As a fully featured, open-source CMS, WordPress can be adapted to take on any role. Meanwhile competitors seek to outdo it in specific niches, offering less flexibility but a more focused feature set.
Shopify is one of its most prominent rivals in the online sales sphere, with a proven model that has seen a lot of success in recent years. So in 2019, how does WordPress stack up when it comes to eCommerce? Let’s delve into the debate and try to unpick each relevant issue as thoroughly as possible.
Setting the Scene
Since WordPress is open source, it needs plugins to provide eCommerce functionality. Plugins are essentially extra bits of software that sit on top of the underlying platform; the tasty toppings to WordPress’ reliable pizza base.
Unlike WooCommerce, Shopify is not a plugin that piggybacks on another service; it is a proprietary system in its own right. It has also experienced an explosion in popularity in recent years, going from a gross merchandise volume of $1.6 billion (£1.2 billion) in 2013 to $15.4 billion (£12.1 billion) in 2016.
Clash of the Titans
So what do these figures mean in practice? Well at the moment, WooCommerce has a healthy but not unassailable lead over Shopify, accounting for 22 per cent of the market compared with its rival’s 18 per cent stake.
Now that the scope of these two adversaires has been quantified, let us take a look at how well they are matched when it comes to usability, functionality, flexibility, expandability and many other important aspects.
Ease of Use
An eCommerce solution is only as effective as the tools that it offers for webmasters, so ease of use needs to be a priority.
Where WooCommerce Wows
While it may be a separate plugin rather than a dedicated platform, WooCommerce is certainly designed with usability in mind. For daily site upkeep, the interface is very straightforward. You can easily add new products, make alterations to existing listings and adjust important aspects like pricing, payments and shipping.
At the core of this update will be a fresh dashboard that will incorporate a number of important elements. This includes a more comprehensive reporting solution to make better use of the available data, a suite of simplified site management tools and an interface that is even more intuitive. For SMEs that lack the technical knowhow to handle a more complicated setup, this will be ideal.
The reporting tools may be the most significant aspect of the update, since they essentially make it easy for store owners to get an instant snapshot of key metrics in real time. This covers everything from revenues and refunds to shipping costs and tax. Reports can be downloaded for even more flexibility, while a simple set of filters will let users track down relevant information far more efficiently.
Likewise the rise of the Calypso interface, which allows for multiple WordPress.com sites to be managed in one place, is adding to the platform’s appeal. In short, users have an exciting new era of WordPress to look forward to.
How Shopify Shines
At a glance, the Shopify interface is surprisingly similar to that of WooCommerce, with a clearly laid out interface and the same set of tools available within the management dashboard.
The main distinction is that WooCommerce requires a little more setup, since it has to be installed after a site has been built on WordPress. Meanwhile Shopify lets users launch a store quickly, even if they have limited technical skills.
As a result of these distinctions, WordPress-powered eCommerce sites are typically built by web design agencies for clients, since they take a little more know-how to setup. Once the ball is rolling, there is little to separate WooCommerce from dedicated rivals like Shopify in the usability stakes.
Let’s examine Shopify first, which offers 14 day free trial for individual sellers and small businesses, after which its basic package is priced at $29 a month, equivalent to around £23. For this you get a store, unlimited product pages, a pair of staff accounts, round the clock support and a few other perks. It has two other packages, costing $79 and $299 monthly respectively, which add more user accounts, reporting features, gift card capabilities and integration for third party point-of-sale apps, amongst other things.
WooCommerce Site Costs Deconstructed
In principle, WooCommerce is free to use, since it is open source. It also supports unlimited accounts and unlimited product pages in its basic form, unlike Shopify. This gives you a lot of freedom to expand.
In practice, while the basic plugin does not cost a penny to install, you may want to add premium extensions to flesh out your site’s functionality. You will also need to pay for third party site hosting and splash out annually for SSL certification and your top-level domain name. Thankfully affordable hosting packages which include all of this can cost as little as £2 a month.
Official WooCommerce estimates peg the low-end cost of running an eCommerce site using its plugin at $55 per month, or around $660 annually. Adding in useful extras and customising a site will bring this minimum up to roughly $1,000, although of course this needs to be considered on a case by case basis.
Annual Expenses Outlined
How much you pay for either a WooCommmerce or Shopify store will vary wildly according to your needs. Price is also just one aspect to consider amongst many, as features and functions still vary between the two.
Shopify has flat rate annual costs of between $948 and $3,588 which need to be considered alongside the transaction fees it levies against each sale you make from your store. The $660 entry level annual expense of keeping a WooCommerce store up and running is quite a bit lower, while the lack of transaction fees is also a plus, although charges may be faced depending on the payment platform you pick.
