If you’re an online seller working exclusively on platforms like eBay and Amazon, it’s unlikely you’ve ever really given much thought to ecommerce platforms. Major online retailers like eBay and Amazon are their own platforms and you work within their ecosystem, eliminating the need to find a shopping cart platform that meets your needs.
However, if you’re looking to move beyond these types of sites and run your own web business where you sell products directly from your own online store, you’ll need to select an ecommerce platform in order to collect shipping information, manage your inventory, and collect payments.
There is a wide range of ecommerce solutions out there that will help you solve this problem, which can be both a blessing and a curse. With so many shopping cart software services on the market, it can be daunting to find the one that’s right for you.
That’s why we’re here to help. Today, we’ll walk you through the basics of getting started with ecommerce, then highlight some of the best ecommerce shopping carts available in 2021.
What is Shopping Cart Software?
Before we get to the service options, let’s start at the beginning by defining what shopping cart software is.
At the macro level, we can define shopping cart software as software that allows a business to sell its products and services online.
These software solutions are used to simply handle the front-end duties of your online store: product listings, payment, shopping cart management, shipping information, and so on.
However, today’s ecommerce platforms offer broader solutions to your needs, merging the front-end business management features required for serving your customers with backend duties like inventory management, accounting, sales analytics, and more.
Modern ecommerce platforms merge business and sales into one package, giving you a better overview of your business as a whole.
Finally, you may have seen the terms shopping cart software and ecommerce platform used interchangeably. This is because the two terms describe the same basic thing. For the purposes of this article, an ecommerce platform and shopping cart software describe the same kind of software solution for your business.
With a wide range of options available, there’s a product to meet every need and budget. As such, setting up your ecommerce business basically boils down to trying all the options on the market and finding the one that’s right for you.
Types of Ecommerce Platforms
At the highest level, the first choice you’ll want to make is what type of ecommerce platform you’ll want to use. There are essentially four options here.
Let’s look at each of them.
An open-source platform will allow you to download and configure the software to your specific needs. This software will be hosted on a server, and you will be able to customize it however you choose.
Sounds great, right?
In the right situation, open-source ecommerce software can be amazing. However, if you don’t have a full-time developer or tech to manage this platform, you will likely be overwhelmed by the intricacies of keeping it up and running, and fully functional.
So, while open-source software is often very inexpensive (and in many cases, free), paying someone to keep it updated and running will cost you additional dollars.
Software as a Service (SaaS)
Our second option has become increasingly more popular over the past few years.
Software as a Service means you’ll pay a monthly (or yearly) fee for a license to use an ecommerce platform.
Unlike open-source, SaaS ecommerce doesn’t require you to download, host, or even install programs. They require no knowledge of coding.
Instead, you use an existing software solution. This can often be modified to fit your specific needs. Companies will offer different tiers with increased functionality and features, for example.
Best of all, you’ll not only not have to deal with upkeep or setting up the software in most instances, but you’ll get access to the provider’s tech support team if you do have issues.
SaaS solutions are a fantastic option for most businesses, but particularly ones just getting started in the ecommerce space or companies looking for a relatively low maintenance solution.
If you already have an ecommerce website but want to change your platform, you may find that a plugin platform is the best solution.
Plugins are essentially a wide range of widgets, apps, or other tools that can be applied to an existing website to add or improve ecommerce functionality. These are a fantastic option if you already have a basic website and would like to add increased functionality.
If you’re completely new to ecommerce, odds are you don’t have a site already. If this is the case for you, you may want to select an ecommerce platform with web design features.
These tools will allow you to build a fully functional site to sell your wares without having to do all the coding and designing that are required when creating a site from scratch.
The benefit here is that most of these building tools are easy to use and modular in design so you can add or omit things that matter to you. The downside is these sites will never look quite as personalized as ones you build from the ground up.
Common Ecommerce Platform Features
No two ecommerce platforms are exactly the same, because no two companies are likely to need the exact same things. As such, there are a wide variety of features and options available in the ecommerce platforms out there on market.
