Thinking of selling online? The internet is the new high street, with enormous digital department stores like Amazon taking the lion’s share of sales. But that doesn’t mean your own online business can’t thrive online. Having a brand-focused shop of your own is an excellent way to create income for yourself, or drive sales for your company.
I’m often asked which is the best platform to start an eCommerce website. There are a few choices, ranging from creating an entirely bespoke website from scratch to using an open-source framework like Saleor to keep things fast and light.
However, for the majority of small to medium businesses, you’ll want to choose between the two main players; WooCommerce and Shopify. If you have been searching for an eCommerce solution for longer than ten minutes, you’ve likely heard of both.
Shopify and WooCommerce are well established in the marketplace. Thousands of businesses use them to sell their wares online, trusting the payment systems and relying on customer management services to handle their trade. Which one is right for you will depend on the type of business you run.
The simple guide below will help you decide which of these is best for your business. Let’s take a quick look at the features of both first.
WOOCOMMERCE (PART OF WORDPRESS)
A good analogy would be; a WordPress website is a room you can fill with any kind of content, and WooCommerce adds shelves, baskets and checkout that turn your room into a shop.
Around 33% of all websites in the world are built with WordPress, and WooCommerce is the leading shopping plugin for WordPress. That means that it’s very well supported and isn’t going anywhere.
Because WooCommerce is so prevalent, there are many, many other plugins that “plug-in” to WooCommerce, adding extra features like subscription plans, trade discounts and support for different content like online courses. These additional features are created by third-party developers, or by WooCommerce themselves, and range in price from free to several hundreds of pounds, depending on their quality and capability.
However, the basic, free WooCommerce system is extremely versatile, supporting most common types of products and payments, and is generally suitable for most small businesses without complex pricing structures. WooCommerce also comes with a variety of free and paid themes that make your shop look like, well, a shop!
The downside of using WooCommerce is that it is a toolkit, rather than a service, and the security of the tools it provides depends on the security of your website as a whole.
You’ll also need the knowledge of how to set up a WordPress website (or find a paid hosting provider that can do it for you) and a basic understanding of how to build and maintain a website and keep it safe from dangerous entities like hackers and bots. You’ll also need to purchase a domain name and make sure it’s connected correctly.
Unlike WooCommerce, Shopify is a service and a toolkit, wrapped up in one. Using Shopify is like renting a shop that already has the shelves, baskets and checkout in place – you just have to fill it with your awesome products and content.
You can extend the features of Shopify using its app store. These work much the same as WordPress plugins, but there are fewer options to choose from. As before though, the basic system is usually more than enough for a simple online business.
Shopify doesn’t require setting up in the way that you would usually need to with a website. There’s no hosting provider, as your website is stored on Shopify’s servers. That also means that there’s no opportunity to move your website elsewhere to save money – you are charged for the services you’re using, based on their pricing plan. You can also buy your domain name through the system directly, which is a little simpler than buying yourshopname.com elsewhere and then connecting it.
Shopify comes with its own payments system, ingeniously called Shopify Payments, which can handle all major credit cards at a reasonable 2.2% +20p transaction fee. If you have plans to sell in person, Shopify also offers a whole suite of POS specifically for its platform.
Where Shopify truly shines is in its customer support. As it’s a subscription service (rather than a self-maintained toolkit like WooCommerce), Shopify can offer advice to all of their users and are often able to assist with any basic problems or technical difficulties you might run into. They won’t help design your website or create new features for you, but they can always point you in the right direction, and there are a huge knowledge base and community to help resolve issues, as well as their new training platform Shopify Academy.
WHY NOT BUILD SOMETHING NEW?
For people just moving into eCommerce, I always advise looking to an established and well-supported platform to begin. You might be paying a fraction more in ongoing running costs, but compare that with a completely from-scratch website and you’ll see that it makes far more financial sense. Plus, your business is their business, and any slip up with security or service hurts the company’s stock price – if anyone has a reason to keep you happy and secure, it’s these big players.
