Should I Use a Hosted E-Commerce Platform?
When you’re trying to decide what platform, shopping cart, or CMS to use for an e-commerce site the options can become overwhelming. You could go with an open source option, a simple shopping cart for selling digital downloads, an enterprise system for large shops, create your own custom system, or choose a hosted platform.
In recent years several hosted e-commerce platforms have gained in popularity, partly because they are very easy to setup and use. Every option will have pros and cons, and in this article we’ll take a detailed look at hosting platforms to help you decide if this is the right option for you or your client.
What is a Hosted E-Commerce Platform?
A hosted e-commerce platform will provide you with web hosting as well as the e-commerce functionality. You’ll pay one monthly fee that will cover all aspects of the service, and you’ll get support from one company for both the hosting and e-commerce. A company like Shopify has created their own e-commerce system and it can only be used on their own servers. You can’t use a traditional web host and use Shopify on your site, it must be hosted with them. Of course, there are pros and cons of doing it this way, and we’ll look at them in just a minute.
Pros of Hosted E-Commerce Platforms
If you are trying to decide what type of e-commerce platform to use, here are some of the reasons you may want to consider going with a hosted system.
1. One Point of Contact
With a hosted e-commerce platform you will be dealing with one company for hosting and e-commerce. If you’re using a traditional web host and a different type of e-commerce platform you would be dealing with two different companies. This may not seem like a big deal, and when things are running smoothly it really isn’t, but there can be times when having just one point of contact makes your life a whole lot easier.
I’ve been in the situation where I had a problem with e-commerce functionality on a site and had to go back and forth between the support reps of the host and the support reps of the e-commerce provider. Getting to the bottom of the cause of the problem can be a challenge when you’re dealing with multiple people and multiple different systems. With a hosted platform if you are having a problem there is only one point of contact, and they will be able to help you with anything that is hosting or e-commerce related. They can’t pass the blame and say it’s the host’s fault or the shopping cart’s, they are responsible for both, and they have the power to address both. This can save you a lot of time and frustration in these types of situations, and it can also result in quicker solutions and fixes.
2. Ease of Use, Including Setup
Most of the benefits to using a hosted platform revolve and ease of use, including the first point mentioned above. In today’s busy world anything you can do to make your life easier and simpler is desirable. The ease of use comes in to play right from the beginning when you are just getting your site set up. With hosted platform the e-commerce functionality will not require you to install software or do any server configuration. Their software will already be installed on the server and waiting for you. You can set up a simple shop literally in a matter of minutes with nothing to install. If you were using a traditional web host and an open source platform you would need to install it yourself, or hire someone to do it for you.
Having everything at one place makes a hosted platform easy to use going forward as well. You’ll be billed once rather than being billed separately for hosting and for e-commerce functionality. Everything needed to manage your site will be in one convenient dashboard. With a hosted system any user can get by without the need to hire a developer. You won’t need a developer to install anything, and with the help of templates (which we’ll talk more about in a minute) you can also get your site up and running without the need of a designer/developer to create your site. Of course, if you want to hire a designer to create a custom design you can do that.
3. Ease of Updates
Going along with the theme of ease of use, with a hosted system you don’t have to worry about software upgrades or updates, they will be handled for you behind the scenes. If you were using an open source platform you may need to periodically update the software when a new version is released. If you’re a developer you may be able to handle this on your own, but for non-technical users the upgrades typically require hiring someone to do it for you. Not needing to deal with upgrades can result in real time and cost savings. With a hosted system the provider has access to the servers, so they can handle the upgrades and updates for you whenever they are needed, and you probably won’t even know that they happened.
Security of sensitive customer data should be a priority for any person or business running an e-commerce website. Setting up and maintaining that security can be something that you simply don’t want to deal with or worry about. With a hosted system the provider will handle the security for you. Because they are managing the servers as well as the checkout functionality they can be responsible for protecting your customers’ data, and you can save yourself some headaches and stress.
5. Pre-Made Templates
Most hosted e-commerce platforms have a selection of pre-made templates or themes that you can use to control the look of your site. Some of these templates may be free, and others you will have to buy. Even if you have to buy a template it will still likely save you a few thousand dollars compared to the cost of having a similar design created from scratch. Custom designs are, of course, always an option, but if you’re looking to save some money or to get started very quickly, a pre-made template may be a great option for you.
While other types of e-commerce platforms, specifically open source, will have some templates available as well, the quality of those for systems like Shopify, Bigcommerce, and Highwire are generally much better. Each of these systems has a template shop where you can get professionally-designed templates for very reasonable prices, and some of them are free.
6. Payment Gateway Included
Most hosted platforms will also include a payment gateway, so you have one less thing to set up. If you have your own preferred payment gateway that you would rather use, that may be an option as well. For example, Shopify handles the payments with no third parties needed, but it also can integrate with 70 other payment gateways if you prefer.
