- What Is an Ecommerce Platform?
- Free Ecommerce Platforms
- The Best Ecommerce Platforms
In this article on the best ecommerce platforms, we’ll guide you through the world of ecommerce and describe step by step what to look for and which software to look at.
Ecommerce is a complex business, especially if you want to scale it up. There’s more to it than just having a good or “winning” product. You have to think about where your products are made or where you source them. You must keep in mind how they’re delivered to the customer, who your target audience is and how you want to automate those tasks and make them digital.
In addition, customers have become more demanding. Fortunately, ecommerce platform providers have adapted to those circumstances and continually improve their software. Today’s ecommerce platforms are more than simple storefronts, they’ve grown into complex selling machinery.
In this article, we will first explain what an ecommerce platform is and what you need to consider when choosing one. Before we go into our in-depth tests, we’ll look at free alternatives but also explain why a free platform isn’t always the best solution.
Finding the best provider is everything but easy. Quite often, selecting the right platform depends on many things. Those who value features and adaptability, for example, should try Magento, whereas novices will prefer Volusion. If you want to drop-ship, go for Shopify.
What Is an Ecommerce Platform?
Before we get into the main part of our article, let’s talk about the basics. In simple terms, an ecommerce platform is a software, whether on-premise or SaaS (software-as-a-service), that supports you with the most important processes of an ecommerce business.
It’s a lot more than a storefront that makes your products look beautiful, though that’s also an important task. Among other things, an ecommerce platform should include processes such as customer support, product management, marketing, procurement, order and stock management and reporting. Our best accounting software can help with those, too.
Depending on the technology you use, the features, compatibility with other technologies and many other things will vary. That’s why it’s so important that you think carefully about choosing the right ecommerce platform to suit your needs.
Free Ecommerce Platforms
Like any type of software, ecommerce platforms offer free solutions. The best free ecommerce platform by far is WooCommerce.
WooCommerce is a plugin for WordPress that allows you to add an online shop to your WordPress website. It adds useful functions to your existing web presence, lets you maintain products and more.
It was able to assert itself thanks to its brilliant adaptability, its many functions and because it’s free. It’s not for nothing that 28 percent of online shops use it.
It has downsides, though. It requires an existing WordPress installation and limits you in many ways because of that. Plus, not every WordPress theme is compatible with WooCommerce, which is why you have to choose your theme carefully.
If you can’t handle WordPress, WooCommerce isn’t for you. If you want to start your business with WooCommerce anyway, you might want to check out our extensive WordPress guides.
- Beginner’s guide to using WordPress.
- Intermediate guide to using WordPress.
- Advanced guide to using WordPress.
Plus, if you want to scale WooCommerce and use it professionally, you need several WooCommerce extensions that cost a lot of money.
WooCommerce itself may be free, but if you add the total costs, another provider from our list might be a better choice. Hosting is a basic cost that you have to pay. On top of that, let’s say you need to buy three extensions, each of which costs $49. That’ll put you far above the cost of a monthly Shopify subscription, for example.
If you still want to try WooCommerce, but you don’t know which hosting provider suits your needs, check out our article on the best web hosting providers. If you don’t want to use WordPress or you want a more powerful solution, have a look at OpenCart.
The Best Ecommerce Platforms
Now, let’s get to our comparison of the best ecommerce platforms. We at Cloudwards.net are independent testers who would like to advise you on your decision, so we’ve tested every provider in each category extensively.
In this extensive overview, we took a close at WooCommerce, Shopify, BigCommerce, Magento and Volusion.
Website builders (read our best website builders article) such as Squarespace and Wix (read our Wix Review) have added many shop functionalities to their portfolios, but on average they’re not real ecommerce platforms, which is why we didn’t include them here.
The first things we’re going to discuss are the individual ecommerce functions and their scope. As we explained, an ecommerce platform should cover the most important ecommerce tasks.
For this section, we tested the platforms’ functions, such as marketing, product management, procurement, orders, inventory and analytics, but we also had a look at the optimal business model for each platform, meaning which business models can be implemented best with which software.
