Starting up your own online venture is not quite as challenging and expensive as you might think. The main issue is to find an efficient tool and proper platform to build your ecommerce website on. Actually, there are plenty of web sales website building opportunities available on the market today that come with different quality levels, functionality, flexibility and prices.
Whether you can't afford or simply don't wish to spend your precious time on finding a full-featured, yet easy-to-use ecommerce program, welcome to this article. We have analyzed the eCommerce software marketplace and reviewed the best ecommerce website builders that are available today. These are modern builders that have all the essential features for selling online and that won’t break the bank.
- Why Start an Online Store in 2021
- Pitfalls in Creating Your eCommerce Store
- What is Essential Functionality for an eCommerce Store?
- SaaS or Self-Hosted?
- 7 Best eCommerce Platforms in 2021
Why Start an Online Store in 2021
2020 showed us that sales websites can literally become lifesavers for SMEs and self-employed entrepreneurs. The pandemic forced businesses to close, pause their activities for an uncertain period of time, and introduce strict limitations that dramatically influence the income, and the overall business workflow. Many of the companies that closed their offline stores and offices never opened again.
Businesses that quickly adapted and expanded their activities to the web environment managed to survive. That was a hard but excellently working lesson for all the companies worldwide: a business needs an online sales channel. That’s why 2020 and 2021 brought us a boom of web sales websites and marketplaces.
But of course, the pandemic is not the only reason why you should start an sales website now. There are plenty of other reasons that don’t relate to some force majeure circumstances. So, why else do you need an eCommerce website?
First, to get a new sales channel with new audiences. For example, you manufacture office furniture. You’ve always distributed your products through dealers that re-sold the furniture to end customers and businesses. That’s a working and proven way of sales for a manufacturer. But what if you want to reach your potential customers directly without dealing with third-party distributors? A commerce website can become a great solution. These days, people and even companies have become used to buying products on the web. There are lots of B2B/B2C commerce websites selling everything from pens to heavy machinery.
Second, you can move your whole business online to reduce spendings. Selling online greatly reduces spendings on rent and a bit on advertising, increasing profits at the same time. Yes, some products need to be tested by the customers before they buy it. In this case, you can just open a small showroom and focus all the business processes on a commerce website and online communications with customers.
Third, an eCommerce website can be a great environment for experiments and testing your ideas. Want to introduce a new product or target to a new audience. Do it on the web with minimum risk. You can always hide the product from the storefront and deactivate ads if it doesn’t work. You can quickly cancel the idea if it doesn’t work as expected. With a commerce website it's quite easy to introduce changes.
You can enter a new market or niche with a web shop. Got a one-million idea? Want to step into an unknown territory or super niche market? An eCommerce website is a perfect solution for this. There are thousands of unoccupied niches and you can become the leader in any of them with your own commerce website.
These are only a few of the reasons why you should start an eCommerce store. But anyway, creating an eCommerce website can have pitfalls. Let’s see what challenges and pitfalls you can face before, during and after the eCommerce shop launch.
Pitfalls in Creating Your eCommerce Store
Starting an eCommerce store requires some minor technical knowledge and experience with web interfaces. You also need to know exactly what market, niche, and audience you want to target. Also, keep in mind the budget you are ready to spend on launching your web store and promoting it after the launch.
First and the least dangerous pitfall is the lack of technical knowledge. It’s not a good idea to start an eCommerce website if you have no idea how it works. If you don’t know what hosting is and how to set up your website and use its interfaces, it’s better to hire some coach or train yourself by watching tutorials.
Another pitfall is the wrong budget calculation. It’s now enough to pay for the software platform or rent a cloud solution. You need to keep in mind that once you launch, you’ll have to promote and advertise your eCommerce store. Otherwise, people will never know about it and you won’t be getting customers. Apart from calculating the marketing budget, it’s important to decide whether you will manage your store alone or with a team. If you want a team, then prepare some money to pay them for work.
Long start is also a mistake. Many entrepreneurs failed with their web business because they wanted a perfect finished eCommerce website with all the advanced features and perfect design. They spend thousands of dollars and months on development. And once they launch… nothing happens. No customers, no orders. What a surprise. And sometimes a faster competitor can occupy the niche and become the leader there. Remember: a commerce website is not about a long start. Launch fast and build up step by step.
One more pitfall is the wrong eCommerce software or service. There are plenty of eCommerce software builders for launching a web shop these days. Most of them are great solutions and sometimes it’s really hard to decide which one would be better for your project. At this step, it’s important to do research and pick a solution that is suitable for reaching your business goals. For example, if you’re starting a large commerce website to move your whole business there, it’s better to choose a self-hosted feature-rich platform with open source code. It will allow you to adapt the website to your business perfectly and scale in the future. Simple SaaS platforms won’t allow you to scale much. And if you’re starting a small shop for handmade products, it’s better to rent a SaaS platform for a small monthly fee.
