In recent years — and especially with Covid-19 lockdowns forcing so many physical businesses to close — ecommerce has become more important than ever.
There is now a huge number of ecommerce platforms available, each promising to give you absolutely everything you need to build an online store.
But they don’t all come with the same features, and choosing between them can prove difficult.
However, by paying attention to a few key things, deciding on which solution to use can become a LOT easier. And in this post, I’m going to spell these things out.
Let’s start with ease-of-use.
Many business owners turn to ecommerce platforms like Shopify, Wix and so on because they provide a cheap ‘do it yourself’ route to building an online store.
This ‘DIY’ aspect can be extremely valuable, because it removes the need to spend large sums of money on developers.
However, the downside of building an online store yourself is that you will have to overcome a learning curve to do so — and how steep this is can have a very big impact on how successful your ecommerce project becomes.
So, when trying an ecommerce platform out, keep a firm eye on how easy it is to use.
Don’t just think solely in terms of how easy it is to set your store up, though — pay attention to how straightforward it’s likely to be to maintain it in future too.
For costs and productivity reasons, it’s best to avoid platforms that make updating a web page or product information unnecessarily difficult or time-consuming.
The good news is that you can try most ecommerce platforms out for free before committing to them. Always make the most of these free trials.
Our top picks for ease-of-use: Shopify and Squarespace.
Visuals and branding are hugely important to selling online, and you need to get them 100% right.
So, when choosing an ecommerce platform, make sure that it gives you a wide selection of templates to choose from — and crucially, a lot of flexibility regarding how you can edit them.
Here are some key questions to consider when looking at an ecommerce platform’s template offering:
Are the designs contemporary and easy for customers to use?
Most ecommerce solutions provide demo versions of their templates for you to take a look at — compare the appearance of these to successful existing stores in your niche. See if they stand up well against your competitors’ stores in terms of aesthetics and user experience.
Does the platform offer fully responsive templates?
Responsive templates adapt themsleves automatically to suit the device they’re being viewed on — mobile, tablet, desktop etc. — ensuring that your website design works well, no matter how it’s being accessed. They are important because they make the website design process easier, work better for users and can generate better SEO outcomes. Not all ecommerce platforms provide fully responsive templates, so watch out for that.
Are the templates easily editable?
Ideally, your chosen ecommerce solution will provide a drag-and-drop interface that makes it straightforward to move content around the page, and style controls that let you change fonts and colors easily. Additionally, it’s good to have access to your site’s CSS, or the ability to add lines of your own. (CSS is code that lets you style elements of your site.)
Can I make a template match my brand easily?
When choosing an ecommerce solution, make sure that you can tweak its templates in a way that lets you match your brand. Typically the main stumbling block here is typefaces — some platforms restrict the number of web fonts you can use. So check to see if your brand fonts are available in any ecommerce platform you’re considering using, and if not, find out how hard it is to add custom fonts to it.
Is it easy to switch templates in future?
Some ecommerce platforms make it harder than others to switch templates once you’ve picked one and built a site based on it. If you think that you may in future require a significant change in the visuals of your store, you might want to avoid platforms that don’t let you switch templates easily.
Our top picks for flexible, high-quality templates: Shopify and Squarespace
3. Platform history and userbase
It seems as though every month brings a new entrant into the online store builder market — we frequently see new ecommerce platforms being launched, or non-ecommerce platforms suddenly adding ecommerce features (for example, email marketing solutions like GetResponse and Mailchimp are increasingly offer selling tools).
But it’s important not to be too wowed by the newest product on the block, even if it promises a dazzling range of revolutionary new features.
This is because ecommerce platforms, like any other type of business, can fail — and there are risks in launching your new venture on a platform that doesn’t have a long history or a large user base.
That’s not to say that these risks won’t pay off: but for certain types of projects, you may find that choosing an established platform with a large user base and a track record of product improvements is a safer choice for your business. Always check an ecommerce product’s vital statistics!
4. Payment gateways
As you might expect — given that we’re talking about online stores here! — it’s important to choose an ecommerce platform that provides a lot of flexibility for accepting payments.
A ‘payment gateway‘ is the software that lets you process credit card transactions, and the more of them you can use with your ecommerce platform, the more choices you have around what payment methods can be used on your store. While you won’t always need to choose an ecommerce platform that offers a huge number of payment gateways, you may appreciate the flexibility offered by those that do — particularly if you’re anticipating payments that don’t always come under the traditional ‘credit card’ bracket (cryptocurrencies being a good example of this).
Here are a few key questions to consider when it comes to looking at an ecommerce platform’s approach to payment gateways:
- Does the ecommerce platform let you use a large number of payment gateways?
