Looking for the best eCommerce platforms is kind of like looking for the best car.
There really isn’t one.
And it’s the exact same story with the best eCommerce platforms.
Saying that either one of them is the ultimate all-around eCommerce solution for everyone, regardless of the business they run, would just be mad. There are always differences, trade-offs, features that are crucial for some businesses and completely unimportant for others, etc.
This sounds like common sense. Right?
On second thought, though … maybe it’s not the case at all.
Maybe if we look at the numbers, the market is going to tell us a completely different story.
Let’s find that out today.
But let’s also make it a tad bit more useful and tackle the topic more broadly. So:
This is our guide (4,800 words!) to finding the best eCommerce platform for your individual needs. We’re going to look at a number of characteristics and features offered by the leaders of the eCommerce industry, and then point out what is going to be the best eCommerce platform for different types of users.
Does WooCommerce indeed come on top? Let’s see:
The best eCommerce platform contenders
Okay, so the first thing everyone realizes when they start looking for the best eCommerce platform for their next project is the overall abundance of software in this market.
In case you’re not up-to-date with the topic, just to show you how crazy it is, here are all the platforms that I considered for this piece:
- WooCommerce, Shopify, Magento, Bigcommerce, LemonStand, Volusion, OpenCart, osCommerce, Spark Pay, 3dcart, Big Cartel, Squarespace, Wix, Selz, Jimdo, Gumroad, Storenvy, Weebly, E-junkie, SendOwl, Ecwid, X-Cart, PrestaShop, FoxyCart, ZenCart, MoonFruit.
Those are all popular eCommerce platforms that all have their communities and devoted users.
And, of course, they all call themselves the best eCommerce platform in the market … but that’s just how things are, I guess 🙂
So, when picking the final lineup, I’ve decided to focus on a couple of factors: popularity, overall reputation, features, pricing, and ease of use – all based on preliminary tests and my previous experience with the platforms. Long story short, we’re going to be looking at:
- 1. Shopify (www.shopify.com)
- 2. WooCommerce (www.woocommerce.com)
- 3. Magento (www.magento.com)
- 4. Bigcommerce (www.bigcommerce.com)
Round 1: Who wins the popularity contest?
Regardless of what I’ve just said above, pointing out the winner of the popularity contest isn’t actually as straightforward as it may seem.
While WooCommerce indeed is the most widely used eCommerce platform out there, is it also the most popular among the cool kids?
Having a quick glance at Google Trends – which I admit isn’t a 100% spot-on source of insights – we can see a couple of interesting things:
When we zoom out a bit, we can see that the eCommerce space has been dominated by Magento for the better part of the decade, with Shopify being able to overtake it only around July 2016.
Everyone has their own way of looking at Google Trends, but the thing to keep in mind is that Google’s “interest over time” metric only relates to search term popularity – as in, how often people search for something – it does not reflect, however, what happens afterwards.
In other words, it doesn’t tell us much about the numbers of signups, numbers of users, numbers of live sites, none of that.
The only thing it basically says – at least how I see it – is how popular the idea of something is on the web. Shopify just gets more and more popular in this regard constantly. They promote themselves in multiple places, new people get exposed to the brand every day, and they then research Shopify on the web.
It doesn’t make Shopify the best eCommerce platform out there, but it surely makes it one to pay attention to and examine more closely. Which we’ll do.
