Practical Ecommerce

Navigating 2014’s Crowded Ecommerce Platform Market

The ecommerce platform market is crowded with effective, feature-rich solutions, making it challenging for new or growing ecommerce businesses to know which solution is best for them.

Ecommerce platforms are the software suites that manage an ecommerce business’s product catalogs. They also help process transactions and facilitate order processing. These software tools were formerly called shopping carts, but modern ecommerce platforms have grown into full-featured content management systems, so that the “shopping cart” moniker fails to describe this category of powerful software suites.

How to Choose?

As ecommerce platforms have evolved they have also become much more competitive. A few years ago, Magento was really the only ecommerce platform that could provide all of the best and most important ecommerce features without an enterprise-level price tag. But in 2014, there are dozens of excellent ecommerce platform solutions for merchants to choose. On the one hand, this is good news for sellers since nearly all of the leading solutions will provide a functional base for online sales.

But having so many good options — and some lingering bad options, too — can make the process of picking an ecommerce platform seem more complicated.

But having so many good options — and some lingering bad options, too — can make the process of picking an ecommerce platform seem more complicated.

“I can definitely see the ecommerce platform market perceived as too crowded and too confusing, especially for a new online merchant,” said Bruno Leveque, CEO of PrestaShop, an open-source ecommerce platform. “If you search for ‘ecommerce platform’ or ‘build an online store’ on Google, you will be flooded with tons of advertisements from companies claiming they are offering the best ecommerce solution — which is rarely true.”

“Once a new merchant realizes how many solutions are out there, it can be difficult to know from where to start to be successful. Open source ecommerce platforms may seem too sophisticated, on the other hand, SaaS [software-as-a-service] solutions may be too basic and expensive for a new business,” said Leveque.

If, as Leveque suggests, finding the right ecommerce solution for your business is not as simple as searching for “best ecommerce solution” on Google or Bing, than what sorts of things can a merchant do when it is time to find the proper ecommerce solution? Here are some suggestions.

Open-source, Proprietary, and SaaS Solutions

Ecommerce platforms can be divided into a few categories that describe how the software is hosted and managed.

Open-source ecommerce platforms allow any developer or storeowner to see all of the site’s source code. As an analogy, think about your car. When you pop the hood, you can look at the engine, and, if you want to change the oil or maybe even add some high performance spark plugs, you can.

With your car, and with an open-source ecommerce platform, there are going to be technical limitations, and sometimes you will need to hire a mechanic (developer), but you can have the work done and really do anything you want.

A proprietary, licensed ecommerce platform is typically like a car with a steel barrier hiding the engine. When you open the hood, all that you see is blank metal and, perhaps, a keep out sign. If you want work done, only the original manufacturer of the car can do it. This type of solution is typically the most expensive, and while proprietary ecommerce solutions can offer some powerful features they are almost never a good choice for small or mid-sized businesses.

Ecommerce platforms can also be offered in the form of software-as-a-service. In practice, SaaS ecommerce offerings are usually proprietary in the sense that you cannot access all of the source code, but they also tend to have very open and accessible application programming interfaces so that they are still relatively easy to extend.

Open-source platforms tend to work well for ecommerce operations that want a lot of control over features and functions and have access to developers. SaaS platforms tend to be good for businesses that need to launch rapidly, and don’t have a significant number of technical resources or access to developers. Proprietary, licensed ecommerce platforms are best suited for very large enterprises, not for small or mid-sized companies.

Mobile Support

Responsive design and mobile optimization is usually the realm of themes or templates, nonetheless how an ecommerce platform manages themes and templates can have a significant impact.

As an example, WordPress, a very popular content management system, has a relatively simple system for managing themes. WordPress can be combined with WooCommerce, an ecommerce extension, to create retail and wholesale business-to-business sites that are very easy and inexpensive to optimize for mobile.

Consider looking at an ecommerce platform’s customer showcase or at themes that are available for purchase. If there are several good, mobile-optimized themes or sites running on the platform, you may assume a level of mobile support.

Design Flexibility and Extensibility

Closely tied to mobile support is design flexibility and platform extensibility. Flexibility and extensibility are both aimed at giving merchants control over their stores.

You can to select a platform that will allow for many different site layouts, lots of graphic and motif options, and full access to style sheets. As one example, Shopify, a SaaS ecommerce platform, gives designers a significant amount of control, thanks to full CSS access and a platform-specific language.

Similarly, the ecommerce platform should either offer open access the source code or a robust application programming interface so that a store can add custom features or third-party tools. If, for example, a merchant wanted to offer products on Amazon or Ebay, the platform should easily allow for that connection.

Total Cost of Ownership

It is important to understand just how much an ecommerce platform will cost over time.

Many open source ecommerce platforms offer some version of the software for free. But stores using these platforms will need to host the platform somewhere, perhaps, even needing to purchase and maintain servers. These hosting costs should be considered when selecting the software that runs your ecommerce business.

SaaS solutions include hosting charges and might seem less expensive per month. But often every customization and every extension comes at a cost. So check to ensure that you know how much you will be investing and apps and extensions.

Support for Content Marketing

Content marketing uses images, videos, blog posts, or similar content to attract and retain customers. In an era when shoppers have so many online shopping options, many retailers and wholesalers are relying on content to differentiate.

