Finding the Best Ecommerce Platform for Your Business Needs

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When starting your online business, one of the biggest decisions you'll make is choosing an ecommerce platform that will ensure scalable, long-term growth.

Understandably, this decision has wide-ranging implications:

  • Helping customers that are engaging with your brand reduce friction while they're getting the product they need.
  • Ensuring your employees have what they need to implement campaign strategies.
  • Protecting your bottom line in terms of sales growth, in addition to the cost of maintenance and installation.

Let’s dive in and take a look at what to consider when you’re selecting an ecommerce platform, as well as some popular options.

What is an Ecommerce Platform?

An ecommerce platform is a software application that allows online businesses to manage their website, marketing, sales and operations.

Platforms like BigCommerce offer the powerful ecommerce features, while also integrating with common business tools — enabling businesses to centralize their operations and run their business their way.

Why Use an Ecommerce Platform?

Whether you’re expanding a brick-and-mortar store, looking to find an enterprise-level solution, or even starting a business from scratch, your ecommerce software has a huge impact on the profitability and stability of your business.

The only alternatives to an ecommerce platform are:

  • Building one from scratch, which is out of the question for most businesses — and only justifiable for multimillion (or multi billion) dollar companies.
  • Using a plugin, which isn’t ideal if you’re looking to build and grow a legitimate business — even a small one.

What Are My Ecommerce Platform Options?

There are three main ecommerce platform options: 

  • Open-Source.
  • SaaS (software-as-a-service).
  • Headless commerce.

Open-Source Ecommerce Platforms.

Hosting environment: cloud or on-premise, though all patches and platform updates require manual implementation across the board.

Open-source ecommerce platforms are solutions in which you can modify all aspects of the code.

This type of ecommerce platform is popular with development and IT heavy organisations who want control of their ecommerce environment.

Using an open-source ecommerce platform means you — the brand — are responsible for:

  • PCI Compliance.
  • Hosting (depending on if your open-source solution is on-premise or cloud).
      Cloud commerce solutions that are open-source differ from on-premise only in that your hosting environment is offered by your provider and managed off-site.
      A cloud environment doesn’t mean you have unlimited bandwidth like you would see on a SaaS solution. Ask about specific bandwidth allowances, specifically if you are evaluating Magento or Volusion.
  • Manual patch and update releases from the platform provider.
  • Security issues.
  • QA for all additional applications, often including integrations with:
      ESP.
      CRM.
      CMS.
      ERP.
      Analytics and BI tools.
  • The building of net new tools for the site, often including:
      Discount and promotion engines.
      Merchandising and marketing tools (e.g. SEO features, email marketing).
      Design drag-and-drop builders.

For many brands, open-source ecommerce platforms are too cumbersome, expensive to maintain, and require too much technical knowledge.

As such, there has been a massive movement to the two other types of ecommerce platforms:

  • SaaS.
  • Headless commerce.

In fact, open-source ecommerce platforms hosted via the cloud (i.e. not on-premise) are today only 46% of the consideration set for large ecommerce brands.

Why?

Because on average, open-source ecommerce platforms and sites have a 6x annual cost of ownership versus SaaS or headless commerce models.

SaaS and headless commerce can help brands get to market quickly.

And we live in an incredibly competitive environment, where a slowdown to beautiful and innovative UX, product, or backend optimisations can give your competition the leg up.

SaaS ecommerce platforms.

Hosting environment: cloud.

SaaS ecommerce platforms remove much of the complexity from running an online business. Instead of building and developing a custom solution or an open-source solution (which is often developed upon so much as to be custom), you essentially “rent” the platform.

When factoring in development cost, this is a vastly cheaper option than open-source solutions.

Product updates, security, hosting, PCI compliance, and every other task that comes with managing your own software are managed by the SaaS provider.

Marketing and growth teams at ecommerce brands are often the internal cheerleaders for SaaS ecommerce solutions at their organisations. With a SaaS solution, you’re able to go-to-market quickly and affordably.

IT and development departments are often concerned about a lack of flexibility and customisation due to the closed-off portion of code on a SaaS solution. APIs help to ease this concern, as well as non-proprietary coding and staging environments for UX build outs.

