If you're on an online retailer that wants an e-commerce platform that is low cost, packed full of features, hassle free and ultimately will increase sales, Shopify is for you.

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Shopify is an incredible platform for building an online retail business. We've been building websites for several years - completing over a 100 projects along the way - and Shopify is one of the best platforms we've come across.

It may be different to what you've used in the past because it's a hosted solution, which means that Shopify host your shop on their servers and you don't get access to the back-end code on their servers. For most retailers that's not a big deal, as you can still massively customise your shop via configuration, 'apps' or by customising your theme.

This article discusses the main benefits and drawbacks of Shopify, as well as some background. There's also a comparison with some of the main competition. You can jump to a section of interest or read the whole thing:

A quick disclaimer - we use Shopify for many of our projects and are major fans, but it isn't the only platform we use and this review is impartial. One of my goals when writing this article was to help our clients when deciding which e-commerce platform to use. 

Background

Shopify was founded in 2004 by Tobias L√ľtke, Daniel Weinand and Scott Lake. They wanted to make an online shop to sell snowboards, but they struggled to find an e-commerce platform that lived up to their expectations. Most of them back then were pretty bad - in fact, many still are. If your current online shop is difficult to use, looks lacklustre and unappealing or requires a lot of time or money to update, you'll know the feeling. Tobias says:

The Shopify software is now exactly what I had hoped to find for myself in 2004. It continues to develop and improve all the time, making it better than I could have ever imagined. What used to take months in 2004, can now be done in about 20 minutes on Shopify.

Tobias built the first version of the Shopify platform and this soon became the focus of the Snowboard business.

Shopify as a company has been featured in The Wall Street Journal online, The New York Times blog and multiple times in TechCrunch and Mashable.

Who is it for?

Shopify aims to make it quick and easy to set up an online retail business. In fact, Tobias summed this up in an interview as aiming to...

Make websites that make more money than they cost

Sounds good to us.

We've found that Shopify is mainly aimed at startups and growing businesses, but Shopify also works with bigger retailers that are doing millions in revenue per month.

To us, the main selling points are:

  • It's easy to use.
  • The stores look great and follow best-practice e-commerce design patterns.
  • The feature list is good, and long.
  • Despite being hosted (which means no code or server problems) it's still heavily customisable.
  • It's very affordable.

But let's have a look at the features in more detail.

Features

So why do we rate Shopifys so highly? Here's an overview of Shopify's main features.

Theme customisation

'Themes' are Shopify's templates - they define how your shop looks to visitors.  Shopify provides you with a few default themes when you signup - these can be customised by adding your logo, changing colours and choosing fonts.  

You can make more comprehensive changes to the templates if you understand CSS, HTML and Liquid (a Shopify proprietary language for creating themes for their platform).  This allows you to completely transform the theme, creating a custom look-and-feel that is unique to your brand.   

If you don't have these skills, the best thing to do is employ a web agency or contractor to customise your store for you. Or even if you can do it yourself, sometimes it's still worth hiring someone to do it, so you can focus your time on other aspects of your business.

Theme store

If you don't want to get your hands dirty, one of the benefits of Shopify is that you can also purchase a premium theme from their theme store.

Many of these themes are responsive, something that is becoming increasingly important as shopping on phones and tablets becomes the norm.

The designs are very high quality and you can quite easily make them look distinct by adding your logo and making a few small changes.

Once you've bought a theme, there are no restrictions on customising it, so you can alter it until it completely relflects your brand.

Marketing ready

Finding your site via Google, Bing and other search engines is taken care of, as the underlying Shopify code is already SEO optimised and you can independantly edit pages and meta data.  That's not to say you'll get to the top of search results pages straight away, for that a little more effort is required

Out of the box, Shopify comes with some great marketing features, such as the ability to create coupon codes (which are crucial in most e-commerce marketing strategies) and cart recovery emails (see below). 

There are also a variety of marketing apps for creating loyalty schemes and other powerful promotional tools.  You can integrate directly with Mailchimp so building your newsletter subscribers becomes a breeze.

Cart recovery emails

Recently, Shopify began offering cart recovery emails. These are automatic emails sent when a customer begins checkout but then stops before completion. Since the cause of this is often nothing more than that the customer has become distracted in some way, a reminder email can convert very well, in fact they convert on average 3x more than normal marketing emails.

