These days, would you agree, it feels like second nature to jump online to buy stuff. Most of us have taken to online shopping like ducks to water. It’s easy and fun!
It wasn’t that long ago that it was not so common. Many households didn’t have an internet connection, or if they did it was dial-up that was super slow. Transactions online were new, and not all that secure, so there were trust issues for people using their credit card online.
It boggles my mind how, in 20-something years, society has moved from an essentially offline commerce model, to an online digital one. And that move has accelerated even faster over the last 3 years thanks to COVID-19 lockdown measures that saw many businesses having to quickly pivot to online.
In this post, I want to share a topic that is really fundamental to eCommerce: choosing the best website platform to build your online store on.
I see a lot of people making mistakes with this choice, either from poor advice or ignorance about what difference it makes, or thinking that all platforms do the same thing and choosing the cheapest one is a prudent decision.
Your website is the vehicle through which you do business. Choosing well will enable you to grow your business efficiently and effectively.
While choosing poorly is not necessarily the end of the world – it’s entirely possible to shift to another platform, people do this all the time, but this isn’t the easiest, fastest or cheapest exercise.
Why selecting the best eCommerce platform matters for your business
Building an eCommerce business is more than just simply putting up your product listings on the web. It’s actually a lot more complicated than than that.
Just like running a physical retail store or a production facility, the same level of strategic thinking and planning also goes into building and running your eCommerce business.
And if you get this fundamental spot on, then you can take advantage of the digital environment where you can automate and streamline many of the tasks and activities that would have required human intervention.
But when it comes to selecting an eCommerce platform, you have to remember that your eCommerce site will dictate the following 4 things:
- Growth: How quickly is your business able to grow and does your platform help or hinder that growth?
- Running costs: This includes the cost of building your eCommerce platform and ongoing development and maintenance costs.
- Customer engagement: Being able to control and influence the way your customers interact with your business.
- Objectives: The right eCommerce platform will enable you to deliver the service you set out to achieve.
Many eCommerce vendors tend to focus on “skin” deep issues like design, user experience, branding and content.
But the real eCommerce issues are found within the business process, customer engagement and lead generation. All these processes can help you determine whether you’re making a healthy ROI on your eCommerce platform.
Before we dive into the characteristics of a great platform, I want to go through my own personal experience using various different platforms. You might as well learn from my experience – the successes and the mistakes!
My very first experience of eCommerce was straight out of university: I got my first professional job in 1999 in one of Australia’s earliest pure eCommerce businesses, which was called Aboriginal Australia.
The business was a platform to promote and sell original Aboriginal art, on behalf of the artists, as a way to support those artists financially and showcase their art to a broader audience.
I loved the job – it felt really meaningful and purposeful.
But back then, there were no eCommerce platforms that you could buy. Software as a Service and cloud-based technology didn’t exist.
The website had to be coded from scratch, by programmers. Every single product had to be coded in manually. There was no quick or easy way to upload products, no easy way to design the layout or navigation or shopping cart checkout, it was all coded in by the team of programmers.
We all had to learn the hard way how to design and build the website in a way that didn’t take too long to load, especially given it was operating in a time where smart phones didn’t exist and accessing the internet and browsing websites happened at dial-up (or dinosaur) speeds.
Even though the programmers did their best, the website was cumbersome to operate from the back end, and from the front end it didn’t look fabulous. I doubt it would have been easy for customers to browse or to purchase on the site.
But that particular business was definitely ahead of its time. Many of their customers weren’t yet adopters of internet technology or of online commerce. The business ended up having to open a physical gallery space, and I moved on in my career.
Next I went on to work in digital design and advertising agencies, which I loved. I got a tonne of experience working with clients in many different industries, helping to produce their websites.
I learned about the importance of good visual design and visual communication, intuitive navigation and information architecture, and well thought out user experience.
But it was a few years on before I experienced an eCommerce website from the perspective of an owner.
In 2007 I launched my first eCommerce brand, a modern cloth nappy brand in Australia. It’s not around anymore – I sold out of it in 2014 and the owners only kept it going for another couple of years.
But when I launched that business, our first website couldn’t even take a transaction online. It linked through to an eBay store for that.
I’ve seen even worse examples than that too – even in the last few years I’ve come across eCommerce websites that can’t actually take a transaction online. You need to fill out a form and wait to be invoiced first!
