As an e-tailer operating in today’s modern environment, you have your work cut out for you — more so than ever before. Not only are you dealing with a more competitive market, but your customers have higher expectations. It’s no longer enough to stock up on the right products, you also need to delight customers and be able to fulfil orders in the fastest, most affordable way possible.
Then there’s the fact that shoppers are increasingly using multiple channels and devices throughout their buying journeys. They’re shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, online, and, more importantly, on mobile. Retailers who want to keep up must be able to provide great shopping experiences across various environments and devices.
It’s a tall order, but you need to be able to deliver if you want to stay competitive. And a big part of doing that lies in the technologies you use in your business. To thrive in today’s market, you need an ecommerce platform that will allow you to deliver on the expectations of modern consumers. You need the tools to sell the right products, provide amazing shopping experiences, and fulfil orders efficiently. And if your existing solution can’t meet those needs, you should find one that can.
That’s exactly what this guide is for. This resource will walk you through the process of finding and selecting the right ecommerce platform. Go through the steps below and incorporate them in your search for a new solution.
Step 1 – Determine your ecommerce needs
Iron out your needs before you even start looking into ecommerce platforms. Determining your requirements early on will make the process of finding and selecting a solution much easier.
Begin your search with a roadmap. Outline where your business is now and where you want it to go. What are the features and experiences that your site is currently offering? Put them on paper and make sure the solution you select has comparable (or better) capabilities.
Next, think about your future plans for the business. Are you planning to expand to more stores or markets? Do you intend to introduce more fulfilment options? You want a solution that will allow your business to scale and improve.
Another great exercise is to map your customers’ path to purchase. How do they find you? What channels do they use? How do they want their orders to be fulfilled? The answers to these questions will enable you to determine the features and capabilities that you need.
When listing down your requirements, specify them in terms of:
- Front-end needs – You need your site to look and function well. What exactly do you want customers to see and do on your site? Consider navigation, search, as well as the information that you want customers to see and how they should be displayed. You should also think about the customisation options that you need in an ecommerce solution.
- Back office / integrations – Your ecommerce site needs to work smoothly with your back office operations. List the capabilities you need the platform to have to ensure that products are ordered, selected, packed, and shipped successfully.
Also, consider the programs you’re currently using (i.e. ERP, fulfilment, accounting, and the like) and see if the platforms you’re evaluating can integrate with them. If not, do they offer built-in features or alternative integrations that can work for your business?
- Customer management – Think about the capabilities you need to build and manage relationships with your customers. For example, if you communicate with shoppers via email, then you need a solution that either has built-in email marketing features or an integration with your email marketing platform. Do you have a loyalty program? Make sure it works with your new ecommerce program.
- Catalog management – Specify the catalogue management features you need. How many SKUs do you have? How many variants?
If you have special catalog requirements, write them down as well. For example, do you sell bundles? Can customers personalise their merchandise? Think about these things now and keep them in mind when you’re assessing different solutions.
- Architecture and security – List the security and reliability standards you need in your ecommerce platform. How should the platform be built? How flexible or scalable is it? What certifications and encryptions should it have?
- Performance/scalability – See to it that the platform can handle the traffic and data that you have. How does each platform handle heavy volumes of traffic?
- Mobile – Specify your requirements for mobile. Aside from being responsive (which should be a given) what other features should be available on your mobile site? For instance, some ecommerce merchants have “click-to-call” or “click-to-map” buttons on their sites.
You should also think about how want your mobile site to be structured in order to avoid issues such as code bloat and increased page load time.
Put them on paper
Doing the above exercises will enable you to create a list of required features. To make things more efficient later on, organise these needs in a spreadsheet that will allow you to compare solutions side by side.
Note: You also want to involve key people in the organisation in this initial phase of determining your needs. Have people from departments like IT, customer service, sales, marketing, fulfilment, and operations weigh in on your requirements in a new ecommerce solution. This will enable you to get a complete view of your needs.
