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22 Apr 20



eCommerce platforms - what are my options?

'Roundup' is the collection of key stuff we've either been reading, discussing or working on during the month at Avenue.

Getting your business setup to sell online has never been easier and right now, shifting transactions from physical 'bricks and mortar' interaction to contactless based eCommerce is extremely important.

Knowing what approach and system to use can be a minefield though, so we've outlined the main options you have, as well as what we see the pros and cons to be for each.

The list we've made certainly isn't exhaustive, but does cover what we feel are the main options in the market.

eCommerce model options

There's 3 main models you can consider:

  • SaaS platforms
  • Open-source
  • Headless Commerce

and we'll explain each of them below.

SaaS Platforms

SaaS (Software as a Service) platforms are solutions where the eCommerce application is accessed completely online via a subscription (as opposed to installing and running the software yourself on a web server).

There's heaps of options available to use, but we feel the main platforms that cover most scenarios are these:

  • Shopify
  • BigCommerce
  • Squarespace
  • Wix
The good stuff

The biggest advantage of SaaS is that everything is in place - you pay your subscription and can be up and running very quickly.

Other key advantages are:

  • It's a complete solution
  • All the essentials are provided; from design to safely transacting money from customers into your account.

  • The hosting is taken care of
  • As it's a complete solution, your subscription pays for the website hosting as well, so a lot less to worry about.

  • They're very cost effective
  • As all the essentials are provided, you get massive "bang for your buck". It's by far the most economical way to get online and start selling.

  • Easy to setup and maintain
  • The leading SaaS platforms all have great administration areas which are generally easy to use through mainly drag and drop interfaces, so you definitely don't need to be a NASA engineer to get your site live and selling.

  • There's heaps of design templates to choose from
  • The leading platforms provide a wide range of different website templates you can use, and the quality of these has improved markedly over the last few years.

  • Great functionality
  • Whilst there's definitely differences in what the different SaaS products offer functionality wise, they all provide the essentials to sell securely online. Platforms such as Shopify and BigCommerce are high-level, feature rich solutions.

Things you'll want to be aware of
  • You don't own the store
  • This is an important one to understand. If you select one of the world's leading platforms such as Shopify, you really should have nothing to worry about at all, but just keep in mind you have no control whatsoever over the running of the platform. If you wake up in the morning and discover it's ceased operations, you'll lose your site and all the effort you've put into it.

  • The design is template based
  • Whilst the quality of templates available is now good, they aren't unique, and are available to everyone - including your competitors. As such, the use of them lessens your brand uniqueness, and in a worse case scenario may even mean your site looks identical to a competitors.

    There's definitely ways of customising the core templates to help avoid this, but to get anything remotely unique designed you'll need a web development studio, which will add to your costs.

  • Your forced to fit their model
  • Getting massive bang for your buck is great, but as the saying goes, "you get what you pay for". So whilst excellent functionality is provided, there's little to no flexibility in how it operates.

    You may find this isn't an issue at all depending on your expectations and what your selling. But you may also find it isn't necessarily the perfect or preferred model for how you want to sell online, and you're then forced to modify how you'd ideally like to run your online business to suit the software.

    So expect at least some compromises where you tradeoff the ability to get up and running very quickly and economically, against exactly how you'd like your online store to look and function.

  • You don't control the hosting
  • Here's another positive that can quickly become a negative. It's convenient it's all taken care of for you, but remember your site is probably running on a web server with potentially thousands of other sites, so don't be surprised if at times your site doesn't load and operate as fast as you'd like.

Did we mention "you get what you pay for"?


Open-source software is when the solution is free to share and use. So basically you don't need to pay any fee for the rights to access and use the platform.

Some of the most popular and well known eCommerce solutions are:

  • WooCommerce
  • Magento
  • OpenCart
The good stuff
  • There's no license fees
  • All the hard work has been done thanks to the dedicated community of developers who've created the platform and made it freely available.

  • Software that's constantly evolving
  • Its open-source nature means it's constantly evolving and improving through the developer community. So over time there'll be new and improved versions available.

    Specific plug-in functionality extensions can also be installed (some free, some paid) to enhance the core platform.
  • You own it
  • As it's open-source, once you setup your site you'll own it completely, and can do whatever you want with it.

  • Great functionality
  • The platform solutions we've listed are all very advanced. So again, you're getting huge bang for your buck and will be able to have a high-level online store.

    The core functionality can also be customised by a developer to make it more bespoke to your needs.

  • Plug it into your existing website
  • If you have an existing website on WordPress and want to add in an online store, you can grab WooCommerce and integrate it straight into this site and leverage what you already have in place as opposed to starting over completely again.

  • Host it wherever you want
  • You have full flexibility to host it on any suitable web server you want.

Things you'll want to be aware of
  • It's never free
  • Even though it's free to use (awesome) you'll need to hire a web developer to help you set it up and get it running, so it's never really "free".

    The maintenance and upkeep of the website will also need developer assistance, so be aware if you go down this route you'll need the resources to do so.

  • Modifications can get expensive
  • Whilst modifications are possible, they'll require resources to develop and implement.

  • You'll need to setup your own hosting
  • As listed above, managing your won hosting provides heaps of advantages, but someone has to manage this, and if your not a web developer, you're going to have to pay one to set it up and manage for you.

  • Some plugins suck
  • The positive aspect of being able to install additional functional plugins needs to also come with a heads-up. Some of these plugins (especially the free ones) may not be thoroughly tested for all scenarios, and often have bugs. So be prepared that some things may not work as expected.

    There are ways to navigate this though; for example, check reviews of all plugins and focus on ones with lots of 5 stars or from developers who provide additional support.

  • All platforms will work a certain way
  • Even though you can hire a developer to modify the code, all platforms work in their own unique way. So whilst it's nothing like a SaaS option where you have to fit the working model 100%, don't expect it to be necessarily easy or cheap to modify an open-source platform if you want to drastically change how it works.

Headless Commerce

In its simplest form, headless commerce is a separation of the front end (design) and back end (functionality) of an eCommerce application. It's gaining massive popularity due to its modern, highly flexible approach that allows the user interface design (branding and user experience) to be independent from the eCommerce functionality.

It works via the two website aspects typically communicating with one another through the use of functional connectors such as API's.

What platforms are best suited for headless commerce? The majority of the major SaaS and Open-source platforms are all very well suited, such as:

  • Shopify
  • BigCommerce
  • Magento
The good stuff
  • Heaps of control
  • Headless allows you to take heaps of control of the site, and customise the design to suit your brand and create awesome user experiences.

  • No restrictions on design and user experience
  • Because the two main aspects (front and back) are separate, you can easily update the design and user experience without it impacting the back-end functionality. This is a huge advantage over traditional models where the implementation of design and user experience enhancements can require significant work across the entire solution.

  • You can change the eCommerce platform without impacting the design
  • The separation also allows you to change the back-end platform. So, in the future if a more suitable eCommerce platform fit your needs, you can change over to it all without having to change the website's design.

  • Host it wherever you want
  • You have full flexibility to host it on any suitable web server you want.

Things you'll want to be aware of
  • You're still using a platform
  • Whilst you're able to customise the design and user experience, as this integrates with the platform, there'll still be aspects of having to fit the platforms way of doing things from a functional perspective.

Next steps

Once you've worked your way through the above and made a decision, it's simply a matter of action and getting the site up and running.

If you're looking into this, be sure to check out our other eCommerce articles:

Happy selling!

Brenton Cannizarro
Believing hair should be long and celebrated, Brenton was ironically bald at 28. A lover of the world game, he will never walk alone, and also has a deep passion for hard rock music.
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