Recommendations for Building an eCommerce Store
We've run almost 100 profitable online stores over the last 10 years and have tried pretty much every shopping cart platform, live chat service, web hosting service, toll-free phone service, credit card processing service, affiliate program software, and [whatever else you can think of] on the market. We know the PROs and CONs of each and have experienced their customer service and support first-hand. Here on this page, we'll give you our #1 recommendation (and in some cases #2 and #3) for each type of service you may need for your store. These are the services that we use ourselves because they're the best you can get for a reasonable price.
Table of Contents
For Your Store
- Shopping Cart Platform
- Web Hosting
- Domain Name Registration
- Logo Design
- Credit Card Processing
- Fraud Prevention
- SSL Certificate
- Toll-Free Phone Number
- Live Chat
- Customer Reviews
- Custom WordPress Themes
Marketing & SEO
- Content Service Recommendations
- SEO Tools
- Social Marketing Tools
- Affiliate Program Software
- Social Incentives App
- Newsletter Service
BigCommerce is our recommendation for larger ecommerce stores, those with 1,000+ products and sales volume of $50k+ per month. There are few shopping carts out there that are as easy to work with as BigCommerce. Not only does it include everything that you'll ever want or need in the average eCommerce store, but they have great tutorials for just about anything. Here's more to love about BigCommerce:
- 100% customizable URLs
- Built-in blogging system
- Full control of HTML
- Over 60 pre-integrated merchant account providers
- Abandoned cart saver (on higher plans)
- 100+ pre-integrated templates
The most popular cart in the world today is Shopify. They have become the top choice for eCommerce entrepreneurs for good reason. Their storefronts are beautiful and easy to build and maintain. Just like 3dCart and BigCommerce, they have many built-in templates for free and a lot more for a premium price. Plans start at just $29 per month plus a small fee per transaction (if you use a payment processor other than the one provided by Shopify themselves). Here are a few more features offered by Shopify:
- All stores are mobile ready
- Multiple languages
- Search engine optimized
- Sell on Facebook
- Sell digital products
- Unlimited products & bandwidth
Another great cart for startups is 3dCart (we have several stores on this awesome platform!). The 60+ themes that are included with every store subscription make it very easy to get your store up and running quickly. The price to get started is just $29/month and if you use our link they will automatically double your free trial and make it 30 full days. Here are a few more features that are worth mentioning:
- All plans are full-featured
- Built-in blog
- Mobile-friendly templates
- Admin panel mobile app
- Facebook store
- HTML knowledge not needed
- Many 3rd party integrators
Their standard free trial is 15 days, but we've teamed up with them to offer you a trial that's twice as long!
We've tried HostGator, BlueHost and all the other big-name hosting providers, but none of them have even come close to what we've experienced with BigScoots. 99.99% uptime (just like all the others) and very competitive prices, but what really sets them apart is the INSANELY HIGH level of customer service. You'll be live chatting with them in a matter of seconds, and you'll receive responses to support tickets within about 5 minutes. And they're happy to do stuff for you that other hosting providers simply will not do. Oh yeah... they're servers are extremely fast too, which is great for page load times. We can't recommend BigScoots highly enough.NameCheap for a couple of reasons: 1) private registration is included free, if you want it (it's usually extra with other registrars); and 2) NameCheap is hands-down the best place to get an SSL Certificate and it's convenient to have your domain name and SSL with the same registrar.
Let's be honest... Creating a logo can be done pretty easily on your own. But if you want to give your visitors (or soon-to-be customers) a good "vibe" right from the outset, you're just not going to be able to achieve that on your own. That's where CrowdSpring comes in. At CrowdSpring, you can create a project for one low cost and have dozens (or possibly even hundreds) of designers working on your design. You give feedback, they make revisions, and you choose the single design that you like best. And it gets better... Use this link and you'll get a $25 discount automatically applied to your first purchase, along with a marketing package ($99 value) that will feature your project on the site as well as social media outlets. Don't delay... give CrowdSpring a try today!
Accepting credit cards ON-SITE is an absolute must! We recommend that you also accept PayPal Standard and/or Amazon Checkout, but it's critical for a good conversion rate that you provide a way for customers to pay with a credit card right on your website. In order to do that, you need two things: 1) a merchant account (which includes a payment gateway), and 2) an SSL certificate (see the section immediately below).