Consider hiring an ecommerce consultant
At this stage, you should also think about bringing in outside experts. Hiring an ecommerce consultant can make the process of finding and selecting a system much easier. Consultants can provide insights and expertise that your internal teams may not have, allowing you to be more informed (and objective) when assessing different solutions.
If you’re keen on hiring a consultant for this project, here are a few pointers to help you select the best one:
- Pay attention to their past work and experience – Years of experience and a strong portfolio are great, but you want to make sure their credentials are relevant to your business. Look into consultants who have worked with companies whose size and business model are similar to yours.
- Be clear about expectations – See to it that both parties understand the project and scope of work. Be clear about what you expect the consultant to do. Specify the tasks they need to complete and results they have to meet, along with the costs of their services.
- Determine compatibility – Skill level and expertise aren’t enough. You should also ensure that the consultant has a great relationship with you and your staff. Take time to evaluate cultural fit and see if they’re compatible with your team. Look into their work ethic. How do they operate? How do they interact with others? The answers to these questions can help you determine if they’re a good fit.
Step 2 – Set a budget
The next step is to think about how much you’re willing to spend on your ecommerce platform. When setting your budget, be sure to consider the “non-obvious costs” that come with implementing a new solution. Go beyond the on the surface costs like licenses and development, and consider expenses for maintenance, consultation, set up and the like. Here are some of things you should factor into your budget
- Cost of the ecommerce platform – Ecommerce platform costs will vary depending on the business’ size, sales volume, and of course, the solution itself. Some solutions (such as Magento) charge yearly licensing fees while others (like Shopify) require monthly subscription fees. In some cases (such as Demandware) the provider takes a cut from the retailer’s sales.
These are just some of the things that would factor into your budget. Typically, though, SMBs can expect to spend amounts in the hundreds while enterprises should budget at least $20,000 a year for ecommerce platform costs.
- Design and development costs – Building your online store is another expense. SMB solutions often have themes that range from free to hundreds of dollars.
As for enterprises? Depending on your company, you can choose to design and develop your site in-house, outsource the job to an agency, or do a combination of both.
- Maintenance fees – Many merchants end up paying more than expected because they overlooked maintenance when budgeting for a solution. Don’t make the same mistake. You need to think about ongoing development, as well as other upkeep costs such as marketing, integrations, SEO, security management, analytics, and more.
- Transaction fees – Transaction fees may vary from one ecommerce solution to another. You may end up with lower fees by choosing the preferred payment provider of the vendor. Look into each platform’s integrated payments to see if they integrate with your payment gateway of choice or if you can use any of their payment partners.
- Hosting costs – How much can you expect to pay in hosting fees? Again, this depends on your solution.
You could go with a hosted solution and let your ecommerce provider handle server maintenance, updates, etc.
Alternatively, you could choose a self-hosted ecommerce platform in which you’ll need to handle the setup and management of your own servers or find a hosting partner. With this setup, the merchant pays server costs separately.
- Consultation fees (if applicable) – If you’re hiring a consultant, don’t forget to factor in their fees into your budget.
Step 3 – Research ecommerce solutions
Once you have a clear idea of what you need and how much you’re willing to spend, you can start looking into different solutions to determine the best fit. To make this step a little easier, below is a list of the most common ecommerce solutions for enterprises, along with details about their strengths, limitations, and cost.
Weighing your options: What factors should you consider when selecting an ecommerce platform?
We’ve covered a lot of ground so far and have discussed what various ecommerce platforms have to offer. Now you’ll need to look into factors to help you make your decisions.
In this section, we’ll talk about the top considerations when selecting an ecommerce solution. They include: hosting, your product/industry, and your expertise level. Let’s dive in.
Self-hosted vs hosted/cloud-based
One of the top factors to consider right off the bat is whether you prefer to go for a self-hosted ecommerce solution or one that’s hosted for you (typically cloud-based). Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages.
For self-hosted, you’ll be running your site on your own server, so you have full control over management and maintenance. This means that if you want to make updates to the main code of your site, you’re able to do that on your end without relying on another company or web host to process your request. You can do pretty much anything on your site if you’re running it on your own machine, and this makes self-hosting an attractive option for many.
