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Shopify Reviews (2018) - all the Pros and Cons of a Leading Online Store Builder

In this Shopify review, we look at one of the most popular online-store building tools currently available. Read on to find out more about the pros and cons of this e-commerce solution.

Our overall rating: 4/5


What is Shopify?

Shopify is a web application that allows you to create your own online store. It provides you with a wide range of templates that can be customised to meet individual users’ branding requirements, and it allows either physical or digital goods to be sold. 

One of the main ideas behind Shopify is that users without much in the way of technical or design skills can create a store without the involvement of a design agency or web developer; however, people who are familiar with HTML and CSS will be pleased to discover that Shopify allows you to edit both, giving you a lot of control over the design of templates.

Because Shopify is a hosted solution, you don’t need to worry about buying web hosting or installing software anywhere; the idea is that pretty much everything you need to build and run your store happens ‘out of the box’ (that said, you can customise a Shopify store to meet more individual requirements through the addition of apps - more on which later - or using custom code).

Shopify is a software as a service ('Saas') tool - this means that you don't own it but rather pay a monthly fee to use it. As long as you have access to a web browser and the internet, you can manage your store from anywhere.


How many people use Shopify? And why does this matter?

According to Shopify the product has

  • been used to power 600,000 stores

  • 1,000,000 active users

  • generated over $46bn in sales.

Now without getting a mole into Shopify's accounts department, it's impossible to verify the accuracy of the above numbers, but it's fairly safe to say that Shopify is definitely one of the more established e-commerce platforms out there.

This is important because when you choose a hosted solution to build an online store with, you are placing a huge amount of trust in the company providing it. There have been instances in the past of similar services closing down in the past - Magento Go being a case in point - resulting in all manner of problems for their users (who had to migrate their stores over to a different platform). 

Shopify's strong market position and very large userbase should make the prospect of financial difficulties for the company far less likely, which in turn makes the prospect of a store you host with them suddenly disappearing far less likely. 

We'll have a look at what you can do with Shopify shortly - but first, let's check out the pricing.


Shopify pricing

There are five Shopify pricing plans to choose from:

  • 'Shopify Lite' - $9 per month

  • 'Basic Shopify' - $29 per month

  • 'Shopify' - $79 per month

  • 'Advanced Shopify' - $299 per month

  • 'Shopify Plus' - fees are negotiable, but in the region of $2000 per month.

Shopify represents one of the cheaper ways into selling online, with its starter plan, "Shopify Lite" costing $9 per month and allowing you to sell an unlimited number of goods.

Shopify pricing table (correct as of August 2018)

However, it's important to note that this plan does not actually allow you to construct a fully-functional, standalone online store: rather, it

  • lets you sell via your Facebook page

  • allows you to use Shopify in a physical location to sell goods or manage inventory

  • gives you access to Shopify's Buy Button, which allows you to sell goods on an existing website or blog.

The Buy Button works similar to a Paypal 'Buy Now' button, but because it links back to Shopify, more sophisticated options regarding tracking orders and their fulfilment status are available.

Using the Shopify Buy Button allows you to integrate Shopify into a site built on another platform - for example Squarespace, Wix or Wordpress; this is a useful feature for users who are generally happy with their existing website but wish to integrate some Shopify e-commerce functionality onto it.

As you move up the pricing scale, you'll encounter the ‘Basic Shopify’ plan for $29 per month; the 'Shopify' plan for $79 per month and the 'Advanced Shopify' plan for $299 per month. Unlike the 'Lite' plan, all of these plans do allow you to host a fully functional online store; unlimited file storage and bandwidth are also included.

Finally, there is is also the ‘Shopify Plus’ plan to consider – this is an ‘enterprise grade’ solution which is designed more with big businesses in mind rather than the average user; it offers advanced features regarding security, APIs and fulfilment. 

So what are the main differences between each plans?

Key differences between Shopify plans

Key features to watch out (and not miss by selecting the wrong Shopify plan) are:

  • reporting - professional reporting functionality is only available on the $79 'Shopify' plans and up

  • advanced report builder - advanced reporting tools (which allow you to create your own custom reports) are only provided on the most expensive 'Advanced' Shopify plans

  • gift cards - these are only available on the $79 'Shopify' plans and up.

  • real time carrier shipping, which is only available on the most expensive 'Advanced Shopify' plan

  • staff accounts - these allow you to give different members of your team different permissions (which is useful for restricting access to sensitive data); you are allowed 2 staff accounts on the 'Basic Shopify' plan; 5 on the 'Shopify' plan and 15 on the 'Advanced Shopify' plan

  • point of sale functionality - unless you are on a 'Shopify' or higher plan, some point of sale features will not be available to you (we'll discuss point of sale in more depth below).

It's worth mentioning that you don’t have to pay for plans on a monthly basis – you can pay on an annual or biennial basis - Shopify offer a 10% discount on an annual and a 20% discount on a biennial plans, when they are paid upfront. 

Overall Shopify’s pricing structure is fairly consistent with key competing products like Bigcommerce, Squarespace and Volusion; the main difference involves the 'Lite' plan really, which whilst not giving you a fully hosted online store, does allow you to make use of many key Shopify features on an existing website for a very low monthly fee.

If I had a criticism of Shopify's pricing structure it would be that some features which you might expect to find on entry level plans - like gift cards and professional reporting - only become available when you opt for a more expensive one, or make use of an app. 

Other solutions, notably Bigcommerce, are considerably more generous with the entry-level feature set, offering a bit more of an 'all-in-one' approach.

Let's take a look at how Shopify actually lets you accept payments for your goods - because this is where some key advantages of using the platform can be found.


Shopify Payments, payment gateways and transaction fees

There are two ways to accept credit card payments on Shopify.

The most straightforward, for users in countries where it is supported, is to use Shopify Payments, Shopify’s built-in payment system. 

If you use this, you don't have to worry about transaction fees. However, there is still a 'credit card rate' to consider: in the US, you can expect to pay a rate of between 2.4% and 2.9% of each credit card transaction (plus on some plans, an additional 30c). In other countries, the rate is lower (the UK range of credit card fees, for example, is 1.5% to 2.2%).

The exact rate depends on the type of plan you are on, with the lowest transaction fees (as you might expect) becoming available on the most expensive monthly subscriptions.

Alternatively, you can use a third party ‘payment gateway’ to process card transactions - of which there are over 100 to choose from (far more than are available from competing platforms Bigcommerce, Volusion or Squarespace).

Using a third-party payment gateway requires a bit of configuration – you’ll need to set up a ‘merchant account’ with a payment gateway provider. Depending on the payment gateway provider you use, you can expect to pay a percentage of a transaction fee, a monthly fee or both.

If you use a payment gateway, Shopify will apply a transaction fee as well (of between 0.5% and 2% depending on the Shopify plan you're on - again, the fee gets lower as the monthly plans get more expensive).

Whether or not it works out cheaper to use Shopify Payments or a payment gateway will depend very much on the kind of payment gateway you’re thinking of using, and the Shopify plan you’re on. 

One important thing worth nseooting about Shopify Payments is that it is available only for users based in certain countries.

These are:

  • Australia

  • Canada

  • Hong Kong

  • Republic of Ireland

  • Japan

  • New Zealand

  • Singapore

  • United Kingdom

  • United States

So if you’re not selling from one of those territories then you will have to use another separate payment gateway provider (meaning you'll definitely need to factor transaction fees into the equation).

As mentioned above however, Shopify integrates with far more payment gateways than other competing products do (over 100 of them), so if you are selling outside of these countries, you should easily be able to find a payment gateway that’s suitable for your location.

Now that we've gone through pricing and payment functionality, it's time to discuss how Shopify themes actually look.


Shopify themes 

Shopify provides 10 free e-commerce templates (or 'themes') that you can use – each of these comes in two or three different variants, so these templates actually translate to quite a lot of fairly different designs.

These are all attractive templates, and they are responsive too, meaning they will display nicely across all devices.

If the free templates don't quite float your boat however, you can use a paid-for or 'premium' theme - of which there are 55 (and again, each theme comes in a few variants). These range in price from $140 to $180 (and are all responsive too).

Some examples of free Shopify themes

In the theme store, you can browse all the free and paid templates using a wide range of filters - for example, you can view templates by industry, home page type, layout style and so on. This means that you should be able to find a suitable theme for your store fairly easily.

In terms of the aesthetics, the templates are all professional in appearance, easy on the eye, and very slick in nature - no complaints at all here.

Some themes allow you to make use of contemporary design features such as parallax scrolling and video backgrounds; all in all, Shopify's template offering is one of the highest-quality in the e-commerce marketplace.

And of course, if you are not content with the theme offering provided by Shopify and wish to create something that is truly distinctive, there is always the option of building your own theme; it's easy to access the theme code, and a lot of support materials are provided to help you develop your own Shopify template.

One thing worth bearing in mind when making a decision on theme is whether or not it is officially supported by Shopify. All the free themes are - but if you use a premium template, you may need to contact a third-party developer for any assistance you might need with installing or customizing it.

 Examples of Shopify's most popular premium themes

Examples of Shopify's most popular premium themes


Core features of Shopify

As discussed above, the features you get with Shopify vary a bit according to the pricing plan you opt for.

All Shopify plans from $29 ('Basic Shopify') and up provide:

  • the ability to sell physical or digital goods, in categories of your choosing and using shipping rates / methods of your choosing

  • a wide range of themes (free and paid) to choose from

  • credit card processing via Shopify Payments or a third party payment gateway

  • integration with Paypal

  • blogging functionality

  • abandoned cart functionality

  • import / export of customer data

  • content management (CMS) functionality

  • good search engine optimisation (SEO) options – it’s easy to add relevant keywords to your products and site pages

  • integration with Mailchimp

  • discount codes

  • the ability to edit your store's CSS and HTML

  • a 'buy now' button that you can use to sell goods on an existing blog or site

  • access to a point-of-sale app

  • the option to create multiple staff accounts (as discussed above, how many you can created depends on the plan you're on).

  • the option to integrate your store with 100+ payment gateways

If you opt for the more expensive 'Shopify' plan, you also get:

  • gift cards

  • professional reports

  • full point of sale functionality

If you're on the 'Advanced Shopify' plan you get the following additional features:

  • advanced report building

  • real-time carrier shipping

Finally, there's Shopify Plus to consider: this is an enterprise-grade version of Shopify, providing features such as

  • guaranteed server uptime

  • API support

  • 'White glove' level of support via a dedicated 'Merchant Success Manager'

  • dedicated SSL / IP address

  • advanced security features.

Let's zoom in on a few key aspects of Shopify that are worthy of particular attention.


WHILE YOU'RE HERE...
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Shopify Point-of-Sale

One particularly nice feature offered by Shopify which deserves a special mention and makes it stand out from its competitors is its 'point of sale' (POS) options and hardware.

 Shopify's point-of-sale hardware. The 'Point of Sale' kit allows you to use Shopify to not only run your business online, but to sell in physical locations too.

Shopify's point-of-sale hardware. The 'Point of Sale' kit allows you to use Shopify to not only run your business online, but to sell in physical locations too.

Shopify's POS hardware lets you use Shopify to sell not just online but in physical locations too – as long as you have an iOS or Android device. A wide range of hardware is available to purchase (barcode readers, tills, receipt printers etc.); and merchants in the USA and Canada can avail of a free 'chip and swipe' card reader for their mobile device (iOS or Android) from Shopify.

There are a several applications for Shopify's point-of-sale tools: for example, they allow you to sell in a pop-up shop, from a market stall, at an event or even in a permanently located retail outlet, whilst keeping your inventory and stock count automatically synced.

It's important to note however that you need to be on the 'Shopify' plan or higher to get the most out of point of sale. This is because although the 'Lite' and 'Basic' plans do let you sell in person using a card reader, they don't allow you to use any additional POS hardware. They also don't facilitate multiple staff accounts. So basically, if you have serious point of sale requirements, you will effectively have to opt for a more expensive Shopify plan.

This video is a little bit on the old side - but it gives you a basic idea of how Shopify POS works.


Interface and ease-of-use

Shopify is pretty straightforward to use – it’s got a nice clean, modern interface.

Shopify's interface

The interface lets you set up and manage a variety of what Shopify labels 'sales channels.' Some of the main ones include:

  • An online store: this is your main Shopify website.

  • Pinterest: you can add 'Buyable Pins' to any products from your Shopify store that have been pinned on Pinterest.

  • Facebook: a tab on your Facebook page where users can browse and buy your products.

  • Messenger: you can sell directly to customers in Messenger conversations with them (as well as provide order and shipping notifications, and respond to customer enquiries).

  • Buy Button: this channel allows you to embed e-commerce functionality - via 'buy buttons' - on any website or blog.

  • Amazon: this allows you to manage your Amazon listings and Shopify products in one location.

Other channels are available too (including Ebay, Instagram, Houzz and Buzzfeed - but whether or not you can use these depends on the country you are selling from).

All in all, it's pretty straightforward to use these sales channels (and the Shopify interface in general) but there's a couple of little niggles worth mentioning:

Product images (Online Store channel)

If you upload images on Shopify with different aspect ratios, then Shopify does not crop them automatically. In other words, your product catalogues will consist of a series of differently-shaped images; this impacts negatively on the design.

You can get around this by using a photo editing program to ensure consistent image aspect ratios for all your products - but unless you do this before you start uploading your images, you may find yourself with a headache, particularly if your store contains a large number of products.

Selling products on Facebook with Shopify

It's probably worth flagging up that the Shopify-Facebook integration won't suit every merchant. As things stand, it's easy enough to use Shopify's 'Facebook Channel' to populate a Facebook page's shop section - but your customers will only be able to buy one item at a time on the Facebook page in question (there's no 'add to cart' option).

This will be okay for some sellers (for example bands and artists who want to sell a new CD via their Facebook page should be fine) but any merchants who have a customer base that normally buys items in multiple quantities will possibly find this setup frustrating.

To be fair, as far as I can tell this is a limitation at the Facebook end, but it's something you need to be aware of if you have grand plans for selling on Facebook. You may be better off simply encouraging your Facebook following to click a button which takes them to your full online store.

These gripes aside though, Shopify’s interface is clean, user-friendly and shouldn’t present too much of a learning curve to most users. You can take a look at a vlog-style video overview of it below:


Importing and exporting data

Like most similar store builders, Shopify allows you to import product data from a CSV file. This is handy if you want to bulk upload a lot of new products to your store, or are migrating data from another e-commerce platform.

Importing data into Shopify using a CSV file

If you want to import posts from a blogging platform such as Tumblr or Wordpress, this is possible too, but you will need to use a third-party app (the paid-for app 'Blogfeeder' is your main option here).

With regard to exporting data, you can export product data to CSV file very easily; but as far as I can tell there's no simple option to export static pages and blog posts - they are exportable, but it seems that you need to make use of Shopify's API to get them out of the Shopify platform (or, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you could consider copying and pasting them!).


Working with product variants and options in Shopify

Shopify allows you to create up to 100 different variants of a single product. However, these variants can only involve three product options.

