The best free ecommerce website builders for small businesses
Can you really create an online shop for free? We take a look at the 'free' ecommerce options available for thrifty entrepreneurs
Is there truly such a thing as a free ecommerce website builder?
Even if they offer a free trial, most of the best ecommerce website builders require you to sign up for a premium plan before you can actually start selling products or services.
That’s why, if you want to make full use of your online shop’s sales functionality from the start, we’d recommend choosing a premium plan with a top ecommerce platform like Wix, Squarespace, or Shopify straight away.
However, you might be running a fledgling business, low on capital, but keen to prove your concept. Or perhaps you want to create a website as that first important step towards making your dream a reality.
If so, this is the article for you. Based on extensive user testing and in-depth research, we’ll guide you through three types of free ecommerce website builders which you can use to create your first online shop. These include:
- Free platforms, with which you can build a fully functional online shop at no extra cost
- Ecommerce builders with a limited free trial period
- Free, open-source ecommerce software
If you like the sound of a particular ecommerce platform, and you’re ready to build your online shop, simply click on the links to visit the supplier pages.
The best free ecommerce website builders
The following ecommerce platforms all allow you to build an online shop at no extra cost. Square Online and Big Cartel actually allow you to start selling without selling for a premium plan. Weebly offers a completely free plan, but you'll have to upgrade to one of its paid plans if you want to start selling.
Square Online: Best for ease of use
If you’re looking for a simple, cost-effective free ecommerce platform, you couldn’t do much better than the Square Online solution.
With the Square Online builder, you can build an ecommerce site and start selling without signing up for a paid plan. There are no limits on the number of products you can sell, but you will incur a 2.5% transaction fee on every sale made (a little higher than most competitors).
Of course, there are limitations to the free plan, but it’s not all bad – you get access to automatic inventory, integration with Instagram and Pinterest, online shopping cart functionality, and order and item sync with Square POS. Generally, we’d say your online store will work best in conjunction with other Square features.
The Square Online platform doesn’t offer much in the way of design flexibility, and your storefront will be fairly simplistic. That said, the builder did earn the highest ease of use score of all the ecommerce platforms reviewed by our testers, and it does offer a range of ecommerce website templates specifically designed for online selling.
Once you move onto a premium plan, you gain access to a fairly comprehensive range of features, with the invoice creator add-on, abandoned cart emails, and revenue tracking deserving special mention.
However, when you stack Square Online up against an affordable ecommerce platform like Wix – which offers top quality sales features and design flexibility – it doesn’t compare that favourably, offering limited ability to scale and poor help and support.
Square Online pricing
Weebly: Best value online shop builder
With Weebly, our fourth best ecommerce platform for small businesses, you can create an online store using its free plan, but can’t start selling products unless you sign up for a premium plan.
The advantage of a free plan over a free trial is that you have as long as you want to create your online store and see if Weebly is the right fit for your business. It’s fairly easy to use, too, with a range of 15 professional-looking ecommerce templates, and a host of beginner-friendly SEO tools you can use to optimise your website.
However, creating the site really is all you can do without a premium plan, and your free site will display Weebly ads and have a Weebly domain. You’ll likely tire of these restrictions quite quickly, which is why we’d recommend choosing a paid plan straight away.
If you do upgrade, know that our testers ranked Weebly as the joint first best value online shop builder, with the cheapest ecommerce plan of our six top online shop builders (£9/month). It also scored highly for its non-commerce website features, but finished bottom for those all important sales-specific features.
Big Cartel: Best for selling for free
Big Cartel’s offering is targeted specifically at small creative brands and businesses selling products like t-shirts, art, clothing, merchandise, prints, and jewellery. If you’re a service business, or you sell goods at a higher price point, it probably isn’t the platform for you. Otherwise, read on!
On the free plan, you’re able to list and sell up to five different products. To clarify, you can sell an unlimited number of those five products, not just five products full stop. And, unlike with Square Online, there’s no transaction fee. You can also sell digital products, but you’ll need to add on additional functionality from a third party provider.
The free version also grants you more useful features than would usually be available without a premium plan, including customisable themes, stats, discounts and promotions, and shipping tracking.
However, you’ll need to use the sub.domain ‘.bigcartel’ on your free Big Cartel online store – which doesn’t look very professional – and that five product limit is nowhere near generous enough for serious online sellers. If you do choose to upgrade, commerce plans start from a very reasonable £7.95/month.
Big Cartel pricing
The best ecommerce website builders with a free trial
The following ecommerce platforms are only free for the duration of their free trials, and none of them allow you to sell until you upgrade to a paid plan.
Having said that, during the trial period, you'll be able to build your online store and get a feel for whether the ecommerce platform you’ve chosen is worth the monthly investment.