This is quickly becoming a must-have feature for online shops because it's actually quite easy to salvage sales. Despite this, many platforms don't offer it out of the box. Nosto is a good way to implement this feature if you don't want to switch platform to Shopify or pay for lots of bespoke development.

Organising products

Shopify allows multiple pictures per product, product variations (sizes, colours, etc), stock tracking, and product tags (categories). Unlike many other platforms, there is also support for bulk image upload, so moving from another e-commerce platform should be easy.

Managing your store online

The admin side of your Shopify store makes use of a neat content management system that allows you to maintain your product catalogue as well as other content like about pages and blog posts.

It automatically takes care of SEO by creating optimised URLs, something that is still important in SEO.

There are loads of other great features including blog management, insightful reports and easy to use order management screens.

Managing your store on the move

There is also a Shopify iOS app that lets you easily manage your online store from your iPhone or iPod. Features include:

  • A dashboard with links to the main screens plus stats like daily revenue, unique visitors, page views, referrals and search terms. The last two are useful for seeing how customers are finding you, this can be used to improve the effectiveness of future marketing spend.
  • Orders screen - search orders, quickly review open orders, capture payments, mark orders as fulfilled, perform batch actions on orders.
  • Products - search, view and edit your product range.
  • Customer management - search and quickly access customer names, addresses, phone numbers and order histories. You can tap to call a customer once you've found their profile.
  • Ability to manage multiple Shopify stores
  • Quick access to Shopify support via phone or email.

It's free too! Though obviously you'll need a Shopify account.

You can watch a rather cheesy video about the app here.

Shopify App Store

This is one of the most powerful elements of Shopify. They have an App store where you buy add ons for your Shopify store, in a similar way to how you buy apps to improve the functionality of your iPhone. As with the Apple App store, you pay for most of the good Shopify apps. Here are some of the most popular apps we've come across:

  • Beetailer - Easily sell your products on your Facebook page with a Pinterest like User Interface.
  • S Loyalty - Create a loyalty program, reward customers for purchases, referalls and 'likes'.
  • Product Discount - Quickly set up deals on product lines or store wide, show a sale icon with those products, run daily deals without coupon codes, schedule sales for holidays, weekends etc...
  • PixelPrinter - Let's you generate and print branded invoices and packing slips
  • Store Locator - add a store locator, useful if you have multiple bricks and mortar stores.
  • Mapify - visualise your customers on a map, find out where you're popular.
  • Happy Ending - Add social media icons your order confirmation "Thank you" page.
  • Xero - Automatically integrate your shop with Xero's accounting software. Pretty nifty eh!

We'd don't have time to go in to detail here, but you can view the Shopify app store here and there are customer reviews and ratings for each app.

Shopify Payments

This is Shopify's much anticipated payment gateway, it can replace PayPal, SagePay or whichever company you integrate with currently. 

This could reduce your gateway fees as you are only paying one supplier and it also means you can manage your money easier, you'll be able to do refunds from your order admin screen for example.

Unfortunately it's only available in the US and Canada, as of October 2013.   Until then, UK customers can use Stripe, Sagepay, Paypal or any of these payment gateways

Shopify Point of Sale (PoS)

Shopify recently released a POS card reader and an official iPad app to accept payments from Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, as well as the ability to update inventory in real time.

The PoS system can also integrate with other devices like receipt printers, barcode scanners and cash drawers.

The full Shopify PoS functionality is dependant on Shopify Payments, so sadly it's not yet available in the UK, but it should be soon - and WeMakeWebsites will be an official ambassador when it does.

However, you can still make use of the PoS app in your shop, but you'll still need a third party PDQ card machine to take payment. There's a lot more information about using Shopify PoS in the UK here.

Shopify Experts

If you need help setting up your store, Shopify maintains a directory of experienced Shopify professionals categorized:

  • Developer
  • Designer
  • Marketer-SEO
  • Photographer
  • Accountant

Shopify Experts is a useful utility for finding local help when you need to improve some aspect of your store. It transparantly lists reviews for each expert, along with their rates, so it's easy to compare them before contacting a few. In our opinion, this type of standardised market place is a great benefit for small businesses that are often suckered in to working with bad agencies that are underskilled and overcharging.

