A young woman is sitting in her home. She is holding a tablet and perusing online goods. Her face is illuminated by the glow of the tablet.
Creating an e-commerce shop allows you to expand your audience beyond local customers. Many platforms offer a variety of features that suit your business model and target market. — Getty Images/Catherine Delahaye

With U.S. e-commerce sales surpassing $1 trillion for the first time in 2022 and growth rates expected to remain steady, opportunities abound for small businesses. However, competition is stiff because the barriers to entry are few. The best e-commerce platform can differentiate your online store from the competition.

Aside from displaying products, e-commerce sites assist with abandoned cart recovery while ensuring shoppers have seamless checkouts. Learn how to choose the right e-commerce platform and explore top solutions to power online sales.

What is an e-commerce platform?

E-commerce software refers to the application businesses use to showcase and sell products or digital assets to consumers or companies online. The platforms have product pages and a shopping cart. Many include built-in payment processing, whereas others let you integrate a third-party solution.

Aside from physical products, some e-commerce platforms provide space to promote virtual assets, like subscriptions and digital downloads. For example, Wix allows small businesses to sell physical products and accept deposits for reservations or bookings. Squarespace supports membership business models and integrates with Printful, which is ideal for print-on-demand companies.

E-commerce platform solutions include the following features:

  • Stand-alone e-commerce platforms: These systems are custom-built for e-commerce. Typically, they are highly scalable for growing a high-volume online business with advanced features for shipping, abandoned cart recovery, and international sales. Vendors include Shopify and BigCommerce.
  • Website builders with e-commerce functionality: No-code website builders are beginner-friendly e-commerce sites that often cost less than stand-alone e-commerce platforms. These are a good option for startups and small businesses. Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly are popular e-commerce website builders.
  • Payment processors offering e-commerce sites: Several credit card processing companies provide online stores for clients. These are less ideal, because they’re tied to the merchant account provider, but they can be a decent option for brick-and-mortar stores without an online presence. Helcim has an e-commerce checkout solution.
  • E-commerce plugins for content management systems (CMSs): E-commerce plugins tie into an existing site, such as a WordPress or Drupal website. Companies that want to turn their website into an e-commerce store can add a plugin to start accepting payments online. Options include WooCommerce and WP EasyCart.

[Read more: How to Set up an Online Store That Drives Sales]

What does it cost to run an online store?

E-commerce platforms use tiered pricing models, with the most affordable plan offering fewer features and capabilities than pricier subscriptions. Prices range from $16 to $299 monthly.

Shopify includes hosting and a domain name with a monthly fee, whereas Wix users must renew their domain name yearly for an additional cost. While WooCommerce is free, WordPress requires web hosting services and domain name rental.

Several e-commerce services charge transaction fees (on top of the payment processing fees charged by PayPal, Square, or Stripe), and these costs vary by plan. For example, Squarespace charges 3% on all transactions for Business users ($33 monthly billing), but Commerce users ($36 monthly billing) pay 0%.

If you use a third-party payment processor with Shopify (the vendor supports over 100 merchant account providers), you will pay 0.5% to 2% per transaction to Shopify. Alternatively, you can use Shopify’s processing services, with rates starting at 2.9% plus 30 cents online for Basic users.

E-commerce platforms may charge additional fees for add-ons like invoicing, shipping, or site storage. Since costs and terms vary widely, small businesses must read the terms carefully and understand what the total price of each site and transaction involves.

Since costs and terms vary widely, small businesses must read the terms carefully and understand what the total price of each site and transaction involves.

How do I process payments through an e-commerce platform?

Most e-commerce platforms offer integrated payment processing. This means that when you set up the site, the credit card processing feature is already installed.

You will not need to build or add a shopping cart. The e-commerce site has a step-by-step process that walks you through setting up your payment processing. You can choose to establish an account through the e-commerce platform, like Shopify or Squarespace payment, or you can sign up through their third-party partners, such as Stripe, Square, or PayPal.

