What is the best platform on which to sell online when you are just starting out?
And just so you know, this isn’t a recommendation or review article. I am not going to say this one is better, or this one is worse. What I am going to do is tell you what this kind of platform offers so you understand more about how to choose the one that suits you.
Let’s start with a definition of a platform. A platform is the code that makes an online store work. There are proprietary platforms, meaning that someone owns the code, and there are also open source platforms like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and others. Open source means that anyone can see the code, alter it, and do pretty much what they want with it.
You can build your own site with one of the open source platforms. You can also pay to use some of the proprietary platforms (such as ExpressionEngine) to build your own site. Either way, you are building something that is completely yours. It is not built on someone else’s website.
Build Your Own Or Rent Space On Someone Else’s Platform?
Building your own website takes skills that you may not have. 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 it is do is pay the monthly fee to the company and upload your products.
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. With your own store that you build yourself you can move it around from one web host to another and because you have the code, you always have the store.
It might not matter which way you choose to go, unless you have some particular needs that can’t be filled unless you build your site yourself. But that’s outside the scope of this article.
Having your products on someone else’s website 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 platform.
Then the road splits. You either go with a marketplace such as Etsy, where your products and everyone else’s are on the same site. Or you go with Squarespace, Shopify, BigCartel etc. where you get your own site.
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?
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.
With Shopify, Big Commerce, etc, once you have signed up and paid your rent, you are on your own.
That’s why being on a shared site like Etsy is so attractive. At least people are visiting Etsy, even if you have to jostle with other sellers to be noticed.
The key feature of marketplaces is that there is just one site and all the sellers are on that site. That is, each seller rents space on that one marketplace website. As a seller, your products and every other seller’s products are all on that one site.
If a potential customer searches the site for teapots, and you sell teapots, then your teapots will show up. And so will the teapots of everyone else who sells teapots will be shown to that potential customer.
And that’s the problem. Your products will be shown next to everyone else’s. You have a small square to show yourself off in a grid of competing products.
Imagine you are like someone standing by the wall in the dancehall, waiting to be asked to dance. Yes, you can wear fancy clothes to stand out, but there’s a limit to how much you can do. How much can you stand out from the crowd in a space as big as a postage stamp?
On a platform like Etsy, you use SEO to describe your products. You do it in a way that is likely to match what people are looking for. You can even do your keyword research before you have designed any products, to see what people are buying. And then make those.
If people are searching for what you are offering, then your product is shown. But it is shown in a grid of competing products. At that point it is the attractiveness of your image that will convince visitors. Its job is to convince visitors to click to see your detailed product page. The design tempts customers to click through to your page and not the product page of your competitor.
With standalone sites like Shopify or BigCartel, 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 (at least to the visitor who doesn’t know about SAAS) 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 because the customer is on your site.
They won’t see the other sites that are run on that software supplier’s platform. If the potential customer searches your site for teapots and you don’t sell teapots, then the search will come up empty.
On the other hand, if they 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, 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.
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 or whatever.
The way to get noticed on Etsy is the same as getting noticed on your own SAAS site. And that is by search engine optimisation. And that is a whole other topic beyond the scope of this article. But it’s an important topic you are going to have to get to grips with whatever kind of store you run.
Who Fulfils Customer Orders?
Within marketplace sites there are yet another two categories. There are those marketplaces where you make the products and you fulfil the orders. That’s what you do on Etsy.
The second category 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 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.
Check these out for which you think is the best platform on which to sell online.
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.
SAAS Stand-Alone Sites
The toughest e-Commerce feedback to hear is how many people dropped off buying from you at the last moment. They put the products in the basket and they even went partway through the checkout process. And then they stopped, and decided to leave.
The best looking websites may not be the best platform on which to sell online if the checkout experience is poor.
As customers who have bought online, we know what is happening, at least when we are buying a creative product. It’s a bit different when we are buying a widget. We need a widget, but we don’t yearn after it.
With a creative product, the first thing that happens is that the emotional brain says that you want the product. It’s pure emotion. And if we go ahead and buy it, then afterwards our logic brain steps it. It will tell us why it was a good idea that we bought the thing.
During the process of buying, however, your logic brain will be screaming that you don’t really want that thing. And the longer and more difficult the process between deciding you want the thing and being able to complete the purchase, the more likely it is that you will just abandon the purchase. I know it is true; as a customer I have done that exact thing many times.
A good platform is one that speeds you through the checkout process. Every demand you make of your customer in order for them to complete the purchase makes it more likely they never will. It’s called friction.
Don’t Make Me Think
Steve Krug’s excellent book on website usability talks about things like an unexpected format for your credit card information. We all know it is two digits for the month and two digits for the year. So why do some websites ask for all four digits for the year. That extra bit of brain processing time is just the excuse the rational brain needs to jump ship.
ApplePay, Google Pay, the Shop app from Shopify, Paypal and others – all of these minimise friction. As soon as you identify yourself with an email address, they recognise you. If you are buying a physical product that has to be shipped to you, you don’t have to input that information when you hit the Buy button. You don’t have to input that information because Apple Pay or whatever already has that information.
The Best Platform On Which To Sell Online
The takeaway message is to look at the platform that interests you, that you like the look of. Then ask whether its checkout system is going to slow down your customers and lose you sails. In fact, start at the other end and judge the best platforms on which to sell online as the ones with the best checkout. Food for thought.
A Final Word
If you are just starting out, ou are probably looking at selling to consumers. But you may get to the stage where you are looking at selling to other businesses. In that case, you might want to read this article about the problems of trying to mix B2C and B2B in one store.