This article was originally written in June 2018, but I updated it in January 2019 to ensure it remained relevant.
Since its launch back in 2008, Magento has dominated the SMB and mid-market eCommerce platform space. A decade is a long time in the eCommerce world, and for much of that time, Magento has appeared to be a clear leader, in terms of reliability, extensibility and depth of functionality.
Adopted by retailers of all sizes, Magento offered a professional-grade on-premise platform solution to retailers around the world – however, with the end-of-life for Magento 1.x announced, lots of new alternative eCommerce platforms available, the rocky launch of the Magento 2 (requiring a complex migration of an existing Magento 1 store) and with Magento moving up the food chain (towards the mid-market and enterprise B2C bracket + B2B), more and more retailers are looking at alternative solutions.
Before examining the alternatives to Magento, it makes sense to briefly look at the platform’s current position (given the change in Magento 2 and it’s progression from its initial launch), and at the issues that are driving merchants to consider those alternatives.
My view on Magento 2 and the state of the platform
I’ve had pretty heavy, hands-on involvement with a number of Magento 2 migrations (both Commerce and Open Source), right from the start on early releases and more recently on later releases (up until now looking at 2.3). I think there have been a lot of struggles with the platform and a lot of pain for merchants, however, I would say it was kind of to be expected with such a new solution with such an extensive feature list.
Despite the issues it’s had in the past, I would say it’s in a pretty good place now and it has been since ~2.2.2 – the clients I’ve been working with have been much positive and there are nowhere near as many bugs. I would also say that when you consider things like agility, extendability, the number of integrations availability etc, Magento is still one of the best (probably the best) solutions on the market for complex businesses and it still comes in as the lowest cost solution in this space in my experience (as you’re really comparing against Salesforce Commerce Cloud and Hybris / SAP CX – although platforms like Spryker, CommerceTools, Shopify Plus, Workarea, ElasticPath, Oracle Commerce Cloud, BigCommerce etc are all new potential contenders in this space).
If you invest well in it properly and use a strong integration partner etc, I’d still say Magento is the best platform in the mid-market space if there is some complexity there and I think Cloud Edition will become the best platform in the market further down the line – most likely moving more towards a SaaS offering and becoming more comparable to Salesforce Commerce Cloud, but with benefits around total cost of ownership, agility and extensibility.
This said, I find myself recommending Shopify Plus more and more at the lower level of the mid-market and SMB areas (Magento Open Source level and lower end of Magento Commerce), as I don’t think Magento is the right platform for small, simple retailers anymore as it requires a lot of on-going maintenance and support in order to get the most of the platform, which can be unnecessary for single-currency, single-channel eCommerce businesses.
More information and context
From its launch, Magento has always been available with two main options – an enterprise edition (now known as Magento Commerce) and a community edition (now known as Magento Open Source). Both editions are inherently the same platform, but Magento Commerce / Enterprise, the paid version, offers additional functionality, faster introduction of bug fixes and improvements, and, crucially, support, amongst other things. Magento Community / Open Source, on the other hand, is available for free as an open source solution and relies on outside support, other than security patches (although Magento Commerce is largely the same on that front). Both versions are supported by a strong network of third-party vendors offering extensions that can be integrated into the core Magento system, to offer additional functionality and integrations. Magento also has a really strong network of systems integrators / agencies. This extensibility and ease of integration can be part of the problem though and this is where the need for an enterprise-focused integration partner and on-going budget comes in.
Why do retailers move away from Magento?
Ever since the release of Magento 2, there has been a lot of negativity and discontent surrounding Magento, both at the enterprise level (Commerce) and amongst smaller retailers (Open Source). From relatively minor bugs to serious issues around performance and scalability, lots of retailers have decided that at that time, Magento was a risk for them. Unfortunately, this hasn’t done wonders for Magento’s reputation and this was made worse when they released Magento Commerce Cloud Edition, which came under more scrutiny from merchants and partners alike.
