Gearing up for an eCommerce launch is no small task. While there are countless major decisions to be made, few are as important as the ecommerce platform you choose.
In this article I’ll offer my personal insight and review of the Shopify platform.
Choosing Shopify wasn’t an easy decision. While there are more than one hundred eCommerce platforms to choose from, ranging from standalone (like Shopify and BigCommerce) to integrations with existing sites (think Woocommerce or eCommerce add-ons for Wix).
In this Shopify review I’ll take you through the pros and cons as well as the elements that stood out most to me when choosing the platform.
I’ll also dig into other elements I discovered once I got into the backend of the system, like the setup and ease-of-use.
What is Shopify?
Shopify is what’s known as a hosted eCommerce platform providing everything a business owner needs to setup, launch, and manage an online store – the only thing you need to supply is the product and the content.
The multi-channel service launched in 2004 and has grown to host over 500,000 businesses across 175 countries.
According to a 2017 release, the platform has grown annually at an average rate of 74% generating more than $40 billion in sales among its merchants.
The Pros of Shopify:
Part of that growth (and a few of the reasons I was originally attracted to Shopify) can be attributed to the core benefits of the platform:
- Easy to Use: The platform is often advertised and touted as being easy to use and manage, with a streamlined central dashboard letting you reach and manage your entire store in just a few clicks.
- Has beautiful, professional themes: Even the best products will struggle to move into an ugly store. Shopify is well known for having a large volume of mobile-responsive themes and designs catering to specific industries. Premium themes are available for purchase as well as a selection of free themes. All are professionally designed and built to maximize conversions.
- Super Scalable: You want to ensure the platform you choose will grow with your business so you never have to worry about migrating to another provider.Shopify offers scalable pricing and features to match growth with businesses of any size from startup to enterprises.It’s a comprehensive eCommerce solution that is future-proofed thanks to extensive development, support, and 3rd party integration to expand feature sets.
- Fast & Secure: As a hosted solution, all the server security is covered by Shopify. Your files and customer data are secure on servers designed to handle even massive influxes of customers, so your store loads fast even on mobile devices.
- Has amazing customer service: Having worked with other platforms I know it’s frustrating to have a problem after hours and not be able to reach anyone.eCommerce operates 24/7 so you need a solution that offers the same level of support. Shopify’s support team is available around the clock.
- Affordable: Aside from the affordable monthly price (with two very low-cost plans to get new retailers started) Shopify also offers competitive, low per-transaction costs – lower than many other platforms and payment processors.There’s even a built-in payment gateway (Braintree) making it easy to setup and start processing payments as soon as your store goes live.
The Cons of Shopify:
Of course, there were some cons to take into account before ultimately settling on Shopify:
- Limitations in customization; Shopify uses a custom language rather than giving access to editing the PHP like some other eCommerce platforms
- Content marketing isn’t the best – things like the abandoned cart emails and the blogging functionality are fairly limited compared to a platform like Woocommerce that’s built around content management
- Exporting isn’t as simple as it should be – Shopify kind of locks you in so if you ever wanted to move to another platform there will be some legwork in migration.
- Shopify restricts apps in its marketplace so there are far fewer to choose from compared to other platforms. The benefit to this is that the approved apps are high quality, regularly updated, and offer the best functional add-ons to Shopify’s native platform
- Skewed heavily toward the U.S. and UK markets; the platform doesn’t offer multi-language support so global storefronts are a problem. The company has only just added six new languages in 2018 but they’re still in beta testing.
That’s just a short list of the pros and cons of using Shopify. Let’s get into the key areas most relevant to business owners, and what I weighed most heavily both during selection and as I setup my initial storefront with Shopify.
Ease of setup
Unless you’re extremely tech savvy you want to choose an eCommerce platform that offers the easiest route to getting set up.
While I’ve got experience with design and site customization, the last thing I want to spend my time on is customizing a website. You can lose countless hours in CSS and PHP.
One of the most attractive benefits of Shopify is the easy to use interface; there’s no coding experience needed to develop a custom, unique Shopify store.
Shopify provides a variety of options, so you can make the adjustments and pick what works best for you, fill in some blanks, and your custom store is ready.
Like anything there’s still a bit of a learning curve but the intuitive interface of Shopify makes everything readily accessible and easy to find.
In just a few steps you can get your store online and functional. Shopify offers an initial 14-day trial that requires no credit card to get started.
Just enter your personal information, name your store, and you’ll immediately launch into the Shopify dashboard in just minutes.
From this dashboard you can navigate easily to each segment of your store.
The Home section provides an overview of what’s going on with your business. The main dashboard, also your home screen, provides a snapshot of sales, orders, sales breakdown, and prompts to get your store moving.
The order menu takes you directly to your order management page where you can track, view, and manage all orders made by customers.
You can even draft new orders manually and get details on abandoned checkouts.
Every eCommerce store needs products, and the products menu makes it easy to either manually add and configure products or import your existing product inventory, enable inventory tracking, and organize all your categories and collections.
You can track the details of customers who place orders using the customer menu.
