Recently I was trying to start an ecommerce store and had to make the decision all store owners are faced when starting: What software do I use? Being well acquainted with store owners who have been doing it for years, I quickly whittled it down to 4 contenders.
First I tried to make self-hosting work. I like owning my code and wanted to avoid the $30/m minimum managed stores charge for an idea I didn’t know was going to be profitable or not. I used Envato Elements to find themes for the big dog in the race, Magento. I found what I liked and now I tried to setup Magento.
Uh oh. The pain and troubles begin before you can even download it. Firstly, you have to decide between Magento 2 and 1.9. I did some research and 2 looked like it would be much better code wise, because it used modern PHP tooling and methods. It might have been, but I can’t tell you for sure because I was unable to find any good themes for it. I asked someone else who makes Magento sites and he echoed the same thing; it’s better but there aren’t that many themes for it.
So armed with this research, I went back to Magento to download 1.9. But I just couldn’t find it. On the archive page, after scrolling through all the 2.* releases, I found something called a “Magento downloader for 1.9″ last updated in 2014. Then some “Sample Data” and then small patch updates. But no actual 1.9 download with all patches in place!
Only through luck did I find out you had to scroll past all the patches before you got to the full 1.9 downloads section. Such an idiotic design that frustrated me. That experience, and that feeling, actually sums up my dealings with Magento: you have to rely on luck and research to solve all the problems you will face due to their bad programming design. I faced hurdles installing it. I faced hurdles setting up a theme. I faced hurdles logging into the administration panel. I faced hurdles installing sample data. Every single one of those required me to lookup what was going wrong, find other people who had the issue, then try all the various solutions as there can be many different reasons why an error happens.
Those who aren’t technically ept enough stand no chance with Magento. Everyone else will have a lot of frustration to deal with. I spoke to other Magento store owners and they agreed with me, a lot of them are fed up with Magento. At some point, I got fed up myself and decided to see what the other self-hosted solution, X-Cart would be like.
I was told X-Cart, while complicated, was very featureful and fast, and that they had SEO success with it for years. But it turned out, there were basically no themes for X-Cart I liked (there really are so few) and it had its own templating language you had to learn if you wanted to make something custom. X-Cart is a relatively small, niche platform put out by some Russian company and I wasn’t about to invest time learning how to develop for it. So I had to pass on it.
The only options left then were the hosted solutions, first Shopify then BigCommerce. As I started discussing Shopify, the X-Cart enthusiast admitted his decade old store was starting to become outdone by an upstart Shopify store in Google rankings. His intuition told him it was because of the speed – Google seemed to be heavily weighing the speed of sites over say age or links. Shopify is a very fast platform out of the box because they manage the backend for you. They optimize the server, the images, etc.. The optimizations they do would be pretty difficult to do for a self-hosted solution. Being fed up with Magento and X-Cart, this was a promising sign. Would I really be able to out compete these other stores with my little shopify upstart? Maybe with speed I could.
I didn’t take long choosing between basically the only other managed cart software, BigCommerce. BigCommerce offers more technology regarding product variants / customization, but my products wouldn’t need that (though if yours do, I would seriously consider BigCommerce as Shopify is lacking in this area). So I chose Shopify simply because it is the bigger platform with a longer track record, better support, a lot more themes and extensions. Their pricing is the same (in fact some say Shopify is better because they don’t have sales-maxiumums for their plans) compared to BigCommerce, and what Shopify offered was of more value to me.
I know some people don’t like the whole concept of someone else hosting your website, and might consider Shopify amateurish. But I don’t agree, if you’re launching an ecommerce store your goal should be selling product, not running the website. Shopify offers enough customization ability to not impede on your brand and marketing ability, so I don’t think it should be discounted.
I hope I helped you get a clearer head on the current ecommerce landscape. After taking a close look, I think there are a lot of problems with it on the self-hosted side. There’s no clear winner because no one’s done a great enough job yet. But on the hosted side, Shopify is good for a lot of needs.