EKM eCommerce Website Builder Overview
An eCommerce website builder conceived in a back bedroom, back in 2002, EKM lays claim to fame as the most popular UK eCommerce solution with 1 in 5 eCommerce sites powered by its software and over 30,000 users.
Recent price increases (which come into effect in October 2016) have annoyed existing customers who have been with the service a long time, and that's something I'll get to a bit later but at first glance EKM looks like a solid performer and an excellent choice for budding UK entrepreneurs. In this review I'll kick the tyres, lift the hood and take it for a test drive to see what type of eCommerce store you can build with it:
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First a little background. Creating an eCommerce solution that worked "in the cloud" back in 2002 was insightful, to say the least. Lemonstand only made a move from server-based licences to what we now call Saas (software as a service) in 2012. Shopify was founded in 2004, Bigcommerce in 2009 and while Volusion claims to have been founded in 1999 the earliest recorded website for them is 2004 so EKM could reasonably claim to be the first of its kind.
CEO and founder Anthony Chesworth received the Daily Mail entrepreneur of the year award in 2010 and has won businessman of the year, eCommerce business of the year and many other plaudits over the 14 years he has run the company. He has a personal website, and you can view his LinkedIn profile here.
EKM Systems Limited employs over 85 people, has two UK offices and is valued at over £50 million. The impressive customer list includes Lotus Cars, ITV and PGA Golf.
The opening dashboard layout is designed to take you through setting up your store in steps and getting you "live" with your new shop in less than 24 hours.
Themes And Templates
I always start with themes and templates because while you can argue that user experience is paramount, if the site doesn't look nice your visitors will click away. Try selling to customers that aren't there anymore! Having a nice looking site is an excellent starting point for any eCommerce store.
As well as being aesthetically pleasing your site template should be responsive because it won't be long before smartphones are the primary sales channel.
Both Shopify and Bigcommerce charge extra for their themes at the cost of between £75 -£150 so making all of their themes completely free of charge gives EKMPowershop a significant market advantage.
All of the themes are organised into categories so you can find something to suit your business quickly, and if you don't see anything you like, then there are plenty more in the "Generic" category. You can change themes after you've started work on your store so you can get going without over thinking the template selection process. However, some templates have features that others don't, and if you do change themes, you may lose some of your work where the "attribute" field doesn't exist in your new template.
It'd be good if the developers included a "search templates by feature" so that if you did want to change the template, you could find another one that matched your template features. Some templates have "Tabbed Product Boxes", "Banner Faders" or "Expandable Content" so you'd like to search for templates that contain those matching items.
In a couple of minutes I found my theme and had the beginnings of my new store up and running:
All of the content is editable by clicking on the little yellow edit box. The shop name is changed under "Settings" (it took me a few minutes to work that one out after clicking all around it!) so if you have the text ready you could be up and runnning with a new store in just a couple of hours. All of the colours can be changed via a colour picker and the mobile store design can be customised individually as well if you want to. EKM has taken the route of providing an entirely seperate responsive design for mobile rather than trying to make one template work across all devices. This makes sense because the amount of work that goes into responsive design can easily run into hundreds of hours of development time and it all adds to the cost.
If you want to change the position of elements on the page, then you can do this, but it breaks compatibility with the upgrade component so my advice would be not to do this. Once you part company with updates then you lose a major asset of building your shop in cloud-based software - that of receiving continual product refinements and improvements. If you do accidentally choose "custom layout" you do get the option to "revert to default" so no need to panic if you hit that button!
If you don't want to be confined by the limitations of layout, then I'd suggest you look elsewhere for your eCommerce solution, but before doing that we need to have a discussion about what it is you want to achieve.
If your goal is to get your store up and running quickly with the minimum of fuss and without developer help or support, then EKM does the job admirably. There are enough customisation options available to help you make something that looks great and stands out from the crowd. And you can do it without developer knowledge, as long as you can use a Word Processor and have basic computer skills you can build a great store using this product.
If however, you want to produce something unique and radically alter the design then you'd be better off with something like Lemonstand which is designed for that purpose. Shopify or Bigcommerce can be modified to an extent but you'll need developer help to do it and that, of course, all adds to the overall cost. Shopify uses a "Liquid" templating system, so you'll need particular expertise for that job. Lemonstand uses open source tools like Bourbon and Neat and so again it is specialist assistance required.
Adding pages is a simple exercise, and you can add as many pages as you need.
Categories And Products
Adding categories and products is very simple, and you get the option to hide categories while you populate them with data. You can clone products to make adding lots of them a breeze, and there are advanced options for adding product SKU's, weight (for calculating delivery charges) and gift wrapping. It's possible to build a custom list of product options for example engraving messages, sending personal messages or uploading images to be printed on a T-shirt. It's a comprehensive system which will support all but the most demanding of store owners.
