I’ve been working with Shopify Plus a lot over the last ~2 years, working on a wide range of replatforming projects for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Some of the bigger projects I’ve worked on include Bulletproof, Trotters, The Science Museum and Current Body – all of which are in a bracket where Magento Commerce or Salesforce Commerce Cloud could be considered more appropriate (for different reasons). We’ve also gone through scoping phases with Shopify Plus (architecting solutions etc) for a lot of other large, complex retailers who have ended up moving to a different platform – which has also helped us to learn about common limitations.
I’ve written this guide to provide a clear, actionable view on where I believe the strengths and weaknesses of Shopify Plus lie and how and where these are relevant to different retailers / merchants.
The following pros and cons are a mix of areas that impact hands-on users (e.g. merchandising, SEO or product management) and people higher up in the business (e.g. TCO or scalability for international) – if you have any specific questions around any of these areas or any other areas, feel free to email me or add to the comments below.
Pros / Advantages of Shopify Plus
The simple, ‘time-saving’ nature of the platform and the ‘app’ approach
One of the main drivers towards Shopify Plus has come from them being the first mainstream SaaS platform option for SMB and mid-market retailers, eliminating overheads around platform maintenance, upgrades, security patching etc. This has always been a big frustration with Magento, WooCommerce, SAP Hybris and various other on-premise platforms and Shopify Plus has been built to reduce operational and maintenance overheads as much as possible.
The benefits of Shopify’s stripped-down and ‘managed’ nature can be pretty big for internal teams – as, in addition to reduced technical overheads, admin functions are also built around efficiency and reducing wasted time. Shopify-built apps like Launchpad and Flow also help to further reduce the amount of time teams need to spend on merchandising and admin tasks, freeing up resource for focusing on marketing and growth.
The rigid, simplified nature of the platform and the uneditable core of the platform are central to this benefit and also Shopify’s key selling points. This also leads onto the app approach – with technology partners only being able to connect into the Shopify platform and simply push and pull data via specific APIs, rather than having modules installed on the server and additional (often conflicting) code in the platform – risking conflicts, requiring upgrades etc. This also allows the core of every store to essentially remain the same, resulting in less maintenance and risk for both the platform and merchants.
The comparatively low total cost of ownership
The cost of ownership of Shopify Plus is probably one of the most commonly talked about benefits of the platform – with it generally coming in at least 50% lower than Magento and at least 200% lower than Salesforce Commerce Cloud (over a three year period). It’s important not to look at this in isolation, but it’s an important factor for a lot of people.
Shopify has done a really good job at keeping costs to the merchant low – with licensing remaining extremely competitive and the merchant not needing to pay for maintenance retainers, upgrades etc. They’ve also kept the platform and their frameworks simple, which helps to keep both the initial build costs and the on-going costs lean too.
Recently SI costs have increased in my view, but our average project over the last 12 months has been somewhere in the region of:
- Build cost: £100k (custom theme, 3-4 international stores, no custom apps, 1-2 system integrations)
- Development retainer: £2.5k per month
- License costs: £2.5k per month (averaged based on merchants exceeding the GMV cap 2-3 months of the year)
- App costs: £500 per month
- Third parties: £2k per month (Nosto, Klevu, iPaaS provider etc)
If you were comparing these numbers to Magento Commerce or Salesforce Commerce Cloud you’d probably be looking at several times this amount for the average build, a higher development retainer (as well as the maintenance retainer) and higher licensing.
This is the average that we’ve seen based on the projects we’ve been exposed to, but we’ve also seen some great sites built for £25k and some very complex sites built for over £250k.
If you require custom apps being developed – this can add up. But equally not many projects would require more than 1-2 custom solutions and the average price I’ve seen people pay for a custom app is around £10-20k.
The average hourly rate for a Shopify agency in the UK is around £90 per hour, with some being higher and some being lower. This is higher in the US and is more like $125-$150.
The ever-increasing agility around the platform
Shopify Plus is, in my opinion, the most agile mainstream eCommerce platform on the market – with adding new functionality, applying front-end changes and even managing back-end tasks generally being a lot more straightforward and efficient than with other platforms. The app eco-system reduces (and often eliminates) the need for custom development, which helps to make things faster and cleaner. Although installing loads of apps isn’t best practice, as long as you’re careful and have one eye on performance and scalability, this remains a good approach (depending on the app or third party being used).