Platforms that meet the above criteria are often referred to as “Open SaaS.”

Headless Commerce platforms.

Hosting environment: cloud.

Headless commerce is a version of CaaS ecommerce in which the shopping cart is decoupled from the CMS.

In these use cases, brands often use a design experience platform (DXP) such as Adobe Experience Manager and Bloomreach or a content management system (CMS) like WordPress or Drupal. Then they plug in a decoupled ecommerce shopping cart solution.

SaaS technologies are also often used here in place of decoupled carts due to their low total cost of ownership and high API flexibility.

Historically, with on-premise hosting, open-source platforms or proprietary platform builds, IT and development departments at large brands have been controllers of the business.

However, due to the high cost of monolithic technology stacks and need for speed and innovation from a marketing standpoint, SaaS and cloud hosting disrupted the model.

Headless commerce alleviates this pain point by allowing for faster go-to-market with significantly lower total cost of ownership.

Using APIs, plug-ins, and occasionally decoupled technology, brands can maintain their single source of truth monolithic systems on the operations end.

Other decoupled solutions a Headless Commerce provider works with include:

  • Content Management System (CMS), for building pages and blogging.
  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), such as data collection.
  • Email Service Provider (ESP).
  • Product Information Management (PIM), to sell through various sales channels.
  • Order Management System (OMS), which includes inventory management.
  • Point of Sale (POS) to cover your payment processors.
  • Marketplaces like Amazon or eBay.

On the presentation layer, SaaS APIs allow for a modern SaaS technology stack, including ecommerce SaaS platforms as well as everything from ESPs and even lighter weight ERPs like Brightpearl.

The best analogy to give here is like IKEA furniture.

The individual pieces of the item are the microservices and, when put together, they create a final finished project.

For many ecommerce brands, the first step toward this microservice architecture is being done via headless commerce.

DTC furniture brand, Burrow, uses a custom frontend built to bridge content and commerce. By using a headless configuration, they have been able to create the kind of shopping experience they want their customers to have.

As Burrow Co-Founder and CPO Kabeer Chopra explains:

“Along with operational functions, being headless has empowered us creatively as well; we use a headless CMS to drive modernization of our platform and to create a great digital experience across multiple channels.”

Let’s look back at our IKEA example and take the classic IKEA nightstand.

If you replace the top piece of the nightstand with their new wireless charging enabled top, you’ve done headless commerce in a way:

Using a different front-end piece that gives you an updated take on the original, but still with the same foundation and utility (e.g. drawer = cart/checkout).

What Are The Benefits Of Self-Hosted vs. Cloud?

There are two ways ecommerce sites can be hosted:

  • Self-Hosted.
  • Cloud.

Neither of these two options are platforms in and of themselves.

They are merely how the site itself is hosted, with machines on-site (literally in a room that your IT or development team control and manage) or off-site and managed in a warehouse (think Amazon Web Services, for instance).

Self-hosted ecommerce platforms.

Self-hosted ecommerce platforms require ecommerce store owners to find hosting, deal with installations and oftentimes perform updates to the software manually.

Running an ecommerce website using self-hosted ecommerce software requires developers to maintain and update the website, which can get quite costly and time-consuming.

An example of a self-hosted ecommerce platform is Magento Open Source, which is free to download but will require hosting somewhere. You can choose to host it on-premise or pay a hosting provider. In fact, most open source ecommerce platforms can be deployed on-premise or through a third-party hosting provider.

WooCommerce, a WordPress plugin for WordPress, is also an ecommerce solution that is often hosted through a third-party hosting provider, although it can also be hosted on-premise on your own servers with some technical know-how.

The benefits of this option include more control over your online retail platform, greater visibility of your own data, and a better understanding of data security.

While this route makes sense for some extremely complex businesses, it usually results in higher expenses and lower revenues.

Cloud-hosted ecommerce platforms.

Cloud-hosted ecommerce platforms offer hosting for their customers via off-site solutions like Amazon Web Services.

This means the cloud platform manages uptime for the brand. Cloud ecommerce platforms like BigCommerce manage 99.99% uptime annually.

