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If you want to sell online but don’t know where to start, this article is for you. We’ll walk you through some big benefits and pitfalls of creating and running your own web store, and give you a head start on the road to digital entrepreneurship.

E-commerce is a big business, and it’s one you can get into easily. You’re embarking on a big challenge, and the software can either help or hurt. Which it does depends on your budget, needs, and skills — so stock up on information here first.

Shopping Around for the Solution

We’re going to look at five different web stores: Shopify, Magento, WooCommerce, OpenCart, and BigCommerce. Between these options you’ll find there are some traits that overlap, with many aspects being alike, while in some ways the products are very different. Web stores are not different from other products: not all are created equal, and careful comparison shopping beforehand will pay dividends down the road. But which factors matter?

The answer will be based on your needs. For example, if you don’t need to drop-ship, then you don’t need a platform that supports it. At least in the beginning, you may not need to take advantage of all the features of these web store creation tools, but you’ll want a solid understanding of what the software is capable of doing down the road. This article is dedicated to looking at these web stores from an operational and technical perspective, not a sales one, but you can get help with the basics of selling in this previous article 5 Essential eCommerce Tips for 2014 5 Essential eCommerce Tips for 2014 We all know that the old SEO tricks don't work anymore, so is all hope lost for eCommerce? Nope! Here are 5 actionable steps you can take. Read More .

In our comparison, we found each web store has slightly different uses in mind that inform its design. Within the five we’ve chosen, you can find options everywhere from the simple and inflexible to the elaborate and infinitely customizable within five categories that matter to your success with the software:

  1. Costs and Pricing Models
  2. Flexibility
  3. Ease of Use
  4. Customer Experience
  5. Support and Troubleshooting

1. Shopify

Let’s begin with the obvious: you’re reading an English-language website popular among clever technology enthusiasts. You’re in the heart of Shopify territory and you should lend it serious consideration for your web store. Shopify was created to meet the need for a no-headache web store for an entry-level user, not a dedicated professional. It’s so user friendly you can even integrate it with Facebook Use Shopify To Transform Your Facebook Page Into An Online Store [Weekly Facebook Tips] Use Shopify To Transform Your Facebook Page Into An Online Store [Weekly Facebook Tips] Businesses of all sorts come to Facebook to promote their wares and connect with fans. But if you're actually in the business of selling goods, did you know you can sell via Facebook directly? Read More .

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Cost

One area in which Shopify holds a clear advantage: its pricing is upfront and readable. It’s also competitive and delivers services that meet or exceed what others do, like BigCommerce, for about the same amount, although the basic plan is limited to 25 products. If you use Shopify Payments, there are no transaction fees.

Flexibility

Simple and hassle-free comes at the cost of flexibility: it’s not capable of mixing and matching different chunks of content and layout the way a WooCommerce shop is. Likewise, there are some limitations to international selling: there’s no multi-currency support, and multiple languages are not well supported.

In order to make up for these gaps, you could use apps. These are addons which provide extra functionality to your ship, although not all are of the same quality.

Ease of Use

The simplicity of Shopify creates a fool proof basic set up: its limitations, like those above, are the guardrails of your web store experience. They work to keep the user from making complex technical decisions and don’t invite complications the same way that fully customizable platforms do. Shopify also doesn’t put complex management strategies into play: this is very much a high-touch web store, but one that doesn’t bring you into technical territory.

Customer Experience

This is consistent among Shopify customers: the experience just works. What it’s not: a content-rich catalog with many ways of organizing, delivering, and filtering products. There’s also a bit of deja vu when using Shopify sites since the ability to customize is limited.

Support and Troubleshooting

One area where Shopify shines: it has support available via different routes. You have live support, a ticketing system that functions by email, and a well used forum.

Rating: 4.5/5

2. Magento

Magento makes it possible to have the precise web store that you want. With time, energy, and patience, you can have it working in almost any way you like. Magento is not considered to be an easy piece of software to learn, but I’ve included it here because it’s generally well-regarded for complex projects.

Costs

Magento has a free community edition. If you’re of the mindset that the right strategy is to entirely own and administer your content while keeping recurrent costs low, then Magento will help you do that.

