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Hey, Scott Austin here.
My very first podcast episode over two years ago was about why I recommend Shopify. Well a lot has changed with e-Commerce since then. I still recommend Shopify, but I want to update my recommendation in this episode.
When Shopify is not the Best Option
In my original recommendation, I said that Shopify is the hands-down best solution for small and medium size businesses. I want to start off by refining that a bit. While I still recommend Shopify for most e-commerce businesses, there are some fringe scenarios where I would not recommend it. So let me define that fringe a bit with some examples. Here are some examples of e-commerce businesses where Shopify may not be the best solution.
- Cannabis Dispensary. While these stores are legal in many states, they still have a large number of legal requirements that they need to follow that aren't supported by Shopify.
- Gym. It is possible to sell gym memberships in a Shopify store. But the gym also needs that sales or subscription information to integrate with their gym access system.
- Meal delivery. I have built a couple of meal delivery stores in Shopify. But what they are missing is the integration with ingredient ordering, meal cook lists and delivery routes systems.
- Hair salon. Many hair salons have a complex matrix of hairdressers, stations and calendar slots that need to be managed.
In each of these examples, there's a core need that is not met by Shopify. Now those needs could be met with an app. Or they could be met by a complete solution that is focused on a particular vertical. Cannabis, gyms, meal delivery and hair salons have multiple software providers that have developed bespoke solutions for their needs. Usually that software is not as easy to use nor does it integrate as easily with other systems as Shopify does. But the improvement in workflow automation can outweigh the downsides.
In summary, some of the aspects of a business that would put it into the fringe category and have me wonder if there are solutions that are a better fit than Shopify include:
- Legal requirements
- The need to manage and book assets
- A core business need beyond the simple selling of products or services. Like the cook lists for meal delivery or access for gyms.
And even some of these fringe businesses will still choose Shopify. But they should evaluate the pros and cons of all their options before making a decision.
Now for the rest of the small to medium size businesses, which I think is over 99% of the businesses, Shopify is the no brainer platform for hosting your own store. And for this discussion, let's just say that small to medium means you're making $50 million a year or less. So if your store's brand new with no revenue and all up to 50 million a year, I think it's a no brainer that you should be on Shopify. It's worthy to note, that there are several store on Shopify today doing more than $100 million in revenue.
There are other eCommerce choices out there for businesses of this size. There's plenty of them including Squarespace, 3dCart, Volusion, WooCommerce, BigCommerce, Magento, Wix and Weebly. But to me Shopify is currently head and shoulders above the competition. That was true in my first podcast episode in 2019. And it's even more true now. Shopify's progress and evolution have outpaced the competition over the past few years.
So here are some of my top reasons, in no particular order, why I recommend Shopify.
1. Shopify is feature rich
There is a lot of complexity to running an e-commerce business. Shopify has a comprehensive set of features to help store owners run their business. While I'm not going to list out all of the features here, Shopify has put together a broad suite of features that are core to every e-commerce business.
2. Shopify is relatively easy to use
I have helped many businesses migrate to Shopify from just about every other platform out there. Every store owner was amazed at how much easier things were to do in their Shopify store than they were in their previous platform. Things like adding products is easier or fulfilling their products and doing shipping. Everything was just so much easier. The Shopify admin is really customer focused. It is intuitive, so it's easy for people to do things within it. The Shopify admin works so well, there are many stores that manage their entire online business using just their smart phone.
3. The Shopify Ecosystem
Shopify has a growing number of stores that are on its platform. I think the latest numbers I've seen are 1.8 million stores on Shopify. That's more than double what it was two years ago. And that number just keeps growing every time they come out with new data. That means that you are not alone and you can find help and solutions for just about anything that your store may need.
The first place that we see that is in apps. Shopify has built a rich ecosystem of apps. There are many things that your store and your business may need that are beyond the scope of what Shopify provides with their platform. Examples of that include email, customer reviews or store backups. Luckily, there are many apps for each of these needs. And this means that your store can have much more capability than what is provided by the Shopify platform alone. And because Shopify is so prevalent in e-commerce, many services that you may already be using today and want to integrate with your store probably already have an app built that that you can use. For example, there are apps to connect your store to QuickBooks if you are using QuickBooks for your accounting. There are apps to integrate with your inventory systems, fulfillment services and more.
The next thing that's really good about the ecosystem is the number of professionals that are out there focused on Shopify. There is a vast army of professional services businesses that you can find to help you grow your business. Whether it's for things like site design or paid advertising or copy-writing or SEO or social traffic. There are plenty agencies just like mine that are here to help. So you are not alone. If and when, you exceed your knowledge base of what you're doing with your store, you can find somebody to help you.
