For small businesses just getting started with selling online, we identified five essential features that every platform needed to have.
- Anyone had to be easily able to build a good-looking, modern store that worked on any and all devices with the tools and themes offered. There also had to be enough customization options that they could make things fit their existing brand reasonably well. Platforms that required you to have some knowledge of code to make use of them or only offered a limited selection of themes with no way to make changes didn’t make the cut.
- The platform had to enable you to sell what you wanted, where you wanted, how you wanted. This meant they had to be able to deal with both digital and physical goods, integrate with multiple different payment processors, and offer a way to handle the various national and international sales taxes. That last point is particularly important for small businesses as, if you have a physical premises or plan to sell internationally, you may be liable for collecting and filing taxes.
- The platform had to enable you to manage orders, ship goods, track inventory, and otherwise handle the back-end of running a store without you needing to resort to spreadsheets or other apps. We were only considering complete eCommerce solutions, rather than ways to just charge customers.
- The platform had to offer ways to integrate with other services, marketplaces, apps, and the like, either through a healthy plug-in and extension marketplace or built-in features. Businesses seldom run everything using a single software suite, so apps had to let you do things like automatically add new customers to your mailing list or sell through social media.
- All these features had to be offered at a reasonable price. Fully customized, done-for-you solutions are wonderful, but they cost thousands of dollars per month—far outside the budget of a small business just getting started in eCommerce.
eCommerce platforms charge a little differently than a lot of other services, so working out exactly how much you’ll pay can require a bit of math.
- First, there’s the monthly fee. This can be anything from free to hundreds of dollars per month, with around $30 being the standard for a basic plan.
- Then there are the payment gateway fees. Some platforms, like Wix and Shopify, operate their own payment gateways, while others rely on Stripe, PayPal, or another service. When you charge a credit card, you pay a fee to the gateway; the normal fee is around 2.9% of the overall charge plus an additional $0.30, although this goes down with volume and higher upfront payments.
- Finally, there are transaction fees. These are a percentage rate that’s charged on top of any gateway fees. A lot of services bill themselves as having 0% transaction fees, but this merely means there’s no extra charge. Other services charge a 1% or 2% transaction fee if you don’t use their gateway.
We’ve avoided any services we felt had unreasonably high fees, transaction charges, or ridiculous volume expectations for them to make financial sense.
With those key features as our guide, we were able to cut the list of 50 options down to just the six best eCommerce platforms for small businesses.
Best eCommerce platform for getting up and running quickly
Shopify (Web, iOS, Android)
Shopify has been around for almost 15 years—with more than a million stores built using the platform—and it’s hard to find a better platform for most small businesses looking to get an online store up and running quickly.
Sign up for a credit-card-free 14-day trial, and within a few minutes, you can have the first build of your store ready to go. The onboarding wizard walks you through adding your products, customizing the look of your store, connecting your own domain, and getting set up to take those all-important payments.
Even if you’ve never built a website before in your life, you’re unlikely to get lost in Shopify’s intuitive web app. Adding a product, for example, is as simple as clicking Products in the sidebar and then the Add Products button. Fill in the name, price, quantity you have on hand, and any other relevant details, change its status to Active, and it’s straight in your online store and ready to be sold.
While Shopify ticks most boxes right out of the gate, its extensibility and app store are what really make it so powerful. Take the theme situation: Shopify has 10 free themes and more than 50 paid themes starting from $140. To browse them, go to Themes, and then, under Theme Library, click Visit Theme Store. Not a bad selection, right?
But because Shopify is so popular, you can also find more than 1,200 themes available on ThemeForest or get a professional designer who is already experienced with the platform to make you a custom one.
It’s the same with almost any feature you could want. If it’s not built into Shopify, you can find an extension, plug-in, or service that does it in the app store. Just go to apps.shopify.com, find the app you need, and click Add App. Head back to your Shopify dashboard and click Apps in the sidebar to manage all the ones you’ve installed.
It should be no surprise that Shopify integrates with Zapier, so if you want to automatically add new customers to your email marketing list or track orders with a project management tool, you can do it easily.
Best eCommerce platform for selling in-person and online
Square (Web, iOS, Android)
If you want the option to sell in-person, like at a farmer’s market or craft fair, as well as through your online store, Square is the best choice. Your online and offline orders are all organized under a single dashboard, so there’s no jumping between apps or trying to track down customer details using random spreadsheets.
