Online selling platforms – 2022 guide to online sales platforms for business

12 minutes to read • Published 22 November 2021 • Digital strategy

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      There is no escaping the power of e-commerce in the 21st Century. In 2022, online sales will account for some 18% of all global transactions. That may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but the quantity of sales steadily increases year on year – a trend expected to continue. 

      Ecommerce is already firmly established as a popular trading model in Europe, the USA and China. Now, emerging markets such as Latin America and other parts of Asia are also joining the revolution. If a business has eyes on global expansion and brand recognition, it is more important than ever to embrace online selling platforms.

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      What are online selling platforms?

      It’s hardly a secret that selling online varies drastically from using a brick-and-mortar shopfront. If you were peddling wares in a shop, you could complete a transaction for products or services in any manner of ways. Cash, card, gift voucher – as long as your business is renumerated appropriately, you’re unlikely to much care how.

      Shopping online is, of course, a little different. Consumers cannot touch and browse products before buying. It’s much easier to abandon a transaction before completion without any awkward social interaction. More to the point, customers can only check out and complete a purchase digitally. Whether handing over credit card details or using an e-wallet, the transaction will not be complete until funds have exchanged hands.

      To make this process as seamless as possible, a business must meet consumer expectations. This means providing compelling images, descriptions and videos to tempt the potential buyer into a conversion and offering a checkout process that safeguards personal information. Perfecting your ecommerce site design is a critical component of gaining attention, but you’ll need the ideal selling platform to seal the deal.

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      As intimated above, a selling platform is a website that allows a business to exchange goods or services (usually tangible products) in exchange for money. Turning a profit online is not always easy, but the revenue capacity is infinite once you master the process. Choosing the ideal selling platform is the first step toward this journey into enhanced business success.

      Types of online selling platforms compared 

      Online selling places divide into three categories:

      Each of these approaches has positives and drawbacks. Let’s discuss each type of selling platform in detail, then investigate which type of selling platform will best serve the needs of your business.

      Marketplaces

      Marketplaces are arguably the most popular form of online selling platform. They are certainly the most prominent. Think of an online marketplace as an internet-based department store, where you can get your hands on anything you may need. You’ll just need to think of an item and type it into the search box.

      Based on this description, two names will leap immediately to mind and loom large over any competitors – Amazon and eBay. Established in the web’s infancy in 1994 and 1995, these two brands have become synonymous with online shopping.

      Other marketplaces have forged an identity and loyal following among online consumers, though. Etsy, the craft website, is arguably the best example of this. With over a hundred marketplaces out there, however, they may be a range of names that you’re unfamiliar with. 

      Bonanza and Alibaba have big followings, for example, and never underestimate the popularity of a site like Wish. Some consumers are willing to take a chance on a bargain, even if it involves waiting for shipping and potentially being disappointed upon arrival.  

      There is plenty to love about selling products and services through an online marketplace, but equally, a handful of potential drawbacks. Let’s review these in more detail.

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      Pros of selling with online marketplacesCons of trading with online marketplaces
      Online marketplaces, especially the most prominent names, enjoy huge traffic – that’s a lot of eyes on your offeringEverybody knows about this traffic – your products will be competing against an immeasurable number of rivals
      Marketplaces have all the infrastructure in place to ensure fast, painless transactions for consumersFast and easy transactions come at a cost for your business. The affiliate cut of any sale made by a marketplace can be high
      You can launch products for sale on marketplace platforms pretty much immediately, without waiting for approvalAs anybody can place products for sale, consumers may judge your brand for the sins of another that offered substandard goods or poor customer service
      Some online marketplaces offer a “buy from store” widget so that you can redirect consumers to your own site complete the conversion thereIf the marketplace does not allow you to redirect consumers to your store, you’ll miss out on any first-party data that helps build a customer profile
      Appearing on a marketplace can be seen as an endorsement from a major website, boosting your reputationSome consumers may have ethical qualms about shopping from marketplaces, boycotting brands listed on such sites

      While marketplaces are the most famous and notable examples of online selling platforms, they are by no means your only option for ecommerce. If you consider the drawbacks above more prominent than the benefits, investigate hosted or self-hosted online selling platforms.

      Hosted selling platforms

      If you are keen to focus on attracting consumers to your own site, deciding against mixing with the masses on an online marketplace, you could consider a hosted ecommerce site. Shopify is the best-known of these online selling platforms, but an increasing number of alternatives are becoming available. BigCommerce is the biggest competitor to Shopify, though you could also use a website builder like Wix or Squarespace.

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      Using a hosted online payment platform will place fewer restrictions on how you display and market your products in your path. Marketplaces may confine you to a set number of characters in the description, a limited number of images and apply a house style to listings. If you are running your ecommerce website, you’ll have no such concerns. 

      A hosted online sales platform is also an excellent choice for anybody new to ecommerce that has a product to sell, but limited experience in building websites. The SaaS programs listed above will help with this process, from listing products to creating a sales filter to take payments. Without further ado, let’s elaborate upon the pros and cons of hosted online selling platforms.

      Pros of hosted selling platformsCons of hosted selling platforms
      A hosted platform will enable you to build a solid, reliable ecommerce website without too much experienceYou’ll be a little restricted in the layout and design of the website, while advanced SEO will also likely remain beyond you
      You’ll likely have to pay a fee on each transaction made through a hosted selling platform, but it’ll be cheaper than a marketplacePaying fees is not for everybody – “cheaper than a marketplace” is not “free.” Also, not all hosting platforms accept e-wallets and other payment types
      No messy third-party politics or relationships are involved. Any transactions will take place exclusively on your websiteYour ecommerce site will only attract visitors if you have stellar SEO, PPC and inbound marketing policies 
      You can manage your own stock-keeping unit numbers (SKUs) to monitor which products are most profitableYou may be limited in how many SKUs are available per product. Not ideal if you have, say, an ecommerce clothing site with a range of sizes
      Your host will do what it takes to keep your website online, minimising downtime and boosting your chances of making salesIf the host has tech issues, there will be nothing you do to resolve them except wait patiently

      Hosted online sales platforms are great if you lack confidence in building a website and are looking for the most cost-effective solution. Just remember, the money you save here may need to be redirected to your marketing budget or an ecommerce agency. After all, nobody can buy from an online selling platform if they are not aware of it.