Round 2: Features
Let’s start by looking through the more noteworthy features of each of our eCommerce platforms. Although you can find all this info on each platform’s official website, being able to glance at them in one place is always good. Hence:
|Subscription-based service.||Standalone software (needs to be installed on a web server).||Standalone software + subscription-based service.||Subscription-based service.|
|A subdomain and hosting space for your eCommerce store included + you can hook up your own domain name.||It’s part of your existing WordPress website, and it’s deeply integrated with it.||Product management features.||A subdomain and hosting space for your eCommerce store included + you can hook up your own domain name.|
|Product management features.||Product management features.||Product management features.||Product management features.|
|Order management features.||Order management features.||Order management features (+ shipping charges).||Order management features.|
|Multiple payment gateways.||Multiple payment gateways.||Multiple payment gateways.||Multiple payment gateways.|
|Basic customer management.||Customer management only via third-party plugins.||Customer management through customer groups and other.||Basic customer management.|
|More than 100 professional themes.||Thousands of themes available on the web (free and paid).||Some themes available on the web.||Around 80 professional themes.|
|Mobile-friendly + you can edit HTML and CSS directly.||Mobile-friendly to the extent made available by the theme.||Mobile-optimized structure.||Mobile-friendly.|
|Unlimited bandwidth.||Bandwidth depends on the host.||Bandwidth depends on the host.||Unlimited bandwidth.|
|Good reports on sales and store activity.||Good reports on sales and store activity.||Advanced and in-depth reports on sales and store activity.||Great analytics module, with reports, purchase funnels, abandoned carts stats, and much more.|
|Discounts, gift cards, and coupon codes.||Discounts and coupon codes.||Discounts and coupon codes.||Discounts and coupon codes.|
|Different sales channels, including Point of Sale, Facebook module, simple buy button, and other.||More than 5,000 extensions available.||Lets you sell in person with Square, and also sell on marketplaces and social platforms.|
|Built-in multilingual support. Newsletter features. API available.|
The devil is in the details, though, so when picking the platform for yourself, you should probably focus on things that are more niche in their nature, yet can mean the world to your business. And the complete list of those can be huge, so I urge you to do your own research and in-depth comparison once you have a general idea of the platform you’d like to try out.
For instance, Shopify has their POS (point of sale) system that allows you to sell your products on the go or in your brick-and-mortar store without any additional tools or machinery – like external cash registers, etc. This can reduce your overall costs of running a store hugely.
Note. I don’t feel like I should make statements like, “I enjoy WooCommerce’s product management more than I do Shopify’s” here because it doesn’t actually bring much value into the discussion. I’m just a guy. A user. And my opinion is not any more important than the other person’s. Inevitably, the way WooCommerce does a given thing, for example, is going to be better for some of you than how Shopify does the same thing. And vice versa. So the key here is to check all those features out by yourself and compare which platform just feels better.
That being said, when it comes to the overall richness of features that each platform has to offer, I would rate it as such:
|10 / 10||9.5 / 10||9.5 / 10||9.5 / 10|
I know this might not look that useful right away, but please bear with me. This verdict comes down to the overall focus of Shopify on delivering basically every feature that a store owner may benefit from, and not only devoting 100% to the online side of things. Quite simply, Shopify is the only player here that’s equally suitable to work for you online and offline. But again, that’s just me.
Round 3: Designs available
(Not only ready-made designs, but also the overall abilities of the platforms when it comes to customizations and adjustments of what the final store looks like.)
Let’s take this one by one:
Designs in Shopify
The designs available in Shopify are very impressive, modern-looking, and should be able to cover pretty much any niche or type of business.
The only downside is that there are just nine free themes available at the moment. Shopify seems to be cutting down on the number of free themes. I’m pretty sure there were more available just a couple of years ago. When it comes to the paid themes, the price tags on those hover around $160-$180 a piece.
Just a note; when you’re looking for a design, you don’t need to pay as much attention to the specific type of products showcased in the design demo – those are just example and they don’t define the purpose of the theme.
After you select a theme, they can all be adjusted quite nicely, including things like the header, footer settings, typography, colors, presets, and more. Of course, you can also set backgrounds and images right how you need them.
In the end, Shopify is geared at giving you a partially pre-filled design that you only need to adjust to fit your exact needs most of the time. It’s not a blank canvas where you’re just thrown into and don’t know what’s next.
Designs in WooCommerce
As you probably already know, there’s no such thing as design in WooCommerce per se. Under the hood, WooCommerce is a WordPress plugin, and as such, it puts its content and information – your product listings – through your current WordPress theme.
