Anyone who’s done any research around ecommerce platforms or has any experience with SME or mid-market online retail has likely come across Magento Community Edition (often referred to in this article as “Magento”) and Shopify. As two of the most popular and more accessible ecommerce platforms in the market, these solutions are the go-to choices of hundreds of thousands of small businesses and individuals who want to build and run online stores.
In this article, we’ll be exploring what makes Magento Community and Shopify great, and what pure-play and multi-channel retailers can expect from each platform. We’ll also touch on the strengths and weaknesses of both solutions, so if you’re on the fence between the two, the insights in this post should help you decide which way to go.
Magento is the world’s biggest ecommerce platform, with over 240,000 merchant users from all over the world. Magento powers online retail sites of all sizes – ranging from independent one-man bands to some of the world’s biggest brands (such as Nike, Ford, Paul Smith, Hermes and many more). Magento was initially launched in 2007 and has a Community (free) and Enterprise version (premium).
Magento’s growth as a platform is often attributed to their community – which has helped to grow the Magento Connect marketplace (module store) and publish a huge amount of great documentation online. Magento is a great option for merchants because of the existing modules and integrations that help to reduce complexity and development costs.
Just as a side not – later this month Magento 2 will be released for general use (out of beta) – this means a lot of change for merchants who choose to go straight onto Magento 2. Lots of merchants will wait for ~1-2 years until it’s more stable and more widely used, but because it’s a complete re-write, it’d be a big development overhead to upgrade (so be aware of that if you’re moving to Magento now). Also, the new version of Magento community on 2 will not have the same level of available modules straight away (as they need to be re-developed for Magento 2). That said, there are advantages of using Magento 2, particularly around performance (and lots of other for developers).
This article will focus solely on Magento Community Edition.
Shopify is a rapidly growing, SME-focused ecommerce platform which is generally more suited for retailers looking to sell online without the technical considerations. A Shopify store can be setup in minutes – you just need to sign up for a trial (or one of their packages) and setup a payment gateway and you’re good to go. Shopify was initially launched in 2006 and there are lots of different packages and options available (including a new enterprise version).
Shopify is essentially an accessible option for anyone wanting to sell online – also allowing for things like Facebook stores, buy buttons for campaigns, quick and easy POS integration etc.
Hosting and control
Let’s start with Magento Community. Magento is self-hosted, so you would need to either manage your own servers and stay on top of software updates yourself, or team up with hosting partners or Magento agencies that can handle these tasks for you.
This may seem like more effort, which it is – however for many merchants, the advantages of a self-hosted solution like Magento outweigh the work that needs to be put into it. One huge benefit of using Magento is that you have complete freedom and control over your store, making it easier to host other assets or stores on a server or integrate with other systems etc. Say for example you wanted to host a WordPress blog on the same server, this would be possible with Magento, because you’re managing the server yourself.
Because you’re able to access all of your code, the customisation capabilities of Magento are practically endless, and since you aren’t limited to the technology or system of a third-party solution, you can roll out updates and features at your discretion.
The downside of running a hosted solution is that you don’t have as much freedom to customise your store or add features. Since the technology behind your site is hosted and run by your ecommerce solution (like Shopify), you’re unable to access the code behind the platform (apart from front-end changes to templates and styling).
If your store requires capabilities that doesn’t come out of the box or isn’t offered by Shopify’s add-on partners, you would need to wait for the company to offer it (if ever) or come up with a workaround. I previously worked on a Shopify site and eventually had to re-platform to Magento Community, purely because a lot of the features we wanted to implement were going to cost more to develop than the cost of migrating onto Magento Community (although bare in mind we had a very cost-effective development solution).
For instance, if you want to do something like change product images based on a user changing a configurable option, you’d be able to get this developed in Magento (or you’d probably have an existing module), rather than submitting a feature request. This allows merchants to be more agile and react quickly.
