Small Business Ecommerce: How to Go Digital in a Big Market

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In a world of Amazon, eBay and other retail giants, being a small business is a big feat. 

Not to mention the fact that small businesses (defined as a business with fewer than 500 employees) make up 99.9% of all U.S. firms — meaning there’s no shortage of competition. 

However, with ecommerce sales growing by the year and one in four small businesses still lacking an online store, there is a prime opportunity for entrepreneurs to gain a competitive edge and expand their businesses online.

Small businesses are sole proprietorships, partnerships or corporations that sell products or services and make less money and have fewer employees than large multinational corporations. The U.S. Small Business Administration further defines a small business in terms of employment (from 100 to over 1,500 employees) or average annual receipts over time (ranging from $1 million to over $40 million). 

If this definition describes your business, then this article is for you.

With online sales expected to reach 22% of global retail sales by 2023 — compared to 14.1% in 2019 — there’s no question that it’s time for small businesses to go digital.


Small Businesses Need an Ecommerce Component

In a world increasingly dominated by ecommerce, online sales aren’t exactly negotiable. 

Customers want to buy their favorite products without leaving the comfort of their couches, and failing to meet that need can put you immediately at a disadvantage. There are plenty of benefits involved in ecommerce, making the investment of time and money required to get started well worth the effort.

Customer buying analytics.

Traditional retail sales are fairly limited in analytical capabilities. There’s not always a way to know who bought what; many customers choose not to provide personal information at checkout and make payments in cash. Yes, retail store owners can evaluate things like inventory trends, but there’s a lot more to be gleaned with web analytics.

Using online tools, online retailers can learn all kinds of valuable data, including:

  • Page views. How many times does a customer visit a particular page on your website?
  • Average time spent shopping. How much time does a customer spend shopping on your site?
  • Clicks on particular products or offers. How many times does a customer click on a specific product or offer?
  • Bounce rate. What percentage of customers enter your online store but leave immediately, without visiting other pages on your site?
  • Shopping cart abandonment statistics. How often does a customer drop out of the purchase process?
  • Products frequently purchased together. What products do customers most often purchase simultaneously?

All of these details can play a big role in how you choose to operate your business. For example, if you see trends in items customers tend to purchase together, you can curate promos or sales around this pattern.

For the bullet points, provide short definitions for each one and why they’re important.

Search engine traffic.

Considering over half of all shoppers do some digital digging on search engines like Google before making a purchase, a digital footprint can be a big benefit. While it’s certainly possible to build a compelling web presence without an ecommerce shop, breaking into the ecommerce market can be a great way to draw attention to your company that is otherwise unavailable.

But according to a study by MarketingSignals, 90% of ecommerce startups fail within the first 120 days, largely due to weak search engine optimization — which goes to show that creating search engine traffic isn’t always as simple as it seems.

With factors like page load speed, relevant keywords, mobile friendliness and website structure all contributing to SEO ranking, there’s a lot to think about when optimizing your site.

Luckily, many ecommerce platforms provide built-in SEO tools to help make your life easier. BigCommerce, for example, offers several SEO tools right out of the box, such as optimized URLs, unique URLs, microdata, a content delivery network as well as 301 redirects and URL rewrites. Additionally, tools like category pages, product landing pages and product descriptions work wonders for SEO purposes. Your ecommerce site can attract both users researching area options and those considering buying online.

Automated marketing engine.

Marketing is no longer limited to ads in the local paper or sale signs in your front window. Online advertising is extremely popular, expanding reach and growing visibility. Your ecommerce platform can essentially function as an all-in-one automated marketing engine, providing a way to drive ads and direct traffic to boost sales.

Making ecommerce purchases doesn’t require a customer to drive to your online shop and exchange cash. Instead, a customer can click on your ad, reach a dedicated landing page, and make a purchase in a few easy steps. You can then use email marketing to reach them with other products they might like. This is a benefit otherwise unavailable, and failing to embrace these opportunities can cost your online business quite a bit.

