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.