I’ve used most of the tools below to build and grow my eCommerce business, and I highly recommend them. For the sake of transparency, you should know some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning I’ll receive a commission if you purchase their product. You can read my affiliate link policy here. If you do purchase a product via one of these links, thank you for supporting my blog!
Magento is what I use to run my established eCommerce sites. It’s very powerful with lots of features, but also fairly complex. It’s a great option for stores with the expertise and/or budget to maintain it, but I strongly discourage it for beginners. The learning curve is very steep and you need to invest in a quality web host for this resource-hungry platform to work at reasonable speeds. For those new to eCommerce, Shopify (see below) is a much better fit.
Shopify is great for new ventures and lets you launch and manage an online store without having to fuss about with servers or code customization. Even though I know/use Magento (see above) for my established sites, I’d personally launch a new store on Shopify to get it online as quickly as possible to test and validate the market.
Once you grow the business, you can always move to a more feature-rich, customizable solution. But early on, it doesn’t make sense to make a large investment in a shopping cart BEFORE you have an established business. A great niche, understanding of your customers’ needs, and marketing are the most important factors for early-stage eCommerce success, NOT a fancy, high-tech shopping cart. That’s why I recommend using Shopify to get your store online quickly so you focus on the crucial aspects early on. While I haven’t used Shopify yet (I wasn’t familiar with it last time I started a site), I’m looking forward to using it to launch and test my next eCommerce business.
OpenCart is great if you want to host your own store for more control and customization, but don’t want something quite as complex and resource-hungry as Magento. While I haven’t used OpenCart (as it wasn’t available when I started), I think it’s one of the best choices among the existing open source PHP powered shopping carts. It’s clean, simple and has a decent feature set. There are lots of options in this space – osCommerce, X-Cart & Zencart (which I used to launch my first eCommerce site), but I think OpenCart is the most compelling.
eCommerce Web Services
WorldWideBrands is one of the largest drop shipping databases available. The $299 lifetime membership isn’t cheap but is a worthwhile investment, especially if you plan to start multiple businesses. A World Wide Brands membership was my first major investment when jumping into eCommerce, and I’ve used it numerous times over the years. Apart from finding suppliers for a specific product, it’s also a great place to brainstorm new niche and business ideas.
Zendesk acts as a central repository for all of your customers service issues and is extremely customizable. You can create automated replies to common queries, assign specific issues to certain agents, and track the entire history of a customer’s interaction with your team. I’ve used it for years and have been impressed with their product and impressive support.
Aweber is one of the most popular email marketing services online, and the email service I use for both my eCommerce sites and this blog. The support is top-notch, they have a decent feature set, and their pricing is reasonable.
Asana helps you manage large projects and keep track of your personal to-do lists in one spot. It’s ideal for staying organized, managing tasks and priorities across your team, and has a beautiful user interface. Best of all, it’s free if your company has less than 30 people.
An SEOmoz Pro membership gives you access to a wide variety of SEO tools and custom keyword rankings. At $99/month, it can be a little steep for smaller sites, but offers a lot of power and insight for merchants with the budget.
Despite being free, Google Analytics offers an impressive number of features and ways to analyze your traffic data. It’s easy to install and is a must-have for your website as nearly all of your proposed changes/improvements/tests will begin with the data you collect here.
Kiss Insights lets you easily add small, unobtrusive surveys to the bottom of your webpages. It’s a simple way to get bite-size pieces of information from your customers and will convert much better than long surveys few people want to take. At $29 per month, it’s a little steep for a basic survey tool, but you can use it when you need to and cancel when you don’t.
A/B testing can be really powerful, but few people do it. Why? It’s confusing and time consuming. Well, at least it used to be. With Visual Website Optimizer’s amazing interface, you simply pick which live page you want to test and – poof! – you’re presented with an easily changeable copy in a drag-and-drop web editor. No HTML. No CSS. No uploading files. Impressively simple.
Like A/B testing, regular backups are something most people should be doing but aren’t. PLEASE don’t wait until you lose all your information to a hard-drive failure or thief! I make sure to have multiple backups of my critical data – one on an external drive and one off-site using Crashplan. I researched all the over-the-internet backup services, and Crashplan is definitely the best.
They have tons of convenient configuration options, like the ability to limit bandwidth used and to schedule exactly when your backup runs, so your Netflix movies stream uninterrupted. Plus, if you need to restore files quickly, you can request an overnighted hard drive to get up-and-running without having to download 15GB of data. Awesome.
eCommHub automates many of the necessary but tedious tasks involved with running a drop shipping business, including order routing, inventory management and emailing tracking numbers. Currently works with Shopify with support for Magento, Volusion, BigCommerce and 3D Cart on the way. Haven’t had a chance to test-drive this yet, but I’m anxious to do so as soon as it’s released for Magento.
If you’re not using a password manager, you’re either juggling dozens of passwords (annoying) or using the same one for all your websites (not smart). Time to get LastPass. It allows you to use a unique password for each site that can be retrieved with a single, master password. Just make sure your master password is super secure.
The Philippines is one of (if not THE) best places for outsourcing. It’s where I hired a phenomenal VA who’s been an integral part of my team for more than 3 years. And when it comes to Filipino outsourcing, there’s no one as knowledgeable as John Jonas of ReplaceMyself. John is an expert in hiring, training and managing Filipino VAs and has written an outsourcing quick-start guide and a free outsourcing eBook - both great resources.
