How to Choose The Best E-commerce Platform

What’s the best eCommerce platform for your business, how to choose, and the three most important factors that make for a great eCommerce shopping cart.

“What’s the best shopping cart?”

I’m writing this article because I continue to get this question in my advisory practice.

There are almost 90MM answers to the question online, but — surprise surprise — most of those answers aren’t that helpful.

Why? Because they tell you to create a spreadsheet with every possible feature you want in a solution down the left side and all two-hundred-plus shopping carts across the top.  

Then they ask you to start researching the features available in each cart and check the relevant cell in the spreadsheet.

Just add up the checks, and there’s your answer!

OK, be honest: when was the last time that approach worked for you on anything? Which car to buy? Which person to marry?

The last time I checked, every SAAS company out there promises every feature-set to everybody which makes those feature grids completely useless and paralyzing.

Newsflash: there is no ‘best ecommerce platform’ for you. No 100% perfect fit. Even if you found it, your business will change, and you’ll need some more features that you can’t anticipate right now.

As with all things, you can’t let this decision prevent execution: decide, move on, and get to selling.

In this article, I’ll lay out my preferred method of making this decision and current top shopping cart picks for 2013 and 2014. And I’ll explain why “2014” is significant.

Why Listen to Me?

“Wait, just who is this guy, and who does he think he is, spoutin’ off about ecommerce platforms and value-weighted decision matrices?!”

Well, I’ll tell you — I started my online store in 2003. Back then online shopping cart options were limited, expensive, or crappy, so I built a simple PHP-based shopping cart for my store.

It worked well until we surpassed a couple million in revenue at which point we migrated to Magento.

And since I sold my business and started an agency, I have been working with ecommerce retailers running a number of platforms — your Shopifys, your Magentos, your Big Commerces, your Lemonstands, etc. — so I have a working knowledge of them all.

But that isn’t why you should heed my advice. You should heed my advice because at heart I’m “a business guy” not a programmer.

And choosing a shopping cart should be a business decision.

I’ve found that too much shopping cart advice, particularly the advice from agencies selling hosting or migration services, is from the perspective of an engineer.

They’ll dwell on the features of each cart when we all know it’s benefits that matter: how will this cart help you sell more/better/faster or reduce my costs?

My business was bootstrapped and profitable from inception, and I chose our shopping cart to increase that profitability not curtail it.

I had to think about our business, our team’s strengths and weaknesses, and our overall strategy, and that informed my shopping cart decisions.

I recommend you take the same approach.

The Three Factors and Three Ecommerce Platforms That Matter

I am going to save you a heap of time: only consider three online shopping carts for three reasons. Yes, there are over two hundred shopping carts you could use (not including custom solutions), but I recommend considering only three for the following vital reasons:

1. These ecommerce platforms are the most popular, and popularity matters

I ran the names of the major shopping carts through Google Trends, and these three are far and away the most popular in 2013. Granted, “number of searches” does not equate to “installed base”, but I’ll bet you a Katz’s pastrami sandwich that the two are strongly correlated.

Best Ecommerce Platform of 2014 - Google Trends

Your response? “But if every other shopping cart jumped off a cliff, that doesn’t mean I should…”

My answer? True in general matters of conformity and self-expression, but not for software with demand-side economies of scale.

Popular is better.

The more popular the platform, the larger the developer base (benefit: lots of cheap help to customize the cart), the larger the customer base (benefit: more bugs get reported and ultimately fixed), and the more themes, extensions, and third-party solutions exist (benefit: you can make your platform look however you want and do whatever you want for cheap).

So by opting for the more popular shopping carts, you are buying insurance against anything The Future can throw at you and your business.

Just Say It Doctor via MetaPicture

This is why you want to know not only the best e-commerce platform today, but which will still be going strong in 2014.

Maybe in a year, you will start drop-shipping. Maybe you will stop. Maybe there will be a new social network you want to integrate (like in 2008 when you went ‘all-in’ on Gowalla).