While you need to be able to work easily with the backend of any eCommerce site, the customer-facing elements need to be just as user-friendly to be worthy of consideration. In short, you should ignore user experience (UX) at your peril.
Adaptability in WooCommerce
When it comes to UX, WooCommerce gives you free rein to manage this as you see fit. Themes and templates can be used to craft the buying journey minutely, or you can get an agency to create something unique for you from the ground up.
You will need coding experience to create and apply themes in WooCommerce, but hosting solutions like Kinsta can take care of this for you and strip away a lot of the complex aspects of creating a store on WordPress.
The Shopify Balancing Act
Shopify is far more buttoned-down and restrictive in this respect, as in many others. For a lot of users this will not necessarily be an issue, especially as most of the themes and layouts on offer are undeniably well optimised from a UX perspective. For other prospective eCommerce site owners, the fact that there are hard limits on adaptability in this area will be deal-breaker and give WooCommerce the upper hand.
As a proprietary platform, the user experience is placed at the top of the agenda. This means that almost anyone can use it to conjure up a compelling eCommerce site without needing to be a coding wizard.
In addition, Shopify is designed to offer a holistic experience for those that would prefer to be able to manage every aspect of their online sales from one place. It provides a degree of interoperability with other platforms, such as logistics services which can help with order fulfilment. It also factors in its own payments system to make it quick and easy to process transactions. WordPress and WooCommerce can match this, but only via plugins and extensions.
The upcoming changes to WooCommerce should make it less of a challenge for site owners to build and adapt eCommerce stores to their liking and perfect the UX. This means Shopify’s superiority in this area should be short lived.
Site performance has to be swift, especially in a mobile-obsessed age. You may be surprised to find out that on average it takes web pages 15.3 seconds to load over a mobile connection. The longer the wait, the lower the conversion rate, which means the eCommerce platform you pick needs to make speed a priority.
Put The Pedal To The Metal With WooCommerce
WooCommerce and WordPress offer plenty of opportunities for performance optimisation, since you are in the driving seat when it comes to making changes. Sometimes simply switching the hosting package you are using will do the trick and bring down load times. In other circumstances you will need to take more drastic action and change the design of the site, trimming the fat to fix sluggish speeds. If your website is stuck in the slow lane, get in touch with the experts at KIJO to see what improvements can be made.
Accelerate Smoothly With Shopify
Shopify promises scalable hosting performance, so long as you subscribe to its highest priced package. This should account for peaks and troughs in demand as well as dealing with hiccups as they arise. Of course since its users are tethered to the platform’s baked-in hosting and management features, there is only a limited amount of adjustability offered. If site speed remains unacceptable, it may be best to migrate to a more flexible alternative like WordPress.
Open Source Advantages
In the world of software, open source is a term used to describe any platform or package which is available to any third party developer or team that wants to dive headfirst into the source code, make their own changes and even come up with something completely new using the same building blocks. For eCommerce, open source services have obvious benefits.
Why Open Source Matters For WordPress & WooCommerce
The open source origins of WordPress have allowed it to flourish over the years, even if the organisation behind it is a private concern. Its adaptability invites experimentation and there is no central organisation which ‘owns’ all of the data and content associated with the sites that harness it.
In combination with the WooCommerce plugin, WordPress offers the least restrictive eComerce experience on the market. Developers are free to tinker beneath the bonnet of any site they create, retain control over the experience they offer and never worry about having to relinquish any autonomy.
These advantages are not just relevant today but will remain a significant selling point of WordPress as an eCommerce solution for years to come. This is especially important with regards to ownership of data. In an open source ecosystem, site owners have 100 per cent control over the information on their eCommerce store. With a proprietary platform like Shopify, sensitive data and the site itself remains the property of the provider; a small change to policies at a later date, or a breach, could leave users in dire straits.
Flexibility also goes hand in hand with affordability. Setting up a site powered by WooCommerce is inexpensive and there are a huge variety of pre-built themes available, allowing you to pick an appropriate template and get started straight away.
Shopify’s Proprietary Problem
Shopify is not open source and so offers few of the benefits that WooCommerce can muster in terms of customisation at a core level. The positives of its more restricted approach have been discussed already, so it is important not to overlook the fact that there is only so far you can push the platform from a creative perspective. The limits may seem irrelevant at first, but they will eventually come into play as you develop your site and brand.
The design of your eCommerce site is the most immediately impactful aspect from the perspective of customers. It is the first thing they will notice and encompasses the pure aesthetics as well as the actual mechanics of things like navigation.
