Planning your E-Commerce Website

Planning your E-Commerce Website

Whether theming an e-commerce website or doing a full-scale build, one of the most important parts in the whole process is the planning. Planning a build before you start can sometimes seem like a bit of a tedious and time-consuming task, but not only will it make everything run a lot smoother, it will also save a lot of time.

You may be wondering where you even begin, and that’s what this article will help you answer.

What Do You Want Your Site To Do?

Let’s start at the beginning. Since we are talking about an e-commerce site, I’m guessing that the aim is to sell something. We need to figure out ways to make it more compelling to buy that something.

Try to make it as easy as possible for the customer to buy your products. The well-known three-click rule applies here: You want your customer to get to what they are looking for in three or less clicks. Any more, and they may just give up. The user interface should be a primary subject to plan for.

Who’s Going to Buy From You?

Another important factor to take into account is your audience. This is something that you should consider researching properly; knowing who will want to buy your products is something that influences your design.

Do You Require Special Site Features?

Depending on what you are selling, you may need features that other e-commerce sites do not. For example, a clothing e-store may need a refined search so that the customer can filter a search by colour or brand. Alternatively, you may want to allow the customer to use coupon codes. You should plan what features and functions you think you need or want to add.

Do You Require Special Site Features?

What Are Your Limitations?

Everyone has limitations — work out what yours are when you are building your site. Do you have a budget for the build, and if so, how will this limit what you can do? What technical limitations do you have? Is there any part of the build that you won’t be able to do by yourself? How does the technology limit your build?

You can do nearly anything with enough hard work, but remember that not everything will be possible.

Do You Have All the Tools You Need?

It depends on how much of the build you are doing, but you will probably need graphic editing software (i.e. Photoshop, Fireworks), a web development application (i.e. Dreamweaver), e-commerce and online store management software (i.e. Magento, OSCommerce, etc.) and the obvious things like a domain name and web hosting.

What E-Commerce Platform Are You Going to Use?

Since we are talking about e-commerce, we should take into consideration what’s going to power our website. There are countless of e-commerce platforms out there, and one of your tasks is to find one that fits your needs.

Depending on your knowledge and what your needs are, there are a various number of options that you would be able to use. If you think that you have quite a comprehensive knowledge on the subject, then maybe you should consider going for an open source cart or even building a platform yourself. If not, then there are also hosted carts to take into account.

Let’s have a look at a few platform options from different categories.



Magento is probably one of the most popular open source carts in the e-commerce platform market and, in my opinion, is probably the best free cart out there (there are also enterprise and professional versions with a yearly cost that will provide additional support).

Magento has some awesome features including analytics integration, capability of wish lists, multiple images for products, advanced product filter search, advanced customer service, tonnes of payment methods, marketing/promotional tools and so much more.

Recently, Magento has also released the world’s first mobile commerce platform. This could be very interesting, even more so now that smartphones with huge screens (such as the iPhone) are all the rage.



Shopify is a very interesting hosted platform. Compared to something open source and self-hosted like Magento, it is extremely simple to set up, manage and update. You could have a site running within minutes if you wanted to.

But Shopify does have a slight lack of features (by intent — to keep things simple), its price is a monthly fee plus, on top of that, a commission for every sale, and a hosted platform means you have less control of your platform (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for people who just want things to work).

Content Management Systems With E-Commerce Addons

Another alternative that has recently arisen is that of WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla! shopping cart plugins, giving these content management systems e-store capabilities. There are a few, including eShop, Shopp, and WordPress MiniCart. This is great if you want a quick add-on for you existing site, but not perfect if you want a fully manageable e-commerce site.

Custom E-Commerce Site

An alternative to all this would be to go the DIY route and build your own platform. Of course, this will need a fair bit of web development knowledge and also a lot of time. But putting in all that work could be worthwhile if you have highly customized needs. Plus, if you build it yourself, you’ll be guaranteed full ownership of everything, including your code base.

Case Examples of E-Commerce Sites

Do a little bit of research into what other e-commerce sites are doing right and wrong. Try to learn and consider all your findings when you’re building your e-store.

Let’s have a look at some of e-commerce sites.