Square bought the website builder app Weebly in 2018, so when you set up your store, that’s what’s running under the hood. If you occasionally see a URL direct to weebly.com, it’s nothing to worry about.
Square has some of the best onboarding around. When you sign up, you have to fill in a quick questionnaire about your business and its needs. You’ve got the option to set up a single booking page, a full online store, or simply checkout links, depending on what you’re looking for. The default theme will also be tweaked to match the business category you chose.
In terms of storefront customization, Square is a little more limited than some of the other options. Instead of picking a theme that does most of the work, with Square, you have to make your own design using the ( admittedly excellent) site builder—or you can hire a designer from $99 to do it for you.
From the Square Online Dashboard, click Edit Website to get started. In the sidebar on the left, you can select the different page elements, or you can just click on them directly. For more options, click the three little dots. You can change the colors, fonts, and layout of everything individually and, of course, upload your own images. It works well, but it is a bit constrained.
You can create “items,” what Square calls products or services for sale, through both the regular Square Dashboard and the Square Online Dashboard, and they’ll be synced to a common Item Library. This means that you can sell the same products both online and off, or have some things you just list in one location. Just go to Items > Item Library, and click Create an Item.
When you want to make an in-person sale, open up the menu and select Virtual Terminal, which acts just like a digital cash register. If you have a Square credit card reader (available for free), you can swipe your customers’ cards for a 2.6% + $0.10 fee from Square, and their details will automatically upload to your account. Otherwise, you can type in your customers’ credit card information for a 3.5% + $0.15 fee per charge. Online, Square’s charges are similar. On the free plan, you’re charged 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction.
Square also integrates with Zapier, so you can do things like post your in-person transactions to a Slack channel for the rest of the team to see or record the details using Airtable.
Best eCommerce platform for getting started for free
Ecwid (Web, iOS, Android)
If you’re launching an online store but want to minimize your initial outlay, Ecwid is the best place to start: it’s got a great, free plan that lets you start selling your first 10 physical products, and affordable upgrade tiers starting at $15/month as you grow or need extra features. There are also no additional transaction fees on top of what your payment gateway charges, so it isn’t skimming any profit with hidden fees.
When you sign up, Ecwid gives you the option to integrate your store with your existing website—it supports most platforms like WordPress, Weebly, Drupal, and the like—or to set up your own store with a
company.site the domain name (although you can change that to a custom domain at any time by upgrading to the Venture plan).
At the Dashboard, you’re presented with a big, bold to-do list that walks you through setting up your site, adding your first products, localizing your store, and choosing how you want to deliver goods—and get paid for them. Working through the full list takes less than 15 minutes.
Where Ecwid stands out from some of the other free options is its customizability. In the sidebar, click Website and then Edit Site to open the site builder. To change the theme, click Themes and choose from one of the dozens of different options. Whatever you’re planning to sell, there’s a decent base theme to work from. Then, dive deeper into the intuitive builder to customize every section, text block, and photo.
While Ecwid is a great free option, it doesn’t skimp on the features with the paid plans. It integrates with social channels like Facebook and Instagram so you can sell directly to your followers, you can list your products on Amazon or eBay, or take payments in person. It automatically calculates tax, offers discounts, and tracks your inventory. If you set up a free store on Ecwid, you don’t have to worry about moving to a new platform if things take off.
Ecwid integrates with Zapier too, so you can do things like receive texts when someone places an order or track sales with Google Sheets.
Best eCommerce platform for large volume sellers
BigCommerce (Web, iOS, Android)
BigCommerce is, unsurprisingly given the name, an enterprise eCommerce solution used by multinational companies like Ben & Jerry’s. BigCommerce Essentials offers a similarly powerful platform for small businesses looking to sell online, at significantly more affordable prices.
With that said, BigCommerce Essentials is still aimed at businesses that are already selling a lot, either in units or dollars. Unlike most other options, for example, as part of the onboarding process, you’re prompted to set up sales taxes and automated shipping; both things that smaller stores that are just getting started can kind of improvise on until they’re up and running properly. If you only sell 10 T-shirts a month, you’re not going to suddenly be on the hook for a multi-thousand dollar tax liability.
Similarly, while BigCommerce integrates with online payment processors like Stripe, PayPal, Braintree, and Amazon, you can also configure your store to take payment by bank transfer, check, or money order.
