Brighton has an awesome tech community. We work in the Skiff which is a co-working space. I even did a talk about building a custom theme there last week.

There are lots of lively discussions on the email list and on our chat tool Slack. Three times in the last month I have seen someone ask what e-commerce platform they should be using or recommending. Three times I have seen pages and pages of conflicting opinions.

Brighton’s comments on E-Commerce Platforms

So I’ve picked out some of the comments I saw when questions about which platform to choose were asked:

  • “I would take a look at Squarespace, especially if they want something that looks good with minimum faff and the product range is simple.”

  • “My brother has been running his shoe business on Shopify for a couple of years and is very happy with it, but he did quite a lot of customisation on the basic setup.”

  • “For people just starting out I recommend forgetting about the website and making your first 100 sales in person, on the phone, and via email using Etsy, Gumroad or (shudder) ebay. As much as I love Stripe you should probably start with (bigger shudder) PayPal to take people’s money.”

  • “I’ve worked with WooCommerce that is a free plugin for WordPress. I found it very simple to use, but if you want to do some extras that doesn’t come with the standard plugin, you have pay.”

  • “Drupal Commerce for me.”

  • “+1 Squarespace – if I can set up a SS site, anyone can.”

  • “+1 WooCommerce (as I specialise in it). Happy to answer any questions.”

  • “Unless you got deep pockets – time or money or both, get an eBay shop. Let them do all the traffic for you. The percentage they take is far less than the costs of marketing at least to start off with.”

feeling-protective-woocommerce
This is how I felt when I saw some of the comments suggesting alternative platforms.

Forget about the Platform

First off, can you spot which one was from me? Of course, I’m pushing WooCommerce.

I have used a bunch of platforms and WooCommerce is the one that I think has the least tradeoffs. But I think there is a better way to approach finding a suitable platform than just stubbornly singing praises for the one we like.

For me the best comment up there is from Jonathan who says ’forget about the website’. It’s great advice and counter intuitive, but for anyone at the early stages of an online business it’s important.

We see a lot of startups who get bogged down with the technical details. They spend their time perfecting all the tools and neglecting the business.

Without sales you don’t have an online business, you just have the potential for a business.

The first step is to demonstrate that there is a market for your product and that you can deliver it.

Setting up an e-commerce store is like setting up a bricks and mortar shop in the middle of the Sahara. You’re not going to get any footfall just because it exists.

You’ll need to buy big signs to point people to you and make it a seriously desirable location for people to head to.

The USP of Small E-Commerce

The USP of Amazon, is that they stock everything. This impacts you. It should raise the question: what is the key differentiator between buying our product on Amazon and via our store?.

What is your USP?

People want a personal touch and it’s something that Amazon cannot deliver. This is where the opportunity to grow your customer base comes from. Your ethics and brand are the differentiator. Your customers are buying that as much as your product.

If they are not, and they aren’t a lot of the time, then you are likely to be more successful on the large marketplaces like Amazon or Etsy. But if you want to develop a personal rapport with your customer base then the following items are crucial:

  • Fast, personal, educational and pro-active customer support
  • Collect customer details for further marketing communication / content communication
  • A content driven marketing strategy (otherwise known as a blog!)
  • Efficient logistics

Your own site lets you grow your brand.

Finding a platform that delivers this

The comments I posted at the start of this article indicate that there are really varied views about whats the ‘best e-commerce platform’. One thing is certain; there are lots of different experiences with different platforms.

This is to be expected. An e-commerce platform has to dance carefully between having enough functionality to be adaptable to your requirements and be limited so it is not bloated and overcomplicated.

A good test is the ability to control shipping.

In the UK we have certain post code areas where it is more expensive to ship to. The islands and the outer reaches of Scotland for instance. Some platforms like Shopify do not have sophisticated shipping rules that let you change shipping costs per post code. Others like WooCommerce do.

By limiting the amount of control over shipping, Shopify ensure that their system doesn’t ‘break’ so easily. However it limits what you can do.

The opposite extreme would be a system that was custom built just for you, but as your needs changed you could not afford the team of 20 developers who update the system.

Each business is unique. You will need to balance each platform against the other to determine whether they fit your needs. This is why it is critical to nail down your requirements.

Things to consider before choosing

The business structure and processes should determine what platform you need. Work on this before choosing a platform.

  • Build an e-commerce team.
  • Create your spec
  • Determine how you will manage customer services
  • How will logistics be sorted?
  • How will you process payments?

And the list goes on! Even if it is just you, going through these steps is important and sets requirements which will help you choose.

Getting Hosted or Self-Hosted

We don’t always recommend WooCommerce. In many instances it is overkill. There are also lots of considerations when looking after a self-hosted site such as:

  • Who is responsible for site uptime?
  • Is your site regularly backed up?
  • Is your site secure and up to date?

There are lots of expectations and misconceptions that need to be explored when looking into a self-hosted e-commerce site.

A lot of these troubles are eliminated by choosing a hosting solution such as Shopify or Squarespace.

So, why choose a self-hosted WooCommerce site

It all depends on your requirements, so I’ll tell you why we work with WooCommerce.

WooCommerce has seen some huge growth recently. Just take a look at the BuiltWith stats on WooCommerce. It’s popular because it really nails the following better than the competition:

  • Flexible code / open source
  • Strong developer community
  • Backed by a pro-active company
  • Plenty of WooCommerce Extensions
  • Intuitive and Feature Filled
  • Integrates with WordPress and many users familiar with WordPress
  • Data portability
  • Lots of integrations with 3rd party solutions
  • Easy to migrate from other platforms to WooCommerce
  • Secure
  • All the advantages of WordPress

We’ve written a blog post about many regular questions about WooCommerce. Take a look if you have any specific queries and ask in the comments if you have any additional questions.

The ‘but’ with WooCommerce

It’s not as plug and play as other developers might lead you to believe. There are many expectations and misconceptions which can result in technical problems. Make sure you explore these first. We suggest hiring a reputable freelancer or agency to get your site online and who can help with the site ongoing. A good WooCommerce Developer will be a key asset to have.

If you take on the configuration and development of your own site, then you will find that you have little time to develop the business processes that are critical to the sites success.

Hosting, security and backups are things you need to manage. We recommend dedicated WordPress hosting. It’s more expensive than standard shared hosting but great value.

These are concern’s that come along with all self-hosted sites. Make sure you explore them first.

What do you think is the most important factor?

Let us know in the comments what you think should be at the top of someone’s list when choosing an e-commerce platform? Do you have a favourite or do you have a fist full of rage – well let us know below. Thanks