Today’s consumers are making more purchases than ever online via PCs and mobile devices. They’re also using online sites and mobile apps to compare prices and search for the products and services they want, making it even more critical for businesses to have an online sales presence.
Whether you want to build an online business or expand your sales to an online platform, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll highlight five top options for setting up an online store and give you a ballpark cost for each option.
1. Build an online store from scratch.
If you have programming skills or have a web developer in mind, consider creating an e-commerce site to your exact specifications. If you do want to hire professional help, ask the web developer some essential questions before choosing one. You and your developer will need to decide precisely how your online store should look and how you want it to work.
Once you’ve created your e-commerce site, you’ll need to choose a payment gateway or payment processor; your developer will integrate your website’s shopping cart and payment page with the payment processor.
These are some advantages of building your own e-commerce site:
- You can set it up exactly as you like with few limitations.
- There’s no monthly fee, other than the hosting fee if you use a third-party hosting company.
These are some drawbacks of this approach:
- You’ll need a web programmer to make any changes in your e-commerce store, such as adding new products or changing prices.
- You’ll have the ongoing expense of the programmer.
- You’ll need to generate your own website traffic.
These are some of the costs of building an online store from scratch:
- Design and programming: Design and programming can cost $3,500 to $10,000, depending on the size of your catalog and the customization you need.
- Monthly maintenance: Monthly maintenance costs for an offsite programmer and hosting range from $100 to $2,000.
- Payment processing: You have the freedom to choose any payment processor. You could potentially save money on processing fees by choosing a low-fee credit card processor such as Helcim or National Processing, which both have wholesale interchange-plus pricing. (Read our Helcim review and National Processing review for more information.)
2. Build your online store with WordPress.
If you are tech-savvy but not a programmer, you can build a highly customized online store with WordPress. WordPress has a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface, so you can design and add content without any programming expertise.
If you’re willing to go through some initial extra work, you can create a unique and compelling online store with WordPress that is easy to update and inexpensive to maintain.
These are some advantages of WordPress:
- E-commerce themes are built in.
- WordPress has a built-in CMS (content management system), which makes it easy to change or update your products, pricing, and content.
- With WordPress plug-ins, you can add almost any function to your site, including a shopping cart and other e-commerce features.
- WordPress offers excellent SEO capabilities.
- You can concurrently run an affiliate program with WordPress, unlike with e-commerce platforms.
These are some drawbacks of WordPress:
- WordPress has quite a learning curve and is not for the technologically challenged.
- You have to set up hosting and a custom domain for yourself. While not too difficult, it’s more of a process than with a self-hosted website builder.
- E-commerce functionality comes via plug-ins; it is not built in to WordPress. Although most e-commerce plug-ins are very well integrated, it’s still another step to figure out.
It’s free to use the WordPress platform, but you’ll pay $5 to $15 per month for hosting and a custom domain. [Related article: How Much Does It Cost to Start an Online Business?]
3. Use a website builder to create an online store.
If you want to build an online store, a website builder may be your most straightforward option. Although building a website used to be only for experts, today’s drag-and-drop tools allow anyone to create a professional-looking website in less than an hour with little technological know-how.
Website builders give you a choice of templates that include website design elements and programming. Add your custom content and make any necessary changes. The website builder platform includes hosting, but if you want a custom domain, you’ll need to pay for that separately. Examples of website builders include Wix, Weebly and GoDaddy.
Some website builders offer a free plan that allows you to sell one to five products. However, nearly every website builder also has an online store or e-commerce plan, allowing you to sell more products and access dedicated e-commerce tools.
It costs around $15 to $30 per month for a website builder plan with online store or e-commerce features.
FYI: Website builders give business owners full autonomy over their online stores. Read our in-depth reviews of the best website builders and design services to find one with the features you need.
4. Set up shop in an online marketplace.
An online marketplace is like a virtual mall. Shoppers come to the marketplace to browse or perhaps buy something specific from a particular store. Each marketplace has ways for e-commerce stores to promote themselves via site-specific search features or advertising.
Amazon, Etsy and Facebook Marketplace are a few examples of online marketplaces to consider.
Amazon is the biggest online marketplace in the world, with more than 197 million visitors each month. In fact, Amazon’s total sales accounted for 56.7% of the U.S. e-commerce market in 2021, according to PYMNTS.
Sellers can take advantage of Amazon’s massive traffic and customer base, including Prime members, while accessing payment processing features. With its FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) program, sellers don’t have to worry about packing or shipping the products. No programming skills are needed.
