Before building my first profiting online store in 48 hours with $0 upfront investment, I struggled to find the most suitable e-commerce platform to bring my ideas alive.
There are two major platforms for your e-commerce website:
- hosted: provide e-commerce features and hosting service so all you have to do is list your products and start selling.
- self-hosted: provide e-commerce software and you have to find your own web hosting service. An example of this is using Magento or WooCommerce (e-commerce software) on Amazon Web Services (your web hosting service) to build a tradable, online store.
While self-hosted platform allows you with greater customization for your online store, from design to operation and logistic wise, this will be more suitable for someone with coding knowledge or an engineering team. This could realistically take up to 3-7 weeks before your website can go live and ready for trading.
On the other hand, hosted platforms now come with trendy web designs and more e-commerce features, with monthly fees to have your own domain and full customisation of your store where needed.
Having all these features ready to use is important for first-time entrepreneurs because you want to start trading as soon as possible. This will allow you to quickly test the market and make changes in direct response to your customer’s demands through their interactions with the brand.
I will focus this article on the hosted e-commerce platforms that I had a fair share of testing in the past 24 months.
As a new entrepreneur with no coding and web design experience, here are what I was looking for in a hosted e-commerce platform:
- quick and easy set-up – no technical knowledge required
- beautiful design and template
- affordable e-commerce features (content management functionality, sales, invoice generation, payment processing, order and shipment tracking, etc.)
- affordable hosting fees
Shopify has dominated the e-commerce platform provider in the past couple of years simply for its comprehensive, excellent offers for a complete online store. With more than 377,500 users, it’s no doubt the biggest player in the market.
For beginners, Shopify offers easy to use interface to set-up the store with little to no assistance. They are known for the constantly updated trendy web design templates that are mostly responsive, mobile and tablet optimised, which will add instant credibility to your brand.
The biggest advantage from Shopify is its scalability and functionality to support your business as it grows. This is enabled through the huge number of add-on features available on the platform, allowing you to have all the tools you need to run your business from operation to marketing, sourcing, and logistic in one place.
This includes Shopify‘s most competitive offer – Point of Sale (POS) applications and kit. These will let you expand your store’s online trading to physical locations such as pop-up shop, market stall or an outlet, whilst keeping your sales and stock count automatically synced.
The full POS kit includes a card reader, barcode scanner, cash drawer and receipt printer – which you can buy separately or as a package.
The online Shopify supports 70 payment gateways and real-time language translation for you to reach an international market.
You also get access to the full HTML and CSS of your store so customization is easy when you’re ready to grow bigger.
With all this, Shopify is more on the expensive e-commerce option with the Basic starting from AUD 29 per month and can go as high as AUD 299 per month.
You also have the option to sign up for 14 days free trial.
Unlike Shopify which focuses solely on e-commerce solution, Squarespace is a website publishing platform that allows you to build beautiful, professional code-free online presence- including an online store.
Squarespace’s key advantage is their options for sleek, contemporary designs which most users could get away with a free template and little editing. This is where most shop owners will be able to save money as web design can easily cost $100-$200 on top of the monthly hosting fees with other competitors.
You won’t find a huge number of website template to choose from on Squarespace though – 60 to be exact. This is not a huge down point for someone who just wants a simple, minimalistic online shop.
Most of the templates are responsive, meaning that they offer mobile and tablet optimisation automatically.
Customising most of these templates, adding content and setting up your store are relatively simple. You can pick an element you want to tweak and use the controllers to edit it to your liking, or drag and drop content blocks.
It’s worthwhile to be noted that some templates require you to add your own custom CSS to edit, which led me to moments of pulling my own hair considering I went on Squarespace looking for a code-free customizable solution.
Contrast to its limited templates, Squarespace offers a huge range of web fonts: 1000 Typekit and 600+ Google fonts. This allows some more customization to your design and helps to set a different tone to your store, especially when the number of templates to choose from is so small in the first place.
Like its competitors, Squarespace allows you to add unlimited products with optional paid add-on e-commerce features. However, this might not be the best solution for your growing business, given its limited functionalities and lack of control to your store’s CSS and HTML for complete customization.
Squarespace’s pricing structure starts from USD 26 (about AUD 33.81) for annual purchase, or USA 30 (about AUD 39) on a month-to-month basis.
Tictail is an integration of hosted e-commerce platform (similar to Shopify, Squarespace) and a community for emerging brands discovery. Think, selling the things you love on your online store and discover more than 1 millions products all in one platform.
This is also the platform which I’ve found to be the most suitable to host my online boutique – Pauline Drinks Milk.
The number one reason is Tictail’s cost effectiveness. And by this I mean it’s a completely free platform with an option to upgrade to Tictail Plus (USD 90 annual billing, or USD 9 per month) to get your own domain.
The free version is plenty for an independent business owner and first timer like myself. It includes free hosting, unlimited supply of bandwidth, product listings and orders.
There are transaction fees through third party payments like Paypal and Stripe, and a 10% purchase referral fee from Tictail Marketplace.
Although there are only 17 design templates to choose from, the design is versatile enough to apply for a wide range of products. Tictail targets primarily independent boutique owners, so the template designs are sleek, minimalistic and contemporary.
Tictail’s content management interface can be compared to its paid competitor. Adding new products are fast and bug-free with a great of different options to customise your listing.
This was one of the biggest problems I used to have with other free platforms – their product listing tool was simply not fast enough. And when you have 10+ products to add, it’s extremely frustrating and time-consuming.
It took about 2 hours to go live with 15 listed products on Tictail the first time.
While customisation with Tictail can be much more limited comparing to its competitors, simple HTML edits can be done with some templates. I find that this is in fact not at all time necessary considering its offered trending templates.
I however, added other free apps to increase my product’s credibility including social sharing button, review options and automate invoice generator. Google Analytics with E-commerce tracking is automatically added to your store, and synchronised to your Tictail dashboard for easy visibility.
There are other paid apps that you could add, including integration with shipping suppliers, email marketing, etc. but these are optional and you can integrate your own free tools.
So which one?
Here are how I would consider the options.
- Shopify: scalable small to medium business that wants to expand in the future and requires more business integration
- Squarespace: beautiful online store for small businesses that require less integration and customization
- Tictail: small independent businesses that want small initial investment with more product discovery