Creating an online store opens up an exciting world of opportunity. As an e-commerce store owner, there’s virtually no limit to the amount of shoppers you can reach or products you can sell. But before you build your e-commerce empire, you have to lay the foundation. And this foundation is known as an e-commerce platform.
What is an e-commerce platform?
An e-commerce platform is the engine to your online store. It’s the software that combines your sales, marketing, products, inventory, and operations all into one. Think of it as your business management system.
A hosted e-commerce platform is what most small business owners and online stores choose. This simply means you pay another company – an ecommerce platform – to use the server. Unless you’re a business that intends to house and update your own servers, then you need a platform to host your business.
With so many critical aspects of your online store relying on this software, you have to choose an e-commerce platform that works for you and one you’re comfortable with. Not all e-commerce platforms perform the same or include all the features you need. As an online store owner, you want everything at your fingertips and a platform that is easy to use. If it’s too cumbersome, you’ll spend more time fighting your system than actually selling your products.
As you’re choosing a platform, there are several categories you should consider so you can launch as quickly as possible. Your priorities of features are unique to your business, but you need to know what to look for to get started. Let’s look closely at the most important aspects of an e-commerce platform so your online store dreams will soon become a reality.
Features for the best e-commerce platform
As you begin researching which e-commerce software is best, consider the following features and how important they are to your business. Then you’ll know what features are an absolute must before you select your platform.
Ease of use
Having the best e-commerce platform doesn’t do any good for your business if it’s difficult to navigate or set up.The best platforms are intuitive to use and allow you to set up your online store by yourself — even if you don’t have a background in web design.
If you do need technical assistance, look for a platform with 24/7 technical support and a wealth of online resources. Some platforms offer online forums and communities you can join and your questions can be answered by those going through the same set up as you.
The design aspect might be intimidating to some people. Luckily, you do not have to be an expert in website design to create a beautiful online store. You do however, need a platform that allows you to create a site through drag-and-drop or other easy methods.
Another tool for those without web design experience is the use of templates. If you are interested in using a predetermined theme for your store, but one you can still customize, then look for this feature.
Accepts various payment methods
Payment methods are one of the multiple ways for you to personalize the e-commerce experience for your shopper. Most e-commerce sites allow shoppers to pay for their purchases with credit or debit cards. Your e-commerce store will benefit if you have a platform that supports multiple payment methods and allows for seamless integration.
In addition to credit cards, consider adding options for your shoppers such as:
- Digital wallets: Allows your shopper to use Google Pay, Apple Pay or other “tap-and-go” options. Not only is this a convenient option during a COVID-era, digital wallets are increasingly popular across the globe.
- Installment plans: An installment plan option, such as Splitit, can easily be integrated into your e-commerce platform IF the platform supports it.
- Other payment alternatives: Paypal, Stripe, and Square are a few examples of popular payment methods. These payment options are convenient for your shopper and benefit you as a merchant by getting you paid quickly.
And if you’re selling in more than one country, you need a platform that allows your site to adjust the currency automatically. Look for a platform with foreign currency support to help you navigate the challenges from selling globally.
Optimized for mobile devices
User experience is key in this digital world. Whether your shopper is browsing from their desktop, tablet, or phone, you want them to get the full shopping experience. If you’ve never given much thought to the mobile experience, it’s time to focus on optimizing your site for mobile devices, and you need a platform to support this.
In 2018, Americans spent over $207 billion with their mobile device, and all indications are this number will continue to grow. By choosing a platform with tools to optimize mobile e-commerce, you’re creating a better user experience for your shopper.
Before you get a shopper to come to your site, you have to market your online store and let them know you’re ready. Marketing is an essential part of running an e-commerce business, and you need a platform that’s able to keep up with your demand and the ever-changing digital landscape.
Marketing means using a variety of resources, from social media, to product launches, to ranking high in search results. As you create your marketing plans for your business,
Marketing tools such as:
- SEO optimization. You need tools to help your store rank higher with search engines.
- Social media sales. Does the platform allow you to sell across multiple social channels, like Facebook and Instagram?
- Blog support. Blog posts are helpful to reach a greater number of potential shoppers, look for a platform that allows you to easily manage and post blogs.
- Easily integrate product recommendations. Product recommendations are not only useful, they are practically expected by shoppers.
- Search tools. You want search tools, whether provided by the platform or a third-party app you install, to help your shoppers easily navigate your online store.
- Promotions and discounts. A platform should provide tools to readily extend promotions and discounts when you need them.
Email marketing tools
Email marketing tools, such as cart abandonment emails, are vital to your online store. These are the gentle nudges your shoppers need when they’ve left an item in their shopping cart and need a reminder to complete their purchase. If this is an area of concern for you, look for a platform offering this level of marketing support.
Or email marketing may take on a different role. It may be the message your shoppers need to learn about new products or new customer support policies. Whatever message you need to send, the proper email marketing campaign can deliver it for your business. A platform that provides support for this marketing method is ideal, especially as you’re gearing up for new product introduction, promotions, and special events.
Social media integration
Whether you personally use social media on a daily basis or avoid it whenever you can, your shoppers are using it more than ever. This means your e-commerce store has to go where your shoppers are. The right platform allows you to freely integrate your online store on the various social media platforms.
