Choosing An Ecommerce Platform For Your Online Business (And My Only Recommendation)
I’ve been through a lot of ecommerce platforms. Now, I pretty much have only one recommendation. Here are my criteria for choosing a platform and the tool I recommend.
Over the years, I have used so many different ecommerce platforms in my online business that I’ve lost count. Plus, shopping cart systems have come and gone. Things have changed.
So, what ecommerce platform should you use?
Should you use a hosted solution like Thrivecart or Samcart?
Should you just use a membership site plugin like Wishlist Member or MemberPress?
Or should you use something like Surecart or WooCommerce?
Like many things, I’ve been through the evolution on this one. And I will say… I didn’t exactly land where I thought I would. In fact, my top recommendation today is an option I used to tell people to stay away from because I thought it was too complicated. Ironic, I know.
Below, I want to cover the options. I want to show you what to keep in mind when selecting an ecommerce platform for your business. I’ll also tell you what I recommend in almost all cases – and why.
In This Post…
My Personal Journey Through Shopping Cart Software
I got started in this business way back in 1998 and began selling online not long after. It was on my original technology blog known as PCMech and I sold everything from books & CDs to memberships.
Back in the day, I used X-Cart. Apparently, this software is still readily available and has been keeping up with the times.
I also used Amember to sell memberships and that worked fairly well. This software also still exists and has kept up fairly well. It still looks old and I wouldn’t really recommend it anymore, but it’s good to see they’re still ticking.
I’ve sold via 1ShoppingCart, Clickbank, and Nanacast as well. Each had their pros and cons. All were hosted (meaning I didn’t host it myself). None of them are anything I would recommend today.
When I first moved the Blog Marketing Academy over to MemberMouse, I was thrilled and figured I had finally found the thing I loved. Even though MemberMouse is a membership plugin, it is flexible enough to sell most anything else you want.
Of course, after a few years, MemberMouse started to wear on me for multiple reasons. I kept on using it for awhile because of the difficulty of switching, but I eventually bit the bullet and moved away from MemberMouse.
I moved into ThriveCart. ThriveCart is a hosted solution and very powerful. It integrated with MemberMouse, too, which I was still using for a little while. I would process orders through Thrivecart, but use MemberMouse just for the accounts on the website.
Thrivecart works very well, but I had concerns about that, too. I didn’t like that there was no native integration with WordPress, so it was clear and obvious to any of my customers that they were NOT on my site when they were ordering or viewing past orders.
I switched again. This time into WooCommerce.
So, I’ve used a bunch of carts. I’ve probably even forgotten some of the ones I’ve used, frankly. Today, however, I am using WooCommerce and don’t really see myself switching again. Below I’ll spell out why.
The 3 Major Types Of Ecommerce Platforms
It is tough to boil down such a large swath of software options into 3 broad categories, but I believe this makes it useful for us to consider our options here.
The way I see it, there are 3 major categories of options for selling things on your site. They are:
- A hosted shopping cart system
- A membership site plugin
- A Wordpress shopping cart
There’s a lot of feature overlap here, but let me spell out what I mean by each.
Hosted Ecommerce Solutions
This means that you are using a sales platform that you are not hosting on your own site. It is usually a solution you pay monthly for or as a percentage of sales.
Many people choose this option because of the support, the “hands off” nature of it and the convenience.
You’ve got major options like Thrivecart, Samcart or even larger platforms for physical goods such as Shopify and Etsy. All very solid solutions for their own use cases.
You’ve also got “all in one” options that happen to have sales capability baked in. For instance, online course creators sometimes like to use Thinkific as a “one stop shop” for selling and managing their courses. Platforms like that have the ecommerce built-in.
You’ve also got the creator marketplaces – often with affiliate stuff built-in. For instance, Clickbank and JVZoo are both marketplaces where product creators can sell their stuff, but have in-built affiliate marketplaces to help drive sales. You’ve also got platforms like Gumroad to help simplify online sales for people.
Lots of options. Many of them quite good. I don’t usually recommend any of them, though, and below I’ll spell out why.
Membership Site Plugins
A lot of the people I work with (students and clients) are selling primarily digital products and perhaps some services. Membership site plugins often end up becoming a great option for this.
If you look at it, it makes sense. Somebody buys something, gets an account on your site, then can access their purchases. At the core, this is what all membership site plugins do.
Whether you’re selling a digital course, a recurring membership, downloads or services, you can run those sales through a membership site platform. Everybody gets an account. They can see their order history. You can grant access to the things they have purchased. It works really well, actually.
While some membership site platforms are separate software titles, most of them these days are within WordPress.
