If you want to start a successful ecommerce business, you need the ability to process transactions on your own website. And choosing the right ecommerce platform is one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make.
But did you know that there are free ecommerce platforms out there that are as powerful as Shopify or BigCommerce?
And did you know that these open source platforms are 100% free to use and well supported by the community?
Note: I’ve been running my 7 figure ecommerce store on a free open source platform for over 10 years now. Click here to check out my shop which is built on free software
First off, when it comes to selecting the right shopping cart, your main criteria should be…
- Low Monthly Costs – How much does the shopping cart cost to run on a monthly basis including all plugins etc…
- High Level Of Extensibility – If there’s a feature that you need, can you easily add functionality to your site?
- 3rd Party Support – Are there companies actively developing plugins for the shopping cart?
- High Level Of Control – Do you have the freedom to change the shopping cart and tailor it to your own needs?
- Ease Of Use – Is the shopping cart easy to use and maintain?
Unfortunately, there is no single shopping cart that meets all of the requirements above. As a result, I’m going to break down the tradeoffs of going with free open source platforms vs paid solutions like Shopify and BigCommerce
Let’s start with the free option first!
What Is A Free Open Source Ecommerce Platform?
If you’ve followed my blog for the last decade, you probably know that I’m a huge proponent of open source ecommerce platforms. What does open source mean?
An open source ecommerce platform is basically software that allows you to create your own ecommerce store website for free. The software is often maintained by an active community of developers who volunteer their time because they are passionate about the project.
The most famous example of open source software is Linux. Today, Linux is maintained by tens of thousands of developers and is one of the most widely used server operating systems in the world.
When it comes to websites, the most well known open source platform is called WordPress which is a content management system that powers over 30% of the web.
Open source software is free to use and you can modify it as you see fit. Not only that but it’s extremely powerful and can often perform better than paid solutions if you know what you are doing.
So if the software is free, then what’s the catch?
The caveat is that you have to host the software on your own server and maintain it yourself. For example, my ecommerce store, Bumblebee Linens, uses the open source shopping cart OSCommerce.
I host my store on a server run by Liquid Web and I’m in charge of maintaining the machine, applying patches and keeping the software up to date.
My only costs are renting the server which is very inexpensive compared to paying for a fully hosted platform like Shopify or BigCommerce.
How Much Will I Save By Going With A Free Ecommerce Platform
I started my online store in 2007 using an open source platform called OSCommerce and I’ve been on this platform for over a decade now. (Note: I don’t recommend OSCommerce today and I’ll explain why in a bit)
When I first launched my website, I hosted my store on an inexpensive webhost called Bluehost. Back then, I paid $6.95/month to rent a shared server but today, you can sign up for as little as $2.95/month.
Anyway when I first started out, my site had very little traffic. And at the time, it would have cost me $29/month to host my store on Shopify or BigCommerce. All told, I saved roughly $20/month by going with an open source platform.
Now $20/month may not seem like much but paying $7/month vs $29/month gave me peace of mind when I was a total noob because I wasn’t sure if my store was going to succeed.
But sales ended up growing exponentially.
Over the next 2 years, I quickly outgrew my server on Bluehost and moved all of my operations to a virtual private server on Liquid Web. And today, I pay about $100 per month to host my store on Liquid Web along with 5 other sites on the same box.
How much more money would I be paying?
First off, calculating the true cost of running an ecommerce store on Shopify or BigCommerce is highly dependent on the number of plugins that you need. In other words, the base price of a fully hosted cart can be misleading.
For example if I were on Shopify, I’d probably be paying about $400/month to run Bumblebee Linens if you take into account all of the plugins that I would have to pay for.
That’s a savings of $300/month!
If you also factor in the fact that I have 6 websites on the same server, I could theoretically just pay $50/month to run my online store alone which would save me over $350/month!
Over the course of a year, that’s $4200. And if you multiply that by 10 years, that’s $42,000!
Note: This does not even take into account 3rd party services which I have replaced with free open source plugins to save hundreds more per month. In addition, some carts charge transaction fees which you avoid paying when you own your own platform.
As you can see, the savings can quickly add up over time. Not only that, but I have full control over the source code and I can make any modifications that I want. If there’s a feature that I don’t have, I can simply implement it myself.
