Which Website Builder Platform Should You Choose?
Choosing from the hundreds of eCommerce website builders available is no easy task. Rapidly advancing technology means no future proof guarantees, no matter how much research you do. Using this guide, you will be able to make a final decision with the utmost confidence, based on my latest findings.
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In this guide, I am going to run through the pros and cons of ten 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. https://opensource.com
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.
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.
WPcommerce for WordPress - The original Wordpress plugin? So they claim and they have over 30,000+ stores.
paGo Commerce for Joomla - For anyone who wants to run an eCommerce store based on Joomla.
VirtueMart for Joomla - Free open source eCommerce solution for Joomla. Not for the feint hearted.
RokQuickcart for Joomla - Simple and easy to set up eCommerce for Joomla
Drupal Commerce for Drupal
Ubercart for Drupal
Notes on open-source v cloud-based software:
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 me
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 shop.storebuilder.co.uk. 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 Right eCommerce Website Builder
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 scope 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.
You Might Like: The Cost Of Building A Website
The new REST API features that Shopify and Lemonstand 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.
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 accept USD, EUR, GBP, JPY, AUD, CAD & CNY just as if you have a local bank account.
UK Sellers Who Need Multi Channel Selling
Shopwired 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.
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.
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.
My Top Recommendation For UK Sellers
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 Shopwired Enterprise which is hosted on Amazon Web Services, one of the largest and most reliable hosting platforms in the world.
The Shopwired Enterprise platform is infinitely scalable, ensuring your customers will always have a fast and reliable experience on your website. You can handle tens of thousands of concurrent users and process thousands of orders per minute with ease.
Top 10 UK eCommerce Website Builders
EKM eCommerce Website Builder Overview
It's been almost two years since I first reviewed EKM and for a company at the vanguard of UK eCommerce, EKM has dramatically improved their overall product and improved customer service beyond all recognition.
This is no mealy-mouthed claim to try and butter you up and eke out more commission from an unsuspecting punter. I'm proud of what I've achieved so far with Storebuilder.co.uk, and when the product is substandard, I let you know; see my Strikingly review or cloud cart review for examples of products that don't match up to the hype.
First time around I was probably a bit harsh on EKM primarily because I'm not a fan of Microsoft products which EKM use as their core development language. This is a bias I've come to accept has an unfounded basis, and while I still believe wholeheartedly in the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySql, PHP) approach to eCommerce development, there are many different ways to skin an eCommerce website.
Unrivalled Customer Support
When you are setting up a website for the first time, then it doesn't matter what platform you use as long as it works and you get support when you need it.
And it's this last point which has convinced me to recommend EKM above all other options for UK users who want a straightforward eCommerce store. The decision to assign a dedicated account manager to each new account means that you will always have support for your site from someone who knows and understands what you are trying to achieve.
That is something you won't find anywhere else at this price point apart from maybe Bluepark eCommerce, but that product is decidedly more complicated to configure and is aimed at people who want to customise the user shopping experience. Shopify is a great alternative, but you won't get the same level of dedicated support from them either as you would from EKM.
Improving Your eCommerce Store
In the two years, I have run this site, I have seen hundreds of eCommerce stores started up. Most (80%) wither on the vine, not because the idea wasn't any good but because the owner lost interest in trying to make the site look good enough to make sales. Starting an eCommerce website isn't merely a case of signing up and paying your £29.99 per month and then forgetting about it. It is a constant process of improvement.
To make that improvement you need help and guidance. Left to your own devices, you will probably give up because the process of making the site look good, finding and sourcing products and displaying them before finally working out how you get traffic to your site is the digital road less travelled. For every ten eCommerce sites started in hope or on a whim only one will still be here next year to trouble an accountant.
Many people dream of escaping the rat race, but few are prepared to put in the work that makes the difference between the daily drudgery of the 9-5 or freedom to choose your working hours. You see my reading friend; it is not the eCommerce platform you want that will determine whether or not your eCommerce venture is a success, it is the amount of work you put into website promotion, gaining links, guest posting and gaining great product reviews that will ultimately determine how successful your site is.
Do you know anything about Google analytics? Building an abandoned cart saver routine? SEO? Content Writing? Probably not. You'll have your hands full trying to source products and making sure the supply line functions appropriately. This is why I think providing a dedicated account manager is such a game changer on EKM's behalf.
It's not just the customer support that has been beefed up either. The new range of responsive templates are awe-inspiring and will get you off to a flying start. The new Evolution mode will make site improvement suggestions for you, and there is also a test site function so that you can play about with new ideas in a sandbox without affecting the live site if you so wish.
Wix Website Builder Review
Wix.com is a cloud-based online website builder that lets you create beautiful, professional and functional websites without needing to know a line of code.
The companies growth has been remarkable. From its small beginnings in 2006 Wix passed 1 million users in 2009 and 2014 passed 50 million users. That is phenomenal growth by anyone's standards, and with new technology, in the pipeline, there is no reason to suspect that growth is going to stall anytime soon.
