In this blog post we look at some of the many options for setting up an e-commerce platform. Does your business need an online shopping presence? What are your options and how can you implement your own system in a safe way?
Since it became the darling buzzword of the dot-com boom, E-commerce has thrown off the perception of "risky" and is now a standard operating strategy for any business that needs an online shop. Which is, let’s face it, most businesses today.
The history of e-commerce is an interesting one. It started back in the 60’s, but the term itself didn’t enter common usage until much later. With its rise in the 90’s came some slow sites and poorly thought out sales models, not to mention the scams. With the advent of a faster and more secure internet, things have got much better and shopping online is now a daily activity for most of the developed world. With 4 billion internet users it’s easy to see why sellers are making use of this versatile market platform.
If you are planning to setup your own on line shop then you’ve got a few key decisions to make. Firstly, you’ll need to consider if you want an “add-on” or “plug-in” style shop that sits on top of your existing site. If you’ve already got a site on a CMS then this may be your best option. If you’re starting from scratch then you could consider a standalone shop that sits on its own server. There are hybrid options that allow a CMS to talk to a separate shop but this adds complexity and may cause issues.
Let’s dive in to the main CMS platforms and what the options are for those with an existing CMS based site;
If you’re on WordPress
For selling products: WooCommerce
The good: The most popular plug-in shop for WordPress. A huge host of themes and extensions (add-ons for an add-on!). You can sell digital or physical products and their product management is quite advanced. You’ll have plenty of options on visual aspects of your shop and many WordPress themes are pre built to allow easy use of this shop. Payment and shipping is covered and you can even sell as an affiliate to a larger concern like Amazon.
The bad: It’s a bit of a beast and you’ll be doing lots of Googling trying to figure out what all the options do. Sometimes sheer choice gets in the way of finding the extension you need or the right box to tick. Being the biggest also means that it’s a target for the bad guys (however, conversely, the developers are constantly updating to avoid security issues).
For digital downloads : Easy Digital Downloads
The good: If your product is digital then this may be the one for you. Since it specialises in digital goods it’s a more streamlined experience than an e-shop that tries to do everything. Yet again you’ve got access to a wide range of extensions and eye candy to make your shop pop and fizzle. Multiple reports on the web tell of their support being pretty awesome too (especially the premium customers).
The bad: Clearly if you need to sell any physical products; this is one to skip over. Things get a little complex if you need to sell external content or an affiliate product.
Best for subscriptions : Memberpress
The good: For selling anything that is subscription based, has membership plans, or even pay per view content. The options for exactly how you gate the content and how you define user roles and permissions are very full featured. By now I’m sure you know that there are multiple options for extensions and visual tweaks. You can even combine this with other shops systems like WooCommerce if you’ve got that need.
The bad: Payment options are lagging behind here and you may have to find some creative workarounds to get your customer’s hard earned cash into your digital till. It’s not a chronic issue, but be aware before you commit. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the water also know they only offer yearly prices.
If you’re on Joomla
If you’re on a budget : VirtueMart VirtueMart
The good: By virtue of the fact it’s free, you’d be amiss not to at least consider this option. It’s been around since 2006 and is hugely popular. It’s developed with gusto with updates coming thick and fast, adding features and security. Community support is good and given its history you’ll be unlikely to uncover an issue that’s not already been solved and documented.
The bad: Yes, it’s free but you may well need to buy extensions to get to where you want to be. If you’re looking for “simple and quick” you may need to look elsewhere and VirtueMart may represent too big an overhead for smaller shops. The support relies on you finding what you’re looking for yourself so if you want a more one-to-one support experience, you’ll need to hire a developer.
You need knockout good looks : MijoShop
The good: If you want a good first impression then Mijoshop is certainly easy on the eye. It’ll sit well on most designs and comes with a serious range of inbuilt features to help you nail your requirements.
The bad: It’s not overly expensive but it does cost. If you need to really get under the hood and tinker you’ll need to be OK with XML. If you wanted a forum to asks questions you’ll need to come up with a plan B (OpenCart might be helpful) as there isn’t one at the moment.
