If you’re starting a new business, or working on improving an old business, using the best eCommerce platform is ideal. With dozens of popular choices to choose from nowadays, it can be overwhelming comparing all the features and pricing. Well, good news! We’ve done all the grunt work for you.
We’ve signed up for, and thoroughly tested the top eCommerce platforms in order to determine which ones are the best for various types of businesses. This list is continuously updated too, so you always know you’re getting the most current information!
Let’s take a look at:
- The best free eCommerce platforms
- The best eCommerce platforms for startups
- The best overall eCommerce platform
The best free eCommerce platforms
If you’re bootstrapping a startup, chances are you don’t have a lot of spare cash laying around. You’ve got to be very stringent with the purchases you make, and getting the best bang-for-your-buck is the name of the game. Thankfully, when researching a eCommerce platform to use, there’s many “free” options (free is in quotes because they’re never entirely free, as you’ll learn when you read on …).
Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of a free eCommerce platform:
- They’re usually open-source, which means you (or a developer) can tinker with the code.
- You have more control over hosting options, plugins, and themes.
- Over the long-term, you’ll usually save money.
However, there’s also some drawbacks:
- The responsibility for server maintenance, software updates, and security updates rests solely on you.
- There’s no official support, other than online communities where fellow open-source users and developers can help each other.
Ok, now let’s review the choices you have for a free eCommerce platform:
OpenCart isn’t as popular yet as some of its competitors, but what it lacks in popularity, it more than makes up in ease-of-use. Not only is it simple to install, it’s simple to configure, and once your store is live, managing it is a breeze.
- Free to download and use
- Advanced user management (different privileges for different groups)
- Product attributes (size, color, weight, etc)
- Built-in Affiliate program
- Discounts, coupons, specials
- Automatic backups
- Ability to sell downloadable / digital products (like eBooks or software)
- Product reviews & ratings
- Rewards program (customers can earn points for purchases)
- Multi-currency (conversion rates are updated automatically) and tax handling
- Multi-lingual (available in more than 40 languages!)
- Integration with many payment gateways like PayPal, Authorize.net, and 2Checkout
- Recurring payments (subscriptions)
- Integration with all the popular shipping methods like FedEx, UPS, and USPS
- Comprehensive reporting
- Responsive on all devices and screen sizes (mobiles, tablets, PCs)
- Marketplace for 3rd-party extensions (currently offering over 13,000 themes and extensions)
Wow, that’s quite the list. As you can see, OpenCart has the capabilities to handle even the most demanding eCommerce business.
Luckily, you don’t need a super powerful server to run OpenCart. It’ll perform just fine on most cheap shared hosts.
They don’t specify the disk space, RAM, or CPU requirements, however we tested it on a $5/mo Digital Ocean server (1 GB RAM, 1 vCPU, 25 GB SSD) and it worked great.
You can use any operating system, as long as it supports:
- Web Server (Apache suggested)
- PHP 5.4+
- Database (MySQLi suggested)
After buying your domain, choosing a host, and setting up your server with Apache, PHP, and MySQL, all you have to do to install OpenCart is:
- Download a .zip file.
- Extract the .zip file’s contents.
- Upload the contents to your web server using FTP.
- Open your site’s URL in your browser and follow the auto-installer steps:
WooCommerce (running on WordPress)
WooCommerce is a plugin that runs on WordPress. If you haven’t heard of WordPress (you need to get out more often!), it’s the most popular website software in the world. In fact, approximately 30% of sites on the Internet run WordPress. That’s an incredible accomplishment for this software that started out as merely a blogging platform.
We personally find that OpenCart is the easiest free eCommerce platform to get your store up and running quickly, however WooCommerce has more customization capabilities. So you’ll have to weigh ease-of-use vs flexibility when making your decision.
Since WooCommerce is a plugin for the insanely-popular open-source software WordPress, it not only has its own features, but piggybacks on the numerous features of WordPress. Some of these include:
- Publishing capabilities. Industry-leading WYSIWYG tool for publishing content.
- User management. It’s easy to assign different roles to different users of your site. These include admins, editors, authors, and contributors.
- Themes. There’s literally thousands of both free and premium WordPress themes, so you can always find the perfect one for your website.
- Plugins. The WordPress plugin directory is probably the largest of its kind on the Internet. Whatever integration or functionality you can think of … there’s most likely a plugin for it!
Now let’s take a look at some of the WooCommerce-specific features:
- Blogging. Obviously, since WooCommerce is built on WordPress, it has incredible blogging capabilities. So it’s easy to complement your store with a blog.
- Embed products, checkout and more on any page. With “shortcodes” you can add your products to any type of page, including blog posts. You can also create landing pages that go straight to checkout.
- Categories, tags, and attributes. These help you classify products more granularly so customers can easily find what they’re looking for.
- Product reviews and ratings. Customer feedback is a breeze.
- Affiliate products. You can add products that are available on other sites with an affiliate link for customers to buy them.
