Starting an ecommerce business is exciting. You have a great product idea, a vision for your brand, a target customer in mind, marketing campaigns queued up.
On the flip side, there are a lot of not-so-exciting parts to starting your online business. Choosing your ecommerce software can be one of them, especially if you’re not a developer.
But it’s an important decision to carefully consider. Changing platforms after you’ve already launched your business can be a hefty undertaking, and it’s best to get it right from the start.
Where to start? Here—we’ll go over what ecommerce software is, what to look for, and some of the best ecommerce software solutions to try in 2021.
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What is ecommerce software?
Ecommerce software is the system that allows your online store to operate. Your ecommerce software may also include related business tools like inventory management, accounting, and email marketing, for instance.
At a bare minimum, ecommerce software allows you to list products for sale and accept payments online. However, most online businesses need more than the bare minimum, and ecommerce software is adding other business management tools too. The best ecommerce software has the basic tools you need to get started, along with an ecosystem of upgraded tools and platforms you can use as your business grows.
Features to look for in ecommerce software
Budget is always a factor. You can launch an online store for as little as $100, but you’ll probably have to spend more than that once you get the wheels turning. According to our analysis, most small businesses spend around $40,000 in their first year, with 9% of that allocated to online business needs. (Shopify merchants spend an average of $38,000, while non-Shopify merchants average around $41,000.)
It takes time before you generate a return on your business investments. It’s important to choose ecommerce software that won’t eat your entire budget but still has the features and tools you need to run and grow your business.
So while it may be tempting to find the easiest and most affordable ecommerce software, there’s more to consider. Instead of focusing only on where your business is now, think about where you envision your business to go in the future—and find ecommerce software that can meet those future needs.
Scalability and usability
First things first: you need ecommerce software you can figure out how to use. You’ll want to find ecommerce software that’s intuitive and simple in design, especially if you’re DIYing everything in the beginning. You might get a read on usability from looking at customer reviews, but schedule a demo or start a free trial if you want to find out for yourself.
It’s also important to consider how your ecommerce software fits into your business’s future. You might run a small show now, but with the right ecommerce software, growth is easily in reach.
When choosing an ecommerce software, look for a best-in-class online store paired with a best-in-class suite of business management tools. Ecommerce software that regularly invests in and upgrades its platform will be more likely to help you stay ahead of your competition and on top of consumer behavior trends.
Let’s say you plan to expand into physical retail at some point. You’ll want ecommerce software that has add-ons, plugins, and integrations to give you in-person selling features. However, this can be cumbersome and convoluted over time. So better yet, find ecommerce software that has those tools itself—like Shopify’s ecommerce software and the complementary Shopify POS. This syncs all your inventory and sales data instantly, so you always have up-to-date and accurate information. With Shopify, you can also add local delivery or outsource order fulfillment through the Shopify Fulfillment Network.
Accessible customer support
It’s important to have support as a business owner, especially if you’re starting a new venture on your own. Look for ecommerce software that has accessible customer support options to help you every step of the way.
With Shopify, for example, you get help launching your site or even migrating your site over from another software, plus ongoing support. Our support team is available 24/7, so you can live chat, email, or call a real human anytime you need to—in 19 different languages. Plus, extensive support documentation, a community forum, and free ecommerce training through Shopify Compass will support you through every snag in every stage of business growth.
A friction-free checkout is crucial to driving conversions. You want to find ecommerce software that makes it as easy and secure as possible for shoppers to complete their purchase. It’s important to instill trust at this stage by offering familiar checkout options like Google Wallet and PayPal while also collecting important customer information that can inform future business decisions.
If you use Shopify, Shop Pay streamlines online checkout, increasing checkout speed by 4x. You can also leverage Shopify’s integrations, with more than 100 payment gateways to accommodate all types of payment methods and currencies.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is an important part of earning organic traffic to your website. When your online store is optimized for search, you’ll appear more frequently on search engine result pages (SERPs), which increases visibility and traffic.