This means choosing a platform where you can sell your products across multiple platforms, from Facebook to Instagram to Pinterest. You want a site that allows you to start social selling directly on these channels.
By selling directly through social media, you’re giving shoppers a better user experience by saving them a step without redirecting them to another website.
Of course a huge consideration of any platform is the cost. There is a cost associated with the use of all these tools and features.
The platforms typically have a monthly or annual fee. The amount you pay per month varies on the plan you select within the platform. The larger your e-commerce store, the greater likelihood you’ll have to invest in a more expensive plan.
For example, Shopify offers four different pricing plans, each based on what your business needs. The most basic plan, Shopify Lite, is $9 per month and is only a buy button you can place on your existing site. The other plans start at $29 per month and the price increases as your platform features and number of users increase.
Many platforms offer a free trial, allowing you to explore all the features on a greater level. A free trial is an ideal way to confirm if a platform is easy to use and meets your business needs.
Not only do you have to budget for the cost of your e-commerce platform on a monthly basis, but you must also be aware how much it costs for your shoppers to make a purchase. There are generally two types of fees a platform charges for your business when a shopper buys from your online store: transaction fees and credit card processing.
Credit card processing and transaction fees can quickly add up, enough to where this is a major concern for business owners. No matter the platform you choose, it’s important to understand what you’re being charged.
For instance, some platforms charge credit card fees starting at 2.4% + $0.30 per transaction, and the rate fluctuates depending on which pricing plan you choose.
Which e-commerce platform is right for me?
At this point you know you need an e-commerce platform, but perhaps you’re unsure which specific ones to look into. There are numerous choices of companies, which means there’s no shortage of companies for comparison
Here is a list of five companies to consider as you begin your platform search.
Shopify falls into the SaaS category of platforms and hosts servers for online stores. Founded in 2009, Shopify is a Canadian company and now provides support for over 1,000,000 businesses worldwide.
Shopify was the first of e-commerce software but continues to dominate in market share, even with a large number of competitors now. To demonstrate how large it is, Shopify contributed $319 billion in economic activity worldwide from 2016 to 2019.
Shopify allows anyone to set up their own store, whether the items are sold via a website, social media channel, a physical store. Shopify is the third-party a business can use for server hosting, software use, and all functions of running an online store with the features your business needs.
Another e-commerce solution, Magento allows you to easily create an online store in a matter of hours. It’s a highly scalable solution for your business, meaning no matter how big or small your company is, Magento provides features no matter the size of your business, and will grow with you as much as you need it.
Magento is a part of the Adobe family, so naturally design is a big focus of Magento’s capabilities. If your online store needs a website with advanced design features and unique user experience, then Magento has the resources. Resources such as a page builder and extremely detailed product pages make this platform stand out from the competition.
Where Magento differs from other platforms is the customer support. Technical support is provided, but is geared more towards IT professionals. If you’re comfortable with the technical aspect of setting up a store, the design features of Magento are outstanding.
If you’re familiar with WordPress and already have a WordPress site, a popular e-commerce solution is the WooCommerce plugin. This plugin launched in 2011 and now powers 99% of the WordPress e-commerce sites and has been downloaded over 120 million times.
The idea behind the plugin is that within a few clicks, your website can have an e-commerce function.
The reason this plugin is such a popular option among the e-commerce world is because of the number of features you have access to right from the start. The plugin offers data, insights, easy shipping calculation, plus marketing support. All the basic features you need to get your online store up and running can be found with this plugin.
Where WooCommerce differs is with the design aspect. There are no themes are templates, since you’re using your existing website.WooCommerce is ideally suited for small- to medium-sized businesses who want basic online store functions.
Another e-commerce platform for consideration is PrestaShop. It’s a global e-commerce solution and is now the leading platform in Latin America or Europe. PrestaShop powers over 300,000 online stores.
PrestaShop offers the basic features and functionality you’d expect from an e-commerce platform of its size. But where PrestaShop is advantageous is if you plan to sell in another country. PrestaShop is equipped to educate you on the taxes and regulations to sell across borders.
PrestaShop’s pricing structure is different too. It’s free to download and you have access to over 600 free themes for your shop. Certain features cost additional to add to your store, but it doesn’t cost you anything to get started.
Founded in 2009 in Sydney, Australia, BigCommerce has thousands of retailers globally using the platform and is one of the more popular options in the crowded e-commerce platform space.
BigCommerce is also a hosted e-commerce platform that allows a business to run a virtual shop from the hosted servers where all the information is stored.
In addition to hosting and providing the software for your business, BigCommerce provides all tools necessary for you to build your own online store from start to finish. One of BigCommerce’ promise is you can literally set your online store up within minutes. In order to make this promise, BigCommerce offers several time-saving features such as drag-and-drop and built-in templates for your online store.
Final thoughts on choosing the best e-commerce platform
It’s taken you months, possibly years, to put together your plans for an online store. You want a platform that allows you to meet your business goals, while incorporating the most important features for your shoppers.
The reasons for choosing a specific platform are unique to your business. Whether you need high-end design, social media sales, marketing tools, strong customer support, or all of these categories, taking time to exame what features you need will allow you to choose the best e-commerce platform for your online store.