With the growth of online shopping in the region, it has now become extremely important to ensure that your business has an online presence.

Enter e-commerce platforms, making it easier than ever to set up an online business.

E-commerce platforms are essentially website-builders that allows you to skip the complex step of developing an online website from scratch. The best e-commerce platforms are flexible enough to easily execute complex functions, either within the software or by connecting with third-parties, to ensure that the customer goes through a seamless online shopping experience. These could be functions such as web design, CRM, inventory management, payment, mobile commerce, warehouse fulfillment, and many more.

There are many such platforms that do this well and are popular in the MENA region so we decided to do the difficult work of comparing them so that you can choose the right one for your business.

What should you be looking for when choosing an E-commerce platform?

  1. Pricing: This is the obvious one. Before choosing an e-commerce platform, make sure that you completely understand it’s pricing structure since they vary across platforms. Ensure that the pricing for the platform falls within your budget and that you don’t face any nasty surprises along the way with unaccounted costs.
  2. Ease of use: The whole point of a website builder is that it bypasses the complexities of creating your own website from scratch, allowing entrepreneurs of all technical levels to start their own e-commerce website easily. So you need to ensure that the platform you’re selecting is easy enough to set up without help from a technical expert.
  3. Integrations: Depending on your business needs, you may need the e-commerce platform to integrate with third-party platforms such as accounting plugins, email marketing tools, customer management software, Google merchant, etc. So ensure that your e-commerce platform has the technology to enable these integrations as needed.
  4. Multiple payment options: This is an important factor especially in the Middle East, where users are still distrusting of online payments. Make it easy for your customers to click ‘Buy’ by making sure that you can include trusted, local payment methods at checkout. This differs per country such as MADA in Saudi Arabia, KNET in Kuwait, NAPS in Qatar, Benefit in Bahrain, and so on. So when choosing a website builder, ensure that you can easily integrate with a regional payment provider such as Tap payments that can provide all of these regional payment options in one integration.
  5. SEO friendliness: Just creating an E-commerce platform doesn’t guarantee the success of the store. SEO is important to ensure that your store is visible to those looking to buy the products you sell. So you need to ensure that the e-commerce platform you choose is SEO friendly. You can gauge this by checking if the e-commerce platform has the ability to add a blog to your website, the ability to use your own domain name, the ability for customers to leave reviews, etc.
  6. Mobile responsive: Considering the high rates of mobile penetration and the availability of high-speed internet in the region, m-commerce or mobile commerce is on a significant rise in the Middle East. This means that you need to focus on how the e-commerce platform you select works on mobile to make sure that the experience is an easy and intuitive one for users.
  7. Customer support: When dealing with technology, you could always run into problems. Especially if you’re not particularly tech-savvy. That’s why an important factor to consider when choosing an e-commerce platform is quick customer support, because there’s nothing more frustrating than running into a problem and getting stuck for days. This is also a good reason to consider local or regional options for e-commerce platforms.
  8. Customizable design: When you take the time to design a brand for your business, you want to make sure that your website reflects the same design aesthetics. So when selecting a website builder, always make sure that you can incorporate your branding on the website easily and customize it as you want it.
  9. Speed: The speed of your website has never been more important. A slow-loading website could be penalized by Google and other search engines. More importantly, they can be penalized by users. According to research by Google, 53% of mobile users leave a site that takes longer than three seconds to load. So site load times need to be a factor when choosing an e-commerce platform to build your website on.

Now that we’ve looked at the factors that we need to consider when choosing an e-commerce platform, it’s now time to look at three of the more popular platforms in the region and see which would suit your business better.

Shopify: An all-encompassing solution for beginners with no technical experience

When looking at e-commerce platforms, you HAVE to talk about Shopify. It’s one of the most popular platforms in the region and for good reasons. It’s been designed to be super easy to set up for a complete beginner and is one of the fastest e-commerce platforms. Shopify only has about ten free themes but the paid themes range in price.

It’s also more of an e-commerce platform than just a website builder so you get a fully-featured hosted solution that is optimized for online selling with thousands of apps that you can use to add functionality to your store as needed. All of Shopify’s themes are also mobile-responsive and will automatically optimize for different devices and screen sizes

A list of their external payment providers in Kuwait

As can be seen from the picture above, they also work with many regional payment processors, including Tap Payments, which makes it easy to add local and regional payment methods.

Their support team is also very easily accessible since they’re available 24/7 via phone, email, live chat, and Twitter. You have a lot of documentation and user discussion forums for any additional help as well.

However, even though Shopify’s base monthly subscription fees range from $29– $299, for any advanced integrations within the app marketplace you’ll have to pay extra on top of the monthly fees. Even if you want to do things like cross-selling and up-selling, it costs extra. These charges can rack up very quickly and do make Shopify one of the costlier options.

Shopify hits all the SEO basics such as the option to manage and update meta tags, automatically generate a sitemap for your store, the ability to canonize URLs, and in general, has a smart architecture that makes navigation through any Shopify site simple. However, the URL structure can be a little too rigid and Shopify websites generally tend to be lower on the ranking.

Shopify is a better choice of an e-commerce platform for those new to e-commerce and doesn’t have any technical expertise. It’s also a better choice for those looking to dropship since it integrates with drop shipping companies such as Ordoro.

