Choose the right e-commerce platform to help your business grow
What is an e-commerce platform and why do you need one?
The right e-commerce platform does more than power your online store. It can power your small business with a competitive edge in the increasingly crowded market. Here’s how to choose the best e-commerce platform for you.
Whether you’re running an online business or expanding an existing brick and mortar online for the first time, using an e-commerce platform can take your sales – and your brand presence – to the next level. That’s why choosing the best e-commerce platform for you is important. It's as vital to your growth strategy as having the right products and reaching the right customers.
How does an e-commerce platform help small business growth? Just think about all the reasons customers abandon carts, from slow load times and site crashes to cumbersome checkout processes and inconvenient payment options. The right e-commerce platform can accelerate your online success. It can create a friction-free shopping experience that stands out from the crowd and builds customer loyalty. And behind the scenes, it can help make all of the steps between an order placement and its arrival at your customer’s doorstep seamless and stress-free for you.
Not every e-commerce business owner has the design or tech skills to create their own online store. Marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy make it easy to begin selling and are good places to start. They often remain an important channel for small businesses even after they expand to selling through multiple channels, thanks to their built-in audience and wide reach.
But eventually, most small-business owners find they need the flexibility and control of having their own online store. After all, your store is the face of your business. You want it to reflect your brand. And ultimately, you need it to be easy for you and your customers to use.
This is where e-commerce platforms come in. Most small-business owners choose a turnkey platform as the foundation of their online store. Many of these platforms are very flexible and can grow with your business. However, some online sellers with more specialized or complex needs choose to create a customized platform.
Each platform has a different combination of features (including accounting, inventory control, fulfillment, marketing, and many more). The difference is in the details, so search for the features and tools that make sense for your needs now and as you expand. Some popular platforms include Shopify®, WooCommerce®, Magento®, BigCommerce®, and Volusion®.
As you dig into your e-commerce platform choices, remember the right platform saves you time and effort later. Having the information you need up front is important in making an informed decision, and the right platform will serve you longer as you scale up and your business grows.
How to choose an e-commerce platform
You can get the inside track on how platforms function from people using them, comments on online community boards, and reviews. These first-hand insights will let you see how the platforms actually work day to day.
Does the cost fit into your operations budget? Most platforms charge a monthly fee or are available on a quarterly or annual contract basis. It helps to look into what’s included in the fee. Many platforms have helpful add-ons and apps, but each add-on can add to the total cost of using that platform.
Different platforms require different levels of technical know-how to use. Make sure whoever’s in charge of maintaining the platform has the tech knowledge needed for the platform you choose, whether it’s you, a team member, or your unpaid brother. Drag-and-drop interfaces tend to be the easiest for less tech-savvy people.
The advantage of establishing your own website rather than selling only on online marketplaces, like Amazon or Etsy, is the ability to create a strong brand identity. This includes designing your customer's buying experience. So, make sure your platform gives you the custom look you need. Will the store look and feel like your brand? Will it show off who you are and what you offer? Are the templates easily customizable?
Think about your products. Platforms handle product listings in different ways.
Product customization and presentation
- Will you need to offer optional add-ons or requests for gift wrapping?
- Are you offering a subscription service?
- Can you feature photos and descriptions of your products to their full advantage? Selling perishable food items requires different information than say, custom artwork or clothing.
Product listings and search
- Are you selling one or two products, or are you going to need to list hundreds of SKUs? Some platforms can support large databases of SKUs, some can’t.
- If you have a lot of SKUs, can you easily organize them and enable buyers to browse or search for what they want?
- Choose a platform that enables you to create the browsing and buying experience that appeals to your customers. And gives you an edge over other retailers with rewards/loyalty programs, “save for later” or “wish list” cart options, and customized product recommendations based on customer data. If you sell almost exclusively to Millennials, they may expect this level of personalization. If they are almost exclusively Baby Boomers, they might find that intrusive but instead may be interested in blogs that help them get to know you and what you do. Shoppers of all types appreciate relationship-building communications. Options include early access to sales, promo codes, new product alerts, and emails or texts that keep them informed of order status and shipping confirmation. Your platform should allow you to offer the online shopping trends and customer service that keep buyers engaged on your site and connected to your brand.
Shipping is a huge part of an online business, and a customer’s purchase isn’t complete until they’ve received their order on time and undamaged. You can ship with the services built into most platforms. Shopify®, eBay®, and Etsy® all have built-in shipping. If you use built-in functions, you’ll be getting the shipping rates negotiated by the platform provider. It’s an easy way to get started. However, if you’re shipping as few as ten packages a week, you may be able to get better rates by opening your own shipping account.
The alternative is to use a shipping plug-in. Some popular options include ShipStation®, ShippingEasy®, and Ordoro®. Plug-ins consolidate your shipping functions by putting your individual shipping accounts on one interface. Your individual shipping accounts establish a direct relationship with shipping providers. Over time, you can negotiate your own rates. Each shipping plug-in offers you the option to ship with many different carriers. Plug-ins can also be an asset because they (and your shipping relationship) move with you if you outgrow your platform down the road.
If the platform doesn’t have the function you need, like accounting or customer contact emails, does it integrate with the programs you already use? The last thing you want is to rekey orders or email addresses, since it takes time and leaves you open to mistakes.
Most platforms are already hosted as part of their turnkey package. Be sure you know the details of how a platform will be hosted. Ensure it’s secure and reliable, because website downtime can impact your sales, revenue, and brand image. Check what kind of tech support they have. Is it available 24/7? Are there different levels of support with different costs? What are existing customers saying about their support?
For safe customer checkout, your platform needs to support HTTPS/SSL protocols. Most platforms have security measures built in. Customers want reassurance that their info is safe, so it’s always better to check.
Another common security consideration is payment processing. It needs to be secure, and it needs to work with your customers’ preferred payment methods, including credit cards or even foreign currencies. Decide whether you’ll accept payments requiring a third-party vendor, like PayPal®, and make sure your platform has that ability. Most platforms are PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant — confirm yours is. Be aware that there may be processing fees for your sales transactions that add to your total operating costs.
Boosting your search engine ranking is always important. Three easy ways to boost SEO include owning your custom domain name, adding a blog for fresh content, and especially important — letting your customers leave reviews. Not only do they help your ranking, they also build your brand and your connection to your customers. Choose a platform that allows you to do all of these things.
More and more online shopping is done on mobile devices. Make sure your online shop looks good on a phone and loads quickly. And make sure a purchase can be easily and fully completed on small screens, making impulse buys as simple as just a few clicks.
Your platform needs to grow with you. Find out which features are included in each cost tier. You don’t want to pay for features you don’t need in the beginning. But you want them to be available when you need them. Set yourself up for future success by mapping out what you want your product line and website experience to be in three years. And make sure you can do that with your platform.
What is your vision for your company? Where do you plan to take your online business three to five years down the road? Knowing these things will help you assess if your e-commerce platform can support your plans. Last, but not least, dig into sales claims. Once you’ve determined what you need in a platform, make sure that’s what you’ll truly be getting.
Learn more about options for getting shipping built into your e-commerce platform.