This has both its advantages and disadvantages.
On the one hand, you get to keep using your current theme and the whole thing should be able to work just fine. So less hassle on your part if you already have a working WordPress website.
But on the other hand, you might also stumble upon some difficulties with certain areas of the store not being displayed like you want them to. In extreme scenarios, you might be even forced to change the site’s theme altogether to make everything fit (but this doesn’t happen often).
That being said, getting things to look exactly like you need them might require some work, and you will rarely get the perfect result without doing some manual tweaks in the theme’s CSS or via some other means or plugins.
Here’s what my test store looks like on the default WordPress theme at the moment:
Usable, but not perfect.
Overall, when building a completely new online store with WooCommerce, it’s advisable to opt for a specific WooCommerce-optimized theme rather than going with a general thing.
Here’s what the same store of mine looks like on the official WooCommerce theme – Storefront:
Just to be 100% honest, though, we have to mention the thousands of WordPress themes available on the web … and most of them being capable of handling a WooCommerce store setup.
And most importantly, many of those themes are completely free (like our own ShopIsle), so it will minimize your initial setup costs, but more on that later on.
In the end, where Shopify’s theme selection was great for its out-the-box quality, WooCommerce’s gives you much more in terms of the customizations possible, but it also requires more work.
Designs in Magento
Although I don’t have much experience with the platform – despite its popularity in my country – from what I see, Magento is not very strong in the design department.
First off, the company behind Magento doesn’t offer any themes of their own, so you just get the main software. This means that you have to go to third parties to get anything.
However, all those themes are simply not that stunning (at least in my opinion), maybe apart from a couple of themes on ThemeForest, and you get a lot more variety and modern-looking designs from the other eCommerce platforms on this list.
Designs in Bigcommerce
The way Bigcommerce approaches themes is kind of similar to Shopify’s strategy. What you get is a set of nicely-designed online store designs that follow a specific style and only need to be adjusted here and there.
Bigcommerce gives you access to both free and paid themes, although the free department is even smaller than Shopify’s – just seven themes at the time of writing. If you turn your attention to paid themes, those can get quite expensive – often $145-$250.
It’s also worth pointing out that all those themes are optimized for mobile users.
Overall, Bigcommerce seems to be offering a bit more design customization possibilities than Shopify. There are just more elements that can be adjusted or fine-tuned about the way your store looks and feels. At the end of the day, though, I still consider Shopify’s interface a bit more friendly, and I get the impression that Shopify’s designs need slightly less work before you get them looking 100% right.
But then, there’s also the big elephant in the room, WooCommerce, and its compatibility with thousands of WordPress themes. For this alone, I need to put WooCommerce first here. So my final verdict re design is:
|9 / 10||10 / 10||9 / 10||7 / 10|
Round 4: Ease of use
There are two key characteristics that come into play when examining the ease of use aspect of our best eCommerce platform:
- First, how easy it is to get started and build an online store from scratch.
- Secondly, can the user reliably handle everything on their own, without any outside help needed.
Let’s see how our contenders compare:
Ease of use in Shopify
The signup process in Shopify is very nicely optimized. It takes the user step by step and doesn’t ask for too much information at each stage.
To get started, all that’s needed is your email address, password, and a name for your store. After that, Shopify takes you by the hand and asks a couple of questions to get a better understanding of where your business is at. All this info helps them optimize your store better from the get-go.
After the signup, you get access to the main dashboard. It’s very neat, and does a great job at pointing you in the right direction and to all the most important tasks that you can do while managing your store.
Also, Shopify takes an interesting approach when it comes to the placement of the online store itself in the user panel. Basically, with Shopify, the online store is not the be-all-end-all of your selling tools, and as you grow, it can become just one of a handful of sales channels working for you.
That’s why all management tasks that are purely related to the online store are handled in the “Online Store” section under “Sales Channels” (you can see the sidebar link in the image above).
