June 16, 2014, 3:15 PM — Ecommerce business owners have many choices when it comes to shopping carts or ecommerce platforms -- almost all of which claim to be easy to deploy and manage. In reality, however, most business owners wind up hiring a designer and a Web developer to help them create the perfect ecommerce site.
That said, there are plenty of intrepid entrepreneurs (typically with some HTML and/or design experience) who truly want to build and manage their ecommerce site themselves, who don't want (or can't afford) to hire a Web designer/developer. Dozens of small ecommerce business owners share the top 6 ecommerce solutions, or shopping carts, that best deliver for the DIY crowd.
"I am a hands-on small business owner, and I designed the Artisurn.com website all by myself -- and am also able to maintain its ever-expanding and changing inventory online all by myself -- thanks to Shopify," says Irina Jordan, owner, Artisurn.com, an online marketplace of handcrafted cremation urns, jewelry and keepsakes.
"I [did] thorough research prior to launching my business six months ago, and [thought] Shopify was by far the best ecommerce platform for small businesses," she says. "It is easy to learn how to use. It has a wide variety of themes to choose from. And it has a lot of apps available to monitor your inventory, help with your shipping logistics, launch retargeting campaigns and much more."
"We use Shopify to sell digital products and not only does it look great but it performs very fast," says Jordhy Ledesma, CEO of Information Providers, a digital agency aimed at the Latino market. The reason he recommends Shopify to small business owners? "I recommend Shopify simply because of its community," he says.
"Ecommerce platforms for small businesses are largely commoditized but community remains as a big differentiator," he explains. "Community means that you will solve problems faster, get better education and find examples quicker." Moreover, when you choose an ecommerce provider with good technical support/customer service and a strong community, "your company will save both in technical costs as well as in headaches," Ledesma says.
Basic plan: $29/month
" Magento is [a] powerful [ecommerce solution] that is feature-rich out of box -- and it being owned by eBay makes it easy for [ecommerce businesses] to sell on eBay in addition to their own store," says Jerry Lee, an ecommerce consultant who now runs StoryLeather.com, a provider of custom leather phone cases, wallets and bags. "I have been able to add features as my business grew and requirements changed." Moreover, as far as open-source ecommerce solutions, Magento "is by far the most mature and sophisticated," he believes.
Tim Trampedach, the founder and president of Level X Motorsports, is also a big Magento fan, for the following reasons: "You can rent a hosted version or self-host for free. Easy startup for anyone. There are tons of extensions to customize it to your heart's content. There are plenty of docs to figure things out yourself," he says. And "the software is very modular," so it can grow with your business.
Get Going plan:$15/month
"The Success Squad [Bigcommerce's team of ecommerce experts] helped me through every step of the process from migrating my store from another platform, to in-depth training on marketing and search engine optimization," says Leslie Ciriaco, the owner of Creations by Leslie, a provider of personalized invitations, announcements and more. "I couldn't be happier with the level of support and baked-in features, including the beautiful free design templates that come standard. If you want your business to grow and succeed, Bigcommerce is the only choice."
[Author's Note: After researching and testing various ecommerce solutions, I also chose Bigcommerce for my small Hawaii-inspired clothing business Prepster Pineapple. My reasons: Good reputation/referrals. Lots of customizable templates to choose from. Good customer support and tutorials. And the pricing, $24.95/month for the Bronze plan, was reasonable. While there was a learning curve, as there is with any ecommerce solution, I found it pretty easy to set up shop with Bigcommerce and easy to manage and modify my site, for the most part. That said, I did use the services of a designer/developer to customize my Bigcommerce store, as many small business owners have done and do, and not just with Bigcommerce, and have periodically gone back to him when I can't fix or do something on my own.]
Silver plan: $34.95/month
"There's no better platform than WordPress for DIY websites, so it makes perfect sense to use WooCommerce, the WordPress-based ecommerce platform," says Ben Larcey, head of Marketing at Bluebird Global, who has built and run many small/DIY ecommerce sites.
"Being free and open source means you have complete control over your store without being locked into a monthly contract or proprietary software. WooCommerce is perfect for niche sites just beginning their ecommerce journey, like Arrow Leather Works, but also has the ability to scale into powering much larger stores," Larcey says. "If you're familiar with WordPress, then using WooCommerce will come naturally to you with products just being a modified blog post in the CMS."
"My favorite ecommerce platform and what I recommend to my clients is WooCommerce," says Michelle Nickolaisen, owner, Bombchelle Industries, which provides productivity how-tos & classes for freelancers and small business owners. "It's free, so there are no monthly fees that eat into your profits -- and it's easy to use," she says. Another plus: "It can be used for both digital downloads and physical products. And the amount of extensions available for it make it incredibly flexible."
"When we started our business it was a hobby, so we didn't want to spend too much time on building and managing the Web store," says Lisa Crowell, president, Beantown Cornhole, the makers of personalized cornhole boards and bags. "We did a lot of research and finally started a free trial with Webs.
"It was so simple and intuitive, we didn't even read the instructions," Crowell says. "We were able to quickly set up the store in minutes and decided to upgrade from the free trial. Maintenance is very easy. We can add and remove items in five minutes. We also like the flexibility of offering customers several payment options," she says. "Our website looks so professional, we seem like a bigger operation and that boosts our credibility with potential customers."
"When people come to me for advice on launching an ecommerce store on a shoestring, we recommend 3dcart, the platform we have been on for four years," says Mitch Rezman, CMO, Windy City Parrot, experts in bird and parrot care, providing food, treats and toys for exotic birds.
"Although many people rave about ecommerce plug-ins for WordPress, they fail to look under the hood. [And] for as little as about $20 a month you get a cart with built-in linking to Google analytics, social media sharing and what's really important is a host of triggered emails based upon the actions of users," Rezman says. In addition, "abandoned carts, product reviews and so forth can all be set to deploy automatically. So if you are looking for an entry level cart with a robust set of features, I strongly recommend 3dcart."
Mini plan: $19.99/month
One Last Piece of Advice Before You Buy
"Even though there are a lot of free open-source platforms out there (e.g., Magento, xt:Commerce), it can be time-consuming to install and maintain them," warns Robert Brandl, founder and chief tester at WebsiteToolTester, independent experts who help business owners find the right website builder for their needs. "They are more powerful, but in my view a small business will almost always be better off using a hosted store solution," he says.
With hosted solutions, "there are no manual software updates required and technical things like security issues are being taken care of in the background," Brandl says. Moreover, downtime is typically not a problem. And "beginners usually appreciate the fact that these providers also offer personal support."
If you do decide to go with a hosted solution, however, before you give them your credit card number, try it out. Most ecommerce platform providers offer a 14- or 30-day free trial. This way you can play around with the different themes and features and determine if it is the right solution for you.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners. In addition, she is the hands-on owner of the ecommerce retail business Prepster Pineapple Clothing
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees and partners.
Read more about e-commerce in CIO's E-commerce Drilldown.