Best E-Commerce Platforms
Which E-Commerce platform should I use for my web store?
Over the years we have worked with various e-commerce platforms for all sorts of different businesses. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, we discuss some of the platforms we regularly use below.
Self Hosted E-Commerce Platforms
Open Source self-hosted e-commerce platforms are popular because of the level of customisability they allow. Open-source systems can be extended and changed to suit your requirements, which may in fact be entirely unique.
Magento is a very well know open source e-commerce platform that is used by some of the largest companies in the world. With one of the largest feature sets of any e-commerce platform, it can be customised to operate stores handling a large number of transactions and with very complex workflows. For many of our clients, Magento provides a lot of functionality that will never be used. With such a great number of features, users are very often daunted by what they consider over-complicated. Our recommendation is generally to only consider using Magento if you have a very large inventory, complex requirements, or experience with it already.
Craft Commerce is a core extension of the Craft CMS framework. Whilst it is not free (one-off license costs USD1,000) it can be extended and modified like other open source platforms. For businesses that are looking for a deeply customised and branded user experience, Craft Commerce is a great fit. For clients in Hong Kong looking to develop a multilingual web-store, that is also tightly integrated with their website, Craft CMS is by far the most elegant solution on the market today.
Woocommerce is a plugin that can be installed into a Wordpress site. We do not recommend developing an e-commerce site using Wordpress to run a serious e-commerce business unless there are justifiable circumstances (e.g. a well established wordpress site already exists). Whilst many people do run their stores using this setup, it is not well advised as a long term solution. Our opinion as a digital agency is that there are far more suitable platforms developed for this purpose.
Hosted E-Commerce platforms
Hosted e-commerce solutions provide a quick and secure route to selling online, using a theme based approach with some, but not unlimited, flexibility. If your requirements are not particularly complex, then it may be feasible to develop your online store using one of the applications mentioned below.
Shopify is a very well established online store builder that is used by hundreds of thousands of small merchants around the world. Starting with a theme, you can start an online store and be operational in a very short amount of time. Customising a theme can be done to some extent without code, whilst more intricate changes need to be done by editing the theme's code.
Shopify also has a fairly extensive 'app store' where integrations and functional additions can be installed. These apps are developed by third parties, and vary in quality, some being excellent and some being poor or even non functional.
If you are considering to use Shopify, then you will need to ensure that your business processes align well with Shopify's features, because there are parts of the platform beyond the visual that cannot be customised. For a large majority of small businesses, this is not a significant hurdle.
BigCommerce and Volusion are direct competitors of Shopify, with similar feature sets but slightly different pricing models. Depending on which payment gateways you intend to use, and your volume of sales, your costs may be very different and it is important to estimate these before deciding on a platform.
A common problem with all E-Commerce platforms
E-commerce platforms are designed to allow you to manage and sell your products online, and for the most part they do this well. However most platforms fall short when it comes to managing non product information, the type of content you would usually create using a Content Management System.
A common solution to this problem is to split your e-commerce store from your main website, either using a subfolder (e.g. www.yoursite.com/store/) or a subdomain (e.g. store.yoursite.com). This will allow you to use a fully featured Content management system for all of your website content, and a fully featured e-commerce platform to allow you to sell online.
Craft Commerce is unique in this aspect, as it is based on Craft CMS which itself is a leading Content management system. Coupled with excellent options for managing multiple languages, we find that Craft Commerce is very well suited to our Hong Kong clients.
E-Commerce platform pricing - considering the total cost
If you decide to work with an agency, you will tend to find that self hosted solutions cost more up-front than hosted platforms do. Hosted platforms do a great job of reducing effort required in getting started, using themes and best practices to create a 'one size fits all' web store. Since self hosted platforms can be customised a lot more, more effort tends to be put into creating completely unique designs that perfectly fit your brand.
In the long term, the overall cost of an ecommerce platform needs to consider not just the development and design cost, but the ongoing marginal costs of sale. Many hosted platforms take a percentage of each sale, as well as a monthly fee. In some cases, you may be paying 5% of each sale to your platform and payment processor. With a self hosted solution, you will only need to pay your payment processor and fees can be as low as 2.5%. Over time, this can add up to a major difference.
It may make sense to think about custom development if no existing platforms provide any meaningful use based on your requirements. You may have a very unique payment workflow, or require deeper integrations with other data providers.
Deciding on which E-Commerce Platform to use
There are many factors that will lead to your decision on which platform is the right fit for your business.
In Hong Kong, most of our clients require multilingual websites that are as effective in Traditional and Simplified Chinese as they are in English. Most hosted solutions are developed by US centric businesses, targeting smaller merchants who sell in a single language. Whilst they can be 'hacked' to work with more than one language, this is not something that is officially supported. Our recommendation if you are looking to launch an e-store with more than one language is to consider using a self hosted platform rather than using a hosted solution, at least for the time being until a suitable product has been developed.
Selling into China may also affect your decision making. Whether you need to be hosted within the great firewall zone, or need to integrate with a Chinese payment gateway, you may find that a hosted solution is either blocked or at risk of being blocked outside of your control, or doesn't offer an integration with local payment providers.
On the other hand, if you are a new business, and you haven't yet proved yourself in the market, then it makes absolute sense to reduce your up-front investment and focus on growing your customer base and sales before you invest heavily in a customised ecommerce website. A hosted solution is better in this scenario, as you can reduce the design and development cost by starting with a theme.