THE QUESTION: Which features should you look for when choosing the best e-commerce platform for your small business?
Whether you’re adding e-commerce to an existing business or making plans to start out with a fresh, purpose built web presence, there are basically three ways to sell online, and each option has its own platforms associated with it.
- Set up a storefront on an established marketplace like Etsy, Ebay, or Udemy.
- Customise your own, independent online store with help from a platform like Bigcartel or Shopify.
- Add product blocks to a Squarespace site, or use the Woo Commerce plugin on a Wordpress site to turn a content-driven website into an online store.
As you make this decision, think honestly about how important building a stand-alone brand is to you, and how much time and effort you're willing to put into marketing it. If you just want to sell product and don't care much about brand building, a platform like Ebay or Etsy could be the best option because so much of the work of attracting customers is done for you.
On the other hand, a store on one of these sites isn’t entirely your own and your business' identity will be considered second to the platform's. While these sties collect a lot of customer data, they don't share much with you, which will hamper your ability to nurture a strong customer following.
You'll also have to weigh up the need to keep overhead costs low against the increased functionality of a more premium platform. I personally opened my first online store on Bigcartel, because in my opinion it's the cheapest platform that's easy to use and still looks crisp and professional. However, in time I needed more sophisticated options to handle the growing demands of my growing business. As I began to have more stock to manage, needed more analytics data, and wanted to implement strategies to build my list, up-sell, and cross-sell, I was happy to switch to Shopify and pay more to have all those demands handled conveniently and elegantly.
If you’re unsure of which e-commerce platform will be best for your business, here’re the specific features to consider as you do your research and reach your decision:
THE PAYMENT PLAN
Of course, select the platform that best suits your budget. If you’re confident of getting traffic to your online shopfront, look for set monthly payment amounts instead of small percentages of your sales. If you don’t think you'll sell many products, or offer a low cost product, perhaps a percentage would work out cheaper for you. Do the math!
Your average price point is also an important consideration - if your product is expensive you could end up giving away a significant monthly sum in transaction fees.
Take into account how many products you’ll offer and make sure you’re paying only for the services you require. There’s no sense in signing up for a plan that allows you to list 10,000 products if you’ve only got 3.
DIGITAL OR PHYSICAL?
What is it that you’re selling? Can you product be delivered digitally, or will you need to ship physical goods? This can make all the difference when thinking about whether you need regionally based processes integrated into your platform.
For example, an American platform may not have a built in app that can calculate Canadian shipping. It’s worth knowing ahead of time if you're going to need to work around limitations inherent to the software you’re paying for.
Until you’re actually at the stage, many people don’t realise that choosing how to accept payment is a completely different decision from choosing a platform. E-commerce platforms are not in and of themselves payment gateways, and rely on either third-party platforms or – very occasionally –in-built systems to collect your customers’ hard earned cash.
There're many different service providers that can act as intermediaries between you and your consumers that allow your customers to pay by credit card or electronic transfer without you having access to their credit card or bank account details directly. Most of the time, it works this simply: once customers have transferred funds into your account with your online payment provider, you then can transfer the funds into your own bank account.
The most common and trusted example of an online payment gateway is Paypal. Be aware that not all e-commerce platforms work with third-party payment processors, such as Paypal. Sqaurespace, for example, is integrated with Stripe. So if you want your customers to have the choice to use a specific payment gateway, you'll want to ensure it's compatible with the e-commerce platform you choose.
KEY E-COMMERCE COMPONENTS
Whichever platform you choose, it MUST offer:
Mobile friendly integration. This is a imperative considering how many people are now shopping on their phones;
- Clean, modern, and professional looking templates;
- Thorough analytics. These are tools that allow you to measure your results, and make decisions based on them;
- Good customer service. Look for a fast response times, and customer service numbers specifically for the country you’re running your business in;
- Compatibility with other programs you use;
- An app. This is crucial if you’d like the option to manage some aspects of your store through your phone.