To say that ecommerce is booming would be a considerable understatement. Even if your name isn’t Amazon, there is quite a lot of success to be had selling online. And since you aren’t Amazon, the big question becomes what’s the best service to use for your ecommerce empire.
Plenty of choices abound, and while there isn’t a particular right or wrong option, some have clear advantages and more than likely fit better with your needs.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the most important consideration you’ll need to make before choosing from our list of best ecommerce platforms.
Hosted Versus Self Hosted Platforms
Choosing between a hosted site or one that’s self-hosted is probably the number one consideration you’ll need to make before deciding on a software platform. On the surface, it may not seem like a big decision, but your choice will drive the core development and ongoing operating tasks you’ll deal with as your business grows.
So what’s the difference? Here are a few key factors that separate the two hosting options.
This is by far the easier of the two choices since there is very little required of you when it comes to dealing with the hosting side of the equation. Hosted software includes Shopify, BigCommerce and web building platforms like Wix and Squarespace.
As part of your monthly subscription to these services, they fulfill your hosting needs (and typically provide a free domain), meaning you don’t have to worry about its day-to-day concerns. No setup and no need to worry about security updates or ongoing maintenance. Your provider takes care of that for you.
Hosted services are, for the most part, a code-free environment. Many of the hosted platforms provide drag and drop WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing interfaces. Effectively, you drag the elements you want on your site into the place you want them, no technical skills necessary.
This makes this type of website development incredibly accessible to newcomers and the less tech-savvy. Some providers do open up their code for further customization with a few others offering a different editing interface, but those are exceptions. This ease of development is playing a big part in the website building boom.
Another advantage for hosted platforms is their support structures. If there is one thing all of these providers do incredibly well, it’s to provide a robust help apparatus that quickly addresses any issues you may have.
They aim to get you back on track as quickly as possible, buts it also ensures you have a high comfort level with their platforms. We’ll touch on this individually in our software reviews, but the takeaway with the hosted services is their support is multi-faceted and easy to access.
Naturally, you do lose a bit of control over certain aspects of your website and online store, but the benefits of hosted software allow you to focus more on your business and its ecommerce. This is typically the best route for individuals and smaller operations, and those who have limited coding knowledge.
When you take the self-hosted option, there are a few more steps involved with your initial setup and ongoing maintenance throughout the time you stay on the platform. These include options like WordPress/WooCommerce and Magento.
It can be a hassle if you’re unprepared. As you have to source your own server host for your website, there is not a support piece in place to handle the day-to-day concerns as with hosted options.
You have to address all security and maintenance updates yourself, along with any other necessary hosting or platforms changes that may occur. You’ll also have to purchase a domain as part of the overall setup.
However, with that specific oversight on your part comes several positives. Self-hosting means having full control over your website, its files, and overall customization. It also allows you not to be tied down with certain creative and monetary restrictions.
It’s important to remember there is very little coordinated guidance and support when self-hosting. Whereas the hosting service you selected may have some, you have to source the actual software help through the community, i.e., other users or online experts. While its relatively easy to find answers it can be challenging to address some problems without centralized support.
Self-hosting is usually a good fit for those that like to handle everything in-house and have a working knowledge of code (though that’s not always a requirement). Self-hosting also fits well with medium to larger size organizations that can either outsource their web management or have an IT department to oversee the day-to-day tasks.
Top Hosted Platforms
Again, no right or wrong choice, simply what’s right for your ecommerce needs. Hosted options are designed to remove a lot of the guesswork and backend details that typically come with managing a website.
Hosted software platforms come in two types: Ecommerce and Website. Collectively they are also referenced as website builders or an all in one solution. As you’ll see, all offer viable sales solutions, but some are more dedicated to the endeavor than others.
Let’s delve into the marketplace and see who the best of the best are and hopefully help you find the right platform.
Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
These platforms specialize in ecommerce. While they may contain some website components, such as a blog, online sales are the sole focus of these providers. Many of these have driven the rise in online commerce and are directly responsible for the rapid growth.
When it comes to hosted website builders, few are more prominent than Shopify.
Since 2006, Shopify has been providing individuals and businesses of all sizes a relatively simple solution for hosting web-based stores. Currently, they host over 500,000 online stores that have combined sales of over $50 billion.
The main highlight of the Shopify service is its ease of use. Not necessarily a solution for everyone needing ecommerce, the platform does hit the majority of requirements for quickly getting your products online.
You can essentially achieve this in five steps:
Pick a subscription plan, align your domain and Shopify store (domains can also be acquired through Shopify if necessary), choose a theme that will also serve as your stores overriding design, then add products and content, and then finally launch your store.