Quick plug! We are registered Shopify Experts and can help with website design, development and marketing. For photography, we can recommend Yeshen Venema in London. End of plug.

Pricing

OK - if this sounds like your bag, you probably want to know the pricing? Well this is the best bit!

Shopify have kept their prices low for years, often confounding people, but the philosophy of the company is that they want to make it easy for people to start businesses. In fact they have tried to encourage this by hosting three "build your business" competitions.

At the time of writing - October 2013 - the prices are as follows:

  • Basic / £20 - Easily set up a store, includes discount codes. 2% transaction fee.
  • Professional / £53 - Includes cart abandonment emails and professional reports. 1% transaction fee.
  • Unlimited - £121 - Advanced reports and real-time carrier shipping. No transaction fees!

We usually recommend Professional to our clients, but due to the transaction fee, if you have a high volume (over £6800 in sales per month) the unlimited plan will make sense. If you want more information on when to switch plan, click here.

Note that payment is taken in US dollars, even if you are paying for the service in the UK, so there's a slight fluctuation on the prices listed above. Also note that as with any ecommerce platform, you'll also be charged a fee by your payment gateway, for example PayPal. The one exception to this is if you are based in North America and can therefore make use of Shopify Payments as mentioned above.

One of the main areas you save money with Shopify is not having to pay for your own servers or someone to manage them, this alone can be hundreds of pounds a month, plus you don't need to worry about PCI compliance requirements if you are using Shopify's checkout. That's a huge burden lifted for most small retailers.

The Good

So here's a quick summary of what we love about Shopify.

Quick and easy to sign up

You can sign up on Shopify within a few minutes and the product upload feature means it's not a big hassle to transfer your inventory from another platform. No downloads or installations required.

Customer experience

It's easy to set up a store that suits your brand and works beautifully.

Easy to manage

You'll be able to easily update content as well as managing customers and orders all from one place.

You're in good company

Shopify boasts over 100,000 stores and many of those companies get involved in the forums, which means there is always a community to ask for advice on specific issues.

New features

As Shopify is a hosted platform, you'll have access to new features and upgrades automatically as they are rolled out. For example, we've heard that single page checkout is due to be rolled out soon.

Customer support

Shopify has impressive 24x7 customer support for those moments of panic... you can contact their impressive supprt via phone, online live chat or email.

High speed, secure hosting

In most cases Shopify is going to be able to provide faster and more secure hosting than you can do on your own. Page loading speed has a big influence on e-commerce sales, in fact a 7% drop in sales can be seen for every one second in page loading time, so this is a big advantage.

In addition, Shopify is PCI Level 1 compliant and is already set up to integrate with a variety of payment gateways, here's the list of ones they support in the UK.

The Bad

We have a full post on the limitations of Shopify here, but here are the main points.

If you need bespoke integration

If you want custom functionality that isn't available within the main platform or the app store, you may need to create your own "app" to deliver this. For example, if you wanted to integrate your shop with an in-house fulfillment system.

Choose your template carefully

Some functionality is built in to the template you choose, so make sure you consider this when choosing which template to use as a starting point.

Two sets of transaction costs

If you go for the Basic or Professional plan, you'll pay a 1-2% transaction fee, in addition to your normal gateway fee. You can pay for the Unlimited option and eliminate the Shopify transaction fee though, plus if you're able to use Shopify Payments you're only paying their transaction fee and not another third party gateway.

Content management

Having lots of different types of content isn't something that Shopify supports very well. The blog layouts are quite limited so if you wanted to do something unusual, you'd have to set it up on another blogging platform like SquareSpace or Tumblr and then run it on blog.yoursite.com. You can still link to it from your main shop though. 

If you're shipping pricing is complex

You can have shipping price rules based on the order's total price and/or total weight (and country). This may be limiting to some retailers.

US focused

In the UK we have to wait a bit longer for many of the Shopify features to be rolled out. We're currently waiting on PoS to be available in the UK, for example.

Although, at least this means any new features are thoroughly tested before they reach our shores...

Dependance on third party

As with any third party product, there is always a risk that you are depending on them for your livelihood and that big changes to their service could deeply affect your business. I'd argue that Shopify lends so many advantages that this isn't an issue.  In a few days, you can build a shop that would take you months on a more customisable platform like Magento or Drupal Commerce. With 100,000 customers, the extent to which they can make radical changes is limited.

