What is the best ecommerce platform for a small business in 2021?

This year is the year you will go big online. Your small business can bring in more customers and sales by improving your ecommerce game. To do that you will need to choose the best ecommerce platform for a small business. In this article you will find out which are the best platforms, how you can use third party professionals to implement them and how to get your team on board with it.

Here is what you will learn below:

  1. Choosing the best ecommerce platform for a small business
  2. How to hire ecommerce developers and designers for your platform
  3. Adding content to your online store
  4. How to train my team in using ecommerce platforms

Choosing the best ecommerce platform for a small business

Ecommerce platforms are usually targeted at two types of users

  • small and medium businesses (such as yourself)
  • large retailers

I will not get into too much details regarding what large retailers use but if you want too, you can check them out here.

Instead, I will focus on guiding you through the four most popular options ecommerce platforms for a small business. 

Before I go any further I would like you to have a look at this two charts from Google Trends showing how many searches for each of these ecommerce platforms have been registered in the past. This is a great way to see how popular each of them is and what could you expect in the future.

The first one was in 2015 when Magento was king and Shopify was barely starting to grow in popularity:

The graph above shows how the four most popular solutions for ecommerce have evolved throughout the years in terms of Google searches. You can see Magento at the top, Prestashop right beneath it, WordPress ecommerce at the bottom and Shopify growing like crazy.

This is in 2021:

Things have changed dramatically. Shopify grew exponentially leaving all others behind. It’s steep increase in 2020, during the pandemic lockdown shows just how valuable this ecommerce platform has become.

Magento – the ecommerce platform for small businesses with a web development budget

Magento is an ecommerce platform aimed at mid-sized businesses

Magento is owned by Adobe (it was previously owned by Ebay) and works as an open-source application. It first hit the digital shelves in 2001 so it packs quite a lot of experience.

It is estimated that roughly 210 000 stores are now powered by Magento. It is usually used by medium sized retailers because of these reasons:

  • the number of features aimed at web stores that have passed the startup phase
  • enhanced sales, online payment, returns and customer info features
  • ability to customize and extend beyond the standard installation
  • ability to handle large number of orders, if optimized

There are however, some caveats:

  • you will need experienced developers to handle customization and/or extensions
  • increased server costs due to increased requirements

Long story short: Magento is fit for medium to larger retailers. It is usually installed on your own hardware (server) so beyond development costs you will also need to take into account hosting costs. Development and server costs usually top everyone else on this list. However, it makes up in stability and features what it lacks in cost structure.

Prestashop – the ecommerce platform for when you really don’t like Magento but still want open source

Prastashop - a good open source ecommerce platform for a small business

There are now more than 200 000 stores using Prestashop. The company started in France and is now a global player that aims for Magento’s spot. Unlike Magento, it can be used both as a hosted solution (on your own server) or as a cloud solution (where you pay a standard monthly fee for the right to use it).

It’s easier to find developers that can handle Prestashop’s structure so development costs could be lower. It’s a good option when it comes to ecommerce platform targeted at a small business.

The pros:

  • easy to install and setup
  • you can start your store without any technical know-how (with the cloud solution)
  • has great warehouse and suppliers management applications
  • development costs are lower, due to having rather simple technical requirements
  • hardware requirements are lower, resulting in great performance and lower server costs

The cons:

  • it may not be the right solution after you go beyond being a startup and you’ll have to move up
  • smaller developer community

All in all Prestashop is a great choice for small to medium online stores so it’s definitely worth checking it out. It may not get you to $1 billion in sales but performs great for startups. It’s highly customizable and easy to manage.

Shopify – probably the best ecommerce platform for a small business

Shopify - probably the best ecommerce platform for a small business

Shopify is probably the best ecommerce platform for a small business. It works great for small startups, you can start using right away, its pricing structure is great and you get tons of apps you can use on your store. It is the fastest growing solution right now and it is used by 1 500 000 online stores. That’s a huge jump from 150 000 just 7 years ago.

Not only that but the company is really well funded. After it received $100 million in venture capital in 2013, the company became a publicly traded company and its market cap is now $160 billion. Shopify started as an online store solution but now serves businesses both online and in-store through its Shopify POS solution.

The pros:

  • cloud solution: data is always safe, you can access it from anywhere
  • extremely easy to setup without technical know-how
  • you can extend your shop through third party apps and visual themes
  • can work both for online and offline sales
  • extensive developers and designers community

The cons:

  • not so easy to extend beyond core features. The solution can be extended through separate apps
  • apps are purchased separately

From my point of view Shopify is the best ecommerce platform for a small business and its probably going to stay this way for quite some time.

WordPress & WooCommerce – easy, free and unscalable

Although WordPress is not technically an ecommerce platform, it evolved beyond its original use case and its content management is now extremely adaptive. Using ecommerce themes and ecommerce plugins such as WooComerce, shop owners can easily extend WordPress beyond content management.

What WordPress lacks in native ecommerce support it more than makes up in developer community, theme and plugins support. At the moment 74.6 million websites rely on WordPress. Out of this huge figure more than 50% are self hosted.

There are 40 translations for WordPress and WordPress.com receives more traffic than Amazon. 

Unlike other ecommerce applications that are built with commerce processes in mind, WordPress is great at managing content. Products can be described in so many ways and content can be easily published. This does wonders for search engine optimisation and communicating with your audience.