Improved customer experience.

One of the most obvious reasons to create an online store is to create a better experience for the very people that can make or break your business.

An online store gives customers the freedom to shop 24/7 from the comfort of their couch or even on-the-go. This means saved time, saved gas money and no more hassle of battling crowds and long lines.

But opening an online shop isn't just about taking away the negatives of in-person shopping. On the contrary, ecommerce is all about enhancing the shopping journey.

By diversifying your sales channels with both in-store and online sales opportunities, you create a better user experience by default. Customers don’t just want to see a limited page with hours and contact information; they want the robust, omnichannel experience your competition can provide.

Since the customer can’t see, touch or try on products online, you’ll need to build a level of trust with your customers so that they’re willing to buy. Whether that be through augmented and virtual try-ons, try-on-at-home offers or flexible return policies, make sure that your customers feel just as comfortable purchasing online as they would in-store.

Better Mobile Usability.

Not everyone wants to show up at your storefront and browse your shelves in person. With mobile commerce growing by the year, failing to offer an ecommerce platform — and one that offers a user-friendly mobile experience or dedicated mobile app — can put you behind the curve. 

Since most of us have a smartphone attached to our hip 24/7, it’s no surprise that mobile commerce is on the rise. In fact, by 2025, Statista forecasts that mobile commerce sales will make up over 10% of all US retail sales, which would be a growth of 7% since 2018.



With this rising trend toward mobile, it’s crucial that your focus is not limited to desktop alone. Although the average desktop device has a higher conversion rate than that of smartphones, there’s no doubt that customers rely on mobile experiences, and it’s your job to ensure they’re as optimal as possible.

3 Types of Ecommerce Solutions

Operating an ecommerce store isn’t one-size-fits-all; it’s an overarching category of ecommerce software that comes in a few different shapes and sizes. Before diving in head first, take time to do your due diligence on the available options.

Add more types based on your research.

Open source.

The term “open source” refers to the source code used to structure a website. These kinds of infrastructure opportunities are available and accessible to everyone, providing a foundation upon which to create an ecommerce platform. There are a few different advantages to open-source code, including:

  • Freedom from any one particular vendor.
  • Easy integration with existing systems.
  • Opportunity to customize platforms.

However, open source isn’t perfect, and the cons can be enough to drive some users elsewhere. Open-source solutions require more security interventions, can be a struggle to properly host and may come with additional costs, like higher IT team involvement, that are not immediately obvious.

SaaS (Software-as-a-Service).

Software-as-a-Service, more commonly referred to as SaaS, is commonly confused with cloud software. Like cloud software, SaaS products are hosted on a server maintained by someone other than your business — but there are a lot of differences, too. SaaS software is more like renting technology than owning it, and that means you get a lot more for your money.

All kinds of programs rely on SaaS resources, and that includes ecommerce. SaaS can be a quick, convenient way to establish an online presence without figuring out hosting and source data solutions individually.

Going through a trusted SaaS ecommerce provider can help you lay the foundation for a great website without any hassle, guaranteeing expert service. A third party does all of the heavy lifting, providing access to professional tools and resources that can ensure a smooth launch and strong performance. SaaS pricing can vary significantly, but investing in a robust platform can result in a hefty ROI.

Headless commerce.

Headless commerce isn’t the most common choice, particularly for small businesses, but it is an option for those with unique needs. This strategy uncouples the backend that manages the tech side of ecommerce from the frontend, or the presentation layer customers see when online shopping. 

This approach is most valuable when you want to keep the presentation of your products flexible but the mechanics of selling products consistent. For example, companies with an international presence that requires different frontend appearances but the same backend functionality often employ this strategy.

Despite the flexibility, the cost and complexity can outweigh the benefits, leading most small businesses to seek open-source or SaaS solutions instead.

Things to Consider When Selecting Your Small Business Ecommerce Platform

Ecommerce platforms come in all shapes and sizes, from DIY templates to partnerships with key industry players. What works for one brand may not work for another, so keep these factors in mind when weighing the pros and cons of each.