So, for example, if you were selling shoes, you could allow users choose from up to 100 different variants of a particular shoe, each in 3 different options (for example colour, size and style) - but you couldn't allow them to pick a shoelace colour on top of this.

I ran into a problem with this actually with an Irish wedding invitations site I built for a client recently. My client wanted in many cases to offer four or more options per wedding invitation, for example:

  • envelope colour

  • card colour

  • card size

  • ribbon colour

Shopify's hard limit of 3 options meant that I couldn't facilitate this request without resorting to a workaround, which was to combine two product options into one, i.e., envelope and card colour. Although the client was broadly happy with the outcome, it made for a slightly fiddly build and a user experience that could have been a bit smoother.

On the plus side, third-party apps are available to enhance the product option offering in Shopify, but you will need to be prepared to pay for these. Another option is to add 'line item property' code to your Shopify store to capture more product options.

The bottom line is that if you are selling something that doesn't involve truckloads of variants and product options you will be fine with Shopify. 

That said, it would be better if a more flexible approach to options functionality was available out of the box (as is the case with rival Bigcommerce).


Using product categories in Shopify

Although there's room for improvement regarding how Shopify handles product variants and options, the way it handles product categories (or in Shopify parlance, 'collections') is fantastic, and better than that found in many competing e-commerce platforms.

You can manually add products to a collection or - and this is a huge time saver for users with large product ranges - use 'automated collections.' This basically entails setting up rules (based on product titles, tags etc.) which automatically slot products into the correct collection.

This can save you hours, if not days, of data entry / manipulation - particularly if you have a large number of products in your online store.

You'll need to make sure you name or tag your products in an extremely consistent way to take advantage of this functionality, as the automation only works if you have a consistent naming convention to product titles, tags etc. But used right, it's great.


Abandoned cart recovery in Shopify

Abandoned cart recovery in Shopify is designed to help you sell products to people who went most of the way through a transaction only to change their mind at the last moment.

This used to be only available on the the more expensive Shopify plans - those priced $79 or higher, but recently Shopify introduced it on all plans which come with an online store - this effectively means their $29 'Basic' plan and up.

This means that you get abandoned cart saver functionality at a considerably lower price point than its key competitors Bigcommerce and Squarespace, which only offer it on their $79.95 and $46 per month plans respectively.

The makers of competing product Bigcommerce claim that using abandoned cart recovery tools can boost your revenue by up to 15%, which - if true - is obviously very significant.

In terms of how abandoned cart recovery works in Shopify, it essentially allows you to either:

  • view a list of people who've abandoned their carts and manually send them an email

  • instruct Shopify to automatically send one email to visitors to your site who abandoned their carts (containing a link to their abandoned cart on your store).

The latter option is probably the best way to go about abandoned cart recovery, as it saves time.

Helpfully, Shopify suggests 2 particular time intervals for sending your abandoned cart saver email: either 1 hour after your user abandons their cart, or 10 hours later (you can also send the reminder email 6 hours or 24 hours later). This is because according to research carried out by Shopify, these are the time intervals which generate the most sale completions.

For the sake of balance, it's worth pointing out that despite being more expensive Bigcommerce's approach to abandoned cart recovery is arguably a bit better and more flexible than Shopify's.

With Bigcommerce you can program three emails to be sent out automatically to users who abandon their carts; and inserting discount codes (designed to convince people to complete their transactions) into them is a more straightforward process too.


Custom fields and file uploads

Some merchants will require the functionality to allow a user to provide some text at the point of purchase (for example, jewellers might require inscription copy etc.).

Shopify will allow you to capture this data, but it's a bit of a fiddly process - you need to create a 'line item property' by manually adding some HTML code to your template. The other alternative is to pay for an app to do this job, which isn't ideal. 

It's a similar story with file uploads - if you would like to offer your customers the option to upload a file (for example, an image to be used on a t-shirt or mug), you're going to have to get coding or, yes, you guessed it, pay for a relevant app.

I would much prefer - again, as is the case with Bigcommerce - if text fields and file upload buttons were simply options that could simply be selected / enabled when creating products.


Shopify's SEO features

Shopify's SEO feature set is generally good and compare favourably to other platforms (especially Squarespace and Jimdo).

The nuts and bolts of on-page SEO in Shopify are easy to manage - changing page titles and meta descriptions is very straightforward, as is adding headings and alt text. 

Adding 301 redirects is also very straightforward, and in fact Shopify automatically prompts you to do this (and creates the redirect for you) if you change a page's URL.

There are a couple of areas where Shopify SEO could be slightly better: although you can customise your URLs, the platform adds prefixes to your pages and products, i.e.,

  • /pages/ before pages

  • /posts/ before posts

  • /products/ before products

In an ideal world, it would be good not to have these prefixes there, as Google's search algorithms prefers shorter URLs.

The other thing that it should be easier to do is change image file names - if you want to change a file name for SEO purposes, you'll have to rename it locally and then re-upload it.  

But all in all, the SEO features of Shopify are robust and I don't have any major complaints. For more detailed information about how to optimise a Shopify store for search, you can check out our Shopify SEO guide.


Shopify’s App Store

In addition to Shopify’s core functionality, there is also an app store which you can visit to obtain apps (free and paid) that beef up what your store can do.

There is a huge number of apps available (last time I checked, over 2000!), more than any other e-commerce platform that I've come across. These apps either add specific functionality to your store or alternatively make it talk to another tool (like Xero or Zendesk).

This wide range of apps is one of the strongest arguments for using Shopify over its rivals - it means that you have a huge range of options not only when it comes to adding functionality to your store but when it comes to integrating it with other tools and platforms too.

Examples of available apps include:

  • data capture apps

  • accounting apps

  • abandoned cart saver apps (that are more sophisticated that Shopify’s out-of-the box cart saver)

  • advanced reporting apps.

So if Shopify’s ‘out of the box’ feature set doesn’t initially seem to meet your requirements, it’s well worth having a look through the App Store to see if there’s an add-on that will help.

Key third party apps that are supported via integrations include Xero, Freshbooks, Mailchimp, Zendesk and Aweber.


Dropshipping with Shopify

Many potential users of Shopify will be wondering how it facilitates dropshipping, a fulfillment method where you don't keep what you're selling in stock (you take the order, send it to a supplier, and they deliver the goods to your client - your store is in effect a middle man of sorts). 

The good news is that Shopify offers a very large range of dropshipping apps which allow you to source and sell a variety of suppliers' goods online very easily.

For more information on dropshipping as a business model, I'd suggest watching Shopify's free webinar on dropshipping, which goes through the whole process of setting up a dropshipping business.


VAT MOSS in Shopify

One really strong aspect of Shopify which is not often picked up on in other Shopify reviews is the way that it caters extremely well for VAT MOSS - or, to use its full title, 'VAT Mini One Stop Shop.'

VAT MOSS is basically a requirement that sellers of digital products to consumers in the EU add value added tax (VAT) to each digital product on a per-country basis (i.e., there's one VAT rate to be applied for the UK, one for Ireland and so on).

Unlike a lot of competing products, like Squarespace or Bigcommerce, Shopify calculates the appropriate rate automatically. So there's no faffing about with setting up manual tax rules and so on. This is an extremely useful piece of functionality and for me, it's a USP for Shopify. 

And speaking of digital products...


Selling digital goods with Shopify

If you want to sell digital goods with Shopify, this is perfectly doable but not immediately obvious how to set up. 

A good friend of mine, Diarmaid MacMathuna from Cruinneog (a company making Irish language spelling and grammar checkers for Microsoft Word) recently built his new store with Shopify and initially struggled quite a bit to work out how to sell his software online - until he realised that in order to sell files, users need to install a separate app (Shopify's 'Digital Downloads App').

The good news is that this is free - and very easy to use. You can configure it so to work automatically, so that a download link is given to the customer immediately after checkout, and a link is emailed to them when their order is fulfilled; or alternatively, if for any reason you want to vet your purchases, you can do the fulfilment manually.

There is a limit however on the product file size - you can only sell digital goods up to 5GB in size (there are workarounds however, using different third party apps which host your files or let you use file sharing services such as Dropbox to deliver your files). 


Reporting

 A Shopify sales report

A Shopify sales report

Shopify offers a comprehensive range of reports, including: 

  • customer reports (where your customers come from, the percentage of new vs returning customers, their overall spend and when they last placed an order)

  • marketing reports (how you acquired your customers)

  • search data reports (what products customers searched for in your online store)

  • finance reports (sales, tax reports etc.)

  • abandoned cart reports.

There is something negative worth pointing out here however: these reports are only available in Shopify if you are on their more expensive plans - 'Shopify', 'Advanced Shopify' or 'Shopify Plus'.

If you're not on one of these plans you just get a fairly basic dashboard containing topline stats only. This contrasts negatively with key competing product Bigcommerce, which provides strong reporting functionality on all its plans.

An advanced report builder is also available in Shopify, which allows you to create your own custom reports - but again, it comes at a price: you'll need to be on a $299+ plan to avail of this. 


Blogging in Shopify

Blogging is a crucial tactic in getting people to visit your online store; and helpfully Shopify comes with a built-in blogging tool which allows you to create the sort of content you'll need to ensure your site is visible in search results.

Shopify's blogging functionality is not by any means as sophisticated as what you'd find in a Wordpress site. For example, omissions in the Shopify blogging functionality include content versioning and Yoast-style SEO plug ins; and when it comes to categorisation of posts, Shopify blog posts only allow you to use tags and not categories (other blogging platforms typically permit use of both).

That said, the built-in blogging functionality in Shopify is generally fine and will meet most merchants' requirements perfectly well. You can also - with a little bit of fiddling around - hook it up to the commenting tool Disqus, which is useful too.

As mentioned above, exporting Shopify blog posts is not terribly straightforward however - Shopify's advice regarding how to do so is to manually copy and paste your blog content into a new location! From reading around, however, it looks like a more sophisticated workaround exists using an API...but that's not really going to appeal to merchants without technical skills who need to move their blog content elsewhere. 


Managing your Shopify store on a mobile device

Shopify provides two main apps which you can use to manage your store on a mobile device: 'Shopify' and 'Shopify Point of Sale.' 

The 'Shopify' app lets you view and fulfil orders; add / edit products; view reports and communicate with your team members via an order 'timeline'.

The 'Shopify Point of Sale' app, as the name suggests, is for users who want to use Shopify at point of sale - you can use it to take card payments in person, track inventory, text receipts to customers and so on.

 The 'Shopify' iOS app

The 'Shopify' iOS app

In addition to the store management apps, there's a new app out called called 'Ping', which makes it easier to answer queries or share your product details with customers when chatting with them over Facebook Messenger (more chatting services are soon to be supported, according to Shopify). 'Ping' is currently available exclusively on iOS.

 Shopify's 'Ping' app

Shopify's 'Ping' app

If that wasn't enough in the app department, there are some other apps available: a logo-making app, a business card designer and an 'entrepreneur articles' app. (The latter two apps are only available on Android).

Of all the above apps, I suspect that the main 'Shopify' app is going to be the most use to the vast majority of merchants.


Using AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) in Shopify

Accelerated Mobile Pages or AMP is a Google-backed project which aims to speed up the delivery of content to mobile devices by stripping out certain bits of code from web pages.

AMP has become increasingly popular, because - implemented well - it reduces the number of site visitors abandoning slow-loading mobile sites, and also can provide some SEO benefits (Google sometimes prioritises AMP posts in search by placing them in a carousel above other search results).

The good news is that it's possible to use AMP in Shopify - not just for blog content, which is where AMP is most frequently used, but for product pages too (many of Shopify's key competitors do not as yet facilitate use of AMP in this way). This has the potential to ensure that a lot more potential customers engage with your product collections (or, if on slow connections, even get to see them in the first place).

The bad news is that this functionality isn't available out of the box, and that you'll need to make use of a paid-for app like RocketAmp to add it. 

Given the emphasis Google is increasingly placing on AMP content, and despite the additional costs, it's great that you can create AMP versions of your product pages on Shopify - this is something of a USP for the platform.


Support

Shopify's support is comprehensive - you can contact the company 24/7 by email, live chat or phone.

This is significantly better than the support options offered by some competitors - for example, leading competitor Squarespace doesn't provide phone support at all.

There are a couple of niggles worth pointing out though.

First, having used Shopify support in the past, I've found that if your enquiry is of a particularly technical nature - i.e., if you want to code something and need help - then you may not always get the answers you're looking for from the standard Shopify support service. You're sometimes better off posting a query in a forum and hoping a Shopify developer gets back to you on it.

This could be improved a bit I feel - it would be nice if, for relevant queries, Shopify offered a more direct way to contact their developers directly for technical advice.

Secondly, it's unclear as to whether phone support is actually provided globally: support phone numbers are only provided for North America, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand (there's no 'any other country' option).

And finally, in order to access phone numbers (or other contact info), you're are required to search the Shopify help pages for a solution to your problem first, as the screengrab below highlights. This will annoy some, but it's increasingly standard practice for support desks for web applications, and it's not implemented as badly as some other applications.

 Shopify's support screen

Shopify's support screen


Shopify and GDPR compliance

I am not a lawyer, so please note that the below observations should not be interpreted as legal advice, but I'm going to do my best to spell out some of the key GDPR issues facing Shopify users below.

In the light of the EU's new GDPR laws, there are many legal steps that website owners now need to take to ensure that they are adequately protecting EU customers' and visitors' privacy. There are pretty serious financial penalties for not doing so (to the point where it's a good idea to consult a lawyer about what to do); and even if your business is not based in the EU, you still need to comply with the regulations where any site visits from the EU are concerned.

Based on my understanding of the GDPR rules, the key priorities for prospective Shopify store owners are to: 

  • provide adequate privacy and cookie notices

  • process and store data securely

  • get explicit consent from people signing up to mailing lists that it is okay to send them e-newsletters

  • provide a means to opt in or revoke consent to use of non-essential cookies on a website (and to log that consent).

Shopify lets you the first three requirements easily enough, although you will need to spend time (and possibly money) creating adequate notices and crafting data capture forms so that they are GDPR compliant.

Where it currently falls down a bit is on the fourth requirement — cookie consent. To ensure GDPR compliance, you need to display a cookie banner to your visitors which

  • allows them to choose which cookies they want to run BEFORE those cookies are run (i.e., to give 'prior consent')

  • logs their consent to run cookies

  • allows them to revoke consent at a later stage

So for example, if you use a Facebook Ads or Google Analytics cookie on your Shopify store, you will be breaking GDPR laws unless you have a banner in place which does all of the above.

Now, out of the box at least there is not a way to give visitors to your Shopify store a way to switch these off. However, there are quite a few apps in the Shopify app store which claim to deal with this problem and provide this functionality (note that some seem considerably better than others however). Alternatively, you can use scripts provided by services such as Cookie Pro and Cookiebot to add a GDPR-compliant banner to your website. 

I would prefer, however, if this issue was dealt with by Shopify at source and adequate cookie banner functionality provided without the users having to recourse to third-party software. 