I put Wix Website Builder through its paces to see what it can create and how good it is.
Why Is Wix.com So Popular?
Anyone that has used Wordpress or Joomla knows how difficult it is to produce something that not only looks good – but looks different from everyone else.
Templates for Wordpress are freely available but it always seems like the best ones are used over and over again and trying to make your site stand out from the crowd design wise can be difficult.
To compound, the difficulty Wordpress was intended as a blogging tool and nothing more. It is a quick way for users to express their thoughts without having to go through a mountain of code or steep learning code to do it.
It is severely limited as a medium to express yourself creatively through design, and that is why the Wix website building tool has become so popular. The ability to be able to incorporate graphics and create pleasing designs is where Wix excels and why users love it so much.
The Wix platform is made using a drag and drop interface, so you don't need to know any code at all, and you can make relatively complex designs – background videos and different background sections are just the tips of the iceberg of what you can create with Wix.
Shopwired eCommerce Website Builder Overview
Established in 2012 Shopwired has quickly grown to become one of the best eCommerce website builders for UK users. Its vast range of features and ease of integration are easily on a par with Shopify, which, considering the financial disparity between the two companies is a considerable achievement.
Shopwired also uses many common integration libraries like prettyphoto which keep it ahead of the development curve, and in that respect, they have more in common with Lemonstand than Shopify by embracing open source software development tools like SASS and Bourbon.
For software developers understanding common standards like those laid down in CSS or HTML are far more preferable than having to learn a whole new language like Shopify Liquid.
Shopwired has Facebook and eBay shop integration tools which are perfect for long-suffering small UK businesses who have been struggling to get their products in front of this user audience. If I could have any influence at all over Shopwired marketing strategy, I would make this feature available across the board instead of only on the high-end package. It is a strategy that Lemonstand have used to full effect and proven to be very successful.
Crippled software products are no use to anyone and making features payable by volume of use is the way to go. You are also more likely to gain recommendations by offering your full repertoire of software development tools to all users rather than limiting it to those who will pay the most. Who can recommend something they can't use?
Shopwired has an extensive tour, which will take you through all the features of the eCommerce platform and there are plenty of free templates for you to choose from so you can get up and running quickly without having to spend a fortune on website design.
Bespoke design is available from Shopwired at £1,195 +VAT, so you'll need to budget for that if you want something that is going to stand out from the crowd.
Those serious about doing business need every advantage they can eke out over the competition. I found the existing free templates to be of a very high standard, so for those on a budget you could quickly start up with a free template and move to a bespoke design when the sales (and revenue!) start coming in.
Amazon Cloud Services host the entire platform, so you'll get blazingly fast server speed and the reliability and efficiency that comes with using the CloudFront Content Delivery Network. No need to mess about with Cloudflare or trying to manage open source hosting platforms because it is all taken care of behind the scenes.
Lemonstand eCommerce Overview
Originally developed as a licensed server based eCommerce solution in 2010, Lemonstand has quickly moved with the times, and in 2014 it made a move to a cloud-based solution. They now offer a cloud-based product similar to Shopify and Bigcommerce.
However, where the former caters principally to the mainstream market, Lemonstand provides a fully customisable solution with unlimited flexibility.
Customisation means that you can shape the checkout process to be exactly how you want it and integrate the whole shopping experience flawlessly with your blog or content management system. Or begin designing your unique shopping experience from the ground up.
Being able to make adjustments at this level though requires coding knowledge, and while you could quite happily use all of the default features out of the box, this is not really for what this product is intended.
Lemonstand is for those who want to hit the ground running with a fully functional eCommerce solution and then develop it into something truly original. It scales as your company grows with no constraints – for example, unlimited products, images and open source website templates.
There are no eCommerce transaction charges, so you won't outgrow the platform (you'll still need to pay payment processing fees of course), and the API feature means that integrating third party “best of breed” solutions is effortless to do.
It all comes at a price though, and by that, I don't mean the cost of the product.
To get the most out of this software and do it justice you will need a web developer to come along for the ride to help bring your creation to life.
Lemonstand is a serious tool for building serious eCommerce websites, not a “one size fits as many as it can” solution.
Shopify eCommerce Website Builder
Choosing an eCommerce website builder is difficult because there are so many of them available. You've probably heard of Shopify though, and this review of Shopify seeks to give you all the necessary information you need to help you make an informed decision.
The first thing that springs to my mind when reviewing any site builder software of substance is “Can you export your site?”.
This is a fundamental requirement because if you are going to build something that is not “Open Source” and therefore freely available then what happens to your beautiful site if and when your provider goes bust, gets taken over or bought out?
Corporate takeovers and buyouts are a common occurrence these days especially in the fast-moving tech industry, and these can contribute to your site going offline and being able to export a backup has to be a prerequisite.
