Best eCommerce Platform for your Online Store in 2019 — Open Source vs. SaaS-Based

Devesh Rajarshi
Jan 22 · 19 min read

It’s no secret; businesses that make it to the top meet their objectives first — good customer retention, excellent shopping experience, robust marketing strategies, skilled team members, and of course, top of the shelf products/services.

Companies, for a very long time, preferred having a team of talented marketers who could fetch potential customers. More attention was given on product marketing, analyzing customer preferences, and preparing online advertisements. But with the ZMOT marketing model coming into the picture, things aren’t the same and the situation is rather messy.

Bigger companies now try to focus on making outstanding customer shopping experience while keeping the marketing tab open on the side. They try to maintain a healthy balance and implement both strategies appropriately. As a result, some companies manage to join the Age of Unicorns club eventually, but many fail to achieve such numbers and seek help.

What is an eCommerce platform?

An eCommerce platform is a type of software that works online, allowing business owners to manage their websites, products, sales, and other necessary operations with little or no knowledge of programming.

Recall your last purchase on Amazon.com. How was it? Was it easy to find the product you were looking for? Did you pay using your preferred payment method?

If you’re most people, your online shopping experience must have been seamless. And rightfully so, eCommerce marketplaces like Amazon offer the best-in-class online shopping experience to their customer.

How does it benefit you?

In the year 2018 alone, approximately 1.79 billion people purchased something online. And it is predicted that approximately 1.92 billion will make an online purchase by the end of 2019. So it should be apparent you’ll find most of your customers online, no matter what you’re selling.

It’s a lot cheaper. Believe it or not, launching and maintaining an eCommerce website will roughly cost you 10% percent of your total budget. You’ll be shocked to see the price difference when comparing it to the cost of building a brick and mortar store down the corner.

Having an eCommerce platform will have a huge impact on the overall profitability and stability of your business.

Types of eCommerce platforms available

Newer technologies are being used to build and deliver edgy eCommerce platforms in the market. There are essentially two categories of them available to consumers worldwide:

  1. Open Source — Like WooCommerce, Magento, and OpenCart.
  2. SaaS-based — Like Shopify, BigCommerce, and Volusion.

For your eCommerce platform to work, you would need a web hosting environment. Here are two of the most common hosting platforms available for the users:

Let’s begin with the Open Source eCommerce platforms first.

Open source eCommerce frameworks are generally free of cost. You can download their software, set it up on your website, and get it running instantly. You just have to take care of web hosting. There are many affordable plans available in the market for you to choose from.

With Open Source platforms you can have more control over how your store looks and operates in general. You can select the design or theme for your store and customize as you please. Most open source platforms allow users to install specific add-ons/extensions/plugins in order to extend features present on their website. There are dedicated stores for these plugins and themes, as most of them being free to download.

Since these platforms are being constantly controlled by developers, users can expect a bunch of new features every now and then. And since it’s very nature is open, the developments are generally community driven. Meaning, based on the new requirements and necessities observed in the community, developers introduce new features or a new plugin altogether.

WooCommerce is a great example of a community-driven open source eCommerce platform. It comes with thousands of themes and plugins developed by hundreds of developers and theme authors.

PluginHive, for example, is one of the best plugins authors out there for online shipping and delivery management. We’ll talk about it later in this post.

The best Open Source eCommerce platforms in the market are,

  1. WooCommerce
  2. Magento
  3. OpenCart
  4. Zen Cart
  5. PrestaShop

It’s a WordPress eCommerce plugin, that converts your WordPress website into a functional eCommerce website. It comes with necessary eCommerce pages like Shop, Cart, Checkout, My Account, and offers a secure payment gateway, dedicated order management page, and much more. You’ll have to install WordPress (open source) on your web hosting, then install the WooCommerce plugin onto your site.

The best thing is that it’s entirely Free! You don’t need to pay any sort of monthly or yearly subscription in order to use this platform. And although both WordPress and WooCommerce are free-to-install plugins, that doesn’t mean that they are not professional online store solution.

With a WooCommerce theme, you hardly have to do any work besides adding content. You can get a theme from the official WooCommerce store, additionally, you can use a third party website such as Themeforest which has the largest repository of WooCommerce themes on the market.