Shopify review conclusions

Overall, Shopify is one of the best hosted solutions for those wishing to create an online store – and arguably the best for anyone who wants to use one product to sell online AND in a physical location. It’s also great for users who are interested in dropshipping.

The product is competitively priced - particularly when you consider that abandoned cart saver functionality is available on its $29 'Basic' plans. The product is easy to use, integrates well with a huge range of other apps, and its templates are attractive.

It has a big user base - 600,000 users, according to Shopify — which also inspires confidence (the last thing you want to happen is for a hosted e-commerce solution provider to go bankrupt and close down a successful store you might have with them).

The main disadvantages of using Shopify are its transaction fees if you use a third-party payment gateway (some of its competitors don’t charge any transaction fees at all, regardless of payment gateway used); its limit of three options per product (note: don't confuse this with variants, of which you can have 100 per product - see above); and the fact that in quite a few instances, to get the functionality you need, you may have to install an app (key examples of this include selling digital downloads or facilitating ratings and reviews). I'd also like to see professional reporting features provided on the 'Basic Shopify' plan. 

A more complete summary of pros and cons is displayed below, but of course the only way to find out if Shopify is for you is to test it out fully yourself – a 2 week free trial is available here. Or if you need help designing a Shopify website, do get in touch: we build Shopify stores regularly for clients.

Finally if you've tried Shopify before, do feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below! (Note: if you're reading this on a mobile browser, you may be seeing an optimised 'AMP' version of the article which doesn't display the comments section. If so, just click here to view the full article where you can read and add comments).


Shopify pros and cons

We hope you've enjoyed reading our Shopify review! To sum up, these are the main pros and cons that we think you can expect to encounter if using Shopify:

Pros

  • With its 'Lite' plan, Shopify represents one of the cheapest ways to start selling online using a hosted solution.

  • The abandoned cart saver is available on its $29 basic plan - meaning that this functionality is provided at a considerably cheaper price than key competitors.

  • It's a good option for anyone interested in dropshipping.

  • There are no transaction fees if you are happy to use the built in payment processing system, Shopify Payments.

  • It has a clean, easy-to-use interface.

  • It provides a good range of free, responsive and attractive templates

  • The point-of-sale options are excellent and help Shopify stand apart from its competitors.

  • There is a simple Paypal integration available.

  • Shopify states that over 500,000 stores have been built using the platform, which makes it a relatively safe bet that the company (and thus your online store!) is not going to disappear any time soon.

  • You can extend Shopify's functionality easily thanks to a huge range of third-party apps (although note that you will have to pay to use many of them).

  • Shopify handles the creation and application of product categories really well.

  • VAT MOSS rates are automatically calculated and applied by Shopify.

  • The Shopify Buy Button allows you to use Shopify with an existing website built using another platform (for example Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix or Jimdo).

  • Shopify comes with a built in blog.

  • You can create AMP versions of product pages (albeit with the help / additional cost of a third-party app).

  • Both iOS and Android apps are provided to enable you to manage your store on the go.

  • You can avail of a 2-week free trial of the product.

Cons

  • Whilst you can create 100 variants of a product, these can only involve up to 3 product options.

  • Some key functionality which you might expect to be provided out of the box requires installation of an app (notable examples include facilitating digital downloads and reviews and ratings).

  • Adding custom fields such as text boxes or file upload options, whilst doable, is unnecessarily complicated.

  • Professional reporting functionality is only provided on more expensive plans.

  • Shopify Payments only allows you to sell from certain countries – United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia. If you want to sell from another country you will need to use a third-party payment gateway.

  • You can’t avoid transaction fees if you use a third-party payment gateway.

  • There is no way to automatically ensure that product images are displayed using the same aspect ratio. This can lead to messy presentation of your products unless you have cropped all your images in advance of uploading them to Shopify.

  • It would be nice if the abandoned cart saver allowed you to send more than one automated follow-up email.

  • Getting your site to be GDPR compliant where cookies are concerned will involve use of a third party cookie banner app.

  • The cheapest plan (the $9 'Lite' offering) doesn't permit you to create a fully-featured online store.

  • It's not easy to export blog posts.

  • It's not clear how to access phone support if you live outside of North America, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.


Alternatives to Shopify

Of the solutions I’ve tested to date – Shopify, Bigcommerce, Volusion, Squarespace and Magento Go – Bigcommerce is probably the strongest alternative to Shopify.

It’s similarly priced, easy-to-use and its feature set is broadly comparable with Shopify’s. Bigcommerce also provides a 14 day free trial and our full Bigcommerce review is here.

Additionally, you may wish to investigate Ecwid, which allows you to add an online store to an existing website (Ecwid offers similar functionality to Shopify's Buy Button, but with more advanced features). You can read our full Ecwid review here.

You might also like to check out Squarespace, although you need to bear in mind that Squarespace's e-commerce functionality is rather more limited than the likes of Shopify, Bigcommerce or Ecwid.

And finally, there's always Wordpress. Wordpress is a different beast to Shopify in that it is not a SaaS (software as a service) product: you will have to build your own site and host it yourself. However, there are LOTS of ways to sell products using it. Check out our Shopify vs Wordpress comparison for more details.


More Shopify reviews and resources

You may find our in-depth article on Shopify fees useful; additionally, you might like to read some of our other Shopify revierws which compare Shopify against other e-commerce and website builder products:

For more information on how to optimise a Shopify site for search, check out our Shopify SEO guide.

You can start a free trial of Shopify here.


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Subscribers receive key tips on building websites and online stores (covering everything from platform selection to inbound marketing to SEO) as well as receiving discount codes for industry leading apps. You can subscribe for free here.

Shopify vs Squarespace (2018) - A Comparison Review
 Shopify vs Squarespace (images of the Shopify and Squarespace logos side by side)

In this review we take a look at Shopify vs Squarespace, to see which is the best solution for your website or online store. Read on to get a list of pros and cons of each platform - and do feel free to leave your thoughts on both products in the comments section below (I'd love to hear from users of both platforms).

On the face of it, Shopify and Squarespace look like similar products: they let you create a website and they let you sell products (even if you don’t have any design or coding skills).

But they have a different history and started life with different purposes: Squarespace was initially conceived as a solution for building and maintaining content based websites, where as Shopify was specifically created as a solution for making your own online store.

With the relatively recent addition of e-commerce to Squarespace’s feature set, the two tools have become increasingly similar and technically, you can now use either to create a website or host an online store.

But which is best suited for your business?

Answering this question starts, helpfully, with another question…


Are you trying to build a website or an online store?

When deciding between Squarespace and Shopify, the first question you need to ask yourself is this: what am I trying to build, a website or an online store?

Of course, an online store is obviously technically a website, but in this context, by 'website' I'm talking about an online presence where conveying information is the priority — for example, a blog, a news site, a brochure site, a magazine, a photography portfolio etc. — and by 'online store' I mean something where selling products is the primary goal.

Let's dive into the website building stuff first.


Building a website

If your focus is on building an informative website, then design and content management functionality are going to be a priority — and this being the case, it's fair to say that Squarespace is the obvious choice out of the two products discussed here for that purpose. 

Its templates are excellent; its CMS is intuitive and easy to use; its photo editing and displaying tools are superb; and its blogging features are strong. 

There are two versions of Squarespace to consider: the 'normal' version, used by the vast majority of Squarespace customers, and the developer's platform, which is used by web design agencies and, as the name suggests (!), developers.

The latter is the best version to use if you intend to customize Squarespace very extensively, but you'll obviously need to be familiar with web development and coding in order to use it.

 

Laying out content in Squarespace is easy, and the options for doing so are extensive (click to enlarge image).

 

In this article I'm focussing on the standard version of Squarespace; and it's probably fair to say that whilst it provides a fairly powerful bunch of tools for presenting web content in an attractive manner, it is generally suited to working on relatively simple sites only. 

Firstly, navigation is effectively limited to two levels; arguably one, in fact, as when you create a 'parent' page containing sub-pages, you can't actually view the parent page (depending on the template used, clicking on it will just reveal a list of sub pages, or worse, the first 'child' page - both approaches only serving to confuse users!).

Secondly, whilst you can edit basic aspects of the templates (colours and typefaces etc.), you are generally going to be stuck with whatever Squarespace decides looks best for a particular template.

Despite marketing themselves at ‘creatives’, Squarespace don’t really encourage particularly creative use of their templates — in most cases, you're dealing with a 'walled garden' in which everything is locked down fairly tightly, and if you try to get around this by adding your own lines of CSS to your template, Squarespace support can be a bit hesitant in providing support.

(To be fair to Squarespace, I've noticed an increasing number of style controls being provided to users lately — and some templates, such as 'Five', offer a relatively large degree of flexibility in the styling department — so this may over time become less of a problem.)

These gripes aside, most users will find Squarespace a very nice platform for building a website indeed, primarily because:

  • the templates do look very good
  • basic tweaks to colours and typefaces are allowed
  • the walled garden approach, despite its faults, means that it's easy to build and maintain sites on the platform.

The bottom line is that, used well, Squarespace can help you put a professional-looking site extremely quickly, and gives you a lot of nice ways to display images and blog content in a way that Shopify arguably doesn't.

But what about building an online store? Let's dig into the selling functionality of both products...


While you're here: we build both Squarespace and Shopify websites. Please do contact us today for more information on how we can get your Squarespace or Shopify website off the ground quickly and professionally.


Building an online store

Where the Shopify vs Squarespace decision gets rather more complicated is when you want to start selling stuff.

Both platforms facilitate e-commerce, but each comes with a set of pros and cons. Let’s look at a few key issues to consider if your aim is to build an online store with either Squarespace or Shopify.

Pricing

Key differences between Squarespace plans

Squarespace offers four monthly pricing options, banded into two types of packages, 'websites' and 'online stores'. This is a little confusing, as you can technically sell products using three out of the four plans.

The plans are as follows:

  • 'Personal' - $16 per month ('Websites')
  • 'Business' - $26 per month ('Websites')
  • 'Basic' - $30 per month ('Online Stores')
  • 'Advanced' - $46 per month ('Online Stores')

Discounts for all of the above are available if you purchase a plan on an annual basis (the above four plans, respectively, will work out at $12, $18, $26 and $40 per month when you pay upfront for a year's service). EU users should note that these prices are exclusive of VAT. 

In terms of the key differences between the Squarespace plans, the key things to watch out for are as follows:

  • The 'Personal' plan does not let you sell anything.
  • The 'Personal' plan does not facilitate the addition of CSS or javascript to your site, or the use of developer mode.
  • You will pay 3% transaction fees on any sales generated using the 'Business' plan.
  • The 'Personal' plan restricts the number of contributors (i.e., authors / admins) to 2; on all other Squarespace plans you can have an unlimited number of contributors.
  • To avail of an important feature, abandoned cart recovery, you will need to go for the most expensive 'Advanced' plan.
  • You'll get a year's free Google Apps account on the 'Business' plans and up
  • You'll get dedicated e-commerce reporting on the 'Online Stores' plans 
  • On the 'Basic' and 'Advanced' plans you can avail of integrated accounting via Xero
  • If you pay upfront for a year's service (on any plan), you can get a free custom domain (i.e., yourbusiness.com)
  • The business plans and up come with a $100 Adwords voucher (US and Canada only)
  • The business plans and up come with more sophisticated options when it comes to pop-up messages, announcement bars and mobile information bars.

Key differences between Shopify plans

Shopify offers five monthly plans:

  • 'Shopify Lite': $9 per month
  • 'Basic Shopify': $29 per month
  • 'Shopify': $79 per month
  • 'Advanced Shopify': $299 per month
  • 'Shopify Plus': pricing varies depending on requirements (but fees usually come in at around $2000 per month).

10% and 20% discounts on these prices are available if you pay upfront for an annual or two-year plan.

In terms of what to watch out for in terms of the differences between Shopify plans, you should note that:

  • the Shopify Lite plan doesn't actually let you build an online store; rather, it allows you to sell on your existing website or Facebook page (thanks to the 'Shopify Buy' button) or at 'point of sale' (a physical location; more on that below)
  • the abandoned cart saver functionality is available on all plans except 'Lite' - meaning that you can avail of this important feature considerably cheaper than with Squarespace ($29 vs $46).
  • gift cards are only available on the more expensive plans ($79+ plans)
  • the 'Shopify Plus' plan is essentially for big companies with advanced e-commerce requirements, and prices vary depending on needs
  • professional reporting features only become available on the $79 Shopify plans and up.

Transaction fees and credit card fees

On top of the standard pricing plans, there are transaction fees and credit card fees to consider — the former being a percentage fee of your sales charged by your e-commerce platform (in this case Squarespace or Shopify), and the latter being the percentage fee of your sales charged by the company you choose to process your credit card payments (otherwise known as a payment gateway — we'll discuss these in more depth below).

With regard to Shopify, you have the choice of either using a Shopify Payments — Shopify's built in payment processor — or a third party payment gateway.

If you use Shopify Payments, you avoid transaction fees entirely (i.e., Shopify will not take a cut of the sale).

However, you will still be charged credit card fees, and in the USA these are:

  • 2.9% + 30c per online credit card transaction on 'Shopify Lite'  and 'Basic Shopify' plans
  • 2.6% + 30c on 'Shopify'
  • 2.4% + 30c on 'Advanced Shopify'

If you use a third party payment gateway to process your credit card transactions, in addition to whatever transaction charges are made by that gateway, you will pay Shopify

  • 2% of the transaction on the 'Shopify Lite' and 'Basic Shopify' plans
  • 1% on 'Shopify'
  • 0.5% on the 'Advanced Shopify' plan.

It's important to note that these fees vary according to what country you're in — for example, in the UK, where we're based, Shopify credit card fees are somewhat cheaper.

With Squarespace, transaction fees are only applied to their 'Business' plan — the rate is 3%. In terms of the the credit card fees, the rate is determined by either Stripe or Paypal (the two options provided by Squarespace for processing credit cards).

With Stripe, these fees vary based on what country you are selling from or to. In the USA, it's 2.9% + 30c per transaction; in the UK it's significantly lower at 1.4% + 20p for European cards (for now at least; let's see what happens after Brexit...) and 2.9% + 20p for non-European cards. Paypal rates vary by country too — the USA rates are available to view here.

One thing to watch out for with regard to Shopify Payments is that you can only use it if you are selling from certain countries, namely:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Hong Kong
  • Ireland
  • Japan
  • New Zealand
  • Singapore
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Shopify users elsewhere will need to use a different payment gateway — but the good news is that 100+ gateways integrate with Shopify.

And speaking of payment gateways...

Payment gateways

Shopify can be used almost anywhere and in most currencies, because it allows you to use over 100 different ‘payment gateways’ (third-party processors that process credit card transactions).

Up until December 2016 Squarespace e-commerce worked with just one payment gateway, Stripe; this was not ideal, as Stripe only supports selling from a limited number of countries.

