In this Shopify review, we look at one of the most popular online-store building tools. Read on to find out more about the pros and cons of this e-commerce solution.
What is Shopify?
Shopify is a web application that allows you to create your own online store. It provides you with several templates that can be customised to meet individual users’ branding requirements, and the system allows physical or digital goods to be sold. One of the key ideas behind Shopify is that users without much in the way of technical or design skills can create a store without recourse to a design agency or web developer; however, people who are familiar with HTML and CSS will be pleased to discover that Shopify allows you to edit both, allowing you quite a degree of control over the design of templates.
Because Shopify is a hosted solution, you don’t need to worry about buying web hosting or installing software onto servers; the idea is that (nearly) everything you need to build and run your store happens ‘out of the box’. Shopify state on their website that the number of stores hosted with them to date is 200,000.
There are five Shopify plans to choose from:
- 'Shopify Lite' - $9 per month
- 'Basic Shopify' - $29 per month
- 'Shopify' - $79 per month
- 'Advanced Shopify' - $299 per month
- 'Shopify Plus' - fees are negotiable
Shopify represents one of the cheaper ways into selling online, with its starter plan, "Shopify Lite" costing $9 per month and allowing you to sell an unlimited number of goods. However, it's important to note that this plan does not actually allow you to construct a fully-functional, standalone online store: rather, it
- lets you sell via your Facebook page
- lets you use Shopify in a physical location to sell goods / manage inventory
- gives you access to Shopify's Buy Button, which allows you to sell goods on an existing website or blog.
The Buy Button works similar to a Paypal 'Buy Now' button but because it links back to Shopify, more sophisticated options regarding tracking orders and their fulfilment status are available. Using the Shopify Buy Button allows you to integrate Shopify into a site built on another platform - for example Squarespace, Wix or Wordpress; and will come in handy for users who are otherwise happy with their existing website but wish to integrate some Shopify e-commerce features onto it.
As you move up the pricing scale, you encounter the ‘Basic Shopify’ plan for $29 per month; the 'Shopify' plan for $79 per month and the 'Advanced Shopify' plan for $299 per month. Unlike the 'Lite' plan, all of these plans do allow you to host a fully functional online store; unlimited file storage and bandwidth is also included.
Key differences between Shopify plans
Key features to watch out (and perhaps not miss by selecting the wrong plan) are:
- staff accounts - these allow you to give different members of your team different permissions (which is useful for restricting access to sensitive data); you are allowed 2 staff accounts on the 'Basic Shopify' plan; 5 on the 'Shopify' plan and 15 on the 'Advanced Shopify' plan
- abandoned cart recovery – this allows you to email users who nearly completed an order and see if you can persuade them to follow through, and is only available on the $79 'Shopify' plan and up
- gift cards - these are only available on the $79 'Shopify' plans and up.
- real time carrier shipping, which is only available on the most expensive 'Advanced Shopify' plan.
There is also a ‘Shopify Plus’ plan – an ‘enterprise grade’ solution which is designed more with big businesses in mind rather than the average user; it offers advanced features regarding security, APIs and fulfilment. (This review focuses on the four other plans however).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that you don’t have to pay for plans on a monthly basis – you can pay on an annual or biennial basis - Shopify offer a 10% discount on an annual and a 20% discount on a biennial plans, when they are paid upfront. However, it is only worth availing of these options if you are 100% certain that Shopify is going to meet absolutely every business requirement you’re likely to have for your store over the next 1 to 2 years – otherwise, a monthly plan is a safer bet.
Overall Shopify’s pricing is fairly consistent with key competing products like Bigcommerce, Squarespace and Volusion; the main difference involves the 'Lite' plan really, which whilst not giving you a fully hosted online store, does allow you to make use of many key Shopify features for a very low monthly fee.
Shopify Payments, payment gateways and transaction fees
There are two ways to accept credit card payments on Shopify. The most straightforward, for users in countries where it is supported, is to use Shopify Payments, Shopify’s built-in payment system, which is powered by Stripe. If you use this, you don't have to worry about transaction fees. However, there is still a 'credit card rate' to consider: you can expect to pay a rate of between 1.6% and 2.2% of each credit card transaction plus 30c (the exact rate depends on the type of plan you are on).
Alternatively, you can use a third party ‘payment gateway’ to process card transactions - of which there are over 70 to choose from (far more than competing platforms Bigcommerce, Volusion or Squarespace).