- Shipping options. You can give customers the option of pickup, local delivery, or traditional shipping (USPS, Fedex, etc). You can also configure free shipping, a flat rate, or specific shipping rates per product.
- Guest checkout. If you want to make the checkout process pain-free, you can enable “guest checkout” so customers don’t even need to create an account.
- Email templates. It’s easy to customize all the various emails that customers receive (such as when they sign up, or make a purchase).
WooCommerce has more significant server requirements than OpenCart, so take note before choosing your host.
- PHP version 7.3 or greater
- MySQL version 5.6 or greater
- WordPress memory limit of 128 MB or greater
- HTTPS support
Thankfully, there’s a few hosts that WordPress has partnered with, that offer WordPress-optimized servers and also allow you to install WordPress with a single click. Here’s the list of these companies: https://wordpress.org/hosting/.
WooCommerce also has a list of recommended hosts: https://woocommerce.com/hosting-solutions/.
First, you’ll need to install WordPress. If your host doesn’t offer an easy, 1-click, install option, here’s the process to do it manually: https://codex.wordpress.org/Installing_WordPress#Famous_5-Minute_Installation.
The next step is installing the WooCommerce plugin:
- Log into your WordPress site.
- Go to: Plugins > Add New.
- Search for WooCommerce.
- Select “Install Now” when you see it’s by Automattic.
- Select “Activate Now” and you’re ready for the WooCommerce Wizard!
Finally, you’ll need to follow the WooCommerce Setup Wizard, which makes it easy to configure your new store:
Magento is a bit different than most open-source eCommerce platforms, as it’s owned by Adobe, so they really try to push their premium, paid software (called “Magento Commerce” over their open source option (called “Magento Open Source”).
However, Magento Open Source is still a great choice for your eCommerce store!
- Integrated checkout, payment, and shipping – you’re ready to sell products right away.
- Global selling – you can sell to any country worldwide!
- App Marketplace – it’s easy to extend functionality with thousands of available apps.
- Mobile optimized – your store will look great on any device.
- Catalog management – configurable (color, size, etc) bundled and grouped products. You can create different price points for different customer groups (like retailers vs wholesalers).
- Call center (phone) order creation – this is pretty neat as it makes it easy to accept orders over the phone.
- Customer service. Your customers can track their orders within their account. They’ll also be notified by email when their order status changes. A “contact us” form is also built-in.
- Reporting – includes: tax reports, abandoned shopping cart report, best viewed products report, and much more!
- Linux operating system (Magento isn’t supported on Windows or Mac)
- 2 GB of RAM minimum
- Apache 2.2+ (or nginx 1.0+)
- MySQL 5.6+
- PHP 7.2+
- Obtain a server that satisfies the minimum system requirements noted above.
- Then download the Magento Open Source archive file.
- Use a FTP tool to copy the downloaded file to your server.
- Extract the software from the archived file on the server.
- Set proper ownership and file permissions.
- Open your web browser, and enter the following URL:
http:// < Magento host or IP > / < path to Magento root > /setup
This will launch the Setup Wizard:
PrestaShop is not quite as easy-to-use as Shopify, but it’s also much less complicated than Magento. So if you’re looking for a platform that’s easy to setup, yet can handle complex configurations later on, it’s definitely worth consideration.
- A ton of Themes – they have a “marketplace” with almost 6000 themes to choose from.
- Product packs – you can easily create bundles of multiple products.
- Stock management – link suppliers and manufacturers directly to products.
- Shipping – setup geographical delivery zones with their own carriers.
- Google Map integration – if you have physical stores too, it’s easy to display them in Google Maps.
- Price rules – they provide lots of options to setup pricing based on attributes such as product dimensions, brands, and time-frames.
- Cross-selling – link products to one another to automatically suggest add-ons or products that complement each other to customers.
- Boost engagement – send customers an email containing their viewed products to encourage them to finish their order.
- Modules – they also have a “marketplace” for modules containing over 3000 of them. These modules cover everything from SEO to shipping & logistics, and even online chat with customers.
PrestaShop doesn’t ask for much. A pretty minimal server should suffice. These are the requirements for the latest version (1.7):
- Operating System – Linux or Windows
- Web Server – Apache 2.2+, Microsoft IIS 6.0+, nginx 1.0+
- PHP: 7.1+
- MySQL: 5.0+
After your server is provisioned and configured with the above minimum requirements (this typically requires a server admin), here’s what you need to do to get PrestaShop up and running:
- Download PrestaShop (you most likely want the latest release and not a development version).
- Extract the archived files locally.
- Upload the files to your web server using FTP/SFTP.
- Run the PrestaShop Installer tool in your browser: http://yourstoresdomain.com/prestashop/install (note that /prestashop/ is only required in the URL if you installed it into that sub-directory).
The best eCommerce platforms for startups
When you’re working on a startup, you’re likely cash-strapped and burning the candle at both ends. This means when looking for an eCommerce platform, you really care about two primary things:
- How quickly you can launch it
- How affordable it is
Let’s take a look at the best e-commerce platforms for startups. All these choices are both easy to setup and light on your wallet.
