eCommerce Website Builder Platforms Explained

In this guide, I am going to run through the pros and cons of the best UK website builders to give you an overview of the capabilities of each. However, before I do that let me quickly bring any complete beginners up to speed with the differences between open-source software and cloud-based website builder software.

Open Source vs Cloud-Based Website Building Software

Magento, Oscommerce, Zencart, OpenCart and other similar shopping carts are all open source products freely available to use, as in "free to distribute" and publicly accessible. The source files for each product are made widely available, usually but not always, under the terms of the GNU General Public License.

Open source projects, products, or initiatives embrace and celebrate principles of open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community-oriented development.

Open-source software makes source code available to those who wish to view that code and modify or alter it for their own purposes. Its polar opposite is "proprietary software" which is only legally accessible by the author or creator. Microsoft products are obvious proprietary software examples, as are all the cloud-based website builder software that I cover in this guide.

GIMP is a great open-source replacement for Adobe Photoshop for basic photo editing. Open Office or LibreOffice are direct open-source replacements for Microsoft Office, and there are many other brilliant programs like Shotcut Video Editor, VLC Media Player, Filezilla FTP and Livezilla Live Chat which are all made freely available under the GNU GPL license.

A Quick Overview Of Open Source Software

Pros: Open source platforms are free, More creative control over the design, Theme and plugin libraries are free, although there are many third-party paid-for add-ons or enhancements.

Cons: Require expert coding knowledge, Maintenance & security is your role, No central dedicated support.

Simple Open Source eCommerce

Prestashop - Over 250,000 eCommerce stores use PrestaShop as their platform and it is one of the easier to use open source projects. Very easy to install it also has the advantage of offering a hosted version so that you don't have to get involved with installation routines and server configuration. Perhaps the biggest drawback is the lack of front-end customisation which means purchasing a third party template to get your site the way you want it. Here's the showcase of developed sites.

Opencart - Another simple eCommerce solution but this one has more going for it in terms of plugins, add-ons and community support. Opencart is a good choice for someone working on a tight budget but once you need to start adding more functionality you are totally reliant on the third party plugin market. They have a nice showcase of developed sites.

Zencart - Extensive product management tools and great control over inventory but you'll struggle to make this look nice without a lot of developer help. Zencart Showcase

Spree Commerce - If I was a CEO with a deadline to meet and a small but workable budget then Spree would be my choice in this category. With the help of a couple of developers, you'll be able to build something with a "Wow" factor in short order. The problem with many open source eCommerce platforms is that they run on dated code. Spree is based on Ruby on Rails so you are using the latest technology in your site build. Spree Showcase

X Cart - Has been in development since 2001 and has over 38,000 stores worldwide. The entry level software is free for newcomers but there is a $495 lifetime license fee if you want to have a theme to go with it. All of the advanced features are on the paid for plan. X Cart Showcase

Cubecart - Completely free and fully featured this would be my choice in this category if I was going to make a new website by myself without any help.

Advanced Open Source eCommerce

Magento is the frontrunner in open source design and is the tool of choice for most higher-end website design agencies because of it's flexibility. Magento makes beautiful websites when it is done properly but expect to pay £5k - £10k in development costs.

osCommerce - Has been around since time began. It is arguably a better choice for someone with coding skills over Magento because it is a more manageable system for one person. Clunky, bloated and difficult to configure with endless options. You could spend a year trying to get this to work properly.

Platform Specific Open Source

Woocommerce for WordPress - If you've built a great blog and you want to add some eCommerce functionality then Woocommerce is a great choice.

Jigoshop for WordPress - Lesser known but equally as capable as Woocommerce.

WPcommerce for WordPress - The original WordPress plugin? So they claim and they have over 30,000+ stores.

VirtueMart for Joomla - Free open source eCommerce solution for Joomla. Not for the faint-hearted.

RokQuickcart for Joomla - Simple and easy to set up eCommerce for Joomla

Drupal Commerce for Drupal

Ubercart for Drupal

The main reason to choose open-source software over cloud-based software is setup flexibility.

The main reason to choose a cloud-based website builder is low setup cost.

But, You Said Open Source Software Was Free?

The software is free, as in free to distribute. However, server configuration, system setup, maintenance and development costs for open source software all have to be paid for unless you can do it yourself.

Magento, for example, has a vast array of configuration options. With its resource-intensive server usage, Magento is much more suited to large-scale deployment managed by several skilled developers rather than an individual building their first website.

Digital agencies typically handle Magento installations because of their complex nature and the need for both server and programming expertise. Also, open-source software is at the risk of being compromised if you do not keep abreast of updates and patching protocols which add to the overall cost of maintenance.

Independent software platforms also have their security problems, but part of your monthly subscription fee includes updates. In addition to updates, cloud-based solutions like Shopify, monitor the hosting ecosystem around the clock to watch for security breaches.

Many people who had built Magento or other open-source eCommerce stores in the days before cloud-based shopping carts became mainstream and user-friendly can find that the software they are using is more complicated than the solution dictates, only because there was no better alternative at the time.

If that is you, then consider using a tool like cart2cart to migrate your data to one of the more advanced cloud-based eCommerce website builders. You will save a fortune in hosting and maintenance costs.

If you need help with your particular setup - contact us

A Note About Joomla, WordPress or Drupal eCommerce Integration

Adding third-party eCommerce solutions to an open-source CMS (content management system) like Joomla or WordPress requires significant work to make the plug-in or add-on integrate seamlessly with the original template. The result will be many hours making everything look uniform.

Partnering Joomla with Virtuemart, or WordPress with Woocommerce will require extensive CSS surgery.