More seriously, it was not possible to use Paypal - probably the world's best-known payment gateway - as a payment processor. Fortunately however, Squarespace introduced a Paypal integration, which opened up a lot more selling possibilities to Squarespace users. 

It is very encouraging to see Squarespace widen its range of payment gateway options, but overall Shopify remains the more attractive, flexible and professional option from a payment processing point of view — the number of payment gateway integrations is significantly larger (100+ versus Squarespace's 2), and as such the flexibility when it comes to accepting payments is much greater.

Because you can only sell goods using Stripe from 25 countries, Paypal is left as the sole payment processing option for a lot of Squarespace users.

(Note: for the avoidance of confusion, you can accept payment from anybody in any country using Stripe; but you can only use it on your website if you are based in certain countries).

So which works out cheaper, Squarespace or Shopify?

If you just want to build a content-driven website — i.e., not selling anything — then on the surface of things, Squarespace offers a considerably cheaper way to do this, with its $14 per month 'Personal' plan.

However, if you're serious about your content-driven website, you'll quickly find that the Squarespace Personal plan isn't all that great — it lacks quite a lot of very important functionality.

For example, on the Personal Plan,

  • you can't hook up Mailchimp to your data capture forms * 
  • promotional popups and announcement bars are not facilitated
  • there is a restriction on adding CSS or javascript to your site (thus ruling out design customisations that can't be made using the standard Squarespace controls)

* There is a workaround here involving using 'naked' Mailchimp forms and styling them using inline CSS, but it's not ideal for the kind of 'novice' users that the Personal Plan is aimed at.

Accordingly, many users are probably best advised ignoring Personal Plan in favour of the more expensive 'Business' plan, which at $26 lifts all these restrictions and provides e-commerce functionality too.

In terms of e-commerce, up until fairly recently, Squarespace allowed you to create a fully-functional online store considerably more cheaply than Shopify — at $16 per month, the old Squarespace 'Personal' plan allowed you to sell products and came in $13 per month cheaper than the cheapest Shopify plan which facilitated full online store construction.

However, when Squarespace recently adjusted their pricing structure to remove e-commerce functionality from the 'Personal' plan, they basically created a situation where there's very little difference in pricing between the cheapest Squarespace and Shopify 'full' e-commerce plans (i.e., the plans which allow you to build a complete online store). You now pay $26 per month for the Squarespace 'Business' plan versus $29 per month for the Shopify 'Basic' plan.

When you consider that Squarespace charge 3% transaction fees on their 'Business' plan, and offers a very limited range of payment processing options with it, it's hard not to conclude that the Shopify plan represents better value as far as e-commerce is concerned, even if the monthly fee is a little bit higher. (And this sense of 'better value' gets considerably more pronounced when you compare e-commerce features — more on all these below).

Of course, of the two products under discussion, Shopify still technically offers the cheapest way into online selling, with the $9 Lite plan. This plan is more geared towards people who want to sell on an existing website (or social media site) rather than build a new one, so functionality is more limited than the entry level Squarespace offering; but if this approach suits you you'll appreciate that the monthly costs and transaction fees are both considerably lower than on the cheapest Squarespace plan.

It's important to remember, of course, that there is a lot more to consider than just the monthly fees, as we'll see below...


Key features

When it comes to the feature sets of both products — and as you might expect — Shopify’s heritage as an online store building solution generally trumps Squarepsace’s.

The Shopify e-commerce feature set is more extensive, with features that are not yet available on Squarespace — unlike Squarespace it offers:

  • ‘point of sale’ technology (iPad / iPhone apps and add-ons that talk to your Shopify store and allow you to use Shopify in a physical location like your shop, market stall or office)
  • easy facilitation of dropshipping
  • automated EU VAT calculation for digital products (more on that shortly), so that you can comply with VAT MOSS requirements
  • integration with a very extensive range of third party apps that extend the functionality of your store significantly (apps include integrations with Quickbooks, Zoho and Zendesk to name just a few).
  • advanced reporting features
  • as we've discussed, a much wider range of payment gateway options.
 Shopify's Point of Sale kit, for selling your wares in a 'real' shop

Shopify's Point of Sale kit, for selling your wares in a 'real' shop

Interface / ease of use

Shopify and Squarespace's interfaces aren't a million miles apart in terms of layout; both present you with a menu on the left hand side of the screen which you can use to navigate to different parts of the CMS (settings, site design, analytics and so on); the right hand side of the screen can be used to edit content, view data, add products and so on.

On the whole I would say that Squarespace's interface is the more elegant of the two, and is arguably a bit easier to use than Shopify. Its drag and drop approach to setting up site navigation and its easy-to-use 'layout engine' (which allows you to drag and drop content into pages in a very user-friendly way) means that it is very straightforward to use.

Whilst by no means difficult to use, Shopify’s user interface is arguably not quite as slick, and setting up pages and products can take slightly longer than in Squarespace.

One aspect of the Shopify interface which definitely trumps Squarespace's though is 'responsiveness'. Squarespace can occasionally a bit sluggish, and occasionally a little bit buggy (the layout engine — whilst great in many respects — can behave in an odd way when you try to drag certain bits of content into position, and it seems to work better in some browsers than others).

I've also found Squarespace to crash more often than I'd like, particularly when uploading or editing images; and I've lost a few blog posts in Squarespace when the platform hung up on me mid-posting.

Finally you really have to be using quite a decent machine to get the most out of Squarespace; older or slower computers will cause it — and you! — headaches. In the stability and smoothness stakes, Shopify is in my view the winner. In essence, its less flashy CMS also seems the more 'solid' and reliable.

Templates and visuals

As discussed above, Squarespace templates are gorgeous.

Although this is a subjective area, I feel they are a bit more contemporary or varied in nature than the free templates from Shopify.

There are also more templates to choose from in Squarespace: you can choose from around 70 bundled templates to Shopify's 10.

That said, there's a very wide range of Shopify paid-for templates available — more on these in a moment — and the 10 templates that are provided with Shopify contain a few variants for each theme, meaning there are actually more free options than the number ten suggests.

Squarespace template (click to enlarge)

There's definitely a 'wow' factor with certain Squarespace templates that sets them apart from similar website building and e-commerce platforms. However, a lot of templates — and this is in keeping with the issues discussed above regarding content presentation vs selling online — are geared towards users who want to blog or showcase an art, photography or music portfolio.

Of the 70 or so Squarespace templates available, just 12 are dedicated online store ones (that's not to say, however, that you can't sell products using the others — you might just have to play around with the design a bit more first).

Depending on your chosen Squarespace template, you'll find lots of nice visual effects in play, such as parallax scrolling and text that gracefully fades in and fades out as users scroll through a site.

Squarespace templates can be further enhanced, thanks to an integration with Getty images. This provides you with an easy and affordable way to add stock images to your website — images cost $10 each, plus VAT where applicable. This can work out considerably cheaper than buying pictures direct from Getty Images or iStock, and uploading them to your Squarespace site.

And if all that wasn't enough, Squarespace recently upped the ante in the template stakes by introducing video backgrounds — you can now use a Youtube or Vimeo video as a background for your template, with stunning results. You just enter a Youtube URL into your page settings and Squarespace will use it as the background (and to boot will give you quite a few styling options and filters to apply to it).

However, Shopify is by no means a slouch in the template / visuals department. The Shopify free templates are aesthetically pleasing and arguably better than a lot of the ‘out-of-the-box’ templates provided by competing products such as Volusion or Bigcommerce.

Additionally, if the 10 free Shopify templates don't meet your requirements, there is a Shopify template store that you can buy a snazzier template from. There are 55 paid themes to choose from, most of which contain several variations, which means there is arguably a wider range of templates available from Shopify than Squarespace — so long as you are prepared to pay for them (prices vary but typically involve a one-off payment of between $140 and $180).

The paid-for Shopify templates are similar in quality to the Squarespace ones, offering a wide range of layouts which include contemporary design features such as video backgrounds and parallax scrolling. Additionally, the Shopify theme store is really easy to use — you can browse all the available templates really easily thanks to a range of controls which let you filter by layout style, industry type, size of store and so on. 

All the Shopify and Squarespace templates are responsive, meaning that your templates automatically resize themselves to suit the device they are being viewed on — mobile, tablet or desktop computer. 

For me the bottom line with templates is that both Shopify and Squarespace provide a wide range of attractive options, with Squarespace is being the more obvious choice for content-driven websites, and Shopify, as you might expect, being the more obvious choice for those wishing to create an online store.

Importing and exporting products

Importing

Both Squarespace and Shopify give you the option to import products.

With Shopify, you can import products using a CSV file only.

Squarespace by contrast allows you to import products from:

  • a CSV file
  • Big Cartel
  • Etsy
  • Shopify

The fact that you can import from more third-party stores into Squarespace means that it has a bit of an edge in this department.

Exporting

When it comes to getting your product data out of both platforms, Shopify is the more flexible tool.

This is because Shopify lets you export all your products, irrespective of type (to a CSV file); Squarespace only facilitates exports of physical and service products. (Up until recently however Squarespace didn't let you export any products at all - so this is definitely progress).

SEO (Search engine optimisation) in Squarespace and Shopify

Another area which I feel is handled considerably better by Shopify than Squarespace is search engine optimisation (SEO).

Firstly, for all products and pages, Shopify generates a page title and meta description automatically, which a lot of the time — particularly where products are concerned - often provides a very good SEO starting point.

Secondly, Shopify refers to the core SEO elements by their proper names; this is not the case with Squarespace. In Shopify, you're dealing with titles, meta descriptions, alt text — all the standard terminology you'd expect. By contrast in Squarespace you encounter things like 'captions', 'descriptions' and 'excerpts' — all of which can be used for SEO purposes but can also, if you're not careful, or using certain templates, end up visible on your template.  

Ultimately, it's just easier in Shopify to spot the key fields that you need to complete in order to add meta data: this is because they are labeled as they should be: i.e., page title and meta description.

It's definitely possible to optimise a Squarespace site well for search — see our Squarespace SEO tips for some important advice on how to make a Squarespace site rank in search results — but to be honest, its SEO options could be much better implemented; and there should not be a crossover between meta descriptions and page content unless the user specifically wants that crossover to exist. 

Finally, Shopify handles URL redirection better than Squarespace. If you change a page's URL, Shopify will prompt you to create a 301 redirect to that page (if you tick a checkbox, this is done automatically for you). A 301 redirect lets search engines know that the page has moved, and preserves any 'link juice' associated with it.

In Squarespace, if you change a page URL, you will have to manually create the 301 redirect (the process for which is fiddly; and creating 301 redirects is quite easy to forget to do).

One area where both products could improve a bit involves URL creation. Neither allows you to create truly 'clean' URLs — something that Google prefers - because they stick content identifiers into some URLs which can't be removed (for example, /blog/, /products/ and so on). Squarespace is a little bit more flexible on this - static pages don't include these.

On the whole though, Shopify's approach to SEO is much better than Squarespace's.

(Note: for a rundown of how to optimise a Shopify or Squarespace site for search engines, you might want to check out our Shopify SEO and Squarespace SEO guides).

Point of sale (POS) in Shopify and Squarespace

A key feature offered by Shopify which is not currently provided by Squarespace is 'point of sale' (POS) kit. This works with both iOS and Android mobile devices and allows you to sell easily not just online but in actual physical locations too.

The point of sale kit comprises a barcode scanner, card reader, cash drawer and receipt printer - you can buy any of these items individually or as a package (or alternatively use compatible third party hardware). And, if you live in the US, you can avail of a card reader for free.

There are a wide range of applications for Shopify's POS system: it allows you to sell in a pop-up shop, from a market stall, at an event or even in a permanently located retail outlet, whilst keeping your inventory and stock count automatically synced.

To be fair, you could theoretically use your Squarespace store to sell in physical locations too, but you could not use chip and pin or print paper receipts for clients; you would have to ask them to enter their card details into a laptop or tablet, and they'd receive an email receipt.

Dropshipping in Squarespace and Shopify

Many people who dip their toes into the waters of online retailing do so because they want to start dropshipping products.

Dropshipping is a method of online retailing where you don't keep what you're selling in stock — rather, you take the order, send it to a supplier, and they send the goods to the client. Your online store, in effect, becomes a front end / middle man for another business.

The plus side of this business model is that it doesn't involve much investment to start your business; the down side is that margins tend to be quite low due to high levels of competition.

If you're interested in starting a dropshipping business then Shopify is a much better bet than Squarespace. With Shopify there are a wide range of dropshipping apps available to help you source and sell inventory — a popular choice being Oberlo — but there's no easy equivalent way of dropshipping in Squarespace.

One option for dropshipping in Squarespace could actually involve Shopify - you could use a Shopify Lite plan and a dropshipping app to add a 'buy button' onto your Squarespace site. Alternatively, using Shipstation in conjunction with Squarespace could present a workaround. It's all a bit fiddly though, and more hassle to set up than in Shopify.

For more information on this topic, you may find Shopify's free webinar on dropshipping useful.

Mobile apps

Shopify and Squarespace both provide users with mobile apps for managing their sites or stores on the go. There are five Squarespace apps available:

  • Blog
  • Analytics
  • Portfolio
  • Commerce
  • Note

These are available for both iOS and Android.

Of the above, most users are realistically going to appreciate 'Blog' and 'Commerce' apps the most, as these allow you to publish blog content and manage e-commerce orders on the go.

'Analytics' is pretty useful too and does what you might expect it to: look at your site stats on a smartphone. 

 
 Squarespace's 'Blog' app

Squarespace's 'Blog' app

 

'Portfolio' allows you to download the content of your Squarespace galleries to your phone so that you can show people your images on your phone when you don't have internet access. (I'm not 100% sure I quite see the point of this, unless you intend to show your portfolio to a lot of folk on airplanes). 

'Note' is a note-taking app which allows you to publish content to a variety of different tools including Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive. It's got a slightly odd interface but it's actually quite a useful app in its own right, and you don't actually need a Squarespace account to use it. Perhaps Squarespace see it as a gateway drug of some sort!

Shopify provides quite a few apps two, but there are 2 main ones which will be of relevance to the majority of users — first there's the main Shopify app, which allows you to edit certain aspects of your Shopify site, view basic stats and check in on orders.

There's also a Shopify dedicated to its POS (point of sale) functionality — this allows you to take orders and accept payment for goods in a physical location.

The above two apps are all you need really to run a Shopify store on your mobile, but if you want more, you can pick up some other Shopify apps — these include a business card maker, a logo maker and a magazine for entrepreneurs. 

There's also an iOS-only app called 'Ping', which makes it easier to manage queries and share your product details with customers when chatting with them over Facebook Messenger. More chat services will be supported soon apparently.

So what to make of this plethora of apps? It's fair to say that despite the fact that both Squarespace and Shopify seem to offer a multitude of apps, they are actually taking quite a different approach to mobile app provision, particularly where iOS is concerned.

With Squarespace, you will need to download several apps to manage your site on a smartphone; with Shopify, you should generally be able to make do with just one.

