What is the best platform to sell online? I’ll tell you what the different platforms offer – and let’s start with a plain English definition of a platform.
A platform is the code that makes an online store work. Fix that in your mind because not realising that causes no end of confusion to people who hear the word ‘platform’. They think they have understood it, but they haven’t.
So, a platform is the code that makes an online store work.
There are proprietary platforms, meaning that someone (usually a company) owns the code, and you cannot alter the code. Sometimes you can add some code, but you cannot alter the core code.
Except for major retailers that can afford to build their own sites using proprietary platforms, the usual way to use proprietary platforms is to rent space from them. See more about that below.
There are also open source platforms. Open source means that you can see the code, alter it, and do pretty much what you want with it. WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are examples of open source code.
With a store that you build yourself on an open source platform, you can move it from one web host to another, and because you have the code, you always have the store.
The downside is that building your own website takes skills that you may not have. In that case you can hire a developer, but if you are just starting out and you don’t even know whether your products will sell, that’s an initial expense you might not want.
Software As A Service (SAAS)
If you don’t have the skills, then renting a space on someone else’s platform is the easiest route. It’s the easiest because you don’t have to understand, build, host, or secure anything. It is all done for you. All you have to do is pay the monthly fee to the company and upload your products.
Putting your products on someone else’s proprietary platform is called software as a service (SAAS). That’s because you pay to rent space on the website that the software supplier provides, using the supplier’s proprietary code.
You can use your own domain name, so it looks like you own it. Really you own nothing but the domain name. Stop paying your monthly fee and you will cease to exist.
It might not matter to you whether you build your own open source site or use an SAAS service. That is unless you have some particular needs that can’t be filled unless you build your site yourself. An example of that would be where let’s say you sell your products in increments of twelve units and the proprietary code doesn’t allow that.
SAAS: A Standalone Site Or A Marketplace?
SAAS splits into two kinds. There are marketplaces like Etsy, Zazzle, Folksy, and others where your products and everyone else’s products are on the same site. And there are standalone sites offered by companies like Squarespace, Shopify, BigCartel where only your products are on it.
So, between marketplaces and stand-alone sites, what does each one offer? What are the downsides, and which one gives the biggest bang for the buck?
Comparing The Cost
The advantage of marketplaces like Etsy is that it costs pennies to be on them. That may be a good bet if you don’t want to be paying out more in fees than you expect to take in revenue. That’s especially true if you don’t know whether your products will sell at all.
The key feature of marketplaces is that there is just one site and all the sellers (you included) are on that site. Your products and every other seller’s products are all on that one site.
When a potential customer searches the marketplace site for teapots, and you sell teapots, your teapots will show up along with the teapots of everyone else who sells teapots.
Being on a marketplace has its upsides and downsides. At least people are visiting marketplaces like Etsy, even if you have to jostle with other sellers to be noticed.
At the same time, being on a site with everyone else means our products will be shown next to everyone else’s. And you only have a small space to show yourself off against competing products. If someone picks your product to investigate, then they see your product on a page of its own, but still surrounded by other sellers’ products somewhere on that page.
On a marketplace platform, your best bet is to use SEO to describe your products. You use keywords that tell the Marketplace you sell interesting teapots. If you do a good job then one of your teapots will be shown in a page of competing products. If the photo you use is interesting, you will persuade visitors to click to see your detailed product page of all your teapots and not the product page of your competitor.
With Shopify, Big Commerce, Big Cartel etc, once you have signed up and paid your rent, you are on your own.
You rent space and get a separate site as a division on the company’s site. Your site is running on the platform using the supplied code. To the visitor it looks like you have your own independent site. And if a customer searches your site looking for teapots, and you sell teapots, then yours will be the only ones the person will see. Visitors won’t see the other sites that are run on that software supplier’s platform.
On the other hand, if potential customers search for teapots on Google, the chances of them finding your site are slim. That’s because the chances of your site coming up on the first page of Google search results are more or less zero. You might not even show in the search results at all. If you do, you will probably be on page 29 or something like that.
And you will make almost no sales if you only appear on page 29 of Google’s search results. Well, at least not sales from people who search for you on Google.
You might know how to find customers without Google, and if you do then you have an advantage. Maybe you can use Instagram or Twitter if you have a following.