Squarespace is an all-in-one platform that’s powerful enough to run small, boutique stores, or large established brands. They pride themselves on being one of the most user-friendly e-commerce platforms.
- Modern Templates – their templates employ the latest web technologies, so you know your shop will look fantastic on any device.
- Style Editor – it’s easy to customize everything from colors to fonts to page configurations.
- Video Backgrounds – these help you to create a powerful visual experience and really make your store pop.
- CDN (Content Delivery Network) included – Squarespace uses hundreds of servers located all over the world so your site loads quickly, no matter where your customers are located.
- Audio Collections – you can upload music directly to Squarespace and create albums in a snap.
- Email Campaigns – they have an integrated email marketing tool, so you don’t need to pay for a 3rd party service.
- Rich Product Descriptions – you can embed video, audio, images, text, and more into your product descriptions.
- Affordable Pricing – there’s no extra transaction fees if you sign up for Squarespace Commerce.
- Content Ownership – this is a really neat one. You own all of the content you put on the Squarespace platform. And you can export it easily.
Squarespace Stores start at $26 per month. And there’s no contract … you can cancel at any time.
Shopify is the current leader in online stores. As of January 2018, they claimed to host over 600,000 stores. They offer a 14-day free trial, so you have plenty of time to test out their platform to decide if it’s a good fit for your business. They also offer an app called Oberlo which makes dropshipping a breeze.
- SSL Certificate – your store includes a free 256-bit SSL certificate to keep your data and customers safe.
- Instant Upgrades – you get the latest features immediately, without any effort required on your part.
- Search engine optimized – SEO best practices are integrated with all Shopify stores.
- Google AdWords credit – you get $100 bonus with Google Ads after you spend $25. This is a great way to get instant traffic to your new shop.
- Facebook Selling – your Facebook Page followers can browse your products and make purchases without leaving Facebook.
- Automatic carrier shipping rates – get current shipping rates from the top carriers like Fedex, USPS, and UPS.
- Automatic taxes – Shopify can handle most country and state tax rates, automatically.
- Multiple languages – your store can support 50+ languages, so you can easily sell overseas without worrying about doing manual translations.
- Abandoned checkout recovery – if a potential customer doesn’t complete their checkout, and still has items in their cart, you can send them an automatic email. This helps to increase sales.
The basic Shopify store costs $29 USD /month. But if you need their full-featured plan, that’s a lot pricier … $299/month.
Wix prides themselves on having a huge collection of visually appealing templates to choose from. They also ensure that all their themes look great on mobile devices, which is very important nowadays.
The Wix Editor is one of their strongest features. It’s very intuitive, and allows you to drag-and-drop various elements around in order to design the perfect website for your startup.
Let’s take a look at some other features of Wix that are important when you’re working on an eCommerce startup:
- App Market – similar to WordPress Plugins, Wix has an “App Market” that allows you to easily add powerful features to your store. Many of them are free, too.
- Corvid – if your startup team has some decent coders, you can use Corvid, Wix’s development platform, to pimp out your site to function exactly as you require. This capability really sets Wix apart from its competitors.
- Rich galleries – every Wix template comes with stunning product galleries, so you can rest assured that your store will look badass.
- Showcase sales – you can easily add a ribbon to product(s) to advertise a sale or limited stock. This will help you boost conversions.
- Email updates – Wix will send both you and your customers emails throughout the fulfillment process, so every party is updated along the way.
- Newsletters – you don’t need to sign up for a 3rd-party email marketing tool, as Wix has a built-in newsletter feature called “ShoutOut”. This allows you to quickly communicate with your entire customer list straight from the Wix dashboard.
Wix’s basic business (ecommerce) plan starts at $23/month USD. But as you can see above, it comes with some sweet bonuses, like:
- A free domain for a year
- $300 in ad vouchers ($100 for each of Google Ads, Bing Ads, and Local Listings)
- Site Booster app
- Visitor Analytics app
Big Cartel has carved out a pretty solid niche for themselves in the startup eCommerce platform arena. Their target customer is a “maker”, ie creators that want to sell t-shirts, art, clothing, merchandise, prints, jewelry, and other unique creations online.
Their pricing is definitely on the most affordable end of the spectrum, especially for smaller businesses with fewer products. In fact, if your startup has 5 or less products, you can get going with their “Gold plan” that has limited features, for free!
Let’s dive into their features:
- You can sell online or in person
- Real-time stats
- The ability to use a custom domain if you wish
- Promotions and discounts
- Shipment tracking
- Integration with Google Analytics
As you can see, Big Cartel’s pricing is quite competitive and affordable. As mentioned earlier, they even have a “Gold plan” (not featured in this screenshot above), which allows for up to 5 products, and is FREE.
So if you’re a creative type and want to start selling your products online quickly, with very little overhead, Big Cartel is definitely worth some serious consideration!
However, if your startup needs a platform with more extensive features, or you plan to have more than 300 SKUs in your inventory, Big Cartel won’t be a good fit.