Before the digital era, starting a business was often synonymous with ‘setting up shop’. You would have had to find a physical space in a location that is bustling with potential customers, stack the store with products you wished to sell, ensure steady/striving footfall, and hire associates to facilitate sales, among others. But not anymore! Today, if you are thinking of starting your business, you will have to think ‘digital’, not ‘physical’.
With the advent of the internet, the marketplace is evolving to accommodate technological advancements. As a result, the digital marketplace and the transactions therein are rapidly expanding to currently record over 2 billion online shoppers worldwide. Since around 26.28% of the world’s population is choosing to shop online, it makes sense for startups and small businesses to also jump onto the e-commerce bandwagon like their larger contemporaries.
Businesses across industries have set up their online store to claim their stake in the digital marketplace which is to reach a gigantic sales value of $4.2 billion by the end of 2020, as per statistics. Businesses that have made the most of the online selling opportunity that e-commerce websites provide include Penguin books, Nescafe, BBC, Red Bull, among many others.
Small businesses and E-commerce websites:
If you are of the notion that e-tailing is only for retail giants or big businesses, think again. The availability of free e-commerce website builders has made it easy for anyone with a good business idea to launch their business on the internet. There are numerous entrepreneurs and local small businesses that have made their way into the global online marketplace through their e-commerce sites. These e-tailers are not just holding their ground but are finding ways to skyrocket their small business to reach a global audience.
Ready Desk is an example of an e-commerce site set up using the Weebly e-commerce website builder which is known to provide free as well as paid plans to set up your online store.
The MoMeMans, is yet another example. Started by a mompreneur, the business is now proving to be a success by selling clothing, décor, and activities exclusively for kids on an e-commerce website created on Shopify.
Shopify allows you to free trial its website for a span of 14 days after which a monthly charge will be applicable based on the plan you choose.
Reasons to create and operate on an e-commerce website:
If you still haven’t gotten your business onto an e-commerce website, here’s what you are missing –
- No large investment: Free e-commerce website builders have made setting up your business in the digital space very cost-effective. These platforms give you an option to upload products (starting from 25 to unlimited count) on the website, in addition to providing round the clock support and promotional options, among others. Most free e-commerce website builders offer you the option to create a basic site with no investment/cost.
- Hassle-free website creation: The free e-commerce website builders allow you to create a website for your business by just registering an account with them. If you are concerned about not possessing the skillset to create a visually appealing website – there’s good news for you! The website builder platforms provide a user-friendly system that allows you to create the website you have envisioned with a simple drag and drop editor. There are pre-existing themes (both paid and free) for you to choose from to set up and launch your online store.
- Customizable site: The themes that come as a part of the builder platform allow you to modify the default version in order to create the site that you desire. There are hundreds of themes that are available for you to choose from, so you can reduce modifications by selecting a theme that is closest to your vision.
- Mobile friendly: Website builders ensure that the site you create to upload your products is mobile responsive, allowing your customers to enjoy a seamless shopping experience on mobiles as well. Most platforms also provide you with a mobile e-commerce cart and an abandoned cart recovery service allowing you to increase the chances of closing sales.
- Add on features: Most website builders allow you to add functional features such as ratings, reviews, analytics, and integration with accounting software, among others to help you run your business effectively.
- 24/7 Support: Most free e-commerce website builders offer you round the clock support in case you are facing issues while setting up your store.
How to build a free e-commerce website for small businesses?
The limited investment at hand and time constraints that entail starting a brand-new business venture need not hinder you from starting an online store anymore. The e-commerce website builders carry a series of plans you can choose from which includes the free plan which requires zero monthly payments. In this section, let’s look at the steps you can follow to easily set up a free e-commerce website for your business.
Step 1: Select the best e-commerce website, builder:
To help select the best online store builder, answer the following questions:
- Is the free store builder easy to work with/customize?
- Are the free templates offered suitable for your business?
- Is adding and categorizing products easy or complicated?
- Does it offer an SSL certificate for free?
- What storage capacity does the free store builder provide?
- Does the free plan include advanced analytics to monitor the website’s performance?
- Does it come with a search site option?
- Are SEO tools part of the free option?
- Does the online store builder provide support as and when the need arises?
The free website builder that checks off the maximum number of your requirements is the platform you can register with. All cheap e-commerce website builder platforms have their shares of pros and cons. Hence, it is advisable for you to get yourself acquainted with all aspects of the platform before making a choice.
Step 2: Choose the free plan:
E-commerce site builders such as Weebly and Big Cartel offer a $0/month plan for you to avail when your business is just taking off. Once your business is established, you can consider upgrading to a paid plan that comes with many more features and benefits.
Step 3: Get a domain name for your online store:
Many free e-commerce website builders allow you to buy a new domain name by following a few simple steps. Here are the steps to keep in mind while purchasing a new domain name:
- Select the unique domain name that suits your business.
- Check if the domain name is available.
- Purchase the domain name.
- Ensure you renew your domain name ownership before it expires the coming year to avoid losing it altogether.
If you already have a domain name, you can transfer the name to your new online site builder and cancel the previously held agreement with the other provider. You also have an option to register your domain with a domain name registrar and thereafter, link it to your current website builder platform.
Step 4: Select and customize a theme/template:
When you are selecting a theme for your online store, there are three things you must consider –
- Home page: The home page needs to appeal to the taste of your customers by showcasing your product categories. You can choose to include a slideshow or a video on your homepage to rivet your prospects.
- Features: Decide on the features that your online store will need, such as tools, cart, blog, POS. You can also integrate apps with your online store platform to gain better functionality.
- Navigation: Select a layout and navigation elements that will allow your customers to smoothly move across categories and pages.
