In this article
It’s your first foray into entrepreneurship, and you want it to go well.
One of the first and most important choices you'll have to make is finding the best ecommerce platform for your business.
The right ecommerce platform should make your life easier to get your products out to the world and manage your small business.
However, the wrong platform can easily become a massive time suck and take the fun and excitement out of starting your new business.
There are currently over 580 different ecommerce platforms to choose from, so it's understandable if you're feeling a little overwhelmed right now. But don't worry, we've waded through these platforms (and platform reviews) for you to find the best ecommerce platform options that will fit the unique needs of your small business, growing business, or newly online business.
Not only that, we'll also go over all the basics of the ecommerce website world so you can start your ecommerce journey with confidence.
Deep breath. You got this.
How Ecommerce Platforms Work
In its simplest form, your ecommerce platform is your storefront, your store's layout, in-store employees, product list, and cash register all wrapped into one.
You might not realize it, but you've probably already used ecommerce platforms before. Anything that involves buying or selling online uses an ecommerce platform.
The holiday gifts you're buying on Amazon?
The Airbnb you booked for your last vacation?
But how is it really doing that?
Well, that gets a little more complicated.
Like any other website on the internet, eCommerce platforms take a little chunk of space in the internet world to host your online store and make it available to anyone who navigates to your URL. However, unlike many basic websites, an eCommerce platform also holds a database for all your products and provides a secure place for your customers to send payments.
Once payment goes through, the platform can also update product stock numbers, send your customer email updates, and arrange the shipping and order information you need to get that product to your customer.
On a more in-depth level, ecommerce platforms have a variety of different forms from cloud commerce solutions with a full-fledged content management system and tons of handy sales features to open-source software and on-premise hosting.
Types of Ecommerce Platforms
You have three main options when it comes to different types of ecommerce platforms:
- Open-Source Software
- SaaS Ecommerce Platforms
- Headless Ecommerce Platforms
Each one has different benefits, so let's get into it.
Open-source ecommerce platforms are generally for folks who really want to get into the code and development customizations of dealing with their online store. The nice thing about open-source software is that it's free for anyone to download and use (though you still have to set up and pay for other website necessities like hosting, domain name, and security either on your own or with a third party).
At the same time, open-source ecommerce platforms require you to manage a lot of the nitty-gritty parts of the platform rather than having a service manage it for you. You could use open-source software and hire a developer to manage it for you, but that can get really expensive. In short, if you're a one-person show, expect to be learning a lot about code and websites.
Here are some of the things you should expect to manage yourself with an open-source ecommerce platform:
- PCI (Payment Card Industry) Compliance
- Software updates and manual software fixes
- Website hosting
- Security issues
- Integrations with other applications like analytics and a CMS (Content Management System)
- Creating tools and ecommerce features for things like email marketing, social media integration, SEO, and website builders.
If you want to learn about everything that goes down with the making of your online store, this is a great option. Plus, there's a huge community of developers constantly updating and adding new features to open-source code and there are lots of tutorials that can help walk you through it.
Keep in mind, if you do choose to go down the open-source road, it likely won't be a quick process. And you may consider throwing your computer out the window at least once. But when you figure it out, you can create a truly unique online store.
However, if you're not particularly tech-savvy and just want to whack up your eCommerce site ASAP then move on to the business of actually selling your products, you may want to consider some other options.
SaaS Ecommerce Platforms
With SaaS ecommerce platforms, the software is the service and you pay a small monthly fee for all the software and management of your online store.
That whole list of things you were responsible for in an open-source ecommerce platform? Taken care of.
This is often the type of eCommerce platform that you'll want if you want something quick and easy that will look professional and offer plenty of small business solutions.
Think Shopify, Wix, or Squarespace.
The downside of SaaS ecommerce platforms? You often don't have as much flexibility.
Web developers can sometimes find these types of platforms constraining and less adaptable because you can't access all the code. Some "Open Saas" platforms allow for limited coding and UX customization, but it's not the type of hands-on experience you'd get from an open-source platform.
Headless Commerce Platforms
With headless commerce platforms, you essentially get the body of a SaaS (AKA, a CaaS - Commerce as a Service) with the face of whatever you want. Hence - headless commerce.
But let's break down what this really means a little more.
With all websites, you have a frontend (think of it as the area of your brick-and-mortar store that your customers have access to) and a backend (this is the "employees-only" part of the shop).