Apart from the online store, Shopify also lets you use a simple buy button, Facebook selling module, or their famous Point of Sale system (to sell in a real-world location).
All this is really cool, and the overall lack of noise in the UI makes everything very easy to use, not only when you’re first setting up the store, but when dealing with it on a daily basis as well.
Even the somewhat more boring things – like the main store settings – are presented in a friendly, not confusing way.
Overall, I have to give it to Shopify in the ease of use department – 10/10.
Ease of use in WooCommerce
Launching a WooCommerce store is more than simple … but only provided that you already have a working WordPress website.
First of all, let’s keep in mind that WooCommerce is eCommerce software, while Shopify and Bigcommerce are eCommerce services that don’t require any installation per se. To get started with WooCommerce, you first need to find a good host, install WordPress on your account, and only then you can proceed to the WooCommerce part of the deal. Luckily, these days all good web hosts offer one-click installs for WordPress. (For that, we recommend WooCommerce hosting with SiteGround.)
Once you have WordPress, basically all you do is install the main WooCommerce plugin, activate it, and you’re good to go.
WooCommerce will then take you through their on-boarding wizard, and help you set all the operating details of your online store.
During which, the purpose of each page within the store is explained, you get to set the store’s locale (currency, location, default units), taxes, online payments integration and other things.
The only downside in all this is that you somehow need to get your hands on a WordPress site in the first place. And okay, I know this is not particularly a problem for you maybe, but we have to remember that WordPress can be quite confusing to a beginner, and the need to first set up a WordPress site and only then a WooCommerce store is far from intuitive.
Even after you do manage to install everything, the ongoing work with your store isn’t as clear as it is with Shopify, for example. Even looking at the main WordPress sidebar, it becomes clear that the eCommerce components get a bit lost among all the other WordPress-proper stuff:
Okay, perhaps I need to cut WooCommerce some slack here. Everything that I’m calling “a problem” here is basically only a problem for the first couple of times when you learn to interact with the whole setup. After that, it’s pretty much smooth sailing, and the administrative tasks can be done very efficiently.
Also, if you already have a basic understanding of WordPress as a platform, you’ll find that managing products works very much like managing posts or pages.
Ease of use in Magento
Getting an online store launched on Magento from scratch is even more problematic than on WooCommerce. First off, there are two versions of Magento: the first one is the free community version (which is software that you can download and then install on a server – kind of like WordPress+WooCommerce), the second one is a hosted service (one that you can just sign up to – kind of like Shopify).
Let’s cover the free community version here, for reasons that I’ll explain in the pricing section.
So to launch anything on Magento, you first need to either get the main Magento software pack and install it on your web server by hand, or use a one-click installer with your host. Most of the popular hosting choices give you that option – SiteGround, GoDaddy, Bluehost – they all have Magento installers.
After the installation, the main dashboard is rather clear and gives you all the main features in a neatly organized menu.
That being said, the look and feel of all that is much more technical than it is in Shopify or Bigcommerce. Magento is more geared at giving you all the eCommerce features possible and then letting you decide how much of it you really need. The reports are awesome, so are all the stats and insights you get about the state of your store, but overall, this is a more enterprise-level platform, and perhaps not that easy to grasp for someone who’s just getting into their eCommerce journey.
Overall, Magento has its learning curve that’s slightly more steep than Shopify’s or WooCommerce’s, but most of it is in the initial setup and getting your store operational. Still, I give it 7/10 mostly due to the difficult installation.
Ease of use in Bigcommerce
Under the hood, Bigcommerce is similar to Shopify – they’re both cloud-based eCommerce platforms, and they’re both something that you sign up for, rather than something that you download and then install yourself.
Because of that, Bigcommerce setup is very easy too, just like Shopify’s. After providing the usual: email address, password, etc., Bigcommerce asks a couple of additional questions about the nature of your business and then lets you into the dashboard.