And the last part of the ecosystem that's really helpful is just the amount of advice and documentation that exists for you because there are so many stores on Shopify today and so many businesses supporting Shopify stores. There is plenty of documentation that you can learn from. Some of that documentation comes from Shopify itself with its forums, training courses and basic documentation. But a lot of it is driven by the community. There are YouTube channels. There are blogs. There are podcasts. There are Facebook groups. And there is plenty more that you can learn from. Finding this content is pretty easy. Just do a quick web search. If you're stuck on something, search for Shopify and the phrase that you are researching. You'll be amazed at how many answers you'll find that are applicable to what you're looking for. So it's really easy to find advice and information and build your knowledge base on how to leverage the Shopify platform for your business.
4. Shopify's Product Development
I've been using Shopify for my clients since 2013 and I'm amazed at the amount of improvements and new features that Shopify has done. And it seems like every week or two they are deploying a new release with new features and improvements.
Of particular note, I was very impressed with how quickly they released features to support changes brought on by Covid. Delivery, store pick-up and tipping were rapidly developed and deployed by Shopify to help stores with the changes brought on by Covid.
Shopify is doing more than adding new features. Those features are driven by a product strategy. My summary of that strategy is that Shopify is focused on empowering store owners to own and build their business. Its more than an anti-Amazon strategy, though it is noticeably anti-Amazon. Shopify product development takes on big initiatives like online store 2.0 and delivers them over time which increases their lead over the competition.
5. Robust Platform
The Shopify platform has a lot of technical requirements and best practices built in. It's a hosted solution so that you don't have to take care of any servers or software updates. They have built out a massive infrastructure across the globe to deliver your website as quickly as possible to potential customers in all corners of the planet. The can handle the user load of the biggest stores. And many technical best practices are in place. Whether it's for SSO, responsiveness, basic SEO, or a number of table stakes level requirements, the Shopify platform has you covered. With Shopify, they are taking care of many of your technical needs so you can focus on your customers and your business.
6. Good People, Good Company
Shopify is now Canada's largest company in terms of market value. And somehow, they still seem like a truly good company staffed with amazingly nice people. There's not another company that I know of that is there size that I would say that about. While Shopify is a public company and is focused on profit, it still cares about it partners and customers. For example, it recently changed its revenue share model with app developers giving more of the revenue to developers.
And in every interaction that I've had with Shopify employees, I'm amazed at how nice they are. They are just good people. You may not get the answer you want, but it will be a pleasant interaction.
7. Low Start Up Cost
Shopify is low cost to get started. The business model is designed to scale with the size of your business. As your business grows, you are going to pay Shopify more, but the basic fee to get started is $29 a month, and that's a pretty low bar for a company.
So those are for me the top reasons why you should pick Shopify. And, like I said, for most businesses it's a no brainer decision that Shopify is the e-commerce platform for them.
But no solution is perfect. And next I want to talk about the downsides of Shopify.
1. Shopify Admin Stability
In the software development world, Facebook is famous for having a 'go fast and break things' motto. The logic is that getting software updates out to real customers is the most important way to measure results. Basically you are using your customers as testers, and sometimes things will break. While that strategy is questionable at best in a social network, I don't think it has any place in a platform that ran over 100 billion dollars of transactions in 2020. But that does appear to be how they operate at some level.
My biggest example of that happened to me a couple of months ago. I was working on a client's store and the metafields that had been in place a while ago were not working as they had been previously and I couldn't figure out what had changed. So I contacted customer support. I was able to convince them that there was an issue. They had their tier two support look at the server logs. They determined that the issue was a software update that they had released that day, so they rolled the update back. But better testing in the development process could help the issue be identified before being placed in the live environment to be discovered by operating stores.
Now that example is a small one. But they seem to happen often. I see it most often in updates to the user interface to the Shopify admin. Quite often, when new features get rolled out, they aren't thought all of the way through.
Here's a recent example. With online store 2.0, the theme editor now lets you create json or liquid template files. Well, for a vast, vast majority of the template adds, the format is going to be liquid. So liquid should be the default format. But JSON currently is, which I assume is because j comes before l in the alphabet. In that same add a new template feature, changing the template from say article to product will reset the template type back to JSON even if you already selected liquid.