The pros:

  • huge user base, very popular application
  • a large variety of themes and plugins (almost 50 000 plugins at this date)
  • a large number of developers
  • easy to set up and manage
  • a large knowledge base
  • many themes designed specifically for ecommerce

The cons:

  • not built specifically for ecommerce
  • only the hosted version can be used as an ecommerce application
  • not many operational tools (such as inventory management, complex customer service etc)
  • can only be used for smaller numbers of products. If you have more than 2000 products and more than 5000 users you should check something else out.

Long story short: WordPress is a great way to get your store off the ground quickly and at a low cost, especially if you have few products. But if you want something more, you will probably need to look into other ecommerce solutions for small businesses.

Best ecommerce platform for a small business compared
Visual comparison between the best ecommerce platform for a small business

How to hire ecommerce developers and designers for your platform

For all those solutions above, you will most likely need two types of support:

  • implementing and extending the applications: you will need to look for developers
  • adapting the standard layout for your own needs: you will need to look for web designers

To do so, you will need to find talented and effective designers and developers on established online marketplaces. The freelancing marketplaces are pretty straightforward. Think of EBay for digital jobs. You post the requirements and freelancers will bid for your online store requirements. There are dozens of places to find designers and developers for hire but some really stand out:

Upwork.com

Upwork, former Elance.com, is one of the oldest and most popular places to find great programmers and designers from all over the world. There were around 150 000 contracts last year for creative work and around 212 000 contracts for development work.

Guru.com

Guru.com - a place to find creatives for your design or development work

Guru was founded in 2001 by Inder Guglani and now boasts more than 1.5 million members worldwide and $250 million worth of freelancing jobs processed through the marketplace.

How to use themes and plugins to improve your online store

All of the ecommerce platforms solutions listed in this post rely on themes and plugins to customise the layout and improve the functionality of your online store.

Both themes and plugins are offered by their respective developers either free or for a premium. You can think of plugins and themes as building blocks that you can attach to your online store and get it to either look or behave better.

You can find plugins and themes on special marketplaces as well as developer’s plugin shops.

The best places to look for themes and plugins are the following:

  1. ThemeForest.net (Features themes for all major ecommerce solutions)
  2. TemplateMonster.com (Features themes for all major ecommerce solutions)
  3. Shopify Themes and Apps
  4. Prestashop Themes and Modules
  5. Magento Themes and Extensions

When you’ve chosen the application you are going to use to manage your online store, contracted the right developers and designers and chosen the appropriate theme and plugins, you’re ready to implement your online store. If everything is set so far, the freelancers you’ve contracted will know what to do. The overall process will be, in a simplified manner, the following:

  1. implementing the basic software package
  2. implementing the chosen theme
  3. optimizing the theme or building one from the ground up to be the right fit for your brand
  4. implement the right modules (say a special CRM module to handle customer information storage better)
  5. implement payment gateways so you can process order payments
  6. integrate with shipping partners so there few to no shipping errors

Once the process is complete you will have an up and running online store, without any products or any type of content.

Adding content to your online store

Content is any text, image or rich media that you will be hosting on your online store. As a startup, great content can mean great sales. There are two converging reasons for this.

The first reason is search engine optimization. Many of the people that will be visiting your online store and hopefully buying, come via search engines. You probably know a bit about how Google works, you may have heard a thing or two about search engine optimization but the fact is content is king. Great content is better indexed by search engines and can provide you with visitors you can turn into customers.

The second reason you should pay great attention to content is the customer. The customer needs to get as much information on your products and on your company as possible. Upload beautiful images, write extensive product presentations and say everything you can about your company.

And go beyond …

Inspire your visitors to buy from your ecommerce platform

Here you’ll find three great strategies to conquer your market with content. Explain your customers how to use the products. Showcase the lifestyle around your products and brand. The more content you will be pushing towards your customers, the more credible your brand and online store will be.

When you’ve added all the products and the relevant content, don’t stop there. Optimize your product descriptions constantly. Start a blog and get people to send you their stories. Content is king and it will stay like this for a long time.

How to train my team in using ecommerce platforms

Once everything is ready to go live, you still need to do one thing: train the team. Segment your fellow team members and train them according to their responsibilities. For example order management personnel won’t be handling product information so there’s no point in  showing them how to use these features.

The main areas where you will find features that team members need to learn using are:

  • product management
  • customer relationship management
  • order management
  • order fulfillment
  • inventory and warehouse management
  • marketing and PR
  • financial management

Most of the ecommerce applications have their usage guidelines either online or can be provided to you when required.

So training should be done according to responsibilities, it should be done in an interactive manner and team members should be provided with a form of software manual or written guidelines.

Once the online store is set up and reflects your brand, the products are all online and the team members are familiar with the ecommerce software, you are ready to go live!

Author: Mihai Mike Dragan

Mihai Mike Dragan is an ecommerce expert and the cofounder and COO of Oveit, a global company focusing on live experiences technology, both virtual and in-person. Mike has an experience of over 15 years in building digital products, with a focus on ecommerce. He has worked with some of the largest consumer brands in the world, advising on their digital go to market strategy.   Mike Dragan is also the author of the "Understanding Omnichannel Retail - beyond clicks vs. bricks" ebook, a guide for companies that understand consumer behaviour across media. He holds two degrees, one in International Economics and one in Computer Science.

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