You can scale up your store by installing extensions or plugins that add additional features. WordPress Plugin store is a great place to start with the free plugins and themes as there are more than 55,000 of them. WooCommerce is also highly secure and this is because of the regular updates that it undergoes to ensure that it cannot be hacked and that bugs present are quickly taken out.

Store owners can see their past and new orders, manage delivery status, create discount coupons, handle shipping and a lot more. You can also look for some application-specific plugin authors and WooCommerce experts like PluginHive who offers some of the most amazing WooCommerce Shipping Plugins.

So for example, if you want to add shipping and delivery features to your store then the WooCommerce UPS, WooCommerce FedEx, and WooCommerce Table Rate plugins are great options. These plugins will help you set up an end-to-end eCommerce store with important facilities like live shipping rates, shipment/order tracking, shipping label printing, freight shipping, and a lot more actually.

Within WooCommerce’s help center there are 5 options which can provide you with the answer you are looking for — WooCommerce 101, Help & Support, Found a bug?, Education, Setup Wizard.

The only “bad” thing one would find using WooCommerce is you have to stick with WordPress, always. Not that it’s bad or anything, many users who aren’t aware of the WordPress ecosystem in general, would find difficulty in learning. There’s definitely a learning curve around; but once you get past that, you’d find there’s nothing better than WooCommerce.

Magento is another eCommerce platform preferred by many store owners. Designed keeping developers in mind, Magento offers a bunch of amazing features that you’d like to exploit. Like WordPress, it also has a strong community of developers and users, and so there are many themes and plugins to choose from.

The software is originally free, but there’s a paid version available if you want to upgrade anytime in the future. One good thing about Magento is that it comes with most features already. So don’t necessarily have to install additional plugins. For example, it comes with features like coupons, sitemaps, bulk import/export, one-page checkout, order/shipment tracking, and many more.

You can effortlessly send out new product alerts to your existing customers as an attempt to automated marketing. This feature definitely owns a lot of respect as it shows the Magento also focuses on making your website better in every way. The alerts can include information like price alerts or “In Stock” messages, which could really help you get more customers.

Now let's talk about the shipping and delivery side of Magento and how the overall process works. Basically, Magento comes with basic shipping features that fall right under Magento Shipping. This feature comes in-built with Magento Open Source 2.2.2 or later versions. But if you’re looking for advanced features like carrier-based shipping then you need to add additional extensions.

For example, one of the best USPS shipping solutions is the Stamps.com USPS Shipping Extension with Postage for Magento 2. It essentially automates the USPS shipping using Stamps.com by displaying the real-time shipping rates on the Cart and Checkout page, allows you to pay the postage, and print label from within Magento.

Another good thing about this eCommerce platform is it allows you to create separate multi-lingual sites. It does that by automatically determining the language based on your visitor’s location. This is an amazing feature for online stores that serve customers in multiple countries with different languages. The Dashboard is highly customizable and the admin (you) can easily set it up by selecting a few options.

The only downside of using Magento is it can prove to be quite expensive for some users. You need to pay for themes, plugins, web hosting, and the domain; which could be a deal breaker for some.

OpenCart is another Open source eCommerce platform that most users select. They prefer its easy-to-use interface and consider it as a light-weight platform when compared to others in the market. Again, it’s also a free-to-use software that has a mid-sized community to help you out in dire situations.

Most small businesses and startups can really get the most out of this eCommerce platform as it doesn’t take a lot of time to set it up on your website. Which also indicates that the cost of setting up a store with OpenCart shouldn’t be much. The themes available in the store aren’t pricey and also, you don’t need a ton of plugins to keep things moving.

The features that come packed with the software are robust and works well to provide a seamless shopping experience. OpenCart also offers different sizes, colors, length, and height as product options out of the box. Average people should be fine with setting up the store. You barely need any documentation or resources like Magento and so, getting to know this platform completely is pretty straightforward, less time-consuming, and self-explanatory.

One would not expect this free eCommerce platform to come with an error-free payment gateway. You can set the preference for the payment method which could really help you in achieving your business case. With OpenCart, you can also have multiple online stores with different products on them. And yes, you can set the payment gateways on each site as well.

One problem with OpenCart is its disability to customize beyond a certain point. Unlike, WooCommerce and Magento, OpenCart offers fewer customization options and professionals who are looking to expand their online business will find it annoying.