WOOCOMMERCE OR SHOPIFY: WHICH IS BEST FOR YOU?
Now we know what WooCommerce and Shopify are, here’s a quick guide on which is going to be the best investment for your online business.
As I stated right at the beginning, it all depends on the type of business you’re running. There are many things to consider, but here are the top pointers to consider.
1. IF YOU HAVE ONLY A FEW PRODUCTS THAT ARE A SMALL PART OF YOUR OVERALL OFFERING
Scenario 1 – You’re a professional band that wants to set up a website and sell some merch.
Scenario 2 – You’re America’s next top drag superstar (can you tell I was just watching Ru Paul?) and you want to launch a new line of signature heels.
Scenario 3 – You’re an established marketing agency and want to sell marketing audit reports online.
In each of these examples, there’s a lot more than just products being sold. Your primary goal is to showcase your business, work, personality or artistic endeavours. For that reason, WooCommerce is the way to go. A WordPress website will allow you to promote your wider content and activities, with WooCommerce providing the essential store functionality for taking payment for products online.
2. IF YOUR BUSINESS IS FOCUSED ON DIGITAL PRODUCTS
Digital products are awesome to sell. Overheads are low. There’s no stock to store. Best of all, the sales process can often be entirely automated.
Whether you’re selling a single digital document or a whole pile of individual products, Shopify is the way to go. However, it comes at an additional price.
To truly unlock the power of digital downloads on Shopify, you’ll need to stay well clear of their terrible app and instead take to the air with Sky Pilot. This third party add on adds exactly what you need for a sleek, automated sales process for your customers. However, it’s free plan offers a laughable 2mb maximum file storage, so you’ll be forced to upgrade to a paid plan for $15 per month for a much more reasonable 20GB.
You can also use the highly recommended Charge Rabbit app to create recurring payments and subscriptions, but this will swipe 5% of your transaction as a fee.
If Sky Pilot’s price tag of $15 per month is too much for you, WooCommerce offers digital products out of the box for free, but the interface can feel clunky and a little confusing for customers in comparison.
3. IF YOU SELL ONLINE COURSES
Forget everything I said above. If your website is for teaching other people, there’s only one choice; WooCommerce.
There are dozens of awesome LMS (Learning Management System) plugins that work with WooCommerce and WordPress. In contrast, there’s essentially nothing that Shopify can offer as a contender. There’s nothing I’d recommend for free, so investing in a reputable system like LearnDash is money well spent.
4. IF YOU SELL OVER 250 DIFFERENT TYPES OF PRODUCTS
If you’re selling a truckload of different things, chances are good that you’ll be spending a lot of time working on your shop. It makes sense to choose the environment that is going to be the most comfortable to do that every day.
No matter how much shop-like functionality WooCommerce adds, WordPress itself was built primarily for blogging purposes, whereas Shopify was built from the ground up to move product – and very little else.
In my experience, WooCommerce starts to feel a little cumbersome once you have more than 250 products to manage. Keeping track of categories, tags and variants becomes a drag, and trying to navigate around admin pages starts to grate on the nerves.
Shopify provides a much better experience for users dealing with large volumes of items, variants and sales. The Bulk Editor tool makes it easy to adjust settings for swathes of products at a time, and the platform’s admin Search is an incredible tool for finding any specific product in a second. For that reason, Shopify should be your first choice.
5. IF YOU’RE STILL NOT SURE
OK, so if you didn’t fall into one of the categories above, there are still two things left to consider; your profits and your stock.
Come rain or shine, Shopify requires a monthly payment from you, so you better be making enough money for it to be worth it.
WooCommerce, on the other hand, doesn’t charge any repeating fees, and almost all of the plugins will be a one-off cost. This means there’s much less risk for people just starting.
Here’s a handy matrix that will help decide which would be the best solution for you:
Whichever route you decide to go down, the most important thing is to make sure you have a guaranteed market. Don’t go all-in on Shopify OR WooCommerce if you’ve yet to make your first sale.