Skip to main content

How to build an e-commerce website

build a website
(Image credit: Pexels)

With many people currently unable to visit physical stores due to pandemic restrictions, there’s never been a better time to build a website for e-commerce. If you’ve never built a website before, it can be difficult to know where to start. But in this article, we’ll discuss what’s required to launch your own online store.

Step 1: Create a plan

You’ve come up with a great idea for selling something online and you can’t wait to see your ideas come to life. But if you want to ensure long-term success for your e-commerce project, you need a plan that will accurately describe your business and how it will run.

It’s essential to consider things like the following:

  • The product(s) you will sell
  • Your potential customers
  • Payment processing methods
  • Inventory management
  • Order tracking
  • Shipping
  • Managing returns

You’ll need to know about these things before moving on to actually building your site because some will have a direct impact on the framework or technology you use to build the site with. For example, if one of your suppliers can only send you product information in a certain format, you may need to choose a framework that will support the importing of that format.

If you forge ahead and start building without considering all these aspects, you might find out too late about incompatibilities that are impossible to surmount.  This may force you to start again from scratch. So a bit of extra thought and care at the start could save you a lot of time and headaches later on.

Step 2: Choose the right e-commerce platform

Once you have an understanding of these matters, you can then turn your attention to what e-commerce platform you will use. These platforms include nearly all the functionality you’d need to run an online store, but ultimately, it’s a matter of choosing the right one for your needs.

There are many to choose from, and they generally fall into four different types, listed below:

  • All-in-one software as a service (SaaS) platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce, and Wix.
  • Open-source shopping cart applications like Magento or OpenCart.
  • Open-source shopping cart modules that can be added to existing content management systems (CMSs), like WooCommerce for WordPress.
  • Add-on shopping carts, like Snipcart, that can be added to any website without the need for a CMS module.

Let’s take a look at these in a bit more detail.

If you’ve never built a website before and have no idea where to start, these sorts of services are worth considering. You have to pay a monthly subscription, but they can take you from zero to fully functioning websites in very little time. And the recurring fees also usually include the cost of your web hosting.

They often come with a large number of templates to get the overall framework for the site built in just a few minutes. But they also include easy-to-use web builders that let you customize the templates you’ve chosen. Alternatively, you can start from scratch if you have a particular design in mind. In some cases, though, you may find the builders aren’t as good for creating completely custom designs.

These platforms also include nearly all the functionality you’d need to run an online business. However, some functionality may not be available by default, and you’ll have to pay for additional apps.

The advantage of SaaS platforms is that you can get a website built quickly with all the details taken care of. Disadvantages include the sometimes high recurring fees and potential limits on how much you can customize your site.

If you dislike the idea of ongoing fees and lack of customization options, then your solution is to build a site yourself. Choosing a full open-source shopping cart application is one of the ways in which you can do this.

The main difference between one of these applications and a SaaS platform is that with your own shopping cart, you’d pay more upfront to have the site built in the first place. But 

depending on the volume of orders your site does, it could pay for itself quite quickly.

The only recurring fee you will probably need to pay is web hosting, which tends to be included in the subscription cost of SaaS platforms. However, paying for hosting alone can work out much cheaper.

The other main advantage of building your own site is that you have more freedom and control to create a site that is unique to your business. And if you have the need for custom functionality, it is easier to have that coded and added to a site where you control the full codebase than it is with a SaaS app.

Shopping cart modules are very similar to applications except that they are for existing CMSs. Applications tend to be used to build a whole site and are ideally suited to sites where the whole purpose is e-commerce. 

However, if you have an existing site and want to add e-commerce functionality to it, you could add an e-commerce module to the CMS that your site uses. Or you could build a new site with your preferred CMS and then do the same.

Most CMSs—whether popular ones like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla, or more niche options like Craft and Statamic—have e-commerce modules that can be installed, 

Similar to shopping cart apps, you’d pay more upfront to have a module installed and set up on your site, but you’d also benefit from the same levels of flexibility.

This category of carts probably has the smallest number of options. But it can be a good choice if you don’t want to pay recurring fees or spend a lot on e-commerce integration.

With these types of carts—examples include Snipcart or PayPal pay buttons—you add a small piece of code to existing websites to add e-commerce capabilities. The back office features may not be as comprehensive as the other options we’ve described, but they strike a nice balance between low cost and flexibility in how you build your site.

Step 3: Choose the right team to build your site

If you choose an all-in-one SaaS platform, you may not need any help with building your site. But if you choose an open-source application or module or an add-on shopping cart,  don’t have any coding knowledge, you’ll need a reliable web development team to assist you.

It can be tempting to post an ad on a freelancer website and take the cheapest bid, but the saying “You get what you pay for” holds true in web development too. What you save in freelancer fees may not be worth the extra time and hassle you incur if you choose the wrong supplier.

You’ll want to find a person, or team, that has experience in e-commerce but is also good at communicating with you and understands your goals for the project.

Step 4: Choose the right web hosting

Once you’ve decided which e-commerce platform to use, you’ll be able to move on to choosing the best web hosting option. This is best left until after you know what you’ll be using to build the site because different platforms and systems have different requirements. Many web hosting providers also have plans that are tailored to certain systems, so you may want to search for one that specifically supports the platform you’ve chosen.

You’ll want to choose a web host that can guarantee great performance in terms of not only how quickly your site will load but also near-perfect uptime. If you lose money for every minute your site is down, you don’t want your web hosting to cost money. 

And because e-commerce involves dealing with people’s personal and financial information, you also want to choose a company that provides high levels of security.

Summary

As we have seen, a lot of thought needs to go into building a successful e-commerce website. You need to consider how your online business will run, the platform on which to build your site, the team to help you build it, and the provider to host it.

Even though you might be itching to make a start, a bit of time devoted to planning at the start of the project will ultimately save you time, money, and headaches.