Emily Bater

Full-time teacher and freelance content writer

A beginner's guide to building an e-commerce website

Posted March 9th, 17:00

5 min read

You want to start an e-commerce business but you’re not sure where to start.

Whether you make your own products and want to sell them online or want to sell other people’s products, there are lots of things to think about, from product to pricing to marketing, but building a site is pretty essential.

VP of e-commerce at website builder Wix David Schwartz recommends doing thorough research before choosing how to build your site.

Before you start down the road of building a site, think about how you want it to look; what will the layout and design look like? What kind of content do you want to put on it? How quick and easy should the buying process be?

All this will dictate the kind of site you need – it might be a few simple buttons on a theme, or you might need a custom-built solution.

Self-hosted vs hosted

A hosted solution is a website that is hosted by a company typically utilising a website builder.

The best example of a hosted solution is Shopify, which Richard Hillsdon, co-founder of Tekeez, recommends.

“For a full approach where the items change a lot and you need a lot more facilities, Shopify is a great solution. It can be tweaked and styled a lot.”

Using a service like Shopify means businesses can focus on making the products, marketing and shipping them, but there are fees attached.

Cartloom is another platform used by small businesses which manages all your products from their website and lets you copy and paste code to put into any site you like. They handle the cart system and take the payment and security responsibilities away from you.

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Using a pre-made theme can save you time and money, but it may not be the right fit for your needs or your market says Peter Carless, web designer and owner of Xanthe Studios.

A self-hosted solution through GoDaddy or 123-Reg offers flexibility to design the site any way you want, and the option to change it easily in the future, but it also presents challenges around payment and security.

Research whether the servers you’re using are Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliant, which is essential for e-commerce. A hosted solution should meet this standard, but if you choose to go self-hosted, the company you use may not.

Hosted servers may also be encrypted with SSL and running on HTTPS, but adding this on self-hosted may mean an extra cost.

If you opt for self-hosted you can always change to a hosted solution in the future, says Peter, but that doesn’t work the other way around.

Ensure you have backup procedures and are prepared if your site was to go down. If your site did go down you could end up losing money, so you’d need to get it back online as quickly as possible.

Bespoke vs pre-built

Peter says that he would always choose a bespoke solution over a purchased theme or website builder.

“Apart from the obvious that a bespoke solution will be designed and developed specifically for your business and needs, if you ever run into any issues having a developer that knows the system will always be more beneficial than trying to do something yourself,” says Peter.

“You wouldn’t try and perform heart surgery on yourself would you?”

small-business-online-website

Tekeez operate on a case-by-case basis when it comes to helping clients with their e-commerce platforms.

“We find out what is needed first and then recommend a solution. For some people, simple PayPal buttons are enough and cost very little,” says Richard.

“A client of ours is an artist and sells original paintings from her site. The e-commerce part is handled by PayPal. All the PCI compliance, credit card data etc is all handled by them and everything else is covered.”

The Health Cloud sell health products and supplements through their e-commerce platform and since starting in 2012 the business has adapted the site several times.

“If someone has no real knowledge, a hosted solution like Shopify or BigCommerce is a great way to understand how an e-commerce platform works,” says co-founder Morgan Price.

“Plus you don’t have to worry about security issues and plugin updates.”

Morgan built the site using BigCommerce, which he says offered great features but limited modification

“I then moved to Magento and self-hosted which allowed huge amounts of modification but required a powerful server.”

Eventually, The Health Cloud settled with WordPress and a WooCommerce plugin, which is easy to use and update yet affordable.

Can’t I just use WordPress?

WordPress may seem like the obvious – and easiest – option but Richard advises avoiding the platform unless you know what you’re doing.

“My one general piece of advice is, unless you’re an expert and technical, don’t use WordPress! We don’t say this because of any personal preference, but because we see people suffering every single week from problems caused by it, which is why a couple of years ago I wrote a quick guide on things you need to think about before you choose to use WordPress.

“Unfortunately, people flock to it as it’s free and seems easy but it’s actually a massive undertaking.”

Don’t get complicated

Integrating a payment system like Stripe can be all you really need to get started, says Richard.

“Sometimes all you need is the ability to take a payment over the phone, and/or let the customer pay online, or sign them up to a regular monthly/annual plan, and Stripe is awesome for this.”

e-commerce-payments

Health Cloud use Stripe, PayPal and Bitcoin for payment options. “We would recommend Stripe for most people, it’s cheaper than PayPal and is a smoother payment process,” says Morgan.

What next?

Once you’ve built your e-commerce platform there are lots of things to think about next including how to populate your site, how you’re going to send parcels for physical products, whether you need a phone line for customers to call and so on.

David Schwartz advises startups to invest in product photography to show your wares at their best and improve your overall site design.

Future-proof

“The most notable shift in online trading is the fact mobile commerce is becoming more and more prominent with each passing year,” says Karl Blakesley, marketing manager at e-commerce and business intelligence specialist OrderWise.

Investing in a new responsive website can represent a sizeable investment for startups, so businesses can look to save costs by going with one company for their website and integrated back-end solution, says Karl.

Emily Bater

Full-time teacher and freelance content writer


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