The goal of this article is that by the end of it, you’ll know exactly which online ecommerce platform will best suit your needs.
Choosing an ecommerce platform is like choosing a phone plan, each player makes it hard for you to compare pricing and features and you end up giving up picking the most famous one. My goal here is to help you take a rational decision.
Before comparing platforms, take the time to deeply define what you need now, and what you will need in the future. A good ecommerce platform is one that solve your current problems, but don’t create more in the long run.
For example, picking a free or cheap platform seems to make sense now because you don’t sell products yet, but it might not make sense in a year when you have to pay extra money for new features and storage.
Part of the experiment, I decided to actually create a real online hardware store. It’s a side project that has been in my mind for a while and is not directly related to MakingSociety, but will be an interesting live experiment (fingers crossed!). This article is my actual decision process to pick the right ecommerce platform for this project. I’ll tell you more about it along the way, as I make progress.
Let’s look at all the the ecommerce platforms available on the market. In this article, I focus on the platforms that could fit my needs, among all the existing ones:
Open Source Platforms:
Popular paid ones:
And their contenders:
I’ll keep online store builder plugins for another article, but for information, here are the main ones: ZenCart, Shoplocket, TryCelery, FoxyCart, UltraCart, 3Dcart, X-cart, MijoShop for Joomla, Soldsie for Facebook, Ecwid
So… Hmm, Yes, you have way more options than just PrestaShop or Shopify!
To pick my ecommerce platform, I started by identifying my piorities. Here is what I’m looking for:
- little technical skills required
- ability to have my own domain name
- great templates options
- active ecosystem and great third-party integration
- affordable starter plan AND affordable bigger plan for later (with ideally unlimited products, storage and bandwidth)
- avoid transaction and hidden fees
As you see, I’m basically looking for a dream ecommerce platform. I can already tell that there will be compromise to be made.
Next step in my decision process is to narrow down what I want, until I find the finalist. I do that by asking myself the important questions and comparing offers for: 1/ ease-of-use & pricing, 2/ features & design, 3/ customer & community support.
Which platform is easy to install?
My priority is to find an ecommerce platform that requires little technical knowledge as I don’t have money to work with a developer and a designer yet, nor time to learn how to do it myself.
PrestaShop has a lot of great qualities – like being free, open source and packed with features – but ease-of-use is not its first strength. I tried it in 2011 for a project around selling 3D printers and gave up. Same reason why I won’t choose Magento, SpreeCommerce or Miva. LemonStand is also out of the list, as it doesn’t have templates and requires good css/html skills.
|Platform Name||Need for External Support and Development|
|PrestaShop / Magento / SpreeCommerce / Miva / LemonStand||Yes|
|Shopify / BigCommerce / Volusion / Goodsie / AmeriCommerce / Bonanza / Storenvy / SquareSpace||No|
This first question leaves me with the following platforms: Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion, Goodsie, AmeriCommerce, Bonanza, Storenvy and SquareSpace.
Which platform lets you have your domain name?
It’s another important criteria for me as I already have a domain name and plan on using it independently of any platform. Storenvy or Bonanza are designed to link you to their marketplace. I would rather be independent and have the freedom to link my store with any marketplace later. They are out of my list.
Remaining contenders are: Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion, Goodsie, AmeriCommerce, SquareSpace
Which Starter Plan compares the best?
Let’s look now at the wallet situation. A Starter Plan is a good plan to look at if you just have one or a few products. Let’s see what is the cheapest option on each platform. Store builders usually come as a monthly plan, sometimes with a discount if you commit for a year.
But many also come with extra costs to anticipate: transaction fees, premium templates, premium plug-ins.
Let’s see how my top contenders compare on their starter plan. I included how their number of products limit and their transaction fees. From the cheapest to the most expensive.
|Platform Name||Cheapest plan per month||Transaction fees|
|Volusion||$13.50 (100 products)||0|
|Shopify||$14 (25 products)||2% (if external payment system)|
|AmeriCommerce||$24.95 (100 products)||0|
|Goodsie||$25 (unlimited products)||0|
|BigCommerce||$26.96 (unlimited products)||1.5%|
|LemonStand||$29 (250 products limit)||0|
|Miva||$49.95 (unlimited products)||?|
Shopify has a very appealing starter offer at $14 that is hard to refuse. But they are charging like crazy on transaction fees (a Shopify specialty) and limit you to 25 products. And remember that if your product has multiple colors, each of them count as product!
Volusion is a winner. $15, no transaction fee, 100 products. Looking good Volusion!
If you only have a very small number of products to sell, Volusion or Shopify are your best options.
How do they compare for unlimited storage?
Fast enough (and hopefully), you’ll need a bigger plan, with a high or unlimited number of products allowed and unlimited storage.
Remember that once you’re used to a platform it’s hard to quit. Now is the right time to think ahead.
Counting by “number of products” doesn’t reflect any kind of reality. It’s just an easy way for these platforms to market their plans to the non-tech savvy. Actually, what truly matters on the long run is storage and bandwidth. 1GB or 5Gb is a super small storage limit.