The advantages of choosing a cloud-hosted ecommerce platform is its lower cost since you don't have to fund the servers nor any related maintenance or updates. You'll also receive support from the hosting service provider, as needed. 

There are some disadvantages to using cloud-hosting, including having to pay a licensing fee in addition to the cost of hosting. You also have less control over the servers and can't tailor them to meet specific needs. As for security, you're in charge of that, too. 

Not all cloud-hosted ecommerce platforms offer automatic installations of patches, updates or upgrades. Only SaaS and headless commerce solutions do that.

What Are Important Ecommerce Platform Features?

Every online shop has unique needs, and choosing the right ecommerce platform is wholly dependent on the platform’s ability to solve the day-to-day challenges inherent within your organisation.

There are, however, some basic things you should find out about prospective providers.

Important ecommerce platform features:

  • Hosting environment, domain name, year-over-year uptime and bandwidth.
  • Unlimited API call volumes.
  • Website builder with free, user-friendly site themes in non-proprietary languages.
  • Extensive application marketplace or app store full of pre-built integrations with best-in-class service providers.
  • Mobile optimised site, checkout and full experience (out-of-the-box) and fully customisable.
  • PCI Compliance mitigation.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO) features and fully customisable URLs throughout the site to help you rank higher on Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc..
  • Built-in basic ecommerce functionality features, including promotions and discounts, analytics, catalogue management, WYSIWYG editors, etc.

Things to Consider When Choosing Your Ecommerce Platform

Although you might be lured into an especially affordable plan that meets some of your criteria, it’s important to do some research before you commit. You can change hosts at any time, but migrating your site can be a hassle for you and your customers. Consider the following:

1. Budget.

You could pay anywhere from $10 to $10,000 to build and host your ecommerce site. Even though ecommerce hosts offer competitive packages, you have to understand what you’re getting to decide whether or not they’re actually cost-efficient.

Paying more doesn’t always give you the best experience.

However, choosing the cheapest option will usually leave you looking for add-on capabilities from somewhere else. Piecing together fees from various providers is usually the most expensive way to go.

Before you choose an ecommerce host, decide on your budget for:

  • Web design.
  • Programming and functionality.
  • Security.
  • Monthly hosting.
  • Maintenance.
  • Licensing.
  • Custom app creation.

If you choose standalone web hosting, you’ll have to research the costs of these services from other providers. But if you look at all-in-one hosts, you’ll often find that you can select a premium package that includes all of these features and stays within your budget.

2. Target audience.

Advertising to social media users is a must if you want to capture a massive and engaged audience, so looking into a platform's marketing features is smart.

Facebook alone boasts more than 2.7 billion active monthly users. That’s a lot of potential customers.

BigCommerce offers built-in integrations with Facebook and Instagram, so you can market to users directly in their news feeds or main accounts. 

With the advent of Buyable Pins, Facebook Shop and Shopping on Instagram, you can even sell directly to users without them needing to leave their platform of choice.

3. Number of products you have.

Maybe you offer a wide assortment of physical products, or perhaps a significant number of variants for your basic product line.

If you have a large catalogue and need several product pages or plan to grow your business, choosing a platform with low SKU limits essentially restricts the upside of your business.

4. Room for growth.

It's important to consider a web host that can grow with you. It’s a better idea to choose the best web host off the bat so that you can familiarize yourself with them as you scale up.

How much traffic do you expect on your site? If you’re just starting out, it’s understandable that you might not need a host with high-traffic capabilities. But if you’re focused on your growth, your ecommerce business could scale rapidly.

Will your host be able to handle traffic demands now and in the future?

What could happen if you run a promotion or campaign that goes viral? Your hosting infrastructure needs to be flexible enough to handle traffic surges without crashing your site.

Cloud hosting is one of the best options for ecommerce sites because it can keep up with traffic. Because a network of machines handle your site’s hosting needs, you have almost unlimited growth capabilities.

5. Type of customer service available.

You’re inside an ecommerce platform every single day.

And when that time comes, it’s good to know that you can get a hold of a real-life person to assist you with the problem, whether that be through phone support, email, or chat.

