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E-commerce, or online shopping, was once viewed with skepticism. But with the rise of successful internet retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Zappos and brick-and-mortar stores delivering superb digital experiences, online shopping is now a common, everyday occurrence.
The Growth of Online Shopping
There's no shortage of media documenting the struggles of brick-and-mortar stores.
Predictions of a continued decline might be premature or a bit overblown, but it is not an exaggeration to say that:
- There is significant growth in the digital marketplace.
- If your business is not online, it's missing out on a large (and growing) marketplace.
- Even if you don't have a high rate of online sales, maintaining an online store to complement your brick-and-mortar store is beneficial.
- People can discover you online, and view your products. Your customers might be more likely to stop by if they know that you have what they want.
It's Not Always Easy to Successfully Launch
However, we understand that launching your online business can be difficult. There are decisions to make on things that you might not be familiar with, like:
- Digital marketing and sales tools (often these are included in e-commerce platforms).
Searching online is a great way to start, but how do you wade through all of the information that pops up?
Top all-in-one e-commerce platforms like Shopify provide a treasure trove of how-tos, like this video series.
Learning How to Start an Online Store
Wondering what you'll learn today?
In this article, we will go over what you need to launch an online store, based on your level of comfort with technology and how much work you are interested in doing yourself.
Features, Tools, and Options
Furthermore, we are going to discuss (at a high level) the products, platforms, tools, and solutions available, from individual options that can be pieced together (such as web hosts, site builders, inventory managers, and shopping cart software) to all-in-one packages where you get all the features and tools you need.
We'll also cover features that you will find useful (or even necessary) when it comes to setting up and configuring your store. These features include PCI compliance, SSL certificates, and dedicated IP addresses.
Platforms and Plans
In addition to features, I'll be providing some platform recommendations for you to get started with. You can tweak these according to your specific needs. The goal here is to get you moving forward on your dream of launching your store.
This sounds like a lot, but do not worry! We will break everything down into bite-sized pieces so that things are less overwhelming.
Read on to learn how to get started with your online store!
What Do I Need to Launch an Online Store?
At a high level, you will need the following 5 points covered to get an online store up and running:
- A Product which you can confidently market, represent and sell.
- Display pages for your products. These include product images, descriptions, and other information.
- Some type of inventory management, so that your customers cannot order things that are not in stock.
- Shopping cart software (so that customers can order multiple products at a time) and some type of checkout process so that you can get paid.
- Web hosting, which gets your site online so others can access it.
Beyond the Basics: Adding Value to Your Online Store
These are the bare minimum requirements. Here are some more things you can do to add value to your online store:
- Additional website pages or a blog.
- Customer service pages, including detailed write-ups of your store policies for things like shipping and handling, exchanges and returns, and refunds. Consider whether an FAQ page would help your site visitors accomplish their goals.
- Forums or other methods of interaction available to your customers.
- A free feedback app (like Hotjar) to capture site visitor feedback.
- A plan to survey customer satisfaction using a free tool like Survey Monkey.
However, these items are just the tip of the iceberg — when it comes to website features, the sky is the limit!
Options for E-commerce Platforms
When you begin the process of setting up your online store, you will need to think about how much work you would like to do on your own and what tasks you want to offload onto somebody else.
What are All-in-One E-Commerce Platforms?
All-in-one e-commerce platforms are user-friendly software applications that bundle most or all of the digital tools you need to launch an online store, including, typically:
- Web hosting
- Pre-built, customizable website
- Shopping cart
- Easy-to-implement integrations for payment processors like Stripe and Paypal
- Product display options (e.g. multiple images for one product, image zoom)
- Product variant options (sizes, colors, etc.)
- Shipping options
- Third-party integrations for things like email marketing and invoicing
- A variety of sales and marketing tools (including the ability to apply discounts, create coupon codes, run sales, flag new products, capture email newsletter signups, and more.)
These platforms tend to be the easiest e-commerce applications to use and to get started with.
What Is My Best Bet?
The specifics vary from vendor to vendor. For example, some companies only offer a free subdomain, while others may offer a free custom domain.
Some will only include a shared hosting plan with their platforms, while others offer scalable, high-performance cloud-based web hosting. Many will come with social media integration.