In addition, I can easily move my website to any arbitrary host as I demonstrated when I migrated my store from Bluehost to Liquid Web back in 2009. As a result, I have full autonomy and no one can ever shut me down.
What’s The True Cost Of Maintaining A Free Ecommerce Platform?
The main downside of running on an open source ecommerce platform is that you are responsible for maintaining your server and applying the appropriate patches to keep your software up to date.
One of the reasons that I’m writing this post today is because I just went through a MAJOR update of my website which took me 4 full days to perform. And I had to stumble through the entire upgrade by reading online tutorials and browsing the forums.
In case you are curious, this is the major surgery that I performed this past week.
- I migrated my server to the latest Linux operating system – The OS version that I was using was no longer supported so I was forced to switch. And moving to a new upgraded OS caused a few compatibility problems that I had to deal with.
- I upgraded to the latest PHP version – PHP is the programming language that my website is written in. My old PHP version was no longer supported so I was forced to upgrade. And newer versions of PHP removed certain features from my cart so I had to rewrite parts of the code
- I upgraded my database software to the latest – This process was relatively painless though once again, I had to replace some obsolete code
- I upgraded a bunch of plugins – This was mostly due to the PHP version upgrade
Does any of the above scare you?
In reality, what I just went through with my online store is probably the worse case scenario.
Here’s the thing when it comes to running an open source shopping cart.
If the open source platform that you are using is popular and well maintained, then keeping your software up to date is pretty straightforward.
For example, WordPress (which is what this blog runs on) is extremely well supported. As a result, upgrading from version to version is push button and seamless.
Occasionally, there are some hiccups but there are so many helpful users out there that you can usually figure out the problem fairly quickly.
However if your open source software platform falls out of the favor of developers and they decide to stop maintaining the code, then you are on your own.
This is exactly what happened with my store and OSCommerce.
Once upon a time, OSCOmmerce was one of the BEST open source shopping carts around. But about 5 years ago, the developers started dragging their feet when it came to upgrading the software.
New versions were slow to be released and the developers failed to keep up with the cutting edge features of paid platforms like Shopify or BigCommerce.
As a result for the past 5 years or so, I’ve been coding up my own plugins and maintaining my shopping cart all by myself.
Needless to say, this has been a pain (but fun for me in a sadistic sort of way:)).
The only reason Bumblebee Linens is still a viable online store after all of these years is because I’m a technical person and I learned how to code. Otherwise, I probably would have switched to a Shopify or a BigCommerce long ago.
The good news is that I only have to perform a major upgrade once every 5 years or so which isn’t that big of a deal. However, this is the one big downside of going with an open source ecommerce platform that is not well supported.
If you are not technically inclined or if you’re not the type to get your hands dirty, then I would recommend staying away.
The Open Source Ecommerce Platform I Recommend
If I were to start all over today, I’d probably go with the open source ecommerce platform OpenCart. For the past 7 years or so, OpenCart has been well maintained and there’s a decent sized 3rd party developer community.
Open Cart’s plugin library is also quite large and you can find add-ons that do practically whatever you need. Many 3rd party ecommerce service companies also offer out of the box support for OpenCart.
However going with OpenCart carries the same risks as adopting any other shopping cart platform. If the popularity of the cart starts to wane or if the developers lose interest, then you could be stuck with a dead end platform.
But as far as I can tell, Open Cart has had a pretty good track record in the past 7 years. Here’s a quick video that will show you how to install Open Cart on Siteground Hosting which is my recommended shared webhost for ecommerce stores.
Note: The instructions in this video will teach you how to setup a fully functional online store on Siteground Hosting, which is the host I recommend to all of my students.
It’s also important to note that fully hosted platforms like Shopify or BigCommerce are not immune to these risks either. For example, if Shopify were to lose its popularity or go bankrupt, then your ecommerce store would still be in jeopardy.
In the best case scenario, you would be forced to perform a very painful migration and at worst, you could lose everything.
In other words, paid ecommerce platforms do not make your website future proof.
In fact, I’ve seen a bunch of fully hosted shopping carts languish over the years with very little developer support.
