A field guide to eCommerce & selling online – Part 1

20 Jun A field guide to eCommerce & selling online – Part 1

platform_choices

Growing up in Cornwall I always remember how hard it was to get “stuff”. We had our little city and a collection of town centres but aside from the wares of Argos, Woolworths and WH Smiths, you’d struggle to find that particular pair of trainers or those new colour changing T-shirts that were on Newsround last night. I would have to wait for one of the bi-annual visits to neighbouring Plymouth to satisfy my shopping desires. This is a story, I imagine, was repeated across much of the UK.

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This all changed at some point in the mid nineties when a little website starting selling books online: Amazon.com signalled the birth of ecommerce as we know it today. Over the coming years we became more and more accustomed to ordering products from websites, we began to trust online retailers with our credit card numbers and today, we have access to a staggeringly large catalogue of consumer goods through ecommerce websites.

The UK now has the most successful ecommerce market in the world. Although a smaller market than the US, China or Japan, we spend more online, per person than any other country in the world. Last year we spent a whopping 38.83 billion pounds online, an increase of 16.8% on 2012. This figure is expected to reach £44.97 billion in 2014.

When looking at those numbers, you won’t be shocked to learn that we build a lot of online stores here at DWM.  Over the years we’ve learned a thing or two about successful eCommerce sites and this guide is intended to help you ensure that your online store is as successful as it can be.

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Choosing an eCommerce platform

Choosing your platform will probably be the most important decision you make when setting up your online store. At the risk of over-simplifying, you have three choices here and each has its own merits and problems.

  • Subscription based, Shopify, Big Commerce, EKM Powershop etc.
  • Off-the-shelf, Magento, Opencart, Prestashop etc.
  • Bespoke

The first option is relatively easy to set up but carries with it a fairly high on-going monthly expense. Many of these “software-as-service” style platforms also take commission from everything you sell. You may soon find that this starts eating into your margins with Shopify taking between 1% & 2%.

Both off-the-shelf and bespoke platforms will need to be hosted by you. Your developers will probably be able to arrange this for you but it does carry an annual expense. If you do some quick sums, you will find that this works out considerably lower than a years worth of subscription charges of the likes of Shopify and there will be no commission to pay out to third parties.

If you have decided to go the self-hosted route your next big decision is whether to choose an off-the-shelf platform like Magento or to commission a bespoke platform specifically for your business.

Off-the-shelf

Pros

  • Often lower initial setup costs – A lot of off-the-shelf systems have free, open source versions available. You can’t argue at the price but you will still have to pay a developer to deploy it for you unless you are particularly technically inclined.
  • No monthly fees or commission – Once you have built the site and paid your annual hosting charges, there are no extra monthly fees or commission to pay.
  • Tried and tested – There is no disputing that many of these platforms are very well adopted and currently support some very successful stores.
  • SEO optimised – Most modern ecommerce systems make it easy for you to add meta descriptions and titles to your pages. They also have logical structures that meet many of Google’s current requirements to rank well in searches.
  • Large development team – Off-the-shelf platforms are supported by large development teams. In the case of open source platforms, there are thousands of developers contributing regularly.

Cons

  • Customisation – Unfortunately off-the-shelf platforms have limited customisation options. A good development agency may be able to help customise your shop to some extent but shops based on the same platform will often feel very similar.
  • On-going development – The codebases for some of the most popular off-the-shelf platforms are very unforgiving. This means that customisations and new features are slow, and therefore expensive, to implement.
  • Performance – It seems to be a universal trend in off-the-shelf platforms, to add as many features and reports as possible. The databases that support these sites have hundreds of tables often leading to poor performance for the end user. Remember, page load times are massively important, not only for your customers but also for SEO.
  • Security – Widely adopted systems with open source development inevitably get targeted by the more nefarious internet users. Exploits are common and sometimes slow to be fixed. Popular platforms will often be targeted by automated attacks that scan the Internet for vulnerable websites.
  • Slower Development – With off-the-shelf systems you are at the mercy of the lead developers when it comes to updates and fixes. You may find yourself waiting months or even years for a particular feature to be added to your ecommerce platform.

 

Bespoke

Pros

  • Built for your business – Bespoke ecommerce platforms will be engineered from the ground up to support your individual business needs. Every feature will be relevant to your particular business.
  • Individuality – Having a bespoke platform built means your customers are less like to get an attack of deja vu while browsing your products. Each element of your store, from the homepage to the checkout page, will be tailored to your businesses own personality and style.
  • Performance – Bespoke ecommerce sites are usually much faster that off-the-shelf sites. The database will have been designed only to store the information you require.
  • Faster development – Having a good development team behind you working on your own bespoke platform leads to much faster development. New features can be added in a matter of days rather than needing to wait months for the next version release.
  • Flexibility – Businesses change and grow all the time. You may find your business out-growing an off-the-shelf platform whereas a bespoke platform can evolve and change with you.
  • Security – Bespoke systems are much less prone to attack and automated tools rarely target them. Should any new security concerns come to light, fixes can be more rapidly deployed to a bespoke system.
  • Ownership – Your bespoke ecommerce store will belong to you. You will have control over the development, what features it includes and the user experience of your customers.
  • SEO optimised – As with most modern development, a bespoke system will be built with current SEO best practice in mind.

Cons

  • Can have higher initial setup costs – Setup costs for a bespoke ecommerce store can be higher than some off-the-shelf solutions.
  • Needs a good on-going relationship with developers – You will need a good team of developers behind your project. Check their previous work and always ask for references.

Conclusion

No ecommerce platform will be right for every situation. It is important to take your time when deciding which will best support your business today and in the future as it grows and evolves. Find some good development agencies with a proven track record in delivering successful ecommerce websites and ask them for advice. Making the right choice now could save your business a lot of expense in the long run.

In part 2 of this series we will be looking at some important considerations when planning the content for your store.



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