Shopify is a drop-shipping powerhouse. At this point, we’d even say it’s the best ecommerce platform for drop-shipping. With simple apps such as Oberlo, you can add drop-shipping products to your store with one click. Once an order is placed, Oberlo provides the supplier with all the information, so you don’t need to do more than one click to send the product to your customer.
Shopify also earns points when it comes to marketing. Through great integrations with your Facebook and Instagram profiles, you can connect your products to your social networks and offer them there. Because the process is integrated, you get all the data in your Shopify analytics dashboard, which gives you important hints for later ads and marketing strategies.
Plus, Shopify covers all the important processes for a successful ecommerce store. If that’s not enough for you, you can install additional apps to extend the functionality. In our advanced guide to Shopify, you can read which apps we recommend.
Volusion is also a good ecommerce platform for drop-shipping. That said, it limits its product suppliers to the U.S. to avoid long delivery times from China. That makes sense, but it also limits the selection of products you can offer.
Another disadvantage of Volusion is that you can’t sell digital products. If you sell online courses, .pdfs or other digital products, you need to figure out a work-around to sell them.
Still, Volusion covers the critical functions of an ecommerce platform.
It comes with the common social media integrations and lets you distribute your products on the most important sales channels. Like Shopify, Volusion lets you embed and distribute your products in your Facebook store with ease. Integrations with Amazon and eBay are also available.
Volusion is well-positioned when it comes to apps. There are fewer apps in its marketplace than Shopify’s or BigCommerce’s, but the selection and quality aren’t bad. You can use Volusion’s marketplace to set up the most important tasks of an ecommerce store, but the adaptability, especially on a technical level, is more limited than on other ecommerce platforms.
If you have a complicated business model or want to build something extravagant that’s tailored to your wishes, try Magento.
WooCommerce covers the basics. It lets you offer your products on Facebook, Amazon, eBay and Google Shopping. The latter is especially interesting because if you don’t have organic traffic yet, you can use Google Ads with the corresponding product ads. If you want to read more about Google Ads, have a look at our Google Ads article.
The ingenious thing about WooCommerce is that you can use the WordPress ecosystem, which has a plugin for every problem. Not finding a solution for your problem on the WooCommerce marketplace doesn’t mean it’s out of the game. You’ll be amazed by how easy it is to build a work-around in WordPress.
Because WooCommerce is so versatile, the platform can also be used for drop-shipping and digital products. We recommend installing the WooCommerce Dropshipping extension, which automates the most important shipping and order fulfillment processes.
Drop-shipping with BigCommerce is possible, but it’s not as easy as it is with Shopify. Though Shopify allows you to simply install Oberlo or any other drop-shipping app, BigCommerce is more complicated to set up.
If you take a look at the BigCommerce marketplace, you’ll see that there are only eight apps that fall under the category “dropshipping.”
The bottom line is though drop-shipping is possible with BigCommerce, Shopify might be a better and more mature solution for you.
An important feature of BigCommerce to highlight is the “headless commerce” functionality. With such an architecture, you can take advantage of the back-end of BigCommerce, with all its features, but build your front-end with different technology.
That gives you the freedom to design your shop as you like and doesn’t restrict you to BigCommerce’s template-building engine. For example, you could use a WordPress blog if you don’t feel like using WooCommerce and integrate the BigCommerce back-end via APIs. That requires deeper technical knowledge, though.
In addition to BigCommerce, Magento and Shopify offer that functionality, but because Magento is far too big an overhead and Shopify only offers it with the ShopifyPlus subscription, BigCommerce is the best platform for headless commerce.
If Magento is known for one thing it’s the scope of its functions. With it, you can build anything you want. It’s technical, but if you know about bits and bytes, you can build powerful stores with the open-source solution.
It’s possible to set Magento as the back-end and connect it to another front-end for headless commerce. If you are not satisfied with the design of Magento’s themes or its bad interface of Magento, but you want to use its features, you can ask a developer for that setup. Note, though, that it can quickly get expensive.