Some platforms outsource their customer service and make it difficult — or practically impossible — to call in and get help when you need it most.

At BigCommerce, we feel that every one of our customers is entitled to personalized customer support.

Best Ecommerce Platform Comparison

All ecommerce platforms have their advantages and disadvantages. It is important for businesses to evaluate the various platforms based on their own specific needs and use cases.

Here is an overview of the most popular ecommerce platforms.

  • BigCommerce
  • Magento.
  • Volusion.
  • Demandware.
  • WooCommerce.
  • 3dcart.
  • Shopify.
  • Kibo.
  • Prestashop.
  • Squarespace.
  • Big Cartel.
  • Wix.
  • Ecwid.
  • Episerver.
  • OpenCart.

BigCommerce

BigCommerce is considered an Open SaaS platform provider and a growing headless commerce provider based on low total cost of ownership and highly flexible APIs.

The platform offers small business and start-up plans as well, with built-in features and SEO control. The integration options, like our headless WordPress plugin, make the platform a frontrunner across headless commerce solutions.

Magento.

Magento is historically an on-premise, open-source solution preferred by brands who have already heavily invested in IT or development teams. Magento 2 (AKA Magento Commerce Cloud or Magento Enterprise Cloud Edition) launched a cloud, open-source solution in more recent years.

Volusion.

Volusion is an ecommerce platform aimed primarily at starter stores and hobbyists.

In late July 2020, Volusion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to a blog post on Volution's website, the company is still open and operating as usual.

Salesforce Commerce Cloud (Demandware).

Salesforce Cloud Commerce, formerly Demandware, is a SaaS ecommerce platform provider, often preferred by high-profile fashion retailers.

It is an open SaaS model like Shopify and BigCommerce.

WooCommerce.

WooCommerce is an open-source ecommerce platform, offering a cart solution in addition to a brand’s content on WordPress.

It is most often used by starter stores and hobbyists, bloggers expanding into ecommerce, and brands utilizing developers most comfortable with the WordPress environment.

3dcart.

3dcart is another SaaS ecommerce platform, though typically considered more of a minor player.

3dcart provides  multilingual support and advanced shipping solutions — no API required.

Shopify.

Shopify is a well-funded and public SaaS ecommerce platform provider. They are popular with starter stores, hobbyists and brands with SKU counts of less than 100. 

Shopify also has an enterprise solution called Shopify Plus. For more information on the pros and cons of each platform check out this great Shopify Plus vs BigCommerce comparison from Cart Consultants.

Kibo.

Kibo is an omnichannel platform provider which acquired the SaaS ecommerce platform Mozu in 2016.

Mozu was built from the ground-up, offering, in theory, the most modern of ecommerce SaaS solutions.

Prestashop.

Prestashop is a freemium open-source, cloud-hosted ecommerce platform.

The platform can be used in 60 different languages and is popular outside of English-speaking countries where other platform providers dominate including:

  • BigCommerce.
  • Demandware.
  • Shopify.
  • Magento.

Squarespace.

Squarespace is a SaaS website platform provider. They are best known for their work with the creative community. Their ecommerce platform was spurred off by a need from that creative community for a light-weight cart (including cart recovery) to sell items.

It is used primarily by the creative community with low SKU volumes.

Big Cartel.

Big Cartel is an ecommerce solution designed for smaller merchants who do not need a sophisticated platform. Typical Big Cartel merchants are bands, clothing designers, jewelry makers, crafters, and other types of artists. The platform is very easy to use but has a limited feature set. Big Cartel may not fill your needs if you have a large product catalogue.

Wix.

Similar to Squarespace, Wix is best known for its easy website setup and keeping it simple with a drag-and-drop interface, competitive pricing, and modern for purchase and free themes. Wix is most often used by entrepreneurs and other small business creatives. The platform prides itself on being a solution for both beginners and experts who seek creative freedom in their website work.

Ecwid.

With more than 1 million online users, Ecwid has become a popular solution for small business owners. This solution is not a platform, but rather a widget which is intended for users who want to add a store to an existing website. If you have less than 10 products in your catalogue, Ecwid is a free solution. After that, plans start at $15/month.

