In the 2020s it is hard to imagine a business without a website. Customers search for products and services online first. Other ways of shopping are a distant second. If anyone wasn’t using the Web before the coronavirus lockdown, it’s likely that they are now!

E-commerce is also a great leveller: you don’t need a £1million high street property to get in the game. It is now easy for anyone to get an account with a payment processor and begin trading online. All you need is a website to display your goods.

How much does it cost?

If you are setting up a new business, your biggest costs will probably be your stock, packaging and delivery expenses, not the website.

Although professional developers will charge you thousands to build one from scratch, you don’t need them. The vast majority of websites are built on free content management systems such as WordPress, or from even easier proprietary website builders provided by hosting companies. These too are often free.

Even if you have never heard of HTML, proprietary website builders use a drag-and-drop interface that you will soon get the hang of. If you want the whole thing built for you, prices from all-in-one hosting companies begin at under £300.

Remember there is another cost when you venture into ecommerce – your time. Mail-order has never been a lazy option, and website maintenance also takes more labour than many anticipate. Nothing about it is difficult, but it is time-consuming, so be prepared for that.

Hidden costs

No reputable web host hides their own charges, but be aware that hosting doesn’t cover everything you might want. Many hosting packages bundle a free website name, but if they can’t supply the one you want, it might cost you extra. Domain names have to be renewed regularly so be sure you know the renewal cost in future years.

If you are taking payments or personal information online, you also need an SSL certificate. These provide extra security to your customers. There are many different certificates and their prices range from nothing up to about £1000 for the most prestigious ones (which you don’t need if you are a small start-up). However, SSL certificates can be a bit of a marathon to install so if your hosting company is offering to bundle one, that is a big plus.

Your payment provider(s) will also levy a fee – usually a percentage of your transactions. Setting up a secure gateway with a payment provider can also get a bit involved so, again, if your hosting provider is offering to bundle this service, that is another major plus.

Lastly, there are many add-on features you might want – perhaps a revolving carousel of products, a snapchat feed, or a discussion forum. Many are available free, others make a charge. Most fees are small, but you should avoid adding features you don’t need. Even if plug-ins don’t increase your costs, they tend to slow down your site.

Which e-commerce platform is best?

If you just want to get your shop online quickly and have no unusual requirements, just use a website builder. Choose the hosting package that gives you the most features off-the-peg, with no extra costs and installation problems. We’ve already mentioned the important things to look for; the website builder itself, a domain name, SSL certificate, and help with your payment gateways. Other things that could matter are storage space and bandwidth limits, included email addresses, and the support offered by customer service.

If you are confident about programming and website design, you can consider a content management system instead. A CMS gives you more work to do, but more options for tailoring your site the way you want it. Once built, shops created on a CMS tend to deliver their content faster, and are relatively easy to move to a different hosting company if you ever want to (which is often impossible if you use a website builder). Popular choices include WooCommerce (built on WordPress) and Magento.

SEO and marketing

How are customers going to know you exist and find your shop? It depends on your business. Many depend on appearing high in Google search results and to do that you have to work hard at search engine optimisation (SEO). Coding errors damage your SEO and using a website builder helps you avoid them. However, WordPress gives you more control over SEO once you know how to use it.

Don’t be a slave to Google! Local businesses often fare better by marketing themselves locally, and by promoting themselves through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Websites are replacing high street shops, but nothing will ever replace the personal touch!