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How to Create an Online Shopping Website

Join the eCommerce revolution by launching your own store

16th February 2017 | Marketing & Sales

eCommerce | Florist taking orders from the internet

Setting up an eCommerce shopping website is well within the reach of anyone. Whether as an extension of an existing business, a full-time or part-time occupation, or just to make a few quid to fund a personal interest, the tools to do so are readily available and affordable, sometimes even free.

Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have described Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers”. This has certainly held true – in the 200+ years since, British commerce has thrived, and has always been quick to adopt new ideas and emerging technologies. The development of the internet and websites has created a huge opportunity for retail businesses large and small, and UK shoppers are second only to the US in average annual online spend¹.

If you want to join the online retail revolution with an online shopping website of your own, read on.

Creating an Online Shopping Website – the Options

There are broadly three ways in which to set up shop on the internet:

  1. Build an eCommerce site, or add to your existing website,
  2. Use a hosted eCommerce Platform, or
  3. Join an eCommerce Marketplace.

The choice will depend on your objectives, capabilities, and budget.

1. Build a Custom eCommerce Website

It is absolutely possible to build an online store by creating a website and developing or adding on the various components to make it operate as a retailer.

As well as the usual considerations of publishing a website – “self-hosting” on a website server, choosing a Content Management System, using a website builder, or having one custom-made by a developer – there are some major retail components and issues you will need to think about:

  • Storefront Design. As with physical shops, aesthetic considerations make a huge difference in how you are perceived. Online, it is essential to have very good navigation so that shoppers can find what they are looking for.
  • Product Listings. Each product needs to have accurate and enticing details and images displayed, any options able to be selected, pricing computations, and thoughtful categorisation.
  • Ordering & Checkout. A shopping cart system where customers can select what they need during a visit to your shop, and tally up the order when it’s time to pay.
  • Payment. You will need to link up to a payment gateway provider to allow customers to pay for your goods using credit or debit cards, and perhaps alternative methods such as PayPal.
  • Delivery & Returns. What delivery options are there, and what are the costs? How will customers return faulty or unwanted goods?
  • Marketing & SEO. Gone are the days of build-a-website-and-they-will-come. As well as technical SEO to be search engine friendly, you will need to make yourself visible through actively marketing the store via social channels, paid advertising, and more.
  • Customer Communication. How will you capture customer details to stay in touch, or remind a customer about an abandoned purchase? Do you want to provide a live chat feature to help visitors?

eCommerce shopping cart credit card delivery keyboard buttonsFortunately, there are some excellent purpose-built eCommerce software add-ons and packages that can be incorporated into a website, which provide all of these features. Some of these are free, some attract a one-off cost, and others require a monthly or annual subscription.

An eCommerce website can be created using components on a piecemeal basis – selecting add-on components as required – or using a comprehensive solution with everything built-in.

Unless you have a healthy budget or possess good technical skills, we would recommend an all-in-one eCommerce Software solution. Our favourites are:

  • WooCommerce. A hugely popular and well supported system which uses the WordPress content management system. Both WooCommerce and WordPress are free! You will need to use a payment gateway, and are likely to want to enhance the core system with some paid-for components.
  • X-Cart. Also very popular and long established, X-Cart can be downloaded and used for free, or purchased for a one-time license fee for additional features. X-Cart also offer a hosting service with monthly fees starting from US$29.95.

Custom eCommerce Websites – Advantages & Disadvantages

  • Pros. The benefits of a custom-built website are that you get exactly what you want, and don’t have to pay any transactional or listing fees. It is your shop, and can look, feel, and function as you like.
  • Cons. The downsides are that it may be expensive and time consuming to develop, and you have to arrange to host and maintain the site. Every time there are extra features you would like, there may be development costs involved (depending on your software choices).