You’re after a smaller shop : Hikashop
The good: Simple and easy to setup and use. Starter version is free and lets you see how you get on. You won’t need to spend hours looking at code or trying to find that checkbox you’re looking for.
The bad: You won’t find the same raft of features that are available on other platforms here. In addition you’ll be stuck with so/so looks as well.
If you’re on Drupal
You want a one stop shop : Ubercart
The good: Full featured and considered one of the best for Drupal. You’ll have plenty of options when it comes to customisation and if SEO is your thing (and it kind of needs to be) then there are extensions abound to get you ranking well. Installation out of the box is smooth and setup is slick.
The bad: If you’re looking to extend functionality past a particular point, where extensions do not dare to tread, you’ll need a developer. Some people have reported stability issues but you can never tell if it was the product or the way it’d been setup.
If open source is your thing : Drupal Commerce
The good: As benefits its open source status, Drupal Commerce is free. It is pretty full featured without having to add in any additional extensions. However, should you decide you want to get your hands dirty, the sky is the limit when it comes to customisation. The documentation is, as you might not expect for an open source product, pretty complete.
The bad: The good documentation can’t totally disguise the fact this is a difficult product to get your head around. The open source nature shows its hand by the product being quite technical. You’re expected to do the hard yards and learn its ways.
If you want to keep it simple : Basic Cart
The good: The name gives it away; you can be up and going in a few hours.
The bad: Small concerns only here; a bigger online shop will find they hit the limits quickly with this product. The big issue is the lack of a payment gateway. There are some people saying they’ve managed to get payment systems hooked into this product, but plenty more left scratching their heads. This may well make this product a nonstarter for most.
If you’re looking for stand-alone platforms
You want a hassle free experience : Shopify
The good: The plans offered mean that you can start on this hosted platform for a low cost ($29 a month at the time of publication). Its hosted nature means you don’t need to worry about install and much of the configuration is done for you. The support of dropshipping will appeal to some. The size of Shopify means your online shop is in fairly safe hands and won’t just disappear.
The bad: Some of the things you might expect to be “In the box” (e.g. digital downloads, reviews and ratings) actually need paid-for third party add-ons. If you operate outside of their core territories (United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia) you’ll need to find an alternative payment gateway which will mean additional cost.
You want more control : Magento
The good: As a self-hosting option you are in control of where and how you want to implement this e-commerce platform. This means you retain granular control of everything from speed to which features are turned on or off. The impressive set of features this platform offers is coupled with high scalability; if you’re on a growth spurt, Magento offers a good option.
The bad: Make no mistake, you are in for a steep learning curve. You’ll need a developer to get the most out of this platform and there is no customer support to speak of.
You want light weight and good support : osCommerce
The good: It’s been a stable of the e-commerce scene for a long time (17 years and counting) and they have refined their interface to be simple but effective. Catalog management is super useable and their support base is really large with a great set of forums. It’s a mature platform so there are plenty of developers if you need to call on an expert.
The bad: There are some scalability issues with osCommerce so if you plan on stellar growth you need to look into exactly how many users / products your shop will need and if osCommerce is liable to have issues.
So you want the future, now : CraftCommerce for CraftCMS
The good : Built by a team of developers who had already worked on previous CMS systems, this stripped back affair that does the basics exceedingly well by ignoring much of the added complexity of other systems. This means it supports many ideas that others are yet to fully implement. It’s built firmly with customisation in mind (you build it up, rather than strip it back) so it’s another one where having your developer to hand may be useful.
The bad : It’s limited size and usage footprint means you may not have access to the resources you would with one of the bigger players (you can tap up their passionate community, however). It’s also a little more pricy than many of its competitors, if you need to pay out for the Pro version, at $299 once off + $59 a year for updates at the time of writing.
As you will have grasped reading this post your choice of online shop is pretty much unlimited. As with all things website related the key is in the planning. You need to look at all the features you will need and the long term numbers for how you expect your shop to perform. Only then can you really start looking for a shop that will meet all your goals. I often implement e-commerce options for my customers and I’ve worked with many of the products that you might be considering. If you’d like to talk shop, I’d be delighted to give you the benefit of my experience if you want to get in touch.