It doesn’t make sense to list all of Magento’s features because there are just too many. That said, it’s a fact that the open-source solution offers the most features and is incredibly customizable. No matter what you want to build, you can do it with Magento.
Every penny counts, especially at the beginning of your business. That’s why we reviewed the platforms in terms of cost. We not only paid attention to the acquisition cost, but also the running costs, the price per transaction and hidden additional costs.
WooCommerce is free. The only thing you need is a hosting service running WordPress. You can rent a server for as little as $3.95 at, say, SiteGround (read our SiteGround Review) and install WordPress there.
Another advantage is that WooCommerce doesn’t charge processing fees for orders like Shopify and BigCommerce do. If you want to add advanced stuff to your WooCommerce shop, though, you’ll need to buy extensions that usually aren’t very affordable. In either case, if you’re a beginner or a small business owner, WooCommerce is the best choice for you.
Shopify doesn’t have a free plan, but it comes with a 14-day trial , which lets you test the platform. If you decide to go with it, you can choose between ShopifyPlus, Shopify’s enterprise service, or you can get “Basic Shopify” for $29 a month, “Shopify” for $79 per month or “Advanced Shopify” for $299 a month.
The plans differ in features but are basically the same. With the pricier ones, you get more detailed reports, a report builder for customized analytics and better discounts with suppliers.
That said, Shopify applies processing fees for incoming orders. If you use an alternative payment provider, which is basically everything except Shopify Pay, Shopify charges 2 percent on the entire order. If the order is paid by credit card, there will be an additional charge depending on the plan. That varies between 2.4 and 2.9 percent.
If you get a larger plan, you’ll pay a higher monthly fee for Shopify but enjoy smaller fees per transaction. That option makes sense, especially for bigger companies with a lot of orders. The best way to bypass fees is to use Shopify’s payment gateway Shopify Pay.
BigCommerce comes with a 15-day trial and three plans to choose from. Its prices are the same as Shopify’s. The cheapest plan, “BigCommerce Standard,” costs $29 a month and “BigCommerce Plus” is $79 a month.
BigCommerce is cheaper when you take the biggest plan, “BigCommerce Pro.” It’s $249.95 a month, which is $50 cheaper than Shopify’s equivalent “Advanced Shopify” plan.
In its price tables, BigCommerce advertises that it doesn’t charge transaction fees, which isn’t entirely true. After digging deeper, we discovered it’s only true if you use the payment gateway offered by BigCommerce. The bottom line is the same as with Shopify.
If you offer credit card payment, the transaction fee is 2.9 percent for the smallest plan and 2.2 percent for the largest plan. That said, it’s not quite true that there are no processing fees.
Another special thing about BigCommerce is that the plans are based on the total turnover of your store. As soon as your store generates more than $50.000 a year, you must switch to at least BigCommerce Plus.
Volusion hardly differs in price from the previous ecommerce platforms. With it, you can choose between the following plans:
- Personal – up to $50,000 in sales a year – costs $29 a month.
- Professional – up to $100,000 in sales a year – costs $79 a month.
- Business – Up to $500,000 in sales a year – costs $299 a month.
If you earn more than $500.000 per year with your ecommerce shop, Volusion will offer you a custom plan.
Probably the biggest thing about Volusion is that the plans vary a lot in their functionality and the number of products can sell online. With the cheapest plan, for example, you can only put 100 products online and the ratings and review functions aren’t available.
The biggest disadvantage is that you can only offer PayPal and other payment methods if you go with the Business plan, which is $299 a month.
Magento Community Edition is open source and free, but as with WooCommerce, you have to be able to set up the hosting yourself. Magento is also complicated and not user-friendly.
It requires a lot of technical know-how, which can lead to additional costs for non-tech people because you’ll have to hire developers for most changes to your store.
There are two versions besides the free one. If your business continues to grow, you can upgrade to Magento Enterprise Edition, which carries an $18,000 annual fee.
There’s also the Magento EE Cloud version, where you can rent a Magento instance with hosting already set up. At $2,000 a year, it’s much cheaper, and you can save yourself all the installation work.