Because of this, you’ll want to do some research before committing to a plan. Start by understanding what features you want and need, then look at which platforms offer those things.
Here are some of the most common features you’ll want to consider:
These features will help you manage the back end of your business. Tools in this category often include the following:
- SEO Tools
- Product Categorization Tools
- Bulk Product Import and Export Functionality
- Analytics and Reporting Tools
- Blogging Tools
- Email Management Tools
- Mobile Storefront Management Tools
It’s easy to think of ecommerce and only think of the customer-facing aspects. However, you will want to have tools to help you manage the backstage side of your business as well. Admin tools will help you achieve this objective.
The heart of any good shopping cart system is the storefront and checkout features. Without a good storefront, you’ll never get customers to actually buy products or services. Without robust checkout features, you’ll never get them to complete transactions.
Here are features you’ll want to consider in this category:
- Automatic Tax Calculation
- Guest Checkout (No Need to Create an Account)
- Shipping Rate Calculator
- Abandoned Cart Recovery
- Coupon and Discount Application
- Expedited Checkout (Saved Customer Information)
- Product FAQs
- Product Rating and Review Sections
- Wish Lists
- Filtered Product Search
- Loyalty and Rewards Programs
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the storefront and checkout options out there. You’ll really want to consider your objectives when picking the features for your own site, as this is arguably the most important part of building an ecommerce website.
Since most ecommerce platforms don’t offer everything you want straight out of the box, you’ll want to make sure that there are compatible app solutions to help you customize your website once you’ve decided which features to implement.
Here are some app features you can consider adding:
- Point of Sale System
- Shipping and Tracking Functionality
- Marketing Features
- Accounting Reports and Analytics
There are apps for almost everything, so the key goal here is to research what you need, then see if it’s compatible with the platforms you’re considering. If not, there may be other options or workarounds to consider, but it’s best to know this before you commit to a contract or purchase.
We touched on this in the previous section, but it’s worth discussing in more depth here. Some ecommerce platforms will include website development tools so you can build your own ecommerce site without having to code a brand new site from the ground up.
This is a great feature for new businesses or businesses who are more interested in getting an online store up and running than they are in having a custom-tailored website for selling their wares.
If you decide to go this route, here are some features you may want to consider:
- Paid and Free Options
- Customization Options
- Theme and Editing Tools
Website building tools provide a simple solution that can eliminate one of the biggest hurdles to getting an ecommerce business up and running. Just make sure that any development tools you consider have the features you need and options to make your website unique in some way.
How to Choose Your Ecommerce Platform
With all of these things in mind, you’re now ready to select an ecommerce platform. This is a big decision for a number of reasons: it will cost you money, it will affect your business, and choosing the wrong platform can actually hurt your business.
We tell you this not to spook you, but remind you that this is an important decision and one that shouldn’t be rushed. No one wants to have to keep replacing their ecommerce platform, so making the right choice from the start is key.
Here are some steps to help you make this decision:
We’ll start with the elephant in the room: the price.
You will have to decide what your budget is when doing your research on the various platforms. The good news is there are options for basically every budget out there.
If you’re using a Software as a Service solution, you’ll need to consider the monthly price. If you’re making a traditional purchase, you’ll need to consider the purchase price. If you’re using open-source, don’t forget to factor in the price of hiring someone to keep it up and running.
If you go with the SaaS option, it’s smart to remember that some services will charge a monthly fee plus an additional charge per transaction, while others might limit the number of products you can sell or features that are available.
Most of the SaaS solutions are scalable, meaning you could start with a lower-tier product to meet your needs and upgrade as you grow. These are all things to consider before making a decision.
2. Payment Processing
The next thing you’ll want to consider when choosing an ecommerce/shopping cart platform is how you’ll process payments.
Some ecommerce platforms offer their own payment processing options as part of the package. If you choose to go this way, your problem is essentially solved.
However, if you choose a platform without built-in payment processing functionality, or you don’t want to use their specific processor, you’ll need to connect to an online payment gateway so your customers can complete their transactions.
What should you look for when selecting a payment processor? Consider the countries it serves, what kind of companies they won’t do business with, risk factors, and the rates they charge per transaction (the standard is 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction).
