Ecommerce platform choices - a developer’s comparison

Friday, September 15th 2017

Out of the many choices of ecommerce platforms, there are a few that stand out as the most popular in the space.

The major competitors in this area are Magento, Shopify, Squarespace, and Woocommerce.

After investigating these options, we found the following:

MagentoShopifySquarespaceWoocommerce
Popularitystarstarstarstar_borderstar_borderstarstarstarstarstarstarstarstarstar_borderstar_borderstarstarstarstar_borderstar_border
Customizabilitystarstarstarstarstarstarstarstarstarstar_borderstarstar_borderstar_borderstar_borderstar_borderstarstarstarstarstar_border
Coststarstar_borderstar_borderstar_borderstar_borderstarstarstarstarstar_borderstarstarstarstarstarstarstarstarstar_borderstar_border
Ease of usestarstarstar_borderstar_borderstar_borderstarstarstarstarstar_borderstarstarstarstarstarstarstarstar_borderstar_borderstar_border

Magento is for large companies that want complete control over their site but will pay for that control with ongoing support cost.

Shopify is a balance between customizability, cost, and ease of use. You give up some control for that balance. That said, it can support your store’s growth into hundreds of millions of revenue a year without too many hiccups and is fairly future-proof.

Squarespace is for small shops that don’t want to spend on support, are happy with stripe and paypal alone as payment processors, and don’t have much needs in the way of custom. You get a beautiful, easy to use shop fast and cheap.

Woocommerce is somewhere between Magento and Squarespace. You can get a hosted solution with a lot of support and customizability if you’re willing to pay for it. You can also go even cheaper than Squarespace but then there’s a lot of self-service involved. In that case, it’s best to know Wordpress already.

In the next sections, we'll break down the platforms in terms of popularity, customizability, cost, and ease of use.

editNote: Self-hosting is not covered in this report due to the variability. Self-hosting remains a great choice very large companies. The cost of continued development and administration, however, takes it off the table for most small to medium businesses.

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Popularity

Ecommerce as a space changes rapidly. You want to know the platform is going to stick around and remain the focus of the company involved. This is why popularity and growth is a key metric.

Here’s the google trends for the most popular platforms. Google trends is a record of the amount of searches of a particular phrase graphed against each other. It’s not the only indicator of popularity but it’s a fairly good one.

Magento is clearly the old winner but is declining in popularity. It will still be around for a long time, but the trend is clear. Also note that a lot of magento searches come from traditional outsource countries. This could indicate that there’s a lot of development consulting work from india searching it as part of their work. This does not indicate directly adoption.

Squarespace and Woocommerce are trending quite evenly. This makes sense as they’re both marketed towards the same audience: low cost, easy to use shop.

Shopify’s growth is just extreme. It crossed Magento’s search popularity in early 2017 and shows no sign of stopping.

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Customizability

Most stores are unique in some way. Fashion shops might have customizability options for sizing. Vape shops might need to require a minimum age to browse. Shops based around the world might need currency localization.

These small tweaks can turn into big, costly projects if you choose the wrong platform.

Here, we break down customizability in two categories: apps and custom development flexibility.

Apps

Apps will provide solutions to the most common problems and, because you are only a single customer, these customizations are much cheaper than you’d pay to hiring someone to accomplish the same goal. A platform with a great app store can go a long way to lowering your cost and future-proofing your store.

The true power in Shopify’s solution lies in its vast ecosystem of apps. Shopify has the most apps hands down. The most effort goes mantaining these apps than on any other platform. Apps on the platform often have a monthly recurring cost. They can and do add up.

Magento's is waeker here. Most Magento shops are heavily customized such that apps have a hard time working for every customer. App developers are turned off by Magento because of this. If you can find an app that works for you on the platform, however, you’ll only need to pay once.

The pay-once model of apps is a double-edged sword, though. It’s true that they will end up costing you less as long as they are well supported. Platforms change and developers with no future revenue will be reluctant to keep up with those changes. Things will break and support will be limited.

It’s for these reasons Magento ecosystem is largely based around the expensive custom development model.

Woocommerce might be better balanced in this area. Because of their Wordpress backend, they’ve attracted the immense Wordpress developer community. Apps on the platform are more numerous than on Magento but less than Shopify. Apps are more akin to the magento model, though, suffering from the above double-edge sword of a pay once model.

Squarespace provides no app store. Instead, it has some key integrations to things you most likely need while running a shop. This isn’t so bad as the integrations are well maintained. You will not run into compatibility issues that you will with any of the other platforms. If the integration is what you’re looking for, it’s probably going to be painless to use.

