As e-commerce specialists, we’re often asked which e-commerce platform we prefer. My answer is the evasive “it depends.”
If you were hoping this article would reveal the one, true Holy Grail of e-commerce platforms, it’s not — at least not for all people. The choice of which e-commerce platform to use for a particular online store is one that is unique to your situation. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, but the choice of a platform doesn’t have to be a lengthy decision, either.
When I talk to clients — or when we’re planning our own online e-commerce ventures — I focus on 5 key questions:
- Do you have any experience with a particular platform? Some clients have tried other platforms, or they’re using one now but want to expand or improve on what they have. From a technical point of view, if a client has experience with BigCommerce, for example, the move to something like Magento could be quite a change. On the other hand, if they’re used to working with open source platforms, Magento or OpenCart could be viable alternatives.
One of the most challenging aspects of starting a new online store is learning how to actually manage an online store. Which leads me to question number 2:
- What is your capacity for learning a new system? I’m not asking how intelligent the client is; I’m trying to find out what time and staff resources are available for adapting to a particular platform. Some require more learning than others.
So why not always recommend the easier-to-use e-commerce system? Because:
- Are there certain e-commerce features that are important to you? In a general sense, the simpler a platform, the fewer the features. That’s not to say a platform can’t be made user-friendly; it is to say that the more features and flexibility in a platform, the more complex the system must be. For instance, if you want to manage multiple stores under one back-end, your choices are more limited to platforms that contain the complexity needed to pull this off. Alternatively, if you’re only selling a few products and you’re more focused on content, then a simpler approach, such as WooCommerce with WordPress might well fit the bill.
Once you formulate what features (social media, complex product configurations, multiple stores, flexible shipping rules, etc.) are important:
- What staff resources are available? Running an e-commerce store takes time and effort to be successful. You don’t have to hire a huge staff if you’re just starting out, but you do need to understand the time required to load your products, process orders, market online and update content. If you currently have a brick-and-mortar store, you also cannot assume you have enough staff to handle your online business. They’re probably busy with their current duties. While they may be able to take online duties, as well, you may need to add to your staff.
Of course, staff resources add to your budget, which is why I ask:
- What is your budget? Yes, we have to talk about money. Everyone wants to know “how much,” yet that is such a hard question to answer. We’ve pretty much stopped quoting “package” pricing for e-commerce configurations, as we never hit the budget exactly. Sometimes we’re below; sometimes, we’re above. More times than not any budget overages are due to unknowns that pop-up: the client needs photos adjusted or a logo re-designed (e.g., they can’t locate whomever created their logo and we need it web-ready), product import data is poor or not formatted correctly, products turn out to be more complex (e.g., configurable products, complex attributes) than first thought, or the client wants additional features not originally specified. We’ve seen all of these in our projects.
So how do we begin to compare platforms based on these questions?
If we take the five questions above and quantify them on a scale of 1 to 5, we can compare our four favorite platforms accordingly:
- Experience. One means little prior experience with online platforms is necessary; “5” means you should have prior experience in order to fully realize the platform’s potential.
- Learning. If a platform demands a long learning curve, we rank it a “5.” Alternatively, a “1” is fairly easy to learn.
- Features. The more features a platform “out-of-the-box” has, the higher the ranking. I also include a related ranking for expandability: an asterisk (*) means the platform has good expandability and/or a great number of add-ons that increase its feature set.
- Resources. If a platform seems suited to the individual online entrepreneur, it gets a “1.” If I feel the store owner will need a broader skill set than most might personally have, the platform ranks higher.
- Budget. This is a comparative ranking of relative development and implementation costs, with “1” being the lowest and “5” being the highest.
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These rankings are purely subjective, of course, based on our experience. Others will rank these differently, but this is how I see it.
One other note: I like all these platforms, but for different purposes. All can be used to sell a variety of different product types. Arguments could be made that one if more “SEO friendly” than another. For me, the selection boils down to one simple question: which platform is best suited to my client?
And that is, by its very nature, the most subjective question of them all.