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Choosing the Right E-Commerce Software for Your Needs

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Looking for e-commerce software for your online business? There are three important things you need to figure out first:

  1. What is your budget?
  2. What type of products are you selling?
  3. What features does your online store need?

We will help you answer these questions below. If you're in a hurry, and just want to see our recommendations for the best e-commerce software, visit our best picks page: Best E-Commerce Software for Small Business.

Editor’s Note: Looking for an e-commerce website builder for your business? If you’re looking for information to help you choose the one that’s right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

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To help you find the best e-commerce solution for your business, our best picks include e-commerce software and shopping cart software. Here's a quick guide explaining the difference between the two:

Credit: Anita Rahman

First, in order to choose the best software for your business, you'll need to know exactly what you're looking for. When you first start looking at e-commerce options, you'll find that vendors and users often refer to them as either "e-commerce software" or "shopping cart software." Some also use the two terms interchangeably, adding to the confusion. Before you make a decision, it's important to know which one is best suited for your business. 

So what's the difference? E-commerce software and shopping cart software are pretty much the same thing. They both help you launch, run and manage an online store, as well as process payments and work together with the rest of your operations. But the key differences are in their specific functions. 

If you need a full-featured, all-in-one e-commerce solution, choose an e-commerce software. E-commerce software include everything from website hosting and Web design, to setting up a storefront, processing payments, and providing merchant tools, marketing, security and everything else you need to build and grow your online business. You can either build your website using the e-commerce software, or integrate it with an existing website or blog.

Shopping cart software, on the other hand, is best if you already have a website and simply need to set up a way to list products and services and process payments. Compared to e-commerce software, shopping cart software often come in the form of website plug-ins or extensions and are often limited to helping you set up a virtual storefront, payment processing and some merchant tools. Some customizations may also be possible, depending on the website and software.

As mentioned above, the terms e-commerce software and shopping cart software may be used synonymously. Make sure to do your research and ask your vendor for specifics.

Small businesses have many options when it comes to selling online. One way is to sign up with marketplaces that allow you to list your products in a hosted storefront, such as eBay, Amazon and Etsy. But if you want more control over your e-commerce business, setting up your own website with an e-commerce software or shopping cart software is the way to go.

If any of the following apply to you, investing in e-commerce or shopping cart software is the best choice for your online business.

  • You want your own website. When you use an e-commerce marketplace to sell your products and services, your storefront resides on their website with their branding. With e-commerce software, you get your own website and domain name to give your online store its own home and make your e-commerce business completely yours. 
  • You want control over your online store. Offering a wide range of features and customization options, e-commerce software gives you plenty of control over your online store. You can design your website however you want, designate your own workflows, choose your own pricing models and more, so you can set up your store in any way that fits your business's changing needs.
  • You want a simple, easy-to-use solution. Not a programmer? Not a problem. Most e-commerce software can get you up and running in no time, without the need to code or manually install anything. Although some customizations and additional functions may require some tech skills, if you're just getting started, most solutions can be set up in just a few steps and takes almost no work to maintain. Many also offer website templates and DIY website-building tools, so you can drag-and-drop your way to launching an online store.
  • You want help with marketing. Besides merchant tools to help you sell online and process payments, e-commerce software typically include marketing tools to help you get the word out about your store. These include social media marketing — and social-sharing capabilities that let customers share product pages and their purchases with followers — promotions and special discounts, loyalty programs and more. 
  • You want to keep all your profits. Online marketplaces make their money by taking a cut of every sale on top of credit card processing fees, with some also charging monthly fees. With an e-commerce software or shopping cart software, you keep all your profits and only pay the provider's subscription and payment-processing fees. 
  • You want to simplify your operations. One of the biggest benefits of using e-commerce software as a small business is that it can integrate with other business solutions you already use. This makes it easy to streamline your operations, and you'll always have access to the latest data in real time. Read more about third-party integrations below.

E-commerce software products offer a wide range of features to help you sell online and manage your online store. When we spoke with small business owners, the two most important features they said they look for in an e-commerce or shopping cart software are ease of use and customization capabilities. 

"The perfect commerce solution would be easy to set up and get running, but still retain the ability to change as much or as little as you would want from vanilla build," said Alice Pai, founder and CEO of My Pichi, an online seller of mobile phone cases.

It also helps that the software automates processes and maintains itself.

"A 'perfect' shopping cart platform is one that is customizable, and once it is set up you can forget about it," added James Fayal, founder of Zest Tea, an online specialty tea store.

