How to choose the right E-commerce platform for your creative business // by Closet Case Files
Creative Entrepeneurship

MAKE BOSS: CHOOSING THE BEST ECOMMERCE PLATFORM

One of the most important decisions you will make as a small business owner in the age of the internet is choosing the right e-commerce platform. I’ve been selling patterns online since 2013, and in that time I have cycled through 3 primary platforms, and done countless hours of testing, research and price shopping. It can be a bit of a quagmire so I’m here to help you find the best fit for your business.

Here are some questions I would recommend asking yourself before you get started:

  1. How comfortable am I with custom coding in HTML and CSS? Am I willing to take a more DIY approach to my website or do I want something more user friendly?
  2. Is it important to have access to a built in audience, such as on a site like Etsy?
  3. Do I need to be able to easily connect my store sales with an accounting program like Quickbooks?
  4. Do I want a simple, fast “starter” site, or something that can easily scale as my business grows?
  5. How much money am I able to pay each month for web hosting and e-commerce fees?

Once you know what you need from your site, it becomes much easier to narrower down the many options out there. Have a list of things that you absolutely must have, and make sure your platform can meet those needs.

CUSTOM DESIGNED STORE VS. BUILT-IN AUDIENCE

If you are selling a handmade or crafty related item, web platforms with built-in audiences like Etsy are a great place to get started selling your wares. Since all the design and infrastructure is already in place, it’s incredibly easy to list your products. You can immediately start benefiting from the large volume of people who are searching Etsy every day, without paying a monthly flat fee or worrying about building a site from scratch. You are only charged per item listing ($.20 US) plus 3.5% of each sale made, and if you sell digital products, they also do all the hosting and distribution for you. The community on Etsy is very strong, and there are lots of resources for sellers, in addition to powerful promotion if the Etsy powers-that-be highlight your product (I’ve always seen sales bumps whenever one of my patterns has been featured on the homepage). The downside is that you are very limited in terms of branding your shop; you have a banner image, some space for copy, and that’s about it. I also dislike that Etsy has a cap of 5 images per product, and if you are selling digital products, older orders aren’t updated when you upload new files  (I learned this the hard way this month with the relaunch of all my patterns!)

Here is what my Etsy store looks like. As you can see, there is very little opportunity for personalizing the space:

How to choose the right Ecommerce platform for your creative business // Etsy store // by Closet Case Files

With a custom designed site, you get the opportunity to create a more personal, branded space to highlight your products. It’s also easier to integrate your social networking, build a mailing list, manage SEO and connect to your blog, if you have one. In my opinion, having a custom site looks more professional and gives your brand or business a little more cache. That said, there are monthly fees on top of the transaction fees you’ll be paying for each sale, as well as possible development fees if you need professional help setting up your store.

Here is my current Shopify-hosted store. Even with my minimalist design, my site has much more of a visual impact than it ever could on Etsy.

How to choose the right Ecommerce platform for your creative business // Shopify store // by Closet Case Files

All that said, it isn’t necessarily an either/or proposition. I sell my patterns on a number of platforms, including Etsy and my own store. When you’re getting started, you want to spread the word as far as possible about who you are and what you’re doing; selling on a variety of platforms can help do that. If you’re just getting started and don’t want to invest a lot of time and money into designing a webstore, selling on a platform like Etsy can be a good way to get your feet wet. Even when your business is established and you move to a personal site, it still makes sense to keep your Etsy store; it can generate a lot of “random” sales you wouldn’t get without the benefit of its audience and search potential.

TIPS FOR SELLING ON ETSY

  • Write clear, thoughtful headings with as many descriptive keywords as possible. People want to find you! Make it easy to do that.
  • Use clear, well lit thumbnails that best capture your product in your listings. You only have people’s eyeballs for a split second when they’re searching – make it count.
  • Make good use of your 5 image limit; ensure that people are seeing as much as they can about the item, and  make sure they are well lit (here are some tips on using your smart phone for product photography).
  • Use tags wisely but honestly; I’ve been told you can get reported by other sellers for misusing tags.
  • Connect your Twitter and Facebook account to your store.
  • When it comes to describing your product within the listing, provide as much information as possible. Inject a little personality into your writing if possible.
  • If you have the budget, splurge on promoted listings to widen your store’s reach.

ADDITIONAL PLATFORMS FOR PATTERN DESIGNERS

If you’re selling sewing patterns, you’re not limited to Etsy when it comes to third party sellers. I have worked with all of the following sites, and all have different audiences and niche markets. They generally take a commission, ranging from 50% at Indie Sew to 0% at Craftsy.

