Guide to Small Business Ecommerce & the Top Platforms

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Ecommerce selling used to be something that was only achievable by large retailers and major brands. Not anymore.

In recent years, ecommerce selling has become a lot more accessible to smaller businesses. With cost-effective ecommerce technology and outsourcing solutions, it’s easier than ever to build an online storefront for your ecommerce store.

But how do you decide if ecommerce is the right option for your small business?  And what tools can you use to set up your store? We’ll answer those questions in this blog post. Let’s dive in.

Why small businesses are turning to ecommerce

As the internet becomes more accessible and online shopping experiences continue to evolve, consumers are increasingly buying things online. In fact, online shopping has become so popular that ecommerce selling isn’t just a “nice to have” but a necessity. The last two years, in particular, have driven this behavioral change with the pandemic forcing many people to stay at home.

According to a PwC survey conducted in March 2021, 50% of consumers surveyed had become more digital since the last survey in October 2020. Compared to the last survey, more people were buying online at least on a daily basis.

Even as stores began to open up, consumer behavior had shifted toward online buying. For example, PYMNTS found that 29% of consumers were buying retail goods online in mid-April of 2020 when most local physical stores were closed. But by May of the same year, the number had grown to almost 36% even though brick-and-mortar stores started to open back up.

Beyond COVID-related concerns, it seems that consumers have grown used to the convenience offered by online buying. And this shift will likely be permanent, making it imperative for small businesses to turn to ecommerce to cater to their audience and expand their reach.

Deciding if an ecommerce shop is right for your business

While you may want to start selling online immediately, you may feel intimidated because there are so many factors to consider:

  • Where will you set up shop?
  • Will you have your own website or will you sell exclusively through an online marketplace?
  • How will you deliver orders?
  • Will you offer in-store pickup options?

For many business owners, even the thought of setting up and managing a store online can be overwhelming. Fortunately, once you have the basics figured out, running an ecommerce shop is a breeze, thanks to an abundance of robust technology.

But before you start looking into the technology, let’s first take a look at what you need to consider before starting an ecommerce shop for your small business.

Are you comfortable creating and maintaining a website?

One of the first considerations is whether you’ll sell through your own website. You don’t necessarily have to have a website if you’re not comfortable maintaining one. You can still sell through marketplaces like Amazon and Facebook Marketplace even without a website.

However, having your own website will add credibility to your business so it’s something you should consider. You don’t necessarily have to be tech-savvy to create a website yourself. There are plenty of website builders that offer pre-existing ecommerce website templates that you can customize for your own store. Another option is hire a web designer to custom-design your store.

Is your target market isolated to your physical location?

If you’ve been operating exclusively offline, you may have been limited by your physical location. And as a result, a decline in foot traffic could significantly set your business back.

Taking your business online is a great way to expand your market and reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have bought from you due to the lack of physical proximity to your store.

How much can you spend on expanding online?

For many small businesses, budget may be the biggest concern when starting an ecommerce site. The assumption is that the costs involved with hosting, web design, ecommerce management, and shipping can add up to a significant amount. But with the right tools and services, ecommerce selling may not be as expensive as you think. Assuming you already have the inventory, it can cost as little as a few hundred dollars to get started with the essentials.

How will you market to generate sales?

Marketing is an important consideration because you’re diving into a completely different avenue from the traditional marketing tactics you may have used for your physical store. Search engine marketing and display advertising are effective ways to get your store in front of the right people. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll need to rely on a strong social media presence to market your online store.

If you already have a strong community of customers who frequent your store, they can be your biggest marketing channel. Ask them to help you spread the word about your business with their online friends to attract more customers to your online storefront. Reviews and testimonials are huge word-of-mouth marketing tactics.

What are your goals with selling online?

The reason why you decided to start selling online can also define and shape the rest of your strategy. While some businesses may only be looking for alternative selling options to cater to their local customers, others may want to grow their small business and increase sales through ecommerce orders.

These different goals come with different considerations and would require different levels of investment. For example, in the first case, businesses may not need to invest significantly in a website and can even continue their operations through online marketplaces. However, with the latter, having a website is an absolute necessity because you’re looking to establish a credible online presence.

How will you pack & ship your orders?

Packing and shipping is a major consideration. Some small businesses may only want to sell online while local customers pick up their orders in-store., while others may want to offer delivery in the local area. But many small businesses may also want to go beyond the local market and offer national shipping. Some may even want to use custom packaging when shipping out their orders to build brand awareness and improve the customer experience.

Brands may need to carefully consider cost-effective and sustainable options for packing and shipping orders. This is often a challenging area to scale because you have to partner with a shipping company that can support an increase in demand over the years. It’s important to find a third-party logistics partner that has the technology and resources to meet the growing needs of your business – even years down the line.