There are no transaction fees, like in Shopify, but you’ll find that the incumbent costs of hosting are not insignificant in time or money The Best Web Hosting Services The Best Web Hosting Services Are you looking for the best web hosting services for your needs? Whether you need a place to host your small personal blog, or a major corporate website, this list is for you. Read More .

Flexibility

Magento wins in this cetegory. It’s built with flexibility in mind, and that delivers more options for customization, scalability, and search-friendliness. In order to make full use of it, however, you’ll need some skill with PHP. Because of this, Magento is similar to WooCommerce and OpenCart.

Ease of Use

Magento’s backend is not as user-friendly as some of its competitors. Starting with installation, it can be a little difficult to get it up and running. Fortunately, many hosting providers include a utility like CPanel or Plesk, which will automate the nitty-gritty of the installation procedure. You can also use Docker to test this and other self-adminsitered server-side applications How to Safely Test Desktop Applications in a Secure Container With Docker How to Safely Test Desktop Applications in a Secure Container With Docker Docker is a popular platform for developing and testing server-based applications. But did you know you can also use it to safely and secure run new programs on your desktop? Read More .

Every install of Magento comes stocked with a functioning demonstration store — and you’ll find that invaluable as you work your way around the system. Magento’s Content Management System can be difficult to work with, but it offers you plenty of options and is WordPress-like in its flexibility.

Customer Experience

You’ve heard of Coca-Cola, Helly Hansen, Huawei, and North Face. They all use Magento’s top-tier offering, and they’re good examples of what the technology can provide at its height. Can you achieve such results with the free edition? In time, and if your perspective is that the easiest way to do something is to do it correctly the first time, you’ll be in paradise. Magento is also very friendly to international ecommerce, with built in support that anticipates your users won’t be only in a handful of countries.

Support and Troubleshooting

The Community Edition will leave users reliant on forums and documentation only, a big drawback for many users who may become frustrated at the complexity of the platform. That said, its community has accomplished a lot together, and the relationship between the community use case and the enterprise one bears some comparison to Fedora versus Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The Enterprise Edition, at $15,000 per annum, is professionally supported by Magento themselves.

Rating: 4/5

3. WooCommerce

A free plugin for my WordPress site that promises all the features of a fully-fledged web store? Yes… and no. For many reasons, WooCommerce is actually one of the weaker entries on this list. It has great penetration into the market because about a third of all websites run on its parent platform, WordPress What Is The Best E-Commerce Plugin For WordPress? What Is The Best E-Commerce Plugin For WordPress? So I often hear the question: "what's the best eCommerce plugin for Wordpress?" I think it's only in the last year or so that a clear answer has emerged. Read More .

Cost

WooCommerce is free, in its most basic form. You’ll find two things to be true almost instantly: you simply cannot deploy a functioning web store for $0 because you need to pay a payment processor transaction fees (as with Magento), and many functions essential to modern e-commerce, like drop-shipping, are contained in a separate extensions. Some of these were made by WC core developers Automattic, available at a hefty yearly license fee of $79 and up.

You’d be well advised to look through their catalog to see which functions are split into separate extensions.

Flexibility

WooCommerce inherits the WordPress ecosystem’s flexibility, as it is itself a plugin, and this presents the user with possibilities and burdens. You can install a plethora of extensions and plugins that promise beautiful results, but should you? Since you are in the WP ecosystem, the same warnings that hold true there do here: not all themes, extensions, and plugins play nicely together. You can almost anticipate, if you take the approach of making heavy use of third party plugins, that they won’t work well in concert on the first try.

Ease of Use

WooCommerce is complex and not altogether straightforward. It is far less friendly to the beginner than Shopify. To make a long story short: if you are extremely comfortable with WordPress, WooCommerce may be to your liking. If not, you’ll want to carefully consider whether to freight yourself with having to learn WordPress and WooCommerce at once.

Customer Experience

The experience of the customer is highly variable here because it depends on the WordPress theme that you use. Free themes exist, but you may want to pay for a more sophisticated theme, and certainly for support. One free theme that is worthwhile: Automattic’s own Storefront makes it simple to create a functioning catalog and shopping cart web store. This puts it on par with Shopify.