Amazon is the world’s largest online reseller, but what makes the site so brilliant? One of the main factors is the simplicity of the site: Even though it looks cluttered, it’s still easy to navigate and find what you are looking for. For example, think of any product you want to buy right now: You’ll probably find it or learn that it isn’t available on within three clicks.

Amazon also boasts about its customer service and if your customers are happy, then you’re doing a good job.

Other huge e-commerce sites you should look at are Zappos, Threadless, and ThinkGeek.

Google Product Search

Google Product Search

Google Product Search is not really an e-commerce site, but it’s worth looking at to illustrate an important concept about planning and building e-commerce websites: simplicity is important. And if we can think of one company that excels in this concept that best, it’s Google. Google has been known for its simplicity since the beginning and this remains the case when using its product search.

Google Product Search is also great for when you have your e-commerce site up and running as well: By uploading a list of your products to Google Product Search, you open a whole new portal to your online shop.

Another remarkably simple but successful e-commerce site to look at is Woot.

Shoe Guru

Shoe Guru

Now that we’ve had a look at the largest, let’s have a look at some smaller e-commerce sites. ShoeGuru is an amazingly simplistic site, and its design is perfect for displaying their clothing products. The design comprises of a nice graphical site that gets the message across.

Doorstep Dairy

Doorstep Dairy

Doorstep Dairy is a great example of a great-looking site that is both fun to use, yet still easy to purchase from.

Nation Toys

Nation Toys

Nation Toys is an excellent and colourful site that compliments the vibrant products they sell.

Crocs Store Romania

Crocs Store Romania

Crocs Store Romania is probably the best version of the Crocs site (for some reason they have designed the sites differently for each region).

Mock-up and Design

Once you’ve done your planning, what do you do next? Well, everyone works a different way, but you may want to make a mock-up or wireframe of what your site will look like. Some people like to go straight into Photoshop or other design software at this stage, but personally I like starting out with pencil and paper (very old fashioned, I know) because  it’s easier for me, but it may be different for you.

If you do decide to start out the old-fashioned way, try Paper Browser: You just print out the templates and draw on them, giving you a true perspective on paper.

Mock-up and Design

Related Content

About the Author

Kyle Prior is a young web developer for specializing in branding and front end design. Visit the website for surprisingly low priced HP ink cartridges. Follow Kyle on Twitter as @kyleprior.

This was published on Jun 24, 2010


John G Jun 24 2010

Thanks for the write up here. It seems I’ve been burned by almost every shopping cart/platform out there at one time or another.

Admittedly, it’s because I didn’t do my research up front, but that’s why articles like this are necessary.

People, spare yourself frustration and embarrassment in front of your client, do your research up front and pick the best suited option for the job.

mtrang Jun 24 2010

I’ve been looking for an article like this…however, my major question has still not been answered; What is the most common platform for ecommerce sites? Are people hard coding HTML and CSS for a site and then integrating Magento? Are people utilizing CMS systems like Drupal and installing an Ubercart module?

Not many freelance web designers around me here in the midwest so I’m always at a loss.

Otherwise, good article

Jordan Walker Jun 24 2010

Thanks for the interesting write up on eCommerce. Your perspective I am sure, is dead on.

davide Jun 24 2010

Hi mate could you please give me your opinion of the website linked above?
I need some tips and suggestion. I built it but didn’t design it.


Jae Xavier Jun 24 2010

if only first time ecommerce site owners knew….

wildanr05 Jun 24 2010

Last time i tried Magento on my localhost, it’s horribly slow.. Did they already make significant improvement in speed?

Hiren Modi Jun 24 2010

it’s wonderful article as i am in search of this type of article which will helpful me in my next project.


Farid Hadi Jun 25 2010

Nice little write up on planning e-commerce websites.

Ps. You have a little typo in “We need to figure out ways to make it more compelling to by that something.”

There are a lots to be learned about e-commerce and Magento. Besides planning for your online store, you will actually need to have some developers to develop things unique to your store like theme or custom plug ins and so on. I have seen people trying to use WordPress as an e-commerce platform and that’s not going to work properly. Magento will be a considerate choice in this case.