Whilst a lot of these issues could be tackled fairly easily with development support or an upgrade, other problems have continued to be found that have required costly and ongoing technical attention that adds significantly to the total cost of ownership, which in the case of the Commerce version, is not inconsiderable to start with. Merchants who were early adopters of Magento 2 will have gone through a lot of pain now, but as I mentioned above, the platform has become a lot stronger and more stable – but this doesn’t change the level of cost faced by these businesses. Later versions of Magento 2.2 and now Magento 2.3 include a lot of bug fixes and improvements to core modules.
Magento 2.0 had been long-awaited, and much hope had been pinned on it by merchants of all sizes. It came as something of a shock when merchants discovered that M2 wasn’t so much of an upgrade as an entirely new platform initially, rewritten from the ground up.
For retailers who had only recently launched on an M1 version, this was a particularly hard pill to swallow, especially since the launch of Magento 2 came with it the announcement that support for all Magento 1 versions would end completely in 2018. Magento reversed this decision in the end, which is positive, but the initial talk of this end of life did lead to lots of merchants moving onto Magento 2.
Aside from the difficult decision on whether to move to Magento 2, Magento users have had a fairly tough, and potentially expensive, time of it in the last couple of years, with a raft of complex security patches and upgrades released during that time.
Magento Cloud Edition
Magento Commerce Cloud Edition has also had a question mark over it since it was first released, but I genuinely believe this will be one of the best solutions on the market when it is fully stable and finished. Most of the issues have been around deployments, developers not being to access parts of the platform and stability, however, it is very, very new and you’re always going to have issues with bleeding edge solutions. I’ve not heard many merchants talk positively about the overall platform yet, but I do believe it’ll be incredibly powerful soon as it’s essentially a similar proposition to Salesforce Commerce Cloud, but with more agility and control.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that Magento 2 has struggled for retailers of all levels up until recently – but it’s still a very strong solution. For retailers who have decided to look at other solutions, the shortlist for alternatives is indeed fairly short, and it encompasses the following:
The SaaS, cloud-based platform behind Shopify and its enterprise alternative, Shopify Plus, is basically the same on the face of it. Shopify is a hosted platform just like Shopify Plus, but it is aimed at the small business owner, whereas Shopify Plus is targeting larger brands and merchants. Shopify Plus comes with a number of benefits, including a dedicated Account Manager, increased scalability, Shopify Flow, more stores included in the licensing and various features around merchandising and catalog management (including tiered pricing, the wholesale channel and lots more) not available in Shopify.
Shopify Plus is winning A LOT of business in the smaller end of the mid-market sector – with recent brands that have decided to move including Bulletproof.com, Rebecca Minkoff, Gymshark, Skinny Dip, Emma Bridgewater, Kylie Cosmetics, Cambridge Satchel Co, The New York Times, MVMT, Bombas, Chubbies, Hawkers and Pavers. Shopify Plus provides a hosted, SaaS platform that has some huge benefits around agility and cost of ownership. It does have some limitations around things like multi-store management, internationalisation, B2B, complex catalog and some other aspects, but it has a real appeal for merchants looking to reduce management overhead and maintenance – as well as reduce time-to-market for new features.
I’d say Shopify Plus is an incredible platform for simple retailers (will likely become more compatible with complex retailers over time), but it does have some restrictions. I find myself recommending this platform to straightforward retailers A LOT, with Magento being more suited to complex businesses.
Another strong choice for enterprise retailers is Demandware, which is now known as Salesforce Commerce Cloud, after the firm was acquired by Salesforce in 2016, for a whopping $2.8 billion. As the new name suggests, this is again a cloud-based platform, which is currently powering over 2000 enterprise-level websites worldwide. Whilst that number doesn’t seem to be a huge volume of merchants, the client list for Demandware says a lot about the level it operates in, with brands including Adidas, Lacoste, Panasonic, Marks and Spencer, Samsonite, New Balance, Land’s End and Clarins.
Pitching itself as an AI-driven solution that offers one-to-one personalisation opportunities across the platform (with the introduction of their Einstein solution across various aspects of the platform), Commerce Cloud looks set to continue its surge through the big brand names in the coming years. They’re also following in Magento’s foot steps and introducing a component-based CMS solution (page builder), which will likely be really valuable for users.