Zen Cart has been designed for people who don’t want to indulge in programming and want to operate using a user-friendly interface. Zen Cart, indeed, sticks on to the promise by delivering a beautiful overall dashboard. People can easily use this platform to build their online stores. Just like using any smartphone — click, tap, and you’re done.

But with a little knowledge of PHP and other development languages like HTML and MySQL, users could really get the most out of it. You can customize the web pages according to your needs, and successfully achieve your business case. But no pressure there. You can obviously hire a developer for a week and ask him or her to do those customizations for you. That shouldn’t be an issue, whatsoever.

Coming away from all that, Zen Cart, on the other hand, is one of the most secure eCommerce software. This proves that you, your site, and your customer information is protected at all times. Compared to Magento, where you need to configure the security walls all by yourself, Zen Cart comes packed with all the necessary features. You can read about some of their security features in their security documentation.

Talking about features, Zen Cart comes with a lot of them along with a wide range of customization options. There are a bunch of modules which developers have already created on Zen Cart; which you can easily download and install on your online store. And don’t worry about the installation part as it’s pretty easy to come by.

One of the most amazing features of this eCommerce platform is it comes along with the email marketing feature. Meaning, you can send out emails, in HTML format, directly from your store/website to the email of your customers and potentials buyers which you had already gathered. This feature can prove to be a boon for your online business.

Unlike the size of the community you’d find in WooCommerce or Magento, Zen Cart has a rather smaller one. But it’s growing momentarily, so don’t worry. What you should be worried about is the support from Zen Cart as you don’t any. And the only way to get support is by hiring someone professional or a third party service.

PrestaShop is new. But by arriving late into the game doesn’t mean that it’s out of the competition altogether and rather has a few tricks up its sleeves. This eCommerce software learns a lot from its current competitors and delivers some promising features and functionalities to its users. To be specific, small start-up businesses will find it pretty easy to get started.

This eCommerce software is known for its ease of use and the beautiful interface with effortless inventory management and a process for store maintenance that anyone could understand. Additionally, you can use PrestaShop’s live demo before you register so you can have a little try.

You can establish separate websites with different languages to go along with them and currencies to match with. PrestaShop allows you to translate the back-end (back-office) of your website as well, so you won’t have trouble working online. Just so you know, PrestaShop comes with 75 different languages, and all of them support the entire software natively.

Similar to OpenCart, you can have multi-vendor scenario working and eventually have multiple stores up and running in no time. Adding to the benefits, the software is fairly lightweight; meaning, your website will run rather smoothly. You don’t have to worry about website running slowly with heavy design on top, as opposed to Magento.

It doesn’t stop there. PrestaShop is said to have some of the best themes and arguably, no other eCommerce platform offers such a diverse range of beautiful themes. If you’re someone who’s only looking to have a good-looking website then you can blindly go with PrestaShop.

The themes can be divided up based on a number of categories including:

  • Compatibility — you can search for themes based on what version of PrestaShop you are using
  • Category — find a theme based on your industry
  • Style — what is your brand? Do you need a clean, minimal or baroque style website?
  • Functionality — is a particular functionality important to you? Do you have lots of products? Then a mega menu might be important to you
  • Developer — only want to look at themes developed by premium developers? Then you can sort based on how prestigious the development company is

Despite having such amazing features and collection of themes in the box, the scalability of this platform isn’t quite there. While big and mid-sized companies should not prefer this platform, store owners who are planning to run a small online business should be just fine with PrestaShop.

If you have just stepped into the world of eCommerce or have been a player for a while, you must have come across the word SaaS. SaaS industry has been gaining a lot of traction lately, especially in the field of eCommerce.

There have been some amazing developments like the Shipping champion, StorePep, which is a complete end-to-end solution for businesses. It offers out-of-the-box solutions like Live Shipping rate at the checkout, printing shipping labels in bulk, and proactive tracking facilities and updates to its customers — all possible because of SaaS.

SaaS stands for Software-as-a-Service. It’s a software licensing and delivery model in which software is licensed to a user and accessed via the internet. SaaS eCommerce platforms generally are cloud-based systems and can be accessed on any web browser.

One of the biggest advantages of SaaS platforms is that the software isn’t installed on-premise or maintained by the user themselves. Instead, your eCommerce system runs on the SaaS provider’s hosted servers. Your 3rd-party provider then is responsible for the security, performance, and maintenance of the application on their servers.