The other thing with the app ecosystem is the integrations generally – as Magento would require a lot more development work as a result of a deeper integration and every store being different. With Shopify, everything is standardised and it’s just a case of using APIs. This is a much nicer way to work in my opinion, should it be able to meet requirements.
If you compare theme development on Shopify against front-end development with Magento, they’re completely different worlds and they require a completely different background / experience level.
Shopify Flow is also a growing part of the platform, which helps to reduce the amount of time being spent on manual tasks. We’ve used Flow a lot on projects and it’s really helped us to save time around things like customer tagging, merchandising, managing product availability etc.
The technology partner and app ecosystem
A few years ago I remember looking at Shopify Plus and thinking they’d struggle against Magento in the mid-market space because they weren’t able to compete around the integration ecosystem, which has definitely changed now. Today, Shopify Plus have a thriving app and integration eco-system that isn’t really rivaled by any other platform. There are hundreds of SaaS companies that are currently building their entire business around Shopify only, with Recharge, Loyalty Lion, Instant Search Plus, Smile, Bold, Wallee and Limespot being examples of solutions that are either entirely or almost entirely Shopify-focused.
In addition to the SaaS businesses doing this – the vast majority of mainstream eCommerce focused tech companies have an integration with Shopify, be it via a public or private app. I remember when solutions like Klevu, Nosto and DotDigital started off with very basic integrations for Shopify Plus and now they’re arguably their primary (or maybe joint primary) platform. Shopify Plus has also attracted the attention of more enterprise technology partners in recent times, with the likes of Attraqt, Ometria, Emarsys and lots of others now integrating with the platform.
The breadth and simplicity of this ecosystem is a big part of Shopify’s appeal to merchants – with users able to make use of these technologies without having to spend huge amounts of money to integrate. Often it’s the ability to quickly (more likely a day instead of a month) introduce a content personalisation solution or subscriptions that makes Shopify Plus the right platform – this is an area where other platforms need to improve (in terms of how solutions are integrated).
When working on replatforming projects I’ve really benefited from being able to do more with the Shopify App Store and not having to rely on developers as much. Some of our favourite third-party Shopify apps are:
- Elevar for Google Analytics setup
- NOSTO for product recommendations, content personalisation and bundle up-sells
- Klevu for search (and potentially category navigation)
- Ometria, Klaviyo or DotDigital for email (depending on requirements)
- DataFeedWatch for data feeds
- Shogun for improved content management
- ShipperHQ for shipping matrix management (and more if needed)
- Transportr for redirects
- Excelify to support data migration
- Recharge for subscriptions (if it meets requirements)
- BoostCommerce for PLP filtering
- Rewind for back-ups
- Braintree for subscription and potentially secondary international payment gateway
- Klarna for buy now pay later / basic finance
- Akeneo for PIM
- Yotpo for product reviews, Q&A and curated Instagram
- FourSixty or Curulate for standalone curated Instagram
- Loyalty Lion for loyalty (and refer-a-friend)
- Mention-me for standalone referral program
- Zendesk or Kustomer for customer services
- Zendesk chat for live chat
- Easyship for carrier aggregation
- Wisepops for poppy management
- Orderly for transactional emails
- Formstack for custom forms
- Celigo for iPaaS / systems integrations
I will eventually write a blog post on what I consider to be the ideal Shopify apps and technology partners for each requirement.
The ever-growing dedicated development partner ecosystem
Another big pro for Shopify Plus against some of its closest competitors is the integration partners – with hundreds of agencies working with the platform and, commonly, no others. Although it’s important to vet an agency based on project teams, knowledge / experience of extending Shopify etc, it’s worth noting that there are some pretty big Shopify-only agencies now – such as WeMakeWebsites, Fostr, Eastside Co, Diff, Verbal + Visual etc.
The design and UX offerings of Shopify agencies is often stronger too – with Shopify being natural progression for creative agencies, the front-end inherently being the focus for the types of merchants Shopify attracts and it being easier for designers to adapt to developing the theme.