In a headless commerce platform, you can separate the front- and backend: the service platform can keep track of all the backend information and processes like security and PCI compliance, while you can fully customize the frontend exactly how you want it with whatever open-source platform or website builder.
Going back to our brick-and-mortar store example, this might be like paying someone else to use their pre-established system for storage and management, while you handled finding the shop's location, paying for rent, and designing the storefront.
Best Ecommerce Platforms For Online Shops
When it comes to choosing the best ecommerce platform for your online shop, you want to make sure the one you choose has all the features that your brand needs. Then there are the othr features that you might not need, but they'll make your life a hell of a lot easier.
A few features you'll want to keep in mind:
- Hosting environment, domain name, and bandwidth
- PCI Compliance
- API Call Limits
- User-friendly website builder and free, pre-made theme options
- Application marketplace for optional add-ons or plugins
- Built-in extra eCommerce customization features
- SEO (Search Engine Optimization) features
Ready to find your business's perfect ecommerce platform? Here's a list of 8 of the top ecommerce platforms you can get your small business started on right now, plus extra reviews for each in case you want a little extra information.
Shopify is the leading online shop builder, currently powering over 1,000,000 online shops and processing over $200 billion worth of sales. Why is it so popular? It's freaking awesome.
But actually, Shopify is beginner friendly, has crazy-fast load speeds, and is great for small businesses. It has plenty of different theme and template options, an easy to use drag and drop website builder, and over 1,200 different apps you can add to your site.
Plus, it has a built-in blog feature so you can add content posts and keep your customers in the loop.
Shopify isn't perfect though. It isn't ideal for SEO, doesn't have many product options, and charges transaction fees for third-party payment gateways.
Hosting Environment: Cloud
Platform Type: Open SaaS
Monthly Cost: Starting at $29/month
Best For: small businesses, dropshipping sites, local businesses looking to move online, for those who want the technical stuff done for them, those who want a DIY out-of-the-box ecommerce solution
- Website Builder Expert — Shopify Reviews – This is an incredibly in-depth review featuring 12 chapters (well-designed too) evaluating Shopify’s pros and cons. It goes through Shopify’s ease of use, template design options, their app stores and many more.
- ShivarWeb — Shopify Review: Pros & Cons of Using Shopify for Ecommerce – Looking for a simple review laying out all the pros and cons? This review is for you.
- Style Factory — Pros & Cons of a Leading Online Store Builder: Shopify Review 2020 – Another in-depth review going through every feature of Shopify, updated for 2020.
- Make A Website Hub—Shopify Review – An in-depth Shopify review that left no stone unturned. If you’re looking to learn all about Shopify and how its features can help you, this is the guide to read. This guide gave Shopify 9/10.
If your small business has suddenly exploded or you want to scale up your current ecommerce situation, BigCommerce is the way to go. The Open SaaS platform hosts a number of big-name brands like Ben & Jerry's, American Apparel, and Nikon. It can be your all-in-one online store platform, but it also has headless capabilities.
The enterprise BigCommerce comes with everything you need to run a big online business including unlimited API calls, fantastic SEO tools, and no additional transaction fees. Some reviewers have mentioned that the user interface is a little more complicated than the likes of Shopify, but they do have 24/7 customer support.
For small businesses still testing the waters, they also have an essentials version which is scaled-down and less expensive.
Hosting Environment: cloud
Platform Type: Open SaaS or Headless Commerce
Monthly Cost: Starting at $29.95
Best For: large businesses built to scale, local businesses looking to move online, for those who want the technical stuff done for them, medium businesses growing quickly, small businesses (with BigCommerce Essentials)
- Style Factory — BigCommerce Review 2020: The 16 Things You Need To Know: In this post, Style Factory walks you through the key 16 features of BigCommerce you should know, and how it compares to Shopify and the rest.
- Website Builder Expert — BigCommerce Reviews | 7 Key Things You Should Know: Website Builder Expert is back again with their BigCommerce review — and 10 chapters in total for an in-depth read.
- ShivarWeb — BigCommerce Review: Pros & Cons of Using BigCommerce For Online Stores: Just looking for pros and cons? Nate Shivar is your man. ShivarWeb reviewed BigCommerce in short articles.
WooCommerce is an open-source ecommerce plugin installed on your WordPress site (you must be using WordPress). The best part? It’s free! WooCommerce claims to be powering 1.7 million stores.