Popular examples of SaaS eCommerce providers are,

  1. Shopify
  2. BigCommerce
  3. Volusion
  4. Big Cartel
  5. 3dcart

All of these platforms have seen significant growth in total users over the past few years, especially Shopify. Let’s check out each one of them and see if they are a better choice over the Open-Source platforms.

Shopify is roughly 7 times more desirable than any other SaaS-based eCommerce platforms. Shopify has it all in terms of easy setup, with a handy dashboard area for quickly adding products, customizing the look of your site and more. It’s cool because Shopify asks you if you plan on moving from another platform during the signup process. The system then provides a link for importing products from your previous store.

Adding a product is clear and easy, with fields for titles, descriptions, price and more. The reason this is easier to use than Volusion and the other options is that it explains what each field is used for, removing all doubt when typing in information.

You can see the same simplicity when managing your customers and their details, orders, and your store stats. Every section of the store is easily accessible from the main menu and no option is hidden.

The goal of Shopify is to really make it possible for everyone to launch their own eCommerce store, even without having any design or development skills.

Feature-wise, Shopify has it all:

  • Unlimited orders, products, file storage, bandwidth
  • 24/7 support
  • Mobile commerce ready
  • Use your own domain name
  • Point of sale
  • Free SSL certificate
  • You can accept credit cards + 100 payment gateways
  • Automatic carrier shipping rates
  • Automatic taxes
  • Web-based website builder with drag-and-drop
  • Full blogging platform
  • Multiple languages
  • Customer profiles
  • Dropshipping
  • Customer accounts
  • Search engine optimized
  • Product reviews
  • Gift cards
  • Social media integration + sell on Facebook
  • Inventory management
  • Digital products
  • Product variations
  • Level-1 PCI compliant
  • Advanced reporting
  • Mobile app

All this gives you great flexibility. Basically, no matter what type of store you want to launch, Shopify will be able to handle that. Including:

  • Stores selling physical products
  • Digital products
  • Dropshipping
  • Services

Coming right after Shopify, Bigcommerce has the cleanest dashboard and clearest directions for getting your online store built within a few minutes. In fact, the dashboard looks surprisingly similar to Shopify’s, with modules for accepting credit cards, customizing your store and more.

Everything is neatly available via the sidebar menu that’s been divided into a couple of sections that are thematically related. You can get to your products, orders, and customer info easily, and then you can take advantage of some of Bigcommerce’s marketing settings, analytics, and other modules where you can optimize your store’s appearance.

Adding your products is also very easy to do with the important product attributes clearly accessible. Instead of putting every little detail about a product on a single screen, Bigcommerce uses tabs, with each one getting into a different characteristic of the product.

Here are the other features you can find in Bigcommerce that make it a contender for the best eCommerce platform:

  • Unlimited products, orders, file storage, and bandwidth
  • 24/7 live chat support
  • Point of sale
  • Visual store builder
  • Migrate your store and import products
  • Accept payments via PayPal powered by Braintree, Stripe, Apple Pay, Pay with Amazon and dozens more
  • Manage orders and inventory
  • Sell via Facebook, Pinterest, eBay, Amazon, and Square POS
  • Multiple marketing features
  • API
  • Multi-layered web hosting security and DDOS protection
  • Level 1 PCI-compliant hosting
  • HTTPS
  • Get found on product comparison sites
  • Encourage return visits with email marketing
  • SEO features

Overall, Bigcommerce is a nice alternative to Shopify if that’s what you’re looking for. The feature set is just as vast and impressive with roughly the same pricing (that is until your sales grow too much, at which point Shopify is the cheaper option).

Volusion has a pretty nicely structured dashboard, with all of the main actions pointed out. If you’re a new user just getting started with the platform, you will find a nice step-by-step wizard guiding you through the setup.

The top menu is where you can navigate to the key sections of the panel, and manage your orders, customers, inventory, marketing efforts, design, and reports.

Adding new products is also done in a clear way, with all the fields right where you’d expect them. It might not be as pretty as Shopify, but it does the trick.