Although, the Shopify Plus agencies don’t tend to assign the same level of BA work to projects and there’s a difference in how projects are managed (in comparison to Magento in particular), there’s an argument to say this isn’t needed as much on 95% of builds and it helps to keep things lean (which certainly isn’t the case with the more enterprise platforms).
The agency ecosystem is also getting stronger, with the addition of some larger SI partners such as Inviqa, Space48 and Blubolt – all of which have good offerings around project scoping and delivery. This is the same in the US with agencies like One Rockwell, Something Digital and Blue Acorn.
I also really like the Shopify Plus economy around builds and on-going development – with pricing remaining quite low and the focus being on net improvement for the client (which again stems from Shopify’s merchant-first approach).
It’s also worth noting that Shopify’s growth has been great for agencies too – when I met Alex from WeMakeWebsites a few years ago, they were 10 people and they’re now nearly 60, Statement has gone from 5 to 20 in the same time and there are lots of others! I think the key thing now, as Shopify Plus continues to grow, is how they continue to reward partners that have helped them whilst still creating an enterprise proposition, which not all Plus-native partners are geared up for.
The ease-of-use for admin users and merchandisers
Shopify’s back-end is clean and simple and it has to be the most straightforward platform on the market for admin users. Anything from visual merchandising to editing the menu to using Shopify flow for automation is intuitive and easy and even when you start to use the apps, they’re designed in a similar way and follow suit.
In addition to this – the standardised nature of the back-end prevents there from being any back-end issues, which can be a problem with other platforms – there’s no need to ever think about clearing the cache or re-indexing – which helps to keep things simple for internal teams.
Cons / Disadvantages of Shopify Plus
Lack of multi-store architecture
One of the most widely criticised functional limitations of Shopify Plus is the lack of a multi-store architecture, preventing merchants from managing multi-brand setups and international setups as efficiently as they can with other platforms (particularly Magento and Salesforce Commerce Cloud). Although there are workarounds (often comprising a combination of scripts, utilisation of the ERP and apps that are capable of pushing changes across multiple stores), there are still areas that remain both very manual and time-consuming (such as collection merchandising, app management, promotions management etc), which can be quite frustrating if you’ve come from a platform that natively supports global management of these areas. We use a PIM with a couple of our clients, which definitely helps, but there are still a lot of areas that remain manual across the different stores.
Shopify has announced a solution to help reduce this overhead, however, there’s still no release date or any indication of when this will be available (or even exactly what it is). This is also an area that frustrates me a lot (announcing new features sometimes years – for example product center – before they’re available to merchants).
Generally, a merchant will be left to decide how much they value the multi-store architecture and whether the manual overheads are outweighed with the other time-saving and cost-saving benefits of the platform (in comparison to others). This said, the hope is that now Shopify are months away from releasing their first move towards multi-store, rather than years.
Possibility of technical debt for more complex stores
Although you wouldn’t usually associate technical debt with Shopify Plus or even SaaS platforms generally, this can become a bit of an issue for complex stores. It’s not the platform itself, but more the use of tagging, scripts and apps that can very easily become twisted and impact the manageability of the store. I’ve seen examples in the past where stores combine customer tagging with complex tiered pricing with logic around product availability etc, which then makes things like creating a shipping rule a lot more complex as you need to allow for all of these areas. This is just an example, but if you’re heavily using tagging, scripts, apps and custom apps – you just need to be mindful of this and things need to be architected well.
This isn’t often an issue, but it’s something that can quickly become problematic and it’s something that should warrant a product owner to create documentation, lock down changes in certain areas and maybe clean things up / make decisions around when to pull things into custom apps or other systems.
General handling of international ecosystem
Shopify Plus is well known for not having the greatest proposition for international retailers, even since the release of their multi-currency offering last year. Whilst there are some good workarounds and options for those willing to compromise for the huge benefits Shopify Plus can provide – there are some big issues that can be very frustrating. One of the biggest issues (that’s rarely talked about) for me that Shopify Plus haven’t addressed is the economy around apps – with lots of app companies insisting on charging a license fee per store (so a retailer with 7 local stores, would pay 7x the cost).