Custom Development

Magento really shines here - for the right price. The platform was made for customizability completely. Because Magento is open source, a healthy dose of knowledgeable php development time can bring your store exactly where you want it. This is well supported by the Magento community.

Woocommerce is very much the same story as Magento. Being wordpress based and completely open source, you can tap a large number of developers to customize your site exactly how you want it.

Shopify strikes a balance here. With a large API, developers can change a lot of things in your shop. There are gaps here where there is very little ways to do some things you want. For instance, your control over the payment screen is extremely limited.

Squarespace is the least customizable. They provide template modification with deeper integration seemingly invite-only. This is a show stopper if you want to do something based on an event. Still, you can customize the front end as you’d like with with advanced developer tools and good documentation.

Be aware, though, custom development of this sort can easily run you in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Maintenance is mandatory and things always change. New bugs and requirements are found in the software customizations you purchased. You, therefore, will have ongoing costs keeping those developers on payroll, at least as a support contract, for the lifetime of the shop.

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Cost

Both Woocommerce and Magento are open source. This means that you can theoretically run them on your own installation for free. This will incur system admin costs ongoing unless you’re comfortable as a system admin yourself. We’ll focus on the hosted model that takes care of this for you.

Woocommerce has affiliated third party hosts. This means that they’re highly variable in price and support. The cheapest hosted install is only around $5/month. This solution gives you a small, no batteries included sort of bare bones installation. Almost like hosting yourself.

On the other end of the spectrum with Woocommerce, you can go very expensive and get tons of support with providers starting at $5000/month.

These price models put a lot of emphasis on the people supporting the installation whether in-house or provided by a third-party vendor.

Third parties setting up installations is the standard for Magento, too. Though in the Magento world, these installations are often much more customized than the Woocommerce and have high prices to match.

The Magento model is built on a high level of support for a high price. Just how high a price? Most vendors will quote you only after a lot of back and forth. Expect easily spending thousands for the initial installation and a monthly support contract that dwarf the other providers.

Shopify is a single, closed source solution so pricing is much more predictable. Generally, you pay a tiered monthly price plus an additional percent based on the amount of money you transact.

At the time of writing, Shopify's pricing is as follows:

Basic - $29/month + 2.7%

Standard - $79/month + 2.6%

Advanced - $299/month + 2.4%

Plus - “Call us” arrangement. This usually means quite a bit more money.

The basic plan covers most of the bases. You don't get gift cards unless you go to the higher tiers but most of the other options aren’t so critical. Advanced API access, say if you’re doing a lot of custom development work, will cost you. Plus is the only way to access everything a developer might want.

This is for a bare installation. As Shopify’s biggest win is with apps so you’ll likely tack on some monthly expenses with the apps that are specific to your store’s needs.

Squarespace is also provided by exactly one company meaning simpler pricing. They provide their hosted solution for two prices: $28/month or $42/month for more advanced features. They claim “no transaction fees” but that’s a little misleading as paypal and stripe - the only payment providers they support - have their own transaction fees on par with’s shopify’s above fees.

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Ease of use

Here, Squarespace is the winner if and only if you need a very quick and simple shop.

Because of the limit of what’s possible with Squarespaces’ ecommerce setup, the admin panels are super easy to navigate. You might miss some features here provided by the others like advanced saved searches for products or customers, but here Squarespace adopts a sort of Apple-like design.

Designing your site is easy with great templates and drag and drop for your content. You really won’t need to drop down into code unless you want to do advanced stuff.

Squarespace expects that there is one right way to do something and you might not want to do it another way so why give the option?

With a mega admin panel, Magento tries to cover all the bases with features. This is in stark contrast to Squarespace. Sometimes those features are critical but often they just get in the way.

Magento has a theme selection that could use some love, but there are plenty of apps that off drag and drop page building capability. Still, configuring all that might leave you confused if you’re not a techy versed in php.

Woocommerce fares better here. The community around themes and apps is more active and that means when you install one or the other, it's more likely to actually work without much fuss.

Woo’s admin panel should be familiar to anyone who has worked with Wordpress before, but like all outgrowths of wordpress, it does feel a little tacked-on.

Shopify again strikes a balance here. A more configurable admin panel than what Squarespace offers while still being easy and quick to navigate. The admin panel is probably the best in the space.

Drag and drop page builders are available at the app store, but the themes themselves are largely static unless you want to drop down into the HTML/template language. That said, the themes are quite good. The default free themes are generally the best as they’re the best supported by apps and get the most design updates.

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