eCommerce platforms: How to choose the best one for your business
When you’re running a business, it can be hard to choose an eCommerce platform that’s right for you. You could find yourself bogged down with jargon and unsure where to start your search.
Choosing the right platform for your SME could boost sales and attract more customers so it's important to understand your unique business needs in order to find the best fit.
To help you out, Bionic has put together the perfect guide to help you understand what an eCommerce site is and how to set one up easily.
What is an eCommerce platform?
In simple terms, an eCommerce platform is a software application that helps businesses carry out things like; inventory management, site design, mobile orders, marketing and web hosting. An eCommerce platform will assist you if you want to sell your products on the web and run an online shop.
However, platforms like these can also help customers discover your products, shop using an online cart and make payments via the internet so, it’s beneficial to both parties.
How do eCommerce platforms work?
It can be tricky to wrap your head around how eCommerce platforms can actually help businesses like yours. Take the following anecdote as an example:
- A customer is browsing the internet for a picture frame and comes across your home-ware website.
- She sits at her laptop or on her phone and scrolls through your online shop. She chooses a frame and places her order, inputting her payment details.
- When she places her order, her web browser communicates with the server that manages your website.
- Your web server then sends her details to your order manager — An order manager is just a central computer that deals with the whole payment process, from payment to dispatching the goods —the order manager will check with the database to see if the customer’s picture frame is in stock.
- If the item is not in stock, your stock database can easily order it from the manufacturer.
- The stock database will then tell the order manager if the frame is available or if it needs to be ordered. The customer will then get an estimated delivery date sent to her.
- The order manager processes the sale and communicates with whatever merchant system is linked to your site in order to take payment.
- The merchant system carries out some checks with the customer's bank to see if she has the adequate funds to make the payment.
- Providing all is in shape with the customer’s funds, the merchant system authorises the transaction, and the sale can go ahead.
- The order manager lets your web server know the transaction has been approved and processed. The web server shows the customer a ‘success’ page confirming that her order has been completed and she can look forward to receiving her frame.
- The order manager sends a request to the warehouse to dispatch the frame to the customer.
Does it matter which platform I choose for my business?
The simple answer is yes. This is because different eCommerce platforms offer different features, some of these may be more relevant to your SME than others.
The best way to check if an eCommerce platform is a match for your business is to head to their individual websites and see what they offer. Make a list of pros and cons and see if you can narrow down your search for your best fit.
It’s a good idea to make a list of your requirements before you research each site. Then you’ll be clear on what kind of platform is needed for your SME to thrive.
For example, do you want a platform that is easy to maintain? Do you require a basic set-up or want to be able to personalise your site to reflect your business? Make a note of everything you want out of an eCommerce platform, then you’ll be clear on what you’re looking for.
What are the different types of eCommerce platforms?
There are a few main types of eCommerce platforms. Each differs in what they offer your business.
The main types of eCommerce platforms:
- Software-as-a-service platforms — Also known as SaaS, this platform works via the internet. SaaS platforms only involve software, an example of this is the well-known site Shopify
- Platform-as-a-service platforms — Sometimes referred to as PaaS, these platforms also work via the internet but you are able to use the cloud to build software too
- On-premises platforms — Any sites that are set up by you and managed by your IT team. This type of platform is managed by your company in-house
SaaS and PaaS options are usually best for smaller companies because they offer professional setup and extensive support. But the downside is they usually charge a monthly fee.
On-Premises platforms are usually aimed at businesses that have prior experience with e-Commerce and are able to run everything themselves with little or no help.
On-Premises platforms can allow a company to have more control over their site and create a unique virtual storefront. It’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of each platform type before you choose one though.
Other types of eCommerce platforms:
Building your own eCommerce platform can seem like a lot of work, especially if you’re already busy running your SME. But you can always hire an expert to do it professionally for you.
Build your own platforms
Although building your own platform is less common nowadays — as there are so many ready-made options out there — creating your own allows you to be specific about your unique requirements.
You can get as creative as you like and ensure your platform stands out from other businesses.