Wordpress is one of the most common website CMS platforms out there and WooCommerce is a free and easy way to add an ecommerce side to an existing site. The plugin is open-source, so you can fully customize it to make it exactly what you want (if you have the developer skills) and it has a huge community of users who are constantly improving and adding functionality to the platform.
On the downside, since it is open-source, it means you're in charge of updates, security, and figuring out your own hosting. You don't have to be a computer genius to manage those though – setting up with a cloud hosting site like Bluehost then using a pre-made theme with WooCommerce capabilities is definitely possible even for people who are really gung-ho about WordPress. It just may take a little longer.
PS: Looking to setup a referral program for your WooCommerce store? Check out our setup guide: How To Setup A Referral Program For Your WooCommerce Store
Hosting Environment: self hosted
Platform Type: open-source
Monthly Cost: Free
Best For: existing sites that want to add a store, wordpress sites, for bloggers and creators, folks who are most comfortable with the WordPress environment
- Merchant Maverick — WooCommerce Review: A pretty in-depth review on the features of WooCommerce. Read this review if you’re interested to find out if the features are what you’re looking for.
- Website Tool Tester — WooCommerce Pros, Cons & Hosting Options: Instead of going deep here, Website Tool Tester decided to create an easy-to-evaluate table for you to see.
- Ecommerce Guide — WooCommerce Rating & Review: Looking for a short 7-chapter guide to WooCommerce? Read this post. It even has recommendations for themes.
Considered the market leader in ecommerce platforms, Magento is used by Burger King, Huawei and even Liverpool Football Club (wow). At a base level, Magento is an open-source ecommerce platform, but there are a number of ways you can use Magento at varying levels of difficulty. In general, Magento is going to be best for people who know how to deal with websites and code or who have the budget to hire a developer who does. It's even more important to migrate your websites to Magento 2.
The biggest benefits of Magento is its flexibility as an open-source eCommerce platform and its ability to handle big companies. When it comes to features, this is the best eCommerce platform. It's highly scalable, has great SEO capabilities, and has tons of other add-ons for just about anything you could think of.
However, for a startup with little-to-no coding experience and no interest in learning the coding side of things, you may want to choose a different platform. It's not an easy place to start for beginners. You don't get much user support (unless you're paying mega big bucks for the enterprise package) and have to handle your own hosting, security, and backups.
Hosting Environment: self hosted
Platform Type: open-source
Monthly Cost: Free to download but can get expensive
Best For: large businesses built to scale, brands that have heavily invested in web development and IT, businesses that want a fully customizable platform
- Ecommerce Platforms — The Ultimate Magento 2 Ecommerce Review (Jan 2020): If you want a quick overall look on whether Magento is suitable for you, this review should be able to tell all you need. Plus, it’s freshly and regularly updated.
- Merchant Maverick — Magento Review: This is an in-depth review going through everything Magento. If you’re ready to spend and want to confirm that you’re making the right decision, read this review. It also highlights the importance of developer skills for starting with Magento.
- Ecommerce Guide — Magento Reviews: Just window shopping for platforms? Read this guide for a quick comparison. It echoes that Magento requires some technical knowledge and can be overcomplicated for smaller stores. Also, if you are learning more about Magento pricing, this post will help with investment estimates that cover not only the implementation cost, but also support and marketing expenses.
Volusion is currently powering 40,000+ online stores and has helped its users sell over 185 million orders.
In late July 2020, Volusion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But according to a blog post in August, this was more an effort to recapitalize the company and they are still open for business and not going anywhere.
When it comes to the actual Volusion service, it's a solid SaaS solution up there with the likes of Shopify and BigCommerce (though with slightly less capability). Volusion is easy to use with a user-friendly drag and drop website builder, great onboarding tools, training information, and customer service.
On the downside, some reviews have noted it's lacking in the SEO department and it doesn't allow for blogging.
(Editor: In the interests of transparency, we should note that ReferralCandy and Volusion have a partnership. If you use ReferralCandy, you can get 50% off your first month on Volusion – click here for the promo code.)
Hosting Environment: cloud
Platform Type: SaaS
Monthly Cost: Starting at $26/month
Best For: small businesses, dropshipping, beginners, local businesses looking to move online, starter stores, hobbyists, those who want the technical stuff done for them,
- Website Builder Expert — Volusion Review | 10 Key Things You Should Know: Website Builder Expert has the most in-depth reviews when it comes to analyzing ecommerce platforms. This is no different. Read their 10 chapters on whether Volusion is right for you.