Setting up a payment gateway with most e-commerce platforms is not a major issue, but this is just one more way that you can save time and hassle with a hosted system. It can also save you the time of evaluating lots of different payment gateways to see which one you want to choose.
7. CMS Included
With a hosted platform you will not only get the hosting and the e-commerce functionality, but you’ll also get a content management system that allows you to manage all of the page content on your site very easily. Each option will have it’s own unique features, but in general you will be able to easily manage the text, images, and other details of your pages without the need to do any coding. Shopify includes full blogging capability as part of its CMS, so you will be able to create content for your site that will attract visitors and communicate with your customers.
Cons of Hosted E-Commerce Platforms
Although there are a lot of reasons to like hosted e-commerce platforms, they are not the right fit for every situation. Here are some of the cons that you will want to keep in mind when deciding what system is right for you or your client.
1. Less Flexible
Hosted systems do not come with the same amount of flexibility as some other types of platforms. While the leading hosted systems do have plenty of features and awesome functionality, a system that you can install on your own server may provide you with more flexibility. Shopify and Bigcommerce have offset this somewhat by offering optional add-ons that can be purchased, or in some cases used for free, to achieve specific functionality. Extending it further would be possible by creating a custom app, or hiring a developer to do it for you. Of course, if you’re comparing a hosted system to a fully custom system, the hosted option will have greater limitations.
2. No Choice of Host
If you go with a hosted system you will be forced to use their web hosting. Fortunately, the hosting tends to be pretty reliable, but there may be some circumstances where you want or need to host the site elsewhere. In these cases, a hosted system is simply not an option. For many users this is not an issue, but it does take away some of your choice. If you go the route of a hosted platform and you wind up not being happy with the hosting, you don’t have the option to move to another hosting company without switching to a completely different e-commerce platform.
3. Monthly Cost
Because hosted platforms replace the need for a traditional host, they will involve monthly fees. If you are comparing these fees to the cost of a web hosting account they may seem to be high. For example, the starting price at Shopify is $29 per month, and the starting price of Bigcommerce is $34.95 per month. It would be possible to get your own hosting and use an open source e-commerce platform for a lower monthly fee.
Something you’ll want to keep in mind when comparing pricing is the time that you can save with a hosted system. While you may be able to use an open source platform for free, you will need to dedicate time, and in some cases money, to get it installed and to maintain it. Of you’re a developer and you’re comfortable doing this type of work it may not be a big deal. But to many store owners and end users the saved time and reduced need for a developer can be worth much more.
You’ll also want to consider that with a hosted system you are also paying for support. With a free open source platform you’ll probably need to use forums for support, and the level of support that you receive may be good or bad. With a hosted platform you’re paying for that support, so if should be much better. For example, Shopify offers 24/7 support.
Now that we’ve looked at the main pros and cons of hosted platform’s, let’s take a look at more details of the leading options.
Shopify combines ease of use with great design. You can sign up for a free 14-day trial and set up your own site very quickly. In fact, Shopify currently powers over 90,000 different online shops.
There are plenty of features offered by Shopify, and we won’t be able to cover them all here, but we will look at the most significant ones. In terms of the look of your site, Shopify offers a nice selection of free templates that you can use for your store. They also have a more extensive selection of templates that you can purchase, ranging from $80 – $180. While the free themes are pretty good, the premium themes are generally much better. They have been created by a variety of different designers/developers, and there are templates available for a wide variety of different types of stores. If a template doesn’t meet your needs, Shopify also has a directory of experts that you can hire. These are third party designers and developers who have experience working with Shopify and creating custom themes for clients. If you’re a designer or developer you can create your own theme using Shopify’s templating language, Liquid.
Shopify comes with plenty of features that help you to manage your website, customers, and orders. It handles customer accounts and profiles, and you can even create customer groups based on a number of different factors.Shopify will handle credit card payments itself, or you can choose another payment gateway. There are also plenty of options related to shipping, if you are selling physical products.
There are also a number of features related to marketing that can help you to sell more products. You’ll have control of factors like page titles and H1 tags that can impact your site’s search engine optimization. You can create coupon codes to run promotions and offer discounts to encourage more purchases. It also includes gift card functionality where visitors can purchase gifts for others. MailChimp integration allows you to stay in touch with your customers via email. You’ll also get built in analytics to help you see how your store is doing, and find areas for improvement.
As far as support and documentation is concerned, you’ll have access to the knowledge base where you can find answers to many of your questions. There is also a detailed Shopify manual, forums, and they also have set up E-commerce University to provide training. Plus, you’ll have access to customer support reps 24 hours a day.