What is Essential Functionality for an eCommerce Store?
First of all, make sure that the eCommerce software you’re about to choose for your web store is built using the latest industry-leading technologies, such as PHP code, MySQL databases, Smarty template engine, AJAX options, etc., and comes with the most comprehensive ecommerce functionality to ensure your ultimate experience while building, customizing and managing a commerce website.
A platform should have unique design templates, full inventory control, built-in affiliate system, advanced marketing and promotional tools, most popular payment gateways and methods, multilingual support, SEO-friendly URLs and many other turnkey ecommerce features and options that are highly efficient and advantageous for both small commerce websites and multi-vendor virtual shopping malls.
Check the list below and make sure your platform supports at least 70% of these features. This is a list of essentials taken from the popular software comparison website Capterra. If your eCommerce software has fewer features, it’s better to consider an alternative.
Must-have functionality for a modern eCommerce builder:
- Bulk Ordering
- Channel Management
- Communication Management
- Customer Accounts
- Data Security
- Email Marketing
- Inventory Control
- Inventory Management
- Loyalty Program
- Mobile Access
- Mobile Commerce
- Multi-Channel Marketing
- Order Management
- Payment Options
- Product Configurator
- Promotions Management
- Returns Management
- Reviews Management
- SEO Management
SaaS or Self-Hosted?
Before choosing a particular eCommerce software, decide on the type of the platform. Generally, there are two global types of eCommerce software: cloud and self-hosted.
A cloud solution, also known as SaaS (software as a service) is hosted on the provider’s server and controlled and managed by the provider. In the case of SaaS, you are not buying the platform, you only rent it. With SaaS builders, you usually pay monthly a fixed fee, plus additional fees for extra services or functionality.
A self-hosted solution is similar to a computer program. You download the installation package and install the eCommerce site builder right on our own (or rented) server. All the management and maintenance are on you. Usually, you only pay a one-time fee for a license and can use the software forever. These licenses are called lifetime. There are also cases when the software developer offers a self-hosted solution for a subscription just like SaaS. But that’s not a very frequent situation.
Both SaaS and self-hosted solutions have their ups and downs. Let's talk about them so that you have a broad picture and could make the right decision.
Advantages of SaaS platforms:
- Quick start. You only need to sign up for an account. And there, you have your commerce website up and running.
- The ease of use. Usually, cloud builders are pretty simple and have only essential features.
- Small fee. You pay a small fee every month.
Disadvantages of SaaS platforms:
- You don’t own the platform. If something bad happens to the SaaS provider, your sales website will just disappear.
- Monthly payments can change. If a provider raises monthly payments, you have to accept it or move to another platform.
- No absolute control over your store. If a provider decides to remove some functionality from the platform because the feature is not popular, you will have to accept it regardless if you actively use this feature.
- No scalability. SaaS builders are usually closed. No access to code. Some even don’t have an open API. You won’t be able to customize your website, develop more features or custom design. Fortunately, some of the SaaS solutions provide you with API, which allow for integration with third-party applications.
Advantages of self-hosted platforms:
- The builder is hosted on your side and you have full control over the backend, the server, and the store itself.
- Works great for large complex projects as well as for small niche web stores.
- Lifetime license. You only pay once and get the platform forever. It’s one hundred percent yours.
- Great scalability. Usually, you have access to a self-hosted platform’s code. This means exceptional scalability and customizability.
- Security. All the data is hosted on your side and you’re responsible for the security measures.
Disadvantages of self-hosted platforms:
- Requires some technical knowledge to be installed on a hosting and maintained.
- A bigger cost compared to SaaS. But it is usually one-time, not recurring.
- Implicates maintenance costs.
7 Best eCommerce Platforms in 2021
We have briefly reviewed seven popular eCommerce site builders that are available in the market. Some of them are SaaS, some are self-hosted. Most of these platforms are paid but there’s one free solution. Let’s take a look at the seven best eCommerce website builders for an commerce website.
CS-Cart one of the few self-hosted eCommerce site builders from our list. It was first launched in 2005 and since then, the builder has gained much popularity among small and medium sized companies. Now, there are over 35,000 CS-Cart license owners in 170 countries.
The builder is known for its feature richness and user friendliness. 500 eCommerce features out of the box, plus hundreds of third-party add-ons and themes on the CS-Cart app marketplace. The code of the builder is open, so you can customize the platform the way you want: develop new features, design, and integrate the platform with third-party business applications.
All the features for an online shop mentioned above are present in CS-Cart even in the standard edition. The software has advanced editions with multiple storefronts and B2B functionality.
The multi-store feature helps you easily open new stores on unique domains and manage them all from a single admin panel. This feature greatly simplifies penetration on new markets, in new niches and regions. For example, you can create a separate storefront for every country in the European Union with the language and currency of that country. It’s the best ecommerce website builder for medium and large stores.
On the downside: some customers report that there could be delay in support due to different time zones.