As with Shopify Plus, the cloud-based nature of the platform means that the technical complexities of operating an enterprise-level store are handled by the platform vendor and not the merchant (which also applies to Magento Commerce Cloud Edition, which kind of sits in the middle of these two solutions presently). As the client list for Commerce Cloud demonstrates, however, this solution is pitched at the most high-profile end of the eCommerce spectrum, with clients typically turning over between $20 million and $500 million. As you would expect at this end of the market, licensing costs are not published, although it is believed that base licensing starts at around $200,000 per year, with additional costs bumping that figure up to anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million. It’s worth noting too, that Commerce Cloud retailers also pay an additional fee based on sales volumes.
Salesforce Commerce Cloud is synonymous with the enterprise fashion and lifestyle market as a result of its ability to handle peaks, various omni-channel features and impressive merchandising functionality.
I’m in the process of updating this guide, which provides a lot more detail on Magento vs Salesforce Commerce Cloud.
Shopware is a very new entrant to the UK eCommerce platform market but it is growing very quickly (with new wins including Hughes.co.uk, MyWalit, The Fish Society and Shoes for Crews). Shopware have four versions of the platform and a number of self-built and managed add-ons (for things like franchising, marketplace and lots of other areas), but I’m focusing on Shopware Enterprise, which is the version I’ve been exposed to thus far.
Shopware Enterprise is a robust, on-premise eCommerce platform with very strong native CMS capabilities (very nice interface for managing content and building pages), B2B features (very similar to Magento’s new B2B module) and catalog management / merchandising functionality. Shopware Enterprise is very, very similar to Magento Commerce in most areas I would say, with a few additional features and some bits missing.
I wrote this introductory piece on Shopware and I must say I am very impressed with it overall.
One other comment on Shopware is that it’s worth looking at what they’re doing with the platform before deciding on it, with a new plan to release a more enterprise-focused micro-services-based offering. It’s likely that this version of the platform will be focused on competing with the likes of Spryker and CommerceTools, which have been seen huge success in the enterprise bracket recently.
SAP Hybris is again a very robust eCommerce platform arguably only suited to really big, complex businesses. SAP CX / Hybris is again proven in the enterprise space in both B2B and B2C and it would generally come with a lot of customisation (often being referred to as more of a framework than a platform). Highly scalable but again, generally not a low-cost solution.
My experience of Hybris / SAP CX Commerce Cloud is limited to a couple of migrations to Magento from the platform, where Magento was a more suitable option due to being lower cost and offering more agility, however, I know for bigger stores it can be very strong (I’ve also spoken to lots of businesses who are very happy with it).
Bespoke eCommerce platform
I’ve seen a resurgence in merchants looking at bespoke eCommerce platform options recently, but it’s not something I would generally recommend (with added costs and complexity in all areas) and a big reliance on a single vendor.
Micro-services based platforms
Recently, there’s been a huge surge in the popularity of modern solutions focused on creating a micro-services based offering, to support the de-coupling of core aspects of the platform (to allow for the use of only required components and support things like headless commerce, supporting of multiple properties etc). There are some very impressive platforms that fall into this bracket (targeting merchants of different levels), including CommerceTools, Spryker, ElasticPath, Moltin and others.
It’s worth noting as well that headless commerce is a big trend and potentially something to consider when looking at options for moving from Magento 1. I often refer back to websites like Oliver Bonas who have created a really nice, rapid customer experience by removing the front-end from Magento and creating a custom react layer. This also means that they can now look to move from the Magento 1.x back-end and simply re-connect the different API endpoints now.
Summary of Magento alternatives
Overall, I would say that Magento is still an incredibly strong eCommerce platform that can be effective at every level of the market (decreasingly so at the SMB end I would say). Shopify Plus, BigCommerce and Salesforce Commerce Cloud are all very strong SaaS alternatives, but there’s still a big argument for Magento when looking at all of them (assuming a certain level of complexity etc) – which generally comes down to the vast array of integrations and extensions available, the incredible development community surrounding Magento and the mid-level cost of ownership. I don’t always recommend Magento by any stretch of imagination and this is a very business-specific decision, but I would say it’s probably the most versatile option on the table and it’s a lot more stable than it was 12 months ago.