If you’re trying to decide what the best eCommerce platform is for your handmade business, I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news. Let’s start with good: if you make things and want to sell them online, these are your salad days, your golden age of opportunity. It seems like every day there’s a new eCommerce platform out there designed to help artists and makers put their wares up for sale online and build a business with a global customer base. All you need to do is pick the best one. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, that’s the bad news too.
You might be starting out selling prints you make in your kitchen every night after dinner, or you might be killing it at the art shows and have a busy online store already but you’ve outgrown it and need to upgrade. Whatever your position, the options can be overwhelming, and the last thing you need is another checklist matrix of features and capabilities that you’re supposed to use to figure out what the best eCommerce platform is. Lucky for you that’s not what this article is about.
Instead of that, why don’t we turn the question around and ask: what do you need? And how do you make sure that you get it? Here are a few examples:
Just Starting Out
Who you are: You’ve got a great idea, you’ve made a few sales, and gotten a lot of positive feedback. Maybe this creation of yours has found an audience? What you’re looking for is an easy way to list your work online and the ability accept payment from people you don’t know or can’t meet up with locally. Let’s say you’ve also got a following on Instagram or Pinterest and you want to give your people a way to buy the stuff they like.
What you need: An easy, low-cost way to sell your goods, manage inventory, and reach out to new customers that won’t lock you in and limit your options in the future are all features that the best eCommerce platform for your business needs to have. Your income is small and unpredictable (though the goal of opening an online store is to change that) so you don’t want to commit to any fixed costs.
What to use: The best eCommerce platform for you is probably Etsy. I’ll bet it was the first name that popped into your head and the same will go for your potential customers.
- Etsy is easy to set up and easy to integrate with social media if you’re a first-timer. There aren’t not a whole lot of decisions to make about design or customization of your store, which makes getting started a quick process but also limits your options for standing out—all the shops look pretty much the same, and more advanced Social Media marketing features like retargeting are off-limits.
- There’s no monthly or annual fee so you only pay for what you use. If you go for a few weeks without adding items or selling anything you don’t owe them a dime. But their search algorithm does favor recently-updated listings, so you shouldn’t just kick back and wait for the sales.
- They do charge a 20¢ listing fee for every item and take a 3.5% cut out of every sale you make. That’s on top of the 3% + 25¢ payment processing fee. Those fees do add up, especially considering that to stay visible you need to re-list products regularly, and if you’re selling upwards of $1000 a month other eCommerce platforms start to get more cost-competitive.
- Etsy customers aren’t typically big spenders—the average item selling price is around $25. So even if that’s a good match for you now consider that you might have a hard time moving upmarket in the future without moving to another platform.
Etsy also has a product they call “Pattern” that allows you to display your Etsy store items on a home page under your own domain name. It sounds good on paper but has a number of drawbacks that don’t make it a good choice for most sellers. I cover Pattern by Etsy and whether it’s worth using in a separate article. Eventually, every Etsy Seller should build their own online store as their business evolves. Keep reading to see what the next step beyond Etsy could be.
FREE eCommerce Fee Calculator
Each eCommerce Platform charges different fees, and how much you pay depends on how much you sell, what your average selling price is, and how many products you list. I’ve collected the fees for a dozen eCommerce platforms and whipped up a handy customizable eCommerce Fee Calculator spreadsheet to see how their fees stack up for your business. Enter your email address below to get dbdc’s FREE eCommerce Fee Calculator to see which one is the right choice for you.
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Planning for Bigger Things
Who you are: You’re roughly in the same position as the first example: seeing the first signs of demand and ready to reach a larger audience. But you’ve got bigger ideas than that. Your goal is to make your work your business and quit your day job. So while your immediate needs are similar, you’ve got your eye on the longer term horizon and the best eCommerce platform for your newborn online store needs to be able to grow with you.
What you need: The old joke goes “cheap, fast, and good: pick two”, but you need all three. You want more features and customization than Etsy has to offer but spending money on a custom site doesn’t make business sense just yet. Fortunately this is the part of the eCommerce platform market with the most choices.
What to use: Dozens of companies offer similar eCommerce platforms in this range, but based on my experience it’s a two-way tie for best eCommerce Platform between Shopify and Managed WordPress + WooCommerce using a provider like SiteGround.
- The biggest advantage this type of platform offers is that you can use your own domain name for your store. No more Etsy.com/shop address, you can be the-best-store-ever.com, or anything else. Why is this huge? Number one it sets you apart from other stores right away. Number two, if you decide to move your store to a different service you take your URL and all of its Google mojo with you. Pattern by Etsy offers this too, but its other shortcomings make it a poor choice.
