Most online stores use some form of ecommerce software to display products and handle customers and orders. When you’re setting up an online store, you need to decide on the software that you’re going to use to run the store. This article helps you choose.
There are 3 broad solutions that you can use:
- A hosted solution. For a monthly fee, you can host your online store with a third party.
- Licensed ecommerce software. This is off-the-shelf software you download and install on your Web server.
- Custom-built software. You can write your own ecommerce software (or hire someone to write it for you).
This article explores these 3 options and looks at the pros and cons of each solution.
1. Hosted ecommerce
This is the easiest way to set up your store. You sign up with an ecommerce provider and they host your store on their servers, using their software. Usually you pay a one-time setup fee, then an ongoing monthly or yearly fee.
Most providers give you a range of page templates to choose from, and you can usually customize the look of your store to some extent. Normally you can use your own domain name for your store.
Advantages of hosted ecommerce solutions:
- Easy to set up. You don’t have to install any software — simply sign up, set up your store, and add your products.
- No maintenance required. You don’t need to worry about updating the software, fixing bugs, and so on. All this is handled for you.
- Additional services. Many hosted solutions come with value-adds such as 24/7 support, SSL certificates, analytics, CRM software, and marketing tools (such as AdWords vouchers).
- A one-stop shop. Since your store is fully hosted, you don’t have to worry about separate Web hosting.
Disadvantages of hosted ecommerce solutions:
- Ongoing costs. Rather than a one-off purchase price, you have to pay an ongoing monthly fee to keep your store running. (Some providers also take a commission on each sale you make.) This isn’t a problem when your store is doing well, but it might be difficult when money is tight. What’s more, over time the fees can stack up.
- Lock-in. Generally you’re using a proprietary solution built by the provider, which can make it hard to move your store to another solution should you want to. Make sure the provider makes it easy for you to import and export your product, customer, and sales data (most do, to some extent).
- Lack of flexibility. Since you can’t customize the software yourself, it can be hard to radically alter the look of your store, SEO your store, and so on.
Is this option right for you?
Go with a hosted solution if you don’t want the hassle of setting up and configuring software, and you don’t mind paying a monthly fee. Just make sure you’re not getting tied into one provider — look for options to export all your store data should you decide to move somewhere else.
Finding a hosted ecommerce provider
Many Web hosting companies offer an ecommerce hosting service in addition to their regular hosting. Big-name examples include:
In addition, there are many dedicated ecommerce providers out there, including:
Here are some useful links for further information:
- Practical eCommerce’s directory of hosting providers
- Ecommerce software reviews on TopTenREVIEWS
- Choosing a Hosted E-Commerce Solution: article at eCommerce-Guide.com
2. Licensed ecommerce software
Rather than hosting your store with a third party, you can purchase ecommerce software which you install on your website. You’ll still need Web hosting for your store, but you control the actual ecommerce software yourself.
Most ecommerce packages come with a range of design templates, and many have third-party templates available. (We can customize our PageKits to work with most ecommerce software — contact us for details.)
Advantages of licensed software:
- More flexibility. Often, ecommerce software is written using a Web language such as PHP, Java or ASP, which means you (or a programmer you hire) can tinker with the code. This allows you to customize your store further than you can with a hosted solution. For example, you can write your own shipping module to handle your own particular way of shipping your products.
- Fixed costs. Usually you pay a one-off fee to buy the license, then you can use the software as long as you like with no additional monthly fees. (Some software makers charge monthly or yearly fees for ongoing support.) Even better: many popular ecommerce packages are open source and completely free to use.
- Gives a professional look. Since you host your store on your own site, you can integrate the store with other areas of your site and make the whole shopping experience seamless. This can make you look “bigger” and more professional than a store which uses, say, Yahoo! Merchant Solutions.
- Less lock-in than hosted solutions. Since your ecommerce data resides on your own server, you have more control over it. Most ecommerce software makes it easy for you to import and export your data; if not then you can usually get at your data directly via the database.
Disdvantages of licensed software:
- Technical knowledge required. Installing and maintaining any Web app requires some technical knowledge of FTP, config files, file permissions and so on. Modifying the software requires even more technical know-how. You may need to brush up on these skills (or hire a techie who can do the job for you).
- Can be hard to customize. While often more flexible than a hosted solution, off-the-shelf software can still be hard to customize extensively. For example, you may find it difficult to use a different page layout, SEO your store, or integrate the software tightly with the rest of your site.
- Can pose a security risk. Ecommerce software makers regularly release new versions with fixes for security holes, so you need to make sure you’re always using the current version. This can mean upgrading the software on a monthly, or even weekly, basis.
Is this option right for you?
If you want to have more control over your store than that offered by hosted solutions then licensed software is a good option. However, make sure you have access to the technical resources needed to install and maintain the software.
Choosing an ecommerce software package
There are many popular ecommerce packages available, both free and commercial. Here’s a select list:
- Magento (free, open source — paid enterprise edition also available)
- Zen Cart (free, open source)
- X-Cart (commercial)
- Jshop (commercial)
- Interspire (commercial)
You can also find a good list of free ecommerce packages at Free-Carts.
3. Custom-built ecommerce software
Your final option is to write your own ecommerce software from scratch (or hire someone to do it for you). This is the most costly approach — you’re probably looking at hundreds of hours of time, or thousands of dollars in costs — but it gives you the most flexibility.
Advantages of custom-built software:
- Full control. You can choose exactly how your online store looks and behaves.
- Easier to modify. Since you (or your developer) wrote the code, it’s much easier to make changes to your store.
- Better integration. You (or your coder) can seamlessly integrate the store software with other aspects of your site, such as forums and blogs.
- Can look very professional. A well-written custom store will always look and feel smoother than a hosted or off-the-shelf solution.
Disadvantages of custom-built software:
- High cost. Custom-built software usually costs many times more than using a hosted service or off-the-shelf software.
- High maintenance. If you need to fix bugs in custom software, or add new features, you (or your developer) need to make the changes, which adds to ongoing costs.
- More effort to integrate with payment providers. Most off-the-shelf packages or hosted solutions make it easy to integrate with a wide range of payment gateways; however, with a custom approach, you’ll need to integrate the systems yourself.
Is this option right for you?
If you have the budget, and want to deliver the absolute best experience for your shoppers, then a custom solution may be just what you need. Don’t forget about the ongoing maintenance costs though.
You’ve now explored the 3 main options for your online store software:
- Custom-written software
Which option you choose depends on your exact situation, budget, and type of store. If you need help choosing between the hosted and licensed options check out this useful cost calculator.
Your choice of ecommerce software may also be influenced by your choice of payment providers, since your online store will need to integrate with some sort of online payment system. Find out about taking payments online.
Good luck with your store!