I suspect Shopify's approach will be more convenient for most users, but that said, the Squarespace apps are designed more with specific actions in mind (publishing a blog post, viewing stats etc.), meaning that they are might be better suited to individual tasks at hand.

VAT and selling digital goods in the EU

If you're selling digital goods to consumers in the EU, there's something you need to watch out for when making a decision between Squarespace and Shopify: VAT MOSS ('VAT Mini One Stop Shop').

Basically, when your business sells a digital product to consumers in EU member states, value added tax (VAT) must be charged at the rate due in the consumer’s country. With Squarespace, these different rates all have to be entered in manually as individual 'tax rules'; Shopify will however calculate these automatically for you, potentially saving you a lot of time.

(An alternative workaround for VAT MOSS in Squarespace is to charge the same fee for products regardless of the countries involved, and retrospectively calculate and pay the relevant amount of VAT for each country to the tax authorities. Check with your bookkeeper or local tax authority first though to see if this is kosher...).

SSL access

SSL is the standard security technology for establishing an encrypted link between web servers and browser, and using it ensures that all data passed between a web server and browser remains private. (You can spot a site using SSL when you see a URL beginning with "https://" rather than "http://").

There's also another benefit to having SSL installed on your site: Google treats it as a 'positive signal' when ranking your site in search.

Up until relatively recently, it was another win for Shopify here, because Squarespace only used SSL on its e-commerce pages and didn't allow you to install custom SSL certificates to cover other parts of your site.

The good news now is that like Shopify, Squarespace now provides a free SSL certificate which you can use with any domain. 

Domains

Once nice feature of Squarespace is that when you purchase one of their plans (and pay annually) you get a free custom domain with it; although you can use Shopify to register a custom domain too, there is a cost associated with this (domain names start at $13 per year).

You can also buy domain names separately through Squarespace too, if you like.

The advantage of sourcing a domain from either Squarespace or Shopify is that (assuming you intend to use these services to host your site), you won't have to worry too much about the technical side of configuring DNS settings — connecting your domain to your Squarespace / Shopify site will be a pretty straightforward affair, with the settings pre-configured for you.

In terms of what domains are available to buy direct from either Squarespace or Shopify, you'll find that they don't offer as many TLD (top level domain) options as you'd find with a dedicated domain name provider (for example, you might not find that your country's TLD domain is catered for).

Of course, there's absolutely nothing to stop you buying a domain using a third-party provider and tweaking the DNS settings (which is not a terribly complicated job anyway) to map the domain to your Squarespace or Shopify website.

Product images

One thing that I feel is handled considerably better by Squarespace than Shopify is product images.

With Shopify, unless all your images have the same aspect ratio, they will be laid out in a pretty incoherent manner: visitors to your site will see a mish-mash of differently sized image photos in the product catalogues.

There are two ways to get around this: first, you can manually edit all your images in Photoshop or other image editing program so that they are all in the same aspect ratio...but this is a bit of a pain.

Alternatively, you can make use of a third party Shopify app such as Pixc to resize images on your store automatically after you upload them (Pixc handles 150 images for free and charges a monthly fee of $0.05 if you go over this).

Neither workaround is ideal if I'm honest, and it would be better if Shopify just allowed you to set a standard product image ratio out of the box.

Squarespace provides a better approach: you pick an aspect ratio for your product images and the system will automatically crop all your pictures to that ratio. If you like, you can specify a 'focal point' for individual product images in Squarespace — this part of the photo will be emphasised within the cropped image.

In an era of responsive websites, this focal point feature is important because it helps ensure that the main part of your image is foregrounded whenever your image is automatically cropped for viewing on smaller screens.

 Editing an image's focal point in Squarespace.

Editing an image's focal point in Squarespace.

Reporting

If you're looking for a platform with professional reporting functionality, then Shopify is a better option than Squarespace. Although the Squarespace reporting offering has improved quite a bit recently, the stats provided are of a more basic nature than those found in Shopify.

In Squarespace, you can expect to see a simple but effective overview of site visitors, traffic sources and sales — but Shopify's analytics offering is much more extensive, giving you a set of detailed stats which include:

  • finance reports
  • sales reports
  • customers reports
  • acquisition reports
  • behavior reports

And what's more, you can use Shopify to create your own custom reports too.

Reporting in Shopify is significantly more comprehensive than in Squarespace (click to enlarge)

There is a negative aspect of Shopify's reporting offering which is worth pointing out however: it's only available on their more expensive plans. The pre-defined reports are available on the $79 'Shopify' plan and up; and to avail of custom reporting you'll need to purchase an 'Advanced Shopify' or 'Shopify Plus' plan.

If you don't opt for one of these plans, you'll just get access to a basic 'dashboard' report which provides similar data to that which you'll find in Squarespace. 

You could of course use Google Analytics to get around this, but you'd need to do more manual configuration and 'goal-setting' to get at the sales data you need.

Similarly, Squarespace charges a premium for more advanced reporting features - if you want enhanced commerce analytics, you'll need to be on one of the more expensive 'online store' plans.

Blogging in Squarespace and Shopify

Blogging is an often-overlooked, but extremely important aspect of running an online store. This is because blogging is absolutely vital to inbound marketing — where you use quality content (blog posts) to drive traffic, and by extension sales. 

The good news is that both Squarespace and Shopify provide blogging functionality - this is not true of all e-commerce platforms, notably Volusion. 

In terms of which is better, I'd say Squarespace's blogging functionality has a slight edge over Shopify's. This is chiefly because you can do more with the blog content — you can drop it easily into any page or sidebar of your site using attractive and flexible 'summary blocks'.

You can also add both categories and tags to posts in Squarespace; Shopify just permits tags.

Third party integrations

A very big difference between Shopify and Squarespace is that Shopify has an app store that you can use to purchase integrations with other apps; the latter doesn't.

Shopify's app store contains thousands of integrations with other platforms; additionally, it contains apps which have been developed to add specific pieces of functionality to Shopify stores (for example SEO enhancements; dropshipping functionality; multiple currency support - and much else besides).

That's not to say that you can't integrate other apps with Squarespace - you can. There are a few 'official integrations' available out of the box with Squarespace (available on the 'Business' plan and up) - these include Xero, Dropbox, OpenTable, Soundcloud, Twitter and quite a few others.

For anything else, you can either embed code from other apps into your Squarespace site using a code block, or use Zapier to connect Squarespace's forms to other apps. You may have to be prepared to put a bit of legwork into the setup time however.

AMP in Shopify and Squarespace

Accelerated mobile pages (AMP) is a new, Google-backed, format for content which makes it load really fast on mobile devices. It does this by stripping out certain bits of code from your site and delivering a slimmed down version of your content to smartphone users.

AMP pages create a better user experience than normal responsive pages; because they load more or less instantaneously, people viewing AMP pages are far more likely to stay on your site (and by extension buy stuff). Google also occasionally prioritises AMP pages in search, by featuring them in carousels above standard search results.

In Squarespace, you can enable Accelerated Mobile Pages ('AMP') format really easily - it's simply a case of ticking a checkbox in your site's setting - but at time of writing it is only available for blog posts, not products. 

To use AMP on Shopify sites, you'll need to do a bit more work - you'll need to install a third-party, paid-for app like RocketAmp or FireAMP.

However the Shopify apps allows you to display ALL your site content (including, crucially, product pages) in AMP format. So providing you're prepared to put in a little bit of effort (and cash) with Shopify, you'll end up with a better AMP version of your site.


Using Shopify and Squarespace with G Suite

Squarespace has recently been making quite a lot of noise about the fact that it partners with Google to offer Squarespace users a G Suite (formerly Google Apps) integration.

You can sign up for G Suite when you purchase your Squarespace plan - and if you're on a 'Business', 'Basic' or 'Advanced' plan, you'll get a year's free G Suite plan (for one user).

When you sign up for G Suite through Squarespace, you can manage certain G Suite admin tasks without leaving your Squarespace site:

  • add users/email addresses
  • rename users
  • delete users
  • configure G Suite MX records (this 
  • review G Suite invoices

This functionality is fairly limited, and easily accessible through the G Suite admin panel, so the integration isn't that mind blowing. More appealing is the year's free account. 

Squarespace does integrate nicely with G Suite in one particular respect: you can connect data capture forms to a Google Sheet, meaning that you get a handy real-time overview (or indeed archive) of any form submissions made via your website. This will work with any G Suite account, regardless of whether you purchase it via Squarespace or independently. 

In terms of using Shopify in conjunction with G Suite, there's nothing to stop you doing that - you will need to edit your DNS settings manually to get the email accounts to work, but that's a fairly simple, 5 minute task.


Editing HTML and CSS in Shopify and Squarespace

With Shopify you get very extensive control over the coding of your site - you get full control over the HTML and CSS of your website (on all plans except the 'Lite' one).

With Squarespace, you can edit the CSS and certain bits of HTML (you can insert code blocks onto pages, or inject HTML into the header of your site) but you should be aware that the Squarespace support team essentially reserve the right not to support you fully if you've added HTML or CSS to your site.

The other thing worth remembering of course is that you can only add CSS to your site and inject code into your page headers if you're on a Squarespace 'Business' plan or higher — the 'Personal' plan disables this functionality.

As discussed earlier, there is a developer version of Squarespace available which does provide users with extensive control over every aspect of the design of their site - but you will need strong coding skills to be able to work with it. As the name suggests, you will ideally need to be a developer. Again, developer mode is only available on 'Business' plans or higher.

(For the record, what I'd *love* to see one day is a halfway house between the standard version of Squarespace and the developer's platform — maybe a product called 'Squarespace Pro' which, like the original versions of Squarespace, allowed you to tweak every element of your website and edit the CSS of your site easily).


Support

Shopify definitely has the edge over Squarespace in the support department.

Shopify provides you with live chat, email and (crucially) phone support — Squarespace offers only live chat and email support. If I was paying $46 a month for a Squarespace account, I'd expect phone support. 

It's a bit unclear however what countries you can avail of Shopify phone support from; phone numbers are only listed for North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

A note of caution is worth sounding regarding the support offered with both Shopify and Squarespace — the quality of support you'll get often depends on what you're doing with your template. 

For example, if you're using one of the standard free Shopify templates, you can expect fairly comprehensive support if it's not behaving as it should. But if you opt for a third-party, paid-for template, you may have to deal with the designers of that template if you run into trouble. And how good that support is will depend on the designers in question.

Similarly, Squarespace's support team are pretty good at assisting with template related queries...unless you customise it by adding your own CSS or HTML to it, in which case the Squarespace support team effectively reserve the right not to support you. 

I've had more experience of Squarespace support than Shopify, and it's varied from being brilliant (when dealing with technical issues) to appalling (when dealing with GDPR-related enquiries).

One thing that is likely to annoy both Squarespace and Shopify users is that before you get to see any contact details for their support teams, you need to search for an answer to your problem first on the Shopify and Squarespace help sites.

I can see the rationale for this, but I think that many (most?) users will have already searched for a solution to their problem before getting to the point where they want to contact a support team - and this approach feels like its making customers jump through unnecessary hoops.


Shopify and Squarespace GDPR compliance

I am not a lawyer, so please note that the below observations should not be interpreted as legal advice, but I'm going to do my best to spell out some of the key GDPR issues facing Squarespace and Shopify site owners in this section.

As you will have probably spotted as a result of receiving a load of emails recently from companies asking you to resubscribe to their mailing lists, business and website owners now have a lot of additional legal responsibilities as a result of the new GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) rules introduced by the EU in May earlier this year. 

There are many legal steps that the GDPR requires business owners to take to ensure compliance, and fairly serious penalties for not doing so (to the point where it's a good idea to consult a lawyer about what to do), but the key ones for prospective Shopify and Squarespace users are probably as follows:

  • Display adequate privacy and cookie notices on your website
  • Process and store data securely
  • Get explicit consent from people signing up to mailing lists that it is okay to send them e-newsletters
  • Provide a means to opt in or revoke consent to use of non-essential cookies on a website (and to log that consent).

Now, meeting the first three requirements with either Squarespace or Shopify is fairly straightforward (although you will have a bit of legwork to do in terms of creating GDPR compliant privacy policies and data capture forms).

Meeting the fourth requirement however is harder, and in my view Squarespace and Shopify should be doing more to assist their customers to meet this GDPR obligation.

Basically, whenever you use non-essential third party cookies on a website — for example a Facebook Ads pixel or a Google Analytics tag — you are legally obliged to give EU visitors to your website the option to switch these off BEFORE they continue to browse your site (even if your site is based outside of the EU). 

You are also obliged to log EU users' consent to any non-essential cookies being used, and give them the option to revoke that consent at a later stage. Cookie banners are usually used to facilitate this, but the old 'By using this site you are consenting to cookie usage...' statement on a banner is not good enough any more — you need something far more sophisticated.

Sadly, out of the box there is no way to facilitate this kind of GDPR cookie consent for third party scripts on either Shopify or Squarespace, meaning that many (if not the vast majority of) Squarespace and Shopify users end up breaking the law as soon as they add a third-party cookie  to their website. 

To get around this problem, you will need to either:

  • code something yourself
  • make use of a third party solution.

Most Shopify and Squarespace users are likely to plump for the second option; and in my research into this area so far, it seems that Shopify is the more flexible platform when it comes to integrating third party cookie banners into proceedings. 

For a start, there are quite a lot of apps in Shopify's app store which provide GDPR compliant banners and cookie consent functionality (note that some seem considerably better than others — if in doubt about how robust a particular Shopify GPDR app is, consult a lawyer!). Alternatively, products like Cookie Pro or Cookiebot can be used to capture cookie consent for Shopify sites.

As for Squarespace, because it doesn't provide an app store, there are no dedicated apps to solve this problem; and Cookiebot, one of the leading cookie banner products available, does not yet work fully with it.

I've been talking to the team at Cookie Pro however, who do say that their product works with Squarespace; so I'm going to have a good investigation of Cookie Pro shortly (chiefly with a view to making my own Squarespace sites and those of my clients more compliant with GDPR!) and will hopefully have a write-up to share in the not too distant future.

Bottom line on GDPR: you can make a Shopify or Squarespace site GDPR compliant, but it will involve some work (and ongoing fees, if you're using a third party cookie banner solution), with Shopify providing you with more options on solving this problem. 


Which is better, Shopify or Squarespace?

Well, the answer to this question is a big fat ‘it depends’.

If your primary aim to build an attractive website to showcase content, then Squarespace is definitely your best bet. I'd argue that this is particularly the case if you're working with images — Squarespace is particularly good for creating online photography portfolios with — or are a musician / band.

If you are hoping to build a content-focused website or a blog and sell a couple of products on the site as well, then Squarespace is probably still your best bet, so long as you are happy with the fairly limited payment processing options — and you don't need to charge EU VAT on digital goods (or are prepared to put a bit of time into setting up a lot of tax rates manually).

However, if your aim is to create a large online store with advanced functionality, professional reporting and a big inventory of products, then Shopify is unquestionably the more robust solution — its feature set and payment gateway options are significantly more extensive, and it allows you to export your product data, something Squarespace does not currently permit. And with its VAT MOSS functionality, it's definitely better for selling digital goods.