Price, cost, and additional fees.

Most small businesses don’t have an unlimited amount of resources to pour into a website. That means the price of an ecommerce platform will be a major point of consideration. However, prices on the surface don’t always tell the whole story. 

Some platform options that appear to be extremely cheap with very low rates per month may require more expenditures down the line. Here are just a handful of hidden fees to keep an eye out for:

  • Domain names.
  • Site maintenance fees.
  • Security and PCI compliance.
  • Website themes.
  • Plug-ins or add-ons.
  • Hosting. 
  • Credit card processing.  

Luckily, many ecommerce sites offer a free trial, which is a great opportunity for you to test drive the site and explore all of its built-in features. Figure out which features are included in the monthly rate, and make a list of which features are necessary for your business and which ones are not. This will help you narrow down which ecommerce platforms are best aligned with your business goals.

Security.

Part of running an online store is dealing with sensitive data, such as customer addresses, credit card numbers and other payment information — which means it’s your responsibility to handle it with care.

However, the bare minimum provided by some platforms may not be enough. Many platforms come with an SSL certificate, but proper protection may mean third-party software or an additional investment in in-house infrastructure.

In order to accept online payments, your business must be PCI compliant, otherwise you may risk fines, loss of customer trust, termination of ability to accept payments or other fraud-related financial consequences.

Luckily, Standard BigCommerce stores come with Level 1 PCI compliance to ensure your site is safe and secure, allowing you to spend more time building your business and less time worrying about security.

Transaction fees.

Credit cards are a staple in the retail world, but accepting credit card payments isn’t always free. Many ecommerce platforms have hidden transaction fees associated with credit card purchases.

Shopify, for example, has a proprietary payment provider, Shopify Payments, which its merchants can use to complete transactions. However, if the merchant chooses to use a third-party payment provider, Shopify charges additional transaction fees up to 2% of each sale — over time, these fees add up.

When you’re weighing your platform options, try to look for one that allows for flexible payment options with minimal to no transaction fees. For example, BigCommerce supports 55+ payment gateways, including point-of-sale (POS) systems, mobile wallets and money transfers.

Themes.

Especially if you’re just getting your business off the ground, it’s perfectly okay to start out with a generic, free theme. But over time, you’ll want to start building a brand for your business, which will likely require a customized design and theme.  

However, if you want a custom website design, some platforms will require additional payment. Many platforms offer one or a few basic, free themes, but can charge up to $200 for more advanced themes. And using a custom interface may require paid access to premium themes or partnership with a third-party web designer.

To help avoid additional overhead costs, try looking for a platform that offers a wide variety of free themes so that you can design your website with full creative freedom.

Inventory Management.

One of the most frustrating things as a customer is going to an online store and finding a product you love, only to find out that it’s out of stock. So if you’re selling physical products, your inventory is literally your business, so it’s crucial that your ecommerce platform has an efficient inventory management system in place. 

Inventory management refers to the tracking of goods a company has in stock, and this includes operations such as ordering, storing, restocking and forecasting. 

And of course, as you gain more customers and add more products to your catalog, managing your inventory will only get more challenging, so make sure that the platform you choose offers the necessary tools to help keep your store stocked.

Analytics.

If you’re a small business looking to make it big, you’ll need the tools to measure your customer behavior and preferences over time. Understanding what your customers are looking for is key to improving marketing initiatives and better meeting their needs.

This is where analytics come into play.

Some ecommerce platforms do provide access to comprehensive analytics, but others may offer a limited array or nothing at all. But if your platform lacks the necessary resources, this may result in additional costs for you and your business.

Look for an ecommerce platform that offers built-in customer analytics tools, tracks visits and activity on your website and identifies your highest and lowest performing products. This will give you insight into what is most impacting your business and what you can do to better serve your customers.

Built-in features.