United States & Canada
Reasons we love Durango:
- Low 2.35% processing fees
- No application fee
- No long-term contract or termination fee
- Can use 1 account for multiple sites
- Includes payment gateway
- Low $25 monthly fee
- Customizable fraud protection settings
- Can call your account rep directly
Don't let the PayPal name fool you... PayPal Payments Pro is a merchant account. It just happens to be offered by PayPal. But it's completely separate from PayPal Standard (where customers leave your site to make payment at PayPal.com). With PayPal Payments Pro, customers pay with credit card on your site and have no way of knowing that PayPal is the "bank" processing the transaction.
- No set-up fee, contract or termination fee
- $30 monthly fee
- 2.2% - 2.9% processing fees (depending on volume)
- Can use 1 account for multiple sites
- Includes payment gateway
- No batching - funds are available immediately
- Payments go into same account as PayPal Standard payments
RESIDENTS OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
Your best option will be PayPal Payments Pro. This is different from having a personal/business PayPal account. PayPal Payments Pro is a true merchant account and allows customers to pay with credit card right on your website. The merchant account just happens to be provided by PayPal (instead of some other bank). PayPal Payments Pro costs £20 per month and includes the secure payment gateway (so you don't need to get a separate gateway account). There is no long-term contract, no monthly minimum and no cancellation fee. The per-transaction discount rate is normally quite low.
OTHER COUNTRIES WORLDWIDE
2CheckOut (2CO) offers a unique (and awesome!) solution for online store owners throughout the world. It's not technically a merchant account, but it functions exactly like one. 2CO iframes a secure checkout form into your website (much like an embedded YouTube video is iframed into a page). So the customer is technically entering their payment information into a 2CO form, but the customer stays on your website for the entire checkout process. 2CO can set up an account for virtually anyone in the world (there are only 5 prohibited countries, per US law). There is no setup fee, and there are NO monthly fees, statement fees, gateway fees, or hidden fees of any kind. The only ongoing fee is the per-transaction fee, which varies by country.
Note: All store owners should also accept PayPal Standard in addition to having a merchant account and accepting credit card payments on-site. A decent percentage of shoppers prefer checking out with PayPal.
NoFraud Fraud Prevention.
Note: After clicking this link, scroll down and click the 'Compare Products' button in the Domain Validation box. Then select the 1st option: Comodo PositiveSSL.
In order to take credit card payments on-site, you MUST have an SSL Certificate. Why? Because it's the thing that encrypts the customer's personal and financial information they enter during the checkout process. It makes the transaction private and secure. Without an SSL Certificate, customers won't see the green padlock icon in the address bar and, worse, they'll likely see security pop-ups warning them that the site is not secure. Obviously, this will scare off 99% of shoppers! Having an SSL certificate will also allow you to insert a security seal (like the one in the top-right corner of this paragraph) that makes customers feel "warm and fuzzy" about shopping on your site. NameCheap's PositiveSSL product simply can't be beat. It'll set you back a whopping $9.00 per year, so we're literally talking 75 cents a month! (Please don't get duped into paying $50-200/year by your shopping cart or hosting provider.)Phone.com is hands-down the best toll-free phone service provider. Here's why:
- Only $9.99/month (which includes 100 minutes - additional minutes are dirt cheap if you need them)
- True 800 number at no extra cost (other providers charge $50+ to get an 800 numbers instead of an 877/866/855 number)
- Includes all the fancies: call handling rules, scheduling, automated call forwarding, hold options, multiple extensions, custom greetings, e-fax, conferencing and so on
- Super easy set-up
(also get 10% OFF using this link)
Like a toll-free number, live chat is a must-have for looking like a professional website and boosting customer trust (and therefore increasing your conversion rate). The live chat option will be attractive to many of your customers... you'll probably have a fairly even split of extroverts who prefer talking to someone on the phone and introverts who prefer typing via live chat. There are numerous live chat options available, but our clear favorite is Zopim. It's affordable (you can probably even get away with the free version), powerful and integrates seamlessly with Skype (which is super-slick).
Let's be clear about why you would pay for a third-party customer review service when virtually every shopping cart platform on the planet includes a built-in customer review/rating system. There are two huge reasons: Reason #1: Internal, unverified reviews obtained or created through your shopping cart are NOT trusted by or syndicated to Google and therefore do NOT show up by your AdWords ads or Product Listing Ads (PLAs). Reason #2: Many online shoppers have gotten to the point where they simply don't trust internal, unverified reviews shown on websites since it's so easy for website owners to write the reviews themselves. So that's why it's a smart investment to pay for ShopperApproved merchant and product reviews. ShopperApproved is by far the most affordable review service that is approved by Google so that reviews are syndicated to Google and show up next to your search results, Google AdWords ads and PLAs. This is HUGE! And customers on your site are much more likely to trust the reviews - after all, Google does!