Beyond keywords and metadata, search engines also consider on-page user experience (UX). In other words, if a searcher comes to your site and has a seemingly negative experience—low page depth, high bounce rate, low time on page, etc.—search engines will consider that in their rankings, to your detriment.
Find ecommerce software that has important SEO features, like the ability to manipulate metadata, increase page load speed, and optimize your images. With Shopify’s ecommerce software, Google’s WebP image formatting is already built in to make images load 30% faster, for instance.
You need web hosting to allow shoppers to access your online store. Web hosting stores the information and content from your website in a publicly accessible server database. Every website is hosted somewhere with dedicated server space from a web hosting provider. Some ecommerce software offer built-in web hosting while others require you use an external solution.
If you use ecommerce software on a hosted platform, your solution is simple. You won’t need to search for a third-party solution, and you won’t need to pay the additional fees that come with it. If you use Shopify, website hosting is included in every plan. Each update is automatically applied to your site, so you’re always up-to-date.
With a hosted ecommerce software, you also don’t need to worry about a content delivery network (CDN) to store files, because it comes included.
With a self-hosted or non-hosted ecommerce software, you’ll need to find your own server space through a third-party hosting provider. This comes with extra costs and another vendor relationship to manage. Plus, you have more responsibility when it comes to maintaining your site. If you have an unexpected event like a spike in site traffic after a viral social post, third-party hosting can leave you in a lurch with unresponsive customer support teams.
The lines between physical and digital commerce are becoming increasingly blurred, and even small mom-and-pop shops are embracing a multi-channel approach. You need ecommerce software that can keep up with the rapidly changing landscape of commerce. It’s not enough to simply be able to sell across multiple channels—you want ecommerce software that can bring all of these channels together in a single database.
Shopify acts as a business command center, syncing online and in-person sales data in real-time so you always have accurate metrics. You can promote and sell on multiple channels from within Shopify, including social media, third-party marketplaces like Amazon, wholesale, and more.
The best ecommerce software for 2021
The best ecommerce software depends on your individual business goals and needs. Let’s look at some ecommerce software solutions for 2021:
- Price: Basic Shopify: $39/month; Shopify: $105/month; Advanced Shopify: $399/month.
- Customer support options: Callback phone support; email support; support provided in 19 languages; community forum; support content
- Integrated sales channels: Facebook, Instagram, Google, Walmart Marketplace, eBay, and Amazon
- Mobile app features: Suite of mobile tools to fully manage your online business
- POS: Yes
Shopify is the best ecommerce software for most online sellers. Our robust platform includes a comprehensive set of tools for multi-channel selling. You’re set up to sell directly through your website, in person, on social media, via third-party marketplaces, and pretty much anywhere you can think of.
Shopify goes beyond simply selling online too. Our offerings include ecommerce software as well as a comprehensive best-in-class suite of business tools. With Shopify, you’re creating an entire business command center where you can manage every aspect of your ecommerce empire.
Shop Pay is the fastest best-converting online checkout, Shopify POS captures in-person sales, and Shopify Fulfillment reliably delivers customer orders, among many other functions. Tap into our extensive library of third-party apps to make your site even more powerful. Your tech stack works together seamlessly as part of the Shopify ecosystem.
You don’t need a lot of technical expertise or money to launch and scale your business with Shopify.
- Price: Business Basic: $23/month; Business Unlimited: $27/month; Business VIP: $49/month
- Customer support options: Callback service available 24/7; Business VIP includes priority phone support
- Integrated sales channels: Amazon, Facebook, Instagram; eBay requires Business Unlimited or Business VIP; other channels require third-party app
- Mobile app features: The ability to manage your website and inventory, view orders, and communicate with customers; setting up mobile POS requires either Square or SumUp for credit card payments
- Point-of-sale: Yes
Wix is fairly easy to use with its drag-and-drop functionality. The ecommerce software is actually a website builder with ecommerce features added on, so some extra tweaks and customizations are needed if you want to sell products online. And while Wix is free for basic sites, you will need a paid subscription to take advantage of its ecommerce tools.