Success in ecommerce comes from a lot more than simply listing your products for sale. In fact, the advanced features offered by an ecommerce site can play a big role in the results you see. 

From things like easily automated promotions and discounts to comprehensive analytics, the built-in features an ecommerce provider can offer should play a big role in the decision-making process.

Rather than relying on third-party apps to address core functionalities, BigCommerce offers native features that lower cost and complexity and help you achieve your business goals:

  • Website customization: The BigCommerce Stencil and Akamai Image Manager allow merchants to personalize the look and feel of their website to match their brand image.
  • SEO optimization: Built-in SEO features help increase organic traffic and reach more customers.
  • Payment management: With a partner network of major payment providers such as PayPal, Stripe and Apple Pay, BigCommerce gives small businesses the freedom to choose the payment gateway that works best for them.
  • Application integrations: Using BigCommerce’s apps marketplace, merchants can discover custom elements and features to enhance their online presence.

Marketing tools.

To succeed in the online sales space, customers need to know you exist. While it’s possible to do things on your own, such as manage customer relationships, organize promos, optimize for SEO and curate email messages using a third party, many ecommerce platforms can do this for you. 

Combined with a winning digital marketing strategy, the right ecommerce marketing tools can streamline results and minimize effort, saving you time and earning you money. 

For example, BigCommerce stores offer an extensive range of third-party apps and native marketing features. These are just some of the tools you’ll find when you set up a BigCommerce storefront:

  • Customer loyalty programs.
  • Abandoned cart saver.
  • Customer Groups.
  • Built-in blog.
  • Social sharing.
  • Email marketing.

Extensive application marketplace.

Want to integrate your online store with your existing CMS? Need to emphasize ratings features? Want to add a “buy button” into your social media channels?

Luckily, many of these kinds of ecommerce tools can be added through applications, add-ons and plug-ins — but not all platforms offer expansive application marketplaces that can meet varying needs. 

Consider what you may want to highlight on your site and make sure the opportunity to do so is available. And keep in mind that some platforms don’t offer these apps and integrations as part of their basic platform package, so you may have to factor this into your budget.

Ease of use.

A good platform should be, above almost all else, easy to use. The more complex a site is to use, the harder it will be for you to make sure no step of your process falls by the wayside. Consider platforms that focus on these key areas of emphasis.

Set-up flow

From registering a domain name to managing payment processing, a lot goes into a new ecommerce site. A good platform will ensure you don’t miss a beat.

Centralized channel management

Managing your ecommerce site should be as easy as possible. With a way to organize and oversee all channels at one time, centralized channel management is key to staying organized.

Product and SKU management

If you have a lot of different SKUs and product categories, the last thing you want is to have to manage this by hand. Being able to upload CSV files, for example, can make inventory management very easy.

Scalability.

Most businesses have growth goals, whether in a year or a decade down the road. Regardless of how you see your business evolving, you’ll need support from your ecommerce platform as your business grows and changes. This may mean space for unlimited products, expansion capabilities overseas, more payment gateways or additional images and video content.

Some platforms are designed with growth in mind, while others offer caps on what is available. If you’re planning to grow or change your business over time, focus on a provider that can evolve with you. Otherwise, you may find yourself forced to switch platforms at an inopportune time.

Ecommerce Platforms for Small Business Owners

There are plenty of big-name players in the ecommerce world, each with their own pros and cons. These overviews can help you evaluate the state of the market — and help you choose the best ecommerce platform for you.

BigCommerce.

For small businesses and large enterprises alike, BigCommerce boasts a comprehensive suite of tools from marketing to analytics, high-caliber design options and plenty of support from industry pros. It’s considered a leading open SaaS ecommerce platform for companies of all sizes, and many small businesses can benefit from what BigCommerce has to offer.

With all the advantages of a SaaS platform (such as a hosting provider and a lower total cost of ownership) and the flexibility of an open-source platform, BigCommerce can meet a variety of business needs, whether you’re looking to have more or less control over your platform.