Wix eCommerce: 14-day free trial
But what can you actually do in those two weeks? Well, you can build a great online store using Wix’s intuitive drag-and-drop website builder, and you can give a decent portion of its quality features a test run.
It might not have the same depth of sales features as ecommerce-specific builders like Shopify and BigCommerce, but the Wix App Market provides all the functionality most small to medium online sellers could ever need (though you’ll have to pay more for third party apps).
We should also mention that, as of June 2020, Wix has improved its ecommerce offering even more. Ascend by Wix is a brand new CRM and marketing suite that helps you drive sales and boost loyalty all from one central hub. Elsewhere, you can design and launch data applications using Corvid, a comprehensive web development platform. And that's not all: Wix has also improved everything from its order fulfilment and management to its templates and payments solutions.
There are a few downsides: you can’t change templates once your store is live, and there’s currently no option to integrate with other sales channels.
But if you’re looking for a great all-round ecommerce platform that’s easy to use, Wix is for you. We bet you’ll want to skip the free trial and move straight onto the main event!
Wix eCommerce pricing
Squarespace: 14-day free trial
Squarespace is another non-ecommerce-specific website builder with a 14-day free trial, and another one of our top ecommerce platforms for small businesses. However, it distinguishes itself with a laser focus on design.
To get started, you can choose from a selection of the best-looking ecommerce templates on the market, which our testers described as “sleek, stylish, and modern”. Then, thanks to Squarespace’s almost unlimited design flexibility, you can customise your shopfront to your heart’s content.
Squarespace’s free trial doesn’t require any credit card information to sign up. Once the trial is over, you just need to upgrade to a paid plan. If you don’t, your online store will still be there – you just won’t have access until you go premium. You can even extend your trial by seven days if you feel you need more time to decide.
And you can use nearly all of Sqaurespace’s premium features during the free trial, so you can really get a feel for how the platform works before you sign up.
But what are those features like? Well, Squarespace offers a solid, if limited, range of tools and sales features.
You can sell unlimited products and services, which can be managed with a drag-and-drop sorting tool, and managed from the inventory space. There’s a handy Checkout Style Editor, and you can set up custom emails to be sent to customers when they take a particular action.
However, Squarespace only supports a limited number of payment options, and doesn’t allow you to sell in multiple currencies. It also offers very little in the way of accounting functionality.
Nevertheless, look no further than Squarespace if you want a beautiful, professional-looking online store.
Squarespace ecommerce pricing
Shopify: 14-day free trial
Shopify has been built from the ground up to help you find customers, drive sales, and manage the day-to-day admin of running a busy, growing online store.
You don’t need credit card details to sign up for Shopify’s 14-day free trial, which begins the moment your account is active, not when you start building your store. Your account will be frozen at the end of the trial, unless you’ve selected a premium plan.
During the free trial, you can sample nearly all of the features offered by whichever pricing plan you choose other than taking payments – and those features are top of the range.
As an ecommerce platform first and foremost, Shopify’s sales features are second to none. You have the freedom to sell as many (and as many types of) products as you want, and it’s easy to manage in the backend, with excellent stock management, monitoring, and analytics tools.
You can integrate with a multitude of sales channels, giving you the ability to sell on everything from Facebook to Pinterest, and Shopify supports more payment options than you could ever need.
Shopify’s accounting offering is also top of the range, with automatic tax calculation and invoice generation. The only areas our testers marked it down for were its SEO support and marketing tools, which are both limited.
BigCommerce: 15-day trial
Bucking the two-week trend with an unusual 15-day free trial is BigCommerce, the ecommerce platform for online shops that are serious about scaling.
The great thing about BigCommerce is that, even though its plans are more expensive than most of its rivals, all its features are included in that cost, so there’s no need to rely on third party apps.
BigCommerce is a great option for online shops with big and/or global ambitions. It offers more in-house features than any other builder, as well as unparalleled support for businesses that want to grow internationally, including the ability to sell in multiple currencies at one time, and support for 12 languages.
However, if you’re looking for an easy way to start your online shop, this isn’t it. The editing interface can be very challenging to use, and, for non-tech literate customers, it uses quite unfamiliar terminology.
Also, the design control is quite restrictive, leaving you to rely on the templates, features, and functionality offered by BigCommerce, rather than really making it your own. And it’s the only builder not to have a mobile app, so you can’t edit/sell on the go.
NB: For a limited time only, you can get BigCommerce free for three months once your trial ends.
GoDaddy: 30-day free trial
At 30 days, GoDaddy offers the daddy of free trials. And there’s no credit card needed to sign up. That’s a month to test your online store with no-obligation at the end.
We ranked GoDaddy sixth in our list of the top ecommerce platforms for small businesses, but as the number one easiest to use, thanks to an accessible editor, and an Artificial Design Intelligence (ADI) system that does a lot of the hard work for you. All you need to do is answer some questions about layout, text, and proposed images.