Using a CMS as your eCommerce platform is the last resort because you are getting the worst of all worlds - plug-ins that are not as good as dedicated eCommerce software, lack of themes or design and the possibility of poor coding that will introduce security issues to your website. Cloud-based alternatives are far superior in every way.

If you have much time invested in your content then it will not be practical to move everything into a cloud-based eCommerce website builder, you will spend most of the next year fixing all those 301 redirects!

An alternative to using a third-party plug-in is to host your store on a subdomain like It is not the perfect solution, but it is perhaps, the most pragmatic.

Open-Source v Cloud-Based Summary

If you need an infinite number of methods for displaying products and services, complex shipping rules, multi-language, multi-currency, an almost never-ending list of extensions and plug-ins and complete control over your design then open-source eCommerce software would be your choice. Unless you are a developer, and even if you are a developer, a price has to be paid in setup and development costs.

There is no doubt that Magento eCommerce stores look better in the main than their cloud-based counterparts (in my opinion) but the considerable investment in capital can make it a prohibitive option for small stores.

With minimal upfront costs and a low ongoing monthly hosting and support fee, cloud-based eCommerce is the way forward for anyone who wants to build a small to medium-sized eCommerce store. Even those with loftier ambitions can be supported by "enterprise plans" that offer many advanced features such as "Shopify Plus".

Unless you have sophisticated design requirements, most eCommerce websites can be built quickly from the software in the list below.

Choosing The Best eCommerce Website Builder For You

Cloud-Based Website Builder Overview

Pros: Low monthly cost, Low startup costs, Theme and plugin libraries, Maintenance & security included, Dedicated support.

Cons: Less design flexibility than open-source, Ongoing monthly cost

The balancing act for an eCommerce website builder is to combine ease of use with many features. The more features you add to your eCommerce store the harder it is to maintain, which is why many of the best solutions offer a range of plug-ins from which you can choose rather than building them in as standard and utterly confusing you.

Designing a software interface that is both easy to use and intuitive takes much research and requires extensive user feedback. Many eCommerce website builders claim to be “the best solution”, but there is no best solution just as there is no best car.

A Ferrari would be great to commute to work in, but for taking the family on an extended camping holiday, it would sadly come up short. The fun factor would disappear when you try to get your tent in the boot. You could always buy a trailer for your Ferrari although I do not think I have ever seen one with a tow-bar!

The first item on your "to-do" list should be to write a website project management document. If that sounds daunting, then let me assure you it is not. One page will suffice, with a list of all the high-level features you expect the software to be able to handle. Always go for a more straightforward solution and start making money rather than start to build something overly complicated that turns into a costly time and money pit.

Proving that the idea will work first before investing thousands of pounds in website design is what a cloud-based website builder is good at doing.

The new REST API features that Shopify and BigCommerce are developing mean that integration with third-party tools is becoming more accessible than ever. Alliances with other Saas platforms like Kashflow mean that you get “best of breed” solutions every time and not an underwritten, lightweight, afterthought.

Saas (Software as a service) solutions can take advantage of the latest hosting technology without you having to worry about backup solutions and bandwidth. By distributing the data load across multiple CDN's (content delivery networks), you get blazingly fast speed for your website.

Choosing something that looks like a good fit only to find out a year later that your company evolved into something completely different (a common occurrence) is not the problem you think it might be. Cart2cart will import and export your data painlessly from one eCommerce solution to another.

Summary And Recommendations

Small One Page Or Single Product Sites

If you are selling a handful of products, then you will be able to use Weebly or Wix. Both have add-ons for eCommerce and Wix makes brilliant looking sites in rapid time as long as you have some great photography or images to fill out the templates. See my Wix Review

If you have a single product, then it is worth considering having a co-hosted page with your payment gateway. Sage-Pay has some great options, and it will save you a lot of time and trouble trying to set up and configure a complete eCommerce shopping cart.

Consider making individual pages on your hosting space and then copying and pasting the code from Paypal, although you will find their charges are excessive if you start to process in volume. A great alternative to Paypal for UK sellers is Payoneer which has fantastic services for freelancers and service providers. Payoneer accepts USD, EUR, GBP, JPY, AUD, CAD & CNY just as if you have a local bank account.

UK Sellers Who Need Multi-Channel Selling

Shopify has integrated multi-channel selling tools, although the eBay App is currently in Beta testing. The eBay App will send products from your website to be listed on your eBay store and automatically synchronise the stock levels of items on your site with your eBay store. You can view orders placed in your eBay store in your website account and notify eBay when you have dispatched an order. See my Shopify review

EKM will integrate with Channel Grabber. ChannelGrabber connects your eCommerce website via a third party plugin to Amazon and eBay and helps you manage product listings, inventory, orders, billing, shipping and messaging. see my EKM Review

Bluepark has support for eBay built-in although you will need to be on their top tier plan to be able to use it (£59.99 per month). Lookout for my Bluepark review coming up shortly.

Shopify Plus integrates with Kartzhub.

My Top Recommendation For UK Sellers

For anyone setting up a mainstream eCommerce website, Shopify is undoubtedly my top recommendation.

EKM runs it a close second, but the lack of an API for third-party programmers to hook into and integrate their products is the reason it does not come out on top. The lack of an API is something they will be improving upon massively shortly.

Shopify is, of course, the market leader and you'll have no problem finding a Shopify expert to help you build your site.

Business To Business (B2B) Selling

The product rules in this category can be very complicated, and for that reason, I suggest you look at Zoey. Zoey is built on the Magento framework and migrated to the cloud, so it has some fantastic features.

Large eCommerce Stores With 10,000+ Products

Just because you have a massive amount of SKU's doesn't mean you automatically need to look at Magento to build your store. In fact, with all the problems that can be caused trying to manage server resources, I would advise you to look at Shopify Enterprise.

Do you need help building an eCommerce store? Contact Us!

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