Comparison with other platforms

If you're considering another e-commerce platform, it's more than likely one of the following. Here's how they compare.

Volusion

I've read a few reviews comparing Volusion with Shopify and this one is one of the best I've seen, so most of the points here are taken from there. 

  • Monthly fees are roughly the same but Volusion doesn't charge a transaction fee. Note that you'll still need to pay a gateway fee to whoever you use, for example, PayPal.
  • However, Volusion’s themes are much more expensive than Shopify ones.
  • Volusion includes some features that are missing on Shopify, such as product comparison.
  • Volusion doesn't include a blog, which makes it a non-starter if you are considering a serious content marketing strategy, though you could use another platform and configure it on a subdomain of your site such as blog.yoursite.com
  • Some tasks are quite hard to do on Volusion, like adding new pages, and the platform doesn't offer a step-by-step introduction showing how to use its features.
  • Generally harder to use and aimed more at web developers working on behalf of a client.

BigCommerce

Again, I've read a few reviews of BigCommerce vs Shopify and this one is the most comprehensive. The main points are:

  • First impressions matter and the design of the themes offered by Shopify are modern and functional compared with BigCommerce. Plus - you can't even view the themes available on BigCommerce without signing up.
  • Some of the more advanced features that come with BigCommerce like product reviews, customer wish lists and product recommendations are only available in the Shopify App store where you have to pay for them.
  • BigCommerce's support can't compete with the Shopify 24x7 benchmark - their support is closed before 9am and after 6pm Central Time (CST)
  • Shopify has many thousands more experts available and nearly twice as many paying customers, a bigger community suggests a more popular product and will make it easier for you to find the help you need.

Magento

The equivalent Magento offering is Magento Go, though you could also download the community edition of Magento and customise it from there.

  • Magento is a large and well-supported open-source framework. You download it and customise it. This means you "own" your store and have full control, but it also means you need a skilled development team to build your shop. Due to the complexity of Magento, you'll probably need to pay an agency that can provide the manpower to construct your shop.
  • If you decide to go for the supported version of Magento, you'll need at least $15,550 (Magento Enterprise starting price). 
  • Shopify is on average more user-friendly but this will depend how much effort you put in to setting up the back office of your Magento shop.
  • Due to it's size, Magento will need a fairly powerful hosting solution and someone to set it up for you.
  • If you need full control and bespoke features - and you have the budget - Magento could be an option. This is why it's used by big retailers like Nike and Paul Smith.

Why do we use Shopify?

Some people wonder if we are losing out on business by referring would be clients to Shopify, rather than offering to build a big expensive platform for each client.

The reality is that we'd rather spend time on higher value activities like helping create a compelling design or consulting on how you can get the most of out of your store.

We know that when you run your own business you don't want to be doing everything yourself and you want to be using specialists for each part of your operation. You could do your own accounting to save money, but shouldn't you be working on your business and let an expert take care of the books? It's much the same with websites - that's where a company like ours comes in, we can help you the various aspects of designing, building and growing your online shop. 

We've been impressed by Shopify over the years as they've managed to emulate or surpass some of the best features of the big e-commerce platforms like Magento and BigCommerce.  We decided if we were to start a retail business, this is the solution we would go with.

Conclusion

You don't want to build your business on a platform you become frustrated on and decide to switch from - this type of migration can be time consuming, problematic and expensive.

Make a list of your highest priorities, for example, ease of use, ability to create coupons, your budget or your design objectives. Then consider if the platform you're evaluating can meet those. Don't forget to try and consider features that may be important in a year or two if your business grows.

With that said, in most cases for start-ups and mid-sized business, Shopify is a no brainer and we rate it 5 stars. It's a simple to use platform with many of the common features you need when starting or running an e-commerce business and typically you can get set up for a fraction of the cost of a self-hosted custom platform.

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About the author

WeMakeWebsites co-founder Alex is one of our Shopify experts and speaks regularly on the topic of marketing and e-commerce for organisations such as London College of Fashion and Escape the City. You can book him for events here. WeMakeWebsites build beautiful and effective e-commerce websites for creative retail companies, you can view recent case studies here.