For example back in the day, Yahoo Merchant Solutions was the best platform out there. But today, it’s a platform on life support with no new features added for as long as I can remember.
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Both companies, especially Shopify, have large war chests of cash and they are highly unlikely to go out of business. In addition, both carts are well supported, are constantly adding new functionality and are considered cutting edge ecommerce platforms.
When it comes to new ecommerce features, developers are first to create plugins for Shopify and BigCommerce because they have the largest installed customer base.
In fact if you look at the app store for both platforms, you’ll find plugins that will do practically whatever you need. The only downside is that these plugins usually carry a recurring monthly fee which can quickly add up.
The main downside is that it will cost you more money but you’ll avoid all of the headaches of managing the technical aspects of your site!
Note: If you are trying to choose between Shopify and BigCommerce, then check on my post on Shopify Vs BigCommerce Review – An Honest Comparison Of Two Great Shopping Carts
Other Shopping Cart Platforms Not Mentioned Above
As part of running my blog, podcast and ecommerce course, I’m often asked about the following ecommerce platforms which are much less expensive than Shopify or BigCommerce.
- WooCommerce – This shopping cart is based on WordPress and is free for the base platform
- Wix – This is a very inexpensive website builder that allows you to create beautiful websites.
- Squarespace – Like Wix, Squarespace is another great site builder that has ecommerce features built in.
Believe it or not, WooCommerce is one of the most widely used ecommerce platforms in the world. It is a shopping cart built on WordPress and the base platform is free to use.
Now you can build a fully featured shopping cart on WooCommerce that rivals Shopify or BigCommerce, but the reason why I’m not a big fan of WooCommerce is because it’s built on top of WordPress.
Here’s the thing.
WordPress was not designed for ecommerce businesses. As a result, when you try to turn it into an ecommerce platform, it ends up being slower than an ecommerce platform built from the ground up to sell online.
In order to run WooCommerce at scale, you need to pay extra for more powerful webhosting. The other downside is that WooCommerce is not truly free.
While you can use the base platform at no charge, WooCommerce out of the box doesn’t do very much and each piece of extra functionality carries a recurring charge.
Not only that, but you still have to maintain your own software and manage your own server.
If you have to deal with all of that and pay recurring fees to use the software, you may as well go with a Shopify or a BigCommerce where they handle everything for you.
The number one reason for going with WooCommerce is if you already have a WordPress blog and would like to sell products directly from your site.
Squarespace and Wix
Both Squarespace and Wix are fantastic platforms for building beautiful websites online. And any non-technical person can easily put up a gorgeous site in a matter of hours.
Not only that but both Squarespace and Wix are very reasonably priced which is why I’m constantly bombarded with questions on why I don’t recommend these platforms for ecommerce.
Here’s the thing.
Squarespace and Wix are great for creating very simple ecommerce sites. But they are sorely lacking in important features that you will need once your ecommerce business grows.
For example, my email marketing provider of choice, Klaviyo is not supported by either platform. Not only that but there are very few if any ecommerce developers creating plugins for Squarespace or Wix.
Besides email marketing, there are also a number of functions that you will need to add from the following categories that Squarespace and Wix simply don’t support.
- Sales & Marketing – As you grow, you will have to interface with many 3rd party marketing services to grow your business
- Shipping & Fulfillment – As your shipping volume grows, you will need to interface with 3rd party shipping platforms.
- Inventory & Order Management – As you start selling on multiple platforms, you will need 3rd party integrations to keep your inventory in sync
- Customer Service – As your customer base grows, so will your support needs
- Accounting & Analytics – Your accounting needs will be become more complicated as you grow and you’ll want push button support for 3rd party accounting software
With very little or no 3rd party support, both Squarespace and Wix are destined to remain behind when it comes to running a cutting edge ecommerce platform.
Bottom line, if you want to run a very simple, no frills shop, then Squarespace or Wix will get the job done at a very reasonable price. But serious ecommerce players should avoid.
Before you jump on board with a free or fully hosted ecommerce platform, you have to ask yourself what you need.
If you want maximum control, flexbility and lower costs at the expense of having to manage a server and your software, then go with an open source platform.
In general, free open source ecommerce platforms are for those who are more technically inclined and demand the maximum level of control.
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