A lot of app companies will negotiate on this, but lots of merchants also don’t do this and it’s something that can really add up and result in Shopify’s very compelling TCO not being as compelling. Again, a lot of app companies will negotiate and we’ve got this uplift to around 50% instead of 500% with most of our clients, but it’s something that needs to be looked at and ideally resolved by Shopify.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of app companies aren’t ready for international users, with common issues such as:
- An app company not being compatible with multi-currency – even now, there are plenty of examples of product recommendations and search companies who are unable to display correct pricing on multi-currency implementations
- No way of combining management of data for multiple stores – another common issue is that the merchant would need to manage apps individually for multiple stores, which can be a huge overhead for admin users. Some of the mainstream partners (such as Shogun, NOSTO and Yotpo) have created solutions for this, but there are thousands that haven’t
- Shopify Payments – Shopify payments can be the greatest or worst thing for Shopify users, with lots of great benefits and lots of restrictions. The biggest ones for international are around eligibility (with the requirement for a registered business in each country and a local bank account) and coverage (with lots of countries still not available). This has both an operational impact and a cost impact for merchants.
It’s worth noting that all of these can be at least partially overcome, but they’re the main areas that need to be properly considered by heavily international Shopify Plus users.
Shopify Payments (for impacted retailers)
Shopify payments is often looked at as a positive feature for Shopify and Shopify Plus users and it does have advantages in terms of quickly introducing new payment methods, being very straightforward to set up and being seamlessly integrated into the platform, but there are also negatives. Here are the main negatives for Shopify Payments as I see them:
- Eligibility to use Shopify Payments based on types of products sold or prohibited ingredients – this is an important one and they’re strict on this. I’d definitely recommend checking this before you commit to Shopify Plus as a platform.
- Eligibility to use Shopify Payments based on prohibited business – this is fairly standard and includes things like gambling businesses and financial services organisations.
- Eligibility to use Shopify Payments based on registered business + local bank account – if you don’t have a registered local business and a local bank account in a territory, you’re not able to use Shopify Payments, which will impact users with an EU store or an ROW store, as well as those that just don’t have these.
- Tokenization – Shopify payments only stores tokens for a short period of time, so lots of merchants use a second payment gateway (often Braintree or Authorize.net) for subscriptions and pre-orders where a second or multiple repeating payments are needed.
- Fraud – although Shopify do now provide fraud scoring (based on a set of factors within an order), this doesn’t compare to Kount from Braintree or Thirdman from Sagepay for example. There’s often a need to use a third party on at least some orders with Shopify Payments, particularly outside of Europe where you don’t have 3d secure to protect you.
Lack of control over the checkout
The Shopify checkout is very locked down, which again is both a good thing and a bad thing as there are very rarely issues in this area, whereas it’s common with other platforms.
There are some minor changes that can be made to the fields and styling in the Shopify checkout – Emma Bridgewater is a good example of this. In the example below, you can see that the gift messaging has been added in the first stage of the checkout process and they’ve also adapted the terms and conditions.
Both the design and structure of the checkout are fully locked down (aside from basic styling), which does limit some retailers from being able to use Shopify (e.g. where a verification process is needed), at least in the way they’d like to.
This said, Shopify’s checkout is very clean and does follow UX best practices.
Lack of control over SEO
The locked-down SEO side of Shopify is a big issue for a lot of people and I would go as far as saying a lot of users rule Shopify out due to these problems. Some examples of SEO limitations include:
- Unable to control the overall URL structure (all pages sit under /collections, /blogs, /pages/ or /products/) – which means that when moving to Shopify, generally every URL will change and need to be redirected. The only way around this is to use the storefront API to create a headless site, where you would then have flexibility around the URLs (but this approach has its own issues).
- International stores must be on a subdomain or CCtld – there’s no way to house international stores as sub-folders, which often leads to domain migrations as part of a move to Shopify Plus.
- Unable to edit the robots.txt file
- Unable to access the server – this rules out using an external merchandising solution, as there’s no way to create server-side rendering of the product grid. This is one example of an issue of this nature, but this could limit any usage of JS etc (the same applies for product reviews).
The actual SEO setup isn’t bad, it just requires a lot of change for most retailers moving over to Shopify Plus. I also wrote this more detailed guide to Shopify Plus SEO.
If you have any thoughts on this, please feel free to add in the comments below – or if you have any questions, please feel free to email me.