Absolutely ludicrous. Assuming customers will forgive you for making it so difficult to buy, and expecting them to still go ahead with the transaction, is completely ridiculous.
In my own business we very quickly moved on to having a fully functioning eCommerce website. And over the years, as we grew and learned more about what the website needed to be able to do in terms of marketing, functionality, and keeping customers happy, I built sites on various platforms – some out of the box like Zencart and Magento, and a custom site or two in between.
Through that experience as a business owner, I learned that it’s necessary to have a platform that’s easy to use and that you can update yourself without needing a developer on-hand for every little thing. And there were lots of other hard-earned lessons that I’ll share with you as well.
What are the different types of eCommerce platforms?
When it comes to selecting an eCommerce platform, you have several options available to you:
- Build your own from scratch (or have a developer build it for you). I guess the pro of this option is that you can make it look however you like, and possibly if your developer is well-priced it may not be too expensive. But the cons are significant in my experience: you won’t be able to integrate with the marketing or payment options you’ll need to use to grow your business without constant help from your developer, which becomes costly and time consuming, isn’t always reliable, and basically locks you into their system. Much like opening an account at a bank, once they’ve got you in it’s really hard to leave.
- Go with an open source platform like Magento or WordPress with WooCommere. This option can be attractive because you’re not locked in to any one designer or developer and you can easily add in extensions or plugins to integrate with any other marketing or payment app you need to use. I’ve used both Magento and WordPress with WooCommere, and I ultimately found them to be unreliable with constant plugin or extension conflicts. I had one horrendous experience with my Magento website too, what should have been a simple thing for our developer to install and customise an extension I needed to use for some marketing strategy or other, ended up completely compromising the website and the entire thing went down for 6 weeks! I also found these platforms became more expensive over time, as I had to pay ongoing for things like security certificates, plugin subscriptions, hosting fees, and developer fees for upgrades and fixes.
- Choose a SaaS or Software-as-a-Service option, like Shopify or BigCommerce. Everyone who utilises an eCommerce SaaS platform experience the same technology for a fixed monthly fee that covers server use, maintenance, security and upgrades.
So what’s best? How do you choose wisely so that your business can flourish?
So by now it should be clear that the eCommerce platform is the backbone of an online retail enterprise. eCommerce platforms are essentially software applications that enable businesses to execute complex functions both in the front-end and back-end.
This includes CRM, inventory management, mobile commerce, web design and warehouse fulfilment. And choosing the right, or best platform, can help to streamline how your business interacts with your clients, customers and employees.
The best eCommerce platform is the one that successfully delivers the outcomes and objectives that you have set for your business. Your goals might be to increase revenue, improve customer engagement, to retail as well as wholesale, or to enter or create a new market.
Also, the right eCommerce platform should fit well with the current technical expertise of your team. I definitely learned this the hard way, after moving to a platform that was really complex and difficult to use in the back end, and required a high level of training and expertise, and ultimately a lot of expensive developer time to make it work well.
From your perspective, you probably just want a platform that will successfully sell stuff, that is easy for you to operate and easy for customers to shop on, right?
But here are some extra, more detailed considerations:
1. Vendor experience and expertise.
Is the vendor, the platform you choose purpose-built for eCommerce, or the developer you work with if you decide to build your own custom site, experienced in building eCommerce sites?
WordPress is a really popular platform that many eCommerce stores start with. To use WordPress for eCommerce you need to use the WooCommerce plugin to enable the actual eCommerce functionality. Ultimately I found WordPress limiting, even with the WooCommerce plugin, because the platform is basically designed as a blog.
Yes there’s the WooCommerce plugin there, but it’s an add-on, it’s not their core expertise. And with WordPress, you do typically need to add in lots of extra plugins to be able to do what you need to do, and that leads to conflicts that either slow down your website performance or require developers to fix.
I’ve also found that hosting can become expensive and unreliable. This isn’t just with WordPress sites, happens with Magento too. I’ve had several clients whose websites crash if too many visitors hit the site at once, because the hosting just can’t cope.
Not much good if you’ve invested a lot in developing and marketing a new product, only for your launch to fail because the website crashes!
