The Best Online Store Software buyers guide by Inspector Jones

We’ve reviewed the top solutions to get your store online, so that you can get your products listed, and start taking orders and making sales quickly.

The Best Online Store Solution for Small Businesses

Shopify

For small businesses, our independent review recommends Shopify as the best way to get your business online. It makes it easy to set up an online store, stepping you through the process of building the store, adding products, taking orders, and interacting with your customers. Shopify is used by over 60,000 businesses. Shopify also offers a free 14-day trial so you can see how it works for yourself.

The Best Ecommerce Solution for Medium-sized Business

Volusion

For medium or larger businesses, our independent review recommends Volusion for ecommerce. It provides a high-quality, professional service with great features. Volusion also provides more advanced features like affiliate programs, rewards points, daily deals, and can also integrate with your Amazon or Ebay store. If you’re planning to sell thousands of different products, and have a serious online presence, Volusion is a great solution.

The Ecommerce Shortlist

Special note

For very small businesses which are mostly services-based, with perhaps a handful of products to sell online, you might want to look at Planet Soho. Planet Soho is a little different to the other ecommerce packages below. It offers a way to track your hours, manage your contact lists, create invoices for your clients, and also sell a few items online. For a simple, low-cost solution (particularly if your main business isn’t online), I recommend you have a look at Planet Soho.

What To Look For

Ecommerce, or online store software, helps get your products online and take orders across the internet. We reviewed the best solutions in the industry across the breadth of features, to find the best for you. We’ve reviewed what the customer sees, and what they don’t.

How you interact with the customer:
  • Great customer experience - great storefront
  • Purchasing / payments - must be easy to use, and maximise revenue
  • Simplicity and ease of use
  • Managing your customers and marketing - tracking customers, mailouts, integration with facebook and other social media,
  • Flexible control of the website (how it looks, adding a blog and extra content), and control over how your website appears on google and other search engines
Behind-the-scenes:
  • Managing back office - products, orders and inventory. Must support flexible rules, and complex setup. Automation, bulk edting and import/export to make your job as easy as possible
  • Availabilty of apps for more complex setup and to run your back-office operations
  • Cost-effective pricing
  • Advanced features, like gift registries, reward points, wishlists, managing multiple stores, digital downloads, daily deals, and analytics
  • High quality support, robust architecture, good ecosystem of different apps and integrations for your future needs

Pricing

Best value pricing: Shopify (for small businesses) and Volusion (medium-to-large)

"Shopify and Volusion are the best value ways to get your business online. We recommend Shopify for small businesses; for medium-to-large businesses, Volusion."

ecommerce pricing

All of the services reviewed offer a variety of different service packages, based on the size and complexity of your store. They all offer a 14-day (or longer) trial, for free. We’ve reviewed 4 different setups, from the most basic to the most advanced, to find the best value. Shopify and Volusion are the best value ways to get your business online. We recommend Shopify for small businesses; for medium-to-large businesses, Volusion.

*Note: All pricing is correct as of October, 2013.

PRICING TEST 1: SIMPLEST POSSIBLE SOLUTION FOR SMALL BUSINESS

For the most basic setup possible, listing only 10 products, we recommend Shopify.

  • Shopify: $14 (Starter) + 2% transaction fee
  • Volusion: $15 (Mini) no transaction fee
  • Magento go: $15 (Get Going) no transaction fee
  • 3dcart: $19.99 (Mini) no transaction fee
  • Bigcommerce: $24.95 (Bronze) no transaction fee
PRICING TEST 2: MID-RANGE FEATURES FOR SMALL BUSINESS

For most small businesses, who need middle-of-the-range features, and listing 750 products, we recommend Shopify or Volusion.

  • Shopify: $29 (Basic) + 2% transaction fee
  • Volusion: $35 (Bronze) no transaction fee
  • Magento go: $65 (Go Beyond) no transaction fee
  • 3dcart: $65.99 (Professional) no transaction fee
  • Bigcommerce: $79.95 (Gold) no transaction fee
PRICING TEST 3: MID-RANGE FEATURES FOR MEDIUM-SIZED BUSINESS

For medium-sized businesses needing middle-of-the-range features, and listing 2500 products, we recommend Volusion.