Using a third-party payment gateway requires a bit of configuration – you’ll need to set up a ‘merchant account’ with a payment gateway provider. Depending on the payment gateway provider you use, you can expect to pay a percentage of a transaction fee, or a monthly fee or both. If you use a payment gateway, Shopify will apply a transaction fee as well (of between 0.5% and 2% depending on the Shopify plan you're on - the transaction fee gets lower as the monthly plans get more expensive).
Whether or not it works out cheaper to use Shopify Payments or a payment gateway will depend very much on the kind of payment gateway you’re thinking of using, and the Shopify plan you’re on.
One important thing worth noting about Shopify Payments is that - officially at least - it is available only for users based in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK; so if you’re not selling from one of those countries then you will have to use a payment gateway provider. (Interestingly however, I set up a Shopify store for a client of mine who is based in Ireland - Little Paper Mill Wedding Invitations - and she is using Stripe perfectly well).
In any event, Shopify works with an extensive range of well-respected payment gateways - as mentioned above, it integrates with far more gateways than key competitors do - so if you are selling outside of the aforementioned countries, you should easily be able to find a payment gateway that’s suitable for your location.
Shopify provides 12 free templates (or 'themes') that you can use – each of these comes in two or three different variants, so these templates actually translate to 24 different designs. These are all good templates, and they are responsive too, meaning they will display nicely across all devices.
Alternatively you can use a paid-for template - a 'premium' theme - of which there are 40 (again, each theme comes in a few variants). These range in price from $100 to $180. As far as I can tell, these are all responsive too.
You can browse all the free and paid templates by category, so you should be able to locate a suitable theme for your store fairly easily.
Key features of Shopify
As discussed above, the features you get with Shopify vary according to the pricing plan you opt for. All Shopify plans from $29 ('Basic Shopify') and up provide:
- the ability to sell physical or digital goods, in categories of your choosing and using shipping rates / methods of your choosing
- a wide range of themes to choose from
- credit card processing via Shopify Payments (Stripe) or a third party payment gateway
- integration with Paypal
- blogging functionality
- import / export of customer data
- content management (CMS) functionality
- good search engine optimisation (SEO) options – it’s easy to add relevant keywords to your products and site pages
- integration with Mailchimp
- discount codes
- the ability to edit CSS and HTML
- a 'buy now' button that you can use to sell goods on an existing blog or site
- point-of-sale integration (more on that below)
- the option to create multiple staff accounts (as discussed above, how many you can created depends on the plan you're on).
If you opt for one of the more expensive plans ('Shopify' and 'Advanced Shopify'), you also get:
- gift cards
- better reports
- abandoned cart functionality (more on this below).
And finally, if you're on the 'Advanced Shopify' plan you get the following additional features:
- advanced report building
- real-time carrier shipping
One particularly nice feature offered by Shopify which deserves a special mention and makes it stand out from its competitors is its 'point of sale' (POS) options and kit. These let you use Shopify to sell not just online but in physical locations too – as long as you have an iOS or Android device. Merchants in the US or Canada can avail of a free credit card reader for their device from Shopify.
The full point of sale kit includes a card reader, barcode scanner, cash drawer and receipt printer - you can buy any of these items individually or as a package. You can also use your own card reader.
There are a several applications for Shopify's point-of-sale tools: for example, they allow you to sell in a pop-up shop, from a market stall, at an event or even in a permanently located retail outlet, whilst keeping your inventory and stock count automatically synced.
Using Shopify Point of Sale with multiple staff members is more expensive though – it costs $40 to use "Shopify Retail" on top of a regular plan.
Interface and ease-of-use
Shopify is pretty straightforward to use – it’s got a nice clean, modern interface. Editing the design of your store and adding products is very easy; but I have two gripes.
I'm not keen on Shopify's approach to organising the site navigation – it requires you to create ‘link lists’ and use ‘handles’ – a drag and drop or 'parent folder' approach would be simpler. Despite having built quite a few Shopify stores at this point, I always have to spend a while reminding myself how to create simple menus.
Possibly more annoying than the navigation issue above is the way Shopify treats product images. If you upload images on Shopify with different aspect ratios, then Shopify does not crop them automatically. In other words, your product catalogues will consist of a series of differently-shaped images; this impacts negatively on the design. You can get around this by using a photo editing program to ensure consistent image aspect ratios for all your products - but unless you do this before you start uploading your images, you may find yourself with a headache, particularly if your store contains a large number of products.
These gripes aside though, Shopify’s interface is clean, user-friendly and shouldn’t present too much of a learning curve to most users.
Importing and exporting data
Shopify allows you to import product data from three sources:
- a CSV file
If you want to import posts from a blog, this is possible too, but you will need to use a third-party app (the paid-for app 'Blogfeeder' is an option; there's also a free Wordpress importer app available from Shopify).
