As more and more folks head online to shop, it’s not surprising that the e-commerce sector is thriving. However, with so much choice in how you set up your online store, it can be difficult finding the right platform for your needs.
The good news is that you don't need to have any knowledge of HTML, graphics applications, or any other complexities, as today e-commerce can be as easy as filling in a few online forms.
Choosing your weapons
When deciding how to set-up your e-commerce site there are a number of key decision to be made that fall into a number of categories:
- Online or self-hosted – you can use a number of e-commerce applications that are hosted online, or build your own site and host this on your own servers
- Website or blog – these days the difference between these two is blurring with many businesses 'e-commerce enabling' their blogs. A standalone website can though, give you complete control over every element of your store
- Shopping cart – the most important aspect of your e-commerce presence is efficiently taking payments. Look for shopping cart software that is fast and efficient
- Security – shoppers are now more comfortable buying online, but always ensure your site uses SSL (Secure Socket Layer) that is now the industry standard for online payments
- Above every other consideration should be your site's visitor experience. Don't forget your competitors are just a mouse click away in the world of e-commerce.
Is eBay right for your business?
Opening its doors in 1999, eBay UK now has over 14 million users, with over 10,000 people using the site for a business that is their primary means of income. It's not just about people selling unwanted goods – businesses have used the simplicity that eBay offers to set up lucrative operations. Even the larger brands such as Argos, Debenhams and House of Fraser are using eBay to sell online.
With sophisticated tools now available you can be up and running with your store in just a few hours. The eBay Seller Centre has all the information you need. Each store is managed via eBay's familiar user interface, and there are a number of eBay-provided tools to help manage, track and promote your shop once it's established.
Using eBay as the platform for your business could be ideal if your business wants to sell goods on a fixed price basis. The complete integration of the PayPal e-payments system into eBay takes care of this essential component of your store.
The key with eBay is to look closely at the costs involved and also the transaction fees that PayPal charge before moving forward and setting up your own store.
How to create your own e-commerce solution
Of course if you want complete control over every aspect of your new online store, building each page yourself will be the best course of action. Hiring someone to code your website is one option. If you decide to do this follow these steps:
- Ask the company for live examples of their work to look at
- Write a detailed brief of the site you want created. The more detail the better to avoid confusion
- Ensure you understand the price you are being charged and how many revisions this price includes
- Always have a signed agreement or contract before work commences
- Ask whether the designers will host your site and if you will be able to make updates yourself or if all updates must go through the design agency at an additional cost
- Ask for the copyright of your design to be assigned to your company, as your website is an important part of your business' intellectual property
- Put into your contract, details of how the agreement can be amicably dissolved if things go wrong
You also don't have to build your site completely from scratch. Buying a template can give you all the basic pages your site needs. You can then either modify them yourself using an application like Dreamweaver, or hire a coding expert to make the changes. Website templates are available from a number of vendors including Template Monster.
If you already have a website and want to add e-commerce functionality, this can be easily achieved with a number of applications including:
Off-the-shelf e-commerce packages for business
There has been a steady expansion of packaged e-commerce applications over the last few years. Most of the well-known apps now offer a full set of e-commerce tools you can use to construct and manage a professional e-commerce site. Let's take a closer look at some of the leading packages.
Price: From $29 (around £21) per month
Shopify is perhaps the most well known e-commerce platform available. It was set up in 2006 by founders Tobias Lütke, Daniel Weinand and Scott Lake who, as the story goes, felt that there wasn't a simple-to-use e-commerce platform available and so built their own. The company claims that: "You don't need to have any technical or design experience to easily create a beautiful online store."
According to Shopify, it's possible to get one of its online stores up-and-running within minutes. Users can choose from a wide range of templates, or they can design the look and feel of their store themselves. It accepts a comprehensive range of credit cards, has Level 1 PCI compliance and 256-bit SSL encryption for security, and it offers 24/7 support via phone, instant messaging or email.
The platform provides a full CMS with which users can manage the functionality and layout of their online store. Users can manage their store on-the-go using Shopify's mobile apps, and the platform itself is fully responsive, meaning the store will be optimised for visitors regardless of whether they access it from a desktop computer or a mobile device.
Shopify also offers users unlimited hosting for their stores, in-depth analytics of how visitors are using the store, and functionality for marketing such as SEO optimisation, a discount and coupon engine, gift cards and email marketing tools.