  • Volusion: $65 (Silver) no transaction fee
  • Shopify: $79 (Professional) + 1% transaction fee
  • 3dcart: $99.99 (Professional +) no transaction fee
  • Bigcommerce: $149.95 (Platinum) no transaction fee
  • Magento go: $125 (Go Anywhere) no transaction fee
PRICING TEST 4: ADVANCED FEATURES FOR MEDIUM-SIZED BUSINESS

For medium-sized businesses who need advanced features, and listing 10,000 products, we recommend Volusion:

  • Volusion: $125 (Gold) no transaction fee
  • Magento go: $125 (Go Anywhere) no transaction fee
  • 3dcart: $129.99 (Power Plan) no transaction fee
  • Bigcommerce: $149.95 (Platinum) no transaction fee
  • Shopify: $179 (Unlimited) no transaction fee

Storefront - the customer experience

Best customer experience: Shopify

We recommend you look for a large number of high-quality themes, particularly ones that have been created recently

We’ve found that the most important factor in customer experience is the theme that you select, plus the ability to customise the solution to fit your exact needs. Themes include your store’s layout, colours and structure. We recommend you look for a large number of high-quality themes, particularly ones that have been created recently.

Shopify provides a library with hundreds of high-quality themes. While there are plenty of themes you can purchase from Shopify, you can also purchase themes elsewhere, or get a web developer to build a custom theme. Shopify provide some of the most modern and best value-for-money themes in the industry.

Volusion Theme Store
The Volusion Theme Store has hundreds of themes for sale

Volusion have a library of over 300 themes. It includes excellent range and quality, with industry-leading design. Volusion also allows you to directly edit themes after you’ve installed - to tweak small changes, or make major rewrites.

Bigcommerce provide over 100 free themes. We’ve found some good ones, however the quality is mixed. You can customise themes after installing them.

Magento go offers 39 basic themes, which we found to be very similar to each other. Independent themes are available (or you can hire a web developer to create a custom theme). After installing, you can fully customise themes.

3dcart provides over 70 free themes, with many more for $99. The quality of themes is mixed, and many themes appear older.

Purchasing and payments

Best payments solution: Volusion, Shopify, Bigcommerce, and Magento go

A good payments solution should be simple for customers to follow, and maximise your revenue. This does depend on your choice of payment gateway and how it integrates with shopping cart. We recommend you also look for opportunities to upsell and cross-sell as part of the checkout process.

Shopify Checkout Options
Shopify provides simple checkout options

We particularly liked Volusion’s one-page checkout process. Shopify, Bigcommerce and Magento Go all have good checkout processes, with opportunities to cross-sell. We’ve heard of some complaints about the 3dcart checkout process, but have heard that improvements are coming.

To automate the payment and checkout process, you’ll also need to include all rules for calculating shipping and tax. All of the options provide solid options for shipping calculation and tax calculation. We found that Shopify and Volusion both pre-filled in the tax rates (we’re in Australia), whereas other providers required that we did it ourselves.

All of the providers give you a choice of payment gateways (the company who processes the credit card transaction), or allow you to take payments through PayPal.

All of the providers we reviewed also provide “abandoned cart recovery” functionality. This allows you to see who has added products to their shopping cart, but never made final payment… so that you can contact these customers and follow-up the sale.

Managing the back-office

Best for back-office: Volusion and Magento go

The best solutions support flexible rules, with complex setup where you need it; bulk editing/automation to manage a large inventory; and a flexible workflow for handling orders

While we’ve just reviewed the inbuilt features, most ecommerce services allow you to install extra “apps” or “extensions”. These provide additional features, often to help you manage shops with a more complex setup or back-office operations. Apps are generally provided by independent developers, and may cost extra. Shopify, Volusion, Bigcommerce and Magento all have a wide range (100+) of different apps, while 3dcart has around 80 different apps available.

We looked for good features to mange products, orders and inventory. The best solutions support flexible rules, with complex setup where you need it; bulk editing/automation to manage a large inventory; and a flexible workflow for handling orders. We’ve found that Volusion and Magento Go have the most powerful and flexible back-office features.

We recommend you look for:

  • Product management - flexible options (like size, colour, shape and weight), configurable rules for complex products, and the ability for customers to compare products
  • Inventory management - should allow you to import/export from spreadsheets, maintain inventory (including multiple stores and/or warehouses), alert on low-stock levels, and allow you to bulk update a large number of records at once
  • Order management - a configurable workflow to meet your specific needs, printing of packing slips, partial shipping / multiple batches, refunds/returns, cancelled orders and on-hold orders
  • Point-of-sale (POS) solution and the ability to accept telephone orders

Shopify has some great integration with services for drop-shipping and order fulfilment. We like their simple inventory management, product management and order management which covers all the basics that a small business needs. The area that Shopify really shines is their industry-leading POS solution - which allows you to make sales directly in your own bricks-and-mortar store, using an iPad.

