One of the most important decisions you will make as a small business owner in the age of the internet is choosing the right e-commerce platform. I’ve been selling patterns online since 2013, and in that time I have cycled through 3 primary platforms, and done countless hours of testing, research and price shopping. It can be a bit of a quagmire so I’m here to help you find the best fit for your business.
Here are some questions I would recommend asking yourself before you get started:
- How comfortable am I with custom coding in HTML and CSS? Am I willing to take a more DIY approach to my website or do I want something more user friendly?
- Is it important to have access to a built in audience, such as on a site like Etsy?
- Do I need to be able to easily connect my store sales with an accounting program like Quickbooks?
- Do I want a simple, fast “starter” site, or something that can easily scale as my business grows?
- How much money am I able to pay each month for web hosting and e-commerce fees?
Once you know what you need from your site, it becomes much easier to narrower down the many options out there. Have a list of things that you absolutely must have, and make sure your platform can meet those needs.
CUSTOM DESIGNED STORE VS. BUILT-IN AUDIENCE
If you are selling a handmade or crafty related item, web platforms with built-in audiences like Etsy are a great place to get started selling your wares. Since all the design and infrastructure is already in place, it’s incredibly easy to list your products. You can immediately start benefiting from the large volume of people who are searching Etsy every day, without paying a monthly flat fee or worrying about building a site from scratch. You are only charged per item listing ($.20 US) plus 3.5% of each sale made, and if you sell digital products, they also do all the hosting and distribution for you. The community on Etsy is very strong, and there are lots of resources for sellers, in addition to powerful promotion if the Etsy powers-that-be highlight your product (I’ve always seen sales bumps whenever one of my patterns has been featured on the homepage). The downside is that you are very limited in terms of branding your shop; you have a banner image, some space for copy, and that’s about it. I also dislike that Etsy has a cap of 5 images per product, and if you are selling digital products, older orders aren’t updated when you upload new files (I learned this the hard way this month with the relaunch of all my patterns!)
Here is what my Etsy store looks like. As you can see, there is very little opportunity for personalizing the space:
With a custom designed site, you get the opportunity to create a more personal, branded space to highlight your products. It’s also easier to integrate your social networking, build a mailing list, manage SEO and connect to your blog, if you have one. In my opinion, having a custom site looks more professional and gives your brand or business a little more cache. That said, there are monthly fees on top of the transaction fees you’ll be paying for each sale, as well as possible development fees if you need professional help setting up your store.
Here is my current Shopify-hosted store. Even with my minimalist design, my site has much more of a visual impact than it ever could on Etsy.
All that said, it isn’t necessarily an either/or proposition. I sell my patterns on a number of platforms, including Etsy and my own store. When you’re getting started, you want to spread the word as far as possible about who you are and what you’re doing; selling on a variety of platforms can help do that. If you’re just getting started and don’t want to invest a lot of time and money into designing a webstore, selling on a platform like Etsy can be a good way to get your feet wet. Even when your business is established and you move to a personal site, it still makes sense to keep your Etsy store; it can generate a lot of “random” sales you wouldn’t get without the benefit of its audience and search potential.
TIPS FOR SELLING ON ETSY
- Write clear, thoughtful headings with as many descriptive keywords as possible. People want to find you! Make it easy to do that.
- Use clear, well lit thumbnails that best capture your product in your listings. You only have people’s eyeballs for a split second when they’re searching – make it count.
- Make good use of your 5 image limit; ensure that people are seeing as much as they can about the item, and make sure they are well lit (here are some tips on using your smart phone for product photography).
- Use tags wisely but honestly; I’ve been told you can get reported by other sellers for misusing tags.
- Connect your Twitter and Facebook account to your store.
- When it comes to describing your product within the listing, provide as much information as possible. Inject a little personality into your writing if possible.
- If you have the budget, splurge on promoted listings to widen your store’s reach.
ADDITIONAL PLATFORMS FOR PATTERN DESIGNERS
If you’re selling sewing patterns, you’re not limited to Etsy when it comes to third party sellers. I have worked with all of the following sites, and all have different audiences and niche markets. They generally take a commission, ranging from 50% at Indie Sew to 0% at Craftsy.
- Craftsy – no commission, built in community, good traffic generator
- Kollabora – growing online community with a lovely site. Really good at promoting indie designers.
- Indie Sew – up and coming pattern reseller and sewing community. Expensive commissions but they have a great blog and do a lot of promotion. A good choice to spread the word about your new pattern company.
- Girl Charlee – fabric store that also sells patterns.
- Pattern Review – biggest online sewing community and a great site for reviews.