High-volume sellers and larger e-commerce services support more merchant account providers. However, you may need to request assistance from your processor to properly set up your online checkout page and connect to your payment provider.

[Read more: E-Commerce Credit Card Processing: An Ultimate Guide to Accepting Payments]

What features should an e-commerce platform have?

Although e-commerce platforms have similar features, like a basic shopping cart and product pages, other tools vary widely. The options differ among vendors and subscriptions.

A startup or small business may not need to calculate duties and import taxes or want support for multiple currencies. However, a fast-growing company will appreciate Shopify’s unlimited products and automation tools, whereas Wix’s 50,000-item limit might be too restrictive.

Consider the following e-commerce features:

  • Support for third-party sales channels, like Facebook and Etsy.
  • Online customer reviews.
  • Sell and accept gift cards.
  • Dropshipping capabilities.
  • Inventory locations.
  • A search feature.
  • Discount codes and promotions.
  • Marketing automation.
  • Refund and returns management.
  • Abandoned cart recovery.
  • Accounting and inventory integrations.
  • Inventory management.
  • Customer account setup.
  • In-person sales support.
  • Shipping and tax calculations.
  • Reporting and analytics options.
  • Fraud prevention.
  • Digital sales, subscriptions, and services support.

Aside from these tools, think about features that improve shoppers’ experience. Many e-commerce platforms offer tools that use artificial intelligence (AI) to personalize and enhance online visits. For instance, AI-powered chatbots can assist customers who hover over sizing information for an extended time. Automated marketing software can send a discount code to encourage shoppers to purchase items left in their cart.

Choosing the best e-commerce platforms

Choose the best e-commerce platform for your business by comparing solutions based on pricing, features, and ease of use. Request demos and free trials. Remember to read user reviews and check out sites built on the platform.

A few of the best e-commerce platforms include:

  • Shopify: Millions of merchants use Shopify to sell and ship products, process payments, and market to customers. It offers free and paid store themes, 24/7 support, and a built-in point-of-sale system.
  • BigCommerce: With unlimited API (application programming interface) calls and headless capabilities, BigCommerce provides enterprise services for high-volume sellers. It has a full-featured online store with a fully customizable checkout.
  • WooCommerce: Over 3.9 million online stores were built using WooCommerce because it’s a flexible option for extending your existing site or launching a new one. It supports many payment options, including Apple Pay, and it offers automated tax calculations.
  • Salesforce Commerce Cloud: With a 99.99% historical uptime, Salesforce Commerce Cloud is a reliable and versatile digital storefront. It supports business-to-consumer (B2C), business-to-business (B2B), and direct-to-consumer (D2C) commerce.
  • Wix: With over 900 free templates, Wix provides beginner-friendly tools for dropshippers, retailers, and service professionals. Subscriptions include 24/7 customer support and 2GB to unlimited storage space.
  • Squarespace: AI-powered tools and order, inventory, and product management features make Squarespace a popular no-code e-commerce platform. Businesses can sell unlimited products, offer courses, or create custom merchandise.

[Read more: How to Choose E-commerce Shipping Software]

Software solutions to track and enhance e-commerce sales

As your online store grows, you can capture insights and increase sales with high-powered tools. AI-powered search tools personalize shopper experiences, making it easier for customers to find the right products. Actionable analytics helps companies optimize keywords and ad campaigns to compete with global competition.

Profitero provides tools to measure and monitor your performance compared to more than 1,000 retailers in over 70 countries. It helps businesses boost organic search rankings, improve ad bidding strategies, and enhance product descriptions.

Coveo leverages AI to show relevant items to customers who use the search bar. Instead of basing the results solely on popularity, Coveo considers higher-margin items that your visitors are most likely to buy based on attributes, such as site behavior or similar users. It integrates with Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Adobe Magento Commerce, and more.

This story was originally written by Jamie Johnson.

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