With regard to exporting data, you can export product data to CSV file very easily; but as far as I can tell there's no simple option to export static pages and blog posts - they are exportable, but as far as I can tell you'll need to make use of Shopify's API to get them out of the Shopify platform.
Working with product variants and options in Shopify
Shopify allows you to create up to 100 different variants of a single product. However, these variants can only involve three product options.
So, for example, if you were selling shoes, you could allow users choose from up to 100 different variants of a particular shoe, each with a different colour, size and style - but you couldn't allow them to pick a shoelace colour on top of this.
I ran into a problem with this actually with the Dublin wedding invitations site I mentioned earlier. My client wanted in many cases to offer four or more options per invitation, for example:
- envelope colour
- card colour
- card size
- ribbon colour
Shopify's hard limit of 3 options meant that I couldn't facilitate this request without resorting to a workaround, which was to combine two product options into one, i.e., envelope and card colour. It made for a slightly fiddly build and a slightly fiddly user experience.
On the plus side, third-party apps are available to enhance the product option offering in Shopify, but you will need to be prepared to pay for these, and it would be nice - as is the case with rival Bigcommerce - if this a flexible approach to options functionality was available out of the box.
Using product categories in Shopify
Although there's room for improvement regarding how Shopify handles product variants and options, the way it handles product categories is fantastic and better than that found in many competing products.
You can manually add products to a collection or - and this is a huge time saver for users with large product ranges - set up rules which automatically slot products into the correct category. This can save you hours, if not days, of data entry - particularly if you have a large number of products in your online store.
Abandoned cart recovery in Shopify
Abandoned cart recovery in Shopify is designed to help you sell products to people who went most of the way through a transaction only to change their mind at the last moment. It's available on the $79 'Shopify' plans and up. The makers of competing product Bigcommere claim that using abandoned cart recovery tools can boost your revenue by up to 15%, which - if true - is obviously very significant, and probably the strongest argument for forking out for the 'Shopify' plan rather than the cheaper 'Basic Shopify' option.
In terms of how abandoned cart recovery works in Shopify, it essentially allows you to either:
- view a list of people who've abandoned their carts and manually send them an email
- instruct Shopify to automatically send one email to visitors to your site who abandoned their carts (containing a link to their abandoned cart on your store).
The latter option is probably the best way to go about abandoned cart recovery, as it saves time.
For the sake of balance, it's worth pointing out that Bigcommerce's approach to abandoned cart recovery is arguably a bit better than Shopify's. With Bigcommerce you can program three emails to be sent out automatically to users who abandon their carts; and inserting discount codes (designed to convince people to complete their transactions) into them is a more straightforward process too.
Custom fields and file uploads
Some merchants will require the functionality to allow a user to provide some text at the point of purchase (for example, jewellers might require inscription copy etc.). Shopify will allow you to capture this data, but it's a bit of a fiddly process - you need to manually add some HTML code to your template. The other alternative is to pay for an app to do this job, which isn't ideal.
It's a similar story with file uploads - if you would like to offer your customers the option to upload a file (for example, an image to be used on a t-shirt or mug), you're going to have to get coding or, yes, you guessed it, pay for a relevant app.
I would much prefer - again, as is the case with Bigcommerce - if text fields and file upload buttons were simply options that could simply be selected / enabled when creating products.
Shopify’s App Store
In addition to Shopify’s core functionality, there is also an app store which you can visit to obtain apps (free and paid) that beef up what your store can do. Examples include:
- data capture apps
- accounting apps (that let you integrate your store with popular tools like Quickbooks)
- abandoned cart saver apps (that are more sophisticated that Shopify’s out-of-the box cart saver)
- advanced reporting apps.
So if Shopify’s ‘out of the box’ feature set doesn’t initially seem to meet your requirements, it’s well worth having a look through the App Store to see if there’s an add-on that will help.
Key third party apps that are supported include Xero, Freshbooks, Zendesk and Aweber.
Shopify and VAT MOSS
One really strong aspect of Shopify which is not often picked up on in other reviews is the way that it caters exremely well for VAT MOSS - or, to use its full title, 'VAT Mini One Stop Shop.' VAT MOSS is basically a requirement that sellers of digital products to consumers in the EU add value added tax (VAT) to each digital product on a per-country basis (i.e., there's one VAT rate to be applied for the UK, one for Ireland and so on). Unlike a lot of competing products, like Squarespace or Bigcommerce, Shopify calculates the appropriate rate automatically. So there's no faffing about with setting up manual tax rules and so on. This is a very handy piece of functionality.