How to choose an ecommerce platform for your small business

An ecommerce platform is a critical element of starting an online store. Small businesses need to carefully assess each platform for the following:

Analytics

Built-in analytics capabilities or analytics integrations are essential to get a clear idea of how your store is performing. You should be able to keep track of vital ecommerce KPIs such as traffic conversion rate, revenue per visitor, average order value, and churn rate to see what needs improving and how much ROI you’re generating.

Scalability

If you intend to grow your business in the future, think of whether the platform will allow you to easily scale your business. Does it offer any integrations or expansions that you might need later? Does it have flexible plans to support the needs of a scaling ecommerce business?

Website speed & performance

Usability and speed are also important considerations because they affect the user experience. Make sure you find a platform that will ensure that your website is usable and accessible without impacting load speed.

Design flexibility

If you ever need to update your website design over time, will the platform let you do it? And is it easy to update the design on your own? Does it offer plenty of templates that you can easily customize without coding?

Marketing

Many ecommerce platforms even come with built-in marketing capabilities and marketing integrations such as email marketing and Facebook advertising. This makes it easy to manage every aspect of your ecommerce store in one place.

Multi-channel inventory & order management

Can you use the platform to easily manage inventory and orders across multiple channels? This is especially important if you’re using a combination of different selling channels such as social media, website, and online marketplaces.

Best ecommerce website platforms for small businesses

Considering the above functionalities, here are some of the best ecommerce website platforms for small businesses:

Shopify

Shopify is a leading ecommerce platform that supports multiple selling channels including your online store, in-person point of sale, and social media. It comes with tons of responsive themes that are easy to customize for novice users. Shopify also has built-in marketing functionalities and robust ecommerce management tools. It’s a comprehensive and budget-friendly option for small businesses.

BigCommerce

One of the most powerful ecommerce platforms out there, BigCommerce comes with everything a small business would need to set up an online shop. You can use a drag-and-drop visual editor to easily design your website without the need to code. And it lets you customize different facets of your store such as themes, checkout, and discounts. BigCommerce comes with heaps of features at a reasonable rate, making it an excellent option for small businesses.

Wix

Wix is an easy-to-use website builder that offers hundreds of free ecommerce store templates. It also offers ecommerce solutions to let you sell to your customers from multiple sales channels and manage your orders through a single dashboard. Another affordable solution for small businesses.

Square

For small businesses on a particularly tight budget, Square Online Store is the ideal option as it lets you build a website and start selling for free. This free plan lets you list unlimited products and even sell on Instagram and Facebook. You only need to pay when customers place an order.

Squarespace

Squarespace gives you tons of professional templates to choose from so you can easily build your ecommerce website in minutes and immediately start selling. Squarespace’s integrated systems allow you to set up flexible checkout and payment options. You can integrate multiple ecommerce tools with Squarespace and scale your online store as you grow. Business plans come with fully integrated ecommerce functionalities for small businesses.

Magento

For those who want a bit more control over the look and functionality of their website, Magento is an open-source multi-channel ecommerce platform that can be used to scale your store. It comes with powerful features like inventory management tools, mobile-optimized shopping, and thousands of extensions. Magento Open Source is free to download, but businesses have to pay additional fees for extensions, domain, hosting, etc. While this option offers scalability, it may be a little less straightforward to use for non-tech-savvy users.

GoDaddy

As one of the simplest ecommerce platforms in the market, it’s a breeze to set up an ecommerce store with GoDaddy. It offers domain and hosting solutions as well as pre-built templates that you can use for your website. A reasonable option for small businesses. However, the platform doesn’t offer much customization or many scaling options, which may prove to be limiting for businesses that plan to grow.

Weebly

Alternatively, if ease-of-use is a top priority, Weebly is a great solution. This user-friendly ecommerce platform lets you build your store using a customizable theme and offers all the basic features you need to manage your store in one place. This includes marketing tools like SEO and email, as well as inventory management and shipping features. The most basic plan is free.

WooCommerce

WooCommerce is another free option that allows you to easily turn your WordPress website into an online store. You can choose from a wide range of customizable templates to build your online storefront. Additionally, the option to choose from multiple extensions allows you to customize your spending based on your budget and needs. WooCommerce is a great option for small businesses that need flexibility and customizability.