Step four requires effort and attention to detail, but the time it takes you to get to that spot is minimal.
And that’s the point with Shopify; it allows you to focus your time on marketing and growing your store instead of managing it.
They have a comprehensive selection of templates, both free and premium, which serves as your store’s base design. Unfortunately, this remains one of Shopify’s few drawbacks. Their total number of 64 themes comes in on the low side of most top platforms. It’s not a significant concern, but it does feel lacking.
They make up for it with two to three style variations within most themes, all of which are well designed, very responsive and do allow some level of customization to give them less of a template feel.
Their apps, however, are a different story. Apps help to extend the functionality of your site, and Shopify’s store has well over a 1,000 apps to help meet those needs.
In fact, the Shopify app store may be one of the strongest attributes of the service. Increasing the capabilities of your online store without needing coding knowledge is a huge plus for many.
Additional benefits of Shopify include an unlimited number of products and file storage across its three services plans, as well as the money saving abandoned cart function on its second and third tier plans.
They also have an enterprise solution, Shopify Plus, for larger organizations or high-volume sellers. The full customization and dedicated account management of this level help Shopify extend its reach from small and medium-sized businesses to ones that have more significant needs.
It also puts them in direct competition with self-hosted services like Magento (which we’ll cover later) that tend to work better for larger firms.
Pricing starts at $29 for the Basic plan. From there the Shopify subscription is $79, and the Advanced Shopify is $299. All pricing is per month.
Shopify is a platform that anyone can gain some benefit from, precisely due to how easy it is to get started and use. You need absolutely no tech skills. Beyond that, it is arguably the most complete ecommerce solution on our list.
Our second hosted ecommerce platform is BigCommerce. They are a considerably smaller operation in the world of hosted platforms with close to $20 billion in online sales.
That number is nothing to scoff at.
BigCommerce is a growing presence in the ecommerce field and is ideal for almost any small to midsize business. On top of that, their enterprise solution is gaining traction with both Toyota and Paul Mitchell as clients.
There are three main pricing tiers that all have unlimited storage and bandwidth and of course product listing. The abandoned cart feature starts at the second level, but each price point does have a blog feature which is helpful for extending your marketing.
One issue we have with the price structure, which is an otherwise remarkable value, is the forced sales thresholds at the lower price options. For example, if you exceed the first tier’s $50K sales limit, you are automatically bumped to the next price level.
While we don’t disagree with the need to increase to a more robust plan based on sales, it’s a bit annoying they do it for you.
One of the best attributes of the BigCommerce platform is its theme selection. With almost 120 different options, they do offer something for everyone. The themes are responsive and well laid out, with features built in that avoids the need for a lot of app expanded functionality.
One minor complaint is there is a bit of redundancy in a segment of the themes offered. It’s a minor criticism, but a few more unique designs would be welcome in the future.
Still though, with as well built as the templates are it means fewer apps to sort through, which is a big plus to those looking for true all in one functionality. The app store is serviceable enough for what features are necessary and we expect more to be added in the future.
BigCommerce may not command as much attention as some providers, but make no mistake, this platform offers excellent value. It’s a solution with which a lot of smaller firms can grow their business.
The commitment to ensuring that growth is evident in BigCommerce University, one of the best support functions we’ve seen with any provider. In a series of over 40 videos, the BCU helps you learn the ins and outs of the platform and also how to grow your business online.
When you’re looking for an ecommerce solution to sign up with, it’s a positive commitment to see.
BigCommerce has a similar pricing structure to Shopify with their Standard tier starting at $29.95 per month. The popular Plus plan is $79.95 monthly, and the Pro package is $249.95 each month.
If you’re looking for something distinctive, then Site123 might be a good, if somewhat quirky fit. But don’t take that as a negative.
We’re fond of the editing system that Site123 brings to the table. Instead of the standard drag and drop method of most hosted services, you build and edit web pages from a sidebar that’s more akin to a selection of options on a survey.
It’s a fairly nifty way to edit and its quick. And when you want to get a store online as soon as possible, you don’t want to spend a ton of time messing around with endless options.
The simplicity carries into the pricing which is as straightforward as it gets. A free standard site or an ecommerce option that is less than $10 a month.
Site123 can serve a lot of online sale needs, but the ones it seems most destined for are flash sale sites or micro sellers that don’t have a ton of merchandise and want a low-cost way to unload it.
What’s the downside to all this efficiency you ask?