Not only that, but BigCommerce is also a growing headless commerce provider, which means that merchants can run multiple stores across various frontend solutions — such as a design experience platform (DXP) or a CMS like WordPress — all from one BigCommerce account. This way, merchants have the flexibility to customize their storefront without worrying about the commerce engine running behind the scenes — BigCommerce takes care of that for you. 

With 65+ payment solutions, 600 App Partners, unlimited bandwidth, large file support and zero hidden transaction fees, BigCommerce is undoubtedly a frontrunner across ecommerce solutions.

Shopify.

Another popular SaaS platform for starter stores and small brands, Shopify makes it easy for business owners to quickly get a simple store off the ground. 

With an expansive marketplace of more than 6,000 integrated apps and 70 professional and responsive themes, Shopify allows merchants to add custom features and functionality to their online stores, and it offers a separate marketplace for Shopify Plus Partners that work with high volume merchants. But for small business owners who want to keep things simple, Shopify Lite is a good option if you simply want to include a buy button on your existing website or blog.

In addition, Shopify and Shopify Plus merchants can sell products on a variety of social channels, including Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Messenger and Shopify.

However, if you have a large product catalog with lots of product variants, keep in mind that Shopify does cap you at 100 SKUs per product and only 3 options per product. And while Shopify does have a headless commerce offering, it has rigid API call per second limits.

Volusion.

Founded in 1999 as a web design agency, Volusion eventually became one of the longest-running software solutions in the industry. Ideal for small companies and hobbyists, Volusion offers a simple onboarding process and affordable pricing, with a basic plan starting at $29 per month. Plus, the platform offers built-in SEO features to help boost your ranking and get your page noticed. 

However, the Volusion package does have some missing features. For example, Volusion doesn’t offer its own blogging platform, which is usually a standard feature for ecommerce solutions.

Plus, Volusion Payments are currently unavailable to merchants outside the US, so if you’re looking to sell overseas, you might want to look elsewhere for an ecommerce provider.

Squarespace.

Squarespace is a SaaS provider used largely by the creative community, and many of their templates showcase art, video or music products.

At its core, SquareSpace is a content management system, but for those who wish to sell physical or digital products, SquareSpace Commerce offers more specialized features such as professional templates, automated emails and integration with social media channels. 

However, while SquareSpace does have an app marketplace, called “Squarespace Extensions,” it only offers a limited number of apps, and its payment methods are also limited (only Stripe, PayPal and Square).

Wix.

Many people know Wix as a free website builder, but it can also be an ideal option for entrepreneurs and small business creatives, as it offers numerous free themes, easy setup and a simple drag-and-drop interface. 

The platform offers omnichannel selling features, abandoned cart recovery, dropshipping capabilities and more. However, to sell products, you need the Business Basic plan which costs $23 per month. This plan includes a free 1-year, custom domain, 20 GB of storage space and 24/7 customer support. 

Whether you sell physical and digital products, Wix offers several features that can suit a variety of needs. For example, the platform provides a booking feature that allows users to sign up for classes or appointments, and the Wix Music feature allows merchants to build a customizable music player, sell digital downloads and keep track of performance stats.  

On the downside, if you’re a small business looking to expand quickly, Wix might not be able to keep up as you scale. With limited storage space, you might find it easy to outgrow the platform and eventually will need to upgrade your plan.

Magento.

As an on-premise, open-source solution, Magento often requires either in-house developer resources or an outside agency to set up a store — thus, this platform is preferred by brands who have already heavily invested in IT or development teams. 

As a result, Magento is geared toward more established, larger enterprises and can be expensive to set up. In fact, even a basic store on Magento Open Source can cost up to $45,000, while an Enterprise-level store can cost up to six figures depending on the complexity of the build, design and integrations required. 

However, for those that have the budget for it, Magento offers real-time inventory control, SEO features and marketing automation tools.

Weebly.

For small business owners with limited web development experience, Weebly offers a user-friendly interface and easy setup, as well as several free design templates for those on a budget.

