SaaS (Software as a Service) or Hosted eCommerce Stores:
By far and away, the largest customer segment for ecommerce shopping carts are people that end up purchasing a hosted ecommerce shopping cart. The names associated with ecommerce carts like these are probably as close to ‘household’ as you’ll find, and the companies behind those names spend a lot of money ensuring they’ll be seen more often. Leaders in this category include Volusion, Shopify, BigCommerce, and Magento Go (we’re also partners with each of these carts). There are dozens of others, most of which aren’t worth mentioning, although we have been working closely with 3dcart as it seems to be providing a very solid product and has an excellent business plan guiding its growth.
eCommerce stores that are built on hosted platforms are typically managed by individuals, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and the occasional mid-sized business. Whereas other forms of ecommerce software might appeal to a more select demographic, hosted eCommerce stores are designed to appeal to as many people as possible. This is why you’ll commonly see them marketed on social networks, huge affiliate networks, and other very consumer oriented web properties.
Because of this mass market appeal, they’re some of the hardest to evaluate. If you visit any of their feature or pricing pages, you’ll find that in general, the monthly costs associated with each cart are within $5 of each other, the hosting services are good (not great), and the capabilities of the cart are all quite similar. On the surface level, these carts all appear to be very similar, which is why so many businesses try and abandon ecommerce efforts after a short period of time.
This post is designed to help you winnow out the losers and determine what cart is the most viable for you.
Differences that matter.
One of the most challenging parts of picking a hosted ecommerce website is feature overload. Because these companies are selling to a lot of people, they cram in a whole lot of generalized feature descriptions. On each of the major hosted shopping cart sites, you have a feature page that scrolls on forever with lots of stuff that sounds really nice! All of that might make it feel very easy to just pick a cart and go with it, but the key differences are usually the ones not talked about. In our experience the key differences come down to the company’s long term outlook, technology (hardware, not software), ease of use, marketability, feature availability, and customization.
Long Term Outlook- Because hosted platforms are essentially ‘rented’ space, you need to pick a solution that has a positive long term outlook. A company that has few clients, or inadequate funding won’t be able to introduce the features necessary to be competitive in the rapidly evolving web marketplace. They won’t be able to provide adequate customer support, technical support, or upgrades to their hardware (your server). A poor long term outlook means that your site dies with them and you’re left without data or with a failing operation.
Technology- We’re not talking about the actual web property itself. Increasingly important to today’s search engines and consumers is server performance. If their servers are all based overseas, well away from your audience than you will likely see a slower response time. If their servers are older, and built on outdated or under performing hardware than your at risk for significant downtime, spotty operation, or security issues.
Ease of Use- Because most of these platforms are geared towards small business or operations (less than 10 people), the ease with which you can manage the site represents a significant positive or negative. Learning to use something effectively requires time. If its confusing or awkward to use, that means more time is required, and also increases the likelihood of errors. For small businesses that can’t afford a dedicated team to provide regular updates or changes, the software must be easy to use. Otherwise the shopping cart will show lower profitability than what it otherwise could. For some people, this actually kills the whole idea of running an ecommerce store in the first place.
The good thing with a lot of these ecommerce website solutions is that they provide free trials. Don’t get caught up in simply picking out a template that is attractive while you’re demoing an ecommerce store. Take the time to go through and actually try to manage it. You’ll only pick a template once, but you’ll constantly be updating products, helping customers with orders, analyzing store performance and creating promotions. Spend 99% of your time during the free trial doing things you would do daily.
Marketability- Let’s be honest, despite what the promotional banners say, working with a particular shopping cart does not guarantee overnight sales. Unless you’re a magician (not an illusionist, more of a Gandalf), it takes a lot of work to get customers to your store and to keep them coming. Shopping carts provide tools that improve their marketability and potentially give you a competitive advantage over your enemies. Look for important marketing features that will help you succeed earlier, and with less pain. Every ecommerce store should pay more than lip service to SEO, PPC (pay per click), social media, and various shopping networks. If the shopping cart doesn’t allow custom URL structures, doesn’t allow for easy implementation of important SEO factors like title tags, alt img tags, meta descriptions, etc, than pass. If you don’t have a social shop or some form of sharing tool, than pass. If you can’t export products to eBay, Amazon, Google Shopping, or others, definitely move with caution. Same thing goes for email marketing integration (this doesn’t mean they have their own newsletter feature- it should mean integration with more capable platforms like Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, etc).
Feature Availability- I know, I know, I just said that features aren’t all that. But there is one important thing to be attentive to with SaaS hosted ecommerce shopping carts. Are their features available to all of their customers OR are some features only available with more expensive plans or add on fees? I firmly believe that you should not have to pay more for features that already exist as part of a hosted platform. You’re paying a monthly fee and charging more for specific inclusions feels like usury to me.
Customization- Let’s face it. Hosted shopping carts can’t be everything to all people. They simply aren’t going to have every feature you might want (unless you’re very low on creativity). That means that at some point, you’ll want to customize. Whether its the look and feel, or the features, or the integrations, or the way information is processed, there’s going to be a moment when you’ll have a light bulb go off in your head and you want to do something unique with your ecommerce store. If your hosted cart resembles a jail more than a house, you’ll be disappointed.
Focus on these few things and you’ll find that a lot of carts fall away very quickly. Instead of hundreds of options, you’ll be narrowed down to five or six.
Attached here is our overall summary of the ecommerce shopping carts that we recommend. Please note that we are partnered with each company. Obviously this means that there are some carts we’ve chosen to exclude from mentioning. If you assume this means we’re biased, you’re absolutely right. We don’t want to work with shopping carts that don’t score well enough in the above factors because ultimately recommending those carts comes back to us. With any of these five carts, we’re confident you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
In the same manner, we are willing to test new carts. If you have someone you think that we should take a look at, please let us know. We typically will do a full evaluation of not only the posted sales materials but also through a trial store creation, customization work to the designs, and attempts at editing their functionality for more unique needs. You may find that we’ve already tested a cart and for good reason have decided not to recommend it. Coalition has reviewed dozens of other carts and found them lacking for one reason or another.
For a full write up on each with a side by side comparison, please contact us through the form above or by phone at 888.853.7280. Our teams are jointly based out of Seattle, Washington and Los Angeles, California.