  • Craftsy – no commission, built in community, good traffic generator
  • Kollabora – growing online community with a lovely site. Really good at promoting indie designers.
  • Indie Sew – up and coming pattern reseller and sewing community. Expensive commissions but they have a great blog and do a lot of promotion. A good choice to spread the word about your new pattern company.
  • Girl Charlee – fabric store that also sells patterns.
  • Pattern Review – biggest online sewing community and a great site for reviews.

BUILDING A CUSTOM WEBSITE

This can be one of the most intimidating aspects of starting or advancing your online business. There are soooo many eCommerce platform options that it can feel incredibly overwhelming. I spent months looking into all this, using various two week trials, wavering, Googling, deciding, changing my mind, re-Googling…. I’m here to hopefully save you some of that aggravation.

When it comes to custom sites, there are 2 main categories: self-hosted and hosted.

Self Hosted

If you run a blog on WordPress, you’re already familiar with self-hosting; you pay a monthly fee to a web hosting company and run your site yourself – it doesn’t get any more DIY. There are numerous eCommerce plugins for WordPress, most notably WooCommerce & WP eCommerce. These plugins are generally quite affordable (if not free), and come with tons of customizable themes and extensions (most of which you have to pay for). However, self-hosted sites are A LOT more work than other platforms. These are hands-on stores; you’ll likely be dealing with site issues and plugins breaking over time, which is just the nature of WordPress (I have spent 10 x more money fixing and updating my WP blog than I ever have on my Shopify store). If you have a DIY attitude when it comes to web and coding or want to save money, these can be a good option. However, if you want a more hands off approach, or are concerned about the site being scalable as your business grows, you’re better off with a hosted site.

If you are planning on self hosting, I highly recommend using Blue Host for your install — they’re fast and cheap with great customer service and I’ve been using them for years.

Hosted

Hosted sites run the gamut from bare-bones simple to throw yourself off the balcony complicated. In the former category, we have something like Big Cartel or Squarespace which are easy to use and inexpensive platforms designed for creative businesses just starting out (although be warned, Squarespace does not accept Paypal!). On the other end of the spectrum is a platform like Magento, which while infinitely customizable (think multiple currencies, multiple languages, open source coding), is highly technical, and will 100% require outside developer help unless you’re some kind of code wizard. For comparison, sites like Fabric.com or Mood.com are probably built using Magento, or something like it. Smaller businesses just don’t need that kind of infrastructure.

SHOPIFY

Somewhere in the middle of Big Cartel and Magento is the sweet spot, in my opinion. And here is where I wax rhapsodic about my love for Shopify. I have worked on a few different platforms, and although I initially grumbled about the monthly fees (ranging from $14-149 a month, in addition to fees for each transaction), it is hands down the best hosting option for businesses that want to focus on their actual business rather than their website. Shopify has hundreds of gorgeous themes (a few of them are even free, including mine) and is very easy to customize without having to know a lot of coding. There are also tons of tutorials available on their blog to help you do more than just change fonts or colours. For example, this week I wanted my product image thumbnails to change when you hovered over them; it took me less than 10 minutes to do it myself by following their tutorial. The Shopify interface is elegant, simple and easy to use, and it’s possible to get a site up and running in a few hours without outside help. Perhaps most importantly, all of their themes are designed to work on computers and mobile devices, which is more or less mandatory these days.

Below is an example of the design interface. You can edit different sections of the site while seeing the changes play out in real time. There is also the opportunity for some custom coding if you need it.

How to choose the right Ecommerce platform for your creative business // Shopify store interface// by Closet Case Files

There are also hundreds of plugins for every conceivable application, although some of them are quite expensive and can add up on your monthly bill. If you’re shipping physical product, you can expect to pay an additional $10-100 a month for real-time carrier shipping rates and a good fulfillment app like ShipStation. If you’re selling digital product, you’ll also have to pay a monthly fee for a provider like Downtown or Send Owl if you want to digitally stamp files or be able to update purchased files for all users (the free Shopify app isn’t that great – totally worth the $5-10 a month for a paid app to avoid all the customer service headaches!). If you use Quickbooks Online, there is a free Shopify connector, but other accounting programs (including QB desktop) can cost anywhere from $10-50 for clean exports of your data. These charges add up, and while you can keep it fairly bare bones at the beginning (especially if you’re only selling digital files), the costs rise as your business grows. Insert clipart of entrepreneurs scowling here.

All that said, what you’re paying for is a beautiful site that is easy to build, easy to use, and easy to navigate as a customer. You won’t have to worry about your site crashing or traffic issues, the customer service is top notch, and there are a million available resources to help you if you ever get stuck. Total Shopify proselytizer over here. I highly recommend signing up for a free trial if you’d like to check it out.