Whatever it is, if you are running on a popular platform odds are there will be other users who have the same needs, and solutions will be developed in a reasonable amount of time.

2. These shopping carts are low-cost or free

Your shopping cart decision is a business one, and “free” is a cost that will improve your profitability.

Now, your total cost of ownership for these three will most definitely not be free, but it should be lower than that of carts charging a monthly or annual fee.

Personally, I like my shopping carts like I like my index funds: no-load.

_MG_0058 by pulaw, on Flickr
IRCE was held in Chicago this year, but this photo of The Bean is more compelling than a conference floor shot

One walk around the floor at Internet Retailer this year reaffirmed this. Many of the smaller shopping carts that charge monthly fees didn’t actually view improving the shopping cart as their core business.

Instead they considered themselves akin to hosting businesses — their sales goals were to sign up new users, only a small fraction of whom would actually build out a store on the platform while still paying the monthly fee.

(I of course made a mental note to roll out my own shopping cart in 2014.)

3. These three are full-featured

This reason is really a corollary of the first: if the cart is popular and has been around for years, it probably has more functionality right now than a new one coming out of the gates. Ask anyone who still uses Microsoft Word.

Accordingly each of our chosen three do 80% – 90% of what you will want to do with your cart. Maybe 100% if you are lucky. Today.

And the remaining 10% – 20%? You can customize that yourself or buy an extension to get you there.

An important thing to keep in mind here is that the ecommerce ecosystem is increasingly moving towards Andy Grove’s vision of the laptop ecosystem, wherein component parts of the laptop are provided by individual brands which lowers the overall cost of production (Apple being the one notable exception).

Intel makes the chip, Toshiba makes the hard drive, and so on.

Same for e-commerce — all the component ‘parts’ of your platform are becoming more and more specialized.

You don’t make your shopping cart decision based on whether it provides good email newsletter capability (you’ll find another email service provider for that), blogging (ditto), CRM, etc.

The takeaway? Get a shopping cart that does everything a shopping cart needs to do and don’t worry about the other stuff.

Without Further Ado: The Best Ecommerce Platforms for 2014


Woocommerce is ecommerce solution is built on the back of the ubiquitous WordPress blogging platform. It’s light, fast, and easy to manage, with great documentation and support.

If you can install WordPress, you can install Woocommerce. If you can’t, most hosting companies can or it should take all of one hour of a developer’s time.

Grand St
Grand St.’s cool bloggy-style UI (not on WooCommerce, but you get the point)

I’ve used Woocommerce to quickly generate MVP ecommerce sites that look professional right out of the box.

Say I’m considering selling umbrellas online. I can get WordPress on a cheap domain within an hour and have Woocommerce installed within two. I can then add some Amazon affiliate products to Woocommerce and start driving AdWords traffic towards the site to see what converts. Done.

Woocommerce is so easy and fast; I really love the approach. Its primary advantage is the simplicity, speed, and light-weight. It’s a great option if you want to ecommerce enable an existing blog or sell a small catalog of products.

Because of the tight WordPress integration, I’d strongly recommend it for marketers who envision using content to drive sales of a small lineup of products — sites like Grand St. or Photojojo, two of my favorite content-driven retailers.

Although you can customize it to do most anything, I wouldn’t want to use it to run a catalog of 20K+ SKUs or a good-sized team or a $10+MM business with heaps of traffic. It’s just a bit too limited out of the box and would require too much customization for that scale.


Shopify [aff] has been around for several years and is one of the better marketed shopping carts. Their annual Build Your Business competition highlights the ability to get a Shopify store up and running within seconds (along with Tim Ferris’s latest haircut).

Heartwork runs Shopify
Heartwork runs Shopify

And this promise rings true: Shopify is hands-down the easiest of the three to set up.

Why? It’s a hosted solution: Shopify hosts your store and provides such things as merchant processing (which you’d have to integrate with the other solutions). Couple this with a large library of great-looking themes, and it is as close to ‘ecommerce-in-a-box’ as you will get.