If you’re planning to use content marketing to grow your business, look for an ecommerce platform that will support it. How easy, as an example, will it be to blog?

Business Intelligence, Big Data

All of an online merchant’s sales and transactional data should pass through your ecommerce platform, and your platform should offer business intelligence based on that data.

To manage your business, you will need to understand things like product affinity, peak season shopping behavior, search behavior, and inventory trends, just to name a few possible reports. Look for an ecommerce platform that collects and reports on key performance indicators.

Summing Up

The ecommerce platform a merchant chooses can impact success. Fortunately, in 2014 there are many excellent ecommerce platforms to choose from, and the real challenge is picking the one that is best for your business right now.


Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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Comments ( 12 )

  1. Joe Robison March 25, 2014 Reply

    Definitely good questions to ask up front Armando. The open-source vs SaaS models is an important up front question for small to medium sized businesses. If you go open source, generally these are less user-friendly for business owners vs a SaaS company. WordPress and Prestashop are free, but you’re going to pay a larger hourly rate to get on the phone with someone vs if you went with Shopify or BigCommerce. My eyes were set on only Wooocommerce originally, but I’ve since seen the value in SaaS platforms for ecommerce-centric businesses!

    • July May 23, 2014 Reply

      I have my online store with shopify, what I like most is that the platform is very easy to use and also the have payment plans that allow me to grow with my business, when I was selling 20 products I did pay less, and the when the business was growing I start to pay more, but my store was doing much better. I started for free i share you the link, click it or copy and paste it in your browser: http://bit.ly/SellOnline

  2. Chris English March 26, 2014 Reply

    Being the control freak that I am, I’ve always preferred open source solutions that I have to install as opposed to hosted solutions. My biggest fear has always been of that company going out of business and I’m forced to scramble to look for a new solution. Something about just being at someone’s else mercy just didn’t sit right with me, lol.

    It wasn’t really till I started working at Solid Cactus that I began to appreciated SaaS models. For the most part, most people don’t want to mess around with mysql or have to tweak file on a code level. Also, with SaaS models you have customer service reps willing to help you with any problems you might have as opposed to posting to an open source package’s forum and waiting for a reply.

    While my personal preference will always be to host my own, I understand the need for SaaS solutions.

  3. Terence Gray March 27, 2014 Reply

    I agree, the number of platforms of does make choosing a suitable platform eCommerce system difficult. Most small / mid-sized retailers are not really interested in the code, the features and cost are the important aspects. You need to plan ahead to determine what you will require in 12/24 months.

    For most retailers, following the crowd will suffice as generally certain platforms have developed a solid reputation for a reason. There are tools out there which enable you to determine what other retailers are using. I recently put together an article (http://bit.ly/1ipQQq2) on using BuiltWith to do just that. If you are a small retailer assessing various eCommerce platforms for the first time it’s definitely worth checking out.

  4. c m March 28, 2014 Reply

    For an open source eCommerce platform solution, Broadleaf Commerce is worth taking a look at.

  5. Armando Roggio March 28, 2014 Reply

    C M. thanks.

  6. Matt March 30, 2014 Reply

    SaaS solutions are absolutely fantastic to get up and running quickly with a simple transaction model.

    For more comprehensive and customised stores, I work with Woo as with the extensive open-source development by ourselves and third parties, we can get a rich site up quickly at a fraction of the cost of a custom build.

  7. Peter Alpha April 6, 2014 Reply

    Builtwith just posted a great article about the top 10 most used ecommerce solutions in a sample of their data. Fastest growing (by far)? Woocommerce. Surprisingly no 1 was cagey old virtuemart. I feel very sorry for those trying to tackle that beast. Big and Shopify are on the list too but they have to come along way before they can match a the sheer size and dearth of support from the OS community. Also they are too expensive. If you have any sort of competition you’ll get whacked on your margins using shopify or big or any other saas, imo. https://blog.builtwith.com/2014/04/02/woocommerce-technology-growth-award-winner/

    • Andy Hunt April 14, 2014 Reply

      Hey Peter —

      I used to run the AdWords co-marketing partnership with Shopify. I know open-source is at a huge scale but I think most people would be surprised at the amount of growth they are seeing, specifically in the Enterprise.

      To be honest I was surprised they weren’t higher up on a list and wonder how accurate that data is. While the entire eCommerce industry is rising (and lifting all the SaaS providers), I think Shopify may reach the point soon where their paid customers matches open source solutions.

      Anyway, food for thought :)

  8. Alex S. April 23, 2014 Reply

    Being a small business owner getting into the world of ecommerce myself, it can be daunting with all the options out there (which one do I choose?!). Cost and features are important characteristics when I was doing my research on with platform to use. I ended up going with Ecwid, as it was simple to implement it into my wordpress site already, and the prices wasnt bad at all. So far, no problems and I’m happy with it!

  9. Armando Roggio April 23, 2014 Reply

    Alex S. I have generally heard good things about Ecwid, so it does not surprise me that it is working well for you. Part of my point in this article is that there are, in fact, many excellent choices. Find the best ecommerce solution for your business’ situation and don’t be afraid to change as your business changes.

    • Alex. S April 30, 2014 Reply

      I agree, and each platform has its pros and cons, so it all depends on the nature of each business. Great article, thanks for the great read!

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