Some all-in-one solutions, such as Shopify and BigCartel, take care of pretty much everything for you and make sure that all aspects of your store functions seamlessly together.
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) E-commerce Solutions
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who seek to build their stores from scratch. They select and put all the individual components together: including setting up and configuring their own web hosting servers and coding their shopping sites.
Doing all of the integrations required for things like social media, shopping carts, payment gateways, and shipping providers is also part of the game.
For example, someone might use WordPress as their content management system, A2 Hosting for their web hosting services, and roll their own checkout solution with PayPal powering the monetary transactions that occur.
While this option is a lot of work, there is no one e-commerce platform that offers you a "perfect" features set — doing this yourself is one of ensuring that you do.
A Hybrid Solution for Ecommerce
There are, obviously, also hybrid options that are somewhere in between these two extremes.
Just as the sky is the limit when it comes to the combinations you can create when doing things yourself, it's identical when you are combining some more robust tools with basic options.
Understanding All-in-One E-commerce Platforms
When choosing an all-in-one e-commerce platform, where do you start?
Here are some things you might consider when looking through the options that are available to you.
- Platform Cost
- Customer Support
- How-tos and Tutorials
- Service Level Agreements
Above all, you will want to make sure that the product meets your needs.
For example, an all-in-one product should include shipping integration, but that does not mean that it will integrate with the shipping product of your choice. You can choose your store's layout, but are the templates for doing so ones that you find appealing?
There might be a shopping cart, but are there alternative shopping carts in case you do not like the one that is set as the default? Furthermore, though all-in-one products typically come with everything you need, many will include things that you would want — bonus points if there are not any add-on fees for this.
What does it cost to use the products? Typically, vendors are pretty upfront about the monthly fees but check to see if there are any transaction fees involved.
For example, some platforms will charge you 3% of whatever you earn per transaction — if you are a high-volume seller, this adds up! Additionally, be sure that the features you are expecting with a given package come standard and are not add-ons that cost extra.
How good are the technicians at the other end of the phone, Live Chat window, or email chain? Can you get in touch with someone when your store goes down at 3:00 am on the day important products launch and people are lining up (digitally) to get that item?
The thing with all-in-one apps is that you give up some control over the innards of your software. If things go terribly wrong, you will want to talk to your vendor as soon as possible.
How-Tos, and Tutorials
Good all-in-one platforms will offer a variety of how-tos to get you up and running quickly and to inspire your creativity. These may include online videos, a knowledge base, FAQ, and more.
Service Level Agreements
If your package comes with hosting, you will want to see if the company offers any type of service level agreement (SLA). Basically, these are promises from the vendor that your site is online for a minimum amount of time over the course of a month (excluding times of scheduled maintenance).
Typical values include 99%, 99.9%, and 99.99% — obviously, the higher the level of uptime, the more you will pay. As an e-commerce site, this is not an area where you don't want to skimp and save money — downtime is the time that your customers cannot get to your site to make purchases.
Furthermore, customers tend to frown on vendors who cannot keep their sites running and will not return at a later date.
Good All-in-One Hosted E-commerce Platforms
To help you jump-start your search, we've listed some tried and tested e-commerce platforms.
These platforms to most of the heavy lifting when it comes to getting your online store up and running quickly.
|Product||Description and Features|
BigCartel is a user-friendly all-in-one option that does not charge any type of per-transaction fee. Can upgrade, downgrade, or cancel at any time.
Allows you to get set up in very little time and with minimal hassle, even if you are completely new to web hosting/e-commerce. BigCartel also offers a free trial so you can see if it is right for you.
Lemonstand is a Cloud-based e-commerce platform that boasts robust support for front-end frameworks, allowing designers to build visually stunning storefronts and websites. Offers customizable checkouts with no redirection at any point.
Flexible content management system and product pages. Built-in A/B testing for optimal site design. Not as well known, but the company is striving to compete with the likes of Shopify, Magento, and BigCommerce.
Probably one of the most well-known e-commerce platforms on the market today. In addition to its all-in-one platform, Shopify, such as those turning a Facebook page into an online store.