After deciding on the layout and navigation, select the color palette, font type and size, image/product positioning, and social media share buttons.
Step 5: Upload products:
Add products to the product pages of your e-commerce website along with the price, category description, images, etc.
While adding products to the store, you should –
- Ensure that you include detailed, SEO friendly description.
- Upload high-quality images with multi-angle shots of the product.
- Include an option to zoom in and out to get a good look at the product.
- Also, include the provision to search your online store by applying filters and sorting.
Step 6: Payment set up:
Set up your payment method by checking the different payment options that your e-commerce website builder is connecting you to, such as PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, etc.
You can choose to either set up a merchant account and payment gateway option, or you can opt for credit card processing. Select a payment option after taking into account the cost it will entail and regions that your store will be catering to.
Step 7: Shipping:
With free e-commerce website builders, shipment settings can be quite limited. Hence, you will need to check the options available with them that suit you best.
Free e-commerce website builders:
Now that we have looked at the 7 steps involved in building an e-commerce website, let’s go a step ahead to look at 5 popular free e-commerce website builders.
Weebly is one of the e-commerce website builders that offers many features in its free plan as opposed to its other contemporaries. Weebly is popular among startups and small businesses that are just getting started, here are the pros and cons to choosing Weebly –
- Weebly offers an easy to use drag and drop website creating an option that does not require you to know coding.
- The platform allows you to add and sell as many products as you would like.
- It provides free analytics to help track traffic.
It also provides numerous themes/templates to choose from.
- With Weebly’s free plan, you will not have an option to add a custom domain name.
- It is suitable for small businesses and when your small business begins to scale, Weebly may not be able to accommodate the growth.
- It does not provide a multi-channel sales option.
- The transaction and processing fee that the platform charges are high.
The Bike Seat is an online store that sells companion bike seats is an example of an e-commerce website created and run on Weebly.
Getting started on a free plan on the platform can help you establish your business and thereafter, scale up to transition into a paid plan.
Square Online Store:
Square Online Store is yet another online store builder that does not charge monthly fees. This platform requires you to answer a few questions based on which Square Online Store’s Artificial Design Intelligence (ADI) will aid in the website creation. Here are the reasons for you to opt for this platform to build your online store –
- This platform provides you free URL and unlimited hosting.
- Easy setup and comprehensive support.
- This website builder provides good integrated inventory management which syncs your online as well as physical store transactions.
- This platform includes seamless payment systems.
- Like Weebly, Square Online Store also does not accommodate in case your business scales up.
The platform provides you with limited options to customize your site.
- Issues in setting shipping prices have been witnessed.
- The processing and transaction fees are high, similar to Weebly.
Unlike Weebly and Square Online Store, WooCommerce is not an independent website building platform – It’s a WordPress plugin. This plugin has gained popularity as it allows you to run content marketing strategies in addition to building the online store.
- WooCommerce does not charge transaction fees.
- It is highly customizable as it is WordPress’ plugin.
- You are free to add as many products as you would like.
- You can approach the community of developers present on WordPress in case you encounter issues.
- WooCommerce can accommodate your growing business.
- You will have to pay for WordPress hosting.
You will have to pay in order to access add-ons to improve your site’s functionality.
- As WooCommerce is just a plugin, you will need experience working with WordPress.
- The platform does not offer exclusive support in building your online store.
- For example, Blue Star Coffee Roasters, a successful online coffee shop, is powered by WooCommerce plugin for minimum to no investment.
Magento is an apt website builder for startups and small businesses owing to additional resources the platform offers concerning growing a small business and selling profitably online.
- Magento allows you to customize your website as much as you please.
- It accommodates growth in your business.
- The platform possesses numerous features that make transactions seamless.
- To build an e-commerce website using Magento, you will need to know web development and coding.
- You will have to bear the costs of hosting and payment processing.
- Nestle Nespresso, a part of the Nestle group, has set up its online store using the Magento platform.
Building a free e-commerce site with this platform now can help you scale heights in the likes of Nestle in the future.
FreeWebStore is the last on our list of free e-commerce website builders. This platform is popular among solopreneurs as well as small businesses. Here are its pros and cons –
- FreeWebStore provides secure cloud-based hosting.
- The site built using this platform is compatible across devices.
- It provides several payment options such as PayPal and Stripe.
- It provides an option to verify customer age in case you are selling products that need age clearance.
- You can sell up to 30 products under the free plan. If you wish to sell more, you will have to upgrade to a paid plan.
- To access added features such as blog or social media buttons, you will have to opt for a paid plan.
- The platform provides 40 templates for you to choose from and not more.
- The discussed e-commerce website builders come with their share of both pros and cons. However, it must be said that these free platforms, when leveraged rightly at the start of your business can give you the boost that you need.
Disadvantages of using free e-commerce website builders:
Let’s finally look at some of the demerits that free e-commerce website builders are associated with to get a holistic perspective on the whole discussion.
- With the free plan, you can create basic websites with limited features that often lack professional touch.
- The platforms post ads on your site, distracting your customers while they explore your site.
- You cannot always use the domain name of your choice which again chips away from the professional appeal from your online store.
- Customizing sites built on these platforms require time and effort to edit the code.
- The sites created on these platforms also come with limited storage.
- You may also have to pay to get an SSL certificate or secure encryption.
The need to operate successfully in the digital marketplace has become inevitable in current times. Thus, setting up an online store using a free e-commerce website builder will help you take the first step in this direction. You can choose to upgrade and transition to using an upgraded plan later, once your business is up and running. The key to strike success with websites built on free platforms is heavily based on the platform you choose. Therefore, it is advisable to assess both the pros and cons that each platform entails before making a decision.