It’s also super simple to list your products on other marketplaces like eBay, Amazon, and Facebook, so customers don’t have to buy directly from your store. Just head to Channel Manager in the sidebar and connect the option you want. BigCommerce will automatically import any products you’ve got set up, and keep any changes you make up to date across all your channels.
This focus on bigger small businesses isn’t without its downsides, however. While BigCommerce has 12 free themes built-in, the majority of the ones available in the theme marketplace (in the sidebar, click Storefront > Theme Marketplace) cost between $150 and $300. They look great, and the drag-and-drop site builder is powerful enough that you can customize themes as you please, but you need to be in a position to justify the investment.
The $29.95/month Standard tier is capped at $50,000/year in sales, while the $79.95/month Plus tier is capped at $180,000/year. You don’t necessarily need to be shifting that level of inventory for BigCommerce to be the right choice for you, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
BigCommerce integrates with Zapier, so you can automate tasks like sending all of your customers to your CRM.
Best eCommerce platform for adding a shopping cart to an existing WordPress site
WooCommerce (Web, iOS, Android)
Most eCommerce solutions work best if you use them to build your full online store, rather than to add payment processing to your existing site. It’s just simpler if everything runs seamlessly from a single dashboard and is built using the same tools. What, then, do you do if you already have a website set up?
Well, presuming you use a service like Squarespace or Weebly, then their built-in tools should be your first option. But if like huge swaths of the internet, you use WordPress, then WooCommerce is your best bet. Instead of starting over on a different platform, this WordPress plugin seamlessly integrates into your WordPress site for easy selling.
Installing WooCommerce on your site is ridiculously easy. Sign up on WooCommerce’s website. Then, when you reach the final step of the onboarding process, select Auto-install WooCommerce on an existing WordPress site. You’ll be prompted to log in and then set up the plugin. If you’re already rocking WordPress, it couldn’t be handier.
Similarly, WooCommerce slots perfectly into your existing backend. You can manage your orders, create coupons, and view sales reports from your WordPress dashboard. Adding new products is as simple as creating a typical post—since WooCommerce is a WordPress plugin, it has the same interface as WordPress, which means that you won’t have to take the time to learn a new platform. The only difference between adding a new product and creating a new post is that you’ll have to add specific information about your product, such as a description, image, categories, and tags.
If WooCommerce doesn’t have some features you need, there’s a serious extensions marketplace. WooCommerce offers a variety of free and paid options that can enhance your store: get real-time shipping rates with the USPS extension, integrate various payment gateways, or add WooCommerce Subscriptions to let your customers subscribe to your product or services. You can even combine these extensions with any plugins from WordPress to customize your store even more.
You can connect WooCommerce to thousands of other apps with Zapier, to do things like saving orders to a spreadsheet or adding new customers to your email marketing tool.
Best eCommerce platform for simultaneously creating a store and business website
Wix (Web, iOS, Android)
Most eCommerce platforms make it possible for you to add an about page, contact page, or even a basic blog to your site, but it’s normally more of an add-on than an out-and-out feature. If you’re looking to build a full website where an online store is a part of things, but not the whole package, then Wix is your best option. It’s a powerful site builder—but it doesn’t skimp on the eCommerce features like order tracking, automated sales tax, and abandoned cart recovery.
When you first sign up, you fill in a kind of questionnaire that Wix automatically uses to set things up. Toward the end, you get the option to choose from one of more than 500 templates and make your own site, or answer a few more questions and let Wix’s “Artificial Design Intelligence” or ADI do it for you.
The ADI option is surprisingly quick and effective. Click Start Now, and, after answering a few questions about what you plan to sell and what sort of look you like, selecting the features and pages you want to add to your site, and adding your details, you’ll have a site ready to go in a few short moments. You can even import content from an existing site or Google Places listing. And, of course, you can dive in and customize things further once Wix’s robot designers are done.
With so much going on, Wix’s onboarding to-do list is long but comprehensive. As well as adding things like shipping rates and your shop’s opening hours (if you have a physical premise), you’re guided through setting up a professional email address, building an email list, advertising on Google and Facebook, setting up a payment gateway, and a lot more. At times it might veer a little close to hand-holding, but too much guidance is better than too little.
Wix is one of the most popular site builders around, so there’s also a healthy third-party app and extension marketplace. If you want to integrate your store with accounting services like QuickBooks or shipping coordinators like Shippo, there’s a simple one-click install app. Or you can use Zapier and connect Wix to thousands of other apps like Trello and Google Tasks.
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