Shopify offers a basic CRM as part of its platform so not only can you import customers you can manage all the granula customer details from this segment and view their purchase history.
The most successful eCommerce brands make data-driven decisions. Shopify’s built-in analytics provide a wealth of reports you can leverage to grow your business. This includes:
- Store conversions
- Average order values
- Returning customer rates
- Top performing products
- Top referral sources
- Sales and acquisition reports
- Behavior reports
- Extensive customer reports
There’s even marketing and finance reports to help you make the right campaign decisions offering the most impact to you bottom line and return on your investment.
This is the meat of your eCommerce store where you can customize and make your online store your own.
The Online Store menu lets you make adjustments to the look and feel of your store with just a few clicks – no code or design skills are necessary.
This includes editing pages, adding blogs, navigation, and overall theme customization.
Expanding on Shopify Customization
Customization is a major part of setting up any online store – after all you want a store that represents your brand, personality, message, and provides a pleasant visual experience.
Most of all, you want a simple design and customization experience. Shopify’s approach to theme customization isn’t exactly revolutionary.
If you look at many eCommerce platforms, including those that are integrations as opposed to standalone platforms, many offer a simplified click-to-design approach.
When looking for an eCommerce platform I needed three levels of customization:
1. The platform needs to look fresh, clean, and functional out of the box. There shouldn’t be extensive customization needed in order to make it look attractive to the average customer.
Shopify, Woocommerce, BigCommerce and countless other platforms meet this basic requirement so it’s necessary to narrow it down some more.
2. The platform should be easy to customize and improve without a design background or the hiring of an expert designer. A lot of platforms offer some level of built-in themes as part of their selling points, but many of them are extremely basic with little wow factor.
Shopify, however, has over 170 custom (professionally designed) themes that are as attractive as they are easy to customize.
3. The platform should offer deeper customization when it’s needed, but not required.
This is where so many platforms and integrations fall short as they limit access to what you can change and modify, or their file structure is so complex it’s difficult for most people to learn and navigate making it a time-consuming process.
Shopify makes further design customization a breeze if you want deeper control.
For most startups and new online stores, the basic customization and expansive library of professional themes is more than enough to get started.
But, know that your store can be highly customized to match your brand and preferences as you scale your business.
That’s why brands like Red Bull, Kylie Cosmetics and MVMT Watches operate via the Shopify platform.
A visually appealing store is only the first step – you’ll have to load products at some point.
After using Woocommerce, Wix, Volusion, and BigCommerce I can say that I found Shopify’s approach to adding products to be the most streamlined and straight-forward approach to date.
If you’ve ever put up a blog post in WordPress or filled out a form online then you’ve got insight into adding products in Shopify.
Adding a product can be done in a matter of clicks; add your title, description, images, assign a collection, set prices, configure inventory and shipping, and you’re all set.
You can quickly add variants to any product and even configure basic SEO settings per product.
If you have a lot of inventory the process to manually add products can be tedious. Shopify offers simple product imports vis a CSV file, so you can batch upload all your products.
They even provide a template including sample products to help you populate the necessary fields.
Once your products are loaded Shopify provides all the tools you need to manage your inventory (including inventory tracking to stay on top of low inventory counts)
As well as a central dashboard to manage inventory transfers if you deal with incoming inventory from suppliers (outside of making and selling your own products).
The other platforms I mentioned each offer manual product entry and some, like BigCommerce also offer batch product imports.
In my experience, from an easy-of-use perspective, Shopify was the simplest in terms of click-to-completion.
Scalability with Shopify
Anyone can launch a basic Shopify store and choose from one of several plans offering different features based on business needs.
This is helpful for startups with low traffic and a small volume of orders in the early days.
As your business grows alongside your customer base, reach, and order volume it’s incredibly easy to switch plans since there’s no contract or lock-in to any of the plans.
As you upgrade your plan the features available scale with your business, including:
- Additional staff accounts so your growing team can access and help with marketing, order management, customer service and more
- Reduced costs per transaction
- Added promotional features like gift cards
- Improved customer retention tools like abandoned cart recovery
- Professional and advanced reporting and more
If your online store explodes in volume, which is the dream of any online retailer, Shopify has an additional plan to offer maximum scalability.
The Shopify Plus plan is an enterprise-grade solution for high volume merchants and large businesses.
Not only will Shopify Plus give you unmatched scalability it also offers the kind of customization retailers often seek out through open source platforms like Magento.
The scalability comes from a platform Shopify has designed for speed, reliability, and demand generation. Just a few of the perks of Shopify plus include:
- Over 10k peak orders per minute
- Guaranteed 99.98% uptime
- Unlimited bandwidth and unlimited transactions (many other platforms limit transaction volume)
- Level 1 PCI DSS compliant for enhanced checkout and security
- Integration with ERPs and CRMs along with full front-end code control (the basic Shopify plans offer limited code customization)
In reviewing other platforms I’ve yet to see scalability at this level without the need for extensive development skillsets or developers on-hand (such as with Magento).
Many platforms, like Woocommerce, simply don’t scale to the enterprise level and are geared more toward startups and mid-sized businesses.