Keep in mind that if you’re a bigger seller with more transactions, it is possible to negotiate a better rate.
3. Add-On and Features
It goes without saying that you’ll want to know what features and add-ons you cannot live without before you make a decision. Once you know this, you’ll need to find ecommerce options that offer the things you need.
If a platform doesn’t have a feature you need, research whether or not you can add apps that will allow you to include that functionality.
Beyond that, be sure to find out what add-ons your provider offers and discuss whether or not the platform will be scalable with your business.
4. Ease of Use
No matter how great an ecommerce platform might be, if it’s not easy to use it’s not going to help you take control of your business.
Ease of use is a subjective metric and will vary from person to person and company to company. That being said, one good way to see if a service meshes with your needs is to utilize trial periods and free demos.
Most of the major ecommerce platforms offer trial versions designed to allow you to try out and test things to make sure they’re right for you. Take advantage of these.
What should you be considering when thinking about ease of use? Here are several points to explore:
If you go with an open-source solution, you can expect that some understanding of coding will be necessary. As we’ve mentioned earlier, you may have to hire someone to handle these issues.
SaaS solutions often require significantly less need for coding on your end. However, some advanced options may require these skills. It’s best to explore whether you’ll need to have coding experience beforehand.
Another key area to explore is the onboarding and set-up process. Your new ecommerce platform probably has a lot of features you’ll not know how to use out of the box. Does the company offer an onboarding process? What does it entail? How many people can go through the process? These are important questions you’ll want to answer.
Beyond that, make sure set-up is part of the process too. Setting up an ecommerce platform can be a time-consuming process. Will your provider help with the transition? How long will it take? What will be involved? You’ll want to ask these questions as well.
Finally, be sure to inquire about support. Even with onboarding and set-up, you will have questions about things at some point. Do you get 24/7 support? Can you call in? Is it online only? Do you have a dedicated rep? Having help after your purchase can make the platform easier to use.
5. Web Design
Does the ecommerce solution you’re considering offer web design tools? Will you be using them to build your website?
If the answers to those questions are “Yes”, then you’ll want to consider what those web development tools offer.
Make sure the platform has themes and templates that fit with your company’s branding. Ensure that the templates have the functionality you’ll need for your business.
One key thing to think about here is how the themes and templates will work on mobile. Make sure everything will be fully functional and look great on a phone.
If you’re just getting started, a basic template might be okay. However, as you grow you will want to make sure that your ecommerce site features customization options both for looks and functionality.
One thing to consider here: Will making changes require coding? If yes, is this something you can handle? If not, you’ll want to find a more modular plug-and-play platform.
The Best Shopping Cart Software for 2021
Now that you know what to look for in an ecommerce platform, it’s time to talk about the best options on the market for 2021. We’ll be covering a wide range of solutions here, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them.
If you’re in the market for an ecommerce platform for a new business or are looking to upgrade, begin your search here.
We kick things off with what may be the most recognized ecommerce platform in the world: Shopify.
Shopify is the platform of choice for over 100,000 stores all around the globe. They offer free trials and multiple service tiers (starting at $29.99/month and going up to $299/month), so there are options for a wide range of budgets.
Shopify includes a lot of functionality, including :
- Website Design
- Hosting Services
- Abandoned Cart Recovery
- Coupon and Gift Card Functionality
- Analytics and Reports
- Mobile Friendly
- Easy to Customize
Add in 24/7 customer support and ease of use factors and it’s easy to see why Shopify has become so popular.
2. Constant Contact
When you think of Constant Contact, odds are you think of email marketing campaigns, but the company is also a player in the online ecommerce space as well.
Here are some of the features Constant Contact offers to ecommerce companies:
- Easy to Use Interface
- No Coding
- Mobile Templates
- Reporting and Analytics Tools
- Email List Building Tools
- Unlimited Product Uploads
- Easy to Manage Digital Product Tools
- Coupon Management
- Tax Calculator
- Shipping Calculator
- Integrated Shipping
In the plus column, Constant Contact is regularly cited as one of the easiest to use platforms out there. This is great news if you’re looking for a simple ecommerce solution or are just starting out.