Blogging in Shopify
Blogging is usually crucial to generating visitors to your online store; and thankfully Shopify comes with a built-in blogging tool which allows you to create the sort of content you'll need to ensure your site is visible in search. Shopify's blogging functionality is not by any means as sophisticated as what you'd find in a Wordpress site (don't expect content versioning or Yoast-style SEO plug ins) but it it's pretty good. You can also - with a little bit of fiddling around - hook it up to the commenting tool Disqus, which is useful too.
Shopify's support is comprehensive - you can contact the company 24/7 by email, live chat or phone. This is better than the support options offered by some competitors - for example Squarespace doesn't provide phone support at all; and Volusion doesn't make it clear what hours their support desks are manned. Another positive aspect of Shopify's support is that you don't have to go through hoops to find a phone number for the company - contact information is presented very visibly on the Shopify website.
One thing I would say, having used Shopify support in the past, is that if your enquiry is of a particularly technical nature - i.e., if you want to code something and need help - then you may not get the answers you're looking for from phone, live chat or email. You'd be better off posting a query in a forum and hoping a Shopify developer gets back to you on it. This could be improved a bit I feel - it would be nice if, for relevant queries, Shopify offered some sort of way to contact their developers directly for technical advice.
Shopify review conclusions
Overall, Shopify is one of the best hosted solutions for those wishing to create an online store – and possibly the best for anyone who wants to use one product to sell online AND in a physical location. It’s competitively priced, easy to use, and its templates are strong.
The main disadvantages of using Shopify are its transaction fees if you use a third-party payment gateway (some of its competitors don’t charge any transaction fees at all, regardless of payment gateway used); its limit of three options per product (note: don't confuse this with variants, of which you can 100 per product - see above); and its fairly basic abandoned cart saver.
Of course the only way to find out if Shopify is for you is to try it out fully – a 2 week free trial is available here. And if you've tried Shopify before, do feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below!
Shopify pros and cons
These are the main pros and cons of using Shopify:
- With its 'Lite' plan, Shopify represents one of the cheapest ways to start selling online using a hosted solution.
- There are no transaction fees if you are happy to use Stripe.
- It has a clean, easy-to-use interface.
- It provides a good range of free, responsive and attractive templates
- The point-of-sale options are excellent and help Shopify stand apart from its competitors.
- There is a simple Paypal integration available.
- Shopify state that over 200,000 users have built online stores using the platform, which makes it a relatively safe bet that the company (and thus your online store!) is not going to disappear any time soon.
- You can extend Shopify's functionality easily thanks to a huge range of third-party apps (although note that you will have to pay to use many of them).
- Shopify handles the creation of product categories really well.
- VAT MOSS rates is worked out automatically by Shopify.
- The Shopify Buy Button allows you to use Shopify with an existing website built using another platform (for example Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix or Jimdo).
- Whilst you can create 100 variants of a product, these can only involve up to 3 product options.
- Adding custom fields such as text boxes or file upload options, whilst doable, is unnecessarily complicated.
- Shopify Payments (Stripe) only allows you to sell from certain countries – US, Canada, Australia or the UK. If you want to sell from another country you will need to use a payment gateway (although as discussed above I got Shopify Payments working perfectly well for an Irish Shopify store, so there may be exceptions - chat to Shopify about it!)
- You can’t avoid transaction fees if you use a third-party payment gateway.
- There is no way to automatically ensure that product images are displayed using the same aspect ratio. This can lead to messy presentation of stock unless you have cropped all your images in advance of uploading them to Shopify.
- Implementation of the abandoned cart saver could be a bit better.
- Creating drop down menus and adding items to them is a fiddlier process than it should be.
- The cheapest plan (the $9 'Lite' offering) doesn't permit you to create a fully-featured online store.
Alternatives to Shopify
Of the solutions I’ve tested to date – Shopify, Bigcommerce, Volusion, Squarespace and Magento Go – Bigcommerce is probably the strongest alternative to Shopify. It’s similarly priced, easy-to-use and its feature set is broadly comparable with Shopify’s. Bigcommerce also offer a 14 day free trial. Our full Bigcommerce review is here.
Additionally, you may wish to investigate Ecwid, which allows you to add an online store to an existing website (Ecwid offers similar functionality to Shopify's Buy Button, but with more advanced features). You can read our full Ecwid review here.
Finally, you may wish to check out Squarespace, although you need to bear in mind that Squarespace's e-commerce functionality only allows you to take payments through Stripe (Paypal is not an option!).
More Shopify resources
For a visual overview of how Shopify works, you can watch the below video walkthrough (from Shopify).