Episerver.

Episerver’s platform puts a focus on content and personalization. Another headless commerce solution, the platform strives to combine digital marketing, content management and digital commerce into an all-in-one solution. The solution is a popular choice for mid-market and enterprise-level merchants. The platform is designed to pair well with other Episerver solutions like Episerver Find and Episerver Campaign.

OpenCart.

OpenCart is an open-source online store management program. The platform allows merchants to set up multiple stores and payment options, manage various product options and attributes, and add unlimited products. This option is popular for small businesses, freelancers and mid-market merchants.

FAQs About Ecommerce Platforms

What is the best ecommerce platform for a small business?

BigCommerce, Shopify and WooCommerce. are the most common ecommerce platforms for small businesses.

Depending on your experience and your specific brand needs, each platform has its advantages and disadvantages.

Should a startup use an ecommerce platform or build a custom solution?

Most ecommerce startups use an ecommerce platform — particularly a SaaS solution.

SaaS ecommerce platforms allow brands to rent the technology at a low cost, making the barrier to entry to online selling extremely low.

Custom solutions require immense monetary resources to build, and they have delayed go-to-market times.

Are there free ecommerce platforms?

No, there are no free ecommerce platforms.

Ecommerce website costs vary. Most open-source platforms are technically free in that you aren’t paying a licensing fee as part of the ecommerce plan, but there is a high cost in terms of hosting and development.

SaaS platforms charge a monthly recurring fee.

Costs range from $7 a month to $50,000+ a month.

Can I integrate my ecommerce platform with an Amazon store?

You can push your products from an ecommerce platform to Amazon and vice versa. This is called multi-channel selling where you sell both on your own website as well as on a marketplace, in this case, Amazon.

What programming languages are ecommerce platforms written in?

Most ecommerce platforms are written in commonly used programming languages, including:

  • Ruby on Rails.
  • PHP.
  • Javascript.
  • CSS.

Many SaaS companies use an abstraction layer for their programming language.

Shopify, for instance, used their proprietary Liquid as an abstraction layer for Ruby on Rails. BigCommerce uses Handlebars.

What are the best ecommerce platforms for businesses wanting to scale?

An ecommerce platform that is cloud-hosted is a good choice for businesses wanting to scale.

Cloud hosting is one of the best options for ecommerce sites because it can keep up with traffic. Because a network of machines handle your site’s hosting needs, you have almost unlimited growth capabilities.

Can I integrate my ecommerce platform with social channels?

Yes, there are ecommerce platforms that can integrate with social channels. 

BigCommerce offers built-in integrations with Facebook and Instagram, so you can market to users directly in their news feeds or main accounts.

With the advent of Buyable Pins, Facebook Shop and Shopping on Instagram, you can even sell directly to users without them needing to leave their platform of choice.

Which ecommerce platform is the easiest to use?

The ecommerce platform that's the easiest to use depends on your/your team's experience with working inside the platform and the needs of your business. While some platforms have many out-of-the-box features that make things easier, it still may come with a learning curve. It all depends on your team, the tech experience among the team, and your business plan.

How long does it take to launch an online store on an ecommerce platform?

The time it takes to launch an online store on an ecommerce platform depends on several factors, such as:

  • The type of ecommerce platform you choose and its ease of use.
  • Your/your team's bandwidth to complete the launch.
  • The amount of products and/or services you need to put in the store.

Some businesses launch their online store in a day or a week, while others may take longer.

Do I need an ecommerce platform to sell online?

Yes, you need an ecommerce platform to sell products online.

The only alternatives to an ecommerce platform are:

  • Building one from scratch, which is out of the question for most businesses — and only justifiable for multimillion (or multi billion) dollar companies.
  • Using a plugin, which isn’t an option if you’re looking to build and grow a legitimate business – even a small one.

Having a well-crafted online storefront using an ecommerce platform will help you expand your reach with SEO tools and build trust with customers via a unique online experience.

Which ecommerce platform does Amazon use?

Amazon uses an in-house solution, because the scale of Amazon is unlike any other business. Amazon Web Services has an ecommerce cloud solution created for businesses of many sizes.

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