- Are there any extra fees for using a third-party payment gateway instead of the platform’s ‘built-in’ payment processing option?
- If a limited range of payment gateways is available, can I still make use of ‘non-card’ payment methods, like PayPal, AfterPay, Apple Pay and Google Pay?
- Are cryptocurrency payments supported by the payment gateways on offer?
5. Product options and variants
If the products you want to sell come in all shapes, colors and sizes, you’re going to need an ecommerce platform that provides a flexible approach to product options and variants.
Some platforms limit the number of product options that you can create, or force you to buy an app to increase the limits; others make it harder than it should be to let your customers personalize their purchases (i.e., to supply text for an engraving, upload a picture for a print etc.).
Always check that any ecommerce platform you’re considering provides you with the flexibility you need on this front.
6. Automatic tax calculation
When selling products online, you can end up making sales in a variety of jurisdictions with differing tax rates — something that you have to reflect in the pricing of your products.
And, if you’re using a platform that doesn’t cater for this adequately, tax calculation can end up being one of the most frustrating aspects of running an online store.
So if you can, choose an ecommerce platform that provides as comprehensive a range of automatic tax calculation features as possible for the countries you sell in.
Our top pick for automatic tax collection: Shopify.
7. Multi-currency selling
Displaying prices and facilitating checkout in your store’s customer’s own currency can improve sales rates considerably.
So, if you have any plans to sell outside your own country, make sure that you choose an ecommerce platform that lets you sell in multiple currencies — not all do!
The best multiple currency setup is one where the pricing is automatically displayed in local currencies (using a store visitor’s IP address to work that out), and where the store owner can adjust the exchange rate manually to take account of local market rates.
Even some of the leading ecommerce platforms don’t offer any multi-currency features at all, so if you have plans for international expansion, don’t get caught out by this!
8. Multilingual selling
As with selling in multiple currencies, if you have plans to expand internationally, then it’s worth bearing multilingual selling in mind. Some ecommerce platforms are considerably better than others for that.
The key thing to consider when looking at multilingual features is whether the platform gives you the flexibility to create separate versions of your site yourself, or requires you to use a machine translation service.
(Generally speaking, the first option is better).
If you are serious about international selling you ideally want to use a platform that lets you sell using either:
- a folder structure — yoursite.com/fr/, yoursite.com/de/ etc.
- individual country domains — yoursite.fr, yoursite.de etc.
Our top picks for international selling: Shopify or, with a suitable ecommerce plugin used, WordPress
It’s all very well launching a fancy-looking online store for your business, but if it isn’t capable of delivering organic traffic then it’s fairly useless!
So, always ensure that the ecommerce platform you’re considering gives you all the search engine optimization tools you need to rank highly in search results.
The key things you should look for are the ability to:
Additionally, look for platforms that:
- make use of responsive design (templates that automatically resize themselves to suit the device they’re being viewed on)
- provide fast page loading times.
This is important, because Google can treat sites using responsive design and those that load quickly preferentially in search results.
Our top picks for SEO: BigCommerce and Shopify
A lot of ecommerce platforms increasingly aim to be ‘all-in-one’ solutions — where content presentation, online selling and marketing tools are all baked into one solution.
Even so, there are times when you’ll still need to hook your online store up to other third-party tools and services — and for that you’ll generally need integrations.
(This is particularly important if you want to use your ecommerce platform for dropshipping).
Some ecommerce platforms are much better than others when it comes to the number of apps and integrations they make available to store owners. Shopify, for example has an app store containing 6,000+ apps; Squarespace’s contains just 30.
So, if you think you’ll need to hook your ecommerce platform up to other services, the quality and quantity of integrations available for it are worth bearing in mind.
Our top pick for apps and integrations: Shopify
Although often overlooked by merchants, blogging is simply one of the best ways to increase organic traffic to an online store.
Accordingly, many ecommerce platforms bundle it as a feature, but not all do (Volusion and Big Cartel being prime examples) — and the quality of blogging tools can vary considerably between platforms.
The main thing to make sure of is that one way or the other, you can blog effectively using your ecommerce platform. Ideally, it’s best to have a built-in blog in your chosen solution, but if that’s not available, find out out how hard it is to add a third-party blog to your store.
Our top picks for blogging: Shopify or Wix.
12. Point of sale (POS)
Increasingly, and especially given the backdrop of the global pandemic, retailers are selling both in physical locations, and online.
Accordingly, many ecommerce platforms now bundle point-of-sale (POS) features that let you use your online store to sell in physical locations and on the web, whilst keeping all your inventory data in sync.
