In the world of online business, one of the hardest decisions that entrepreneurs face is which e-commerce platform to choose. They all come with an impressive-sounding range of features and functions. And each platform has its own cheering section, claiming that their preferred e-commerce solution is the be-all-and-end-all of selling things over the Internet. Two of the most popular of these titans of e-commerce are Shopify and Magento. So which one is better? Real talk? Both, and neither. No, that’s not a Zen koan, and it’s not an evasion either. The simple (perhaps frustrating) truth is that no one platform can be all things to everyone. For some folks, Magento is absolutely the way to go—while it would be a massive mistake for others. Shopify might well be the answer to all your problems, if it’s right for your business—but if it’s not, you’ll wind up regretting the time (and money) you spent backing the wrong horse. So the trick is to figure out which one will work best for your online business and for your customers—before you ever make your first sale. That way, you’ll skip over the pain and suffering, and land in e-commerce nirvana instead. And that’s what we’ll try to help you do in this article.
What’s the difference?
Magento is an open-source software, which means two things.First, it’s free. They do have an Enterprise version, but with plans starting at around $22,000USD per year, that’s not what most new e-commerce entrepreneurs are in the market for, so for the purposes of this article, we’ll be discussing the free “Community Edition.” Second, it’s customizable. Very, very customizable. There are few limits to what you can do with Magento—if you know how to code (or if you know where to find reasonably priced, reliable programmers). So far, so good. However, one thing to note about Magento—and a major point of difference with Shopify, is that web hosting is not included. So you’ll need to shop around for a web host—and deal with the associated costs if your business begins to really scale up (though that can safely be filed under “problems you want to have”!) Lastly, Magento is pretty heavily tilted to the technologically savvy. If you’re not comfortable with basic programming—or if you aren’t working with programmers or don’t know where to find them—Magento is going to be pretty challenging to use at the outset. Challenging doesn’t mean impossible, of course, and some people actually want to use the experience of setting up an online store to build up their programming skills, but it’s worth noting that this platform is not for the complete computer newb.
Shopify is meant to be an easy-to-use, comprehensive solution.Every Shopify plan includes everything you need to run an online business, from web hosting, security certificates, and domain name registration, to easy product uploads, web design, and payment processing. Like Magento, you’ll be able to customize the appearance of your store—though perhaps not quite to the same degree. Shopify has a range of basic themes, which are attractive and mobile friendly, and are completely free. And if you’re willing to pay a bit more for a custom theme, you can create a really unique e-commerce store tailored to your brand image and your customer base. Summary: If you want real power, scalability, and full control over customization, then Magento is for you—provided that you can deal with the technical challenges along the way. If you’re looking for something more user-friendly, fast, and simple, go with Shopify—as long as you won’t need massive customization.
How much does it cost?Magento is, essentially, free (unless you’re going Enterprise, but that’s another story). Bear in mind, though, you’ll need to pay for web hosting—and you should pick your hosting plan very carefully. Remember that if your store gets big enough, you’ll start eating up bandwidth, so whichever hosting plan you choose should have generous bandwidth allowances that will allow you to scale up quickly and without any unwanted surprises in the next billing cycle. Also keep in mind that Magento requires more memory and server time for peak performance than other online stores. So you may want to explore dedicated server options with your prospective web host’s sales department. Another consideration, in terms of setup costs, is customization. Again, there are free Magento themes, and you can buy premium themes for under $100. Beyond that, if you’re going to pay a developer to do customization, you’ll need to factor in those costs as well. But of course, if you’ve got the programming chops to do it, then these development costs drop substantially! Shopify has three basic plans:
- $29 a month for a basic plan;
- $79 a month for the intermediate one; or
- $299 a month for a full-featured experience, designed for people who anticipate high-volume sales
Payment optionsSo once you’ve got your store set up, how will you actually take payments from your customers? Both Magento and Shopify are set up to make payment processing fast, secure, and easy—but here again, there are a couple of considerations that might help you make up your mind when choosing a platform. Magento makes it easy to accept a range of payment types from your customers, from bank transfers and COD to credit card payments. Magento is well-integrated with a number of popular payment gateways, including Amazon Pay, Stripe, PayPal, and 2Checkout (among others). Processing fees are fairly standard: somewhere in the neighborhood of 3% per transaction plus a small fixed fee on top of that. While it’s completely possible to go the full open-source route here, and only use free payment gateways, some merchants might find that they require the fuller-featured, paid versions of these popular services, for example Stripe Enterprise or PayPal Pro. But if you’re just getting started, there’s no reason why you can’t test the waters with the basic, free versions of these gateways. Shopify is distinguished from Magento in one major way: it offers its own payment processing service, Shopify Payments. If your customer pays using Shopify Payments, any additional transaction fees are waived (though you’ll still need to pay credit card processing fees). However, one thing to note is that Shopify Payments is only available in certain countries: the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; two EU countries; and a few places in Asia. So if you’re not going to be selling in one of these places, then in addition to the normal 2.4%-2.9% + .30 per credit card transaction, you’ll also be paying a transaction fee of up to 2% for each sale made using an alternative payment gateway like PayPal. Summary: It’s easy and secure to take payments on both platforms. Shopify is probably the winner if you’re in one of the countries that accepts Shopify Payments, or if you think you’re going to be doing such a high volume of sales that the price break on processing fees provided by Shopify’s Advanced Plan is going to offset the monthly costs. But you happen to live in a place where Shopify Payments is not accepted, or if you have reason to think your customer base will want to use another payment gateway most of the time, the Magento will be your best bet, at least in terms of payment processing.