On average, our research participants only spent 75% of the allocated hour creating their GoDaddy online store, while often exceeding the hour with other builders.
That very helpful ADI function does, however, come at the cost of creative control, and some users may find the design tools very restrictive. Also, GoDaddy lacks the depth and quality of features offered by its rivals, and fails to provide some of the sales specific features you’d expect from an ecommerce platform, like digital product sales.
With just one ecommerce plan at £19.99/month, it’s not the cheapest builder, but it’s pretty reasonable and very transparent – everything you need is included in the cost.
That goes for its excellent SEO and marketing, neat templates, and analytics tools. If you need to get your online store up in a flash, there’s no faster product to use than GoDaddy.
The best free ecommerce software
Ecommerce software operates as an open-source platform that you can install for free.
Open-source software is computer software released under a licence that gives anyone access to the source code, and allows them to use, change, or distribute it for any purpose.
This means it’s only suitable if you’re planning to self-host your website, by which we mean pay for hosting services separately.
This means that, while the software is free, there’ll be additional ongoing costs.
Unlike with the above platforms, we haven’t conducted thorough user testing on the following ecommerce software providers, but we’ve done in-depth research and selected three of the best.
Let’s get one thing straight: Magento is not for beginners. It’s a formidable product, offering unrivalled scalability, customizability, and capability for online stores with grand ambitions.
Used by big name retailers like Nike and Samsung, Magento is an extremely advanced ecommerce platform with the capacity to handle thousands of transactions a minute. It incorporates a next-level drag-and-drop page builder, business intelligence services, multiple sales and advertising channels, and countless third party integrations.
With Magento, you can create the online store you’ve always dreamed of – but if you don’t have any development skills, or you haven’t hired a developer, those dreams will be hard to achieve.
It all comes down to how much you’re willing to invest in your online store. It might be free to download, but you’re going to end up spending a lot on hosting and development. HostGator actually has a Magento-specific plan.
WooCommerce is a fully customisable, open-source ecommerce platform built specifically as a WordPress plugin. This means that you’ll first need to create a WordPress website, and then add WooCommerce to it.
In comparison to the sprawling complexity of Magento, this makes it a good option for smaller ecommerce operations.
It only takes a few minutes to set up, and instantly gives your site essential ecommerce features, including secure payments, order management and shipping, and marketing. If you need additional functionality, the WooCommerce marketplace grants you access to hundreds of free and paid extensions.
WooCommerce doesn’t require the skills of a developer, but if you do have more bespoke needs, the software is fully open to edit and extend – virtually any service can be integrated with your online store.
OpenCart is a free open-source ecommerce platform for businesses, offering everything you need to start an online store.
A great option for medium-sized ecommerce businesses, OpenCart has great scope for customisation, and thousands of integrations available. The software itself doesn’t offer many proprietary features, so you will have to rely on those integrations (which you have to pay for).
OpenCart isn’t as straightforward as some of the other open source platforms. You’ll most likely need to hire a developer, or have some development experience yourself, in order to make the most of the software.
That said, the running costs are lower than many other platforms, and you won’t have the hassle of having to deal with unnecessary features.
Is a free ecommerce site enough for small businesses to succeed?
When it comes to ecommerce, that old adage ‘you’ve got to spend money to make money’ holds true.
For a start, with most of the ‘free’ ecommerce website builders listed above, you won’t even be able to start taking payments until you upgrade to a paid plan. As you can see, many of the premium plans on offer are very affordable, with the option to scale up to a more expensive one if necessary.
But it’s not just the facility to take payments that makes upgrading to a paid plan worth it. Often, essential ecommerce functions like store management, and the marketing and SEO features you need to actually get visitors to your site, are only available with paid plans.
How to make an ecommerce website for free
With most ecommerce website builders, you can design and create your online store without spending a penny. But if you want to take payments, you’ll have to upgrade to a premium plan.
Is Magento free for ecommerce?
Yes, it is free to download. However, you’ll probably have to hire a developer to actually build your online store if you want to make the most of all that Magento has to offer.
Is Wix eCommerce free?
Wix eCommerce is only free to use for 14 days, after which you’ll have to either upgrade to a paid account or abandon your lovingly created online store.
What is the best free ecommerce website builder?
We’d recommend using the easy-to-use and full-featured Wix eCommerce for your online store. It has a 14-day free trial, during which you can design and build your online store. At the end of the trial, you just need to upgrade to one of Wix’s very reasonably priced ecommerce plans to start taking payments and making your online store a success.
However, there’s only one ecommerce website builder you can use if you want to actually build a store and sell products for free, and that’s Big Cartel.