Even before the improbable series of calamities we know as 2020, the growth figures for eCommerce were staggering.
From an already-impressive $562 billion in global eCommerce sales in 2010, the figure had hit nearly $5.5 trillion in 2019 (source).
The global COVID-19 pandemic has of course accelerated this wildly, with reports in April 2020 showing online spending in New Zealand up more than 100% on April the previous year.
Along with this huge increase in online purchasing activity, a diverse range of online marketplaces, self-hosted applications and ‘software as a service’ platforms have emerged to fill various niches in the eCommerce ecosystem.
With so many options available, how do you begin to decide which one is best for your business?
At Mogul we have been building online stores and customising third-party eCommerce platforms for most of the past decade.
We’ve learned to start with a few fundamental points when advising any client on how they should approach selling online.
There’s no getting around it, cost is always a critical factor for any business solution. The costs of eCommerce include up-front costs for getting up and running, ongoing maintenance and the often less tangible cost of managing the online store over time. Then there’s marketing to draw new customers in, plus analysis and refinement to remove obstacles and encourage customers to get all the way through to a purchase.
How much control do you have over the customer experience, and how much do you need? Can you have it tailored just how you want, or do you have to use the platform as-is? Do you want to self-host and assume responsibility for your own data and infrastructure, or are you happy to rely on third parties?
Scale is another important factor in any online store. A store with five products should be a lot simpler than a store with 600 products organised into 30 categories.
Similarly, a store with 10 customers a day is probably a very different beast to a store with 10000 customers a day. And what happens if you are lucky enough to go from the former to the latter?
When we are clear on these points, we look at our tried-and-tested eCommerce solutions.
What are the options?
As a digital agency, Mogul tends to work with clients who are interested in controlling and refining their customer experience, which in turn affects the solutions we usually choose.
Nevertheless I will start with some do-it-yourself eCommerce options which are a little outside the digital agency space, but still may be a good way to take your first steps.
Cheap but inflexible
If you are expecting low-volume sales or you want to keep the ongoing costs of your ‘side hustle’ as low as possible, the cheapest options are online marketplaces.
Everyone knows TradeMe and eBay as the major auction sites. Social media sites including Facebook and Instagram have options for selling to your audience, and then there’s a whole range of more specialist platforms for everything from craft goods and hand-made tat (Etsy) through to online courses (Udemy and Skillshare).
Some of these platforms will take a fee from your sales, but generally have few or no ongoing costs beyond the effort of making your products.
They are also very robust and will scale to as many sales as you can make and fulfill, but the trade-off is a limited degree of control over the customer experience. You’ll need to do the best you can with your item descriptions and photos, and work hard on your community reputation.
Not too expensive, not too fancy
Our favourite mid-range option is Shopify, which offers a good set of simple features and some decent customisation, but all within limits.
It won’t work for a really big, complex product catalogue, but if you are selling one product or a very simple product range, Shopify can be a great option.
Other hosted eCommerce solutions are also available – Squarespace and Volusion offer a similar level of customisation, but as with Shopify, there are limits to what you can change in terms of design, and to the extra features you can add.
In some cases there may also be restrictions on what sort of products you can sell, for example Shopify Payments does not allow you to process payments for alcohol (you can still sell it on the Shopify platform, you just can’t use their in-house payment solution).
These platforms do have an ongoing cost and often a transaction fee too, but they offer very robust infrastructure and enough customisation for many businesses.
If a store is too large or too complex for one of the simpler hosted solutions, we turn to WooCommerce. This is the world’s most popular eCommerce platform, and for good reason.
Built on WordPress, WooCommerce is available as a hosted service like the ones discussed above, but its real power is unlocked when you host it yourself. Most good web hosts have a plan suited to WooCommerce, and it can be up and running almost as quickly as WordPress itself.
From there, with a little help from some good web developers and designers, the sky is the limit.
Need a custom product builder? Subscriptions? Different pricing for different customers? What about selling items by the metre, calculating shipping by weight or offering bundles of products at a discount when purchased together?
We’ve done all of the above on WooCommerce sites within the past few years.
Often there are third-party plugins available to offer the extra functionality, but there may be a little integration work in getting them to play well with your site theme or other custom features.
What about a bespoke solution?
It has never been easier to build a fully bespoke web app, website or online store. But even though you can, does that mean you should?
The answer is, of course, it depends (sorry).
Many of the same arguments apply to eCommerce stores and websites in general. Without getting too far down that rabbit hole (that’s a topic for another post!) bespoke is usually best suited to very large, complex and expensive projects.
For small-to-medium businesses, the bespoke approach has too many pitfalls and risks, and I say that as a developer who loves to write custom software.
Most of the time, there are better uses for your budget than reinventing the ‘reset password’ feature or making absolutely sure ne’er-do-wells cannot trick your site into revealing other customers’ data.
There is no simple answer to which eCommerce solution you should use; there are many different eCommerce solutions available because there are many different kinds of business and product, all with different requirements.
DIY can be a great way to get a small online business off the ground, but when you want to take the next step up and get serious, do it properly and get some expert help from the team here at Mogul.