This is the type of ecommerce platform that exists inside of WordPress as a plugin, but isn’t expressly positioned for memberships. These are selling platforms that can do it all, really.
WooCommerce is the most popular option for WordPress. Easy Digital Downloads is another popular option. There are other options, too, but I’m not going to spend much time mentioning them because I don’t think they’re worth your time.
SureCart is an option many have asked me about. SureCart is a kind of “hybrid” option because it works inside of WordPress, yet the core of it is a hosted service. While it looks like a solid solution, I don’t usually recommend it for that reason.
My Criteria For Selecting An Ecommerce Platform
I’ve been through a bit of a journey when it comes to shopping cart software. After a lot of trial and error, I am now quite firm on what I personally find to be the most important when it comes to judging any shopping cart platform.
Keep in mind that my major focus of business is digital products and services. Also keep in mind that I am exclusively focused on WordPress-based platforms.
If I were exclusively into selling physical products, for instance, I would very strongly look at things like Shopify. If I had zero desire to deal with anything related to my software and I wanted to have somebody I could call if something came up, I would use a hosted option like that. But, that’s just not where I’m at.
So, here are my criteria…
- Must be self-hosted fully. I take digital sovereignty seriously, so I do not want any ecommerce platform where my data is stored elsewhere and I have a monthly bill associated with it’s usage or it stops working. No rented software here.
- Must be inside of WordPress. Obviously.
- Must be tightly integrated into the software stack so that it feels pretty seamless. It needs to not feel disjointed in the backend when I’m managing orders, and it needs to feel native to my website when my customers are inside their accounts.
- It must support subscriptions. And renewals must be controlled in-house, not rely on external services.
- It must be expandable. Every site has it’s own unique needs, so I don’t want an ecommerce platform that is “stuck” in it’s ways.
I know a lot of sales pages for various ecommerce platforms will woo you with all their bells and whistles. Things like one-click upsells, downsells, built-in affiliate programs… and the list goes on. It all sounds great – and it is! However, the criteria above are my die-hard rules.
I won’t use or recommend any SaaS shopping cart that is remotely hosted. This includes any “hybrid” options that sit inside Wordpress but outsource any of the core functionality to an external platform. This rules out Surecart because it isn’t fully self-hosted. It rules out MemberMouse because it relies on MemberMouse servers for renewals and payments. It MUST be something you fully control.
Sure, you will use outside systems like Stripe or Paypal. That’s normal. But, all order history must be in-house. All functionality must be controlled by software you have on your own server. There should be no aspect of your shopping cart system that will stop working if you decide to discontinue a service.
It is also important that the experience be seamless for the customer. When people log into their accounts on my website, they muse see their account right there and be able to manage it right there. This is why ThriveCart no longer worked for me. Customers had to go into a “Customer Hub” to view their orders and it was very clearly not part of my website. It was not seamless.
All of this has led me to…
Why WooCommerce Is My Recommendation For Shopping Cart
Yep. Not very exiting, perhaps. WooCommerce is so popular and well-known that it seems almost lazy to recommend it.
Plus, there’s no affiliate links for it so I have no financial incentive to recommend it. Yet…
With very rare exception, I say WooCommerce is the go-to platform for sales on your website. I just don’t recommend anything else. If any client of mine has me involved with their initial site build-out, I will always use WooCommerce as the core of their sales engine.
Now, let’s look at why…
It Is Fully Self-Hosted And Sovereign
With WooCommerce, all of your data is stored “in house” on your own website. This means when you back up your site, you’re grabbing your entire customer database and order history with it.
WooCommerce works fully ON your own website, yet you can connect it with external services as you wish. It will connect with almost any payment solution on the face of the earth and it works with a number of external services if you wish. Yet, it sits there at the center… on your own website.
WooCommerce can feel expensive when you look at the price of some of the add-ons with their recurring monthly charges. However, I want to make 2 very important points about that:
- WooCommerce is open source and available under the GPL license. That includes all of the add-ons. This means that you can get and use most add-ons for free as long as you understand you will get no support and no automatic updates.
- In almost all cases, even if you were paying for the add-on, it will not stop working if you stop paying for it. The software is controlled on your own server, so it would keep on working if you stopped paying for the updates.
It Is Tightly Integrated Into The Software Stack
The popularity of WooCommerce means that almost everything works with it. Not only that, even other portions of a complete online business platform inside of WordPress work great with WooCommerce.
The ones I care most about are:
- FluentCRM is what I use for my email list and WooCommerce is natively integrated right into the CRM. When I look at any customer’s profile in the CRM, I can see their full order history, their subscriptions, their lifetime value.. all of it. It is a unified, seamless interface.