What if it breaks?Support is another big issue to consider when setting up an e-commerce store. We all know that nothing ever works as smoothly as we’d like—and that “technical difficulties” crop up from time to time. Depending on how much sales volume you’re doing, that can get expensive very quickly: suffer through 12 hours of website downtime and you’ll pay for it, both in terms of lost sales…and customers. So the ability to troubleshoot site issues is vital for any online entrepreneur. How do Magento and Shopify compare in this regard? Magento is open source, which means that it’s a little light on direct support compared to an all-in-one subscription service like Shopify. However, you’re not going to be completely on your own if you go with Magento, for several reasons. First, precisely because it’s open source, there is an active community of developers and site owners who maintain a robust help forum. That means if you really do have an emergency or a crucial issue, chances are that there’s someone on the forum who can help you (or, better yet, an easily-found answer in an old thread from someone who once had the same problem as you). Second, Magento’s paid extensions and premium themes are supported—by the developers who created them. So if you have some issue with one of these, you’ll have access to fast support from someone who’s deeply invested in making sure you get a quick resolution to your problem. And finally, because a lot of the problems with online stores come not from the actual shop software but on the hosting and payment processing side, if you’re using Magento then you’ll already have a relationship with one or more of these providers—meaning that you can go to PayPal customer support if credit cards aren’t being accepted or your web host’s help desk if you’re having server issues. Shopify is, as we mentioned, a comprehensive service. So no matter what issue you have, whether it’s payment processing, site downtime, performance problems due to server-side issues, inventory management, or anything else—they should be able to help you with it. And because Shopify powers so many online stores, there are dedicated user forums and discussion boards as well, allowing you to search for your own answer if you don’t want to wait for your help ticket to be resolved. Summary: Shopify has a simpler, more direct way to handle technical issues—especially since it’s your sole provider for all things related to web hosting, database, and website functionality (and perhaps payment processing too, if you’re using Shopify Payments). Magento runs on a strong community support model, but you should keep in mind that hosting and payment issues can still be handled through normal tech support routes (just not through Magento directly). In short, if you aren’t entirely confident in your ability to find answers, or if you just really need to know that you can reach out to someone for a definitive solution quickly, Shopify is for you. If you’re confident in your own or your team’s development skills, you have a really responsive and helpful web host, or you just don’t mind doing a bit of research to troubleshoot site issues, then Magento is a completely viable option.
About that learning curveIf you’ve read this far, you probably have the sense that Magento is a bit more difficult to use than Shopify. And from a technical perspective, that can be true, but only to a point. So in this final section we want to offer four exceptions to this rule—four types of e-commerce merchant who shouldn’t be put off by the learning curve required by Magento. In other words, don’t worry if:
- You are already pretty good with computers. Magento is just PHP—if you have some programming ability, or if you’ve worked with WordPress in particular, there’s nothing in Magento that’s going to be so vastly complex that you’ll need a computer science degree to handle it. Sure, for someone who can’t write basic HTML, it would probably be overwhelming, but you don’t need high-level programming skills to set up your store: you’re selling stuff online, not creating artificial intelligence.
- You’ve got a tech guy / gal on your team. Again, for solo entrepreneurs, Magento might be a big leap of faith, but if you’re in a mid-size company, or even a start-up that’s grown to more than a couple of employees, chances are you already have someone on staff with the technical skills to set up a Magento store, even if they aren’t Magento specialists. What they don’t already know, your IT person or web developer can learn, fairly quickly, so that they’re able to set up and maintain your e-commerce store on Magento.
- You’ve got access to reliable, competent, and cost-effective development. Finding someone you can trust is the biggest hurdle, but if you know someone you’re comfortable working with, or if you know how to find them, then it can be entirely do-able to hire someone to set a store up and then consult on an as-needed basis for routine maintenance.
- You want to learn. A lot of people start e-commerce ventures as a sideline or a hobby, hoping that one day it will provide enough income to let them quit their day jobs (or retire early!). And for a lot of folks like this, half of the fun is learning new skills and technologies. So the challenge of Magento could actually be an advantage for people who aren’t in a gigantic rush to scale up and make their first million, who enjoy the process of figuring out how computers and websites work, or who might even have development as a future career in the back of their mind.
In summaryIn the end, there’s a lot to consider, and it’s unlikely that any single factor will make the choice completely clear. Still, it’s possible to make a few general statements about which of these platforms would work best for certain users.
- Large community and support network.
- Open source version is free.
- Very flexible platform.
- It is mobile friendly.
- Strong scalability.
- Time-consuming to get up and running.
- Steep learning curve for beginners.
- It has somewhat few developers.
- Costly if you need to scale.
- Requires specific hosting.
- Dozens of mobile-ready storefront themes
- Large selection of app extensions
- Easy to get started and setup
- 24/7 support from Shopify
- Provides marketing tools
- Shopify charges a transaction fee per sale (depends on country)
- Limited customization options
- Potentially high monthly costs
- Only 10 free themes
- Limited scalability
Magento is really for people who:
- Value customization over convenience
- Need a low-cost option at the outset that can still scale beautifully
- Have development skills or access to good developers
- Will probably need to use payment gateways other than Shopify Payments
- Aren’t afraid of looking for help on support forums or troubleshooting on their own
- Have reliable, helpful web hosting
Shopify is better suited for those who:
- Want a simple, complete e-commerce platform that’s also easy to use
- Don’t mind spending a bit of money up front for an all-in-one solution
- Don’t want to deal with the technical aspects of the store or deal with hiring developers
- Live in a country where Shopify Payments is available
- Want quick, one-stop support for any and all site issues