Price: From $30 (around £21) per month
Bigcommerce was established in 2009 and promises to "support your business, not just your store." In addition to offering support via phone, instant chat and email, it also offers articles and videos to help with e-commerce, and access to a team of e-commerce experts who can provide advice and guidance about online selling. Their experts are qualified in both Google Analytics and Adwords.
Like Shopify, Bigcommerce provides a variety of templates and themes to help stores look their best and get up-and-running quickly. Alternatively, users can design their own store or use Bigcommerce designers to do so. The platform incorporates a full-featured CMS that allows users to run an entire website, rather than just a store.
Users can benefit from detailed and flexible product management, optimised search engine rankings, along with a variety of integrated marketing tools and analytics. Payments can be accepted via 40+ pre-integrated gateways and shipping details can be customised as per the business's requirements. The platform offers automated order processing, flexible tax rules depending on where orders are made and shipped, and support for multiple currencies.
Price: From $15 (around £11) per month
Volusion has been around for almost two decades, having been set up in Texas over in the US in 1999. The company touts its platform as being an "all-in-one e-commerce solution", and offers a free 14-day trial (no credit card required).
As with other e-commerce platforms, users are offered a variety of templates from which to choose, and can also customise templates if they so wish. Should a more complex design be required, Volusion offers a custom design service that can incorporate branding and a firm's social media presence.
The platform provides the site and product management tools you'd expect, marketing functionality for SEO, social media, and affiliate outlets, along with emails and order management functionality for fast order processing, accepting payments, tax calculations and POS integration.
In addition to its platform and associated services, Volusion offers apps from its partners, support for users and a knowledgebase for help with e-commerce. Users can draw upon blog posts, guides and webinars.
Price: From $19 (around £14) per month
CoreCommerce was set up in 2001 and focuses on providing e-commerce services to small and medium-sized businesses. The company places an emphasis on simplicity and transparency, promising that its platform is easy-to-use and that customers will not fall foul of any hidden charges.
Perhaps CoreCommerce's most unique aspect is that all of its features are offered to all customers regardless of what plan they are on. Price plans are determined by the number of products, the number of email addresses, the amount of bandwidth and the amount of storage required by the user (and higher-end plans also benefit from additional support).
As with other e-commerce providers, CoreCommerce offers functionality for store design, product management, order processing and marketing. Of its headline features, the platform offers unlimited product customisation options, a built-in blogging engine, and secure hosting that is provided by Rackspace and comes with a 99.9% uptime guarantee.
Price: From $29 (around £21) per month
Having been founded in 1997, 3dcart is the oldest of our featured providers here. It was set up with a view to incorporating as many of the most requested e-commerce features into one platform as possible.
The company says it has six core values by which it operates: ongoing innovation, good service, simple solutions, fostering trust, keeping employees and customers happy, and stimulating prosperity amongst employees and customers.
Some of the platform's innovative features include a module that users can install to offer gift-wrapping, a purchase order system, the option of running a loyalty program and the ability to offer recurring orders. Many of these features are very specific, meaning that stores can be highly tailored to the needs of each business.
Stores can be designed using one of the many templates offered by 3dcart, or users can design their own store. A quick edit bar means that making changes to the design of a store is simple. Product images are forefronted with 3dcart's auto-zoom feature and products can be sold via Facebook with its store integration. As with some other platforms, users can blog directly from 3dcart and tools are provided for setting up coupons, sending newsletters and affiliate marketing.
In addition to its platform, 3dcart offers a number of professional services. Users can request help with SEO, PPC, shopping feed management, social media, Facebook ads and conversion consulting. Help can also be provided to ensure that a user's store is set up to the highest standard. Services such as site cloning, setting up custom tracking, data migration and training are offered.
In addition, 3dcart can provide SSL certification. Hosting is guaranteed at 99.9% uptime and 24/7 support is provided via phone, email or online chat.
Whichever route you decide to take when building your website always remember:
- You need to ensure your store can be easily updated and managed.
- Good professional web hosting is vital to ensure your site is always available.
- Look for payment and shopping carts that are intuitive and efficient to use.
- Customer service is king these days. Businesses shouldn't just efficiently take customers' money, but should also properly support them.
- Make sure that your store is fully integrated with all the leading social media sites.
Setting up your online store should be approached carefully and diligently to ensure you put a professional and efficient site live. Internet shopping continues to expand. Make sure your business doesn't miss out on a sales channel that shows no signs of slowing down.
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