Volusion has a very good order management system and inventory management, which also supports multiple warehouses. They provide features to track your vendors and supply chain, as well as integrate with drop-shipping services. Volusion also has some powerful rules to manage products, and a basic POS system.

We like the order management features in Bigcommerce, which has comprehensive support for managing shipping, returns and your workflow. They also include basic single-warehouse inventory management.

Magento Go Product Options
One of Mangento go’s management screens

Magento go is highly configurable, and has a track record for success in ecommerce. The solution has strong order management and workflow features, and we particularly like their audit logging capabilities.

3dcart includes basic inventory management, product management and order management features.

Marketing and Managing Customers

Best for marketing: Volusion

While all of the ecommerce services we reviewed provide some marketing and customer management features, we think that most of them fall short of providing all of the features you’ll need. You’ll probably need to sign up for an email marketing service to manage newsletters and regular communication with your customers.

We looked for the following features:

  • Social network integration - allowing you to post deals or promotions directly to social media, use your facebook page as a store, and allowing customers to like/tweet/pin/share your products, login through their existing social media accounts
  • Selling through other channels - like ebay and Amazon
  • Discounts, promotions and coupon codes
  • Customer management - allowing customers to set up their own accounts and profiles, and customer grouping features
  • Affiliate marketing - to track sales referred from your partners, in return for commissions

All of the providers reviewed offer good customer management features.

Our favourite solution for marketing is Volusion. Volusion has good integration with social media for your marketing efforts. We’re impressed by their CRM solution, which gives you more ability to manage interactions with your customers. Volusion allows you to sell directly on Amazon, ebay or Facebook. We also like the features available to launch an affiliate marketing program. Finally, Volusion has a powerful email newsletter solution, so you don’t need to sign up for a separate provider.

We really like the way that Shopify manages customer accounts and signups. They also have good support for managing promotions with discounts and coupon codes. Expect to use 3rd party apps for more advanced marketing, like email, and social integration.

Bigcommerce Marketing Options
Some of Bigcommerce’s marketing functionality

Bigcommerce also allows you to sell directly on ebay or Facebook. We’re impressed with Bigcommerce’s ability to integrate with shopping comparison sites, to extend the reach and visibility of your store.

Magento go includes some basic newsletter functionality, and also allows you to manage on-site promotions with advertising banners. They also include affiliate marketing features.

3dcart includes the ability to sell directly on Facebook. The solution provides good integration with social media - widgets that allow customers to like or bookmark your products. They also include a basic CRM for managing your customer interactions, and support affiliate marketing programs.

Simplicity and ease of use

Best for ease-of-use: Shopify

We really liked Shopify's balance of simplicity and features; it is beautifully designed and easy to use.

Shopify has a great walk-through to help you set up the store - it’s very simple, helpful, and not too daunting. We found that Shopify kept a simple user-interface, and didn’t have too many buttons or features in the way. The menus are logically organised, and it’s easy to navigate around. We really liked Shopify’s balance of simplicity and features; it is beautifully designed and easy to use.

Shopify walks you through setting up your store
Shopify walks you through setting up your store

Planet Soho is an interesting solution, with just enough features to get the job done. We think this is good for businesses that deal mostly with services, or very small home-based businesses. Planet Soho also includes some good features to manage your contacts and clients, track and send invoices

Volusion has far more features than Shopify, so naturally has bigger menus and more buttons/links on the screen. We like that they automatically set up the service for you, so you’re not starting from a blank canvas. Volusion also lest you edit your products directly within the store view (from what a customer would see), whereas all of the other tools require you to log in to the administration tools.

Bigcommerce, like Volusion, has more advanced and complex features while still remaining easy to use and understand. We do like the “quick launch wizard”, which provides a good walkthrough of the setup and launch process.

Magento go is more complex, and takes more training to understand fully. Magento is an older solution, used by larger vendors so has more complex functionality.

I found 3dcart confusing to set up, because of its complexity. While 3dcart does have a wizard to step you through the setup process, I still found it more difficult than the other options.