Whereas, a platform like Shopify is totally purpose-built for eCommerce. eCommerce is what it’s built to do, so you avoid many of the pitfalls or issues that come about by trying to make another platform that isn’t really designed for the purpose, into an eCommerce store.
2. Customer experience.
Your customers’ experience browsing and shopping on your website is a huge influence on the success of your eCommerce store. So it’s absolutely critical that you assess the user experience (UX) of your chosen eCommerce platform.
You want a platform that is user-friendly for you and your team to use on the back end, plus easy and intuitive for customers browsing and shopping on your site.
When it comes to design a website with a great customer experience, there are two super important things that you need to understand:
Firstly, unless YOU are an experienced web designer who understands not just visual communication and information architecture, but also understands how to personalise a website’s design and navigation to suit the store’s buyer journey, then you shouldn’t use a platform like Wix where you are dragging and dropping widgets onto a page to design it however you like.
What you like personally isn’t necessarily going to be effective, and probably won’t be if you don’t have that experience or expertise in designing a website.
Secondly, you also need to be careful about choosing a template or theme. I realise it’s tempting to choose a free or cheap theme and just customise it with your brand colours and uploading your products.
But a template is only just an example of how something could look – it does not take into consideration your specific industry or your specific buyer journey.
3. Can it integrate with other applications?
There are numerous platforms out there that make it super easy to get your website up, are sometimes cheap as well like Wix, or that perform additional functions, like wholesale login and pricing, that are important to your business. Neto is one that comes to mind here.
The major downfall with many of these platforms is that they just do not integrate with the sorts of marketing applications you’ll want and need to use to implement a proper eCommerce marketing strategy or efficient fulfilment processes. Apps such as an email marketing platform, or social media advertising, or an app that integrates with your shipping or courier provider.
Some of these platforms claim to be an ‘all in one’ platform that handles all of your marketing needs as well. But inevitably, any ‘jack of all trades’ ends up being expert at none.
And for an eCommerce business to be able to scale, you really need to be able to properly market your business, and that requires seamless integration with the right marketing apps – apps that are designed for their purpose.
Can your platform scale with your business as your business grows? How easy or difficult will it be for you to do so?
One of our recent clients, I Still Call Australia Home, was faced with a situation during her busiest trade period – Christmas – where her sales increased dramatically and her hosting couldn’t cope.
She was able to upgrade to a stand alone server that could cope with the increased traffic and transactions, but she was still offline for a period of time causing her to lose a lot of money in lost sales, plus the upgrade was very expensive.
Whereas a platform like Shopify is seamless in enabling you to scale up and there are no issues like hosting not coping with sharp increases in the volume of traffic or numbers of purchases your website receives as you grow.
As a small business owner, one of the hardest things to deal with is when things go wrong. And if you’re not a technical kind or person, any IT or technology related things can be a major headache when they go wrong!
When things go wrong, and believe me, things WILL go wrong, will your vendor provide you with the necessary support to help you resolve the problem or issue?
Always look out for vendors that provide 24-hour emergency support and can be contacted through different channels including email, web chat and by phone.
Hands-down, Shopify provides THE best tech support I have ever seen from any platform or application, and I’ve used a LOT of different apps in my years! You can almost do without a developer to fix or change things, their tech support is that good.
6. SEO friendliness.
SEO, short for Search Engine Optimisation, is basically making your website easy for search engines to find.
Google, being the biggest search engine, should be responsible for the majority of your website traffic, but that will only be the case if Google knows your website exists. Which it will only do if your website is SEO friendly.
Most of the common eCommerce platforms are easy to optimise for search engines – if you go with Shopify or BigCommerce or WordPress or Magento you will be fine. But if you’re using a cheap platform or a custom-coded website, really make sure that it’ll do the job too.
With the proportion of website visitors now browsing your website from their mobile device, it is no longer optional for your website to perform well on mobile. In fact, it is so essential that if your site is NOT mobile friendly, you’ll pretty much be black listed on Google.
When you use a platform that is purpose-built for eCommerce, like Shopify, not only will your website be easy to browse on mobile, but their shopping cart checkout process is super easy to navigate through on mobile.
I often find that other platforms, like WordPress or Joomla, don’t have the same checkout experience and this forces the customer to shift from mobile to desktop in order to complete a purchase.
