There was a time when the idea of selling goods and services without a physical store didn't seem feasible. If customers were interested in buying your products, they had to drive to your brick-and-mortar location to find what they wanted.
These days, you can find everything you need online with just a few keystrokes. E-commerce platforms make it easy to order items, movies, and even food from your laptop or mobile device.
E-commerce platforms make life easier for customers, and they also make it easier for new businesses to get started. And if you want to create an online store in 2020, there are plenty of options from which to choose.
What to Look for in an E-Commerce Platform
If you're weighing your options as to which e-commerce platform to choose, you're probably already familiar with sites like eBay and Amazon. But depending on the type of store you plan to open; there may be other platforms that are a better fit for your business.
Here are some of the main features you should look for when reviewing e-commerce platforms.
Depending on your business's size, e-commerce costs can be anywhere from free to thousands of dollars. However, most sites will let you try them out for free without entering your credit card information.
When you take advantage of these free trials, spend some time thinking considering all of the available features. And don't forget about things like hosting, extensions, and other add-ons.
You're not going to have any customers if people can't find your store in the first place. So the e-commerce platform you choose should have built-in SEO tools.
Having the ability to customize your URL with your name and your products will help boost your search engine optimization, making your store easier to find. Some platforms offer enhanced SEO tools in their plans.
Just because your online store starts small doesn't mean it will stay there. That's why you want an e-commerce platform that will grow with your business.
And even in the beginning, you may need more than just a basic e-commerce solution. Find a platform that won't keep you stuck in a plan that isn't right for your business.
According to the e-commerce designer OuterBox, more than 125 million U.S. consumers own smartphones. And more than 60% of smartphone users have made purchases from their phones.
That's why any platform you choose must be mobile responsive. The majority of your sales will come from mobile devices, so if your online store isn't mobile-friendly, you will miss out on potential revenue.
If you sell physical products, then you're probably going to include plenty of photos and even videos on your storefront. That means you'll need an e-commerce platform that's fast and reliable. If customers have to wait on images and videos to load, then you're going to lose out on sales.
You want to choose an e-commerce platform with a good user experience for you and your customers. You should be able to set up your online storefront with little to no programming experience. And once the store is live, it should be easy for customers to navigate and search for products.
You need to be able to integrate your online store with other third-party applications. And you should be able to add on these tools and applications even if you don't know how to code.
Fortunately, many platforms make this easy, allowing you to drop "buy buttons" into social media channels like Pinterest. Or some have plug-ins that work with your existing WordPress site.
The Top 5 E-Commerce Platforms for Small Businesses
Now that you know what to look for in an e-commerce platform, let's look at some options you can consider. Here are our top five picks for the best e-commerce platforms in 2020.
Best E-Commerce Platform for Small Businesses
There are many great e-commerce platforms out there, but Shopify seems to provide the most value for small businesses. It can work well for you during every stage of business growth.
Because what small business plans to stay small forever?
Shopify is a one-stop-shop for setting up your e-commerce store. You can choose a custom domain, design a logo, and find products through their vendor relationships.
You can find product shots in their free library of stock photos. And if you don't want to start your business from scratch, you can even use Shopify to buy an existing online store.
Shopify offers a 14-day free trial, and you can get started without a credit card. You don't even have to pick a plan -- just sign up and start building a store.
Pricing starts at just $9 per month with their "Lite" plan. This plan lets you add a "buy button" to your existing blog, website, or Facebook page.
You can use Shopify to chat with customers online, track orders, and send invoices. The Lite plan also lets you accept payments in-person through its point-of-sale app.
As you upgrade and look to add additional features, the plans cost anywhere from $29 per month to $299 per month. There is also an enterprise solution for large retailers.
All plans come with unlimited file storage, endless product offerings, hosting, security, abandoned cart recovery, and 24/7 support.
Read our full Shopify review.
Best E-Commerce Platform for Startups
Most people know Wix as a free website builder, but it also offers new entrepreneurs' e-commerce plans. The plans start at just $17 per month, and if you pay annually, you'll receive a free domain and $300 in ad vouchers.
The most expensive plan Wix offers is $25 per month, and it comes with the following features:
A review of your site's interface and SEO
Like most e-commerce platforms, Wix allows you to sell physical and digital products. But it also offers features that will appeal to a wide variety of businesses.
For instance, there are booking features that allow customers to schedule appointments or sign up for classes. And Wix Music enables you to create a customizable music player, sell digital downloads and track sales and performance stats.
