For any business owner trying to keep up with a constantly changing industry, creating an online presence for your company is a thought that's undoubtedly crossed your mind.
While in the past, this may have been seen as a luxury, in today's digital age, it shouldn't be viewed as anything other than a necessity — especially with the abundance of free ecommerce website builders on the internet.
So, to make sure you're not getting left behind as the commerce industry welcomes online business opportunities, you'll need a robust ecommerce platform that can cater to any specific needs your business might have (especially to help with the transition if you have no prior online presence).
Although there's certainly no shortage of paid ecommerce platforms out there, not every business owner can spend a fortune on their online store. For those who feel like they're taking a gamble, the risk feels even more amplified due to the investment in something they may not have any experience with. Don't stress, though — in this guide, we'll be focusing on the best free ecommerce platforms and tips to help you tap into a new market while keeping the costs low.
Whether you're a local business owner that's previously been relying on social media to form a buzz or you're a more established enterprise simply looking to modernise, we've got you covered.
Table of Contents:
What Is An Ecommerce Platform? 🔎️
Ecommerce platforms are essentially just a way for business owners to build, configure, and operate an entire online store through a software application.
When using one of these platforms, you gain access to various tools and functionalities that let you sell all the products or services (that you'd normally be selling at a physical location) online instead, even handling things like inventory management and payment processing on your behalf.
Fortunately, ecommerce platforms come in various shapes and sizes, so the majority of them can be tailored to meet the requirements of any size business, from a teenager selling second-hand clothes in their bedroom to an international corporation. There are a few different ways you can host one of these sites, with the former example of a reseller likely opting for a third-party provider to help spoon-feed the whole operation. For larger businesses, you might want to consider your own dedicated web hosting server, depending on the level of control you're ultimately looking for.
Once you've created an online storefront, customers from all over the world can enter your site, browse products and complete purchases as if they were in your shop. Furthermore, it's worth noting that the functionalities of having an ecommerce site don't stop there — the best free ecommerce platforms have a range of additional tools, too, such as:
- Analytics and reporting tools.
- Various tools to assist with marketing and promotional tools.
- Integrations with a range of third-party applications like social media and email marketing platforms.
Different Types Of Ecommerce Platforms
If you're at the point where you're considering your options for a platform, it's crucial to understand the various types available so you can make the best decision for your website. Each of these comes with its own unique set of features and benefits, so some options might not be ideal depending on your personal circumstances.
Though the full list is more exhaustive, some of the more common types of ecommerce platforms include the following:
Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
Kicking things off, these are a type of ecommerce platform that hosts your website on its own servers, releasing you from the whole management side to web building. There are a few reasons you might opt for a more backseat approach when hosting your ecommerce platform, not least the added security benefits and updates that the platform handles for you. In addition, there are other technical aspects, such as configuration, creating backups, and other general aspects that might require some prior understanding of the topic.
Self-Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
In contrast, self-hosted ecommerce platforms work completely differently, enabling you to host the website on your own server or hosting provider. Obviously, this isn't something that every business owner is able to afford, so setting up a free online store with one of the other options may be more suitable to keep costs down.
Having said that, these platforms provide you with complete control over how your website runs, giving you customisable options and resources to your heart's content. Options like Magento and OpenCart are great options when it comes to a self-hosted platform, so feel free to do some research and bookmark them in case you feel like upgrading from free ecommerce websites.
WordPress Ecommerce Plugins
Powering a staggering 43% of all websites on the internet, WordPress is a free popular platform used for content management on the internet. Though WordPress isn't designed for the sole purpose of ecommerce, there's a fantastic range of easily installable plugins that can help you transform your website into a business, providing multiple payment methods and navigational tools for your customers.
Each of these plugins comes with separate ecommerce features, but options like WooCommerce, Easy Digital Downloads, and WP eCommerce are highly rated among business owners on the internet.
Key Features To Look For
When choosing a free ecommerce platform to host your website, there are a few features you might want to keep in mind, regardless of what type of platform you ultimately land on. Let's take a look at some of the most important things to look out for in an ecommerce platform:
1. Ease Of Use
Any website that's not immediately intuitive and hassle-free for any customer landing on the site is incorrectly managed. You always want your customers to have an easy time navigating through your website, giving them a clear pathway to your items and subsequent payment options, not a clutter of text and dead links that cause them to bounce instantly.
Make sure the platform you choose has a user-friendly interface that makes adding and managing products easy, as well as streamlining the whole process of order processing and inventory management.
Though this isn't vital if you've got a previous background in coding or any other web-building skills, you should also look for a platform that provides drag-and-drop editors, templates, and themes so you can give your site a more personal touch with little to no effort.
To extend this point, your site needs to have a visually appealing storefront that shows off your brand, and whichever free ecommerce platform you choose should be able to help you out with this. Flexibility is key here, so make sure you look for templates and layouts for your website that you can customise, as well as colour schemes so you can add your brand colours, for instance.