Ease of Use
In this section, we’re going to look at how easy it is to set up a shop with the respective ecommerce platform. We’ll focus on customizing templates and websites, the onboarding process and product management.
If you already have a WordPress website, WooCommerce can be set up in no time. If not, you need to install WordPress before you can continue with WooCommerce.
The ecommerce platform is structured and operated like WordPress because it’s using it as a base. If you can handle WordPress, you won’t have problems with WooCommerce.
Products can be added easily, payment providers can be set up with just a few clicks and, with the corresponding WordPress plugins, such as Elementor, even less technically skilled people can build beautiful websites that convert potential customers into customers.
Let’s put it this way: if you use Magento willingly, it’s not too difficult for you to deal with its unusual way of operating. All in all, the interface looks crowded and needs getting used to.
In addition, setting up Magento takes time because you have to install the open-source platform on a server first, at least if you don’t use the Magento cloud.
Shopify’s onboarding process is simple. Because it’s a hosted ecommerce platform, there’ no need to install anything.
You can sign up for a free trial and get started right away. The most important functions are explained in straightforward tutorials and the shop front, i.e. the design, is set up in no time. Domains can be integrated with a few clicks and you can edit hundreds of products in bulk.
With the clear template editor, the pages and the appearance of your shop can easily be adjusted and changed.
Because BigCommerce is also an SaaS solution, installation and technical configuration aren’t necessary. After logging in, you can use BigCommerce. You’ll always land on “Home” menu, which is the control panel for your store, where you can access the most important statistics for your store as well as some features.
If you look at BigCommerce’s navigation, you’ll notice that BigCommerce is also easy to use, but it’s functionally more overwhelming than Shopify.
Like BigCommerce and Shopify, Volusion has a simple onboarding process. After logging in, you’ll be sent to the dashboard, which acts as your command center. From there, you can navigate through all the work on your store and access the most important functions.
As an entrepreneur, you don’t want to stay small. You want to scale your online business, so scalability is an important criterion when choosing the right ecommerce platform.
In this section, we’ll go over how scalable each software solution is. That includes the prices and transaction fees, the automation options for the most important ecommerce tasks and how well the platforms can handle large product portfolios.
Shopify does quite a good job when it comes to scalability. Depending on the size of your product portfolio, you can select the appropriate theme in the Shopify Theme Store. It even offers four or five free themes for large product portfolios.
Depending on how far you want to go, you can upgrade your plan to ShopifyPlus. That makes sense because not only will you save a lot on transaction costs, but you’ll also get many additional features, such as Shopify Flow.
Shopify Flow is a workflow engine that lets you automate processes in your ecommerce store. With it, you can automate monotonous tasks, such as segmenting customers, assigning customers to the right marketing campaign and customizing automated responses. That gives you time to expand your business and work on more strategic tasks.
Even without upgrading to ShopifyPlus, Shopify offers decent automation options. For example, order processing is largely automated. With the right apps, such as Oberlo, you can complete orders with just two clicks.
On top of that, Shopify offers tons of integrations. You can synchronize it with Xero (read our Xero Review) to transfer the orders you receive in your Shopify store directly to your accounting software.
Like Shopify, Volusion offers free themes. That said, most aren’t suitable for large product portfolios.
Besides, if you take a look at Volusion’s plans, you’ll notice that they limit your assortment size. With the smallest fare, you can upload 100 products with Volusion. The automated bulk import/export function for products isn’t available with that plan.
If you want to scale your store, one of Volusion’s interesting features is the batch order processing function. If you get a lot of orders, which is the goal of a successful ecommerce business, the feature does a lot of the manual work for you.
It allows you to automate order fulfillment and process multiple orders in a batch. You can accept payments for many orders at the same time, print invoices and much more. It’s a quite useful tool if you don’t want to waste a lot of time on manual work.
That said, the batch order processing feature is only available with the Business plan, which will run you $299 a month.
If Magento is designed for anything, it’s probably scaling and large product catalogs. With it, you can offer thousands and hundreds of thousands of products, with no transaction costs, and most designs are made for large product catalogs.