Whew! Hopefully this was helpful for anyone out there thinking of creating or upgrading an online store. Are there any platforms out there that I missed? Any tips or hacks you’d like to share with us?

ps. This is not a sponsored post although I have included affiliate links for Blue Host and Shopify. I am happy to spread the word about these companies because they are awesome, and entrepreneurs need all the awesome they can get. If you decide you’d like to try them out as well, clicking on the links from this post helps support this ol’ blog.

  • Caroline Somos

    I use Bigcommerce for Blackbird, it’s very similar to Shopify (I teetered between the two when I was getting ready to launch). In case anyone is wondering, the pricing is very similar. They have different tiers, the lowest one being a monthly fee of USD $30/month plus a 1.5% transaction fee. The next step up is USD $80/month with no transaction fee, which is worth it once your sales grow to be half decent. So far I love Bigcommerce and their support is great, however I do think the Shopify templates are nicer and they seem to give you more freedom to customize.
    I’m enjoying this series Heather – I really admire your transparency & willingness to share what you’ve learned.

    • Francesca Amodeo

      Caroline, I sent you an enquiry yesterday about your kits – any chance of a reply?

    • Whoa! That is a great price. I don’t remember if I researched them or not last year when I made the switch….

  • Suzanne

    Now that I know what Indiesew’s steep cut is I will always buy directly from the designer. That is ridiculously high.

    • Francesca Amodeo

      That’s exactly what I was about to comment! That is what I call greed, and no way will I ever buy anything from them. I usually try to buy from a designer’s own site, unless they give very limited downloads of a pattern – because I seem to lose them! I save to a usb but man, I seem to be really unlucky with those things! i like Craftsy and Etsy because they give unlimited downloads, which is great for someone like me who stares at her files for ages, gives up and re-downloads, only to be told “file already exists” – um…..

      • It is high, but they do make their own samples and do a LOT of additional content and promotion you won’t get from other sites. It’s not greed so much as needing to meet certain margins in order to be viable. That said, I’ve only listed one pattern with them. I think they’re a good choice for companies starting out who need to widen their audience, but maybe less appealing to somewhat established companies.

        • Francesca Amodeo

          Oh…. well, in that case, I take it back. Just shows how you need to think and know more before becoming categorical.

  • Amy Gallagher

    This is such an interesting and helpful post Heather, thank you for sharing it. I work in ecommerce myself but it’s with large companies and high end platforms so not very relevant or helpful when I’m considering selling any craft items myself! One of the things that has put me off so far is not really knowing where to start for best, there are so many possibilities, but your post has really helped shape a direction for me.

    • I’m so happy I could help! It’s insanely confusing at the beginning because there are so many options, but I think an Etsy/Shopify combo is a great option for new craft businesses.

  • Jane

    Thanks so much for sharing this information! We’re currently with Big Cartel, but it has a limit of 300 products and other aspects that are not ideal. Really interested to look into Shopify more.

    • I looked into Big Cartel but I found it quite limiting, although initially less expensive then Shopify. I realized that with the digital download component, it wasn’t actually that much cheaper! I would definitely do the free trial. I’m only paying around $40 U.S. For the basic plan and and a digital downloads app.

  • Kate McIvor

    Thank you Heather! This was so helpful. I’m starting with Magento, with a lot of help from coding geeks. The sky will be the limit for my inventory. Ack!

    • You are brave!! I took one look at that infrastructure and almost started crying, haha. Awesome that you can get some help because it definitely seems like the best option for scaling your site.

      • Kate McIvor

        I am opening a fabric shop and sewing school in Missoula, Montana. I plan to have all the fabrics, notions, and patterns also available on the web, with great searchability. The coders have set it up for me, and “all” I have to do is input each product with its attributes and categories. Can’t wait to collaborate with you on pattern sales and classes. Montana is really just southern Canada, right?

        • OMG YES PLEASE!!! CLASSES! MONTANA! BLISS!

  • Just a few clarifications on some things…

    Magento is not hosted.. it’s actually self-hosted on to your hosting space even though you do need development, including wireframe (if you choose to do so). Squarespace doesn’t include paypal from a WYSIWG point of view, but it does integrate it with the custom code buttons. You just have to create the buttons directly in paypal depending on the dollar amount and then drop the code in.

    With regards to woocommerce most of the themes for it come directly from the wordpress theme you buy for your blog/site. When you install it, it takes the css styling from the activated theme, which can all be changed under woocommerce mod under css. While it can occasionally crash, it integrates a lot of functions that other sites don’t have like customer user id/pws to view old orders as well as massive emailing to customers, and easier digital files updating.

    hope that helps!