Shopify’s pricing is based on factors like the amount of disk space and features that you need. A limited Starter plan is available for $14 per month, which allows you to sell 25 products and 1 GB of disk space. The Basic plan costs $29 per month for 24/7 support, unlimited products, the discount engine, and 1 GB of disk space. The Professional plan costs $79 per month for 24/7 support, unlimited products, the discount engine, gift cards, professional reports, abandoned cart recovery, and 5 GB of disk space. The Unlimited plan costs $179 per month for 24/7 support, unlimited products, the discount engine, gift cards, professional reports, an advanced report builder, abandoned cart recovery, real-time carrier shipping, and unlimited disk space.
Bigcommerce is another leading option, nearly as popular as Shopify with more than 50,000 stores on its system. Bigcommerce is very feature rich and there are a lot of things to love about what they have to offer. You can sign up for a free trial to give it a test drive.
As far as the look of your site is concerned, Bigcommerce offers several well-designed templates for free. You can also buy from a selection of premium templates, with prices ranging from $120 to $250. You can also customize some elements of the design in a WYSIWYG editor. They have a directory of partners that you can hire to create a custom template for you.
Bigcommerce includes a full content management system that allows you to easily edit the pages, text, and photos on your site. You can easily create the product listings and manage details like shipping and taxes. When setting up the products you can add unlimited options, such as size and color. You can create smart product rules, such as free shipping for purchases over a certain amount. You’ll also be able to easily manage inventory and integrate with QuickBooks.
SEO features include control over page URLs. title and header tags, image alt tags, and meta descriptions. You can also add microdata and allow customer reviews to make your site and products stand out.
There are a number of features for marketing your products, including the use of coupon codes, email marketing integration, smart customer lists, social media integration, and RSS feeds. You can even integrate with Ebay, Google Shopping, and sell on Facebook. Bigcommerce also provides analytics, plus it can be integrated with Google Analytics.
Bigcommerce offers customer support by phone, email, and online chat. They also have video tutorials and more than 500 support articles to help you learn on your own. Bigcommerce University also provides in-depth e-commerce education if you want to learn more about managing a successful online shop.
Pricing starts at $34.95 per month (plus a 2% transaction fee) for the Silver plan, which includes 5 GB of storage, unlimited products, unlimited bandwidth, blogging and SEO features, 60+ payment options, 150+ app integrations, coupons and gift certificates, ratings & reviews, social shopping, and real-time shipping quotes. The Gold plan costs $79.95 per month and includes all of the features of the Silver plan plus unlimited storage, loyalty marketing, omni-channel sales (Ebay and others), abandoned cart saver, and no transaction fees.The Platinum plan costs $199.95 per month and includes all of the features of the Gold plan plus Google Trusted certification, direct API access, and white glove setup.
Highwire is a lesser-known, but still powerful, option. You can get a free 14-day trial if you want to test Highwire.
They offer a number of well-designed free templates to their users, or you can buy a premium template for $50 – $90. All of the templates are mobile optimized. If you’re a designer you can create your own custom template with full control over the design.
Other features include inventory management, multiple product options (such as color and size), customized categories, bulk pricing editing, customer and order management, an integrated blog, coupon codes, gift certificates, email marketing integration, customer reviews, Twitter integration, and more. As far as SEO is concerned, you’ll be able to set custom URLs, titles, and meta descriptions. Highwire also includes multi-channel selling so you can sell your products at sites like Ebay and Facebook.
The Starter plan costs $14.95 per month and includes 100 products and the ability to sell on Ebay. The All-Inclusive plan costs $29.95 per month and includes a maximum limit of 10,000 products, coupon codes, gift certificates, reporting, and unlimited bandwidth and storage.
Magento Go offers unlimited product options, product bundles, grouped products, coupon codes, gift cards, store credits, product comparisons, wishlists, and more. For SEO you can control page URLs and meta descriptions.
A 30-day free trial is available on all plans. Pricing starts at $15 per month for the Get Going plan, which allows for 100 products and includes email and chat support, 200 MB of storage and 4 GB of bandwidth. The Going Places plan costs $25 per month and allows for 500 products and includes email and chat support, 500 MB of storage and 8 GB of bandwidth. The Go Beyond plan costs $65 per month for 1,000 products and includes email, chat and phone support, 800 MB of storage, and 16 GB of bandwidth. The Go Anywhere plan costs $125 per month for 10,000 products and includes email, chat and phone support, 5 GB of storage and 32 GB of bandwidth.
For small businesses that are looking for an e-commerce setup that is easy, low maintenance, and affordable, a hosted e-commerce platform can be a good option. Most of the benefits of using a hosted platform revolve and ease of use, so if you are looking for a way to run an e-commerce site with a limited amount of time being invested in the technical details, it could be for you. There are also a lot of benefits for designers who are looking for a good system to use on client sites. You can even become listed as an expert with a company like Shopify or Bigcommerce to allow more clients to find you.
However, a hosted system does come with some limitations and may not be the best fit in every situation. For very large and high-traffic shops there may be a need to go a different route.
What’s Your Experience?
If you’ve used a hosted e-commerce platform please feel free to share your experience in the comments.