Shopify is the most known SaaS platform for online stores. It was first launched in 2006 as the solution to create a fully functional commerce website in minutes without any technical skills. And indeed it is an easy-to-use and super friendly builder for online shops. Customers love it for its simplicity and user-friendliness.
Shopify has all the necessary features to start selling right away: CMS, product management tools, order management section, analytics and reports, marketing and communication tools. Unfortunately, there are very few SEO tools available and there are complaints about Shopify’s SEO optimization capabilities.
Shopify is a perfect builder for small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs who want to create a small online shop or a storefront for their company. The admin panel is really friendly and anyone who ever worked with web interfaces will master Shopify easily. They also offer gret support.
Unfortunately, this eCommerce service is not suitable for creating large online shops with many products. There is also near zero scalability. SEO is also a downside of Shopify.
Magento is one of the oldest eCommerce builders out there. It is the most used eCommerce website builder for online shops in the world. Many big brands like Nike and Cisco use Magento. It is super flexible, feature-rich and scalable. There’s one condition though—you need a developer or even a team of developers to start a website on Magento and support it.
Magento comes as a self-hosted solution as well as in the cloud. Self-hosted is free and is best for small and medium businesses with a development team. The cloud version is paid—it is intended for larger enterprises and costs tens of thousands of dollars. It is faster, hosted in the cloud and has some additional enterprise-level features.
Community is one of the strongest sides of Magento. It has a huge community of tech-savvy developers and users who can help you with almost any question. Also, they develop add-ons for Magento that you can use to extend the default functionality of your Magento-based website.
It is one of the greatest and feature-rich platforms on our list. But the downside is that you can’t go without a developer. Also, some users say Magento is quite complicated, it’s difficult to master and it has a long learning curve.
BigCommerce is a cloud-based builder for small and medium companies. This is a great platform for creating a medium-sized online shop or a web storefront of your retail shop. They also offer solutions for large sales websites.
BigCommerce has all the essential functionality for online sales. But some basic features like abandoned carts management come only in advanced plans. There are also lots of ready-made add-ons and themes to extend your store’s functionality.
Just like Magento, BigCommerce has a strong community of users, designers and developers. There won’t be any problem finding the specialist and hiring him or her.
On the downside: customers have complaints about the speed and stability. Also, BigCommerce can get expensive for stores with high volume of products and sales.
WooCommerce is an eCommerce shop plugin for Wordpress. It is absolutely free. The plugin has all the essential features such as integrated payment gateways, social media, email marketing, 1-click selling, and shipping. WooCommerce only works with Wordpress, so if you’re familiar with Wordpress or even run a website on it, there won’t be any problems with understanding WooCommerce.
WooCommerce is tricky to install and set up. You have to be familiar with the technical part of Wordpress to install the plugin and configure it for the best performance. There are lots of video tutorials on YouTube though.
WooCommerce users complain about the plugin’s scalability. As the number of products grows, the website dramatically slows down. This is the main downside of WooCommerce.
Wix is a versatile website builder in its essence. But in the last few years the company has greatly improved its eCommerce component. The eCommerce features have greatly evolved. Now Wix is near a perfect online shop builder for solopreneurs and small businesses.
Wix has multi channel integration, abandoned cart recovery, dropship and print on demand capabilities, and of course catalog and order management tools. Previously, there were big problems with SEO but they have also improved this component.
The main advantage of Wix is its simplicity and user-friendliness. The layout and design is easily customized by dragging and dropping. There are about 500 ready themes, 72 of them are free.
Volusion was launched in 2002 as an eCommerce builder although it has worked since 1999. This is now a cloud based platform for small and medium businesses. It’s a robust solution for selling physical products. Digital products are not supported.
Volusion offers 11 free themes. Other themes are paid ($180), plus you will need to buy an SSL certificate. There is no built-in blog, so you will be missing an important feature for content marketing and SEO.
A great advantage of Volusion is its educational materials. You will find guides and tutorials right in the admin panel of your shop. Just like in CS-Cart. Overall, it is a solid eCommerce website builder with essential features and a number of great design themes.
These eCommerce website builders are just a small part of the solutions available today in the market. Most of the builders are cloud-based and it is understandable—cloud eCommerce builders are easy to use, allow for a quick start and integrate with popular third-party services. Self-hosted downloadable online shop builders are more niche products. They fit big projects and are usually used by large enterprises. Magento is a great example: it is a self-hosted open source platform used by giants like Nike.
To choose the best ecommerce website builder, you first need to decide what project you want to build. Is it a small online shop or a large store with thousands of products. Of course, it depends on your business goals and the budget.
Building a small shop—go for SaaS platforms like Shopify and Wix. Starting a medium web store with a thousand or two of products? BigCommerce will work just fine. Want to start a medium or large shop with outstanding customizability—Magento is your choice. Want to start the same but without programmers—choose CS-Cart.