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Shopify is an amazing platform for building an online retail business. We've been building websites for several years and Shopify is by far one of the best platforms we've come across.
Currently 120,000 stores use the platform and now that their online offering is solid, Shopify has begun tackling offline retail with their POS system.
It may be different to what you've used before because it's a hosted solution, which means Shopify host your shop on their servers and you don't have access to the back-end code. For most retailers that's not a problem, 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. There's also a comparison with some of the competition. You can jump to a specific section or read the whole thing:
Let's get started.
1. Instantly set up a beautiful, responsive website
'Themes' are how you define how your store looks. Shopify provides you with several free default themes when you signup - these can be easily customised by adding your logo, changing colours and choosing fonts.
You can make more comprehensive changes to the templates if you have a good understanding of CSS, HTML and Liquid. Liquid is Shopify's proprietary language for creating themes for their platform. This allows you to completely manipulate 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 Shopify Expert to customise them you. Even if you can code yourself, sometimes it's still worth hiring someone to do it, so you can focus your time elsewhere.
You can also buy premium themes, which tend to be of better quality and most include a support email address to help you get up and running.
All Shopify themes are now responsive, which is increasingly important as shopping on phones and tablets becomes the norm. Responsive themes will automatically adjust themselves to the size of the screen so that your content is displayed in a way that makes sense.
Once you've bought a theme, there are no restrictions on customising it, so you can alter it until it's perfect.
What's more, Shopify is ready to begin accepting orders from day one through the easy to use admin screens.
2. No tech worries
Hosting an ecommerce website is hard, you have to deal with ensuring:
- your servers are secure and up to date with the latest software. See recent Poodle bug for why.
- you are fully PCI compliant, especially if you plan to take payments through your own checkout.
- your website responds quickly, making use of caching, CDNs and other techniques
- your website is backed up on a regular basis
Like BigCommerce and Volusion, Shopify host their own websites, so there's none of these concerns.
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.
You also don't have to worry about scalability because even if you suddenly receive a spike in traffic, it's a drop in the ocean when you consider there are 120,000 other stores on the platform.
In addition, Shopify is PCI Level 1 compliant.
3. 24/7 customer support
Shopify offers 24/7 support on phone and email and this is included in the monthly fee. This is obviously great when you're trying to sell 24/7 and want to ensure that any problems are dealt with promptly.
4. Easily add powerful features from the app store
This is one of the most useful elements of Shopify. They have an App store full of third party apps that you can purchase to add functionality to your store. 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.
- Loyalty Lion - Delight customers by rewarding purchases, referrals, visits and signups.
- Store Locator - add a store locator, useful if you have multiple bricks and mortar stores.
- Xero - Automatically integrate your shop with Xero's accounting software.
- Wholesaler - allow wholesale customers access to different pricing
- Wishlist - Add a customer wishlist to your website.
- Yotpo reviews - Add customer reviews to your product pages. Yotpo automatically follows up with customers to ask for a review and you can customise the email.
Note that there is a charge for most apps. You can view the Shopify app store here and there are customer reviews and ratings for each app.
5. Automatically recover abandoned carts
On all plans except 'Basic', Shopify offer cart recovery emails. These are automatic emails sent when a customer doesn't complete a transaction. Cart recovery emails convert on average 3x more than traditional marketing emails, so they are well worth setting up to capture those customers that may otherwise have not finished checkout.
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.
6. Import large product catalogues quickly
You can bulk upload products to Shopify using a CSV file. When moving store, a common hassle is uploading all your product images. Shopify's product import process allows you to specify image URLs for each products, these will be downloaded by Shopify and imported in to your store automatically. Includes support for bulk image upload, a common pain point, so moving from another e-commerce platform should be easy.
7. Easy to manage for your team
The admin side of your Shopify store makes use of a tidy content management system that allows you to maintain your products, pages and blog posts. It automatically takes care of SEO by creating optimised URLs, something that is very important in SEO.
8. Manage your store from the Shopify iOS iPhone and Android apps
- A dashboard with links to the main screens with stats like daily revenue, unique visitors, page views, referrals and search terms. The last two are useful for seeing how customers are finding you.