Shopify comes with everything you need to get up and running features wise — a drag-and-drop site builder that lets you build even mobile-friendly sites, integration with Shopify Payments, which handles all things money-related for you, marketing tools to optimize your sales efforts, inventory management, and a mobile app so you can manage your online store on the go.
Squarespace you can use to build your website. While most people think of Squarespace as an all-in-one website creator, its e-commerce platform is itself an all-in-one platform that gets you everything you need to run your business.
Squarespace E-commerce offers you drag-and-drop store design, inventory management, marketing and sales tools, and integrated shopping cart/checkout/payment processing.
The above options are all established companies - although they may sound perfect, read on to find out about further solutions first.
Understanding DIY E-commerce Solutions
When you opt for a DIY e-commerce solution, you will need to piece together the various components yourself.
What Do I Need to Build My Own E-Commerce Solution?
Here's an overview of what you'll need to account for:
- Web hosting and a server on which you store all your site's files.
- Some type of shopping cart software, check-out, and payment processing solution — you can easily get something for each step, or you can use an integrated tool.
- Security features, such as SSL certificates and dedicated IP addresses. Your payment gateway will likely take care of encryption-related needs for your payments. Remember, your customers' addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses are all information you should be striving to protect as well.
Throughout this article, we have talked about extras, such as blogs (WordPress or no), forums, integrations with tools like inventory management products and the like. If you want these things, you will have to source these out yourself.
Furthermore, social media and digital shopping go hand in hand, so you will likely have to set those up yourself.
DIY E-commerce Platforms: Plenty of Variety
There are many DIY e-commerce platforms available for use, but not all include everything you need to simply get up and running (typically, it is the server/web hosting bit that is not included, though this obviously varies).
What are Some Features of DIY E-Commerce Solutions?
The feature sets of these items vary more than with an all-in-one package. Nevertheless, you can expect to get features and functionality including:
- Display pages for your products
- Inventory management
- Product variant listings
- Shopping carts and payment processing/gateways
- Shipping and order management
Pros and Cons of DIY E-Commerce Solutions
As with everything, there are pros and cons with DIY options too, so here they are.
- The biggest boon might be the low cost.
- Many of these options are open-source software and therefore free to use.
- In addition to saving on monthly fees, you will not have to pay per-transaction fees either.
- Many of these solutions are highly customizable as well. You can get granular control over options.
- A downside is that setup and configuration are your responsibilities.
- If you haven't used this type of platform before, you risk getting bogged down, perhaps experiencing frustration, and delaying the launch of your store.
- If you need assistance, your best bet will be to reach out to the appropriate community on an internet forum.
- Since these are open-source software platforms, there often is no vendor, so calling customer service with your questions is not an option.
What are Some of the Best Open-Source E-Commerce Platforms?
Here's a list of some of the most powerful and effective open-source e-commerce solutions available.
Drupal add-on to the Drupal content management system (CMS), which is itself open source and free to use.
Drupal Commerce does everything you expect an e-commerce platform add-on to do:
- displays products
- manages inventory on the back-end
- funnels customers through the checkout process
- facilitates the payment and shipping processes
- offers helpful management tools for things like orders, receipts, and invoices.
Like the main Drupal product, Drupal commerce is extensible. This means that you can add to the default functionality by using modules.
Currently, there are over 300 modules (for things like shopping carts and payment and shipping integrations) for Drupal Commerce that are available for free.
Magento Open Source
Here is the Magento Demo for some perspective of visuals and functionality.
Magento (formerly known as Magento Community Edition) is similar to Drupal in that both are open-source content management systems.
However, Magento differs in that the product as a whole is geared toward e-commerce — you do not need add-ons to get the necessary functionality. It was originally supposed to be a fork of osCommerce (which we will discuss next on this list), but the original developers decided to rewrite the entire product.
Magento's strength is its flexibility — because the product is open source, you have full control over how things work. You can respond as necessary to changing trends very quickly.
osCommerce, which is short for open source commerce, is another open source e-commerce management product. Development of osCommerce began in March 2000; it's a well-established software platform.
osCommerce is a complete e-commerce platform/solution, but there are just under 9000 add-ons available to you free of charge if there are features you would like but do not come with the standard installation (or if, such as with shopping carts, you would prefer a different option).