Shopify Vs Magento Comparison:
Shopify and Magento are two of the most popular eCommerce platforms currently available and while they both allow for the creation of an online store they’re very different systems.
The greatest difference between Magento and Shopify is in the code; Shopify uses a coding system called Liquid and is a proprietary platform so there are some limitations on the customization that can take place.
Magento on the other hand is PHP-based and open source which does offer more expansive options and far fewer limitations with customizations.
That gives Magento fairly unlimited scalability and brands can create virtually any kind of store functionality down to building completely unique extensions.
The downside to that open source platform is you’ll either need to have a developer on hand for Magento or some serious skill in PHP customization to make Magento do what you want.
a. Product entry
Overall if you stack Magento against Shopify, Shopify is well known for its ease of use in setup, configuration, product configuration and order management.
That’s why so many non-developers choose Shopify over more open-source platforms like Magento and Woocommerce – it’s the faster setup and simplest approach to store customization without being too limiting.
Magento does allow for the same kind of simplified product entry and configurable products… once you have the platform configured, setup, and designed.
With Shopify you can have your store online in less than an hour including the design, customization, and live products. That’s just not possible with Magento.
b. Integration with 3rd Party Systems and Tools
Integration is one of the areas where Magento often captures the attention of online retailers. It’s a robust tool with thousands of add-on extensions (both paid/premium and free).
Compared to a few hundred core apps and add-ons with Shopify and it’s easy to see where Magento can take the lead.
What sets Shopify apart with its marketplace is that Magento is open source – meaning virtually anyone can create extensions for Magento with no guarantee of quality and functionality (or how long they’ll be supported).
Magento extensions also tend to provide very specific functionality which can lead to a bloated extension library.
That can be a nightmare for store owners who want to move to a different platform later but find those Magento extensions don’t transfer.
You’ll either lose that functionality or you could wind up with a costly developer trying to replicate lost functionality.
Shopify apps, on the other hand, are carefully reviewed and vetted to ensure only the best apps are available on the marketplace.
Because Shopify is a leader in eCommerce, 3rd party developers who create apps almost always ensure compatibility with Shopify first.
This gives you the best selection of the most innovative and up-to-date tools to expand the functionality of your online store.
And the list of quality add-ons is ever growing, including services to amplify your store such as:
- Marketing and promotions
- Sales tools
- Social media and social proof integration
- Shipping and fulfillment apps
- Better inventory control
- Accounting and reporting
- Customer service and customer relationship management platform integration
- Payment processing
While integration may not seem like a make-it-or-break-it decision point for a new business owner, you’ll want the most reliable and best-performing apps as you scale up your business.
The native functionality of Shopify is stellar, but I found a variety of tools that allowed me to add functions specific to my business that improved efficiency and allowed me to change Shopify to fit my business model rather than adjusting my business model to fit the platform.
c. Pricing Comparison
The standard Shopify plans, where most startups and small businesses will begin, are all designed to offer the largest selection of native functionality at an affordable price.
Compare that to pricing for Magento and you quickly see the difference in affordability and how Shopify is geared to support startups and growing small businesses.
While Bigcommerce offers competitive pricing there are other limitations, such as revenue caps – the standard Bigcommmerce plan caps at $50k per year and the plus (most popular) plan caps at just $150k per year in revenue.
Other Differences between Shopify and Magento
If you’re trying to determine whether to launch your store with Shopify or Magento and the pricing alone hasn’t swayed you in either direction then consider these points:
- You will need a Magento developer on hand or be willing to invest a lot of time learning how to use the platform – especially if you want to customize it.
- You get zero support from Magento unless you’re willing to spend the $25k annually for Enterprise support (all Shopify plans come with 24/7 support).
- You can deploy a Shopify store for less than $1k compared to $25k+ for Magento along with custom development costs.
- Shopify is favored by developers for the extensive and detailed API documentation – a must for those who need additional integrations.
- Shopify is a hosted solution; Magento will require server investments including the monthly cost as well as having a developer/company customize the infrastructure for your server.
- Since Magento is non-hosted and open source you have more control over SEO but again, you’ll need a developer to customize the platform and there are endless extensions to choose from. Shopify offers native SEO functionality along with vetted, proven SEO apps in the marketplace from trusted brands.
Wrapping Up – Make Shopify Your Platform of Choice
In the time I’ve used Shopify for eCommerce it has quickly become my favorite compared to other platforms I’ve used including Prestashop, Magento and Woocommerce.
As a startup breaking into online retail it offers the easiest approach to getting started and getting products launched, simple order handling and shipping, easy customization, affordable entry into online selling, and a multitude of native features that will help you promote and sell your products.
The addition of quality, trusted apps give any business (from startup stores to exist SMB retailers) the extra features you need to achieve goals without significant expense.
So, even with the investment of beefing up the platform and marketing costs you still have a healthy margin for the products you sell.
Most importantly, Shopify offers the fastest, simplest entry in getting a store online. Creating a new store can be done in minutes, and the customization and product upload can take less than an hour.
If you want to get a store online fast, with minimal investment other than time, then Shopify is the best eCommerce platform to do just that.