- WP Fusion. WP Fusion works with almost everything, however I would say the shopping cart with the tightest level of support has to be WooCommerce. If you want ecommerce integration with your CRM, you will have the most options and power with WooCommerce.
- Themes. So many themes out there have native support for WooCommerce due to the popularity. That makes styling the account area and product pages much easier.
Basically, what I want is for the software options I use in my business to work seamlessly together where they all feel like they’re supposed to be that way. Unified in one interface without having to deal with weird API integrations or (worse) Zapier. I want it all to just work together automatically. And I get that with WooCommerce in conjunction with the other items of my technology stack.
It Does Subscriptions (And Almost Any Other Pricing Setup)
I know I have a lot of membership site owners that I work with. And yes, it seems obvious to go hunting for a specialized membership site plugin. But…
You will have far more power and flexibility if you use WooCommerce for your membership site than a regular membership plugin.
Yes, you will need WooCommerce Subscriptions. Again, it is an open source GPL plugin, so you don’t need to pay their $239 annual fee to use it.
You will also need something to do access control and protected content. While there are numerous options for that that work with WooCommerce, I look no further than WP Fusion for that.
WooCommerce Subscriptions + FluentCRM + WP Fusion will deliver a membership site platform that blows every other option out of the water.
Plus, with WooCommerce, you have options for almost any other pricing system you want. Quantity-based discounts, “pay what you want”, installment plans… all of it quite easy with WooCommerce.
It Is Insanely Expandable And Flexible
WooCommerce is almost as expandable as WordPress itself through plugins. Also, it’s open source nature means there’s a TON of information out there on how to customize various aspects of the platform to your unique needs.
Want nice sales funnels, upsells and downsells? Use something like CartFlows or LaunchFlows and build funnels with more power and flexibility than you’d ever find on a hosted solution that costs way more money.
Need an affiliate program? Tack on something like AffiliateWP and you’re going to have a gorgeous and powerful affiliate program for your store that is integrated right into their accounts and on your own website. So much simpler than the remotely hosted options!
Why Some Are Scared Of WooCommerce (But Shouldn’t Be)
I know some are nervous about the idea of using WooCommerce. I used to be, too. I mean, WooCommerce has existed for years and I used to advise people to look at “better” solutions”. Yet, here I am telling you that it is your best option.
So, what are some of the concerns about WooCommerce?
It Seems Complicated
I used to feel as if WooCommerce was too big and bulky and not worth using because of it’s complexity. And certainly, there are aspects of it that are bulky.
In real world use, however, WooCommerce is no problem to deal with. Yes, there’s a lot of settings in there, but generally you won’t need much of it. In general, you set it and it just sits there and works and you don’t have to think about it again.
Yes, the interface can be a little heavy. I think they’re too overbearing when it comes to the in-app notifications about upgrades and the cross-promotional crap for WooCommerce add-ons. I wish they would knock that stuff off and streamline things. But, in real world usage I just don’t find it to be any more than a minor annoyance. Yet, the things the platform makes easier for me far outweigh the annoyances.
WooCommerce can feel complicated at first, just like any other software. But, it really isn’t.
It Seems Expensive
The core of WooCommerce is free, but it seems as if almost every add-on has a price tag. You start adding those things up and it makes WooCommerce seem far more expensive than other options.
But, don’t forget it is all open source and using the GPL software license. This means you can get most add-ons for free and use them and it is all legal with nothing to worry about. You just won’t get automatic updates or any help.
It Seems Risky
A lot of people are nervous about the idea of being in control of your own shopping cart system. It feels less risky to outsource that to the “pros” and pay some outside service to just handle it. And I do understand that concern.
Certainly, when you self-host your own system, you are subject to things such as server downtime, plugin conflicts, security, etc.
All I can say is… with great freedom comes responsibility. 🙂
Plus, most of the time, you’re just never going to have a hiccup. If you use solid hosting with enough horsepower and keep things updated, you’re highly unlikely to ever have a hiccup with your WooCommerce store. There are multi-million dollar businesses that use WooCommerce, so it is more than capable of doing it.
And That’s My Ecommerce Platform Recommendation
In almost every case, I am going to recommend WooCommerce as your shopping cart system. Whether just to sell a couple of digital courses, a membership site, or even a more developed catalog, WooCommerce can do it.
When you are building your online business platform, you don’t want to build up on something that will limit you later. You don’t want to use something that would knee-cap your business or become a limiter due to it’s own constraints.
With WooCommerce, you won’t have that problem. It works great with a WordPress-focused technology stack and is expandable into almost anything you would ever need.
With rare exception, there is simply no reason to use anything other than WooCommerce to take orders on your website.