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Charting the E-Commerce Landscape: A Practical Primer

Consider $370 billion. According to Forrester Research, that's how much the e-commerce market will generate by 2017; online transactions already account for $262 billion each year. The advent of reliable cloud providers and content delivery networks has made it possible for businesses of any size to cash in on this trend, but it takes more than just a website: It also requires the right e-commerce infrastructure.

Here's a practical guide for choosing the best fit.

E-Commerce Goes from Risk to Reward

In 2003, eight years after opening, online retail giant Amazon posted its first profit. In 2013, as reported by The New York Times, Amazon generated more than $17 billion in revenue

So how did e-commerce evolve from a risky venture to a commercial requirement? It all started in the 1970s, with two technologies: Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). These were business-to-business (B2B) initiatives that allowed companies to securely transfer data and money.

By 1982, services like France's Minitel let users book train tickets and check stock prices online; 1994 saw the introduction of Netscape Navigator, Pizza Hut's online ordering service and the first online bank. And in 2002, Ebay acquired PayPal, giving consumers an easy way to store and spend money online.

Host with the Most?

To meet the rising demand from businesses for an online retail experience, several e-commerce platforms have been developed. These so called “shopping carts” let companies create eye-catching product pages, offer sales promotions and provide secure checkout services.

But before choosing a web hosting provider, companies need to decide whether they want to host their own e-commerce site or outsource this responsibility. Hosted shopping carts are typically turnkey but don't allow third-party hosting. In other words, a company is required to build its entire website on servers owned by the e-commerce provider and then pay a monthly fee for hosting. Alternatively, companies can buy stand-alone e-commerce solutions and then choose their own web host, many of which offer design services that include e-commerce integration.

Popular E-Commerce Options

With hundreds of online shopping-cart services available, finding the right fit can be overwhelming. Most offer the same basic services but differ in how much customization is permitted and what kind of support is available.

The most popular e-commerce platform is Magneto, which serves over 25 percent of the online market. Companies such as Nike, Lindt, Toms Shoes and Men's Health all use Magneto for their storefronts. For-pay versions of this platform come with 24/7 support, a wealth of features and the benefit of big-name recognition. Magneto also offers a free “community edition,” which allows greater customization but requires a high degree of technical skill.

OpenCart is another option. This open-source e-commerce alternative lets companies create unlimited categories, sell an unlimited number of items, accept multiple currencies and choose between eight shipping methods. It is search-engine friendly and free to install, but it isn't as well known as Magneto.

Also worth considering is osCommerce, which has been powering online retail sites since 2000. With more than 250,000 community members and 7,000 free add-ons, it's easy to get started with osCommerce. Drawbacks? It's difficult to create a truly standout site, and past code vulnerabilities have led to security issues.

For companies using WordPress, the WooCommerce Toolkit is an increasingly popular add-on and is a simple way to get started.

Shop Right

Ultimately, the goal of any e-commerce deployment is to create a visually compelling, streamlined site that is able to convert visitors into customers. All the platforms listed have this ability, but their efficacy depends on your resources. If you have money, a for-pay option like Magneto offers powerful features and ease of use; if you have time, open-source options let you customize every detail.

[image: iStock/ThinkStockPhotos]

ABOUT THIS CONTRIBUTOR
Freelance writer
Douglas Bonderud is a technology expert with a deep understanding of web hosting, cloud computing and data security.
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