What’s the best ecommerce platform?
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Today I look at platforms beyond the marketing fluff to assess each, not only on their overall performance, but also on more important things like running costs, long term planning and flexibility.
I’ve been involved in commerce as a developer since 1999 and operated as an online retailer for 20 years, so apart from feeling like an old fart, I have seen and experienced all manner of options over that time. Today I look at platforms beyond the marketing fluff to assess each, not only on their overall performance, but also on more important things like running costs, long term planning and flexibility.
Welcome to the big long article about the big bad world of ecommerce.
Undoubtedly, if you are in business, especially if you have something to sell and have not already thought about it, with the COVID new normal you are definitely thinking about it now. But there’s a world of options out there and all of them are telling you they are better than the next guy. So where to start, what to do, and how to even begin thinking about it?
Now, if you are hoping that I am going to rattle off a top 10 list of the best ecommerce platforms Australia verbatim, you’re going to be disappointed. Firstly, there is no such thing as a ‘top 10 ecommerce platforms Australia’. Top five? Maybe, but unlikely. The truth is there is no top solution, but rather there are solutions that will fit you, depending on what your business goals are, now and in the future…
When we talk about ecommerce today, there are two common types of ecommerce solutions – enclosed ecommerce platforms, ‘EEP’, and open ecommerce platforms, ‘OEP’. Each type, and each offering, has it’s advantages and disadvantages and some might have more of one than the other, depending on exactly what you want to achieve and what your longterm goals are. I am going to help you in your decision making by explaining the ins and outs of the two which in turn, I hope, will help you make a better and more informed decision.
Two of the biggest players in what I term ‘EEP’ space are Shopify and BigCommerce. Other smaller players such as Big Cartel exist, but essentially all operate in effectively the same manner – offering a one stop shop solution for selling online. But when you sign up, you are becoming part of their ‘enclosed’ ecosystem, and that means once you’re in… you’re in.
For the absolute ecommerce novice, these solutions can offer a lot without the need to deal with, well, anything. From basic, attractive store templates, payment gateways and basic order management, the enclosed platform solution provides you everything right out of the box; all you need to do is get your act together, arrange your photography, copy, then sit down, build the store and start selling. In many ways, it could not be easier. But like anything that seems too good to be true, there are hidden things that many are not aware of until they commit…
Out of the box, enclosed systems offer all the basics you need to sell online. The catch starts when you start needing… more. EEP’s are first and foremost, business entities, so are generally designed to make their money in two ways:
- From a percentage of your sales, either in a per sale charge and/or through higher transaction fees, and…
- From up-selling more advanced features, some of which I would consider essential basics like advanced SEO (SEO is not very well handled on these platforms), or product management.
Customising your store, building a custom store so you don’t look like the thousand other stores using the same template will also cost, either because you have to buy a new template, or you have to pay a specialised developer to build one for you.
And the list, I hate to say, goes on, depending how far you want to go. So on the outside, the enclosed solution looks like it offers a lot, but once you commit, you’ll find all the little costs start adding up very quickly and soon enough, your monthly running costs start becoming quite high.
So how much can you expect to spend?
Both Shopify and BigCommerce have a starting price of $30 a month (Shopify says that’s $US, Bigcommerce is not so clear). If you drill down and really look at what you’re getting for that money, it’s simply access to range of free templates and the very basics you need to start selling online. Impressive features they are touting on the ‘features’ lists are simply their ability to connect to other platforms, like Google or Instagram shopping channels, or payment gateways, rather than actual special features. Further, there are caps on simple things like ‘staff accounts’, which only increase with the higher cost plans.
Sale transaction costs vary between the two and BigCommerce currently runs at 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction as opposed to Shopify’s 1.75% + A$0.30. Don’t be fooled by BigCommerce’s somewhat misleading claims of “No transaction fees”, because in the small print it clearly states:
“The processing fee for debit and credit cards begins at 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction for all BigCommerce plans. You will find each plan’s pricing here. Based on your plan, you may be eligible for that plan’s published processing rate. Eligibility requires that you must be a United States-based business.”
At Bigcommerce you are paying a premium. Stripe (my preferred payment gateway), which is offered by both has a transactional rate of 1.75% + A$0.30
for domestic cards and 2.9% +A$0.30 for International cards, which is what Shopify is offering. It may not sound like a lot but you are paying a full 1.25% per local ecommerce transaction more than what you would otherwise.
Take away….? Read the fine print!
The other aspect, as I had alluded to, is once you’re in with an enclosed platform, you’re in. Moving your store between providers is somewhere between very difficult to impossible; after all, it’s in their best interest to keep you onboard, so they are not going to make it easy for you to pack up and leave. This of course means that you are beholden to their fees, servers and everything else. And from my experience, for many out there, once down the rabbit hole many find it too difficult to leave. Worse still, as Intuit’s recent acquisition of Mailchimp highlights, you have zero control over who owns your data, especially as all of these platforms are based, and hosted, in the US, where privacy laws are quite different to those of Australia.