Furthermore, it goes a long way for customers if they're able to access your company's other social media handles or relevant links from your website, so aim for a platform that lets you add custom features to your store with third-party apps and plugins.
3. Payment Options
You never want to make it awkward or complicated for your customers to make payments because, after all, how else are you going to make money? To keep things simple for the customers, it helps if you can offer a variety of separate payment options so they can easily pay for their purchases.
Make sure your free ecommerce platform is able to support all the popular payment gateways like credit cards, PayPal, Stripe, and Apple Pay. In addition, it's crucial that your site can also handle fairly complex payment processing tasks like taxes, shipping fees, and discount reductions.
Naturally, security is a top concern for most online shoppers, so it shouldn't be any different for you too. Think, would you shop at this website?
Try to look for an ecommerce platform with a fairly high standard when it comes to security and that they have all the right measures in place to keep your customers' sensitive information kept private. Almost all of the best free ecommerce platforms offer this, but ensure that they're using SSL encryption and offering additional features like two-factor authentication and fraud detection too.
5. Integration With Other Tools
We touched on this earlier, but in order to best streamline all your business operations and keep the revenue flowing, it's vital to be able to integrate your ecommerce platform with other tools and services.
Ideally, you'd like something that can integrate your social media platforms onto the site, but there are other useful tools you might want, such as accounting software or any email marketing tools you may use.
As a result, you'll be able to keep tabs on your shop's performance, run your targeted marketing campaigns, and manage finances all from the same place.
Are Free Ecommerce Platforms Really Worth Your Time? 🤔️
The idea of something being offered without any cost certainly raises questions, which is why we're here today explaining all of it: the favourable aspects as well as the unfavourable ones.
We'll begin with the positives, and in this situation, the most notable advantage of opting for a free ecommerce platform is undoubtedly its lack of cost. Especially when you're dealing with the constraints of a limited budget that often come with running a startup or small business, saving money becomes imperative, so this isn't something to take lightly when comparing your options with alternative paid services.
Tapping Into New Markets
Using a free ecommerce platform has the added bonus of opening up new and previously inaccessible market opportunities and the ability to reach much larger audiences, so you're able to expand the scope of your company without fear of incurring extra costs.
Additionally, most free platforms offer accessible customisation options to improve the appearance of your store in an overcrowded market.
It doesn't stop here, though, as utilising the social media integration of some of the more popular free ecommerce platforms allows you to effortlessly promote your product across various networks. You might even get lucky and find a site that gives you access to certain free marketing resources that are capable of improving your sales.
Lack Of Features
Unfortunately, though, we can't ignore or overlook the negative and unpleasant components that are part of this topic, and while the notion of a free ecommerce platform might sound enticing enough at first glance, you must remember that it usually comes with limited functionalities.
The little things count in business, and the lack of important tools could be one such thing that determines whether or not you make it, so missing certain features like abandoned cart recovery or the option to choose between various payment gateway options could be fairly problematic.
Worse Security Than Their Paid Counterparts
Another drawback of using a free ecommerce platform is the possibility of compromising security. As more and more companies migrate their operations to digital platforms, the rate of cybercrime continues to soar, making it more important than ever to keep your data private. Naturally, security is essential when it comes to protecting customer data and relying on a free platform may not provide adequate protection.
Lack Of Support Networks
Limited customer service may pose yet another potential challenge if you're using a free platform, as you could easily find yourself in need of assistance and have no choice but to rely on online resources or community forums, which can become aggravating.
What’s The Verdict?
In truth, there are many factors that could influence the answer of whether or not it's worth choosing a free platform, making it dependent on specific circumstances. So if you're starting with little to no capital, consider using a free ecommerce platform as an option to dip your toe in the water and evaluate whether your business idea has potential or not.
If you're looking to take your business growth seriously and require top-of-the-line capabilities as well as better security measures, then investing in a paid platform may be your ideal choice.
Weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of each platform option before reaching a decision is essential for achieving success within the confines of your budget. Don't be in a hurry while identifying a proper platform that meets all of your company's requirements, and take some time performing detailed research.
To summarise, while free ecommerce platforms are a fantastic choice for some businesses, it's imperative to be wary of their own set of restrictions, but compromising on necessary elements and safety may not pay off well over time. So, do your due diligence, and remember, you get what you pay for.
Top Free Ecommerce Platforms 🔝️
In this next section of the article, we'll be taking a look at some of the leading platforms when it comes to hosting your ecommerce store. Though there's an extensive selection of options to choose from within this industry, we're going to be covering some of the best free ones you can choose from, whether that's from free trials or if the service is inherently free.
Aside from looking at their individual features, we'll also be discussing the pros and cons of each option as well as providing a few helpful stats to demonstrate their effectiveness.