Furthermore, osCommerce is commonly offered with one-click installation programs that come with many shared-hosting packages, so getting set up with osCommerce can be fairly simple.
Woocommerce itself runs on the WordPress platform, so you can expect nearly seamless integration if you choose to use this product. WooCommerce is modular, so the product is as lean as possible since you add only the features you need and want (want just one display page for your products, a shopping cart, and a checkout process? You got it).
You'll have access to numerous extensions, themes, and other items to help you create the site you want — though Woocommerce is open source, it is one of the larger open source projects with many developers active in improving it (it helps to be a part of the WordPress ecosystem).
Basically, you can't go wrong with WooCommerce if you are on the WordPress platform.
Other Things To Know About Web Hosting for E-Commerce?
As we mentioned, e-commerce platforms that are not all-in-one solutions tend to not include web hosting. So you will need to find the best web hosting solution for your needs.
When looking for web hosting for an online store, you will want to prioritize the following 3 factors:
Security Factors for E-Commerce
Security is of utmost importance, especially since you will face strict regulations when it comes to how you handle your customers' information.
In addition to sensitive, identifying information such as people's names, addresses, and phone numbers, you will be handling (possibly) things like credit card information in the shopping cart/checkout process. (If you are not familiar with laws and regulations regarding e-commerce security, we have a quick overview to help you get started.)
Certain vendors are more amenable to the customization you need to make to secure everything, while others (or other types of hosting, such as shared hosting) can be no-gos in certain cases.
Performance and Speed for E-Commerce Sites
Performance is king, and your users do not want to wait while your page loads. If your page is too slow, your users will bounce — or leave your site — and take their business elsewhere.
The digital marketplace is somewhat cutthroat, and your website's performance is one of the things that you can control than actively influences your bottom line.
Uptime and E-Commerce
Uptime is kind of an extension of performance, but we want to single this metric out.
Typically, when web hosting providers offer you some type of uptime guarantee, it is in the form of a service level agreement that promises a minimum amount of uptime.
Moreover, uptime is essential, especially during peak shopping seasons where you can expect a lot of traffic — there is no worst time for your website to go down than during Black Friday or Cyber Monday.
What Are Some Good Web Hosts for E-Commerce?
There are a dizzying number of web hosting providers out there, so where do you start when looking for the e-commerce hosting plan that works for you?
Well, the following are a list of products and options that we think are good places to start looking.
Want eco-friendly e-commerce hosting? GreenGeeks has you covered. GreenGeeks is a carbon-neutral business that offers web hosting options more suitable for those just getting started or with smaller online businesses.
InMotion is a leader in the web hosting world when it comes to hosting plans for business customers. The company offers a wide variety of hosting options, and many come with extras you will find helpful, such as solid-state drives (remember, performance is king) and free domain names.
Liquid Web offers managed cloud-based, VPS, and dedicated hosting solutions. If you need premium level hosting, but do not want to be 100% responsible for its maintenance, Liquid Web might be the perfect fit for you.
SiteGround is an all-around great web hosting provider, so you are likely to be satisfied with whatever plan you choose. If you are just starting out with e-commerce hosting and you want a quality package (and want the ability to scale up to a more advanced package later on), SiteGround might be great for this.
E-Commerce Platform and Web Hosting Security
To be sure, the entire scope of e-commerce security is outside the scope of this article, but there are some high-level points we wanted to make.
Notable Security Factors
- At one time, HTTPS was used only on parts of a website where there were shopping carts or where the payments were handled — the trend nowadays, however, is to use HTTPS (which requires an SSL certificate to function properly and which in turn requires a dedicated IP address) for the entire site.
- Payment processing (and building a shopping cart) is difficult and handling credit card (and other payment information) can be perilous, so one way to make this portion easy on yourself is to simply integrate with a third-party provider that offers PCI-compliant solutions.
- Set up robust fraud detection, anti-virus, and monitoring tools to actively prevent and manage any threats against your store.
Depending on your level of comfort with implementing such things, you might seek out all-in-one products that can be deployed against your website/e-commerce store easily.