Matt Powers, website designer


How to start your e-commerce site

With so many e-commerce how-to guides online, I decided to write my own. This post is aimed at explaining what your options are to sell your products online. Not all online stores are created equal. Neither in cost, or appearance. It’s important to know what your goals are.

Here are a few questions to help you in getting started.

How many products are you going to offer?
How much expansion do you plan in the next 2-3 years?
Do you need shipping quotes?
Do you want to process credit cards directly on your site?
Do you want to manage the site yourself?
Is product SEO important to you?

There are many different ways of getting your products online. For the ultra-cheap and simple solution, descriptions of products could be listed on a page, with a “Buy Now” button that takes the visitor to PayPal. While this is simple to setup, there are many drawbacks.

Simple pages with PayPal buttons

If you only have 20-30 products, this method is the cheapest way to get your products online. The drawback is that it doesn’t have the professional appearance of the other options. Any high-schooler can put paypal links on a website, which is not a great comparison to make if you’re a business. Buyers want to have confidence in the site they are purchasing from, so the more professional the site looks and functions, the more reassured the buyer will be.

This option also lacks a lot of the functionality that the more expensive platforms offer. If you are using PayPal links on a basic page, all changes to product listings must be sent through a webmaster. The method for calculating shipping is restricted to flat and table rates. The SEO benefits are also little-to-none. The last and possibly most important consideration when doing a store based on PayPal buttons is that if you want to upgrade to a more advanced system later on, you’ll be starting all over again.

Using an E-commerce platform

There are many E-commerce platforms available, and different designers will always have a tendency to promote the ones that they are most familiar with. For the purpose of this post, I’ll be talking about Opencart and Magento. These platforms create a shopping-cart type of site, reminiscent of a good accounting or corporate tax software, with lots and lots of features. Here’s a sample of the features:

  • Shipping quotes from USPS, UPS, FedEx
  • Tax calculation
  • Advanced reports
  • Easily add / edit / remove products
  • Easy integration with Google Shopping
  • Stock notifications
  • SEO urls

These e-commerce platforms have powerful administrative panels that allow you, the owner, to easily manage the site. This means that you can add additional categories of products, have sales, update your contact information, remove products, change shipping methods, and more.
A complete feature lists for these platforms can be found here:
Opencart Features
Magento Features


How do you want to accept payments?

Answering this question will answer a lot of other questions for you.  If you want to process credit cards directly on your site, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to need a reliable e-commerce platform. If you only want to use PayPal Payments Standard, then you can go with any of the above options.

It is usually a more professional and seamless experience for the user if a site accepts credit cards directly on their site (as opposed to sending the customer to PayPal for payment). The drawback to this kind of checkout experience is that most payment gateways (, PayPal Payments Pro, etc.) have monthly fees, in addition to taking a small percent from each transaction. For some businesses, it may work best to start with PayPal Payments Standard (no monthly fees), and then switch to a seamless checkout once business picks up.

If you want to go with the seamless checkout experience (users never leave your site), you will need a dedicated IP and a private SSL certificate, in addition to your regular hosting. These make your hosting bill slightly more expensive, but if you go with HostGator’s “Business” plan it comes out to about $12/ month, with everything included.

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