If you’re going to build an eCommerce site, you have basically two choices. You can go the Amazon route, building out a store that replicates the look and feel of a “standard” online seller. If you don’t love that, you can go the “better than Amazon” route, hewing your own masterpiece from rough, digital stone.
Regardless of the path you take, the tools for building an eCommerce site are similar in nature. You’ll need a way to design the site, a way to manage the site, a way to take cash, and a way to promote the site.
Those tools are readily available, and you can have them for the low cost of free. Using the options below, you should be up and running in no time.
Choosing a platform
There are a barrelful of options for running an online store. Shopify is the most popular of these eCommerce platforms, boasting around 325,000 stores. It’s $29 per month and, even though we’re talking about free options here, keep this one and others in mind as you shop for your shop. Free things are free only to the extent that they don’t destroy your all free time. You can leave and read Shopify reviews right here.
As an alternative to Shopify, you’ve got something on the order of 4 billion alternatives – well, at least 500 alternatives in the Capterra eCommerce directory. Free offerings are a little harder to come by, but here are some of the more popular options.
- WooCommerce – WooCommerce is a free WordPress plugin to manage a online store.
- Magento Community Edition – Another option for those with some technical knowhow.
- Drupal Commerce – For all your Drupal based sites.
- Zen Cart – This one has been around forever – or at least for a while. Has the benefit of working on any
- PrestaShop – PrestaShop powers over 250,000 stores, according to the company.
- Big Cartel – Big Cartel offers a free option for managing five products.
Getting your online store design on(line)
Thank goodness for options, but I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re running your website on WordPress. There are a lot of website platforms out there – you’ll note the Drupal offering above – but WordPress is far and away the most popular.
With that assumption under our belts, we’ll jump into some design options. It is very easy to take a website design off the shelf and fire it right up. Back to the original thesis, this is usually going to take you down the “be like Amazon” path.
That’s fine! Amazon is good at selling things. The thing you’ve got to keep in mind is that the Amazon plan can be done well or done poorly. If you’re going to grab something off the shelf, take the time to find one that does it well.
- WooCommerce Themes – WooCommerce requires a specific set of themes to work correctly. Luck for you, it also provides a decent selection of freebies to get you up and running. You can also score some free WordPress WooCommerce themes over at colorlib – I like Illdy, myself.
- Free Magento Community Themes – As you can see, anyone looking to get you onboard with their eCommerce platform is going to give you some theme options. Magento has a nice set of themes. I like the Grayscale option for its Amazon-esque feel.
- Atomic.io – For folks who are going to design their own theme, Atomic is a collaborative tool for web design. It allows you to work with that one person on your team that actually cares about how things look and feel.
- ecomm.design – If you don’t have a Jenny – Jenny is the name I made up for the person who cares about how things look and feel – check out ecomm.design. It’s like a little Pinterest for web design ideas.
- Sumo – Sumo can help you grow your list of contacts, adding in email collection forms to your site and working with all sorts of email providers to make things simple.
Free tools for marketing your eCommerce site
Once you’re up and running, the most important part of running an eCommerce business begins. It’s also the fun bit.
No one – or very few of us, at least – decides to open an online store because they really love fiddling with payment processors and WordPress themes and shopping carts. Those are all the things you have to do to get to the thing you really want – selling online.
“Marketing” your eCommerce site can take on hundreds of different steps, depending on the sales funnel you develop. We’ll cut the process in rough halves, covering generating demand and converting sales.
Demand generation for your online business
This is the sphere that traditional advertising covers. You want to get people who should be interested in your products to your site. Email marketing (or part of it), Facebook ads, Google AdWords, and all the rest fall into this segment.
- MailChimp – Email marketing champion MailChimp offers a free option for managing 2,000 subscribers and up to 12,000 emails each month. That’s a lot. You can use templates or design your own layout to get people to your front door.
- Canva – Canva is an excellent, free graphic design tool. While you’re not going to turn out the kind of stuff that wins awards, you will make lovely things that don’t embarrass your family and friends.
- Headline Analyzer – Headline Analyzer is a super-fun tool for making more compelling messages. You just plug in your blog headline or Facebook post title and it tells you (roughly) how engaging and interesting it is.
- AdWords – AdWords keeps changing its sign-up system. If you have an account and can check it out, the keyword planner can really help. If you can’t or it keeps telling you to add a credit card, just use Keyword.io.
Free sales conversion tools
Once you’ve gotten folks through the door, you want them to take something home. These tools can help you convert all those leads into cash sales, loving customers, and lifelong brand devotees.
- HubSpot CRM – While HubSpot offers all kinds of paid marketing and sales software options, its free CRM is free. Track 1,000,000 contacts and get your whole team onboard. You can also integrate with Google Calendar and a few other resources to help manage more thing in one place.
- Google Analytics – Now that people are showing up, what the heck are they doing? Specifically, where are they spending all their time and how can you get them to spend more time on the “spend money here” pages?
- UsabilityHub – UsabilityHub offers a free tool for testing your pages’ layouts to get better conversions. You upload a layout and then the service runs it in front of folks to get their reactions. There’s limited feedback in the free option, but it’s still crazy useful.
Bringing it all together
Once you’ve got everything laid out and you’re converting sales, it’s time to start thinking about scaling. Free tools can get your company a very long way, but at some point, you might need more power or flexibility (or personalized support) than free can offer.
Capterra’s Retail Management blog (yay!) has all sorts of tips and insights for the budding online entrepreneur. Our Point of Sale, eCommerce, Email Marketing, and Payment Processing directories are all great resources for user reviews, feature comparisons, and pricing information. With all these tools at hand, the only limits are your time and sanity.
Looking for Retail Management Systems software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Retail Management Systems software solutions.