Shopify, on the other hand, is a hosted solution. This means that the company takes care of hosting your store, as well as maintaining and updating the software. It’s a hands-off set up that’s perfect for small businesses or individuals who don’t have the know-how to deal with software and technology infrastructure issues. Although it’s mostly the smaller platforms that are hosted, it’s not exclusive to them, as platforms like Demandware (which powers sites such as Adidas and Brooks Brothers) are also hosted.
In other words, Shopify (and other hosted solutions like BigCommerce) allow merchants to focus less on the technology, so they can devote more attention to actually running their store.
General complexity for the end user
This is an important consideration for choosing an ecommerce platform – especially if you’re a small merchant or a one-man-band.
Shopify has a really simple, intuitive admin interface which is really easy to use and get the hang of. Simple things like adding and editing your products, changing copy, creating and managing categories, adding modules etc are very easy and will take seconds. There aren’t really any stumbling blocks around these either – which reduces the risk of you or an inexperienced memeber of your team causing issues with your store.
Obviously Shopify does give you control over more advanced areas required for running an ecommerce store too (such as tax settings, order confirmation emails, delivery options and the front-end code editor etc) – however they’re mostly in one place and they provide different permission levels for users to facilitate for different people working on the site.
Magento on the other hand is far more complex – mainly because it’s designed to facilitate for much larger merchants (but it is still used by smaller ones). The admin interface can be very daunting, even for people who are experienced with the platform. Magento is hugely flexible as a platform and this means that there’s a lot more built into the admin section.
Also – things like handling re-indexing, setting up products (dependent on how you need them to work), applying patches, using static blocks etc are a lot more complex in Magento than in Shopify – I’d say there’s a much bigger learning curve with Magento as a developer and an admin.
The admin interface in Magento 2.0 community edition is more similar to Shopify and I’d definitely say it’s more intuitive for a non-superuser.
In terms of managing and maintaining the store – I’d say Magento is more suitable for a slightly larger retailer – whereas Shopify (due to its simplicity), is better for smaller retailers.
Both Magento Community and Shopify have the capabilities to scale with your business, but the ways they handle your growth are drastically different. There are lots of Magento Community merchants that turnover more than £10m online, that haven’t considered or needed to upgrade to Magento Enterprise. Shopify also has merchants (be it less) that turnover several million pounds online, however there’s definitely more of a glass ceiling for an average retailer turning over say £5m online.
Shopify offers a number of plans, and scaling your business can be done simply by upgrading or downgrading your plan. All plans offer unlimited bandwidth, though the larger ones come with more features and lower credit card rates (as Shopify does take a percentage of order revenue), so the more you sell, the less you’ll pay in fees per transaction.
With Magento, accommodating more (or fewer) sales and traffic would require you to launch or terminate servers accordingly. So if say, you’re expecting twice as much traffic this coming holiday season, you’d likely need to double your server resources to accommodate your growth, then cut back once the rush dies down (depending on your existing traffic levels and server setup).
I’d say that Magento is more suitable for a store that’s likely to scale to over £1,000,000 in turnover, purely because there’s more flexibility around the platform and it’s far easier to adapt to feature requirements – partly because you can access the code and partly because of the Magento Connect module store, which has thousands of very good plugins / extensions (as well as thousands of not-so-good ones).
I’d definitely say that if you need any of the following / might do in the next two years, then you’ll probably be better suited to Magento Community:
- Have advanced feature requirements (e.g. back-end requirements, rich search, complex product catalog, complex internationalisation etc)
- Are likely to require more advanced integrations in the future (e.g. POS system, stock management system, marketplace integration etc)
- Use a back-office system, ERP etc
- Require a multi-store setup
- Have a complex SKU / product / catalog setup
Some examples of Magento Community stores that have scaled well on the platform include The Watch Gallery, Golfdiscount.com, Shore.co.uk and Strong Supplement Shop.
The other benefit of Magento Community in terms of scalability is that you’re able to upgrade to Magento Enterprise without having to completely rebuild your store. Again, this is a big perk if you’re looking to grow considerably in the short-term future.