- Easy to set up
- Customizable surveys
- High success rate collecting reviews
- Huge distribution network
- Opportunity to resolve negative reviews
- Collects photo & video testimonials
- Risk-free 30-day trial period
If you've opted to go with WordPress/WooCommerce for your shopping cart platform, it's well worth the $40-100 one-time cost to get a professional, custom theme for your store. We've had the best luck finding well-built, well-coded, professional themes at ThemeForest. When you're choosing a theme, make sure to check the reviews/feedback and also make absolutely sure it's a responsive theme (so it's tablet- and mobile-friendly). Some friendly advice: Limit your customizations to the options available in the Settings > Theme Options page in the WordPress admin panel. Don't modify the PHP code of the template files or even the CSS.
Recommendations for Marketing & SEO
SEO Tools for your eCommerce store
HootSuite does a whole lot more than this, but here are the highlights:
- Schedule Posts - Save time by scheduling out dozens/hundreds of social posts across multiple social media platforms all at once.
- All-in-One Dashboard - Monitor and manage ALL of your social profiles for ALL of your websites from a single easy-to-use dashboard.
- Track Results - Easily measure the effectiveness of your social media campaigns and track your performance with custom social analytics reports.
iDevAffiliate is definitely the way to go if you've chosen to use WooCommerce or another self-hosted shopping cart platform, since you can just pay the one-time payment of $199 - $399 (the $199 version will work for 95% of store owners) and never pay another penny. iDevAffiliate is also a little bit cheaper than OmniStar (our other top recommendation) if you're paying month-to-month, but it's not quite as easy to configure or as easy to use on an ongoing basis. iDevAffiliate is pre-integrated with both BigCommerce and 3dCart (our highest recommended hosted shopping carts).
OmniStar is #1 in terms of ease to set up and user-friendliness. For the few extra bucks a month it costs (over iDevAffiliate), we think it's well worth getting OmniStar if you're using a hosted cart like BigCommerce or 3dCart (like iDevAffiliate, OmniStar is pre-integrated with both). You'll absolutely love OmniStar's easy set-up process and the user-friendly interface. Another major plus of OmniStar is that it includes a 15-day free trial so you can try it out risk-free for a couple weeks.AddShoppers. It's easy to integrate with almost any shopping cart platform and is extremely powerful and flexible. With AddShoppers, you can offer your customers a custom coupon code if they share your website on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or another social networking site. You can also offer customers some kind of incentive if they share your site after completing a purchase, signing up for your newsletter or taking some other action you've specified. And we've only scratched the surface of what AddShoppers can do!
Every store should utilize a newsletter and/or auto-responder service, especially since it's completely free for most stores! Without question, our top recommendation is MailChimp. MailChimp is the epitome of user-friendly, and it integrates seamlessly with virtually every shopping cart platform and content management system. And despite being a piece of cake to use, it's very powerful in terms of creating custom lists, setting up auto-responder series and tracking open/click rates. Best of all, it's FREE until you've exceeded 2,000 subscribers or 12,000 emails per month.
For most store owners, Wave Accounting will do the job just fine. And it's FREE! Wave is basically a free, simplified, online version of QuickBooks. It lacks a handful of the bells and whistles QuickBooks offers, but hey, you can't beat free!
QuickBooks beats Wave in almost every respect, except for the fact that you have to pay for it (although it's not terribly expensive, really). QuickBooks gives the capability to track income and expenses by "class" (i.e. by website), and its reporting functions are much more robust.
If you live outside the United States but want to build a store that targets the US's HUGE online shopping marketplace, you'll definitely want a US mailing address. Failing to display a US mailing address on your site will scare off a lot of American shoppers. We recommend Earth Class Mail, which is much more than just a US mailing address. They'll also scan and give you digital access to all your mail, and they'll forward you the pieces of mail you want. We've gotten nothing but positive feedback about Earth Class Mail from our non-US members who have used their services.
We can help you get WAY MORE for your store than you'd be able to get trying to sell it on your own! And using our brokering service will take away a lot of the guesswork and actual work involved with selling a website. We've bought and sold dozens and dozens of websites over the last decade and know how to prepare the listing, drive interested parties to it, get maximum exposure, conduct the bidding/due diligence process and ensure a smooth transaction. Click here to learn more and get a no-obligation quote for our brokering services.