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What is an eCommerce platform?

Find out the basic elements that make up an eCommerce platform.
An eCommerce platform on a laptop, with a person browsing online.

When starting out on your eCommerce journey, one of the bigger decisions you’ll make is choosing an eCommerce platform.

There is plenty to consider when it comes to identifying the right eCommerce platform. The great news is that eCommerce platforms such as Shopify and BigCommerce allow freedoms and capabilities that didn’t exist even just a few years ago.

You don’t need to be tech smart to run these platforms and you don’t need a tech team. And, even if you are a large organisation, you can still run all of your eCommerce through these cloud-based eCommerce platforms.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is an eCommerce platform?

An eCommerce platform is a software application that allows you to set up an online store and sell online. Everything you need is already integrated into an eCommerce platform including a storefront design, the ability to process online purchases and payments, manage stock, catalogue products and customer orders, process payments, manage marketing, product information, sales and operations – all in one platform.

eCommerce platforms like BigCommerce, WooCommerce and Shopify offer great eCommerce features. They also integrate with other common business functions such as accounting, order management, stock/inventory management and customer service.

With modern eCommerce platforms, you can upgrade your online store with third-party extensions or applications from eCommerce platform ‘stores’ or app marketplaces (more on this later).

You may often see the words ‘shopping cart’ or ‘shopping cart software’: these are much more limited functionality eCommerce technologies. They can only be used to create and manage online stores. They do not offer all the wider functionality required to operate an online store end to end. Not recommended – you are going to be such a huge success so fast that you will outgrow them!

Whether you are a brand-new eCommerce business, a well-established business or a retail outlet going online, there are only two alternatives to build your eCommerce platform:

  1. Customisable platforms: platforms such Magento or WooCommerce are highly customisable and can create unique, differentiated brand experiences. These are referred to as ‘self-hosted’. They require some level of capability to build and host the site online. However, comparing the two is a little unfair. WooCommerce is typically used by small business as WooCommerce works as a WordPress plugin (WordPress is the most popular way to create your own website or blog on the internet) and is free to use. The open-source Magento is free to download too, but you need to be a developer to use it. The professional version of Magento with lots of functionality is expensive – prices starting from $22,000 per year!
  2. Cloud-based eCommerce platforms: cloud-based eCommerce platforms – sometimes called SAAS (software as a service) platforms – provide a package including all the functionality required for eCommerce with lots of ‘out-of-the-box’ features and functionality and packages, with hosting, tools, processing, and design all wrapped into a neat plan or monthly fee. You can be up and running in a very short period of time. The two best known are BigCommerce and Shopify, which include all the tasks that come with managing your own eCommerce store.

What’s in an eCommerce platform? This is where it can get confusing! If you are choosing a customisable eCommerce platform like Magento, you may have to build much of the functionality yourself. If you choose a cloud-based platform like Shopify, you will get much of the functionality required already built in – but will need to add what are called ‘plug-ins’ or applications to ensure you have all the functionality you need.

The most important eCommerce platform features are:

  • Online purchasing capability: the ability to look through a catalogue of products online, select one and make a purchase.
  • Payment processing: payment options including credit/debit card acceptance and fraud mechanisms.
  • Mobile-optimised: the store automatically works across all mobile devices.
  • Location recognition
  • Product/catalogue management
  • Stock/inventory management
  • Shipping options
  • Marketing functions, such as product pages, search engine optimisation, discount coupons and percentage off capabilities.
  • Individual product pages where shoppers can examine the product on offer.
  • Site analytics

Cloud-based (SAAS) platforms include all of the above, but also:

  • Fast time to market – you can go live in a very short period of time – less than an hour – as everything is included.
  • All store functionality is automatically updated.
  • Security compliance is included.
  • Uptime – all the hosting, site domain name and bandwidth are managed by the platform so there’s no need to worry about the site going down.
  • Store design layout themes already available, with lots to choose from.
  • Extensive applications, a plug-in marketplace or app store full of pre-built integrations to grow the store.
  • Integrations to back-office account systems and marketplaces like Amazon or eBay so there’s no need for a store owner to develop anything.

The next challenge is to know how to select the right eCommerce platform given the vast choice of platforms. That will be the topic of our next step.

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How to Get Started in eCommerce

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