So, if you are a merchant that plans to sell both online and in physical locations, make sure you choose an online store builder that facilitates POS effectively.
Things you’ll need to look out for are the ability to sell in your country; a wide range of selling hardware (tills, card readers, receipt printers etc.); and compatibility with your mobile device’s operating system.
Our top pick for POS: Shopify
Even if an ecommerce platform ticks all the key boxes for you right now, there’s nothing to say that this will always be the case. You may find that you outgrow a particular solution, and need to move something else.
So make sure that the ecommerce platform you’re thinking of using lets you export all your product, customer and sales data easily — not all do!
Our top picks for future-proofing: Shopify or BigCommerce
14. Customer support
When choosing an ecommerce platform, customer support can easily become something of an afterthought — you focus so much on features that you forget to think about what happens when you need help using them.
Always take a close look at what support channels are available for an ecommerce platform — phone, email, live chat, knowledge bases etc. — as some products’ offerings on all those fronts can be rather limited (especially where phone support is concerned).
Another thing to consider is the languages that the support is available in — you’ll find that some platforms offer it in tens of languages whilst others provide it in English.
Download our free ecommerce e-kit
For a limited time, we’re offering our readers some excellent free tools. Sign up free to immediately receive:
- our online store comparison chart
- a downloadable cheatsheet on how to create an online store
- our SEO, blogging and ‘how to start a business’ cheatsheets
- extended free trials and discount codes for essential business apps
- our latest tips on ecommerce and growing a business
I hope you’ve found our ecommerce platforms buyer’s guide useful!
To sum up, you’ll find a handy cheatsheet of the key things to look for in an ecommerce platform below. Good luck with your selection!
And finally, if you find this content useful, please do share it with others.
Ecommerce platforms — a buyer’s cheatsheet
Make sure that any ecommerce platform you’re considering using is user-friendly. Most online store builders let you get a sense of this via free trials — make the most of these.
Look for an ecommerce platform with a wide range of fully-responsive themes available.
- Platform history
Consider using a platform that has been around for a long period of time and has a large userbase.
- Payment gateways
Check how many are available for all the ecommerce platforms on your shortlist, and what cards and payment methods they can accept.
- Product options
Find out how many product options and variants a platform will let you present your goods in (if you’re selling items that come in all shapes and sizes, larger limits are better).
- Automatic tax calculation
Check that an ecommerce platform’s tax calculation features meet your requirements. The more that this can be automated by an online store builder, the better.
- Multi-currency selling
If you intend to sell your products in a lot of different countries, aim to choose a platform that lets your store visitors see product prices in their own currency (and check out in it too).
- Multilingual selling
If you want to sell internationally, go for a platform that lets you create different language versions of your website.
Choose an ecommerce platform that lets you change all the key SEO components easily (URLs, redirects, alt text, meta descriptions and page headings etc.)
Check that any ecommerce platform you’re thinking of using lets you integrate any other tools you need for your business easily.
Ensure that your chosen platform lets you blog easily; this is key to generating traffic via inbound marketing.
- Point of sale
If you intend to sell both online and in physical locations, make sure you choose an ecommerce solution that comes with strong POS features.
Make sure that any ecommerce platform you choose lets you export your product and customer data easily.
- Customer support
Pay attention to what support is provided by the ecommerce platforms you’re considering using, especially where phone support is concerned.
Got any questions about ecommerce platforms? Just leave a comment below — we read all queries and do our best to answer each one.
(You may also find our ecommerce glossary helpful — it contains a list of key ecommerce terms and provides simple, jargon-free explanations of each one).
Ecommerce platforms — FAQ
What is an ecommerce platform?
Ecommerce platforms are web applications that let you build your own online store without coding. They run in a browser and let you create and maintain product catalogs easily.
What’s the best ecommerce platform?
The answer to this question will depend on your individual requirements, but of the platforms we’ve tested, we’ve identified Shopify and BigCommerce as being the best ‘all-rounders’ for most merchants. Shopify is a particularly good choice for dropshipping, and BigCommerce is a good option for those needing to sell in multiple currencies.
What is a payment gateway?
A payment gateway is the software that an ecommerce platform uses to process credit card transactions. Some ecommerce solutions come with their own built-in payment gateways; others require you to make use of third-party solutions.
What is POS?
POS stands for ‘Point of Sale’ and refers to selling tools that let you accept electronic payment for goods in physical locations (retail outlets, market stalls etc.). Ecommerce platforms increasingly bundle POS features that allow you to sell offline whilst keeping track of your inventory levels. This means that no matter whether a sale happens online or in a physical location, your ecommerce platform knows exactly how many items you have left in stock.