Here are the main features that Volusion brings to the table:

  • Sell from 100 to unlimited products
  • Unlimited orders and file storage
  • 1GB to 35GB of monthly bandwidth
  • 24/7 support via chat, phone, and priority support
  • Visual website builder
  • Point of sale
  • Accept credit cards
  • Ratings and reviews
  • Newsletters
  • Import/export products
  • Built-in SEO + all-in-one SEO tools
  • Reports
  • Social media selling tools
  • Accept payments with Stripe, PayPal, Amazon
  • Handle shipping rates
  • Abandoned cart reports
  • eBay + Amazon integration
  • Phone orders + CRM
  • API access + batch order processing
  • Dedicated account manager

Volusion is an interesting platform to start with, especially if you want to minimize the costs and aren’t planning to sell hundreds of products.

The main focus of Big Cartel is undoubtedly minimalism, which translates into a much easier back-end experience. The main dashboard shows you only the most basic stats regarding your store. However, it’s hard to call that a flaw, since it’s probably exactly what you want to see when you log into your store on any given day.

There are just a handful of options in the main menu, highlighting the most common actions that site owners will want to take. And no surprise, the panel for adding a product is also very clear and rather nice looking.

Overall, you get the most basic features that are a must when launching a new eCommerce store, but not much more than that.

Specifically, the features in Big Cartel:

  • From 5 to 300 products in your database
  • From 1 image to 5 images per product
  • Email support Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm EST
  • Point of sale
  • Unlimited bandwidth and orders
  • Responsive and mobile friendly store designs
  • Real-time stats
  • Search engine optimization
  • Promotional tools

At the end of the day, Big Cartel is a very basic player in our journey to find the best eCommerce platform, and despite its beautiful design. While it might be okay for you to start with, it can be difficult to grow with it as your sales, products and overall business increase.

One notable thing about Big Cartel is that it’s one of the only two solutions on this list that offers a free plan.

The main user interface and dashboard in 3dcart is clear and understandable. Every area of the panel is easy to get to via links in the sidebar, plus there’s a nice onboarding video in the center panel when you log in for the first time.

You do get a set of sample products in your catalog to help you start. You can examine how these products are structured, what the example descriptions look like, etc.

The product creation panel looks okay, and you get tons of features packed into this area. Some beginners might find it a little intimidating with all the features, but the learning curve shouldn’t take long to overcome. Here are some of the features you get:

  • Sell from 100 to unlimited products
  • Unlimited orders, file storage, and bandwidth
  • 24/7 live chat support + phone + priority support
  • Point of sale
  • Mobile & social ready
  • Sell online on eBay, Amazon, Google Shopping, Facebook, Shopzilla
  • Upsell + Cross-sell
  • Bulk import/export
  • Product questions & answers
  • Customer reviews
  • Digital products
  • Waiting list
  • Detailed product reports
  • SSL certificate included
  • FTP access to files
  • Daily backups
  • Secure level 1 PCI hosting
  • Simple shipping setup
  • Accept payments
  • Marketing and SEO features

3dcart also offers wonderful tutorials and setup steps to help you do everything from picking a template to set up your shipping options. The clean wizard is ideal for beginners.

Perhaps a downside is the 3dcart visual editor, which is not exactly the best in the market (no drag-and-drop functionality), but it helps you click and edit components instead of having to modify CSS or HTML code.

So, Open Source or SaaS-based?

At this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that SaaS-based eCommerce platforms will cost you much more. That’s because they manage your web hosting, provide support, updates — basically the whole package.

Open Source solutions, on the other hand, are of course cheaper — a far cry from the SaaS-based models. Take WooCommerce for example. Apart from the basic web hosting charges, you can set up your store and get it running with just a few free WordPress plugins and any one of the free themes available.

Since both SaaS-based and Open source offers similar features and you can set up your website with any one of them, why not keep the money off the table? Please keep in mind going cheap doesn’t mean you’re compromising on the quality.

The fact is, building and maintaining an Open Source eCommerce platform requires fewer resources(development, money, etc.,). Whereas, SaaS-based platforms will cost you more since they provide everything at once, and so it tries to balance out there.

So according to us, the winner is the Open Source eCommerce platform. And if you squint harder, you’d find WooCommerce to be the best from the list.


How was the guide? Let us know in the comments section below. Or if you have anything else to add to the article, do tell us.

Find the best WooCommerce Shipping plugins on PluginHive. You can contact PluginHive’s customers support, and they will help you set up shipping on your online store.

Happy selling!

PluginHive

taking businesses to WooCommerce, really fast!

Devesh Rajarshi

Written by

Digital Marketing Executive @PluginHive and WooCommerce Enthusiast.

PluginHive

taking businesses to WooCommerce, really fast!

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