Support and Troubleshooting

First off, no telephone support is available at any level. And while there is a forum, it is limited to the the type that accompanies a plugin entry in WordPress.org. There’s a ticketing system that suggests, actively and forcefully, that you read the manual beforehand. Unfortunately, many of the documents there are regarded as not very helpful by the users. (For example, this one covers an aspect of the shipping features which is difficult to make use of, and of the 442 users who rated it, 272 — or just about 62 percent — found it unhelpful.)

Rating: 3.5/5

4. OpenCart

OpenCart is the oldest member of the list, having released a version (0.3) all the way back in 2006. Like Magento and WooCommerce, OpenCart requires you to do the hosting and technical administration yourself.

Cost

Free to download. You may have to spend a significant amount on extensions, like WooCommerce.

Flexibility

Since it is open source software What Is Open Source Software? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is Open Source Software? [MakeUseOf Explains] "Open source" is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days. You may know that certain things are open source, like Linux and Android, but do you know what it entails? What is open... Read More , it’s permissible to modify it whichever way you want. However, with each subsequent modification, your installation becomes more and more complex. It does have tens of thousands of extensions available.

Ease of Use

OpenCart offers a freely accessible demo. While there appear to be many divisions and pages, it’s not straightforward to accomplish a task as simple and fundamental as adding a product. Significantly, it has some payment gateways built in.

Customer Experience

OpenCart’s codebase may suffer from declining performance relative to the newcomers. The absence of many features in the free core and the difficulties in customizing the platform may lead to an underwhelming experience on the front-end.

Support and Troubleshooting

OpenCart has well-populated forums and documentation. Support is available for the core, by its developers, on a per-issue or monthly basis ($99).

Rating: 3/5

5. Big Commerce

BigCommerce is another hosted platform, and comparable to Shopify.

Cost

Plans start at $29.95 per month. There are no transaction fees, as there are with some of Shopify’s payment processors. In a high volume of transactions, this could make a difference.

Flexibility

BigCommerce includes more tools in its core (that are covered under its monthly fee), but has fewer apps available to offer extensibility. It is perhaps less scalable than Shopify, and has fewer expert developers working with its platform.

Ease of Use

BigCommerce has tools that manage your web store with sophistication. It has advanced features for inventory management, marketing, conversion optimization, and shipping. Because these tools are available at all tiers and without having to purchase an app, BigCommerce is attractive in this respect.

Customer Experience

One area that BigCommerce has made recent strides is in design. It was one of the significant advantages that Shopify shipped with: a sense of good aesthetics. With recent improvements, BigCommerce delivers a comparable customer experience, so there’s no clear winner between those two — but BigCommerce’s themes are a cut above most everyone else’s.

Support and Troubleshooting

All channels, 24/7. Their support page also makes it clear whether there are system-wide issues. Viewing the status of any support request is easy.

Rating: 4/5

Conclusions

Shopify is certainly attractive because of its low-barrier approach to entry, and scales up to meet the needs and standards of companies like Google. Magento is a developer’s web store, and can be made to do almost anything. WooCommerce is well-understood and has the advantage of WordPress’s popularity. OpenCart is somewhere in the middle of customizable and accessible, and suitable for a small to medium-sized business. BigCommerce thinks like a retailer would, while offering up some SaaS advantages, and feels like a professional’s tool at any level.

Go get selling! Are there any options we didn’t get to? We’d love to hear back from you and we’ll do our best to point you toward an answer.

Image Credits: alphaspirit/Shutterstock

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  1. Doc
    March 1, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    FYI, BigCommerce is built on top of the open-source version of Magento, which is coincidentally owned by eBay. (Disclosure: I maintain stores built on both).

  2. anis
    February 28, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    In my humble opinion, Prestashop should also be in the list.

    • Rodrigo Mehren
      February 28, 2017 at 6:48 pm

      Thanks for that feedback. I did consider it, and if it were the "The Six Best..." then I think it would have made the list.