ECommerce Websites for Shops: Choosing a Platform and Developer

One of the issues that come up a lot in the forums I read is Ecommerce websites for small shops, and how to choose a platform and developer. Shop owners frequently ask what website they should have. They may already have a site with which they’re not happy, or a site that is not ecommerce enabled.  

As a new website can be a large financial investment which can be difficult to recoup, you want to be sure that you are choosing the right platform for your Ecommerce Website at the right price.

As I'm always going on about, there are 3 ways to grow your shop sales. Grow the number of customers, increase their spend, and increase their frequency of purchase. A good website ticks all 3!

ECommerce Websites through the ages

We think people ask us about ECommerce Websites because they know we have been through many iterations of websites in the 16 years we’ve had our shop. So we must know what we’re talking about, right?

Well, not necessarily. We know what’s been right for us, and what has been wrong for us. And that’s the thing. Whilst an ecommerce website is a universal concept, we all tend to have a different idea of what ours will be, how it will look, what it will do for us, what we need. But if we don’t know what is possible, we don’t ask for the technology which would help us to grow our business, thereby recouping the financial investment more quickly. And if the developer we’re working with doesn’t know either, they won’t offer that technology to us.

It isn’t just about a Pretty Website

Website 2004

Our homemade website in 2004

If you have been hanging out with us for a while, you will know we talk about 2 things a lot. One: there are only 3 ways to grow your shop sales. By growing your customers, increasing the amount they spend and increasing the frequency with which they shop with you. Two: selling on multiple platforms at once, as well as your own website. The priority for you at this point should not a pretty website, lovely as that is to have. Your website should enable both of those things to happen. If it’s pretty too then that’s an added bonus.

We have had websites of many kinds since 2004. In the early days, Andy built them. As we got busier and had a bit more cash/less time and/or the technology became more complex, we employed developers. If you work hand-in-hand with a good developer, as we did, they will make you aware of technology which will improve your business and drive your sales. The irony is we only found our best developer by chance, when we needed someone to speed up our incredibly slow site. They were forward thinking and at the cutting edge of ecommerce website functionality (and note I say ecommerce websites, not just websites). At one point we had a website which enabled us to have multiple front end sites, plus be selling on Amazon and Ebay as well as our own sites at the same time. That’s not particularly out-of-the-ordinary now, but it was revolutionary then.

Integration is Key

Website 2006

Our website in 2006 (with more help)

Had it not been for that developer, we would never have known such technology existed. We meet shop owners now who don’t realise it exists, over 12 years later. The ability to sell on multiple sites at once whilst ensuring our overall stock count is still correct, with Amazon FBA on top, have been fundamental to being able to turn over hundreds of thousands of pounds in sales, just the two of us, without employing additional people.

Today we use Shopify as our ECommerce Website for our Almost Off Grid shop, and Linnworks to enable us to sell on Ebay, Amazon, Etsy and OnBuy as well as on our own site and in our bricks and mortar shop. These two things combined help us to grow our customers, drive the amount they spend with us, and increase the frequency with which they shop with us. Plus most systems integrate beautiful with cloud based accounting systems. If you are still working with itty bitty bits of paper every month, we would strongly advise you to look into modern accounting systems. They can change your world. And you should still be having a site built which will integrate with your accounting system later even if you don’t have one yet.

Choose your Developer Carefully

Website 2017

Our website in 2017 (with a lot of help)

We were lucky that Andy was able to build our first  websites. If you know you cannot do that, you need to choose a platform first (there are many like Shopify on the market such as Squarespace, Wix, Big Commerce and this is by no means an exhaustive list). I am not going to attempt to compare their features here simply because I haven’t had enough experience of all of them. But if you Google Shopify v Wix (for example) then you can invariably find some kind person has done that comparison for you.

Then find a developer that is an ECommerce specialist, able to work with your chosen platform. That way you are asking them to develop a website on an existing system using templates, which is a vastly less expensive exercise than asking someone to build you a website completely from scratch. And hopefully you will the have a fighting chance of making your money back.

Ask the developer about integration with marketplace platforms like Ebay and Amazon, with accounting systems like Xero, with inventory management systems like Linnworks. If they have no idea what you are talking about, move on until you find at least 3 who DO know what you’re talking about. Then go ahead and get three quotes. And bear in mind as you’re going through this exercise: you are aiming to recoup the investment in this website as quickly as possible. So avoid bells, whistles and sexy features unless they enable the things we talk about above, and potentially recoup your investment more quickly. But ideally choose something at this stage that could be enhanced later.

No Website is Perfect

We have never found a website solution that meets every need we had. Over the years we have used Woocommerce, OSCommerce and Shopify, plus we have considered and tested others. Some offer benefits others don’t have, some charge for those benefits, some don’t. So it totally depends on what you need for your business as to which one you choose. All you can do is create your ‘in an ideal world’ list and try to get as close to that as possible for the lowest price you can.

I mentioned above that we use Shopify ‘today’ because it is important to remember: a website is not forever. It is just for now. The technology changes so quickly, that website you spend thousands of £s of your hard earned cash on may not have had chance to recoup the money you spent on it before it needs replacing. So the less you can spend to set it up at this stage, the better.

Do not get your Mate to Build your Ecommerce Website

When we say ‘try to keep the costs down’ we don’t mean getting any Tom, Dick or Harry to build it. We come across this all the time. Your mate built you a free-standing website that doesn’t integrate with anything, but it didn’t cost you very much so it was a start. But you still have to upload all the stock to that website, and get traffic to it. An inexpensive website is not a ‘deal’ if you have no traffic, that site offers no functionality to grow your business and/or it doesn’t integrate with anything else.

So whilst it is tempting to go down that road: unless your mate is an ECommerce expert, it will pay you to find a specialist for this. Ironically a ‘cheap’ website may never pay for itself, a slightly more expensive one could be the better investment in the long run.

We talk about these things, and lots of other key issues for small retailers, in our Small Retailer Lounge. Join us!


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