To get things started, let's take a look at WooCommerce. This is a free and open-source ecommerce platform that was designed to integrate seamlessly with WordPress, so you can add it to your existing WordPress website without any extra effort or complications with installation.
This ecommerce platform is especially popular for small businesses, with the free software being used in over 6.3 million different websites across the world and appearing in 4.67% of the top million sites!
Aside from this, they also offer a huge variety of customisation options to suit businesses of any size, whether you're an established corporation or a local company.
Magento is a hugely powerful platform that can help you create stunning online stores with endless possibilities. It's just that, well, it has a bit of a learning curve. Okay, scratch that; it has a learning mountain, but if you're up for the challenge, get ready for a thrilling ride — Magento might just be the adventure you've been looking for in the chaotic world of ecommerce.
Once you've conquered this learning curve, though, you'll be able to wield power that far outshines the other free platforms on this list, allowing you to create a truly customised online store to reflect both your unique brand and vision. From some of the stunning product catalogues on offer to supplying a seamless checkout process for all your customers, this platform does wonders for creating the ecommerce platform of your dreams.
Let's not forget the vibrant community surrounding Magento, too, with a broad selection of resources, forums, and expert advice to help you out along the way if something feels tricky. Here you'll find help troubleshooting any cryptic error messages you might receive, helping to put an end to the sleepless nights and countless cups of coffee required when trying to fix problems by yourself.
Sure, there may be plenty of challenges that'll undoubtedly test your patience, but truthfully, this only serves to sharpen your skills and give you a stronger understanding of ecommerce platforms work, making the transition to a paid platform slightly less jarring should you need to upgrade at any point. The sense of accomplishment you'll feel when you overcome those obstacles will be worth every moment of effort.
Let's begin by acknowledging the marvel that is Shopify's “free” offering. Obviously, this is quite a rare gem in the digital landscape — a platform that allows you to dip your toes into the vast sea of online commerce without having to spend even a penny upfront. Having said that, the allure of paid plans might still beckon you as your business grows, but the freedom to test the waters and build your brand without financial constraints is truly a gift.
Now, picture yourself as a digital artist armed with Shopify's magnificent selection of templates. These pre-designed themes, though widely used, provide a solid foundation for your store's aesthetic journey. With a few creative tweaks, you can achieve a visually appealing and professional storefront that captures the attention of potential customers.
Finally, let's talk about the “joys” of inventory management. Though you'd typically have to brace yourself for a seemingly endless dance of SKU numbers and product descriptions that make your head spin, fear not, as Shopify's inventory system is so intuitive that even the most novice of business owners can navigate it without stress. Basically, you can rest assured knowing you'll find solace in the never-ending quest to keep your stock updated, your orders fulfilled, and your sanity teetering on the edge.
Tips For Setting Up Your Ecommerce Business 💡️
Once we've nailed down the platform with the best free ecommerce features (whether that's through a free trial or the platform doesn't charge), it's time to get it up and running in a way that reflects your business ideals and brand image.
In addition, there are plenty of ways to optimise your ecommerce business for the maximum number of conversions, so it's worth getting up to speed with a few basics.
In this next section of the article, we'll be going through a few of these methods to ensure you're getting the most out of your subscription or free plan.
1. Optimise Your Product Descriptions
Whenever you're trying to make your ecommerce business stand out, product descriptions can make or break the item or service you're trying to sell.
This crucial description box provides your customers with all the basic knowledge they need to understand about the item — things like what they do, why they need them, sizes, etc. The thing is, it's important for customer retention to keep your product descriptions neat and concise, meaning some level of optimisation is necessary.
There's no need to fear, though; it's an easy process that's simply using clear and direct language in order to highlight the product's benefits. For example, to make the text easier for your customers to consumers, you could use bullet points to separate short pieces of information.
For the rest of your free ecommerce website, it always helps to include a list of authentic customer reviews in order to rank higher on search engine result pages. For Google Analytics, this demonstrates some of the key tenets of E-A-T, meaning Expertise, Authority, and Trust, and subsequently gives your site a better chance of appearing on the front page.
2. Use High-Quality Images
Pictures typically do a better job of explaining when it comes to ecommerce, and high-quality product images can make a marked difference in how potential customers view your product. For instance, whenever you're shopping on an ecommerce website for clothes, do you make sure to read the titles of the products before anything, or do you look at the item?
When taking pictures of your product or service for your website, try to find the best possible lighting to showcase them in a flattering manner. Naturally, this means using clear, well-lit photos that can show the consumer every possible angle. If you're wanting to go all out, you could even consider purchasing a 360-degree camera to give the customers a better buying experience, or a simple video might suffice.