- Both charge a monthly fee but don’t charge per listing or per transaction as long as you use their standard payment gateways, which will work for almost all sellers.
- Both offer much more customization than Etsy. You can use free design themes, purchase premium ones, or even build your own if you’re inclined (though if that’s the way you’re leaning you might consider skipping to the next section). There are limits to how much you can customize these stores, so there is some same-ness to all the templates and you might find that the most popular designs show up on lots of stores.
- Like Etsy both offer built-in or free Social Media and other service integrations, with plugins for more advanced features available for purchase.
- WooCommerce and Shopify both have officially documented methods for developing themes and plugins (or as Shopify calls them, Apps). There are extensive libraries of themes and plugins for both platforms that let you customize the appearance and functionality of your site to make it do exactly what you want.
- Both Shopify and Managed WooCommerce services take care of backups, software updates, and bug fixes automatically, so you can just focus on your store. There’s a learning curve to both but it’s easy to get started on either one and explore the advanced features as you go.
The biggest difference between Shopify and WooCommerce is that Shopify is a serviced owned by a single company, whereas WooCommerce + WordPress are open-source platforms that no single company controls.
Putting all your eggs in Shopify’s basket carries some amount of risk—Shopify could be bought by another company and shut down or changed drastically, or they could change their terms of service on you and make it more difficult or impossible to run your business on them.
On the other hand, there are dozens of Hosted WooCommerce providers out there if you want or need to switch, and at the end of the day you, and you alone, own your store and all the data in it.
Along with Shopify and WooCommerce, there are other hosted services that offer some type of online store, chiefly Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace. I don’t recommend Wix or Weebly as they are limited and make it difficult to migrate your site to another platform when you need to. Squarespace offers well-designed themes and a full-featured eCommerce option. Where I feel it doesn’t measure up is in the number of themes and plugins that are available. If you don’t want to host your own site using WordPress + WooCommerce, Shopify offers you much more room to grow than Squarespace does and is 100% focused on small business eCommerce.
Ready for the Next Level
Who you are: You’ve got an online store. You’re getting in to the best art shows and craft fairs. You’ve got enough revenue that you finally hired an office manager to help hold things together. The orders keep coming in and you’re keeping up, but most of your customers are looking for the same core products which means that’s all you have time to make. It’s time to add staff and move upmarket so you’ve got time to get back to what got you started: developing your own work and making awesome new stuff.
What you need: In two words, total control. The best eCommerce platform for you is one that you can customize to match your business process, that can grow in whatever direction you need it to. You need something you don’t have to worry about outgrowing.
What to use: There are two ways a business at this stage could go: stick with a hosted eCommerce platform, or take the next step and build a truly custom, independent store using WordPress + WooCommerce. What are some reasons for going independent?
- Building a store on top of an open-source, established CMS (Content Management System) like WordPress gives you access to thousands of free and paid themes, plugins, and apps that let you do whatever you want with your site.
- If you want to add a totally custom feature there are developers all over the world who can help you build one from scratch. Same goes with themes—if none of the countless options out there do it for you, get a theme designed just for your store.
- WordPress and WooCommerce are both free to use but you’ll need a website hosting provider. SiteGround’s Hosted WooCommerce plan is again a good place to start, or you can look at WPEngine or Flywheel if you’re running a high-traffic store.
- Running costs for a WordPress + WooCommerce based eCommerce platform are comparable to or lower than with Etsy or Shopify, but setup costs can be higher. If you’re using off-the-shelf themes and plugins it’s definitely possible to do it yourself, and may hosting services will offer one-click installs. But for heavy customization and advanced features, you’ll need to hire an expert to get things up and running for you.
- And as I mentioned earlier, WordPress + WooCommerce are open-source which means that anyone can dive in to the guts. This means nobody owns your store data except for you. You get to decide what your policies are, how you engage with your customers, and how you market yourself. And (assuming that what you sell is legal where you live) you’ll never wake up to find that your store has been shut down by the company hosting it.
Only You can Say what the Best eCommerce Platform is for Your Handmade Business
As I said at the beginning there are more eCommerce platform providers out there than any one article can address, and these are just the ones that I see as being the top contenders. But if you’re still reading I hope that you’ve got a better idea of what type of platform is the best for your particular business and, most importantly, why it is.
There are a lot of things to keep in mind when setting up any online store, from an Etsy shop to a full-blown custom setup. If you’re considering starting to sell your wares online, or already are but want to chart a path for the future, contact dbdc and we’ll help you take your business where you want it to grow.
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