Believe me – any time you make it hard for a customer to complete a purchase, you will lose customers as they move to an easier-to-use online store.
I think this is sometimes such a basic expectation that we almost don’t even think about it anymore, but perhaps the most important thing to consider is security.
Since eCommerce is a digital platform that is actively taking financial payments, you want to make sure your eCommerce provider has the necessary security protocols in place.
If you’re custom-building your website, or using an open source platform like WordPress, you will need to purchase and install a security certificate. This is something you’ll need to update and pay for on an annual basis.
Platforms like Shopify already provide that security as part of their system, so that’s an extra step and an extra expense you don’t have to worry about.
Here are the must-have features when choosing an eCommerce platform
Every eCommerce platform has their own set of unique features and functions. But for your business, you need to make sure your eCommerce platform has these following features.
1. Robust catalogue
Your product catalogue represents the heart of your inventory. Check to see if the catalogue is easy to update and intuitive. But more importantly, check to see if the product catalogue meets the requirements of your sector.
For example, if you work in the fashion or clothing sector, your customers will want to be able to select the size or colour of a product. Additional examples include product bundles and cross-linking between product pages.
Some of this functionality might be built into the platform, some of it might come with a theme, and some of it you might achieve with an app or plugin, depending on how common or customised the functionality you require.
2. Flexible pricing
You’ll want to easily run promotions, sales, free shipping offers or discounts, using coupons or store-wide discounts.
Additionally, you might want to offer pricing tiers, such as wholesale and retail pricing.
Again, some of this functionality might be built into the platform and some, such as wholesale pricing, might be an extra app.
3. Flexible shipping
Shipping demands have changed drastically over the years, both from the customer’s expectations and your own needs as a business owner.
Customers want fast and cheap or free shipping, while as a business owner, you need the fulfilment side of things to be streamlined, reliable and efficient.
Ensure the platform can integrate with your preferred shipping provider, and ideally automate the process of sending shipping notifications to the customer. You also want to be able to offer different shipping options, like express, regular and free.
I know that tracking and analysing your website’s performance metrics sounds like the world’s most boring job to most people. But being able to track and monitor your website’s performance metrics is like keeping an eye on your car dashboard – it tells you if you’re going in the right direction, what’s working and what’s not.
Thankfully, most eCommerce platforms, like Shopify, have their own analytics tracking.
For those that haven’t, or if you want to gain access to more in-depth analytics, then you need to be able to sync or integrate the data from your eCommerce platform to Google Analytics, so make sure this integration is possible.
5. Meta integration
Integrating with your Meta business account allows you to do a couple of things: firstly, you can track certain actions a website visitor takes on your website, such as landing on a page, browsing the products in your store, adding products to their shopping cart, and purchasing.
You can then show ads to customers based on those actions.
Additionally, you can sync your products to Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger. After you create a product catalogue, you can use it for different strategies, such as displaying products in a collection advertisement or tagging products on Instagram.
All of this can result in significant increases in website traffic and sales.
6. Google merchant integration
Google Merchant allows businesses to upload and maintain product information so it can be displayed in the relevant Google Shopping results. It helps to drive more traffic to the products in your online store, and can result in a significant increase in traffic and sales.
7. Collecting reviews
Being able to collect customer reviews and post them on your website can greatly impact your conversion rate.
In fact, one study revealed that positive reviews increase trust for 72 percent of consumers, while Millennials in particular trust user-generated content 50 percent more than any other media.
8. Automatic tax and account calculation
If you’re a global eCommerce business, then you need to abide tax laws of different countries alongside their currency requirement. Failure to abide by tax laws can lead to a high-profile legal action.
10. Multiple payment gateways
Having multiple payment options which include PayPal, credit card, and debit card has proven to increase conversion. Plus, if you’re planning to grow your eCommerce store internationally, you’ll want to use local payment gateways to gain the trust and custom of local markets.
One extra benefit of Shopify that I love is their Shop Pay payment system. When a customer shops on a Shopify website, they have the option to save their credit card and for future purchases on any Shopify site, they receive a unique confirmation number via text message, meaning they don’t even have to put their credit card in again.
This significantly speeds up the checkout process, removes barriers to entry at the point of purchase, making it easier to convert customers.