This manifests itself in several ways. For example, it is tricky for a Shopify user to transform their online presence into something truly individual and distinct. Sure, each site might look slick and professional when seen in isolation. Unfortunately some themes are so popular and prevalent that the sites which use them end up feeling interchangeable, amorphous and distinctly lacking in personality.
This is not a deal-breaking point in its own right. What suffers is a business’ ability to separate itself from the competition and define its own brand identity. If one store looks much like the next, visitors may be less likely to have a memorable experience, even if they are converted into paying customers.
There are custom theme creation tools and a community of designers working on bespoke Shopify designs. However, the range of operations and options pales in comparison with the sheer size of its rival.
WooCommerce’s Design Potential
Over in the open source ecosystem supported by WordPress and WooCommerce, adaptability is the name of the game and uniqueness is achievable with a bit of hard work. Even if you simply tweak an existing theme to put your own twist on it, you will be making much more of an impact.
With infinite choice when it comes to design and interface, the freedom may end up feeling like a frightening prospect. It definitely makes sense to work with designers who know what they are doing to wring the best results from WooCommerce as a result. There are thousands upon thousands of agencies and individuals who are well versed in using this platform, so your options are extensive, whatever your aims.
Development & Plugins
You should have grasped the basics of plugins in an eCommerce setting if you have got this far. But from a developer’s perspective, how do these platforms compare in terms of the add-ons and extras that can be piled on to further push their capabilities?
Bolting On Features In WooCommerce
From a development perspective, the open ended infrastructure provided by WordPress makes WooCommerce the most suitable platform for experienced operators to harness.
There are virtually no limits on what can be built and if you do not want to develop a specific element yourself, you can add extensions and extra plugins from an ever-expanding array of more than 54,000 options. It is also very important to take into consideration WordPress security when carrying out Development tasks and plugin installations.
Making Small Additions to Shopify
Shopify is not entirely without its development opportunities; those who want to get more closely involved with its underpinnings can use the Liquid language to make content less generic. Themes can also be built from scratch, but even with these tools on hand it is impossible to escape the feeling that there are still a lot of restrictions in place.
Anyone with a technical head on their shoulders might think of Shopify as offering a Fisher
Price-style eCommerce site development experience, especially in comparison with WooCommerce’s unending expandability.
When it comes to plugins, which in Shopify’s ecosystem are known as ‘apps’, there are over 2000. Even so, this is a drop in the ocean compared with what WordPress has to offer.
Search Engine Optimisation
Every website that wants to get visitors flooding in will need to take search engine optimisation (SEO) seriously. There are a lot of different skills and strategies required to optimise an eCommerce site, covering everything from the copy used in product descriptions to the tags, page titles, images, domain names and a wealth of other decision points.
SEO In Shopify
Tools for SEO are provided within Shopify’s platform, allowing the usual addition of keyword-rich content, suitable tagging and overall solid performance that will help with ranking.
That said, it is worth noting that the proprietary nature of the platform once more puts the brakes on any in-depth optimisation efforts. You will need to get used to using the features you are handed without much hope of more advanced alterations being possible.
Boosting Search Visibility With WooCommerce
WooCommerce benefits once more from WordPress’ versatility, allowing site owners to pick and choose from SEO-focused plugins. The most popular of the bunch is Yoast, which appears on over 6 million sites and gives impressive access to features that can boost search visibility while also tying in analytics for impactful troubleshooting. This basically means that your site will sit higher up on Google’s results pages for the keywords you target, whether you are selling gardening equipment or fashion accessories.
As covered in the section on speed, WooCommerce allows webmasters to do much more in terms of optimisation without having to put up with the limitations of a proprietary platform like Shopify.
Chance of Success
If you decide to throw your lot in with either WooCommerce or Shopify, will you stand a better chance of success as a result of this decision? Ultimately this will come down to a range of factors, but the eCommerce platform you pick should still be seen as a pivotal part of your growth strategy.
Expecting overnight success on either platform is wishful thinking, but there are opportunities for growth and new avenues to exploit across the eCommerce market at the moment. All it takes is the spark of an idea and a lot of hard work to pursue them effectively.
Shape of Things to Come
By now you should have a fairly good idea about the ins and outs of WordPress and Shopify. On the one hand, the ease of use makes Shopify good for first timers on a tight budget who can swallow the restrictions they might face as their site grows. On the other, the flexibility of WordPress makes it much better for businesses that want to remain in control of their own data and build something bespoke and responsive.
If you take anything away from this discussion of WordPress eCommerce vs Shopify, it should be that each platform has its perks and no decision on adoption should be rushed. The simplicity of Shopify may make it initially more attractive. However, the malleability of WordPress and the fact that you will remain in charge of your site and your data indefinitely means that it is the most valid choice if you want to launch an online store in 2019.
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