Apps And Tools
EKM has a big list of extra features that you can install to add functionality to your store. From Abandoned cart statistics to adding a Wordpress blog, there is a huge range of Apps to choose from that have been developed over the years. It's done this way so that complete beginners to an eCommerce solution don't get overloaded with piles of stuff to configure.
You just select the Apps that are important to you and go ahead and install them. For fans of giving customers good reasons to return to your store, there are some great add-ons including Discount Management (coupon codes) Promo stickers and Loyalty points.
EKM also offer an API which is freely available so that developers can integrate their software. Third party integration for eCommerce software providers is the way to go so that they can concentrate on making their core software function better and let someone else worry about integrating mailing list or accounting software which are add-ons that can support entire companies in their own right.
Talking of which the third party add-on list appears to be out of date as Kashflow accounting say their software has been integrated with EKM. Sage Accounting is also supported. I couldn't find an integration for Mailchimp though, and it may well be worth EKM developing add-ons for more third party software to keep up with the competition.
This is where EKM scores heavily because it supports all of the major UK payment gateways and you won't have to go finding a developer to integrate with your ideal payment gateway. EKM supports Paypal, Sagepay, Worldpay, Nochex and Cardstream but not Payment Sense apparently. They also support all the major digital wallets as well as Amazon Payments and Bitcoin. Not all of these payment systems appear in the drop-down list, but if you look closely at the bottom of the page, you'll see a link to all the supported payment gateways.
Your store includes all your hosting needs provided by a fully scaleable hosting architecture. There are no bandwidth or excess storage charges which are where some solutions like Volusion and 3dcart are going wrong. EKM guarantee 99.9% uptime and 24/7 server monitoring. Security is one of the big hidden bonuses you get with using cloud-based eCommerce services because the network is monitored by professionals to keep miscreants at bay.
For those of you who are going to start an eCommerce site for the first time then the pricing is excellent compared to the competition. But at the top end, the product is overpriced and needs a rethink.
Many Saas services struggle with the issue of pricing their product and end up with a complicated feature table with less and less functionality being available the further down the price scale you go. EKM have opted for the much better solution of providing ALL functionality across the board. This is the right way to go because holding back features doesn't give the customer an opportunity to explore them. Shopify for example removes the ability to access the abandoned cart saver tool on its entry package and arguably that makes it worthless, because such a high percentage of carts ARE abandoned. The ability to be able to try and diagnose the problem and/or email the customer is an essential tool, not a nice to have.
However giving away the farm comes at a cost and to try and recoup some revenue EKM have opted to bundle in account manager services and provide an eCommerce consultant with it's higher end package. If your turnover is up to £150k in a twelve month period, you'll pay £49.99 per month but once you go over that threshold to say £155k, then your monthly fixed cost rises by £100 per month with no discernible extra features to show for it.
An eCommerce consultant can certainly make a big difference to an online business by providing knowledge transfer gained across 30,000+ stores. That's the idea behind this move, but until a customer sees the benefit they only see the expense, and it's a massive increase in monthly expenditure to justify. Jumping from £49.99 to £149.99 is missing a price point.
Perhaps it would be better to identify those customers that they can upsell extra services to rather than forcing a service on people who won't immediately see the value in it.
Besides which for those working on small margins an extra £12,000 in fixed monthly costs over 12 months could mean the difference between staying in business or packing up shop.
If you are in no danger of breaching the 150k sales limit then at £49.99 EKM is excellent value for money. At £149.99 per month, it begins to lose some of its appeal. Unless of course, you have margins that can support it easily.
One hidden benefit of moving on to the higher tier price plan is that you'll also move to a Virtual Private Server which runs your dedicated web service and will speed up your site.
Perhaps the main reason you would want to choose this company to host your site for you. EKM have excellent customer service, and when I tested out the live chat, I got an immediate response. As well as UK telephone and email support you'll also get access to a community forum where you'll be able to ask questions and chew the fat with other users which can be an invaluable source of information.
EKM has evolved from its early beginnings into a fully rounded eCommerce solution that is easy to set up and will have you up and running in 24 hours. Just like it says on the tin. There are enough customisation options so that you can make something that looks the part and with integration options for all the main UK payment gateways this is the ideal choice for new eCommerce startups turning over a respectable £10k per month.
Is EKM an alternative to Shopify? Absolutely and with UK customer support into the bargain. Not being able to modify the templates without breaking away from the upgrade path is a minor drawback because in my experience focusing on marketing and sales is far more preferable to tweaking code.