However, if you’re a larger online retailer who needs a lot of customization, this platform might be too simplistic for your business.
Constant Contact has a variety of packages, starting at $10/month and going as high as $45/month.
BigCommerce is another fully-functional all-in-one ecommerce shopping cart solution. Users will be able to set up online stores, sell products, take payments, and manage their branding and marketing all from one platform.
- Drag and Drop Site Editor
- Customizable Without Coding
- Over 500 Add-Ons for Customization
- Wishlist Functionality
- Product Reviews
- Customer Accounts
- Analytics and Reports
- Cross-Channel Sales Functionality
- Social Channel Functionality
- Square POS Integration
- 65 Payment Gateway Compatibility
- No Transaction Fees on Select Payment Gateways
- Customer and Guest Account Checkout Options
- 24/7 Email, Chat, and Phone Support
On the plus side, BigCommerce is like Shopify in that it’s easy to use. It beats Shopify by not charging transaction fees in some instances.
The cons are the same as Shopify in that it doesn’t offer a lot of advanced customization. If you’re a bigger company with complex ecommerce needs, BigCommerce may not have enough of the features you require.
Beyond that, some users report that they’ve had issues with the software that BigCommerce’s customer care team wasn’t able to resolve.
If you’re looking for an open-source solution, Magento is still incredibly popular and may be worth your consideration.
Here are some of the features you can get with Magento:
- Completely Customizable
- Manage Multiple Sites from One Admin
- Filtered Search
- Bulk Import/Export
- Private and Public Wishlists
- Coupons/Discount Functionality
- Persistent Shopping Cart Functionality
- Works with 70 Payment Gateway Systems (Purchase Required)
- Automatic Shipping and Tax Calculator
- Support Portal, Forum, User Guide, and Training Courses
In the plus column, Magento is a fully customizable ecommerce approach. Large retailers can create exactly the platform they want thanks to the voluminous amount of add-ons available.
It’s also free, although you’ll still need web hosting, domain names, and all the other standard ecommerce tools (which are not free).
If you prefer a fully-hosted Magento experience, there’s a base version that starts at $2,000/month and a more advanced option at $3,417/month.
On the negative side of the ledger, the cost of Magento, even as open-source software, can quickly add up. The platform can be slow and finicky, meaning you’ll need someone on-staff to keep it up and running.
Support is another low light, with no real support to speak of. You’re basically on your own with this product. There are forums and online learning to help, but if you’re looking for a company to hold your hand, Magento is not it.
WooCommerce is another open-source shopping cart solution, this one for WordPress websites.
Because WordPress is so popular, WooCommerce is used by 42% of all ecommerce sites. If you’re using a WordPress site, using WooCommerce is basically a no-brainer.
So, what will you get with WooCommerce? Here are the features:
- Unlimited Customization
- Filtered Search
- Mobile-Friendly Designs
- 14 Themes
- Customer Accounts
- Product Reviews and Ratings
- Customer Accounts
- Five Payment Gateways (More Available as Add-Ons)
- Shipping Calculator Option
- Guest Checkout
The benefits of using WooCommerce include a wide range of customization options and themes, plus a huge user base that can help you solve problems you may encounter.
On the other hand, WooCommerce can be difficult to use, particularly for beginners. If you’re not comfortable coding, you’ll need to learn or hire someone who is. Beyond that, purchasing all the extensions available can quickly get pricey, and customer support is underwhelming to non-existent.
If you’re a small to medium-sized business and are comfortable with coding, WooCommerce is a viable solution to your ecommerce needs.
Choosing the right ecommerce shopping cart platform is one of the most important decisions you will make for your business. Selecting the wrong platform can be costly in terms of expense, potentially lost sales (if the platform is down regularly and you can’t fix it, you risk losing business), and time and money.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of options out there. We’ve highlighted five of the most popular in this article, but these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s a perfect ecommerce solution for your business out there. You simply need to determine what you want, then research and test drive the options.
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