Managing Website and Search Engines

Best for search engines: Bigcommerce

While features vary a little, any of these ecommerce solutions will help your store be found on Google, Bing and other search engines

Want people to find your store using Google? Fine-grained control over the website and code lets you control how your store is viewed and displayed by search engines. To help more people find your site, we looked for features to:

  • Customise page titles, meta tags, microdata and URL, which gives you control over how your website appears in search results
  • Publish a sitemaps.xml file, which helps search engines find all of the pages in your store
  • Write a blog or articles, which encourages your site to appear in more searches

Volusion helps search engines find your site
Volusion helps search engines find and display your site properly

Overall, we were impressed by the control available in all of the solutions. While features vary a little, any of these ecommerce solutions will help your store be found on Google, Bing and other search engines. Shopify, 3dcart and Volusion all provide this.

Bigcommerce extends search engine optimisation with more advanced functionality. We liked the ability to link your store with popular shopping comparison sites, so that more people can discover your products. Bigcommerce also integrates with your Google Adwords account, to control paid advertising.

Magento go has the most powerful control over the website itself. You can run an entire, complex website from Magento, which includes features like polls, URL rewrites, and full editing of theme files.

Advanced features

Best for advanced features: Volusion

Volusion ecommerce dashboard
Volusion provides a dashboard view, as well as reporting and analytics

While all of the products support reporting, analytics and product reviews, other complex features are only available in some of the packages we reviewed. Some of the highlights are:

  • Point-of-sale software - Shopify has a great iPad POS solution available, and Volusion also has a POS solution you can access through any web browser (PC or tablet)
  • Gift registry and wishlist functions are available in 3dcart
  • Gift certificates are supported by Volusion, Bigcommerce and Magento go
  • A full reward points programme is built into Volusion
  • Magento go allows you to have a store with multiple languages
  • Digital downloads (e.g. ebooks or software) are supported by all of the services using plugins or apps. 3dcart has good inbuilt support for digital files (including multiple file downloads and allocating serial numbers), as does Bigcommerce (including limiting the time a download is available, or the number of times it can be used), and Volusion
  • Deal-of-the-day stores are supported by Volusion and 3dcart
  • Product reviews (from customers) are supported by all of the packages

Market share and support

Best for market share and support: Volusion and Shopify

We’ve been really surprised at the quality of support from all of the ecommerce providers. In writing this review, we’ve been contacted and offered one-on-one assistance by each of the companies, and we believe that all of them provide good quality support.

MARKET SHARE

Based on market share of the platforms reviewed:

  • Volusion has over 40,000 stores, and $11 billion in sales
  • Shopify has 60,000 stores, and has made over $2 billion in sales
  • Bigcommerce has over 40,000 stores, and has made over $2 billion in sales
  • Magento Go has over 10,000 stores (Inspector Jones estimate). Magento has many customers who host their own store using other products (Community edition and Enterprise edition). They claim 150,000 merchants and over $1 trillion in sales across all of the Magento products.
  • 3dcart has over 10,000 stores
  • Planet Soho has signed over 1,000,000 small businesses, however the vast majority of these don't use the Planet Soho storefront (we estimate that only a few thousand do)

Summary

We’ve looked at 6 solutions for ecommerce, from all angles, and think they are all good options. All of the products reviewed have their strengths, and thousands of happy customers. Our two main recommendations are below; If you’re looking for more customised advice, you can contact Inspector Jones, or sign up for a free trial to review them for yourself.

FOR SMALL BUSINESSES

For small businesses, looking for basic or middle-of-the-range features, Shopify is our choice. We like the simplicity and ease-of-use, and the fact that it just worked for everything we tried to do. Shopify has a great library of themes to change how it looks to your customers. They also boast a great selection of apps to extend functionality and integrate with your other business systems. Pricing for Shopify and custom themes is the best value for smaller businesses. It’s no surprise that they’ve attracted more stores than any other cloud-hosted ecommerce service.

FOR MID-SIZED BUSINESSES

For mid-sized businesses, those who want to list more products or want more flexibility, Volusion is our recommendation. We like its strong breadth of features, and it really packs a punch in terms of power. Volusion also has some of the best pricing across the board, and is the best value solution for larger stores. Stores using Volusion look great, thanks to the high-quality themes available. The platform has sold over $11 billion in products, which is enormous.