Let’s see how these platforms compare on their unlimited storage plans. This is one you will eventually be locked in on the long run.
|Platform Name||Plan Per Month||Number of products limit|
|AmeriCommerce||No unlimited storage plan available||/|
|Miva||No unlimited storage plan available||/|
|Goodsie||$25 (unlimited storage)||unlimited|
|Volusion||$15 (unlimited storage)||100 products|
|SquareSpace||$16 (unlimited storage)||20 products|
|LemonStand||$29 (unlimited storage)||200 products|
|BigCommerce||$71.95 (unlimited storage)||unlimited|
|Shopify||$179 (unlimited storage)||unlimited|
Ok so now this is interesting. Do you see the huge gap between Goodsie ($25) and Shopify ($179) ? And Shopify still takes a transaction fee at this level…
Big winner for overall unlimited plan is definitively Goodsie! Unlimited storage, unlimited product, no transaction fees. But we’ll see that Goodsie has important down sides, sadly. I read everywhere that Volusion charges $7 for every extra GB of bandwidth usage. This can be pretty painful.
A good mid-contender is BigCommerce with a $71.95 all unlimited plan and no fees, more reasonable than Shopify.
Let’s take a small break and see what I got at this point.
Goodsie, BigCommerce, Volusion and Shopify are in my short list in term of ease-of-use and pricing.
Best price for starting: Shopify, Volusion
Best price in the very long run: Goodsie, BigCommerce
Be real about your plan. Ambitious dreams of selling hundreds of products have a lot of chance to cut short, and you will have paid extra hundreds dollars for nothing. Start with a low estimation.
Features & Design
Variety and Quality of Themes
Design and branding is an essential part of selling your product online. If like me you don’t have money and resources to hire a seasoned webdesign team, you may want to use free or premium themes available.
Pick a platform with a large number of themes. You’ll have more chances to stand out and find one that fits your brand.
|Platform Name||Number of free themes available||Number of paid themes|
Shopify has definitively the most beautiful collection of themes. Free ones are already great as is, even if there are only 10 of them. PrestaShop themes are very numerous but also pretty bulky. They will require additional work most of the time.
I’m looking for something modern and responsive. Ideally, a free theme that works on every screens and can be slightly customized.
Goodsie’s focus is on design. Many of their proposed themes are very good-looking. BigCommerce is not too bad neither even if they don’t have the free theme that I have in mind. Volusion free themes… are terrible. I will have to invest an extra $150 or more to get a better design. The overall look’n feel of the platform is pretty old-school. It’s not the brand image I’m looking for.
At this point of my benchmark, Shopify, Goodsie and BigCommerce make the list. I exclude Volusion for lack of design.
I won’t compare each features in this article are they are so many, but I’ll focus on a few key features in my opinion, which are SEO, payment and third-party integration.
I’m looking for an ecommerce platform that has solid default features and a good plug-in ecosystem.
Shopify, BigCommerce and Volusion have great build-in SEO optimization features. Goodsie lacks terribly on this side.
At this point, it’s basically Shopify versus BigCommerce.
Each payment service such as PayPal, Stripe or Authentize comes with transaction fees. Shopify has implemented its own payment system and doesn’t charge fees if you use it (if your company is based in the US).
Third-party services integration
For this demo project of how to start a hardware store, I plan on using state-of-the-art shipping services to test and tell you on MakingSociety. As such, it’s important for me that the ecommerce platform integrates with a full ecosystem of apps and plug-ins.
Shopify and PrestaShop are the ones with the biggest app ecosystem. Volusion app store is still in beta.
PrestaShop’s business model is to make money on apps and themes. Most PrestaShop plug-ins are extremely expensive, even more knowing that many are build-in by default in other platforms.
Shopify has without a doubt the biggest app ecosystem.
Customer Support, Community, Lovability
I thoroughly read online comments and reviews on customer supports for each of these platforms. Almost 100% of angry comments are related to being denied refunds, unsolved bugs and shaky updates. For example, Volusion seems to be a master at overcharging you for bandwidth and small services (they ask $25 to remove “powered by Volusion” in your footer!)
From general opinion, it seems that PrestaShop’s customer support and community is not as responsive as when they started and that Shopify’s customer support is not hardcore tech-savvy (they won’t be able to solve a bug or go in your code). I never expect much of companies’ customer supports, and more from overall community.
Shopify has a very large and active community of users, and many creators of hardware products use them. If something goes wrong, I should be able to find help on a forum. DODOcase, MakerShed, OpenBCI, Makey Makey are just a few of successful hardware companies using it for their store.
Which Ecommerce Platform do I choose?
An online ecommerce platform with little technical skills needed, beautiful designs, active community support, and that doesn’t cost me an arm to start with.
After comparing all the platforms and their features, I decided to go with Shopify. I hoped to find a cheaper alternative that would fit my needs but it seems that the number one platform has truly a lot of arguments.
As a first step, I’ll keep going with the 14 days free trial before to get the Starter Plan at $14/month (an investment of $168 for the year).
Do you have a good experience with Shopify? I’d love to know about it in the comments.