Quick and cheap has its limits. Site123 is built to get you and your ecommerce up and running fast. If you’re looking for endless possibilities and a lot of choice, this is not the service for you.
Templates are nice and quite responsive, but they’re not going to have a high sheen or polish to them.
While you get a straightforward, no-frills editor, you also get a straightforward, no-frills editor. It’s not meant to provide you total control over your project, but just enough so that you’re not wasting time with unnecessary edit functions.
That last point also leads us to the overall lack of functionality. There lone ecommerce tier, the Premium, which is $9.80 a month. That gets you 5GB of bandwidth and 10GB of storage.
You do get what you pay, and Site123 gives you something that is fast, efficient and uncluttered. And when efficiency is your sole concern, that’s all you need.
Our fourth choice for best ecommerce software is the hosted solution Volusion, a smaller group out of Austin, TX.
Volusion has a lot of the same characteristics as Shopify and BigCommerce along with plenty of well-designed and responsive themes. However, there far fewer themes and apps than what’s offered by the top two.
The big positive with Volusion is their pared down, simple to use interface. Overall, it’s not as complete as other editors on our list, but that serves as a plus for tech newbies who are looking for an uncomplicated path to get their web store up and running.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of negatives that take away some luster from that accessibility.
First, Volusion has a bandwidth cap on all of their price tiers. If you exceed the set limit for your plan, then you’ll have to purchase more to accommodate the overage.
This isn’t good for two reasons. One is that it can very quickly lead to unexpected costs, mainly if your store is doing well. That transitions to the other issue of capped store growth unless you upgrade to another plan. And even then, its still capped.
For comparison, Shopify and BigCommerce don’t have limits on any of their plans.
The second reason for concern is that Volusion excludes an SSL security certificate from their options, making you buy one separately. SSL’s are an essential requirement for any website today which is why they are practically a standard issue with hosted providers. And yes, both Shopify and BigCommerce roll these into your standard signup.
Overall, Volusion is a step below other providers, mainly for setting standard website elements as premiums.
Volusion pricing starts at $15 and $35 per month on their entry-level plans, with the higher end Pro and Premium subscriptions running $75 and $135 per month, respectively.
We still like its simplicity, and it does serve as a great entry point for first-time store builders. But as that store grows, we fully expect you’ll end up moving to a different platform.
5. Big Cartel
One of our favorite services is the definition of niche. Big Cartel is nowhere near the size of some of the other providers on this list, but that’s perfectly okay. For now, they are fulfilling a definite need.
Big Cartel caters specifically to artists and other creatives who may have something to sell, just not an extensive inventory of it. This means that very small online retailers can also find a home here.
With the narrower scope comes a much lower access point concerning pricing. The three plans all come with the same features, but the prices are set based upon total number of listed products, with a max of 300 at the top tier. That may limit some, but it seems to work for Big Cartel’s target market.
They also seem to understand the transient nature of how an artist sells their creations. The mobile functions are a good fit for hawking goods on the run at fairs, live events, and other crafty get-togethers.
Nowhere as big and robust as other providers, BigCartel doesn’t need to be. They provide a targeted solution to those users that can at times either be outpriced or overwhelmed with other platforms.
It’s good to have a few niche providers in a market that can at times carry a sameness with it.
Big Cartel starts with a free option, though it is very limited at only five products. Their premium plans are $9.99 per month for 25 products, $19.99 per month for 100 products, and $29.99 per month for the max 300 products.
Hosted Website Platforms
This particular group of all in one service providers are not explicitly known for their ecommerce functionality. However, with their massive popularity, they do capture a decent percentage of the online store market, making them an option you should seriously consider.
Keep in mind these are not traditional ecommerce solutions, but each one of the platforms listed has at least a couple of online store packages with the specific tools and necessary support to get you selling on the internet.
As the most prevalent and widely used website builder today, it’s hard to avoid considering Wix when deciding on an ecommerce platform. It may not be geared directly to building the best store possible, but it’s got enough features to be a highly viable option.
Plus, it’s hard to overlook the platform powering websites for over a 100 million users worldwide.
The immediate benefit to using Wix is its ease of use. It’s a seamless setup, and from there creating your website and then getting it online takes very little time. You may lose a bit in sales functionality, but that’s made up for by the ability to easily edit all of your product pages with one of the markets best drag and drop interfaces.
There are two ecommerce plans available with Wix, both of which provide you unlimited bandwidth and one of the industry’s most extensive support networks. Wix’s top tier ecommerce plan is tailored specifically to VIP-level support.