Clearly I’m a fan of Shopify here…
I’m in the fortunate position to have had experience using and running businesses on many different website platforms, and right now, Shopify gets the most ticks from me.
But don’t just take it from me – let me tell you what our recent client Felicia, from I Still Call Australia Home, has to say. Felicia was an established business on the WordPress platform – she was already getting a lot of traffic and sales, so moving platforms felt like a pretty risky move and she needed to feel certain that it would be the right move. Here’s what she had to say:
“Why I moved from Shopify to WooCommerce and chose Productpreneur marketing to do it …
While I really liked and had success with my WooCommerce website, as my business was growing, and the needs for more functionality, traffic and sales grew, WooCommerce began ‘creaking at the seams’.
Issues started occurring that meant the website went down during peak periods, including losing orders; issues with plug-in compatibility; and the website ‘crashing’ with too much traffic…
My server host even told me I’d need my own IT guy to manage my server. No thanks! While I’m technically minded, this was one step too far.
In addition, the check-out process was clunky; page loading speed was slow; I had high abandoned cart rates; and low conversion vs benchmark.
I started to feel my website was working against me rather than for me; and my fears increased for going through another peak period worrying if my website was going to work.
After using Shopify as a customer, and seeing how fast, and simple especially the checkout process was, I was pretty interested!
Then I found out I wouldn’t have to worry about supporting how much traffic was coming to the site (causing server issues like it had on WordPress), page load speed or scalability, and I was convinced.
In addition to this, the fact that Shopify exclusively focuses on eCommerce businesses was a big plus…. I’m always a big fan of companies that are experts in one thing, as opposed to trying to do them all. I was at a US conference and most of the big companies there exclusively integrated their systems with Shopify but no other platform. Hmmm…
So when I met Catherine and her team, from Productpreneur Marketing – who focus exclusively on eCommerce businesses; have had eCommerce businesses themselves, and who used to support WooCommerce but now exclusively do Shopify websites, I was in!
I was super confident they would not only understand where I was coming from as an online store owner, but also understand and be able to anticipate my needs moving from one platform to another; as well as being Shopify specialists and create something stunning my customers would love.
Catherine and her team went above and beyond to provide a professional and exceptional service – no question was too big or small.
They also had great attention to detail, with 1,000+ SKUs being transferred over and just as many ‘pages’ optimised for SEO on my old site, it was a mammoth task that they transferred across with ease.
I really appreciate how they were so responsive to any question and didn’t ghost me after going live – they’ve literally been there every step of the way!
To say I was ‘quietly terrified’ about the transition because of all the SEO work I’d done on my old website not transferring across, was an understatement – but I needn’t have worried.
Page speed has increased considerably, and I finally have a ‘Mega Menu’ and great UX, which I struggled to achieve with my old WooCommerce site because of plugin compatibility issues.
It looks better than ever, with a beautiful design, and even a more streamlined logo design suggested and approved as part of an unexpected bonus.
It was such a relief and pleasure to work with professionals who deeply understand eCommerce, Shopify and Woocommerce; including all the additional integrations including payment gateways; review and email software that compliments the website.
I also have had great, and unexpected benefits with the speed and usability of the Shopify back-end…. I have gained so much time back with small things such as uploading products; and bulk-editing products for sales; new collections and more.
Even just updating the stock levels is so quick, rather than sitting there waiting for a rotating blue circle on the screen, then getting distracted because it takes so long, and not updating the stock in the end… instead it literally takes less than 30 seconds to go in and update it because of how great the product search functionality is; as well as the speed of it.
If you are wondering what’s better – WooCommerce or Shopify – having now experienced both, I can definitely say it’s Shopify all the way!”
The biggest mistake I see people make…
The biggest mistake I see eCommerce store owners make when they choose their website platform, is choosing something based on what’s cheap to get going.
Unfortunately, they often end up with a system that doesn’t integrate with the marketing or fulfilment apps they need in order to generate sales growth. And they often end up with a poorly designed website that does not appeal to customers or help lead customers to purchase.
I don’t say this to suggest that you should all go and spend a lot of money on your website, because that’s not the answer either! There’s plenty of expensive websites that are also poorly designed.
I think the better answer is to educate yourself by speaking to successful eCommerce business owners about what has worked well and what hasn’t, and find out why.
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