That said, running a self-hosted site does require some technical know-how, so if don’t know your way around coding and hosting, then you’ll need to hire experts to do it for you. You take care of your own updates and maintenance, and those costs will come out of your own pocket.
At a glance, the pros and cons of self-hosted are:
- Full control over the look, feel, and functionality of your site
- You host your site on your own server or machine so you can build and run a site on your own terms
- Complete freedom when it comes to aspects of your site
- Requires technical knowledge to set up, run, and maintain
- Server costs along with design, development, and upkeep can run high
Examples of self-hosted platforms
If you’re not too keen on a self-hosted solution you can opt for a hosted ecommerce platform, in which you let your provider host your store for you. For non-technical users, hosted solutions are a godsend because things like server maintenance and software updates are taken care of by the provider.
That said, if you want full control over the features and functionality of your website, then a hosted solution might not be the best option. Remember that having a hosted solutions means you won’t be able release features whenever you want and you’re often limited to the software’s native capabilities and add-ons.
At a glance, the pros and cons of hosted solutions are:
- Server maintenance, as well as platform development are taken care of for your
- Great for non-technical users who want to focus on the business itself
- Typically simpler pricing structures
- Lack of control when it comes to updates and features
Examples of hosted platforms
Best ecommerce platform for your product or industry
While most ecommerce platforms are flexible enough to support different product types, certain solutions are more ideal for specific types of merchandise or industries. Here’s some insights to help you decide which solution is right for your business.
Best ecommerce platform for fashion (apparel, shoes, accessories)
Majority of ecommerce solutions will support fashion-centric products such as apparel and footwear. However if your products come in different sizes and variants, then you’ll want to go with a robust hosted solution like Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion and 3dcart. If you’re looking for something open source and self-hosted, WooCommerce might be a good option.
Another reason why these platforms are great for fashion products? Apparel, shoes, and accessories can be effectively marketed through social media (think Instagram and Pinterest), and the above-mentioned platforms have solid social selling capabilities that would come in handy in your social commerce efforts.
On the enterprise front, pretty much all enterprise solutions can be used in the fashion realm. The choice here will boil down on the functionalities you need to effectively move your product.
Best ecommerce platform for electronics
If you’re selling ready-made gadgets that don’t require assembly and you have a small catalog, then you a simple and no-frills platform such as Wix could do the trick.
If your catalog is a bit larger, then you can’t go wrong with tried-and-tested platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce.
However, if you’re selling electronics that are more complex — perhaps they have different moving parts or need to be bundled with software or services — then you might be better off with solutions such as LemonStand or 3dcart which are more equipped to deal with product complexities.
Best ecommerce platform for food and beverages
Selling food and beverage items that you make yourself? For example, do you design special cakes or make your own beer? If so, then Big Cartel could be a great option, as this platform caters specifically to makers.
That said, if your products have plenty of variants or if you have a medium to large catalog, then consider Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion, and the like.
Best ecommerce platform for craft products
Big Cartel is great if you’re a creative person selling your crafts and art. The Big Cartel platform was made for you, and you’ll have plenty of support from the community.
Just one caveat: remember that Big Cartel’s platform is “light” and thus may not have advanced ecommerce capabilities. That’s perfectly fine if you’re an artist and you simply want to showcase your work and sell some of it.
But if you’re looking to fully customise your website or require more robust online selling capabilities, then look into solutions such as Shopify, BigCommerce, or any of the other solutions above.
So, you’ve done your research and have seen what different platforms can offer. Now it’s time to dig deeper to figure out which solution is best for you. Here are a few steps to help you do this:
a. Solicit RFPs (for enterprise solutions)
One option is to submit formal request for proposals (RFPs) to potential vendors. Be sure to spend some time on this step. A great RFP will enable vendors to fully understand your needs and will help them come up with more accurate proposals.
Here’s more information on what to include in your RFP, along with best practices for ensuring you get great proposals from suppliers. Do note that these are just suggestions. Ultimately, how you format and structure your RFP will be up to you.