With Wix, you’re getting a website builder that can also serve as your online store. As the most widely used hosted service, that means all of their tools are available to help support your sales efforts.
Over 70+ specific online store themes, plus many others that you can use as your storefront.
Hundreds of apps to extend your store’s functionality are also available.
And for an ecommerce solution, the pricing is relatively inexpensive.
If you are looking for a hosted alternative to Shopify that also includes a broad range of website functions, Wix should be your first consideration.
The two Wix online store plans are their eCommerce option at $17 per month and the support-centered VIP that runs $25 per month.
Around since 2004, Squarespace has carved out a niche for itself as the most visually appealing of the hosted platforms. Boldly designed themes that are still flexible enough to put your own stamp on them has been Squarespace’s primary focus.
However, two of their service tiers offer very competitive ecommerce solutions that may be hard for design-centric sellers to resist.
A lot of online store requirements are checked off on both tiers with unlimited bandwidth and products as well as inventory management and integrated accounting. The higher level package also comes with the all-important abandoned cart feature.
Theme selection for your store is sparse, with only 16 specific options. However, the customization, while still drag and drop, does go a bit deeper than some other providers, giving you flexibility with your build.
One thing to note is there is no app marketplace. This can be good and bad, but again most of the functionally you’ll need is already built directly into the templates.
The drawback though is there is more to edit, and the editor itself is a bit more challenging to master than the far easier versions offered above and below. That said, it’s fairly intuitive once you get the hang of it.
Ultimately though, if you’re considering Squarespace then its all about presentation. Shopify, BigCommerce, and even Wix will provide you more expansive online store experiences, but none will look as good as Squarespace.
Their two online store options are both very competitive, with their Basic package, which starts at $26 per month, perhaps one of the best all-around values we’ve seen. The Advanced option begins at $40 per month.
At first glance, Weebly is not an obvious choice for this list. While they are a popular option for basic websites, their ecommerce solutions often get overlooked.
But they shouldn’t be.
First and foremost, Weebly is easy to use. How easy? If this were a ranking for simplest ecommerce software, they would win. By a lot.
They have a healthy selection of themes that may not be as numerous as Wix or as dynamic as Squarespace, but it is an excellent middle ground to get the job done. Their app marketplace is also sufficient, but don’t expect a laundry list of options.
Getting your store created and online though is the real strength of Weebly.
It’s not necessarily a stripped down system, but it is tailored to be straightforward. Thus it removes a lot of the barriers that keep people with limited tech skills at bay.
For ecommerce, they offer four viable options for online selling. The first two tiers, however, are restrictive due to transaction fees and rigid product limits. Those options are more for websites that may offer a few products or a small line of goods for sale.
The Business and Performance tiers, priced at $25 and $38 a month, respectively, are incredible values. With unlimited products, inventory management, and membership registration, they have a lot of useful tools to ensure ecommerce success.
Perhaps more so than any other option we list, Weebly is the best bet for the truly uninitiated, who want to run an online business or store but have no idea how to do it.
Top Self-Hosted Platforms
Self-hosted platforms, also commonly referred to as open-source software, are in some ways similar to their hosted counterparts. They deal in theme-based templates, utilize plugins to increase the functionality of your site (similar to apps), and are excellent ways to create a web-based store for your ecommerce needs.
But as we covered earlier, self-hosted ecommerce is a far more customizable and tech-heavy endeavor. Not to mention you’ll also have to source your own web host.
That isn’t to say that a novice or someone with limited technical skills can’t create an online store with open source software. Plenty of people are doing so as we speak and quite successfully.
Just be prepared for a more significant investment of your time and a much larger learning curve than an all in one provider. Unless of course you’re comfortable with code or can hire someone to handle the ins and outs for you.
With that noted, let’s get into the top three self-hosted, open source ecommerce platforms.
1. WordPress with WooCommerce
When it concerns creating websites, WordPress is the standard. Yes, we’ve spoken highly of the more straightforward hosted options, but for sheer flexibility and freedom, nothing tops WordPress.
To achieve ecommerce functionality on the open-source platform, all you need is to add a plug-in. While there are some additional choices, the most popular among them is WooCommerce.
There is a lot to like with the combination of WordPress software and the WooCommerce plugin. The top benefit is that unlike other open source platforms, WordPress is very user-friendly for those that don’t have a site building background.
Yes, some knowledge will lead to a more seamless experience in the beginning, but WordPress is the ultimate “mess around with it” software.
The primary interface is straightforward, and though you use a preview editor instead of the WYSIWYG version, the basic workflow is clear enough to understand. Your dashboard is also easy to navigate and should you run into problems the far-reaching WordPress community is there to help.