If not, then how do you get higher up in the search results? That’s a problem for which the answer is long and complicated. Think about it, there are agencies that build their whole business model around helping people reach page one on Google. So it’s a long hard slog to get noticed. Yes, you can push yourself on social media – and it’s free to do so. But it is ‘interruption marketing’ as Seth Godin calls it. You are interrupting people who are there to talk to friends, look at photos, etc. Maybe Instagram is becoming more of a selling platform than a place to hang out.
SAAS Marketplaces: Who Fulfils Customer Orders?
Within marketplace sites there are yet another two options. There are those marketplaces where you make the products and you fulfil the orders. That’s what you do on Etsy.
The second option is where you design the product but the software platform itself does the rest. It makes your products and dispatches them to your customers.
Software platforms that make your products and ship them out have the equipment to make products from your designs. They have the packing materials, boxes, labels, and postage machines needed to ship your products to your customers.
When the software platform makes and ships your designs, they take it all out of your hands. What you get is a message out of the blue that you made a sale and that they are sending you some money. The money is a cut of the sale proceeds. It’s like you are licensing your designs, except you have to bring the products to the attention of likely customers.
With an SAAS site that does the production and shipping, you have no choice about how the product is produced, and you are usually limited to products that can be produced out of flat art. In other words, phone cases and posters are OK, but a crocheted tea cosy would not be possible
If you just want to design this may be the best platform on which to sell online. Choose a software supplier that makes and delivers the products, and spend your time creating product designs.
Actually, even with Etsy and stand-alone sites you don’t have to make the products yourself. You can partner up with a Print On Demand manufacturer. They will make and ship the product direct to your customer for you. But you are still in charge because you can change partners or decide to handle the manufacturing yourself.
A final word about platforms that make and dispatch products made from your designs. The platform sets the base price for making and shipping the product, then you set the selling price. Your cut is the difference between the selling price and the base price.
And that cut might be just 10%. That might seem a bit harsh, but the platform is providing everything that makes the store work.
The problems start when the base price is high compared to the price you can realistically sell the products at. Then there isn’t much wiggle room for you to set a higher price higher customers won’t bite.
It’s a numbers game. If you can roll out hundreds of designs and make hundreds of sales, then it can work. And all you have to do is design the products. Otherwise, platforms that do everything for you are probably not the best platform on which to sell online.
You may think WordPress is only for self-hosted websites where you sell products using WooCommerce or another e-commerce plugin. In fact, without getting in too deep, there are two flavours of WordPress. There is the one you use to build self-hosted sites. And then there is the SAAS version hosted on WordPress.com.
WordPress.com has come a long way since its early days of offering a simple way to get into blogging without having to worry about how to set up a self-hosted WordPress site. The business and the ecommerce plans offer:
Google Analytics support
Remove WordPress.com branding
Custom Domain Name
Email & Live Chat Support
Unlimited Premium Themes
Advanced Design Customisation
monetisation (WordAds, Adsense and affiliate ads)
The ability to add plugins
I think the biggest reason you might want to choose WordPress.com over Squarespace or Shopify is flexibility and retained value. If at some point you wanted to self-host your store, you could export all your settings/database information/themes/etc. And I believe the Happiness Engineers at WordPress.com will help you move your store. I am pretty sure you can’t do this with Squarespace or Shopify. Stop paying and you have nothing.
I haven’t put the prices for the various services here, just the names and the links. Prices vary a lot between companies. The link to WordPress.com is an affiliate link where if you take it up, I would get a commission.
Etsy – You make the product and dispatch it to the customer. Or you can get a production partner to manufacture and ship the goods for you.
Folksy – You make the product and dispatch it to the customer. For UK sellers.
Society6 – You design the product and Society6 dispatches it to the customer and handles customer service.
Redbubble – You design the product and Redbubble makes it and dispatches it to the customer.
CafePress – You design the product and CafePress dispatches it to the customer.
NuMonday – You make the product and dispatch it to the customer.
Zazzle – You make the product and dispatch it to the customer.
Spoonflower – For fabric, wallpaper, bedding… You design the product and Spoonflower dispatches it to the customer.
SAAS Stand-Alone Sites
Whenever I write out this list, I have to check the links because sites keep disappearing – such as Selz (which seems to have shut up shop completely), Kong, which stopped accepting new stores on its platform and now seems to have disappeared, and Shop Builder Pro which is not in the list because it is not accepting new signups.
I repeat – you need to be alert to the consequences of putting all your eggs in one basket. What have you got if the platform shuts up shop? If that happens, then you have the domain name and nothing else because the hances are there is no way to export your setup to another platform.
That said, some of these platforms offer a free tier – and that’s a way to experiment with very little downside.