Interestingly, if you prefer the general vibe of Squarespace, or have an existing Squarespace site that you're really happy with, but would you'd like to add e-commerce functionality to, you could also consider using Squarespace AND Shopify in conjunction with each other: you could use the 'Shopify Lite' Plan to integrate the Shopify Buy Button, cart and checkout onto a Squarespace site. I've seen quite a few users do this successfully (another option for beefing up the e-commerce functionality on a Squarespace site is Ecwid).

In summary, here are the reasons why you might pick one of these platforms over the other:

Reasons to use Shopify over Squarespace

  • With Shopify, you can export all types of products; in Squarespace you can only export digital ones.
  • Abandoned cart saver functionality is available at a considerably lower price point with Shopify.
  • You can run a dropshipping business more easily with Shopify.
  • There is a huge library of third party apps that work with Shopify and extend its functionality significantly — although some integrations are available for Squarespace, you won't find a similar catalogue of apps to beef up your site / store.
  • Shopify provides you with significantly more choices when it comes to payment gateways.
  • If you intend to sell products in-store or at events, you will find Shopify's Point of Sale options extremely useful; Squarespace doesn't yet offer this kind of functionality.
  • Shopify permits more advanced control over the HTML and CSS of your website (note: Squarespace does provide advanced control too, but only if you're using the developer version).
  • Reporting is better in Shopify than in Squarespace, although you'll need to be on a more expensive plan to access this functionality.
  • Thanks to the fact that EU VAT is automatically calculated for you on digital goods, Shopify makes selling products to EU customers a lot more straightforward.
  • Shopify provides more comprehensive support than Squarespace, including phone support.
  • Shopify's 'Lite' plan allows you to start selling online and at point-of-sale very cheaply (but note that it won't provide you with a fully-fledged online store).
  • Shopify's navigation builder allows you to use more levels of navigation than Squarespace (for desktop versions of your store).
  • Shopify has a much better approach to SEO.
  • It's easier to meet GDPR requirements with Shopify than it is with Squarespace, mainly because more third-party apps which provide cookie consent functionality are available for Shopify.
  • You can — albeit with the use of a third-party app — create AMP versions of product pages in Shopify.
  • There are more template variations available in Shopify (but you will have to pay a premium to use many of them).
  • Only one smartphone app is required to manage key aspects of your site on the go - with Squarespace you'll need at least three.

A free trial of Shopify is available here.

Reasons to use Squarespace over Shopify

  • The quality of bundled templates is arguably a little bit higher in Squarespace than in Shopify — they have more 'wow' factor (note that the paid-for Shopify templates are of a similar quality, however). There are also more templates to choose from.
  • If your main aim is to showcase content, particularly images, then Squarespace is the more elegant, flexible solution.
  • You can buy Getty images very cheaply with Squarespace and integrate them easily onto your site. 
  • Squarespace is arguably slightly easier to use than Shopify.
  • Squarespace allows you to host a fully functional online store a bit more cheaply than Shopify.
  • Product images are handled considerably better by Squarespace.
  • Blogging features in Squarespace are a bit better than the Shopify equivalents.
  • Depending on whether or not you have an existing G Suite account, you may be able to avail of a free G Suite plan for a year by purchasing it through Squarespace.

A free trial of Squarespace is available here.

Hopefully this comparison review has helped somewhat, but if you are still agonising over your decision it is definitely worth availing of a free trial of both products, having a play, and seeing which one you prefer:

And finally, a reminder that we can help you build both Shopify and Squarespace websites! Please do contact us for more information on how you can get a Shopify or Squrespace website off the ground quickly and professionally with Squarespace.


More Shopify and Squarespace resources

You might also find the below articles / resources on Shopify and Squarespace useful:


Alternatives to Shopify and Squarespace

If you’d like to try another solution before committing to either Squarespace or Shopify, Bigcommerce is definitely worth a look because it is feature-rich and very easy to use (it's particularly good when it comes to providing merchants with the option to add a wide variety of product variants).

You may also find some of our other e-commerce platform reviews helpful – just see the 'related articles' section below for a list of recent posts.


Any thoughts or questions?

If you've used either Shopify and Squarespace (or both!), it'd be great to hear your thoughts on both products — feel free to post your comments or questions on either platform below. Also, if you've found this post useful, it'd be wonderful if you could consider sharing it on social media or creating a link to it on your blog / website. Thanks for reading!


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How to Make an Online Store in 7 Easy Steps
How to make an online store - picture of a computer and a shopping cart

In this article, I discuss how you can make an online store - and more importantly, how you can drive traffic to it and generate sales. 

You're probably reading this post because you're looking for some e-commerce software to help you get an online store up and running.

Finding this software is the relatively easy bit (we have some suggestions below); but getting your store to make money is the tricky part.

So in this post, we look at all the things you need to do not just to get an online store live, but attract traffic – and thus sales – too. 

But before we dig down into all that, let's take a look at how you go about choosing what to sell.


1. Pick the right product to sell

This sounds so obvious that it’s barely worth saying, but picking the ‘right’ product to sell is absolutely essential to the success of your store.

However, by ‘right’ I’m not talking about quality – you should obviously avoid selling tat – I’m talking about the ‘uniqueness’ of your product.

This is because when you set up an online store, you are competing with a large number of hugely popular sites selling everything under the sun: just think of the Amazons and the Ebays of this world to get a flavour of the level of competition.

Generally, you are going to have a tough time shifting products if you are simply selling stuff that is already widely available on those kinds of sites.

To run a successful online store, what you ideally need to do is ‘find your niche’ – identify (or make!) a product that is not being sold by every online retailer going, but for which there is enough demand to sustain an online business.

For example, instead of selling a guitar that is commonly available on Amazon, you might consider selling an instrument that is hard to find online, but for which you know there is strong demand.

So, let's take a look at how you can use keyword research to find your niche...


2. Use keyword research to help you find your niche

To help you find the niche discussed above, you are going to need to do some research. The simplest way of identifying a niche is to

1) use a keyword research tool (like Moz Keyword Explorer, Ahrefs or SERPs to find niche markets

and

2) perform online searches to see how many retailers are operating in those markets.

Keyword research tools allow you to find out how many searches per month are performed for various keywords.

For example, it might tell you that there are 246,000 searches per month for the search term ‘buy guitar’ and only 1,600 for ‘buy ukulele’.

This might make you think “whoa, there’s a much bigger market for guitars, I’m going to sell guitars” but stop right there: think of the number of guitar stores you will be competing with.The numbers that the keyword tool has just given us tell us that ukuleles are definitely much more of a niche product, but one with a decent enough number of people interested in buying them (nearly 20,000 a year worldwide, enough to arguably sustain an online ukulele-selling business) .

The question is whether there are already a lot of retailers selling this niche product: people might have beaten you to this niche already.

To find out, you now need to look at 'keyword difficulty' - this is a score given (in one format or another) by keyword research tools. The higher the keyword difficulty score, the harder it will be to rank for searches for that product name.

It's also a good idea to perform some of searches in Google to see how many stores specialising in selling ukuleles online are already out there.

If you find that there are already loads of hugely popular online ukulele stores in existence, it might be time to think about selling a different product. But if there’s clearly only one or two online stores flogging ukuleles…well, maybe it’s time to think about going into the ukulele-selling business.

This is quite a basic example; you can go much further with niches. You may find during your research that there are quite a lot of ukulele sellers out there, but not many soprano ukulele sellers (but still enough demand to justify the setting up of an online store selling soprano ukuleles)…you get the idea.

The trick is generally to find products for which there is a reasonably strong level of demand but with relatively few online stores selling them (or, ideally, none at all!).


3. Source your stock

There are two main options available to you when it comes to sourcing stock: purchasing it from a supplier and reselling it, or dropshipping.

The advantage of the first option - buying it from a supplier you know - is that you can view the quality of stock first-hand, ensure it is produced ethically and build up a good relationship with your supplier.

(In fact, if you're making your own products, you are in effect the supplier!). The disadvantage is that you will need some cash handy to invest in purchasing stock which you may never end up selling (or, if you're manufacturing it yourself, you'll need to invest to produce it).

The second option is to dropship. Dropshipping is a fulfillment method where you don't keep what you're selling in stock (you take the order, send it to a supplier, and they deliver the goods to your client - your store is in effect a middle man of sorts).

The main advantage of this method of sourcing stock is that no upfront investment is required; the downside is that dropshipping is quite a competitive area and you may end up selling products that are also marketed by many competing merchants.

Most of the major e-commerce platforms (which we'll talk about in a bit more depth below) offer add-ons / integrations which allow you to locate and dropship goods produced from a wide range of suppliers. Popular apps include Oberlo for Shopify and Alibaba for Bigcommerce.

If you're interested in dropshipping, you may find Shopify's free webinar on the topic useful.


4. Create your online store

Once you’ve identified your niche product and market, and know where you're sourcing your stock from, it’s time to think about getting your online store off the ground.

You could hire an agency or freelancer to design your store for you, but if you go down that route, make sure that they implement a solution that lets you manage your store without them after it’s live – i.e., they need to provide you with access to a ‘content management system’ (CMS) that lets you edit your site easily and add/remove products. This means that after your store goes live, you won't have to pay a webmaster or developer to do it every time.

(That said, if you are short on time, or bad with computers, it may make sense to hire a professional to do this work on your behalf.)

Example of a Shopify theme

Another option is to use an online store builder and just create your online store yourself – you may find this more cost-effective, but you will have to tread carefully.

There are lots of e-commerce solutions to choose from – popular ones include Shopify, Bigcommerce, Squarespace and Volusion

Of the ones I have road tested to date, I have found Shopify and Bigcommerce to be the most straightforward for users without a lot of experience of building websites – they are definitely the most user-friendly of the bunch.

Squarespace is also quite easy to use, but it lacks some of the more advanced e-commerce features that come with Shopify and Bigcommerce.

The good news is that all these solutions offer free trials and support to help you get going – just follow the links below:

If you already have a website (for example, a Wordpress site) and want to add an online store to it, tools such as Ecwid will come in handy – it allows you to plug a ‘widget’ into your site (or anywhere else you can insert some HTML code – for example, a Facebook page or blog) and users will see a fully-functional online store at that location.


5. Optimise your site for search

Once you’ve found your niche market and designed your online store to cater for it, it is now crucial to optimise it correctly for search.

You can use keyword research tools again to find out exactly what kind of searches are performed for your type of product, and ensure that your site contains all these keywords in all the right places – page titles, product descriptions, headings, meta data and URLs.

Most of the solutions mentioned above – Shopify,  Bigcommerce and Volusion in particular – give you a lot of control over SEO. If you plump for one of those products, make use of this functionality!

You'll find more detailed information on how to make a site visible in Google here, or you can download our 'Super Simple SEO' e-book here.


6. Blog

A hugely important part of attracting traffic to an online store is to blog regularly about topics related to what you are selling.

For example, on your ukulele site, you could blog about playing techniques, or your favourite type of ukulele strings, or that bit in Some Like It Hot where Marilyn Monroe plays a ukulele on a train.

This type of activity is basically known as ‘inbound marketing’ and if you don’t engage in it, you are potentially missing out on a huge number of sales.

By posting high-quality, keyword-rich blog posts related to your area of business, you are doing two things: one, maximising the chances of your site appearing in relevant search results, and two, showing you are an authority on the area of business you are operating in (potential ukulele buyers will have greater confidence in ukulele vendors who clearly have a passion for, and understanding of, all things ukulele).

Returning to particular store builders for a moment, it's worth pointing out a key reason why I'm keen on Shopify and Bigcommerce solutions for building e-commerce sites: both products come with blogging functionality built in (which, for the reasons outlined above, is very important for building an audience for your store).

You can add blogs to a Volusion site too but it involves setting up subdomains, and is a bit of a fiddly process.


7. Advertise online

If you have the budget, it's definitely worth running some online ads to promote your online store's products. A good starting point for this is Google Adwords and Facebook ads.

Google Adwords

Using Google Adwords involves identifying (and paying for) relevant search phrases that will display adverts for your store/products alongside ‘organic’ Google search results.

In my experience, Adwords campaigns generally work well when you are selling relatively expensive products. For example, you might be able to live with an Adwords ‘cost per acquisition’ of £50 (i.e., where you spend £50 on ads to generate one sale) to sell one product if that product – let’s say a TV – retails at £1000, but if you are spending £50 on ads to sell one CD that retails at £10…well, a different approach might be needed.

It’s a question of looking at your margins, trying out different keyword strategies and so on to ensure that the cost of advertising doesn't eat into your profit too much. But used well, Adwords can help you sell a lot of products; and If you're interested in learning more about using them, you could do worse than checking out Neil Patel's 'Google Adwords Made Simple' guide.

Facebook ads

Facebook ads work in a different way to Adwords: rather than paying to display your ads to people who are entering keywords into a search engine, you are paying to display your ads to people who have told Facebook what they are interested in.

For example, using Facebook ads you could advertise Beatles T-shirts to people who like the Beatles; VW keyrings to people who drive Volkswagens and so on. 

Facebook ads are extremely powerful and let you target (and re-target) audiences to the nth degree - as such, it's worth getting a full understanding of how they work before you start spending money on them. Facebook's own guide to advertising on their platform is a good starting point. 


Any thoughts?

Any thoughts on how to set up an online store?

If you've set up your own online store, or have any queries about doing so, we'd love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Note that if you're viewing this article on a mobile phone, you may be seeing the AMP version (which loads faster but doesn't display comments). You can click here to view the regular version, which does allow you to post comments.



Bigcommerce Review (2018) - Pros and Cons of a Leading E-Commerce Solution
 Bigcommerce review (image of a shopping trolley)

In this Bigcommerce review we take a look at one of the most popular e-commerce solutions currently available. Like Shopify and Volusion, it regularly features in ‘top five’ lists of online store builders. 

In this post I'll walk you through some key Bigcommerce features. You'll learn all about the Bigcommerce pros and cons, and by the end of the article should hopefully have a better idea of whether Bigcommerce is the right e-commerce solution for you and your business.

Our overall rating: 4/5


What is Bigcommerce?

Bigcommerce is a paid-for 'hosted' e-commerce solution that allows business owners to set up an online store and sell their products online. It's a software as a service (Saas) product, which means that you don't own the software, but pay a monthly fee to use it.

Bigcommerce comes with a range of customizable templates to help you design your store; you can use it to sell either physical or digital goods; and there are also some tools provided to help you market your store.

The product is aimed primarily at people without much in the way of web design skills, but it also allows more tech-savvy users and developers to tweak the HTML and CSS of their online stores too.

As with all hosted online store and website building services (Shopify, Volusion, Squarespace, Jimdo etc.), if Bigcommerce were to shut down or change its feature set radically, you might find yourself in a position where you needed to migrate your store to another platform (Magento Go users can tell you all about that!).