If you have a restaurant, you can do online takeout or delivery orders, accept reservations and send email reminders to guests. So the platform isn't just for online stores.
Read our full Wix review.
Best E-Commerce Platform for Mobile
Every e-commerce platform on this list is pretty mobile-friendly, but Squarespace takes extra care to ensure that the user experience on a mobile device is top-notch.
Each template design has a unique mobile experience matching the overall style of the store. This feature is automatically built-in but can be disabled in the Website Manager.
Images can often take a long time to load, but Squarespace uses a "Responsive Image Loader" that generates multiple scaled versions of each photo uploaded.
The site can detect the type of device being used and loads the appropriate image for optimal viewing. It even works for Apple devices with Retina Displays.
And the responsiveness doesn't stop with imagery. The site's general layout, charts, and graphics are all optimized for mobile devices. Even emails are optimized, so marketing campaigns read well on smartphones and tablets.
Read our full Squarespace review.
Best E-Commerce Platform for Retailers
Magento is the best e-commerce platform for established retailers that are ready to take their sales online. A glance at the company's website will show you that some of the world's biggest brands use Magento.
The software is free to download, but it will take a developer to make something awe-inspiring. Magento has relationships with several partners who can help you create an online store that works seamlessly with your brick-and-mortar location.
Magento is very selective about the developers that they allow you to add tools to its open-source platform. The company provides enterprise-level solutions so you can develop a seamless omnichannel approach.
Your customers can plan orders online and pick it up in your store, and inventory control happens in real-time.
Your online store comes with one free theme and the rest range from $29 up to $500. You can also add on extensions which will help you navigate the following aspects of your business:
Read our full Magento review.
Best E-Commerce Platform for Software Integration
WooCommerce is an e-commerce solution built on WordPress. Since it integrates with a popular content management system, it is easy to work your e-commerce business into your content.
Just like you'll add plug-ins into your WordPress blog, WooCommerce has plug-ins for your eCommerce site. The open-source platform has nearly 300 official extensions in its store covering payments, shipping, marketing, and accounting.
Because the platform is based on WordPress, these extensions are as simple as clicking a box. However, some payment or shipping solutions do come with additional costs.
Storefront is the free WooCommerce theme, and it has several variations that should accommodate your particular store. But just like WordPress, Storefront is customizable, and your coding abilities are the only thing that limits you.
Just like WordPress, you need to find your hosting solution for your WooCommerce site. That means there is an additional cost for hosting and domain registration.
Read our full WooCommerce review.
More eCommerce Solutions for Small Business
If you're still on the fence, there are other e-commerce platforms you can consider. Overall, the difference between each of these platforms is pretty minor. Most emphasize simplicity and provide the opportunity for businesses to build a unique online brand.
Here are some of the other e-commerce platforms you can choose from:
Big Cartel: This is an excellent platform for artists who want to sell their work online. Plans are free for anyone selling up to five products on a Big Cartel-branded website.
BigCommerce: BigCommerce is a fantastic platform that stands toe-to-toe with Shopify and even beats it by offering unlimited staff accounts. However, each plan has an annual sales threshold, and if you exceed it, you are moved into a more expensive plan.
OSCommerce: OSCommerce is another open-source e-commerce platform. That means it's free to download, but you're responsible for finding your hosting solution. If you have any coding skills, you can use thousands of free extensions to create a fantastic site.
OpenCart: OpenCart is also an open-source site, and several different design themes allow you to dress up your store.
However, you'll need some basic coding skills to use the platform effectively. OpenCart has limited features and themes, but it is affordable and a viable option for someone just starting out.
Volusion: Volusion is a Shopify alternative, but has been criticized for charging hidden fees. The company no longer charges for an SSL certification or bandwidth, and now charges transaction fees.
Weebly: Weebly is an excellent online store for beginners. A customer log-in area would make it even nicer.
There is no one perfect e-commerce platform, just the solution that will work best for your business. As you're considering your options, cost, scalability, and mobile responsiveness are some of the biggest things you should look for.
Make sure you take advantage of the free trials and test out the various features first. This information will help you evaluate your options and choose the e-commerce store that's best for you.
Cost, scalability, and mobile responsiveness played critical roles in determining our winners. We pored over each site, reviewed sites built on the platforms, talked to developers and designers, and read customer reviews. We then did side-by-side comparisons of features, pros, and cons of the services and, of course, looked at the price. We stayed mindful of the effort needed to build, maintain, and hopefully grow a successful online store.
None of these was perfect but all have something to offer no matter your place in the eCommerce life cycle.