Magento Connect vs Shopify App Store
Magento Community does have a big advantage over Shopify for more mid-level merchants, in that Connect makes it far easier to extend your store. If you wanted to do anything from optimise the checkout, integrate with shipping systems, add payment options, change payment gateways, improve the way you use triggered emails, personalise product recommendations etc, you’re likely to find what you need on Magento Connect.
The shopify app store is still good – but it’s not on the same level in terms of the level of modules and the number of modules available.
Because Magento is an open source platform, so downloading and installing the CE software is free. However, you would need to consider hosting costs, which is likely to cost anywhere from £50 – £100 per month for shared hosting (for a very small store) to £2,000 per month for multiple dedicated servers. You could also look at using AWS servers to allow for scaling. There are lots of good specialist Magento hosting companies around, including Peer1, Sonassi, UKfast, Nexcess and lots of others. I’d suggest consulting an expert before making a decision on Magento hosting as it is more complex than you might think.
And, if you’re hiring a Magento expert or developer to build, design, and maintain your store, you’d have to factor in their fees as well. Depending on your needs, this can cost anywhere from £1,000 (if you decide to use a lower-end solution or off-shore developers) to £100k+, depending on the level of complexity of the site, whether you want a custom theme, any integrations that are required etc.
You’re also more than likely to have additional costs around third party modules – a mid-level Magento store is likely to want to buy the following:
- Merchandising module (something like visual merchandiser)
- Search solution (either module or SaaS)
- Product reviews solution (such as Yotpo)
- One page checkout module
- Payment gateway module
- SEO module
These are just a few examples – I’m sure there’ll be others.
Shopify currently has four plans (Lite, Basic, Pro, and Unlimited), which range from ~£6 per month to ~£100 per month. All plans offer unlimited products and bandwidth, and the Basic, Pro, and Unlimited plans come with an online store.
Features and capabilities
In this section, we’ll compare some of the important features of Shopify and Magento, and we’ll also get into the aspects where each platform has an edge over the other. As mentioned, the two module stores do extend this considerably.
Themes and Templates
This is one of the areas where Magento commands a huge edge over Shopify. Magento users can access thousands of themes and templates across the Magento Connect marketplace and other sites, including ThemeForest, UberTheme and more. Shopify on the other hand, offers 100+ themes and templates over at themes.shopify.com, and a handful of good ones on external sites such as ThemeForest and Template Monster, among others. There are lots of agencies and design + developer teams constantly releasing new themes for Magento stores, purely because of the volume and higher level of budget around the platform.
In terms of costs, both Magento and Shopify offer free and premium themes, though users have more affordable options over at Magento. Shopify’s premium themes (at least the ones on its website) start at ~£60, while you’ll be able to find Magento themes for as low as 99 cents in Magento Connect. One thing to add to this though is that, like a platform like WordPress, there are also lots of low quality themes for Magento – just because of the demand. Lots of off-shore teams create poorly coded themes and try to sell them as a form of income, as well as people in the UK, US etc.
Both platform are pretty strong in this area.
Both ecommerce platforms have your standard product features, like catalog management, multiple product views, configurable products (and other product types) and more. However, Magento does have a slight edge in this department because it offers more powerful out of the box features, including built-in wish lists, bundled products and upsell capabilities.
That said, there are a few Shopify add-ons that enable you to offer such features, though they will cost you extra and mean you’re relying on a third-party extension.
Magento and Shopify have great marketing capabilities to help increase your store’s visibility and conversion. Both aren’t brilliant from an SEO perspective out of the box (although most platforms are equally as bad). Both platforms have issues with dynamic pages being indexed (more layered navigation with Magento and tagging with Shopify), although Magento does provide a lot more options around SEO. Magento can be heavily extended with modules that will allow you to make use of things like hreflang, structured data, control over dynamic pages, redirect management, control over the robots.txt file, canonical URLs etc. However with Shopify – the vast majority of these features can’t be achieved, which can cause issues – especially for larger stores.