If you’re planning to sell on Amazon as well, Shopify is definitely the better option. As Amazon’s preferred migration partner, Shopify enjoys a lot of perks when it comes to selling on Amazon such as the ability to sell on Amazon from your Shopify store.

WooCommerce: For those who need greater design flexibility and is content-heavy

WooCommerce is a little different from Shopify, which you need to understand before you choose between the two. Shopify is a hosted platform whereas WooCommerce runs on Wordpress which is a self-hosted platform. But what does that mean?

Think of hosting as the real estate that your website lives on. So as a self-hosted platform, in WooCommerce the hosting, domain and the files are all yours. Unlike Shopify which is hosted so the platform deals with the hosting and the security.

This means that when you’re going with WooCommerce, you also need to purchase a hosting provider such as Bluehost, GoDaddy, and AWS. Moreover, as your store grows you’ll need to pay more for the hosting.

One of the benefits of going with a self-hosted e-commerce platform such as WooCommerce is the design flexibility that gives you. You can edit every part of the website if you want it to be more in line with your branding. There are also 1000s of FREE Wordpress themes that are compatible with WooCommerce which you can customize as needed.

However one of the biggest concerns with WooCommerce is that it runs on Wordpress since this is less secure. With Wordpress, you need to make sure to update to the latest release as soon as possible because with every update they fix bugs. If you don’t update it quickly enough, hackers could exploit these bugs.

Setting up an account on WooCommerce also does require a bit of technical expertise and some understanding of how Wordpress works. However, there are developers who can help you with that, if needed.

That being said, the fact that WooCommerce runs on Wordpress has its own benefits.

Since Wordpress is a content management system, it has a great blog and is optimized for SEO. It has a flexible URL structure, can generate an XML sitemap, has canonical URL tags, and meta descriptions. Although you may need plugins for things like meta-description which could cause security and load time issues, overall no other platform does the content layout and design as well as Wordpress.

Price-wise, WooCommerce works out as a cheaper solution since WooCommerce is a free Wordpress plugin and Wordpress is free too. You will, however, have to pay for hosting which can get pretty expensive (especially the bigger the store gets) and you’ll also need to get an SSL certificate for security and to make sure that you’re ranked high on Google.

Unlike Shopify however, you don’t have to pay for a lot of extensions, and the extensions you do need to pay for generally work out cheaper than Shopify.

WooCommerce does lag behind Shopify when it comes to speed and performance. It doesn’t even reach the average Google speed score on desktop or mobile so that could be a major con to consider.

Even though WooCommerce doesn’t have any regional payment processors as part of the payment gateway list, at Tap payments we have the Wordpress plugin that makes integration extremely simple and allows you to accept local payment methods on your online store.

When it comes to customer support, WooCommerce is lacking. There is chat support available but it is not 24/7 and there is no phone support if needed.

Essentially, WooCommerce is a better option for content-heavy websites that are looking to utilize the better blog features that Wordpress has. It is also a cheaper option and a more flexible option for those with a specific idea of their branding and how their website layout should be.

Magento: For those looking for greater customization and flexibility; for fast-growing businesses or larger enterprises

Magento is what many large brands such as Nike and Cisco run on. This is a self-hosted platform as well and is generally a better choice for businesses with a developer budget. They have a big community filled with developers who can work on the Magento platform, so finding a developer won’t be too difficult.

This is definitely not an option that is easy to use for beginners and does require a lot of technical knowledge, but developers find the Magento interface pretty easy to use.

Within Magento, there are two types of e-commerce platforms. You have the open-source product and the Magento Commerce which is basically a more advanced Shopify.

The open-source product is available for free and is more targeted for smaller businesses. As with WooCommerce, you’ll just need to pay for the hosting, the domain, and the SSL certificate. Magento Commerce, on the other hand, can get very expensive but it’s also extremely powerful. So If you have a rapidly growing business with good cash flow, this is the better option to go with.

Magento doesn’t have any themes but you can use their custom design tools to create your own theme. You can also find pre-built themes to customize on the Magento marketplace or at Theme Forest but there are only a few free ones.

The SEO capabilities within Magento are also extremely strong. SEO can be configured without the need for any external marketing tools. You can also enjoy many marketing benefits such as up-selling, email marketing platforms, giving out coupons, etc. However, these marketing features available in Magento Commerce are a lot more advanced such as built-in customer loyalty tools.

Both versions of Magento are optimized for mobile as well making sure that your websites look great on the smaller screens.

As with WooCommerce, no regional payment partners are included in Magento but at Tap payments, we do have a plugin developed for Magento which makes it easy to integrate to your website.

Possibly one of the biggest con with Magento is that if something does go wrong with your website, there is pretty much no way to get ahold of the support team. There are however a lot of resources on the website for both business and technical questions, along with an informational blog and a user forum.

Magento also has a built-in multilingual option that can help localize your store for the region. Arabic is a very prevalent language here so having the choice to view your website in Arabic is always a good feature to have. Shopify does have this feature but it’s through a paid app.

In short, Magento is for those who have some experience with coding or have the budget to hire a developer. It’s extremely customizable and flexible but has no support team to help with issues that arise. For larger businesses, Magento Commerce would be a very powerful platform to go with but it will get expensive.

At the end of the day, there are many e-commerce platforms that you can choose but the best e-commerce platform is the one that has all the features to help you reach your objectives, NOT the most popular one.

PS: There are also several local and regional e-commerce platforms that will be covered in more detail in a later post.