The fact that it’s open source led to many developers specializing in it. That means there are many good Magento developers that you can hire for a good price if you need to change something, which is ideal when you want to scale your business and suddenly face a challenge.
Plus, Magento provides a well-documented guide that you can use to optimize your Magento store on a technical level. Technical optimizations are important because you need to prepare your website for high web traffic and thousands of orders.
You must take to heart and consider the general shop performance, and that of many other aspects of your store, if you want to scale your business because a shop that’s not technically flawless sells nothing.
Magento also lets you automate many processes, but as with so many things in the ecommerce platform, it’s not easy to implement without technical know-how. Many tasks can be solved with extensions, but they can quickly cost a few hundred bucks.
Because of its incredible variety of functions, flexibility and scalability, Magento is by far the best ecommerce platform for enterprises.
Whether you’re into affiliate marketing, loyalty programs or other marketing activities, BigCommerce has you covered. The SaaS provider offers many ways to get your marketing automation up to speed.
In terms of technical scalability, your hands are tied when it comes to SaaS. That said, we don’t necessarily see this as a disadvantage because the people at BigCommerce are professionals. They know how to build scalable solutions. The likelihood that something will go wrong is higher if you do it yourself.
In addition, BigCommerce provides unlimited bandwidth, products to create and file storage, regardless of the plan you use. Those are perfect conditions to take your company to the next level.
WooCommerce claims it has no restrictions regarding product and transaction volume. Because it’s not a SaaS, how scalable your shop is will depend on your technical setup. The scalability varies based on how you set up your WordPress instance, which plugins you have installed and how many. That’s why we can’t say how scalable WooCommerce is.
What we can note, though, is that WooCommerce is customizable because the software is based on WordPress. That also helps with the automation of all processes.
Especially when it comes to marketing automation, WooCommerce is convincing. Simply install the extension AutomateWoo and the rest will be a formality.
Search engine optimization is the most common way to route organic traffic to your online shop. At the start, it may not make sense for an ecommerce business, but in the long run, you should pay attention to your Google ranking.
In this section, we’ve approached the most important points from an SEO perspective, such as the adaptability of meta descriptions, headlines, URL structure and many other things.
Because SEO without content marketing makes about as much sense as a sandbox in the desert, we also checked the blog function of each provider.
Given that WooCommerce uses WordPress as its foundation, it’s by far the best ecommerce platforms for SEO. Accordingly, the permalink structure, headlines and meta descriptions are customizable. Because of WordPress, the blog functionality is available to a pronounced extent.
Most themes in BigCommerce follow the so-called “stencil theme framework.” This means all themes offered for download at BigCommerce must comply with a certain standard. That way, BigCommerce can ensure that the themes are, among other things, SEO-optimized.
The permalink structure, as well as headlines, meta descriptions, tags and meta keywords, can be changed and optimized on all BigCommerce pages. BigCommerce also scores with a built-in blog that you can set up in a few seconds.
Magento comes with an SEO-friendly setup by default. If you want to take it further, Magento is the right platform for you. The open-source ecommerce platform convinces above all in its adaptability. The only downside is that you often have to get into the code to optimize your Magento store for SEO.
Plus, Magento doesn’t come with blog functionality by default. That can be installed and set up as a widget, though.
Shopify is great in many ways, and SEO is one of them. You can customize headlines, the domain integration works flawlessly and the meta descriptions can be changed. The SaaS platform comes with a good SEO setup and integrated blog functionality.
That said, it also has its problems. For example, you can’t change the URL structure. There are work-arounds, but they’re not easy to implement, and with a store with hundreds of product pages, things quickly get tedious.
If you’re familiar with SEO, you know the URL structure of your store is important for your ranking. The problem with Shopify is that the following URL components are fixed and can’t be changed without work-arounds:
- /products/ for products.
- /categories/ for categories.
- /pages/ for pages.
Running an ecommerce business is hard. You’ll often encounter difficulties and problems, technical or not. That’s why we tested the support of the respective providers too.