Both platforms can be integrated with email marketing tools fairly easily and provide options around coupons, free shipping, product reviews etc.
Once again though, Magento has slightly more out of the box tools than Shopify. Magento has built in features for creating bundles, promoting new items, and showcasing related products (for up-sells and cross-sells). These features aren’t readily available with Shopify, though you can browse its add-on marketplace to find extensions that you can run on your site. Magento Connect also extends this further with modules for personalisation, landing page creation, competitions, social integrations etc.
That said, Shopify is known for its social capabilities – including things like social sign on, shoppable pins etc. There are a few features around this that are harder to achieve with Magento.
When it comes to selling across different channels, Shopify definitely takes the cake in terms of built-in capabilities. While both platforms are mobile-friendly and enable merchants to sell on the small screen, Shopify’s out of the box features make it easier to sell offline and on social media right from the get-go.
Shopify has its own point-of-sale system complete with a card reader that lets merchants sell on the go or in a brick-and-mortar store. And thanks to its partnership with Facebook and Pinterest, Shopify merchants can integrate their stores with these social networks, and allow their customers to complete purchases without having to leave Facebook or Pinterest.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Magento retailers can’t sell offline or on social networks. With the right modules, you can also extend your store’s selling capabilities. Just head to the Magento Marketplace, and search for the right add-ons for your store.
Agencies, Developers & Community
Both Magento and Shopify allow you tap into expert networks so you can get the technical, design, or even marketing assistance you need. As with any mainstream platform, there are lots of third party suppliers available to help you solve problems – both agencies and freelancers.
That said, Magento’s community of experts and partners is far larger than Shopify’s. Since Magento is open source, it has attracted a wider number of developers, designers, and other specialists who are constantly building on the platform. There are also a huge number of agencies that specialise in setting up, building, and maintaining Magento stores, whereas Shopify is more focused on the end-user.
Magento also has lots of developer and solution specialist-focused conferences and events, which take place all over the world. There are meetups in major cities all over the world, the Meet Magento events, the MagentoLive events, Magento Imagine, MageTitans, Developers Paradise and many more. Shopify does have events too – but they’re more focused on the end users and they then run separate partner events.
It isn’t a stretch to say that there’s a Magento solution for just about any ecommerce need. The features, designs, and add-ons that you can access through Magento’s marketplace and partner network are nearly endless. I’d say really this is what makes Magento Community such an attractive option – just because you’ll generally find that there’ll be plenty of people that have fixed almost any issue you have with the platform – plus, things are really well documented online.
Shopify has an advantage over Magento when it comes to customer support – which is to be expected from a SaaS platform.
Magento relies on community-based support, so there wouldn’t be any dedicated customer service reps to address your questions or concerns (although you could upgrade to Magento Enterprise if you do scale and feel that you need developer support). If you’re having issues with your store, you can turn to Magento forums or do a web search to figure out what you should do. Need custom or dedicated assistance? It’s best to partner with a Magento agency or specialist who can provide you with advice and guidance or a support package.
Shopify on the other hand offers both dedicated and community-based support. The company provides 24/7 customer service, and it also has discussion forums and a knowledge base.
This is a really important consideration for very small merchants who are managing their store themselves. It’s worth noting that Shopify also handle all upgrades, security patches etc – whereas you’re likely to need to use a third party for this with Magento – which needs to be factored into the potential cost of using the platform.
Like what I mentioned in my post about Magento Enterprise and Demandware, the right ecommerce platform depends on the needs and nature of your business, as well as your budget.
Shopify is a better fit for merchants on a budget and whose ecommerce needs aren’t too advanced or specialised. In other words, if you’re just starting out and you’re not a very “techie” individual (and you can’t afford to hire someone who is) then you’ll be better off with a hosted solution like Shopify.
However, if you know that your store needs a lot of customisation and you’re equipped (tech- and budget-wise) to stay on top of hosting and software maintenance, then Magento Community would be a great option.
If you have any questions around Magento Community and Shopify, feel free to drop me an email to get in touch or add a comment below.