    • Thanks darlin’. I believe Magenta does offer hosting as well…. I guess in my mind it’s different than a self-hosted WP plugin because you are working within a defined infrastructure. But you clearly know more about this than I do 😉

      You can add Squarespace Paypal buttons but it doesn’t integrate with things like digital downloads very well. It was a bit of a gong show for me when I was hosting on them for a few months last year. I shortly left because the PP integration was so ass backwards, especially when it came to things like accounting and sales reports – PP sales didn’t go through the SS system so it made a big mess when it came time to do the books.

      Interesting to here all that stuff about Woocommerce. My research indicated it was a big ol pain in the butt (at the time payment integration seemed REALLY complicated, like I needed to worry about my own security certificate and stuff), but I have been considering having a user ID thing for my site so people can just access their files all in one place as opposed to going through a third party. The mailing list thing is interesting as well, especially considering how expensive Mail Chimp is getting for me 🙁 I’m not sure if I’ll stay with Shopify forever, but at the moment it’s nice not having to worry about the site going down o rcrashing….

  • The German version of Etsy (it’s called dawanda) doesn’t allow you to sell products that you also offer somewhere else (i.e. your own shop). I have been wondering whether Etsy has a similar policy, but never could find any information about this issue. Do you by any chance know? Thx for the roundup very informative!

    • That’s CRAZY! Etsy doesn’t have that policy – I don’t think they’d keep a lot of sellers if they demanded a monopoly on sales!

      • Thanks, that’s good to hear! Yeah, I think it’s not a smart move either.

  • This is a fantastic post Heather! Thank you so much. I’ve been working on launching a shop right now, and I think for starting up immediately I’m going to go with Etsy. But I’ll probably be working towards setting up with Shopify when I get my new website together. When I do I’ll make sure to use your affiliate link! Thanks again 🙂

    • Thanks darlin! Its much appreciated and GOOD LUCK with the new shop!!

  • Yes, http://www.moodfabrics.com uses Magento. But Fabric.com was acquired by Amazon in 2008 and uses the Amazon Webstore service. Magento has both hosted (Magento Small Business) and self-hosted options (Magento Enterprise and Magento Community editions).

    • Thanks for sharing Shannon! Can’t believe you know this stuff!

  • Thanks for the ShipStation mention!

  • Thank you for the advice! This is really helpful.

  • Thanks for this dude! Great advice!

  • Awesome info – thanks so much for sharing! I wonder if you know whether Shopify can be used for selling events? I’ve been teaching local sewing classes for about a year now and am using a plugin on my self-hosted wordpress site but am not super happy with the layout and “clunky” registration process for the user. It’s not terrible but I’ve seen better.

  • More goodness, you’re bringing a lot of really good information to this series. And some transparency, which I highly applaud.

  • Thanks for this post Heather Lou. I read your comment on Lauren D’s blog, followed the link over here and am just setting up a Shopify site now after being on etsy for years. Serendipity. One thing I would add is that Shopify sites are fast to load. I did a bit of “comparative clicking” ! and noticed that this was definitely the case. Helps reduce customer frustration I would think.

    Could you share the name of the “free theme” that you used? It is really lovely and clean. I was considering using one of the pricier themes but would love to start with a free one for the time being. (Your blog looks great as well).

    • Hi Marina. Welcome! I believe my theme is called New Standard. There aren’t that may free ones so it shouldn’t be hard to find….

      • Thanks so much, I will check that one out.

  • Amy

    I missed this post while traveling but it is so good! I love reporter Heather! Great breakdown and recommendations. Totally couldn’t have made my choice without you in the beginning. 🙂

    I’m so happy I went with Shopify, even if I’m selling just one product at the moment. As you know Shopify is so fast, which has a huge impact on seo/search rankings and user experience. That does affect the bottom line and I remind myself this whenever I’m tempted to try a diy solution.

    I’ve tried out Woocommerce and a couple of other ecommerce WordPress solutions. And I will say this: if you are adding ecommerce to WordPress, definitely consider moving away from shared hosting (the bottom end hosting plans on Bluehost, Dreamhost, etc.) to a managed WordPress hosting solution (like Dreampress, Wpengine). Not just for speed, because a shop runs reallly slow on a shared hosting plan, but for security too.

    I know a lot of us don’t like to think about security stuff but it is a real issue. (I was on a good host but I was hacked twice even though I’m religious about keeping my WordPress light and updated.) In the end, when I priced-compared, it would have cost me roughly the same as Shopify to have Woocommerce with managed hosting. And Shopify is such a pleasure to use, so it wins for me.