Best ecommerce shipping platforms for small businesses

With shipping being a major consideration for businesses that want to start selling online, it’s important to look for a platform that lets you streamline your logistics. You need something that integrates seamlessly with your order and inventory management systems while automating some of the mundane operations. Here are some of the top ecommerce shipping platforms for small businesses:

Shippo

Shippo is an easy-to-use platform that gives you instant access to the best shipping option for each order based on carrier rates. It automatically connects to all your major selling channels, allowing you to efficiently manage omnichannel shipping from a single place. It lets you track orders in real-time and automate the returns process, which saves you a ton of time and makes it a great option for small business owners who have to juggle multiple tasks.

ShipStation

This web-based shipping software lets you create automation workflows to manage your repetitive tasks more efficiently. You can use this tool for streamlining your order processing and syncing your store and marketplaces with tracking information so customers can easily access their order status. ShipStation simplifies small business ecommerce fulfillment by serving as a “station” to connect all your stores and manage fulfillment from one place.

Sellbrite

Sellbrite is a multi-channel selling software solution that lets you process and ship out orders from multiple sales channels. You can use it to get discounted carrier rates to keep your shopping costs under control. And since it lets you print shipping labels directly, you don’t have to go through the hassle of managing a separate postage account. This significantly simplifies the small business shipping process for you.

Scale your ecommerce with a 3PL

Small businesses often lack time and resources, which makes order fulfillment one of the largest barriers to entry into the ecommerce world. Outsourcing fulfillment to a third-party logistics partner is a great way to take a load off your back and simplify small business ecommerce management.

A 3PL like ShipBob can take care of the entire fulfillment process – storing and managing your inventory, processing your orders, picking and packing, and shipping orders to complete final-mile delivery. This significantly optimizes your ecommerce operations as you’re leaving some of the hardest parts – like shipping logistics – to the experts.

Moreover, you can reduce shipping costs by storing your inventory strategically across multiple fulfillment centers. This means you get to store your inventory closer to your customers so orders don’t have to travel through multiple shipping zones. Plus, it reduces transit times and gets orders to your customers faster.

And since you don’t have to spend money on renting and maintaining your own warehouse facilities, you can keep storage costs low and improve profitability to a significant extent. The best part is that a 3PL like ShipBob can support the changing demands of a growing business with a robust warehouse management system and a vast fulfillment network. That means ShipBob will grow with you as you scale your operations even years down the line.

See how ShipBob helps small businesses grow

As your small business grows, you need a reliable logistics partner that can handle growing consumer demand. With powerful technology and comprehensive ecommerce fulfillment services, ShipBob is the 3PL you need to grow your small business.

Our Growth Plan is a self-service program designed to help pre-launch companies start shipping their orders. This plan allows merchants with 400 orders a month or less to outsource fulfillment and grow their business without giving up control.

One of the biggest advantages of ShipBob is that you don’t have minimums. You don’t have to commit tens of thousands of units, so start small, and ShipBob will grow with you.

John Greenhalgh, Co-Founder of A Year of Dates

The Growth Plan includes various benefits:

  • Access to ShipBob’s software, integrations, and more
  • Ability to store inventory in ShipBob’s fulfillment centers
  • Pick, pack, ship, and customization services
  • Resources and step-by-step information on how to set-up an account
  • Help from our support team and live office hour sessions
  • Premium onboarding for an additional fee

We’ve helped many small businesses to speed up their fulfillment and grow their sales exponentially. Just take it from some of our merchants:

“50% of my time spent was packing boxes. Not only that, but it was a constant interruption. I would sit down to do an email marketing campaign, have to attend to new orders, and completely lose my train of thought and flow. I spent about 3 minutes per order on fulfillment. I almost didn’t want orders to come in.”

– Leonie Lynch, Founder & CEO of Juspy

“To say that switching to ShipBob has been life-changing is an understatement. Thinking big picture, it was an incremental cost for me to ultimately sell a lot more. My business has tripled and I got my life back.”

– Anastasia Allison, founder of Kula Cloth

Interested to see how ShipBob can help your small business? 

How can ecommerce help small businesses?

Having an ecommerce store is a great way for small businesses to enhance the customer experience by offering more convenient ways to shop, book appointments, or place orders. This not only lays the groundwork for customer loyalty but also opens up more avenues to expand your reach and attract new customers.

What online platform is best for small businesses?

BigCommerce, Wix, Shopify, Magento Open Source, and WooCommerce are some of the best online platforms for small businesses.

What is the cheapest ecommerce platform for small businesses?

Magento Open Source, WooCommerce, Weebly, and Square are the cheapest ecommerce platforms for small businesses, with most of them offering free plans.

Written By:

Meredith is a Content Marketing Specialist at ShipBob, where she writes articles, eGuides, and other resources to help growing ecommerce businesses master their logistics and fulfillment.

Read all posts written by Meredith Flora