Costs for selling on Amazon include the following:
- You’ll pay $39.99 per month to be an Amazon seller, plus referral fees of between 8% and 15%, depending on the item category.
- If you use FBA, you’ll also pay fulfillment fees starting at $2.35, depending on the size and weight of the package and the type of item.
- FBA sellers will pay a monthly storage fee for their inventory stored at Amazon’s warehouses of between 75 cents and $1.20 per cubic foot.
- If you decide to advertise your store on Amazon, there will be an additional charge.
Etsy is another popular e-commerce marketplace, but it’s a more product-oriented site, specifically for handmade and vintage items and craft supplies. With Etsy, you basically enter some information about yourself or your business, add some items, and then start selling.
Costs for selling on Etsy include the following:
- You’ll pay a 20-cent listing fee for every item you put on Etsy.
- Etsy adds a 6.5% transaction fee to every sale.
- You’ll pay a payment processing fee of 25 cents plus 3% of the final price.
- If you opt for Etsy Plus, you’ll pay a $10 monthly subscription fee and gain more customization options, a custom domain, 15 listing credits and the ability to contact buyers when sold-out items are back in stock.
- You can opt in to Etsy onsite or offsite ads to help drive customers to your Etsy store. For offsite ads, you’ll pay a fee if a sale is made. For onsite ads, you’ll pay about 20 to 50 cents per click.
Did you know? The highest-earning sellers on Etsy make $10,000 or more per year, with the top Etsy seller in the U.S. making more than $1.2 million.
You can also set up an online store through Facebook Marketplace. If you have a Facebook page for your business, you can directly integrate your shop onto that page.
Some website builders and dedicated e-commerce sites (see below) include a Facebook store at no cost when you pay for their traditional online store service.
Like Etsy and Amazon, Facebook has a built-in customer base, and creating a store is effortless. You just enter your products and wait for sales.
Facebook costs are variable, depending on which store service you use. You’ll pay about $15 to $30 per month plus per-transaction credit card fees.
5. Build an online store with a dedicated e-commerce platform.
If online sales are the primary focus of your business, a dedicated e-commerce platform may be the best choice for effective e-commerce web development. These online store providers are all about sales, and their features and services reflect that focus. Although basic plans are similar to website builders’ e-commerce plans, higher-end e-commerce platform plans will include various sophisticated tools.
For example, e-commerce platforms may offer abandoned cart recovery. If a customer leaves items in their shopping cart, the platform will automatically send the customer a coupon to encourage the purchase.
Additionally, higher-end plans have real-time shipping calculators for all the primary shipping methods, integration with other online sales platforms (e.g., Etsy, eBay and Facebook), highly advanced reporting capabilities, and white-glove customer support.
If you want to become an online sales force to be reckoned with, dedicated e-commerce platforms have all the features to get you there. Here’s a look at three top e-commerce platforms.
BigCommerce has templates to help you design your store, but only a few are free. It takes some time and effort to set up your shop. Still, once you’re up and running, BigCommerce provides a range of valuable features, including blazing fast-loading speeds, the ability to add more than 70 discounts and promotions, merchandising options, SEO tools, and cross-channel support.
BigCommerce is easily scalable and can support a massive product catalog. Unlike some other e-commerce platforms, BigCommerce does not charge additional transaction fees.
BigCommerce has four pricing plans.
- Standard: $29.95 per month
- Plus: $79.95 per month
- Pro: $299.95 per month
- Enterprise: Custom pricing
Shopify’s setup process is more straightforward than BigCommerce’s, so merchants can quickly get started with its interface. Shopify offers 10 free themes; paid themes typically cost between $100 and $180.
Shopify sites have fast load times and plenty of integrations, including Shopify Payments, so you don’t need to work with an outside payment processing company. In fact, you can use the Shopify point-of-sale (POS) and payment processing system in your brick-and-mortar store whether or not you are selling online. Shopify sites also integrate with more than 6,000 apps.
While Shopify provides marketing tools to boost your e-commerce sales, its SEO isn’t as good as some of the other e-commerce platforms’, so sellers may need to rely more heavily on other marketing strategies. Additionally, Shopify doesn’t work with Amazon, so if you’re also selling on Amazon, you’ll have to manage that channel separately.
Shopify has three plans.
- Basic: $29 per month
- Shopify: $79 per month
- Advanced: $299 per month
If you use Shopify Payments, there is no transaction fee. Otherwise, the transaction fee is an additional 2%, 1% or 0.5% for each plan, respectively.