BUILDING A CUSTOM WEBSITE
This can be one of the most intimidating aspects of starting or advancing your online business. There are soooo many eCommerce platform options that it can feel incredibly overwhelming. I spent months looking into all this, using various two week trials, wavering, Googling, deciding, changing my mind, re-Googling…. I’m here to hopefully save you some of that aggravation.
When it comes to custom sites, there are 2 main categories: self-hosted and hosted.
If you run a blog on WordPress, you’re already familiar with self-hosting; you pay a monthly fee to a web hosting company and run your site yourself – it doesn’t get any more DIY. There are numerous eCommerce plugins for WordPress, most notably WooCommerce & WP eCommerce. These plugins are generally quite affordable (if not free), and come with tons of customizable themes and extensions (most of which you have to pay for). However, self-hosted sites are A LOT more work than other platforms. These are hands-on stores; you’ll likely be dealing with site issues and plugins breaking over time, which is just the nature of WordPress (I have spent 10 x more money fixing and updating my WP blog than I ever have on my Shopify store). If you have a DIY attitude when it comes to web and coding or want to save money, these can be a good option. However, if you want a more hands off approach, or are concerned about the site being scalable as your business grows, you’re better off with a hosted site.
If you are planning on self hosting, I highly recommend using Blue Host for your install — they’re fast and cheap with great customer service and I’ve been using them for years.
Hosted sites run the gamut from bare-bones simple to throw yourself off the balcony complicated. In the former category, we have something like Big Cartel or Squarespace which are easy to use and inexpensive platforms designed for creative businesses just starting out (although be warned, Squarespace does not accept Paypal!). On the other end of the spectrum is a platform like Magento, which while infinitely customizable (think multiple currencies, multiple languages, open source coding), is highly technical, and will 100% require outside developer help unless you’re some kind of code wizard. For comparison, sites like Fabric.com or Mood.com are probably built using Magento, or something like it. Smaller businesses just don’t need that kind of infrastructure.
Somewhere in the middle of Big Cartel and Magento is the sweet spot, in my opinion. And here is where I wax rhapsodic about my love for Shopify. I have worked on a few different platforms, and although I initially grumbled about the monthly fees (ranging from $14-149 a month, in addition to fees for each transaction), it is hands down the best hosting option for businesses that want to focus on their actual business rather than their website. Shopify has hundreds of gorgeous themes (a few of them are even free, including mine) and is very easy to customize without having to know a lot of coding. There are also tons of tutorials available on their blog to help you do more than just change fonts or colours. For example, this week I wanted my product image thumbnails to change when you hovered over them; it took me less than 10 minutes to do it myself by following their tutorial. The Shopify interface is elegant, simple and easy to use, and it’s possible to get a site up and running in a few hours without outside help. Perhaps most importantly, all of their themes are designed to work on computers and mobile devices, which is more or less mandatory these days.
Below is an example of the design interface. You can edit different sections of the site while seeing the changes play out in real time. There is also the opportunity for some custom coding if you need it.
There are also hundreds of plugins for every conceivable application, although some of them are quite expensive and can add up on your monthly bill. If you’re shipping physical product, you can expect to pay an additional $10-100 a month for real-time carrier shipping rates and a good fulfillment app like ShipStation. If you’re selling digital product, you’ll also have to pay a monthly fee for a provider like Downtown or Send Owl if you want to digitally stamp files or be able to update purchased files for all users (the free Shopify app isn’t that great – totally worth the $5-10 a month for a paid app to avoid all the customer service headaches!). If you use Quickbooks Online, there is a free Shopify connector, but other accounting programs (including QB desktop) can cost anywhere from $10-50 for clean exports of your data. These charges add up, and while you can keep it fairly bare bones at the beginning (especially if you’re only selling digital files), the costs rise as your business grows. Insert clipart of entrepreneurs scowling here.
All that said, what you’re paying for is a beautiful site that is easy to build, easy to use, and easy to navigate as a customer. You won’t have to worry about your site crashing or traffic issues, the customer service is top notch, and there are a million available resources to help you if you ever get stuck. Total Shopify proselytizer over here. I highly recommend signing up for a free trial if you’d like to check it out.
Whew! Hopefully this was helpful for anyone out there thinking of creating or upgrading an online store. Are there any platforms out there that I missed? Any tips or hacks you’d like to share with us?
ps. This is not a sponsored post although I have included affiliate links for Blue Host and Shopify. I am happy to spread the word about these companies because they are awesome, and entrepreneurs need all the awesome they can get. If you decide you’d like to try them out as well, clicking on the links from this post helps support this ol’ blog.