1. Traditional platforms
With a traditional platform, you simply buy a license fee and renew it every year. This is the most common type of platform used by businesses.
Your own IT team will usually work with developers to build your platform on-premises or via the Cloud.
The good thing about traditional platforms is that they are easy to keep on top of and can be quickly set up.
2. Open-source platforms
An open-source platform is similar to a traditional platform. The only difference is you don’t pay upfront for the license fee.
Some businesses prefer this, although bear in mind, you do have to pay for; initial development, set-up, further development and upgrades. So, although this can feel like a cheaper way of setting up your platform, those separate costs can quickly add up.
3. Cloud platforms
Cloud platforms are a bit different from traditional and open-source platforms as they are completely managed online through the Cloud. An example of this would be Amazon Web Services. Some businesses prefer using a cloud platform because it often offers better security and stability.
What are some of the most popular eCommerce platforms?
There are lots of examples of popular eCommerce platforms, some of which offer great add-ons and plug ins for your SME needs.
To cut through the jargon, a platform is simply a model that makes interactions between different groups easier and more efficient. For example, the interaction between the customer and the business or the manufacturer.
An eCommerce platform usually brings together customers and businesses. Some examples of well-known eCommerce platforms are below:
Shopify comes under the software-as-a-service (SaaS) section of eCommerce and is popular with a lot of businesses. You can sell directly through your website, at your retail store or on your social accounts. Plus, you can market through a third-party if you wish.
You can also choose from hundreds of themes to make your site stand out from the rest. Shopify is a good starting place for many SMEs as it handles all aspects of your business, so you don’t have to worry about complex set-up.
BigCommerce is another well-known eCommerce platform. It offers web hosting and also has lots of customisation options, so you can personalise your site. However, keep in mind that you can’t register your domain name on BigCommerce which can be an issue for some businesses, so be prepared to buy your domain elsewhere and transfer it over.
Many businesses big and small use BigCommerce because of its great international selling features. It also offers effective SEO tools, and you can sell on social media and third-party marketplaces if you want to.
Magento —formerly known as Adobe Commerce — is a non-hosted platform and is aimed at more experienced businesses with expert developers. The system itself is good for customising but you’ll need to be able to understand advanced coding to build and make the most out of your platform.
Magento is also not as effective at international selling, many users say it’s difficult and finicky to set up. So, if you’re planning to ship products worldwide, it might not be the best platform to use.
WooCommerce is actually an add on to the blog site WordPress. WordPress is often used for content and word-based posts; it’s not usually chosen to sell products and services.
As an add-on, WooCommerce was made available to WordPress users who did want to sell products online. The good points about WooCommerce are it has lots of separate plug ins and add-ons that can be great for your business. A downside is there is limited tech support, so it isn't the first choice for a lot of SMEs.
Also, keep in mind WooCommerce is not hosted, so you’ll have to pay someone to manage your site or do it yourself, which can be a time-consuming process.
Wix is another popular example of an eCommerce platform and is often a good first choice because it offers lots of site templates, web hosting, and even domain registration.
Many SMEs like Wix because they can build a basic website for free. Remember if you want a more complex site, you’ll need to upgrade to the paid version to access more features.
Wix can be very effective for businesses though, the platform lets you track orders and accept payments. You’re also able to see when customers abandon their cart and send out automatic emails to remind them to finish shopping.
Another popular eCommerce platform is Squarespace. Although some businesses struggle with the fact Squarespace only offers two payment options; Stripe and PayPal, you are able to add a Shopify button to your platform if you wish. This might make it easier for you to manage, but lots of SMEs find the platform a little fiddly and time consuming to set up their site.
But if you’re more experienced, you are able to embed some of Shopify’s features if you upgrade and pay for extra add-ons. With these, you can add as many products as you like to your site, like secure checkout, tracking sales and getting tax and foreign currency support.
7. Commerce Cloud
Commerce Cloud is a cloud-based platform that lots of businesses find useful and easy to manage. Commerce Cloud offers ways to connect with customers across all channels, including mobile, social, web, and in-store. This platform can be easy to set up and keep track of as well as help to boost sales and engage customers efficiently.