But unless you are in a position to develop your own online store (an expensive and laborious undertaking) you are in all likelihood going to end up using a hosted tool like Bigcommerce anyway to run your store, and the good news is that it is one of the more established products of its kind out there, with a client roster that includes Toyota, Gibson Guitars and Travelpro.


Bigcommerce pricing

Bigcommerce offers four month-to-month pricing plans, which are as follows:

  • Bigcommerce Standard: $29.95 per month

  • Bigcommerce Plus: $79.95 per month

  • Bigcommerce Pro: $249.95 per month*

  • Bigcommerce Enterprise: pricing varies, depending on your business requirements

A 10% discount is available for the 'Plus' and 'Pro' plans if you pay annually for them.

 Bigcommerce pricing (correct at time of writing in June 2018)

Bigcommerce pricing (correct at time of writing in June 2018)

The 'standard', 'plus' and 'pro' plans are aimed at individuals and small businesses; the Enterprise plan is geared more towards large businesses and corporates (users with very high bandwidth / advanced functionality requirements). 

* This fee increases depending on what your annual sales figures are like - these sales limits are discussed in more depth below.


Core selling features

As we'll see below, the exact features you get with Bigcommerce depend on the plan you opt for, but important features common to all plans include:

  • a choice of 7 free templates

  • the ability to sell a wide range of either physical or digital goods, in categories of your choosing and using shipping rates of your choosing

  • integration with Paypal and a wide range of payment gateways

  • full content management (CMS) functionality

  • good search engine optimisation (SEO) options – it’s very easy to add appropriate keywords to your products and site pages

  • automated image optimisation (using Akamai Image Manager) - this can speed up the delivery of your web pages, which can in turn improve search rankings

  • integration with several e-mail marketing services: Constant Contact, iContact, Mailchimp and Interspire

  • discount coupons and gift vouchers

  • product review functionality - this is particularly welcome: not all e-commerce platforms offer this as standard, and usually require you to fiddle about with third-party apps or services to enable it. 

  • the ability to tweak CSS and HTML as desired

  • professional reporting.

This comprehensive set of features means that Bigcommerce arguably offers considerably more bang for the buck many competing products at the $29 monthly plan price point.

With some alternative e-commerce platforms, you'll find yourself having to be on a pretty expensive plan to access some of the above features, or paying for apps to provide the additional functionality you need.

For example, Bigcommerce's $29.95 'Starter' plan compares pretty favourably to Shopify's equivalent in that it offers 5 key features at this level that Shopify doesn't, namely professional reporting, image optimisation, gift cards, a built in ratings and review system and real-time carrier shipping quotes. (However, unlike Shopify's $29 plan it doesn't provide an abandoned cart saver).

Similarly, the feature set included in the $29 Bigcommerce plan is also more generous than the similarly priced 'Basic' Squarespace plan - providing you with professional reporting, gift cards, a built in ratings and review system and real-time carrier shipping quotes where its competitor doesn't.

Given this, I'd say that the main strength of Bigcommerce is that it generally provides good value for money and serves as a good 'all-rounder' e-commerce platform out of the box. 


Differences between the Bigcommerce plans

As you'd expect, how much functionality you get from Bigcommerce depends on how much you're prepared to pay for it.

Let's drill down into the individual plans to see what features you gain as you go up the pricing ladder.

Bigcommerce Standard

Bigcommerce's cheapest offering, the 'standard' plan, costs $29.95 per month and as such is a significantly more expensive than the starter plans offered by competitors Shopify and Volusion ($9 and $15 respectively) - but that said it is, in general, a more comprehensive starter plan than either of those plans, providing

  • a fully functional online store

  • the ability to sell an unlimited number of products

  • unlimited bandwidth

  • unlimited file storage

  • gift cards

  • ratings and reviews functionality

  • professional reporting

  • automatic image optimisation

In short, you get an awful lot of e-commerce bang for your buck - pretty much all the key ingredients of an online store are provided on Bigcommerce's entry-level plan.

As we touched on above, this is arguably Bigcommerce's USP: several of its key competitors usually require you to be on a more expensive plan or make use of apps to get a similar feature set.

By comparison, the Shopify 'Lite' plan doesn't actually let you build a fully functional website - it is geared towards users who want to either set up a store on Facebook or use the Shopify backend in conjunction with a simple 'buy now' button or point-of-sale applications. 

Volusion’s 'Mini' starter plan comes with monthly limits on data transfer (1GB) and limits you to selling 100 products.

A fairer comparison would be to stack the Bigcommerce 'standard' plan up against Volusion's 'plus' plan or Shopify’s ‘basic’ plan - see our Bigcommerce vs Shopify comparison for more details on the latter.

The main criticism you could make regarding this plan (and which I've touched on above) is that abandoned cart saving functionality is not included with it. An abandoned cart saver is an important piece of functionality, because you can use it to identify people who have stopped their purchase mid-way through, and automatically send them a reminder email encouraging them to complete the purchase. The similarly-priced Shopify and Volusion plans both include this, so Bigcommerce falls down a little by comparison here.

There is an annual sales limit for Bigcommerce Standard of $50,000.

Bigcommerce Plus

Next we have the 'Bigcommerce Plus' plan.

In addition to the core functionality as you'll find on the standard plan, it provides

  • an abandoned cart saver tool (which we discuss in depth later on in the review)

  • stored credit cards (this allows your regular customers to store their card details with you)

  • customer grouping / segmentaiton

With regard to the last feature mentioned above, customer grouping, this lets you set pricing rules for different customer groups - for example, you could use this functionality to provide discounts to individual customers, or to those who have bought specific products from you in the past. You can also use this functionality to create a loyalty programme.

The annual sales limit for Bigcommerce Plus is $150,000.

Bigcommerce Pro

The next plan up in the mix is 'Bigcommerce Pro'. With this plan, you don't get a huge amount of extra functionality over Bigcommerce Plus - but you do get a significantly increased sales limit. This permits up to $400,000 in online sales, with an additional fee of $150 per month per $200k in sales, up to a maximum of $1m. 

One extra feature which is worth drawing attention to on this plan is Google Customer Reviews -  a programme that lets you collect and display feedback from users who’ve made a purchase on your site. 

If you've enabled Google Customer reviews, once a customer buys a product from your Bigcommerce store, they will be asked if they'd like to review it on Google (after it's been delivered).

 When you have Google Customer Reviews enabled in Bigcommerce, your customers are sent this email after marking a purchase.

When you have Google Customer Reviews enabled in Bigcommerce, your customers are sent this email after marking a purchase.

If the customer wants to do this, Google will email them a survey after their order has arrived. The collected ratings are then displayed on your site (via an optional Google Customer Reviews badge), Search Ads, and in Google Shopping.

The other main features on this plan are faceted search (advanced product filtering) and custom SSL via a third party.

Bigcommerce Enterprise

Finally, there's Bigcommerce's "Enterprise" plan to consider. This is really geared towards businesses that have very high volumes of sales (typically, over $1,000,000), and advanced requirements.

Advanced features that are not available on the cheaper plans include:

  • advanced product filtering (this lets your visitors search your store using your own custom fields)

  • a service level agreement (SLA) for server uptime (99.99% is promised)

  • a staging environment

  • unlimited API calls

  • Bigcommerce consulting / account management

  • priority support.

If you're interested in the Enterprise plan you will need to discuss your requirements with Bigcommerce to establish pricing - the costs will reflect your business needs, but Bigcommerce claim that they will come in cheaper than Shopify's entrprise grade plan (this is called Shopify Plus and typically comes in at around $2000 per month).

You can generally expect a lot more support from Bigcommerce if you purchase an Enterprise plan - data migration, setup, account management and much more in-depth support can all be facilitated.

The annuals sales limit for Bigcommerce Enterprise is negotiable.


Transaction fees and sales limits

A question which many potential Bigcommerce users asks is "how much of a cut of my sales are they going to take?"

Well, the good news is that there are no transaction fees on any Bigcommerce plan. This is in marked contrast to some competing products.

However, you do have to pay credit card transaction fees to the company you select to process payments. These will depend on the payment gateway you use (see below).

The bad news, and as mentioned above, is that Bigcommerce places a limits on your annual online sales.

These limits are as follows:

  • Bigcommerce Standard: $50,000

  • Bigcommerce Plus: $150,000

  • Bigcommerce Pro: $400,000

  • Bigcommerce Enterprise: negotiable

(If you're on the Bigcommerce Pro plan, you can increase the sales limit by paying $150 per month for every additional $200k in sales, up to $1m).

I contacted Bigcommerce to see what happens if you breach these limits and the response was:

"There is an additional 1,000-2,000 order limit per plan that users are able to go over before being forced to upgrade. During this time users will receive notifications about upgrading their plan as they are over the limit. But we will not prevent additional orders from coming through until they exceed the additional 1,000-2,000 overage order provided."

I expect the limits issue won't be a showstopper for most merchants - if your store is bringing in $400,000 a year you probably won't be quibbling too much about having to pay an extra $150 per month for breaching the limit...but I guess for some merchants they will be a bit of an annoyance.

I have yet to come across these sorts of limits on competing products like Shopify or Volusion, so it's a bit of a 'could do better' here for Bigcommerce.


Payment gateways

With all the plans referred to above, additional charges apply for use of a ‘payment gateway’ (software provided by a third party to process credit cards).

Depending on the payment gateway provider you choose, you are looking at a percentage of a transaction fee, or a monthly fee (or both). These fees are not applied by Bigcommerce but by the payment gateway provider in question.

Integrating a payment gateway with a hosted e-commerce solution like Bigcommerce can occasionally be bit of a lengthy process, which involves setting up 'merchant accounts' with your chosen gateway provider and configuring them so that they work with your store.

If you want to avoid doing this, you can use Paypal powered by Braintree as the payment gateway. Doing so makes for a very easy payment gateway setup and gives you preferential Paypal rates for credit card transactions (which decrease as you go up Bigcommerce's pricing ladder):

  • Bigcommerce Standard: 2.9% + 30c

  • Bigcommerce Plus: 2.5% + 30c

  • Bigcommerce Pro: 2.2% + 30c

  • Bigcommerce Enterprise: 2.2% + 30c

It's worth looking at the various fees involved with other payment gateway providers though: depending on what you sell and how much of it, using a different payment gateway to Paypal powered by Braintree may still be the best route for you to go down, even if it involves a bit more configuration time.

In terms of the number of payment gateways that you can integrate with Bigcommerce, there are around 40 available (note however that whether or not you can work with a particular payment gateway will depend on the country you are selling from).

This compares fairly favourably with competing products - it's much better in the payment gateway department than Squarespace (which only offers integration with 2 payment gateways, Stripe and Paypal) but not as good as Shopify (which works with over 100).


Bigcommerce templates

Bigcommerce offers a reasonably good selection of responsive templates that you can use for the design of your online store.

There are 7 free themes and around 120 paid themes (ranging in price from $145 to $235) - and each theme contains a number of different variants, so there quite is a lot to choose from.

Example of a free Bigcommerce theme

The free themes on offer are contemporary, professional in appearance and provide a good starting point for building an online store.

However, a few of them are very similar to each other. This is a particular issue with the free themes: although there are technically 7 available, if you ask me it's more a case of there being 2 themes with different colours.

This means that in the theme department, Bigcommerce doesn't provide quite so much bang for buck as other solutions, like Shopify (which provides 10 free themes, with 2-3 variants of each) or Squarespace (which provides nearly 100 free themes).

To extend your options in the theme department, you can consider purchasing a paid Bigcommerce theme. These are fairly reasonably priced, starting out at $145 and going up to $235 (occasionally you can pick one up at a discounted rate - I've seen premium themes available for $99 when on sale). Again, you'll find that some of these are a bit too similar to each other to merit being classified as different theme.

Overall, you will be able to create a professional design for your Bigcommerce site using either the free or premium themes - it'd just be good to see the range of themes extended a bit.


Bigcommerce’s abandoned cart saver feature

A feature worth drawing particular attention to is Bigcommerce’s abandoned cart feature – it’s arguably one of the best out there.

The tool allows you to create up to three automated emails to site visitors who go part of the way through the sales process only to leave your store without buying anything. This has the potential to dramatically increase your revenue with little effort – other than the 'one-off' time investment in setting up the automated messages – being involved.

 Setting up an automated abandoned cart email in Bigcommerce.

Setting up an automated abandoned cart email in Bigcommerce.

Other online store building tools provide similar functionality, but Bigcommerce’s is in my view better than those offered by its key competitors because it allows you to program in more reminder emails (you can use three active autoresponders).

It’s important to note that the abandoned cart saver functionality only comes with Bigcommerce’s 'Plus', 'Pro' and 'Enterprise' plans. This makes obtaining this functionality a bit more expensive than with competing products Shopify, Squarespace and Volusion. 

That said, the Bigcommerce abandoned cart saver is more flexible than the offerings from these three companies (which limit the number of automated emails to one), so there may be some justification for the higher price.

Ultimately, if you are confident of receiving a large number of visits to your site, or are experiencing high traffic levels, then purchasing a plan featuring the abandoned cart saver makes a lot of sense.


Product variants and categories

Another particularly strong feature of Bigcommerce is the way it handles product variants.

Unlike rival Shopify, which only allows you to present users with three product options without resorting to workarounds or the installation of third-party apps, Bigcommerce's 'product options' and 'product rules' allow you to create a very large number of product options (I'm not sure of the exact upper limit, but in tests, I created 10 easily).

So if you are selling products that come in a lot of different formats, Bigcommerce may be a particularly good option. See accompanying video for more detail on how it all works.

Slightly less impressive is the way that Bigcommerce handles categories - whilst creating and editing them is straightforward enough, you have to assign them to individual products in quite a manual fashion.

It would be better - as is the case with some other leading online store builders, notably Shopify - if you could automatically categorise products based on product name or tags.

To be fair, you can use a 'bulk edit' tool to speed up the process somewhat, but I prefer Shopify's 'smart' approach to product categorisation.


Dropshipping with Bigcommerce

Many prospective Bigcommerce users will be interested to learn how it handles dropshipping.

Dropshipping is a selling model where you don't keep what you're selling in stock. Instead, you take an order, send it the details a supplier, and they send the goods to your customer. The advantage of this model is that you don't need much start-up capital as there's no need to purchase any stock before you start selling. 

Dropshipping is perfectly possible with Bigcommerce, but you'll need to install a third-party app to facilitate it.

There are seven apps available to help you dropship:

  • Alibaba.com Wholesale

  • Ali-Express Dropshipping (this will possibly be the app that most dropshipping store owners will be interested in)

  • Aliexpress Dropshipping by CedCommerce

  • e-Product Plug

  • Inventory Source

  • Sunrise

  • Wholesale 2B

These apps vary in price to use, with free trials being available for most of them.


File uploads and custom fields

Merchants who need to capture text to complete an order - for example jewellers who need personalised text for an engraving, or printers who need their customers to supply a JPG of a logo for a t-shirt - will find Bigcommerce's approach to custom fields and file uploads really good. 