- ShivarWeb — Volusion Review: Pros & Cons of Using Volusion for Ecommerce: An in-depth review focusing on the pros and cons of using Volusion.
- Ecommerce Platforms — The Ultimate Volusion Review: A nice overview of what Volusion has to offer and whether it would benefit you.
Typically considered a website building platform for photographers or designers, Squarespace is also a fully-hosted ecommerce platform. Squarespace has an incredibly easy to use drag and drop website builder where anyone can create a nice looking website. No coding skills necessary.
Do you want a site that honestly just looks really nice, but have no clue how to do that yourself? Go with Squarespace. They have tons of great templates that look amazing and give you a downright beautiful website with blog integration let alone a kickass online store. The platform has several different levels of pricing with different added features including abandoned cart recovery in the advanced plan.
With the cheapest business plan, you don't get that added function and there's also a 3% transaction fee (which you don't have in the higher priced plans). Some reviews have also noted that it has a slightly higher learning curve than some of the other SaaS builders.
Hosting Environment: Cloud
Platform Type: SaaS
Monthly Cost: Starting at $18/month
Best For: small businesses, local businesses looking to move online, existing sites that want to add a store, creators, those who want the technical stuff done for them,
- Website Builder Expert — Squarespace eCommerce Review 2017 | 15 Top Reasons To Try Them: Do you need a comprehensive list of reasons to convince you to try Squarespace? Then here’s 15 for you to carefully deliberate and consider.
- Website Tool Tester — Squarespace Ecommerce Review: A Great Way to Sell?: Website Tool Tester is back with their simple and easy-to-understand table that summarizes Squarespace’s features.
- Ecommerce Guide — Squarespace Reviews: Need a quick glimpse into what Squarespace can do and their pros and cons? This review gives them to you.
- Make A Website Hub —Squarespace Review: An honest, in-depth guide that covers the advantages and disadvantages of using Squarespace.
Another Saas ecommerce platform like Shopify and BigCommerce, 3dCart boasts a complete ecommerce website builder for small businesses, with many out-of-the-box features, 100+ supported payment platforms and over 60 mobile-ready themes. They also offer a quick-start dropshipping plan.
The best part about 3dCart?
Its payment options. It might be one of the best eCommerce platforms when it comes to affordability and value. Even the cheapest option comes with no transaction fees and unlimited products, which is pretty sweet. A few other killer features include solid SEO tools, a fast load speed, and upsell and cross-sell features.
Only the more expensive plans come with features like abandoned cart recovery and reward points though.
On the down side, 3dCart doesn't get the best reviews when it comes to customer service and some reviewers found the drag and drop builder to be less intuitive than other eCommerce platforms.
Hosting Environment: cloud
Platform Type: SaaS
Monthly Cost: Starting at $11.40/month with promo ($17.10/month without)
Best For: small businesses, dropshipping sites, B2B eCommerce, local businesses looking to move online, existing sites that want to add a store, those who want the technical stuff done for them
- eCommerce CEO — 3dcart Review: eCommerce CEO ranked 3dCart on qualities like values, features and performance and compares it to Shopify.
- Website Builder Expert – 3dcart Review: Website Builder Expert summarised 3dcart’s pros & cons in several easy-to-read sections.
Wix is another SaaS platform like Squarespace in that the company originally developed the software for websites in general then came around with the eCommerce platform for online stores. Wix comes with hundreds of templates, unlimited products, and manages all your hosting and security needs.
Considering the brand's whole thing is to make it possible for anyone to build a website regardless of their tech knowledge, it's not surprising that an eCommerce platform comes with an incredibly user-friendly drag and drop website builder. Plus, it comes with top-notch themes and amazing customer support.
In the past, the eCommerce platform has had a bad rep for SEO, but it's done a lot in recent years to improve and has gotten quite a bit better. Part of that includes a nifty tool called Wix SEO Wiz, which they created in collaboration with Google.
The tool analyzes your site and comes back with a personalized list of things to do to improve your ranking. It's still not quite up to the level of some other platforms like WordPress, but it's definitely getting better.
Hosting Environment: cloud
Platform Type: SaaS
Monthly Cost: Starting at $23/month
Best For: small businesses, dropshipping sites, local businesses looking to move online, existing Wix sites that want to add a store, for those who want the technical stuff done for them, creatives
- Website Builder Expert – Wix eCommerce Review: this review captures what you need to know about building a Wix store.