How does a company choose an eCommerce platform?
There are a few ways you can narrow down your search for your ideal eCommerce platform, but keep in mind the following:
- Your budget — It's a good idea to set a budget before you start looking for a platform, it's easy to get carried away with extra features and add-ons but sticking to your budget will ensure you don’t overspend on features you don’t need.
- If it integrates with your other business software — You ideally want any platform you choose to be compatible with other sites or features you use.
- If you can customise it — You don’t' just want the same platform as every other business in your niche, so make sure you can personalise it to make your SME stand out.
- If it has advertising compatibility — You want to make sure you’ll be able to integrate your platform with any advertising software you have. This will help to attract more customers to your site.
- If you can offer quality customer service — Customer service is important and shows your customers you care about them. Having add-ons that make contacting your team easier always reflect well on a business.
What are the different factors you should consider when choosing an eCommerce platform?
There are a few things to consider when choosing an eCommerce platform for your SME. Your business needs are one of them, but below are some more things you should consider.
Easy shop setup
You should ideally think about how easy it is to set up the platform. Will you be needing help or is it easy enough to manage on your own? If you need assistance, then this could mean more costs. If you’re a SME and just starting out, you might want to look for an easier platform to set up on. Then you can learn to manage your site before moving on to more complex options.
Easy navigation and high-security
Security is important when setting up an eCommerce platform. Make sure your platform has fraud protection and that you are able to back up your information regularly.
You also want to think about the customer’s journey and how easy it is to navigate around your platform. If it’s too fiddly or complicated to get to your product or services page, then they could lose interest.
Another point to consider when setting up your eCommerce platform is what add ons you might want, either now or in the future.
Platforms like Shopify have lots of extra features to add to your site. It’s a proactive idea to list the tools you need to allow your SME to thrive. For example, would you benefit from accounting plugins that help with sales and taxes? Would you find email marketing tools useful? Have a browse to see what each platform offers and how you can make the most out of your site.
E-commerce platforms still ideally need to be SEO friendly, otherwise, no new customers will be attracted to your store. When you’re looking into how SEO friendly a platform is, see if you can add a blog to your site, if you can use your own domain name and if customers have a feature to leave reviews. These will all help to boost your business rankings.
Most of us scroll through content on our phones daily and we often browse or shop there. It can be easy to just tap into our phone what we want to buy and carry out the transaction online without even needing to log into our laptop. It's important to look for platforms that allow customers to easily access your website on mobile devices.
For businesses just dipping their toes into the eCommerce world, tech support can be really valuable.
When you’re looking for a platform, keep in mind what you require from your support. Some platforms only offer help during business hours in their own time zone. Other platforms offer 24/7 support. It just depends on what you need.
Analytics are also an important part of your platform, you want to be able to measure how many people are visiting your website each day, how long they're spending on it and how many pages they click on.
Different platforms will have different features available so it’s important to do your research. If you want to be able to ramp up your marketing, for example, look for sites that offer built-in features like newsletters, automatic abandoned cart emails or rewards.
Finally, think about what kinds of payment options you offer. Some larger e-commerce platforms offer lots of payment options so they’re able to catch a wider audience. However, others have a limited selection which can put customers off purchasing.
Most platforms take standard card payments, as that has become the go- to form of payment in recent years. But, if you are looking to offer PayPal, Apple Pay or Google Pay, then you might need to choose a more advanced e-commerce platform.
How does an eCommerce platform differ between large and small companies?
Bigger companies usually already have an established brand and want a platform moulded around them.
On the flip side, smaller businesses usually want a platform they can grow with. Smaller businesses are often more focused on the customer journey and gaining more revenue that way.
How can Bionic help your SME grow?
Choosing an e-commerce site for your business can seem daunting, but you should now have a better understanding of the different types of platforms after reading this Bionic guide.
Although Bionic can’t set up your eCommerce platform for you, we have lots of helpful guides written with small business owners like you in mind to help better your business and help you grow.