Open ecommerce platforms on the other hand offers the opposite experience. Based on open source frameworks such as WordPress, Dupral, Odoo, OEPs offer the ability to scale up and down, left and right, when and as you need it, with only small costs that can either be once off of subscription based. Unlike EEPs, the OEP solution usually requires, at least initially, either a learning curve on your end so you can do it yourself, or an experienced developer who really understands the ins and outs to do it for you; OEPs are very much DIY affairs – you get your box of virtual bits and you put your store together. And of course, you will need a website host. If you already have a website, then you almost have that sorted, if not, then that’s something you’ll need to have. The plus side is if you keep it simple, other than setup, the server can be your ONLY running cost, which for a simple, very functional store costs AU$19.80 per month on a recommended Velocity Host plan.
Of the OEP systems available, Woocommerce has to be the biggest. In fact, Woocommerce is said to be powering around 30% of the world’s online stores, so it’s no slouch. Based on WordPress, the extremely nice thing about Woo is that its base level install is completely free. And for free, you get a good level of product management, base level inventory control, shipping and with free plugins, integration to PayPal and Stripe as well as many others for payments. Add to that some free, clean themes (styles) for your site, a range of built in ‘extras’ the big boys think are special enough to point out as ‘features’ and in short, Woo gives you everything (and a little more) that the big EEP boys do; and does it for nothing other than you setting up a basic WordPress site, (which is also free), and your hosting costs.
And interestingly, Woo offers the ability to integrate with deeper level backend systems such as Velocity ERP (powered by Odoo) and dare I say it, even migrate to Shopify! In fact, I could write a whole article about Woo and what you can do with it, but that’s for another time…
But while Woo is great, and I have worked with it for years, it has its downfalls as well. The costs for building very advanced stores can add up, so before you even start you really have to analyse how you intend on operating in the online space, and just how much back and front end integration you want to have. There’s an expansion (plugin) available for just about everything you can think of but many run on yearly subscription fees, so having a very clear idea of what you want and, need, before you start is a prudent thing to do in order to avoid spending on what you don’t have to, or to work out alternatives. And while all the information, and then some, is there to be found, it can take time to disseminate it all. Working with a professional can save you a lot of time, tears and yes, even money.
But Woo can be overblown for what many might need, especially if your online business is a side gig, selling only a simple offering or service. OEPs though can come to the rescue here too. Again, if you use WordPress, there are very smart, cost effective ways to sell online, without all the complication of a dedicated ecommerce platform…
One of the options I am a big fan of is using Gravity Forms to create simple stores that sell only a select range of simple products or services. This keeps the site build and operation very lean while still allowing a business to sell its services online effectively (and for those wondering if there’s a plug coming, here it is –Velocity Host provides the fully blown version of Gravity Forms, and other plugins, as part of its WordPress hosting!). The catch, of course, with this minimalist approach is that it lacks a cart, making multi-item purchases difficult in all but very specific circumstances. But for some that’s OK, especially if the business is selling a service or subscription. I should add here that Shopify offers a very similar system they call ‘Lite’, which is simply the ability to add a Shopify ‘buy button’ to your existing website pages. As with everything, it may sound great, but you are in fact adding US$9 a month to your website running costs to do something you can for free anyway!
So after all of that, what would I recommend as a good solution for the top ecommerce platforms Australia? I would go the open ecommerce platform solution every time. Even if it is just a vanilla Woocommerce, using available free templates and only the essential, free, plugins, the OEP offers the best long term running and operational costs hands down.
Want it in a nutshell? Here’s TL:DR summery:
Enclosed ecommerce platforms:
- The no ‘brainer’ solution to ecommerce. Everything is done for you, you simply just create an account, set up your store and start selling.
- Limited flexibility – advanced options/functionality, store design, etc. costs more, either through higher costing plans, or paid expansion development.
- Your are locked into an ecosystem, so there is little to no option to move your store if you don’t like it.
- Ongoing minimum monthly running costs (currently around US$30/mth), which you have no control over.
- Your store’s data is out of your control and beyond your reach.
- Min operating costs: Based on an absolute ‘vanilla’ store, so using everything that’s available as part of the basic package, with no extras: US$360 (approx: AU$480) + transaction fees per year.
Open ecommerce platforms:
- Out of the box, a system like Woocommerce provides you with everything you need, and more. The basics are all free, all you need is web hosting for your website.
- If you run WordPress, you can turn your website into a ecommerce store very simply, and quickly.
- They are DIY affairs, so will require you to learn how to build and set them up; or you can engage a professional to do it for you.
- Options are available to build very complex stores but planning is needed.
- Your store, your data. You can move webhosts any time, migrate all your data, or download everything. You are not locked in to one system, host, payment gateway or developer… ever.
- Once established, your ongoing running costs can be as simple as the web hosting and transactional cost for the life of the store.
- Min operating costs: Based on an absolute ‘vanilla’ store, using available free store/website templates and essential, no cost plugins (including commercial plugins Velocity Host provide as part of our WordPress hosting): AU$250 + transaction fees per year.