- Orders screen - search orders, 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 access customer details and order histories.
- Ability to manage multiple Shopify stores
- Quick access to Shopify support via phone or email.
And it's free to download. For more screenshots of the iPhone Shopify app click here.
9. Plenty of payment gateways to choose from
Shopify has already done the hard work of integrating with dozens of payment gateways. Authorize.net, Braintree, PayPal, Paymill, SagePay, RealEx, Stripe and RBS Worldpay are just some of the payment gateways supported in the UK. Worldpay and SagePay offer an 'offsite' checkout that is not hosted on Shopify, therefore they can also offer 3D secure.
We have an in depth comparison of the UK payment gateway options available for Shopify here.
10. Use Shopify Payments for reduced rates
Shopify Payments is Shopify's own payment gateway, it can replace PayPal, SagePay or whichever company you integrate with currently. This will reduce your costs as you are only paying one set of transaction fees.
11. The Shopify Point of Sale (PoS) iPad app
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 be used with other devices like receipt printers, barcode scanners and cash drawers.
The ability to take card payments is only available in North America. However, you can still use the other hardware components, you'll just need a third party PDQ card machine to take card payments. Then you can mark the order as paid as part of the checkout flow within the app. There's a lot more information about using Shopify PoS in the UK here.
12. Get help from Shopify Experts
If you need help setting up your store, Shopify maintains a directory of experienced Shopify professionals categorised:
'Shopify Experts' is a great utility for finding local help when you need to improve your store. It lists reviews for each expert, along with their prices, so it's easy to compare them before contacting a few. In our opinion, this type of market place is a great benefit for small businesses that can often find themselves working with bad agencies that are under skilled and overcharging. You can read about how to choose a Shopify Expert here.
13. Easy to use reports
Shopify also gives you access to in-depth reports showing the performance of your store. This is mega-helpful when it comes to making decisions on what to stock and where to market your store. The dashboard also offers a summary of your store's performance over the past day, week, month and 3 months.
14. Powerful marketing features
Out of the box, Shopify allows you to create coupon codes and gift vouchers. Using the app store you also have access to a ton of apps to help with marketing that will further help you improve your online performance.
Finding your site via search engines is taken care of, as Shopify is already SEO optimised and you can independently edit title and description meta data.
15. Responsive checkout
Now that mobile traffic has surpassed desktop traffic, it's important to have a responsive website that caters to all screen sizes. It's taken a while, but now Shopify has a fully responsive checkout meaning that your customers will find it much easier to check out on mobile.
16. No PCI compliance worries
Have you ever heard of PCI compliance? It's a requirement for any merchant that takes credit card payments. If you have a website that takes payment, you'll need to pass regular audits and self-assessment questionnaires. You may also need to complete an audit to begin taking payments.
Shopify gets around this by hosting your checkout on their own server at checkout.shopify.com. It's still branded to match your site so most customers won't notice. It gets rid of the headache of PCI compliance and means that you're on a rock solid platform at this crucial part of the sales cycle.
17. Continuous improvements
The problem with hosting your own website (or god forbid, using an agency's proprietary platform), is that you need to invest time in making ongoing improvements as the web move forwards. After all, who was talking about responsive design in 2007?
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. For a more detailed overview of Shopify's features look here.
Now we'd gone through the advantages, let's run through some drawbacks you should be aware of.
1. Reliance on third party apps
As we've mentioned, to add functionality to Shopify you often need to use apps. These are built and supported by third parties and so have various levels of quality and cost. One you start installing a few apps your implementation can be a bit messy and you may find you don't have access to adjust the look and feel of some apps.
2. Choose your template carefully
Some functionality is built in to the templates, so make sure you consider this when choosing which template to use as a starting point. A Shopify Expert should be able to write code to add functionality to a template, but this is a lot more expensive that choosing a theme with the functionality already included.
3. Two sets of transaction costs
You'll pay a 0.5-2% transaction fee in addition to your normal gateway fee unless you're on Shopify Plus. When compared with the cost of running your own Woocommerce or Magento site, you may find that's still a bargain, but some retailers will be concerned about paying this transaction fee in addition to their payment gateway fees.
