Freewebstore Limited is an eCommerce software provider and hosting company based in Burnley, UK. They recently moved to new offices in Burnley town centre in 2016.
Freewebstore hosts over 350,000 stores in 178 different countries and they've been trading since 2007. That's a lot of hosting to take care of and some pretty impressive numbers.
An eCommerce store with no charges? This is as close as you are going to get in this competitive field. The base product is free, and then if you want to add extras, you'll need to pay a monthly subscription however the company claims to have many satisfied customers that pay zero subscription charges and run a successful business. Although by their advertising claims people who run a premium store sell 10x more product so it wouldn't make any sense to stay with the free version for very long.
Free Website Requirements
The primary requirement for a free web store is that you stay under the 20 products limit. If you were selling clothes, then you have extra leeway over the 20 product limit because you get three product options free of charge so that you could have t-shirts available in XS, S, M, L, XL and XXL sizes and in four colours Red, White, Blue and Yellow for example. This would give a total of 20 x 6 (sizes) x4 (colours) = 480 stock items.
20 Products are enough to test an idea and see if it flies and there are many stores where you wouldn't need more than this to run an eCommerce business.
The second requirement is that you (and your customers) put up with the branding advertisement top left of your store which tells everyone that you are using freewebstore to do business. It wouldn't be so bad if they didn't use a spinning fa fa icon which draws your eye to it. Do you want everyone to know you are using a free service to set up shop?
The control panel setup is very easy to use with simple drop-down menus for each item although I prefer the cPanel style icon layout which makes it visually easier to group together all the tools you need.
Themes And Templates
There are around 40 different template designs to choose from - all free, and there is a demo version of each so that you can view it before you commit to choosing. You can switch templates at any time with the option to save all the work on the existing template so if you change your mind and decide to go back all is not lost. There is an option to change your store URL as well while you develop it before hooking up a domain name to what you've made.
Some of the templates are very basic and will give you more work to do trying to customise them than if you started from scratch. The "Portfolio" template, for example, is pretty horrible with no navigation design and tiny text on the page mixed in with a few images. Some templates have had a bit more work put into them and look quite nice. For example, the "Electron" template would be a good starting point for an electronic affiliate marketing store.
At the bottom of the template section page, it asks if you are a designer and would you like a "storebuilder" account, but there's no link or help box as to what that is.
I chose the "Sunbeam" template to get started. It's a beach theme and a good starting point for my fledgeling website design business!
The first job is to choose the store colours. What I would like to see here is some presets with colour combinations that work together because non-designers are notorious for picking garish and outlandish colour options. That includes me. Whenever I make colour changes I always ask my designer to come up with a colour palette first otherwise the whole thing degenerates into a mess. If you are not sure what you are doing read my guide to choosing the right colour scheme for your website as a primer or check out some of the websites that specialise in website design colour.
I left the colours with their default settings, and I'll come back to them later if I need to.
Adding Your Logo
The logo image is not scaled, so you have to make the picture you are going to use fit the preselected size. I scaled my image to the right size using GIMP (the free image software, not the Pulp Fiction character!) and it displayed OK but a little bit distorted.
Next on the list is the header image. There is no guide or instructions for what size to use or even where this image is going to go, so I uploaded an image and nothing appeared to change. I guessed that this template uses a "slideshow" instead of a "header image" so I moved on. If a template doesn't use a feature, then it shouldn't show in your list of options though.
Creating the slideshow is straightforward enough although you can't upload multiple images in one go, you have to do them individually.
You can configure the slideshow to have a slide or fade effect and specify the time/pause between slides. I liked the option to choose a random starting slide, so a visitor to your site sees something different every time they visit your page, and you can link each slide to a URL.
The slideshow feature works very nicely and is smooth through a transition. Here's the page after this step:
Choose your background colour or image, but I left it as the default. Should this option be the first on the list?
You get the whole selection of Google fonts to choose from. A good safe choice is Open Sans.