However, as a platform geared toward beginners and solo entrepreneurs, Weebly only offers simple photo-editing and blogging tools, which may make it difficult to make your site look professional. As a result, Weebly may be a decent starting point for new business owners, but be aware that it might not be able to keep up with your business’s growth.

WooCommerce.

WooCommerce is an open-source WordPress plug-in that merchants can use to transform their websites and blogs into online storefronts. It offers SEO features, various payment gateways and options for multichannel. 

However, keep in mind that not all of these features are free, so adding additional catalog management and marketing features can become costly.

Plus, merchants also have to pay for hosting, an SSL certificate and other ecommerce features, which platforms like BigCommerce already include in its monthly rate.

One Small Business That Uses the BigCommerce Platform

Picking the first website builder that appeals to you may work out, but it also may not. Some companies have unique needs that are better served by one provider over another. Take a look at this successful brand and see what BigCommerce was able to offer that no one else could.

Bavarian Clockworks.


Bavarian Clockworks


As a manufacturer of high-quality certified Black Forest cuckoo clocks, Bavarian Clockworks functions in a niche market within a niche industry. As such, getting noticed online had the potential to be an uphill battle. To guarantee visibility without compromising business goals, owner Robert Ellis chose BigCommerce.

Robert had many motivations in picking BigCommerce, including the wide selection of apps and extensive array of customization options. He also appreciated the superior customer support and scalability opportunities. While some other platforms may have been able to tackle the basics, nothing could provide the whole package like BigCommerce.

The Final Word

Small businesses are a big deal. 

And as a platform that works with small business owners every day, we’ve seen firsthand the ways that building an online store can transform and scale your business.

Ecommerce is a sure way for small businesses to stand out — especially in such a saturated marketplace — as it offers a way to drive sales, increase visibility on the web and meet growth goals in a way that achieves everything you need. 

Of course, there isn’t one single platform that’s the best choice for every small business. In the end, it’s about having a clear idea of your specific business needs and finding the solution that best aligns.

By choosing a dependable platform that can accommodate current and future needs and focusing on the most valuable features for success, you’re bound to take your business to the next level.

FAQs for Small Business Ecommerce

What is the best small business website builder?

The short answer: It depends! 

Every ecommerce platform provider has a unique offering of features, tools and services, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. 

The first step is to figure out your business’s unique requirements and goals, and then look for the platform that best aligns with them. 

Do you already have a preferred CMS, such as WordPress or Drupal, and need a headless solution to run the backend? Do you sell a wide variety of products and require a platform with unlimited SKUs? Do you have limited coding knowledge and need a solution that’s easy and quick to set up?

These are all important questions to ask before starting your search. The clearer your needs and future goals are, the easier it will be to narrow down your options and find the best solution for you.

Does every small business need an ecommerce website?

Considering the rapid growth of online sales, especially in the midst of the pandemic, there’s no question that ecommerce is where the world is heading. And as a small business in a saturated market, owning an ecommerce site will undoubtedly give you a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

Not only that, but building an ecommerce site can lead to increased online sales, a better omnichannel experience and a stronger digital brand identity.

Do I need to know how to code to build a small business website?

More often than not, no.

If you’re using a SaaS platform like BigCommerce, then the host provider takes care of everything on the backend, such as hosting and source code. So, essentially, you’re “renting” the platform and letting the provider do all the heavy lifting.

However, if you’re opting for an open-premise, aka self-hosted solution like Magento, then that responsibility falls back on you. 

With this kind of platform, the user has control over the server and software and can modify all aspects of the source code. While this does give you more control over site customization and modifications, it will likely require higher IT team involvement and previous coding experience.

VIEW MORE
What is a small business?

Small businesses are sole proprietorships, partnerships or corporations that sell products or services and make less money and have fewer employees than large multinational corporations. The U.S. Small Business Administration further defines a small business in terms of employment (from 100 to over 1,500 employees) or average annual receipts over time (ranging from $1 million to over $40 million).

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