4. Content limitations
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.
5. Limited shipping options
You can only have shipping price rules based on the order's total price and/or total weight (and country). This may be limiting to some retailers.
6. Shopify Payments only available in North America
Update 11th November 2014: As of today Shopify Payments is supported in the UK.
In the UK we're still waiting on Shopify Payments to be available, which will eliminate drawback number 3. For now, we're stuck with not being about to use Shopify POS to take payments.
7. Checkout cannot be customised
Shopify hosts the checkout which eliminates PCI concerns, as mentioned above. The checkout can be styled with CSS, but additional fields can't be edited and control over the behaviour is limited. This may be frustrating for some retailers that want to add advanced features such as postcode lookup.
It's also worth noting that your checkout will need to be on checkout.shopify.com unless you're on Shopify Plus. It can still be styled to match your shop though.
8. Not true multi-currency
You can display prices in any currency using exchange rates provided by xe.com. Some retailers might want to specify rates themselves, which would rule out Shopify.
Additionally, despite the visitor browsing in their own currency, the final payment must be taken in the store's default/base currency. It's a good idea to warn customers of this at the cart stage.
To get around this, some retailers set up multiple Shopify stores, each with a different currency. You can use Brightpearl to keep the inventory in sync between stores. Some retailers may find this approach frustrating and would prefer shopping cart software that can integrate with payment gateways that support seperate accounts per currency.
9. Dependance on third party
As with any third party product, there is always a risk that you are depending on them and 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. There's always platform risk in any project and with 120,000 retailers on the platform, you're in good company.
OK - so you probably want to know about the pricing? Well this is the best bit! Shopify have somehow managed 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.
At the time of writing, the monthly prices are as follows. Note that if you use Shopify Payments, their Stripe powered payment gateway, the transaction fees are less.
- Basic / $29 (£17.49) - Easily set up a store, includes discount codes. 2% transaction fee.
- Professional / $79 (£47.65) - Includes cart abandonment emails and professional reports. 1% transaction fee.
- Unlimited / $179 (£107.98) - Advanced reports and real-time carrier shipping. 0.5% transaction fee.
- Plus / $995 (£599.96) - A recently released plan ideal for large companies with large amounts of visitors (can take 500k hits a minute) and over $164,000 monthly online revenue. No transaction fees. For more about Shopify's new Plus option read on here.
We usually recommend Professional to our clients, but due to the transaction fee, if you process over £20,000 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 outside of the US, 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.
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.
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 generally two to three times more expensive than Shopify's 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.
- Some tasks are quite hard to do on Volusion, such as adding new pages, and the platform doesn't offer a straight forward how-to showing how to use its features.
- Generally harder to use and aimed more at web developers working on behalf of a client.
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 much more 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). Which for anyone living outside the US time zone could become very long winded and frustrating.
- Shopify has thousands more experts available and nearly twice as many paying customers, a bigger community suggests a more popular platform and will make it easier for you to find the help you need.
How do you switch?
Shopify make it easy to switch to them and will walk you through the process.
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. You can be selling in a matter of hours on a platform that could last you years.
Here is a summary of the benefits:
- Minimal set up effort/cost.
- Pleasing themes that use responsive designs.
- Easy to use admin screens including order management.
- In built marketing/SEO tools like coupon codes and editable meta-descriptions.
- No PCI compliance concerns.
- No hardware/hosting worries.
- Access to a superfast platform, beneficial for user experience and SEO.
- Competitive pricing, especially if you use Shopify Payments.
The drawbacks are:
- Sometimes hard to add unusual/custom functionality.
- Some retailers consider the transaction fee high.
- Multi-currency can be troublesome.
- You may find it hard to build content heavy sites in Shopify.
I suggest you make a list of what is important for your ecommerce store, then list the ability of your candidate platforms in each area, as well as the overall cost of each. Don't forget to take in to account hosting and maintenance when doing your calculations.
Most retailers will find Shopify does everything they need and offers fantastic value for money, but every case is different and it's best to spend some time experimenting with the various options and coming to your own conclusion. We give Shopify a 5 star rating.
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