You can select from over two thousand themes (the majority of which are free and work with WooCommerce) and further extend their capabilities from a marketplace that has over 50,000 plugins. Don’t fret; it also has an excellent search function.
As for the WooCommerce plugin, it adds a lot of dimension and makes for a great online store.
Essential features include a ton of variable payment gateways, the addition of unlimited products, and the ability to add highly specialized descriptions and tags.
You can also customize more detailed aspects of your store by adding confirmation emails, creating a branded checkout, or extending your sales capabilities with digital downloads and subscriptions.
As we said, you don’t need coding skills to make effective use of WordPress and WooCommerce, though they do significantly lend themselves to your creating a truely unique website and store for your customers. Brushing up on some basic principles of code could prove helpful in the long run.
There’s a reason WordPress continues to be the most popular website option and along with it WooCommerce as a highly touted ecommerce plugin. They work, and they work well.
Even if stepping into the world of code is a bit intimidating, the WordPress solution is a great platform on which to gain experience while building your online store.
Many proclaim that Magento is the best ecommerce solution available on the market today. And they would be correct. The problem though is accessibility.
Magento is an enterprise-level platform that happens to have a basic, free version available to anyone. The first level premium tier, however, will run you anywhere from $20,000 to $25,000 a year.
So why include it here?
Because it is an ideal solution for mid to high-level businesses looking to both cement a current client base and expand their ecommerce reach.
If you need more convincing, Coca-Cola, Burger King, and national retailers Munchkin and Zumiez are just a few of the brands that use Magento for their online store needs.
As an open-source platform, the customization can take any direction your business sees fit. It includes features like a library of well over 5,000 plugins to expand functionality and a vast support network of fellow users and developers that serve as excellent resources as you use the software to grow your ecommerce.
Further, the reporting apparatus is extensive and is built for global requirements, but prove equally advantageous for regional brands.
The community version, for those adventurous enough to take it on, is not a user-friendly setup. Unlike WordPress, where some technical knowledge is helpful but not wholly required, Magento demands a lot of patience and a developer, or two, to create a functioning site within a reasonable amount of time.
Magento is a no-brainer for national and regional brands that want a powerful ecommerce tool working for them, and wouldn’t balk at the price knowing the potential ROI they may receive.
If your an individual or smaller company, this is probably not the most advantageous tool for you. However, if the development knowledge is already there or available at a reasonable cost, it could be worth your time and effort to opt for the free community option.
The upside to a successful online store could be tremendous.
One more note from late May is tech giant Adobe announcing plans to acquire Magento at a date before the end of 2018. While it remains unknown the direct impact this will have, one can expect additional innovation to come to the ecommerce platform.
Our final option lands somewhere between WordPress and Magento.
Not as accessible as WordPress and its WooCommerce plugin, the free download software OpenCart is a far more user-friendly than Magento.
That said, some coding knowledge goes a long way with this platform.
OpenCart similar to WordPress, allows you choose and change themes with ease. Adding products is also relatively simple, and within a few hours work, you can have what amounts to the most basic of stores.
To extend that to something more robust, OpenCart provides access to the basics like customer ratings and reviews, inventory management and multiple payment gateways. Beyond that, you can add multilingual features, SEO improvements, enhanced social media outreach, and the ability to add digital products and downloads.
Though the OpenCart marketplace is impressive, we do caution to know before you download. Many of the extensions are free, but quite a few more charge a premium, with some being more than $100.
Overall, OpenCart is a handy ecommerce solution. It may not have the scope and popularity of WordPress, but it is software that is accessible and user-friendly and with the right know-how, can be scaled and customized to suit multiple needs.
Medium sized businesses stand to get the most out of OpenCart, though tech-savvy individuals and smaller enterprises can find their own success as well.
Although the number of options we’ve detailed can seem overwhelming, when it comes to finding your ecommerce solution there is no reason to rush the decision.
Everything we’ve covered is the best ecommerce software available. But as we stated in the opening, not everything is going to work for you.
The critical factor is to find what best serves you or your business. Many of the hosted platforms offer free 14 to 30 days trials, and the open source software options have plenty of demos available for you to view their capabilities.
Determine the features you like and the ones you don’t.
Understand if you have the time and resources to self-host or if a package deal is a better path for you.
The important thing is to be honest about where your ecommerce needs are and where you want to take them. Without a doubt, once you find the right fit, you’ll know it, your customers will know it, and your bottom line will know it too.