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
- Shopify ‘Basic’ – $29 per month
- Shopify ‘Pro’ – $79 per month
- Shopify Unlimited – $179 per month
- Shopify Plus – 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’ for $29 per month; the ‘Pro’ plan for $79 per month and the ‘Unlimited’ plan for $179 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. (There used to be a great value ‘starter’ plan which cost $14 per month and allowed users to sell up to 25 products; it’s unclear what’s happened to this as it is not advertised any more but some users, after registering for the free trial, are nonetheless offered the opportunity to sign up to it).
Key features to watch out (and perhaps not miss by selecting the wrong plan) are:
- the abandoned cart recovery tool – 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 ‘Pro’ plan and up
- gift cards – these are only available on the professional and unlimited plans.
- real time carrier shipping, which is only available on the unlimited 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 main plans however).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that you don’t have to pay for plans on a monthly 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. 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).
One important thing worth noting about Shopify Payments is that 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. Fortunately Shopify works with an extensive range of well-respected payment gateways – 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 over 25 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, of which there are over 100. 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’) 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)
If you opt for one of the more expensive plans (‘professional’ and ‘unlimited’), you also get:
- gift cards
- better reports
- abandoned cart functionality: this lets you send a reminder email to people who abandoned their carts (note: this is fairly basic though: you are only allowed to send one email to people who abandoned their carts, and it’s a bit of a fiddly process if you want to include a discount code in the email. Just for the sake of balance, Bigcommerce handles this aspect of running a store considerably better).
And finally, if you’re on an unlimited 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 iPad. The 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.
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.
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’s support is very 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. Bigcommerce offers a similar level of round-the-clock support however.
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 probably 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) and its fairly basic abandoned cart saver.
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 templates
- The point-of-sale options are excellent and help Shopify stand apart from its competitors
- Simple Paypal integration
- Shopify state that 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).
- The Shopify Buy Button allows you to use Shopify with an existing website built using another platform (for example WordPress, Squarespace, Wix or Jimdo).
- 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.
- You can’t avoid transaction fees if you use a third-party payment gateway.
- Credit card fees apply, even if you are using Shopify Payments – it’s impossible to avoid some sort of transaction fee with the product.
- 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.
For an overview of how Shopify works, you might like also to watch the below video walkthrough.