Ecommerce features are a bit lacking, especially compared to Shopify. With it, you can do the basics: track orders, process online payments, multi-channel selling, and automated emails. However, there are no low-stock alerts to help you avoid stockouts. So if you have a decent-sized inventory, Wix is likely too bare bones for you.
- Price: Standard: $29.95/month; Plus: $79.95/month, or $71.95/month when paid annually; Pro: $299.95/month, or $269.96/month when paid annually; Enterprise custom pricing
- Customer support options: 24/7 technical support via phone, email, or chat
- Integrated sales channels: Google Shopping, Facebook, price comparison engines, eBay, Amazon, Walmart, Etsy, and Instagram
- Mobile app features: View analytics, update orders, manage inventory and products, and search for customers; some features are Android-only
- Point-of-sale: Yes
Enterprise-level tech companies are the target for BigCommerce’s ecommerce software. The platform is extremely robust and comprehensive, which makes it powerful enough to handle enterprise needs—but likely too powerful for anything smaller. It’s also a bit more rigid when it comes to customizing.
As far as ecommerce features go, BigCommerce supports cross-border sales, SEO, social selling, and third-party marketplaces. Ecommerce brand Grace & Lace ended up switching from BigCommerce to Shopify Plus (Shopify’s enterprise solution) because the former was more than they could handle. It quickly turned out to be a smart decision for the business.
- Price: Custom pricing only
- Customer support options: Phone support and online help center/technical support resources available
- Integrated sales channels: Amazon
- Mobile app features: n/a
- Point-of-sale: Third-party extensions available
Magento is a highly customizable ecommerce software meant for larger, established businesses that have technical resources to build and maintain an online store. It also requires you find a third-party hosting provider, which adds to both the software’s flexibility and complexity.
If you want to sell across multiple channels, Magento is likely not the way to go. It requires a hefty amount of leg work to integrate various selling channels, as well as international payments.
Ecommerce site Character.com used to have a complex Magento site that promoted thousands of products. It had to use tons of integrations to get the store to function the way it needed, eventually pushing it to migrate to Shopify—resulting in a 40% increase in conversions.
- Price: Average monthly fee is up to $30; WooCommerce estimates costs to be $120/year for hosting; $15/year for domain name registration; up to $100/year for your site theme; up to $108/year for shipping; 2.9% plus $0.30 per sale; up to $348/year for marketing and communications; up to $79/year for SEO; up to $65/year for SSL certificate
- Customer support options: Only available via live chat or email; no support offered for third-party apps and plugins
- Integrated sales channels: Google Shopping, Etsy, eBay, Facebook, Amazon, Pinterest, and Walmart; integrations are disjointed
- Mobile app features: Add products, manage orders, and view analytics
- Point-of-sale: Native POS available
If you’ve heard of the popular blogging platform and content management system called WordPress, WooCommerce is its ecommerce add-on. As such, the ecommerce features aren’t as tightly integrated and often require the use of third-party apps and plugins. Because of this, your store quickly becomes a hodge-podge of disparate systems. Should something break, you could be in for a complicated fix.
Learn more: See how Shopify vs. WooCommerce stack up in this comparison piece.
You need to find your own third-party hosting when building an online store on WooCommerce. Customer support is limited, so when you do hit a snag, it can be tough to get your store back online. Plus, WooCommerce lacks PCI compliance and even has a reputation for being unreliable, two risks you might not want to take.
Did you know? You can monetize your WordPress blog without migrating to a new ecommerce software with the Shopify Buy Button. Simply embed the button to start selling on your blog—starting at only $9/month.
- Price: Free
- Customer support options: Technical support available through paid support plans; support provided via phone Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. (GMT+2); help center, technical documentation, and community forum available online
- Integrated sales channels: Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and Facebook
- Mobile app features: n/a
- Point-of-sale: Available as add-on modules
If you’re just starting out and consider yourself to be tech-savvy, PrestaShop is worth a look. The ecommerce software is extremely flexible and customizable—a pro and a con in and of itself. On the positive side, this means you can tailor your store exactly as you need. On the other hand, you need to find your own hosting provider, set up all the privacy and security settings, and more—all on your own, because PrestaShop has no customer support. It is free, after all.