Here's what else e-commerce software have to offer and how it can help you launch and run your online business:

  • Everything you need to build a website. From Web hosting and domain names to storage and bandwidth, e-commerce software is an all-in-one solution to start your online business — without any tech skills. Many also offer additional functionalities, such as built-in blogs, content management systems, Web design and even DIY website-building capabilities.
  • Online storefront. Showcase your products and services with your virtual storefront. E-commerce software products make it easy to set up your storefront, as well as add and edit inventory, product descriptions, pricing and more.
  • Payment processing. No need to implement third-party credit card processors on your own. E-commerce software and shopping cart software automatically include payment gateways, such as Stripe and PayPal, and link them to your bank account, so you can get paid fast.
  • Merchant tools. Find and retain customers with marketing tools, abandoned cart reminders, social sharing capabilities and the ability to offer daily deals, gift certificates, loyalty programs and special discounts.
  • Drop-shipping options. Don't have your own inventory? Some e-commerce software enable you to sell wholesale and retail products from different brands and manufacturers.
  • Third-party integration. Make your life easier by connecting your e-commerce software with apps you already use — such as point-of-sale (POS), customer relationship management (CRM), accounting software and email marketing — to streamline your data.
  • Mobile commerce. Provide customers with mobile-friendly versions of your online store so they can shop anytime, anywhere using their smartphone or tablet. This also enables you to accept mobile payments, such as in-app purchases and mobile credit card processing.
  • Customer support. Be there for your customers with phone, email, live chat, community forums and other customer service solutions. 
  • Security. Protect your business's and customers' information with SSL encryption, compliance and fraud protection tools.

Because there are so many different types of e-commerce and shopping cart software, costs vary greatly. For a full-featured e-commerce software, expect to pay anywhere from around $10 per month up to $200 per month. There are several factors that go into determining costs, such as the features your business needs, storage capacities, domain names, customization capabilities, credit card processing fees and more.

Shopping cart plug-ins and extensions, on the other hand, are typically free and offer many add-ons at no charge. However, some plug-ins and extensions charge for additional functions and services, which also vary depending on the software provider and platform.

In addition to setting up and maintaining an online store, e-commerce software and shopping cart software offer many benefits that make running an online business easier, so you can focus on more important aspects, such as sales, marketing and customer service.

Here's what e-commerce business owners we talked to said they love most about their e-commerce and shopping care software. 

  • Ease of use. Brandon Howard, owner of online toner store Toner Emporium, said his shopping cart plug-in requires no tech skills, making it easy to launch an online store from the ground up and add or edit products as you grow.
  • Save time. Pai, of My Pichi, said one benefit of using e-commerce software is that there's no need to waste time worrying about the different aspects of running a website. Their solution handles everything from servers to SSL certificates and credit card processing.
  • Save money. Nima Noori, CEO and founder of online vapor store Toronto Vaporizer, said their software is very cost-effective, as it offers all the extensions and plug-ins you can imagine, and you can easily implement them without the expense of hiring developers to build and set them up for you.
  • Support. Brandon Ackroyd, head of customer insight at mobile deals website TigerMobiles.com, appreciates that the company's shopping cart software lets users solve problems quickly — it is well-supported by the vendor's team and comes with a community of users who are eager to help, he said.
  • Boost sales. Lisa Cash Hanson, CEO of interactive baby pillow company Snugwugg, said their online store has made thousands in potentially lost sales, thanks to their e-commerce software's abandoned cart emails, which automatically remind customers to go through with the checkout process. This takes zero effort on the company's part, but creates a big return, she said. 
  • Accept multiple currencies. Heidi Hecht, owner of the Nothing in Particular Blog, where she also sells writing services, loves that the company's shopping cart software lowers their payment processing fees while giving customers more payment options by accepting multiple currencies, including cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin. 
  • Additional apps. Samantha Laliberte, co-founder of hair accessories retailer Ezzy Lynn, likes that the software offers a number of free and paid apps you can install to take your business to the next level, like visitor data, social sharing, analytics, and recover abandoned carts.
  • Get paid fast. Jim Letourneau, vice president of marketing and technology at Design.UX, which designs and sells accessories for wearable fitness trackers, said he loves the e-commerce software's seamless integration with the preferred payment gateway and credit card processor. Not only was it easy to set up, but the money goes directly into the company's bank account and they could quickly issue refunds to customers.

Ready to invest in an e-commerce software? Choosing the right one is key to your online business's success. 

To find the best e-commerce or shopping cart software for your business, here's what small business owners we spoke with said you need to ask potential vendors:

  • How easy is it to set up and use?
  • Is it designed for small businesses?
  • Is it customizable to fit my business needs?
  • Does it automate workflows to make my life easier while delivering a good customer experience?
  • Can it help me boost profits with marketing tools, abandoned cart reminders and other features?
  • Does it require a lot of maintenance, or can I forget about it once it's set up?
  • Are there any service limitations, for instance, the number of products or transactions I can handle every month?
  • Does the software work with third-party business solutions I plan to or already use?
  • If I have a physical store, can I integrate the software with my store's data, operations and resources?
  • How is my data backed up? Can I access and restore my data immediately when there is an outage?
  • What security measures do you have in place to protect my customers' information?
  • What is the total cost? Are there any setup, maintenance or additional fees?
  • What types of tech support and customer service do your provide — phone, email, live chat, knowledge base, FAQ section, support forums? Can I reach you any time?

Ready to choose an e-commerce software? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage: 

Editor’s Note: Looking for an e-commerce website builder for your business? If you’re looking for information to help you choose the one that’s right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

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Sara Angeles

Sara is a tech writer with a background in business and marketing. After graduating from UC Irvine, she worked as a copywriter and blogger for nonprofit organizations, tech labs and lifestyle companies. She started freelancing in 2009 and joined Business News Daily in 2013. Follow Sara Angeles on Twitter @sara_angeles.