Drew Clarke Jun 25 2010

One platform worth considering is ekmpowershop pay-as-you-go £20 per month integrates with almost all payment processors and is easily customisable.

Love the Nation Toys site, looks awesome! :)

Señor Swinstead Jun 25 2010

When you open an online shop, just like when you open a bricks and mortar shop, the largest part of your time needs to be focused on defining your market position, and your brand message. Get that right and it really doesn’t matter whether users can filter results by a clothing brand or not.

You’ll need to give some thoughts to your information architecture which will help tremendously with your SEO when you come to do it

Cody Swann Jun 25 2010

Thanks for the quick start guide. Good tips.

Spree is another up and coming ecommerce solution. Have used it for a couple sites, and it’s pretty solid.

Ruhul Kuddus Sagor Jun 25 2010

wow!! great resource here. i appreciate it. Thanks for sharing.

Jen Walter Jun 25 2010

@ wildanr05 –
Magento’s speed will be affected by what type of hosting server you’re on. If you’re on a dedicated server you’ll see a dramatic jump in speed vs. a shared set up.

Tektoniq Jun 25 2010

For people just starting to get involved with e-commerce, I would suggest going with a hosted solution like Volusion or Network Solutions. Concentrate your coding and design on the client’s brand rather than having to worry about making sure the backend is working. Trust me, you’ll have plenty to worry about just trying to get various options initiated like a merchant account, real time shipping rates, etc.

I’ve used both vendors mentioned above and generally speaking, have found Volusion to have more features yet is less design friendly in that it requires hooks/hacks into product fields to get the design your want, whereas you have greater control over the design using HTML/CSS with Network Solutions at the sacrifice of less features (but that gap is closing). Also for beginners, Network Solutions seems to have a much more active and willingly helpful user community on the forums than Volusion.

Philip Meissner Jun 27 2010

Thanks for mentioning Doorstep Dairy. If anyone is interested, I built it using LemonStand I would highly recommend it as a non-hosted solution — easy to theme, flexible and powerful.

krike Jun 28 2010

I’m building my own e-commerce website using a framework so thanks for this article. It gave me a few good tips.

PremiumThemeClub Jun 28 2010

For those ppl who wants to have e-commerce theme with WordPress > is the best resources.

Chris Jun 30 2010

Great article. It’s an awesome primer on how to get started thinking about your ecommerce site or any online store.

I wrote a little something about it on my blog. Thanks!

admin Jul 01 2010

don’t forget redshop for Joomla. It’s already over taken Virtuemart, and by next year will probably take over ecommerce software like Magento for small and medium sized shops (not that small shops need magento).

Nottingham Jul 10 2010

Great list, @admin thanks for the heads up on redshop I find Virtuemart slightly flimsy

vainfotech Sep 14 2010

It is very useful information

Robin Leach Sep 30 2010

Awesome article. I gotta say, love the website

Thanks your great article

akeanant Nov 29 2010

great resource .Thanks for sharing.

Molly Sylestine Jan 20 2011

Thanks for an extremely informative post. Choosing the right ecommerce platform can make or break a site. I feel that should be the first decision a business owner makes.

Open source platforms are great but they have drawbacks when it comes to support and security. I recommend choosing a hosted solution that is fully PCI compliant (secure) and offers 24/7 support. On top of that (further to your point on features), choose a solution that is feature-rich and scalable so that it can grow with your company.

Follow me on Twitter for more ecommerce tips @VolusionMolly.

To think, I was confused a mntuie ago.

Casey Strouse Jul 05 2011

Thanks for the paper browser link. I’ll definitely be using this when I sit down with clients to hash out major design themes. I think a notepad of these sheets paired with a set of Prismacolor markers will do the trick well.

Pulseuniform Jul 12 2011

Never thought that e-commerce websites would look so great like you have mentioned above. I specifically love the design of nation toys; cute and cuddly, eh. Thanks for sharing this great stuff.

NationsToys = Awesome! :)

florarie Oct 26 2011

The real hard job of any e-commerce site is to make SEO for every specific page. It’s time and money consuming.

Andrew Newey Aug 30 2012

Your comparisons of different e-Commerce sites was helpful. Thanks for the sharing :)

This comment section is closed. Please contact us if you have important new information about this post.