choice of platform is essential for achieving this.

The right backend

As a shopper, you only see the front end of e-commerce stores. As an e-commerce entrepreneur, the backend is just as important. Among other things, having the right backend means you’ll be able to add new products and services to your store with zero hassle. It’ll give you the ability to keep track of orders so you know what to post out to customers, can tell you when you’re running low on stock and can give you an ‘at a glance’ view of what’s selling and what’s not.

In short, you need a platform that works, that’s easy to use and that won’t break the bank. Here are some points to bear in mind as you consider your options.

Types of platform: self-hosted or hosted?

Whether you opt for a hosted or self-hosted platform will depend mostly on what you want to achieve and how involved you want to get in the technical side of your website.

Self-hosted (e.g. Magento, Zen Cart, WooCommerce)

How are your PHP and Java skills? If you have no idea what this means, it’s unlikely that a self-hosted e-commerce solution is for you. A self-hosted solution is one that you run on your own machine. With a steady trickle of customers and relatively few products in your catalogue, this should be doable in the very early days. Bear in mind that if your business really takes off and the number of customers and products you handle increases you may need to invest in new hardware to cope with this.

Self-hosted solutions also tend to be open-source. This means you get full access to the code allowing you to customise the look and feel of all aspects of your store, providing your software development skills are up to this. You also need to keep on top of integrating new versions and bug fixes, as there are no automatic updates.

If being able to showcase and hone your technical skills is just as important to you as making money online self-hosted could be the way to go.

Hosted (e.g. Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion)

You don’t need to be a programming genius to run a hosted ecommerce website. You are essentially presented with an interface the ‘dashboard’ for managing your online shop, although you don’t get access to the code to enable you to change that interface in any meaningful way. If all you care about is a website that ‘does the job’ and you’re not interested in tinkering with the workings a hosted solution is likely to look attractive.

This type of solution is also referred to as ‘Software-as-a-Service’ (SAAS). You don’t own the software as such, you pay to use it for a specified period and the amount you pay depends broadly on how big your shop is. Customer and product data is stored not on your machine, but in the cloud. Low start up costs provide another big draw of this type of solution for new sellers.

Shopping around: things to look for…

Themes

What do you want your site to look like? Which theme you choose will determine the ‘public face’ of your site, that is, the ‘skin’ that goes on top of the site to give it a distinct look. Platforms providers tend to offer a selection of free themes along with a premium range at extra cost. Before you opt for a specific platform make sure there’s something for you in the selection of themes available.

Payment processing and transaction fees

In theory it’s possible to receive payments directly on your website, but the extra site security precautions you need to have in place for this mean that most new sellers opt for an ‘offsite gateway’, such as where the customer is taken away from your website to the payment provider’s site to make a payment. Examples include PayPal and Sage Pay.

Many hosted platform providers take a cut of the total sales price. When considering specific platforms, make sure you are clear on the charge per transaction from both the payment processor and the platform provider.

Making life easier, and keeping your site fresh

You obviously want to see your business start to grow and once that happens these features are likely to be especially useful (both for the front and back ends):

  • Easy search. Can you locate individual customers, orders and products quickly on your backend? At the front end can customers navigate the site easily?
  • When uploading new product details look for drag and drop solutions for putting text and photos on your site. If you’ve just put together a new range of products can you bulk add these to your system from a spreadsheet? Can you bulk edit existing content?
  • Discounts. Is it easy to apply special offers and promotions, such as end-of-season sales?
  • Content marketing. A big part of making your site attractive to customers (and to search engines) involves keeping your site fresh with new content, which includes having regular blog posts, news relevant to your industry, guides and videos. Does the platform allow you to add all this easily to the site?
  • Reporting. Data on how your customers behave when visiting your online shop can help you to make improvements. Look for solutions that are able to collect and present this data in the form of helpful reports.

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