We looked at how friendly, helpful and fast the support of each provider was. We also checked the contact options because live chat can be life-saving, especially if you have issues you need to fix quickly. Self-service options, such as a well-documented knowledgebase, were also included in our evaluation.
Because Magento is an open-source platform, the code is freely available on the internet. Accordingly, the community around the technology is strong and active, and the documentation is detailed. The developer docs are especially helpful.
If you still need to contact support because you have an advanced problem, you can contact Magento directly. We didn’t find email support, but after you’ve created a Magento account and logged in to the website, you can create a support ticket and submit it.
Shopify offers a well-documented knowledgebase. Some would even say that its document landscape is over-documented. You’ll find a lot of information about beginner problems, but for someone who’s looking for a quick answer to a more advanced problem, it can be quite frustrating to read your way through the documents.
There’s also an active community. If you don’t find anything in the Shopify documentation, you can search for answers in the forums.
If you still need to contact Shopify, you can send an email. Support is available 24/7 by email, regardless of the plan you purchased. Unfortunately, there’s no live chat.
WooCommerce’s knowledgebase, well, exists. It’s not as good as Shopify’s or Magento’s, but it’s still good. Because WooCommerce is a free platform, there are no differences in the support level from plan to plan.
The community is closely linked to the WordPress community, so you can expect active and helpful forums.
You can contact WooCommerce support by email, but it has fixed operating hours and isn’t available 24/7. WooCommerce support replies within 24 hours of receiving your request. Unfortunately, like Shopify, it doesn’t offer live chat.
BigCommerce was able to convince us in terms of support. We particularly liked the knowledgebase, which is neatly structured and documented. Everybody should be able to find their way.
This ecommerce platform gets more points because it doesn’t distinguish between plans. No matter which plan you’ve purchased, you’ll be treated the same. The only difference in support can be found in custom plans. People with those get preferential treatment and their support requests are processed faster.
For all others, there’s 24/7 live agent support by default. You can find support easily. You go to “help center,” and there you’ll see a “contact” button next to your login. As soon as you click it, you’ll get the contact options, which look like the following:
In addition, we find it remarkable that BigCommerce has a live chat function. The only drawback is that you need a support pin, which you have to enter before you can contact support.
The support you receive from Volusion will differ depending on the plan you purchased. Below are the support levels for each plan:
- Personal – online support only.
- Professional – online and phone support.
- Business – priority support.
- Custom – VIP support.
The self-service area of Volusion is well-structured and you’ll quickly find your way around. Everybody will find the help they need. Volusion’s articles are detailed and worth reading. The developer section is also sufficiently described.
If that’s not enough, you can use Volusion’s support, but that’s not as easy as you might think.
At first glance, it looks like Volusion has live chat, but if you click the chat button in the bottom right corner, you will see the following:
The pseudo-live chat is nothing more than a convenient way to write an email. Plus, it’s the only way to contact support. We couldn’t find a support email.
The bottom line is that there is no such thing as “the best ecommerce platform.” Each has its strengths and weaknesses and has been designed for different use cases. Though drop-shipping is more for Shopify, technically skilled developers may prefer Magento or WooCommerce.
Depending on your business model, strategy and budget, you’ll have to decide which of the five platforms you’ll choose for your online business. Check out our online shopping statistics piece for some insight into what’s important to customers.
Do you have experience with any of the above platforms? Have we forgotten your favorite? Please let us know in the comments, and thank you for reading.
Best Ecommerce Platforms FAQs
What Is the Best Ecommerce Platform?
As is often the case with software, there’s no silver bullet that solves all of your problems. Every platform has its strengths and weaknesses. The best ecommerce platform for you depends on many things, such as your budget, the business model for your store and your technical prowess.
What Is the Best Ecommerce Platform for a Small Business?
If you’re tight on cash, it makes sense to bet on WooCommerce, but without extensions.
Which Ecommerce Platform Should I Use?
A good rule of thumb is to use the ecommerce platform that fits your business model best. After all, you don’t want your business strategy to change just because of the technology you use.