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Choosing an online shop for your website

Posted on 1 Oct 2012 at 09:09

Kevin Partner takes a fresh look at the market for hosted e-commerce software, with mixed results

My first experience of e-commerce came ten years ago, when I set up an online children's bookshop. Amazon’s dominance is now so complete that such an idea today is unthinkable; back then there was still a gap in the market.

In those days you built online shops on your desktop PC before uploading the resulting HTML and JavaScript onto a server, since neither the software nor the bandwidth to build them online existed. Two main authoring tools ruled this market: the ShopFactory series and Actinic's range. I did investigate Actinic Catalog, which I’d seen used by many existing online shops, and installed a trial version, but didn't take to it. It felt too complicated: it was a simple bookshop, after all, and the fact that ShopFactory was considerably cheaper clinched it – we based our bookshop and several later ones on that.

For most small businesses, especially during their start-up phase, hosted e-commerce platforms are more convenient and easier to set up

However, building shops offline and having to, in effect, overwrite them every time you made a stock change has always felt wrong. So when I came to set up my most recent venture I researched online shop-building tools, and after a false start with ekmPowershop, I settled for BigCommerce.

In the meantime Actinic developed its own, somewhat basic, online tool called Actinic Express, but last year abandoned this by partnering with Oxatis, and forming a new business called Actinic Online using the new partner’s existing software. To add a further twist, this partnership recently broke up and Oxatis walked away with the Actinic brand name, the original desktop tools now being sold under the name SellerDeck.

For most small businesses, especially during their start-up phase, hosted e-commerce platforms such as those offered by Volusion and BigCommerce are more convenient and easier to set up. Proponents of desktop tools may point out that a hosted platform exposes your shop to the risk of the provider going out of business, so it makes sense to pick one of the major players to minimise this risk.

As your enterprise grows, you could choose to set up your own server (although that merely shifts the risk to your server provider staying afloat). Nevertheless, whether your shop lives on your own server or one owned by an e-commerce provider, it remains more efficient to build the actual shop online.

It’s a couple of years since I last looked for a hosted e-commerce platform, and the product I chose then, BigCommerce, has since become far more polished and better featured. However, I’ve learned the hard way to check periodically that the choice I made back then remains sensible, and here’s what I uncovered. I won’t go into a Labs-style feature comparison, but simply outline the main competitors, having signed up for trial accounts and spent long enough with each to decide whether they’re worth abandoning my current provider for. As with changing bank accounts, business addresses or accountants, the sheer bother creates an inertia that any potential new provider must offer significant improvements to overcome.

ekmPowrshop

ekmPowershop and I go back to the mid-2000s and my first online hosted shop. At that time I was sufficiently impressed to recommend it, based largely on the benefits of moving away from desktop tools: it enabled me to update my shop contents from anywhere, to add special offers on the fly, and to manage the orders entirely online.

Hence when I came to build a pilot for what became my main online retail business back in 2009, I naturally returned to it. Sadly, I discovered that while online shopping had changed over those intervening years, ekm had not. We ran it for long enough to finish the pilot and then moved to BigCommerce. With that move I experienced the sort of freedom I’d enjoyed when moving my bookkeeping from Sage to FreeAgent – and frankly, I haven’t looked back since.

However, I was keen to see whether ekm has now moved with the times, especially since it’s a British company and I prefer to use UK suppliers wherever possible. One area it’s certainly addressed is the quality of its built-in shop designs. Back in 2009, its shops relied on table-based layouts that should have been consigned to a design museum; in 2012, these have been replaced by usable CSS-based ones. In fact, ekm is now the only provider considered here that allows you to edit its product from within the live page.

This is where the good news ends, I’m afraid. While the website customers will see can be made to function reasonably, its administration interface remains awful. For example, if I wanted to create a coupon code to allow customers to receive 10% off an item, it can be achieved in one screen in BigCommerce. In ekmPowershop it’s a ten-step process, which must be repeated in full for every single promotion. This isn’t the worst of it.

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Kevin Partner

Kevin Partner

Kevin is a contributing editor to PC Pro. He's managing director of NlightN Multimedia, a Milton Keynes-based company specialising in web application development and internet marketing.

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