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      Self-hosted selling platforms

      Self-hosted online sales platforms – of which Magento and WooCommerce are the most popular – are a fine choice for the confident cyber-seller. Ultimately, the revenue generated by a self-hosted ecommerce site is tied directly to UX design and the success or failure of a digital marketing strategy.

      A self-hosted website is built by the ecommerce supplier and hosted on your server. You’ll just apply a sales platform as open-source software once the site is complete. 

      This approach provides complete, 100% control over all elements of your ecommerce venture. This also means that you’ll have full access to all first-party data from your customers. Such information can be critical for building profiles of your target audience.

      Of course, complete control also means wholesale responsibility. Building a website can become expensive, and you’ll also need to keep on top of all costs pertaining to maintenance and paying your hosting fees. Only take on a self-hosted online sales platform if you consider yourself savvy enough to make it a success. 

      Which type of online selling platform is best?

      As we have intimated throughout these descriptions, that depends on a range of factors. Our advice to any SME looking to start a new ecommerce venture through an online selling platform would be as follows.

      Marketplaces are best for

      • Mainstream products that will appeal to a broad audience
      • Businesses that are looking for maximum brand exposure
      • SMEs that are happy to pay a higher commission for – theoretically – more sales

      Hosted sales platforms are best for

      • Anybody unwilling to work with an online marketplace, whether that’s on financial or ethical grounds
      • Smaller, more niche businesses that are looking to attract a bespoke audience
      • Businesses that are not comfortable managing the technical side of an online sales platform

      Self-hosted sales platforms are best for

      • Web-savvy ecommerce webmasters that want complete control over their online sales platform
      • Skilled marketers that are confident they can turn substantial profits through slick copy and advertising

      Weigh up these factors and decide how to proceed. Of course, you still have a major decision ahead of you.

      How to decide which online selling platform is right for your business 

      Having asserted which type of selling platform suits your needs, you’ll next need to settle on the platform itself. If you feel that you would be best served by a marketplace, for example, there is a big difference between selling on Amazon to Etsy.

      Questions to ask yourself include:

      • What do you value most – potential eyes on your product or low commission rates following conversions? You’ll likely find that the more traffic a marketplace in particular offers, the higher their fees
      • Who is your target audience? Learn where these people like to conduct their online business. An eco-conscious customer base, for example, may reject a supplier like Amazon in favour of smaller businesses with a lower carbon footprint
      • How much control do you want over your ecommerce site? If you’re using a marketplace or hosted platform, you may find yourself facing different restrictions over what you can do
      • How many products will you need to sell on a particular platform to turn a profit? Is such a target realistic and achievable?
      • Can you price your product competitively? On marketplaces, in particular, significant rivals may undercut an SME on price in the hope of building brand loyalty
      • If your product captures the imagination and you start to receive many orders, can you keep up with demand? Would you be better off remaining comparatively low-key and selling the stock at a manageable level?

      Weigh up these decisions before deciding where to place your products and services for sale.

      How much do online selling platforms cost? 

      The cost of doing business with an ecommerce sales platform can vary wildly. The most expensive up-front will be a self-hosted platform. You’ll need to pay to build a website, and to keep it live and online. However, if you’re capable of doing this, you can cut down on any future expenses.

      Expenses related to hosted websites vary. You will need to pay for your monthly hosting, of course. How much depends on your choice of host. Some of the most popular options include:

      SiteGround£2.99 – £7.49 PCM
      Hostinger£3.99 – £8.99 PCM
      BlueHost£2.16 – £10.20 PCM
      Wix£13 – £22 PCM (make sure you choose the eCommerce setting!)

      You may also need to pay a cut of any conversions. If you use Shopify, for example, a transaction fee of 2.9% (basic account), 2.6% (Shopify account), or 2.4% (advanced account) will be payable on every conversion. If you do not use Shopify’s in-house payment processing, further fees will also be levied.  BigCommerce, conversely, does not charge transaction fees. 

      Finally, we have marketplaces. You will need to pay a referral fee to your marketplace of choice for any sale made. How much this will be varies, depending on what you sell. On average, expect to pay to the following.

      Amazon8 – 15%
      eBay1.5 – 15%
      Etsy5%
      Bonanza3.5%
      Alibaba2.95%

      As you’ll see, the bigger the platform, the more you can expect to pay in transaction fees.

      Are any online selling platforms free?

      The short answer to this question is yes … but the longer, more helpful response is yes – but they’re not worth bothering with if you are a serious business. To be realistic, the only places you will be able to list items for sale and not pay a commission for any conversions are the likes of GumtreeCraigslist, or Radio HP if you have friends in high places and can angle an invite.

      You may attract some attention from these sites, but be honest with yourself – how often do you frequent them looking to purchase goods or services from a business? These listing sites are associated with peer-to-peer exchanges, not professional brands. You may save a little money in commission on any transactions, but you could end up paying dearly in terms of your reputation.  

      We hope this has shone a light on your ecommerce needs and how you can use online selling platforms to bolster conversions and market awareness for your brand. If you need further advice, please do not hesitate to contact us. Our experienced team will be delighted to assist.

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