(More and more hosting companies are now offering hosted versions of WooCommerce and Magento, and Magento has its own hosted version called Magento Go which is more of a direct competitor to Shopify).

I’ve seen lots of single founders start with a Shopify store because of the ease of setup, and I think that’s a great idea. In fact, in my ecommerce advisory practice I recommend that most new, small retailers selling a handful of products start with a Shopify store to get up and running quickly.

If they grow or expand or need more functionality later on, they can always move to Magento.

Downsides? It’s coded in Rails so your developer base is both smaller and more expensive than that of Magento and WooCommerce (both PHP), so if you want to do a lot of customization it may not be for you (in my experience good Shopify developers are few and far between on oDesk whereas you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Magento or WordPress/WooCommerce expert). Shopify also takes a bigger percentage fee off of each transaction in return for their hosting and merchant services — you can get this percentage reduced if you use the other solutions listed here.

But a key for new companies is just to get out there and start selling, and Shopify will let you do that quickly and easily.

Magento (Community Version)

Bonobos Pants selection
Bonobos rocks Magento

Magento ecommerce launched with much fanfare about five years ago and for good reason: they were the first professional-grade, multi-store enabled open source shopping cart.

Because of this, they experienced hockey-stick-like adoption culminating in their acquisition by eBay in 2011.

With eBay’s resources, Magento immediately rolled out entry-level (Magento Go) and premium (Magento Enterprise) options. Magento Go is a hosted analog to Shopify, and Magento Enterprise is in use by several Internet Retailer top 500 brands, including Bobonos and Warby Parker.

Focus on the Community version. The Go version has most of the advantages and disadvantages as Shopify, and the Enterprise version is too pricey for most companies under $2-5MM in revenue.

The promise of the Community version is its extensibility: you can make it do almost anything you’d want in an ecommerce shop. Not everything is bundled into the default version, but it’s either included in the vast array of extensions or you could hire one of the large army of Magento contractors to build it for you for cheap.

The flip side of extensibility is that Magento is a bit chaotic. If Shopify is Apple software, Magento is Microsoft software: it has every feature under the sun but the features aren’t always that user-friendly to install or access. The code base is so large it can impact performance too, usually necessitating a more robust hosting package running several hundred dollars per month.

If this sounds a bit more challenging and robust than the other two options here it is.

But If you aspire to do something a little out of the box — drop-shipping from multiple vendors, members-only flash sales, auctions — or if you run something more than a small shop, Magento is probably the best option given the extensibility.

How to Decide

Of these three shopping cart option, there is no “best solution” — there is only a “best solution for you”.

Decisions are tough…via MetaPictureYou have to think hard about 1) your business — its size, its strategy, its operations — and 2) your budget before choosing an ecommerce shopping cart.

I believe that the three options are different enough on these two factors — business and budget — that a clear solution will become evident for you.

Here are some questions to get you moving in the right direction:

  • How big is your product lineup? If it is small and limited, I’d lean towards WooCommerce and Shopify in the interest of keeping things simple and easy to manage. If you have a large catalog with multiple categories, subcategories, and product attributes then I’d lean towards Magento.
  • How big is your budget? What are your margins? Although all three solutions are “free”, Magento will probably have the highest cost of ownership given the increased hosting requirements.
  • What’s your business strategy? If you are pursuing a drop-ship strategy complete with a massive catalog of products shipped from multiple vendors, consider Magento — the other two may become unmanageable. If you are launching your own line of branded product, Shopify or WooCommerce will get you there quicker.
  • How technical is your team? Does someone on staff understand things like FTPing or how a cache works? I would not recommend Magento to a business unless they have some strong tech skills internally.
  • How soon do you want to be up and running? A Shopify store could be launched in minutes, a WooCommerce store in hours, and a Magento Community store in a couple days to weeks. Just a rough measure of the complexity involved.

I hope this overview helped you think through the options out there.

If you have any questions, or if I could expound on anything, feel free to contact me with the specifics of your situation.