When I need to hire someone with a specific skill for an individual project, I use oDesk. There are a lot of freelancing communities online, but I especially like oDesk because it takes periodic screenshots when the freelancer is on the clock, allowing me to check for billing abuse. The community is large, and you can hire anyone from around the world to do just about anything.
Best “Cheap” Hosting: The two “cheap” places I’ve hosted are GoDaddy and 1&1 Internet, and I can’t highly recommend either. They aren’t awful, but they’re not great either. GoDaddy, surprisingly, has pretty good U.S.-based technical support. But their user interface and control panels are a nightmare. I’ve never seen such a confusing, clustered mess. 1&1 has a clean, well-organized control panel, but their support is all outsourced overseas and can be really hit or miss.
While I haven’t used them personally, I’ve recently heard a lot of good things about HostGator, which offers plans from $4 per month.
Best Affordable Magento Hosting: If you need to run Magento on a budget, you might want to consider Nexcess.net. They have Magento-optimized plans starting at $25 a month and decent, U.S.-based email technical support.
Best WordPress Hosting: While most eCommerce blogs will be hosted in the same environment as the shopping cart, you might want to make an exception if you have a high-traffic, well known blog. In the likely event you’re running WordPress, I’d recommend WPEngine. They host eCommerceFuel, are optimized for WordPress and can handle huge traffic spikes without going down. Nothing is worse than when a traffic surge brings down both your blog AND your storefront. Hosting your blog separately at WPEngine keeps both your eCommerce site and your blog running smoothly during a traffic spike.
Best High-End Hosting: For high-end performance hosting, Rackspace is my top recommendation. I use a managed cloud server, which is a private virtual server that’s monitored and patched automatically. If I ever need something technical done, I can reach an experienced system administrator in less than 60 seconds who can do anything I need on the server. It’s like having a complete IT department on-call for a fraction of the cost. This is definitely overkill for smaller sites (I pay about $350 per month for server and support), but once you grow a bit and need a dependable host, it’s incredibly valuable especially if you aren’t a hosting or Unix expert.
Credit Cards & Processing
Authorize.net is a widely popular credit card gateway, and they integrate with just about every shopping cart on the market. I’ve used them for all my processing for more than 4 years without any problems.
In addition to a payment gateway (like Authorize.net), you need another company called a processing merchant in order to accept credit cards. I’ve used a few, and can recommend Gravity Payments with flying colors. They have some of the best rates I’ve ever seen plus outstanding customer service. These guys flat out rock.
Shopping for card processors and trying to compare complex rate schedules is really confusing. So confusing, in fact, I never did it. Then I came across Fee Fighters. They look over your monthly processing statements and bid out your business to dozens of processors to find you the lowest rate. This is how I found Gravity Payments (who I love), and they saved me a ton.
Fulfilling drop shipping orders can generate a lot of purchases, and you can take advantage of that using a great rewards card. The Fidelity Visa card offers the best cash-back program I’ve seen with 2% cash back on everything you put on it. The cash rewards have to initially be deposited in a Fidelity account, but you can always withdraw the funds if you don’t mind retiring broke. This card funded my entire Roth IRA contribution last year up to the annual limit – very cool.
If you’re more interested in travel, I’ve found the Capital One cards offer the best rewards program. It’s the program that paid for an around-the-world trip for me and my wife. To get the most rewards and flexibility, I recommend using two cards:
1) Business Sparks Miles Card – Earns 2x miles per dollar spent ( the highest of all Capital One cards) but has really lousy redemption rules. This is why you want card #2 …
2) VentureOne Rewards – While this card only earns 1.25x miles per dollar spent, the redemption rules are much more favorable. So once you bank up miles using your Business Sparks Card at 2x, simply transfer them to your VentureOne card to redeem them at the best possible rates. This structure also serves to keep your business purchase and personal rewards redemption separate for accounting.
IMPORTANT: I recommend these credit cards based on the assumption that you’ll be paying them off in full EVERY MONTH! If you won’t, don’t get them. They might have crazy-high interest rates. I have no idea. If you’re not carrying a balance, they are great tools for racking up rewards. But I make no claims about their suitability otherwise.
Market Research Tools
The Google Keyword Tool lets you find out how many people search for a given term, and what related terms are popular. If you’ve never used this tool before, there are a few things you need to know to get accurate results. I strongly recommend reviewing this keyword tool primer before diving in.
Open Site Explorer is SEOMoz’s free tool for getting stats on site backlinks, anchor text, number of linking domains and more. You’ll need a SEOMoz Pro membership to get full access, but the free version offers a lot of great information.
Compete provides website traffic estimates for the last 12 months, with an emphasis on estimates. I’ve found the tool to frequently understate traffic, sometimes by a factor of 2x. While not perfect, it is useful for determining traffic volumes relative to other sites as well as traffic trends.
Quantcast serves up demographic information on a website’s visitors including sex, education, income and age. Like Compete.com, it also provides traffic estimates.
Google Insights & Trends (two different sites) offer information not provided by the standard Keyword Tool. You can get data on relative keyword search volume, trends, geographic origination and more.
The SEOMoz Toolbar provides at-a-glance SEO metrics for websites, as well as for the results in Google’s search listings. A must-have when doing lots of competitive research. Available for Firefox and Chrome.
The SearchStatus Plugin for Firefox offers information for the loaded browser domain including Compete.com traffic estimates, PageRank and Alexa ranking. It also offers page-specific tools such as highlighting no-follow links, showing meta-data, an outbound link count report and more.
Is there a killer eCommerce tool, resource or service I didn’t include? Let me know and I’ll consider adding it to the list.