3. Simplify Checkout Process
As you're likely well aware from personal experience, there's nothing more frustrating as a customer than a complicated checkout process. To avoid any kind of issues when making purchases, try to keep your site optimised and simple to use. For instance, only ask the customer for information that's completely necessary for the purchase, as many people can feel turned off when supplying websites with seemingly unnecessary personal data.
In addition, it also helps if you can add a progress bar to give the customers some idea of how far along they are - the last thing you want is for a potential buyer to leave one step before making a purchase.
At this point, you might also decide to include guest checkout options or social logins so that your customers can finish the transaction by signing in quickly.
4. Offer Multiple Payment Options
In general, people like options, and giving customers multiple payment options is a great way of improving the likelihood of a customer making a purchase. For any businesses that have only ever accepted cash or card at their physical storefront, it's crucial to come to terms with a few of the slightly less common payment options that you might not expect to see in person.
For instance, you'll find most people on the internet prefer to pay for things with their credit card, though plenty of people prefer to use PayPal or another kind of digital wallet.
This type of thing can be an easy way to accommodate different customer preferences, so it's worth trialling something like this for your site so you can see if people are actually using it. In addition, you might also want to consider potential payment plans or instalment options so that customers can purchase any higher-priced items you might have with ease.
Common Mistakes To Avoid ⛔️
Now we've covered some of the main essentials to include on your site, let's take a look at some of the less desirable traits you should steer clear of. In practice, even the slightest inconvenience of misstep can turn away any potential customers, ultimately hindering the amount of sales you're making.
To help you avoid any of these possible mistakes, we've put together a list of some of the more frequently made mistakes by businesses like yours when setting up their first ecommerce platform.
1. Overcomplicating Your Design
With the novelty and excitement that comes with owning and managing your own website/ecommerce platform, it's understandable to think jam-packing a range of fancy features and design elements into your website is the way to go.
In reality, simplicity is typically key here, and if your design is too confusing for your customers to navigate through, they're going to find it unnecessarily difficult to find what they were looking for.
Instead, a far more measured approach would be to look at some of the best-performing websites within your industry and monitor their approach. Are they using bold, flashy colours, or is it a more sleek and professional style? Try to focus on creating a clean and intuitive design for anyone that visits your site, allowing them to shop and make purchases with ease.
2. Ignoring Mobile Optimisation
In the early stages of website building, mobile phone optimisation wasn't something that needed to be considered — all the focus was driven towards how the website looked and ran on a computer. However, like many people in their lives are now doing, we're now using our mobile phones to shop online more than ever.
Suddenly, the whole ecommerce landscape has shifted, and it's now a necessity to prioritise mobile phone optimisation for your website. So, what does this look like in practice? Essentially, you'll want to use a responsive design that's able to adapt to the screen size of whatever device it's being used on. This allows your site to load much more quickly on mobile phones, allowing them to read and navigate through the website as intended without having to use a version optimised for a much larger screen.
Even if the analytics for your ecommerce platform shows that you don't receive many visitors from mobile devices, this is definitely not something you want to miss out on, as failure to optimise your site for mobile can have a huge impact on the user experience and sales.
3. Failing To Test Your Site
In order to avoid any possible bugs or other issues that could be hindering your conversions, it's vital to run regular tests on your online store so you can fix things promptly.
There are a few different ways you could do this but mostly try to test things like page load times, checkout processes, and what the user experience feels like on different devices and browsers. Ignoring this kind of thing can cause glaring errors that turn customers away immediately, all without you knowing about it. So, check your website's performance every so often to keep things up to speed.
Are Free Ecommerce Platforms SEO-Friendly To Help My Store Rank Higher In Search Engines?
Most free ecommerce platforms include basic search engine optimisation (SEO) features to help your store rank in search results. These features often allow you to customise page titles, meta descriptions, and URLs. However, paid plans are always going to offer more advanced SEO tools and analytics to optimise your store's visibility.
Can I Sell An Unlimited Number Of Products With A Free Ecommerce Platform?
Being able to sell as many products as you like normally varies depending on the ecommerce platform you choose. While some free plans allow unlimited product listings, others might have caps on the number of products you can sell. It's essential to review the platform's terms and features to ensure it aligns with your business needs, especially if you plan to have a large inventory.
Can I Use A Custom Domain Name With Free Ecommerce Platforms?
Some free ecommerce platforms provide the option to use a custom domain name for your online store, while others might require you to use a subdomain or include the platform's branding in your URL instead. If having a branded and professional domain is important to you, try to ensure that the platform you choose supports custom domain integration.
Are There Any Restrictions On International Selling With A Free Ecommerce Platform?
While free ecommerce platforms generally allow international selling, there may be limitations or additional costs associated with cross-border transactions. These limitations can include limited payment gateways, currency support, or shipping options. If you plan to sell internationally, ensure that the platform supports the countries you wish to target and provides the necessary tools.