This dashboard is nice, no particular issues with it, but it’s a tad bit less friendly than Shopify’s. I do admit, it might just be me and my own preference towards certain UI choices over the others.
The only apparent downside is managing and adjusting your store design. This one is a bit cumbersome and not as intuitive as dealing with WooCommerce themes or Shopify designs. Other than that, managing products, customers, orders, etc. it’s all great.
In the end, I have to give Bigcommerce 9.5/10 for ease of use.
When it comes to the overall summary of the ease of use round, I have to give it to both Shopify and Bigcommerce as the best solutions here. As great as WooCommerce and Magento are, a beginner user will simply not be able to set those platforms up on their own.
|10 / 10||8.5 / 10||9.5 / 10||7 / 10|
Round 5: Pricing
Now the best part. Or the worst part?
I guess it’s the best if you’re with the out-the-box version of WooCommerce, and the worst if you’re with Magento … but I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. 🙂
Here’s the full pricing table comparison:
For example, and I know that every business is different and needs different elements, but I think we can assume that these extensions will prove useful for most:
- Product Add-Ons – for additional product personalization options. For example, you can ask your customer what sort of text they’d like to have printed on their t-shirt. $49.
- Print Invoices & Packing lists. $49.
- Product Bundles – offer kits or other kinds of product bundles. $49.
- USPS Shipping Method – get quick shipping rates from the USPS API. $79.
- UPS Shipping Method – the same for UPS. $79.
- Order/Customer CSV Export – export order and customer data to a CSV file. $79.
- And let’s not forget about the Yoast WooCommerce SEO plugin. $49. SEO is always key for eCommerce platforms.
When we add all that up, that’s $384. And if you want support for more than one year then consider this an annual payment.
Of course, in all honesty, all those add-ons can be purchased as you go along and exactly when you need them, but it’s still an investment that you have to be ready to take on.
Also, the hosting thing. In the table above, I’m saying that it’s around $100 / year. I got that number from SiteGround. They have some hosting plans that they promise to be WooCommerce-optimized. Out of the three tiers available, I wouldn’t recommend going below GrowBig or GoGeek, which are $5.95 and $11.95 respectively. Hence, this adds up to $71.40 for the former and $143.40 for the latter annually.
Doing the maths, let’s say that you need just half of the extensions mentioned above, so around $192 of additional investment required to get those. Plus the hosting – $72 – and we have $264 for the first year. Still very – very – attractive pricing, but far from “free.”
(Just for comparison, the most popular plan at Shopify – $29 – adds up to $348 per year.)
And we’re not done yet.
Another thing to keep in mind when picking the best eCommerce platform for yourself is to check the transaction fees and credit card processing rates.
Usually, you can expect around 2.5-3% + $0.30 per transaction when processing payments. However, depending on the payment gateway you use, you might get double-charged with some eCommerce platforms.
For instance, Shopify charges 2% per transaction if you use an external gateway such as PayPal. On top of that, PayPal also charges their own fee, in the range of 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction. Those things can add up, and especially if you’re just getting started when every penny counts.
Bigcommerce and WooCommerce don’t put any fee on top of your transaction as far as I know, so the only fees you pay are those by your payment gateway.
Overall, for me, it comes down to this:
|10 / 10||10 / 10||9 / 10||7 / 10|
I love WooCommerce for the fact that you can get the bare-bones working setup only for the price of hosting, and I love Shopify for their $9 entry-level plan. That’s why they both get 10/10.
Here’s how things stand considering all that’s been said above:
Here’s one more look at all the characteristics rated when searching for the best eCommerce platform:
|Features||10 / 10||9.5 / 10||9.5 / 10||9.5 / 10|
|Designs||9 / 10||10 / 10||9 / 10||7 / 10|
|Ease of use||10 / 10||8.5 / 10||9.5 / 10||7 / 10|
|Pricing||10 / 10||10 / 10||9 / 10||7 / 10|
|OVERALL||9.7 / 10||9.5 / 10||9.2 / 10||7.6 / 10|