- Kick things off with a good introduction – Give an overview of what your company is about. You could talk about your history and provide high-level details about your business model.
From there, proceed to discuss the project. Why are you in the market for a new ecommerce platform? What are your objectives and what are you looking for in a solution?
- Specify the time frame – It may also be helpful to talk about your timeline. When do you need to go live? Decide on a date then work backwards. Key details to include would be:
- Proposal deadline
- Selection date
- Launch date
- Talk about your existing architecture, platform and technology – Potential vendors would need some background on your current system and technologies in order to estimate the project and provide a proposal. Here are some of the details you may want to include:
- Existing ecommerce solution
- Back office systems (i.e. ERP, accounting, fulfilment)
- Third party integrations
- Testing and development environments
- Talk about relevant metrics – Details around metrics like site traffic and sales will be extremely helpful to vendors when crafting their proposals. Be sure to talk about:
- Concurrent visitors
- Page views per week
- Number of transactions per week
- Sales volume
- Talk about your needs – At this point, you could start going into more detail about what you need in a new ecommerce system. Go back to that list of requirements that you created in step one and lay them out for the vendor.
- Outline proposal requirements – Once you’ve provided sufficient information about your business and needs, you can proceed to talk about what you want to see in the submitted proposals.
At this stage, you can discuss the format that you want the proposal to be in, along with the questions you want to be answered. This will vary from one retailer to the next, but here’s a list of things you may want to ask for:
- Company overview
- Contact information
- Financial information (i.e. sales, profit, receivables, funding etc.)
- Relevant experience
- Merchants they’ve worked with
- Approach to implementing their solution
- Approach to account management
- List of security services
- Compliance standards
- Solution details
- Size and nature of project team
- Deployment plan
- Pricing details (i.e. cost of the solution itself, along with other relevant expenses such as hardware, maintenance, development, training, and more.)
- Client references
The above is just a partial list of requirements, so consult with other stakeholders to come up with a strong RFP. Have key people in your organization go over it, and once everything is in order, go ahead and submit.
b. Get in touch with sales and discuss your needs
Another option is to start a conversation directly with vendors. Get in touch with their sales team and discuss your project, requirements, and the solution they can offer. Go to your list of requirements and use them as talking points when you speak to the vendor.
c. Talk to ecommerce consultants and other merchants
It’s also a good idea to speak to ecommerce consultants and merchants who have experience using the platforms that you’re considering. Ask how each solution compares with other ecommerce platforms. What are their advantages and disadvantages? How much time, money, and work are required to set up and maintain the system? These are just some of the things you should bring up.
d. Book a demo or trial
If possible, schedule a demonstration or take a trial of the software so you can get a closer look at how it works. Be sure to include other company stakeholders in the demonstration so they can assess the platforms themselves.
Do note that it’s best to conduct demos when you’ve already shortlisted a few vendors (think 5 or fewer). This will allow you to dig deep into the platforms and properly evaluate them.
Step 4 – Compare, evaluate, and decide
At this point, you should already have ample information about what each solution has to offer. The next step is to compare each platform to see which is the best fit for your business. Refer to the notes you took in the previous steps and use the information to make a decision.
To make things easier, compare vendors using the spreadsheet you created earlier. Create a table listing all the things you need in your ecommerce platform, then put the vendors you’re considering in different columns. This will allow you to easily tick off the features that each vendor can deliver. If a platform doesn’t have a feature you need, write down if and how you can work around it (i.e. use a third party integration, develop a custom solution).
Once again, this is a task that should involve other key people in the company. Get someone from IT, customer service, sales, marketing, fulfilment, and operations to evaluate solutions and weigh in on the decision.
Finding (then subsequently deploying) a new ecommerce solution is a massive undertaking. It will likely take a lot of time (and for enterprises, money) to take on this project. But here’s the good news: picking the right solution can enable you to scale your business, improve operations, and increase sales, so while the process of selecting an ecommerce platform can be challenging, it’s completely worth it.