- eCommerce CEO – Wix Reviews: eCommerce CEO ranked Wix a solid 4.1 out of 5 noting key features and its downfalls.
Frequently Asked Questions About Ecommerce Platforms
Still have questions about eCommerce platforms and getting into creating your very own online store? Of course you do, it's a big deal! But don't worry, we're not done shelling out killer advice just yet.
We've answered some of the most burning questions about selling online and creating an eCommerce website right here.
Do I need an ecommerce platform to sell online?
Short answer? Probably.
In the long run, if you're trying to run a business, the answer is yes, you need an ecommerce platform. There are alternatives like ecommerce marketplaces (e g etsy, Facebook marketplace, or ebay) or even just through social media like Instagram posts, but having a platform will be easier to scale a small business and keep track of everything as you grow.
Plus, it offers a convenient, user-friendly place where your customers can easily see all that you offer and buy directly from you.
What is the cheapest ecommerce platform?
Technically you can start up on an ecommerce platform for free with a free trial or there are some ecommerce platforms like Big Cartel that offer a free plan. Are they going to be the best ecommerce platforms? No. But it might still have everything you need for the moment.
Just be warned: The free plan from Big Cartel only allows for five products (but it doesn't charge a transaction fee!). Most other free options like Weebly or Square Online technically have free options, but they charge a transaction fee for every purchase. You will also still have to pay for a domain and hosting.
Open-source software is free as well, though if you were to charge for your time, I'm not sure I'd call it cheap. You'll also still have to pay for third party hosting and security.
The bottom line: If I were to choose one from our list here that's most likely to have the cheapest overall cost, I'd probably go with WooCommerce or 3dCart. If you already have a WordPress site and are feeling overly confident about your website skills, WooCommerce. If you're brand new to website creation and thinking "the f%&k is WordPress??", 3dCart.
What is the easiest ecommerce platform?
For total beginners, the easiest ecommerce platforms are going to be SaaS ecommerce platforms with included website builders (like Shopify, Wix, 3dCart or BigCommerce) .
Within that mix, it's kind of like apples and oranges. It's just going to differ from person to person. A lot of people like Shopify the most. A lot of people think Wix is easiest. It just depends how your brain works.
HOWEVER, you're probably looking for a decisive answer here, so here's what I got for you:
Are there any free ecommerce platforms?
Many of the ecommerce platforms we mention here offer a free trial and there are some like Big Cartel that have a free option, but you're still going to have third party fees like for hosting, security, transaction fees, or add-ons.
All open-source platforms are also free to download and use, but again, there are still going to additional costs along the way.
How long does it take to launch an online shop using an ecommerce platform?
That depends, how many products do you have and how much of a perfectionist are you?
If you're just starting with a few products and want to get something up quickly on Shopify, it could be live in as quick as an hour.
If you've got a whole list of different products, you want to use a more hands-on platform, or you want everything to be just so for your business baby to really shine,
I'd say give it a week or two (if you're doing open-source, big league coding, expect it to take a bit more time).
Can I connect my ecommerce platform to an Amazon store?
This is a feature called multi-channel selling and many ecommerce platforms offer it or offer an app or plugin that can make it happen. In this model, you can push your products from your ecommerce platform to Amazon or from Amazon to your platform.
You can also set it up so that when a product is sold on one platform it'll update your database for what's in stock for both platforms so you don't end up overselling products. Likewise with returns.
Can I sell on Facebook without a website?
Yes, but it's probably not the most efficient choice in the long run. If you have your own Facebook business page, you can use Facebook's Shop Section to sell directly off Facebook. This can be a nice, inexpensive starting point for a business to test the waters if your primary customer base uses Facebook.
However, with the growing world of social media and the rest of the internets, a website is probably going to be a more effective way to start up your online store.
With a website, you can rank on SEO, add your URL to all your social media channels, have a blog, and create a more personalized home for all your new customers to know exactly where to go to buy your products.
Is it eCommerce, ecommerce, e commerce, E-commerce, ECommerce, E-Commerce, or e-commerce?
Honestly, you'll probably get a different answer with every person you talk to. It's kind of like email when email first started being a thing. At first, there were a lot of different spellings (e g E-mail, email, e-mail), but now we've kind of all agreed on email. With ecommerce, I don't think we've quite reached that consensus yet.
My answer? I tend to go with ecommerce or eCommerce depending on the day of the week. Is it Thursday? eCommerce it is, then. Maybe at some point in the future we'll collectively land on a definitive spelling.