Banners & CSS
You can choose to upload a banner to your store although it isn't clear what type of banner you should be adding? You can also upload your CSS to override the default setting.
The next jobs on the design tab are to upload your favicon and install any additional language packs. If you choose to add translations, bear in mind that they only apply to the core navigation and detail text. They won't automatically translate any text you write into a foreign language.
I didn't like the thick black 5px border under the menu so I added some custom CSS to make it easier on the eye like this:
border-bottom: 2px solid #e6e6e6; !important
The slideshow option is a duplicate and should be removed. The last job is to save all your hard work!
Categories And Products
Let us add some categories. Changing or adding a category name automatically changes the menu item name or adds a new one, so this keeps navigation nice and straightforward. For each category you can upload an image to describe it like this:
Once you've added the categories, don't forget to rename them and make them SEO friendly using the URL editor.
Now we need something to sell!
Let's add a product. This time you can add multiple images in one go.
For those that are going to be selling multiple items, there are options for setting postage rules, adding brands and grouping products together under the brand. You can add extra non-product pages so that you can include instructions or tutorials and there is a new "store blog" feature which will enable you to start blogging.
Here's the finished product page
And the checkout page:
Not bad for a couple of hours work. We're all ready to start selling!
The final bits and pieces are to set whether or not you are VAT registered and whether to set the tax rate as included or exclusive of your price. Now you're good to go!
Apps And Tools
There is a good selection of import/export tools, and this might be a very good time to brush up on your spreadsheet skills because being able to modify product prices and descriptions is a lot easier that way than trying to do it all individually. Especially if you have a lot of products.
Abandoned Cart Saver
Something like 80% of shopping carts gets abandoned. That's an amazing figure, and I wrote a guest post about it recently. Simply put - you can't do business without an abandoned cart saver because this tool will tell you where you are going wrong in your approach.
Newsletter Mailing List
The money is in the list right? At least it should be. You can setup email newsletters to let your customers know your new offers.
Perhaps one of this products biggest unsung features. Install a shopping cart on your Facebook business page.
Coupons And Vouchers
Setup coupon or voucher promotions.
Freewebstore supports an excellent range of payment processors, and you won't have any difficulty setting this up. Choose from Stripe, Paypal, Worldpay, Sagepay, NoChex, Payment sense and several other well-known providers.
All payment processing is carried out on the freewebstore domain using a shared SSL certificate in the same way that Shopify works. If you want to do a professional job, you should find a great domain name to put your store on and pay the £60 yearly fee for a dedicated SSL certificate.
Making the base product free and then adding on extras is fraught with difficulty. On the one hand, you want to gain maximum exposure for your product and giving it away free is by far the easiest way to do that. On the other hand generating income is equally important. Walking the tightrope between the two is a hard act to pull off.
The alternative is to make all features available on a free plan but how do you make money out of that?
One possible marketing approach would be to make the product free for three months and then when customers are locked into it put them on a basic plan charge. When you give users a barebones plan and make it free, they don't get to see some of the more advanced features that perhaps they would pay for if they knew they existed.
For example “Abandoned cart savers” are only available on the premium plan, but for anyone serious about doing business on the internet it's an essential requirement. That is where a large proportion of your orders are going to disappear without you knowing how to put it right if you don't have this feature.
I don't have the answer to this, but I do know that giving people free stuff and handicapping it is not the way forward. Freewebstore acknowledges as much when they say that Premium users sell 10x more. Why put yourself at such a disadvantage by using the free version? What we want to achieve is the optimal customer journey. Not making a token effort just because it is free.
This is why EKM eCommerce has taken the approach of making all its features available across the board.
At the lower end price points, this is a great product to rapidly build a quick store and get selling. You can be up and running in a couple of hours, and the biggest delay is going to be waiting for your domain name to propagate if you choose to use one.
My advice is to ignore the free plan and build something that works well very quickly for the cost of hosting a domain name.
That represents excellent value for money.