As far as ecommerce goes, PrestaShop covers the basics. Features include inventory tracking, online checkout and shopping cart, international selling, and analytics reporting.
- Price: Personal: $16/month, or $12/month when paid annually; Business: $26/month, or $18/month when paid annually; Basic Commerce: $35/month, or $26/month when paid annually; Advanced Commerce: $54/month, or $40/month when paid annually; Enterprise pricing also available
- Customer support options: Email available 24/7; live chat available Monday through Friday, 4 a.m.–8 p.m. ET
- Integrated sales channels: Shopping Feed extension to sell on Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and Google Actions
- Mobile app features: Website editing, scan shipping labels, order management, inventory management, and customer communication
- POS: Available via mobile app (only available in the US)
Like Wix, Squarespace features a user-friendly drag-and-drop interface. However, Squarespace wasn’t initially built as an ecommerce offering. It was a website builder that later added ecommerce features, so some of these tools are lacking—especially when compared with an ecommerce software like Shopify. There are only two payment integrations, for example.
If you’re going with Squarespace, set aside a decent amount of time to set it up and customize it the way you want it to look and feel. Better yet, outsource the design and development if you can afford it.
After the pesky setup, Squarespace has some decent inventory tracking features. You can also upgrade your plan to be able to sell gift cards and subscription-based products.
Keep it simple: Skip the hassle of dealing with Squarespace’s backend with the Shopify Buy Button. For just $9/month, you can add a small embeddable code to your Squarespace site and leverage Shopify’s advanced ecommerce tools to handle the rest.
- Price: Personal: $29/month, or $26.10/month when paid annually; Pro: $79/month, or $71.10/month when paid annually; Business: $299/month, or $269.10/month when paid annually; Prime pricing also available
- Customer support options: 24/7 support is available and options vary by plan; Personal plans have access to online support; Pro plans can access online + phone support; Business plans get online + priority phone support; Prime customers receive VIP support, which includes a private Slack channel
- Integrated sales channels: GoDataFeed extension available to allow sales on 200+ ecommerce channels, including Amazon, Google Shopping, eBay, and Walmart
- Mobile app features: n/a
- Point-of-sale: Yes
Volusion is another ecommerce software that started out as a basic website builder but has since expanded functionality to accommodate online selling. While you need to register and pay for your domain name through a third party, Volusion includes web hosting in its packages. However, you can choose a third party hosting provider if you prefer.
Volusion has all the basic ecommerce features a new merchant might need. You can process orders, set up recurring billing, track inventory, and promote related products. You can also create and manage customer accounts and add taxes. However, customization options are limited, and you can only tailor templates so much. So once you hit a certain stage of growth, it’ll be time to upgrade to a more full-featured and flexible option.
- Price: Individual: $0.99/item sold + additional selling fees; Business: $39.99/month + additional selling fees; additional selling fees may include referral fees, fulfillment fees, inventory fees, and refund fees
- Customer support options: Support forums available 24/7
- Integrated sales channels: n/a
- Mobile app features: Analytics reporting; basic inventory management; order management; returns; view upcoming payment balance; respond to messages; take photos; list new products
- Point-of-sale: n/a
While Amazon used to be just a third-party marketplace for promoting and selling your products, it has since expanded its offerings to online sellers. Now you can use the marketplace to create your own branded mini Amazon store. While it puts you in front of millions of shoppers, it’s still “rented land”—in other words, Amazon can make changes or even pull the plug at any moment, and all your hard work could be gone in an instant.
That being said, creating an Amazon store is a great way to supplement your existing commerce channels. With Amazon, you can reach new customers and build brand awareness. Over time, the hope is that they start shopping with you directly so you can avoid Amazon’s associated fees and restrictions.
Start selling online with Shopify
When choosing your ecommerce software, remember to consider both your current and future needs. Some platforms may be the best solution right now, but a powerful software like Shopify can get you started as well as support your future growth.
Illustration by Rose Wong