2. Use a Hosted eCommerce Platform

Like all-in-one eCommerce Software, eCommerce Platforms are a complete solution with a website builder and all the retail tools and features you will need. Additionally, they also come ready hosted, so that you don’t need to set up a separate website or worry about hosting or any technical issues.

Here are our top three choices in hosted eCommerce Platforms:

  • Shopify. The big name in eCommerce Platforms, this Canadian product has everything you can think of – beautiful storefront designs, lots of features and tools, and excellent support. Prices start from £9/month for a Facebook-only shop, and £29/month for a Basic Shop.
  • EKM. Made in the UK, EKM has been in the business for some 15 years. They rate very highly with users, and are known for their strong customer service for new sellers. Prices start at £24.99/month, every plan includes all software features, and they have a 6 month guarantee.
  • Volusion. We’ve included Volusion because it is consistently rated by users as being on a par with or better than the similar offering from Shopify (although it doesn’t match every feature). Their cheapest plan is US$15/month.

eCommerce clothing shop owner browsing her online store


Hosted eCommerce Platforms – Advantages & Disadvantages

Using an eCommerce Platform has huge benefits, particularly if you don’t want any technical responsibilities beyond making design selections. 

You will get a range of shopping website features, themes and templates to customise the look of your site, your own website domain name, mobile optimisation, built-in payment systems, and all hosted for you. Establishing your online store is usually quick, as all of the development work has been done already. Furthermore, the subscription costs are relatively low compared to a self-build.

So what’s not to like? Not much, but there are few considerations before plunging ahead with any eCommerce platform:

  • Features. Make sure that the features and design options will suit your needs, because unlike a purpose-built system, what you see is what you get.
  • Transaction fees. Monthly subscriptions are often fairly comparable, but do your research on payment and transaction fees. Shopify, for example, charge a transaction fee of 0.5%-2.0% if you don’t use their payment solution.
  • Paid-for features. Some platforms give you everything for the subscription price, with a limit on product numbers or sales before going into the next bracket, but some will charge an additional fee for access to certain features. Take the time to read the fine print!

3. Join an eCommerce Marketplace

Online marketplaces provide straightforward opportunities for retailers to set up shop.

Your storefront is contained within the marketplace website, in some ways similar to a concession inside a department store. eCommerce marketplaces offer additional services such as order fulfilment and promotional opportunities within the marketplace.

eCommerce marketplaces Amazon eBay app iconsThe giants in this area are eBay and Amazon, and both offer the opportunity to create a store within their mega-marketplaces (eBay Shops & Sell on Amazon), but they are not the only options.

For handmade creative and vintage goods, Etsy is the stand-out online marketplace. It is free to create an Etsy Shop and there are no hosting fees. Transaction costs work out to around 7.5%-8% of sales, with a small listing fee per item (around 16p).

Although a significant number of online marketplace stores are tiny ventures, there are still plenty of successful businesses running a store exclusively from inside an eCommerce Marketplace, or using an eCommerce marketplace as their bricks-and-mortar business’s online shop.

eCommerce Marketplace Store – Advantages & Disadvantages

  • Pros. Huge, ready-made audiences waiting to buy your goods. Often free or cheap to set up. Very easy to get going, with no technical expertise required.
  • Cons. Transactional fees (listing & sales) can be high. Limited options to personalise your shop. You are at the mercy of both the marketplace provider’s rules, and customer reviews!

So then, what’s the best way to create an eCommerce shopping site?

  • For most small businesses who want to create a stand-alone, branded online store, it is hard to look past the purpose-built convenience and power of an eCommerce Platform.
  • Where the business requires a broader website, a custom-built eCommerce website with plug-in eCommerce features should be first choice.
  • If your primary goal is to access lots of customers without the added responsibility of branding and marketing, an eCommerce Marketplace may suit your needs.

1. Source: Statistia Digital Market Outlook.

eCommerce software, platforms and marketplaces

Click to view our selection of the best eCommerce software, platforms and marketplaces for UK startups and small businesses.