Shopwired is a relatively new player in the e-commerce platform space; it offers many of the same features as BigCommerce and Shopify. Shopwired’s monthly prices are less than those of the other two. Some features that require a higher plan on BigCommerce and Shopify – such as abandoned cart recovery, ratings and reviews – are available for free.
Shopwired has faster load times than either BigCommerce or Shopify, and shops are easy to set up. Shopwired also has several B2B features, such as setting up trade accounts, credit accounts, a quote-request system and bulk discounts. Like Shopify, Shopwired does not work with Amazon.
Shopwired has three plans, none of which charge transaction fees.
- Pro: $29.95 per month
- Advanced: $59.95 per month
- Premium: $119.95 per month
FYI: Shopwired is an excellent choice if you’re primarily focused on selling to other businesses online.
Why does your business need an online store?
If you sell goods or services and don’t already sell online, you’re missing out on potential customers. Here are some facts to consider:
- E-commerce accounts for a fifth of all retail sales. According to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce data, e-commerce now accounts for a fifth of all retail sales, or $870.78 billion in 2021 – an increase of 14% from the previous year.
- E-commerce sales are expected to increase. In 2023, e-commerce sales are expected to increase by 22%.
- Most people are buying online. An NPR/Marist poll found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans have purchased an item online.
Aside from opening your business to a broad array of online shoppers, these are some additional benefits of having an online store:
- Online stores are open 24/7. You can continue to make sales even when your physical store is closed and you’re home sleeping.
- Online stores create an additional revenue stream. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, having your products available online makes it easier and more convenient for customers to buy from you, increasing your sales.
- Online stores expand your customer base. When you sell online, you can reach people beyond your geographic location who may never have even known about you.
- Online stores create cross-promotion opportunities. Use your online store to promote in-store events and offer customers conveniences like buying online and picking up their products in the store.
- Online stores are an inexpensive marketing tool. Use your online presence to market your business efficiently and inexpensively.
- Online stores help you target customers. When you support your online store with an expanded online presence, such as social media accounts, you place your business in front of people likely to buy based on interests, demographics and history.
- Online stores can turn browsers into buyers. Online shopping platforms often include tools that enable you to retarget customers who browsed certain items or placed products in their shopping cart and abandoned them, prompting them to complete their purchase.
- Online shopping is contactless. The COVID-19 pandemic created the need for social distancing. Online shopping allows contactless purchasing for customers who don’t feel comfortable shopping in person.
- Online shopping is convenient for buyers. The NPR/Marist poll also found that 88% of online shoppers like to shop online because they can shop night or day and find products easily. More than three-quarters like online shopping because there are no lines.
How to market your online store
Setting up an e-commerce store is just the first step. To generate sales, you’ll need to create an e-commerce marketing strategy. Here are some ways to drive traffic to your online store:
- Optimize your store for SEO. Whether you have a stand-alone e-commerce website or use a website builder, marketplace or e-commerce platform, include keywords throughout your content and coding. Keywords help search engines – both external like Google and internal if you are using a platform or marketplace – rank your page and show it to people searching for those terms.
- Use your email list. You’ve likely worked on building an email list of customers and prospects. Email marketing is one of the most cost-effective marketing vehicles. Create email marketing campaigns that send promotions and new product announcements, or provide discounts with links to your e-commerce store. [Learn how to improve your email marketing campaigns to convert more customers.]
- Make it social. Social media is an excellent platform for promoting your online store. Use your social media presence to make announcements and highlight events, promotions and specific products. Be sure to include links to your store in all your social profiles.
- Enhance product pages with helpful content. If your products are unusual, innovative, custom, handmade or otherwise particularly interesting, explain why on your product pages to spur conversations and interest.
- Advertise. If you’re in a marketplace, drive shoppers to your store by advertising within the marketplace. If not, use external advertising such as Google Ads and Instagram advertising. You can also advertise with Facebook’s business tools.
- Leverage your physical store (if you have one). Tell your in-store customers about your e-commerce store. Provide them with links or QR codes leading to your store that they can share with friends, family and social media followers.
Choosing the right online store-building platform
For most small businesses, website-building e-commerce plans are a balanced option when starting an online store. However, many services and platforms can accommodate businesses of all sizes. Many website builders and online store platforms offer free trials so that you can test a service before committing long term.
Marc Prosser contributed to the writing and research in this article.