Every home builder knows that good construction starts with a solid foundation. The same holds true for building your online store. Your eCommerce software, or platform, is the hub of your online store. It is an online manifestation of your business model, so it is important to understand what you are looking for before you start your search. Your eCommerce website is an investment, and like all good investments, it should be well thought-out.
Before choosing an eCommerce platform, you have to ask yourself three important questions that will put you in the best position to find a cost-effective eCommerce solution.
What functionality do I NEED?
This is the functionality that you must have in order to run your business. Essentially, if the platform does not have these functions, the software will not work for you. You should have these ready for your web developer or software provider and let them know the lack of these is a total deal killer.
What functionality would I WANT ?
How much return can you get on your investment? Before dumping money into a product with many features that you may not need, you must make sure you have an idea of how many sales it will take to cover the added cost of that platform and how much the extra features are contributing to the excess cost.
What can I AFFORD?
Now that you have your list ready, it is time to get a budget together. Your budget must cover the NEEDS for your platform. If reputable developers are telling you that it doesn’t, then you need to revisit your list of NEEDS. If you have room to play with, then start adding WANTS to your project scope. Last thing to remember, if you find someone whose quote sounds too good to be true, then it is. “You get what you pay for” cannot be more true in web development.
There are essentially 3 categories of eCommerce platforms, known as Shopping Carts, available to choose from. It’s important that you know the differences between the three along with the costs and benefits of each so that you can make an informed decision about which to use when building your eCommerce store.
Hosted Shopping Carts
Pros: Low Upfront Cost, Low Barrier to Entry, Speed to Market, Automatic Software and Hardware Upgrades, Support
Cons: Lack of Customization and Features, Higher Long-Term Cost and Monthly Fees
Recommended for: Businesses with limited budget, time, and a generic business model.
Often referred to as SaaS(Software as a Service), hosted shopping cart software is an ecommerce platform that you essentially lease from your provider. These, for the most part, are turnkey solutions that provide the easiest and most cost-effective way to get your products on the Web and up and running. You pay the provider a monthly fee to host your store and maintain/update the software. The software is hosted on the provider’s servers, and because their software is subscription based they often market to the largest common denominator to maximize their subscriber base.
The benefit to this approach is that you do not have to worry about managing and upgrading the software and hardware and a lot of popular features already exist on the platform. The big hosted ecommerce platforms are constantly updating their software and improving their platforms with new features.
There are two major disadvantages to a hosted ecommerce solution. One, you generally pay more over the long-term, especially if you have a lot of products. Two because of the largest common denominator approach the hosted platforms often spend their development budget on the most popular features making it difficult for this software to cater to specific need of individual businesses.
Also in most cases, you are unable to customize the software because the hosted solutions are maintained on the server of the provider, and web developers do not have access to the source code to customize the website; recently, this is becoming less of an issue as major hosted partners continue to add hundreds of third-party plugins that accomplish much of the customization you would need. Examples of popular hosted eCommerce platforms are Big Commerce and Shopify.
Licensed Shopping Cart Software
Pros: Lower Long Term Cost, Existing Platform and Features, Customization, Existing Plugins, Online Support Communities
Cons: Higher Upfront Cost, Lack of Phone Support, Manual Software Upgrades Often Required
Recommended For: Businesses with reasonable budget and moderate custom requirements
Licensed shopping cart software can range from very simple plugins to your existing CMS like WooCommerce to even more robust, customizable platforms like Presta Shop and Open Cart. Licensed software can be free “open source” software or software that requires you to purchase a license that may need renewing yearly. Because you have access to the source code of the platform licensing your shopping cart software allows you to modify your store’s shopping cart to meet your specific needs. This may be simply modifying existing features or building out a complex integration with third-party solutions. The cost of implementing licensed ecommerce software is usually more expensive on the front end, but you save the monthly fees of a hosted solution. If you require detailed customization for your business model but lack the budget to build proprietary software from scratch then licensed software may be the only solution for you.
Licensed software usually requires the user to host his own software. Depending upon a company’s needs, this hosting can be provided by a third-party hosting provider such as Rackspace or Inmotion hosting. This ensures that all your data will be backed up properly in a secure location.
Fully Customized Demand-ware
Pro: Top-to-Bottom Full Customization, Investment in Infrastructure
Cons: Development Cost, Support, Internal IT staff might be necessary
Recommended For: Enterprise level companies with sufficient budget, companies with a niche business, custom database requirements, resource intensive database and hosting requirements .
Your company may have a specific business model that requires software that has a level of customization that cannot be achieved by merely modifying existing open source platforms. For example, a website like http://www.timbuk2.com/customizer allows customers to customize back packs on an individual level, down to the last detail. It would be impossible for an out-of-the-box software to specifically cater to that business model. In cases like this, the user would need to develop a specific list of requirements that his software would need and work with a web developer to build a custom piece of software that automates his business model.