When I see these new quirks, I'm fairly confident that Shopify will fix them over time. Many times, it will happen in a matter of weeks. I work inside of the Shopify admin every day, all day long. So I usually know when some quirk is caused by the software or by something I did wrong. But my clients don't have the same level of familiarity with the platform. I see them frequently get confused and think that they are doing something wrong. When the confusion is actually a result of the way the Shopify admin is currently working. So I'd prefer to that admin was more thoroughly tested and designed through the lens of store staff that do not have familiarity with the details of the platform.
2. Customer Support
Although I just talked about a recent positive experience I had with Shopify customer support, I'm generally disappointed with the quality of support that Shopify provides. They have a lot of people and they're very responsive to customer support inquiries. But the knowledge of these people is very limited and surprisingly they're often just wrong about the answers that they give.
For example, on Shopify forums, the support staff is answering a lot of the posts that customers put up there. And all too often their solution is just to point to an APP that the store owner should download and install in the store. Sometimes, the proposed app solves the problem. But other times, if you dig into the app and the problem, the proposed app is not the solution. I've seen many cases where the Shopify staff could easily document a couple of lines of code for the theme that would provide the solution that the customer is looking for without having to go through the whole process of adding an app and taking on that extra monthly fee. So I think that they can be a little more in-depth in their answers when they are responding on the forums.
I've also had my clients tell me some of the advice that they have gotten from Shopify support during direct phone and email interactions. In a surprising number of these support instances, I think the advice from Shopify was just plain wrong.
3. Stacked Deck towards Shopify Payments
For me, this one is not a big deal. But enough of my clients mention it that I want to bring it up. Shopify provides its own payment processing that's powered by Stripe. They start at a 2.9% processing fee in their basic plan and the fee goes down a bit with each plan in the Shopify ladder. It gets down to 2.1% in Plus. Shopify also allows you to use a third-party payment processor which appeals to many stores as they think they get a better rate than the Shopify rate. But Shopify charges a per transaction fee when a third party payment processor is used which most store owners don't realize at first. The result is that a third party payment processer is usually not cheaper than Shopify's payment fees.
As I said, this is not a big deal for me as I understand that Shopify's business model is to scale their revenue as a store's revenues grow. And the best way to do that is at the payment processing.
4. Some core e-commerce functionality is just lacking
I see the core of Shopify as an e-commerce engine. Desired functionality is product listings, shopping experience and cart. But there are some core e-commerce features that are seriously lacking in Shopify. Some, but not all, of them can be solved with apps. Here are some examples of areas for improvement:
a. Image management. Adding photos to Shopify to use in product listings and on the rest of the site is pretty easy. But it quickly becomes unmanageable. Here are some examples.
i. When adding an image from the Shopify file library in theme customization, you cannot search by name or any other parameter. You are just presented with a list of all images in reverse order of when they were added to Shopify. So if you have 100s of images, you'll need to scroll through pages and pages of images to find an old one. Sometimes, it can take you several minutes to find the right photo this way.
ii. If you get frustrated with that process and add a photo again that is already in your store. Shopify will add that photo and change the name to be different from the original photo. I'd much prefer that it warned that the photo is already available in order to prevent multiple copies of the same image.
b. Shipping. Shipping is a hard problem to solve and Shopify doesn't solve enough of it. For example Shopify uses one box size across the whole store when determining dim weight for calculated shipping. You'll need apps if you are shipping different size boxes, using multiple 3PLs, or have any complexity in shipping rules.
c. Inventory Management. Like shipping, inventory is a hard problem. I don't expect Shopify to handle every inventory need and it has made some progress in the past couple of years with the addition of the concept of multiple warehouses. But there's a ton more to be done. Needed functionality includes:
i. Synchronizing inventory across more than one Shopify store.
ii. Managing inventory when a SKU exists more than once in a store.
iii. Allowing bundles where a parent SKU contains several child SKUs.
5. The app bill
Lastly, many beginning store owners forecast their technology expenses by determining their direct Shopify fees for their plan and payment processing. Then they are surprised when they see all the additional costs incurred by apps. Of course, apps are discretional. But any successful store is going to be using several of them and the fees can add up quite quickly.
So that's my list of top pros and cons for Shopify. I believe that the pros far outweigh the cons. In most cases, Shopify is the best choice for online stores. The only time that I would consider another platform outside of Shopify is in rare, niche cases where the business has very unique needs. Needs like legal requirements or the need to manage bookable assets. And even in the case of some of these niches, Shopify will still be the best choice.
In other words, if you are planning on launching a typical e-commerce store, go with Shopify. You will not be disappointed. You'll quickly get your store basics in place so you can focus on the challenges of customer acquisition.
Thanks for listening.