Creating custom fields and capturing data using them is really straightforward - you simply find the relevant product, create your custom field, name it and then your site users will be able to enter information into it at the point of purchase.

Similarly, it's really easy to allow your users to upload a file - again, it's just a case of editing your product so that it contains an 'upload file.' Your customers will then be able to upload a file - up to a very generous 500MB in size - when they purchase that product.

This functionality is implemented considerably better on Bigcommerce than some competing products.

Shopify allows you to create custom fields and give users the option to upload files; but it's a fiddly process involving adding 'line item properties' to your code.

Squarespace allows you to create a custom field easily enough, but doesn't facilitate file uploads (this will immediately rule it out as an e-commerce solution for some businesses).


Interface

Bigcommerce’s interface is straightforward and intuitive; it's relatively similar in quality and appearance to Shopify's and Squarepace's. It's not entirely dissimilar to a Wordpress dashboard either.

A vertical menu on the left hand side of the screen gives you easy access to the key features - and the labels ('orders', 'storefront design', 'analytics' etc.) make it obvious where you'll find all the key features.

Once you've selected an option from the menu on the left, the associated content or data is displayed on the right - you can then edit or view accordingly.

In a nutshell, I've found it a very easy product to use - it definitely stands up well in terms of usability by comparison to Shopify and Squarespace, and trounces Volusion.

The below video gives you a quick overview of the Bigcommerce interface.


Point of sale functionality in Bigcommerce

A nice feature of Bigcommerce is that it doesn't just let you run an online store - it can facilitate selling at 'point of sale' (POS) too.

Thanks to some integrations with three POS providers - Square, Shopkeep and Springboard Retail - you can take payment and sync inventory when selling from a physical location (such as a store, market stall, event etc.). According to Bigcommerce, integrations with other POS providers are on the way.

You'll need to research each of the available providers carefully to ensure you find the right one for your needs, but it's good that Bigcommerce offers a few options on this front.

Other competing e-commerce solutions either don't offer POS at all (Squarespace being a case in point) or are more restrictive in terms of what hardware and software you can use.


Bigcommerce SEO

A key concern of prospective Bigcommerce will be how good the search engine optimisation (SEO) features in the platform are. The short answer is that they're very strong.

All the basics are covered nicely - it is easy to edit Bigcommerce page titles and meta descriptions and headers.

You can also create and change product-specific URLs without difficulty, and, unlike some competing products (notably Shopify and Squaresapce), you can create short URLs (i.e., yourdomain.com/product-name instead of yourdomain.com/products/product-name), which is generally considered better for an SEO point of view.

Additionally, Bigcommerce is no slouch when it comes to how a site performs on mobile. (This is crucial now that Google is introducing a 'mobile first' approach to indexing content). 

Not only are Bigcommerce's templates all responsive (meaning they are designed to adjust to suit the device they're being viewed on - mobile, tablet, desktop etc.) but they also work as 'Accelerated Mobile Pages' (AMP), which can have some positive SEO implications. 

Let's drill down into AMP for a moment, as it's an area that Bigcommerce arguably leads the hosted e-commerce solution field in.

Using Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) in Bigcommerce

If you're somebody who likes to keep on top of trends in web development, it won't  have escaped your attention that an increasing number of websites are presenting their content in 'Accelerated Mobile Pages' (AMP) format.

AMP is a Google-backed project which aims to deliver your site content extremely quickly to mobile users, mainly by creating streamlined pages that strip out certain types of code (scripts) and features (for example, blog comments).

The main advantage of using AMP on your site is that it drastically reduces the number of mobile users who leave your site as a result of your content loading too slowly. This means you'll get a higher percentage of engaged visitors, and potentially sales. 

AMP format can also provide some SEO benefits too - many SEO experts believe that pages with a low drop-off rate that people 'dwell on' for some time (two things that AMP can deliver) are rewarded by Google's algorithms in search results. 

At the moment, AMP format is typically used for blog posts and news articles - but it can also be used for other page types, including product pages on e-commerce sites. (The fact that eBay is one of the early adopter of AMP format in the e-commerce world highlights that there are definitely some obvious benefits to using it in an online store context.)

Bigcommerce's AMP offering is excellent: all the free templates facilitate AMP, and many of the premium themes too. You can browse for AMP-enabled templates using an AMP checkbox in the Bigcommerce template store.

Image optimisation

Images which are sized correctly for the device they're on and which load quickly can improve page speed significantly (with faster-loading pages being given preferential treatment by Google in search results).

A new feature recently introduce by Bigcommerce is image optimisation via Akamai Image Manger. This optimises all your images automatically, and according to Bigcommerce, merchants using Akamai Image Manager as part of a closed beta for several months saw as much as 70% improvement in site load times. 

Again, and in keeping with Bigcommerce's general 'all-in-one' approach to its platform features, this is included in all plans. A big thumbs up for this, because competing platforms either don't provide this functionality, or require you to install a paid-for app to attain it.

The below video gives an overview of this new functionality.

All in all, I'm very impressed with the SEO functionality in Bigcommerce, and it's one of its strongest features.


Enhancing your Bigcommerce store's functionality via the app store

If the standard set of features provided by Bigcommerce isn't sufficient for your needs, then you might want to consider purchasing some apps from Bigcommerce's app store - or to call it by its proper name, the 'Ecommerce Apps Marketplace.' These beef up the functionality of your store, and a fairly wide range of integrations is available. 

You can add apps that deal with lots of different aspects of of running an online business - app categories include accounting, CRM, marketing shipping and so on.

Integrations are available for many well-known other business SaaS apps - for example, you'll find apps for Mailchimp, Zendesk, Xero and Salesforce.

In total, there are around 600 apps available for Bigcommerce. 

In terms of how the Bigcommerce apps offering compares with competing online store builders, it beats Squarespace's offering hands down (although it does let you integrate third party apps into your site, and set up integrations via Zapier, Squarespace doesn't provide an app store at all) but is rather eclipsed by Shopify's (there are over 2000 apps available in the Shopify app store).

 The Bigcommerce app store allows you to enhance the functionality of your store by integrating it with a wide range of third-party apps.

The Bigcommerce app store allows you to enhance the functionality of your store by integrating it with a wide range of third-party apps.


Blogging in Bigcommerce

You might not think that a blog is an essential feature of an online store - but you'd be wrong. Blogging is a key part of an inbound marketing campaign and when done well can improve a site's SEO and, by extension, traffic to it (with both improvements obviously leading to increased sales!).

Helpfully there is a built-in blog in Bigcommerce. Whilst it's not going to compete with a Wordpress blog in terms of functionality, it will nonetheless allow you to create the sort of posts that can attract visitors to your site.

 
 Adding a blog post in Bigcommerce

Adding a blog post in Bigcommerce

 

There is one rather odd omission from the blogging functionality however: an RSS feed. RSS feeds are useful because they allow your blog content to 'travel' - site visitors can use them to subscribe to new posts via RSS readers or embed your posts on other websites; and site owners can use them to automatically populate the newsletters sent by email marketing tools like Aweber or Mailchimp. 

If you feel the Bigcommerce blogging functionality is not up to scratch, or if RSS is a deal-breaker for you, you can always integrate another blogging product (such as Wordpress) to your Bigcommerce store. It's important to set this up correctly however - using a subdomain - as doing this incorrectly means that you may not benefit from the SEO / inbound marketing advantages that good blogging can bring.


iOS and Android apps for Bigcommerce

One area where Bigcommerce doesn't score highly for me is mobile apps. Unlike some other e-commerce solutions, no iOS or Android apps are available for store owners to use to manage their stores on the go.

There was previously an app available...but it's been discontinued.

Obviously you can still be notified of sales etc. using a mobile device via email, but that seems a bit low-tech in this day and age.

Additionally, there do seem to be some third-party Bigcommerce mobile apps floating about the place - but you won't be able to get support from Bigcommerce when using them. 

Squarespace, Shopify and Volusion all offer mobile apps - so it's a big 'could do better' here for Bigcommerce.


Something to bear in mind if you are selling digital products: VAT MOSS

If you want to sell digital products - downloadable music, videos, books etc. - to EU customers with Bigcommerce, you'll need to familiarise yourself with something called VAT MOSS (short for 'VAT Mini One Stop Shop').

VAT MOSS requires you to apply country-specific rates of VAT to digital products - even if yours is a business that is based outside of the EU. 

With Bigcommerce, you'll need to set up individual tax rules to cover each country in Europe - a boring manual process which is likely to take you a while.

To be fair to Bigcommerce, many of its competitors don't cater well for VAT MOSS either. But I'd like to see a similar approach to Shopify's being implemented here, where VAT MOSS is applied automatically to digital products; this is a huge time saver.


Bigcommerce support

When you start a Bigcommerce free trial, you are provided with various support emails and resources aimed at helping you with the 'onboarding' process.

There's a fair amount of hand-holding available if you want it, which should make it easy enough to get your store up and running.

For those who have purchased a Bigcommerce plan, the company provides 24-hour 'live agent' support. It's not hugely clear on their site what the '24/7' bit covers - phone, chat or email, and before you get access to relevant contact details you are encouraged to try to resolve the issue by searching for an answer to your query via the Bigcommerce help pages first (see accompanying screengrab).

This will annoy some users a bit, although you do get presented with fairly easy-to-digest contact details once you've completed your search and ignored the help articles!

You can also use 'skip this step' button to bypass this process - this immediately brings up the phone numbers, live chat options etc. 

And of course the good news is that phone support is available for a wide range of countries - and if you don't see your country listed, there's a helpful 'all other countries' number you can call.

This all contrasts positively with Squarespace (which doesn't provide phone support at all) and Shopify (which only lists numbers for a few countries, and doesn't provide an 'all other countries' option).

 The Bigcommerce contact page

The Bigcommerce contact page

Finally for those who are more inclined towards trying to sort support issues out themselves, there is a large range of video and text resources available from Bigcommerce, and a community forum.


Bigcommerce analytics

 Bigcommerce analytics

Bigcommerce analytics

Bigcommerce provides users with several types of reports as standard:

  • customer reports (where your customers come from, the percentage of new vs returning customers, their overall spend and when they last made an order)

  • marketing reports (how you acquired your customers)

  • search data reports (the phrases customers used when searching for products in your online store)

  • finance reports (sales, tax reports etc.)

  • abandoned cart reports.

For an additional fee you can also gain access to an 'Insights' report, which provides you with more detailed information on your customers, products and abandoned carts. This fee varies according to the plan you are on - 'Standard' and 'Plus' customers can avail of 'Insights' for an additional $49 per month; for 'Pro' customers it's $99 per month; and for 'Enterprise' customers it's $249 per month.

In short, the Bigcommerce analytics offering is pretty strong - and the best thing about it is that the bulk of the reporting functionality comes as standard on all plans.

This is not the case with its key competitor Shopify, which requires you to be on its more expensive $79 plan before you get access to its more in-depth sales and customer reports.

Of course in addition to using the built-in Bigcommerce reporting tools, you could also supplement your analytics arsenal by integrating Google Analytics into your site and using goals to measure conversions.


Bigcommerce review conclusions

Bigcommerce is one of the strongest hosted online store builders I’ve tested.

Above all else, it is very easy to use – it’s one of the most user friendly products of its kind I've used. The standout aspect of it is arguably the comprehensive feature set you get on its entry-level plan, which provides significantly more bang for the buck than many competing products.

Other things I particularly like about Bigcommerce are the quality of its abandoned cart saver and the flexible approach to product options (in a Bigcommerce vs Shopify shootout, I suspect that the product options functionality might sway quite a few users Bigcommerce's way). It's also very strong on the SEO front, with great AMP functionality and automatic image optimisation features being provided out of the box.

The main things that would dissuade me from using Bigcommerce would probably be price (it costs quite a lot to get your hands on a plan with an abandoned cart saver) and the imposition of sales limits on store owners.

I hope this Bigcommerce review has helped give you a sense of this product and whether it's suitable for your needs - but as usual, always best to try before you buy: you can avail of a free Bigcommerce trial here.

Finally, below you will find my summary of the positive and negative aspects of Bigcommerce.  


Key pros and Cons of Bigcommerce

Pros of Bigcommerce

  • There are no transaction fees, even if you use a third-party payment gateway.

  • The overall feature set on entry-level Bigcommerce plans is comprehensive by comparison to competing products.

  • You get a good set of reporting tools on all plans - again, this is not the case with all competing products.

  • It comes with built-in product review functionality.

  • Its SEO features are great - you can create short URLs, AMP format is available on all its templates, and automatic image optimisation is included on all plans.

  • The 'abandoned cart saver' tool is more comprehensive than the similar offering from competitors (including Shopify and Volusion).

  • It comes with a wide range of discounting / coupon tools out of the box.

  • It's really easy to create custom fields.

  • Allowing your customers to upload files during their purchase is really straightforward.

  • It comes with a built-in blog. This is important because it allows you to use inbound marketing techniques directly from your store, without having to make use of a third party tool like Wordpress (or set up a subdomain for your blog etc.).

  • You can avail of cheaper-than-usual Paypal card transaction fees with Bigcommerce, thanks to its preferential arrangement with Braintree.

  • Bigcommerce is a very flexible solution for vendors with a lot of different product variants.

  • You can try the product free for 14 days

Cons of Bigcommerce

  • Limits are placed on annual online sales - and if you exceed them, you'll need to upgrade to a more expensive monthly plan.

  • The price of the Bigcommerce starter plan is on the high side by comparison to other solutions, although the plan itself is more feature-rich than entry-level products by other leading e-commerce solution providers.

  • VAT MOSS rates could be better catered for.

  • There are no mobile apps available to help you manage your store on the go.

  • The built-in blog doesn't facilitate RSS feeds.

  • By comparison to its competitors, you have to pay quite a lot to avail of abandoned cart functionality.


Alternatives to Bigcommerce

As far as hosted solutions go, Bigcommerce's main competitor is probably Shopify, which is similarly priced and comes with a similar range of basic features (abandoned cart saver aside, however, Bigcommerce's basic feature set is more generous). You can read our Bigcommerce vs Shopify review here. 

Another option when it comes to building an online store is to use Wordpress in conjunction with an e-commerce tool such as Ecwid or Woocommerce. (Obligatory plug: we can help you with a Wordpress e-commerce project - contact us for more info).

You might also wish to investigate Squarespace, which whilst not as feature-packed from an e-commerce point of view, is a good product for those who wish to combine impressive visuals or content with some basic e-commerce features. Our full Squarespace review is here.

If you already have a website that you're happy with, and wish to add e-commerce functionality to it, you could do worse than check out Ecwid. This lets you create a store which you can then add to any site through the addition of a simple widget.

Finally, other well-known solutions which facilitate the building of online stores include Jimdo, Weebly and Wix but it's probably fair to say that these are more 'prosumer' products; Bigcommerce is aimed at a more professional, e-commerce-focused market.


Got any thoughts on Bigcommerce?

If you have any thoughts or queries on Bigcommerce, we'd love to hear them - feel free to express yourself in the comments section below!  

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