Shopify (and nearly all other website builders I've reviewed ) does support this, and there are also several “Apps” available that will help you with this so that you can export all of your data to a spreadsheet CSV file or XML format. You may need some help to get it imported into something else but at least you can do it, and that's all you need.
Since it's inception in 2005 Shopify continues to hit the numbers and has just released growth figures that show it is expecting a vast revenue surge in 2016 so clearly, it must be doing something right and a record amount of retailers have signed up to the platform in the fourth quarter 2015.
Why Is Shopify So Successful?
Whether you are starting a new online shop or an experienced old hand the key to online success is to spend as little time as possible messing around with the back-end technology and as much as possible on website promotion and customer service. Getting bogged down in the technical details of building an online store can be the death knell for every start-up.
Using a third party that has done most of the spadework for you and makes it easy to implement themes, plug-ins and Apps is what makes it so attractive and combined with its excellent support platform which provides endless design hints and tips it is a “one-stop shop” in its own right.
Weebly Website Builder Review
Weebly is a cloud-based website development tool similar to Wix that lets you create beautiful, professional and functional websites without needing to know a line of code.
Founded in 2007 and based in San Francisco, Weebly is a global platform with a website count of over 30 million active websites.
I put Weebly through its paces to see how it compares with Wix and how easy it was to use.
Why Is Weebly So Popular?
Weebly has developed an industry leading and intuitive drag and drop interface that you use to build your website. You don't need to know any code (although if you do, it does help) and all of the hosting and site support is taken care of for you.
You choose the content elements that you want to place on the page and put them in “placeholders” which contain the element. So for example, you drag and drop an image or text into a placeholder, and the site is built in real time in front of your eyes. No need to go coding and then check that it all works correctly.
This is where the comparison with Wix comes down to the nuts and bolts.
Wix is a pure “drag and drop” interface. Elements can be placed anywhere on the page, and so you get more freedom in how the final design is going to look.
Weebly asks you to drag and drop elements into placeholders, so your design style is slightly cramped, but there is a significant trade-off for this limitation.
Once you set out on your Wix journey, there is no going back. You can't change template midstream but with Weebly, you can, and that might be a significant consideration for you.
BigCommerce Shopping Cart Software
In my Shopify review, I give you all the reasons why it is an excellent choice for building an online store.
However, there are alternatives and BigCommerce is the closest competitor to Shopify. Both have various strengths and weaknesses, and in this review, we'll identify why you should choose one over the other. Hopefully, I'll give you good reasons to choose so that you don't waste time testing something that won't fulfil your final site requirements.
BigCommerce claims that sites using its software grow 2x faster than the industry average which is a pretty big claim so let's see how it matches up.
Building an eCommerce website is time-consuming and labour intensive. It is all the little details that take up your time, so anything an online website builder can do to make it as easy and as painless as possible has to be welcomed. You don't want to be spending the next six months in an infinite tunnel of code with no daylight in sight.
First of all, does BigCommerce pass the export test? Can you export all of your data so that you can quickly start again with an Open Source solution or move to another platform if BigCommerce disappeared overnight?
Yes, you can. There are multiple options for import and export, and your website is automatically backed up as part of your hosting plan so you can sleep well at night!
Don't leave the backups unattended though! Download them regularly to your PC and then make a copy of them on a removable hard drive for data protection. I have an automated system for making backups of all my sites every night and first thing every morning I download all the backups and make a copy which goes in a fireproof safe. I've been burnt several times over the years so from experience I can tell you it is well worth the time and trouble to protect your work.
Bluepark eCommerce Website Builder
Established in 2004 by Richard Clayton, (Linkedin Profile Here) Bluepark has quietly built an impressive client portfolio on the back of what appears to be an exceptional eCommerce software platform backed up by excellent customer support.
Based in Witney, Oxfordshire, UK, Bluepark have high ratings on Trustpilot with many commenters eulogising over their support, so I was looking forward to taking this eCommerce platform for a test drive and checking out the extensive feature list.
Bluepark is one of the dying breeds of companies I've reviewed where the phone is picked up and answered by a real live human, and that marks a refreshing change. EKM, Shopwired and Shopify all have infuriating automated answer phone systems, so Bluepark was off to a good start with added brownie points from the outset from this reviewer.
Software products are developed and distributed so rapidly that support is often given the back seat in the quest to drive profit. Automated answering machines are not the answer to fielding sales and support questions; they merely deflect the inquiry rather than establishing which departments need the most resources to operate efficiently. The goal is to improve the documentation and online support to a level that minimises the volume of calls; you can only do this by feeling the customers pain.
Bluepark has over 2,000 customers (EKM 30,000+, Shopwired 7,000+) so regarding market share, they are one of the smallest UK hosted eCommerce website builders. Bigger doesn't always mean better though, and there is a lot to be said for keeping things manageable, and the support forum reflects that. Many long-time users of the system pitch in with answers to questions as well as staff and it is apparent that Bluepark has built up a loyal user base over many years which tells you that the system is stable and very capable
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