WooCommerce vs. Shopify Plus: Which is better for SMBs?

Can WooCommerce handle the needs of mid-sized or larger businesses?

We recently wrote a comparison of WooCommerce and Shopify, where we considered their relative value propositions, and which businesses had the most to gain from working with one or the other. For this comparison, we focused on WooCommerce, a free plugin designed to work with WordPress, and the Basic Shopify package.

Part of our conclusion was that, while the Basic Shopify service offerings can be suitable for small, newly-established businesses, but they aren’t nearly capable of handling the needs of a large corporation. To satisfy this gap, Shopify launched an enterprise version of its software, Shopify Plus, which is intended to offer more powerful solutions and increased customizability.

Meanwhile, WooCommerce still has a lot to offer businesses—even large e-commerce corporations. While both Shopify and WooCommerce appeal to small businesses for their affordability, the reality is that most large e-commerce businesses have a budget. They’re not looking for the cheapest solution—they want the one that can deliver the best results.

So, while you can use WooCommerce to start your business with very few funds, you can go even farther if you have a generous budget. How far? To understand that, we need to look a bit closer at how web development works.

What’s the difference between back-end and front-end development?

Since we’re about to get into the weeds here on front-end vs. back-end development, let’s begin by talking a little more about what those terms mean.

Front-end development refers to the appearance of your site: how items are displayed, whether it has a responsive design, and the general design and layout of content. A front-end developer works with style sheets to help create a user-friendly interface, while also maintaining consistency between pages and ensuring the site meets brand standards.

Back-end development is about your website’s capabilities. While the front end defines what the users see and how they interact with the interface, the back end is what makes it all work. Without access to the back end of a platform, developers can only adjust the appearance.

Effectively, this is the big difference between a platform being “open-source” or “closed-source.” While that may not matter to small businesses who can’t afford a developer anyway, to those who plan on working with a developer, it can make all the difference in the world.

And, as it so happens, the chief difference between Shopify Plus and WooCommerce is that the former runs on a closed-source platform, while the latter is an open-sourced plugin running on WordPress, which is an open-sourced CMS. As we’re about to see, the implications are huge.

Shopify Plus: Painless server support, restricted development options.

Pros:

  • Some front-end development support.
  • Extensive plugin library.
  • Managed server resources.

Cons:

  • Restricted product options.
  • No back-end development.
  • Limited CMS capabilities.
  • Large monthly subscription fee.

Let’s start with what Shopify Plus does best: server administration. If you run a large e-commerce store, the resources you need to maintain servers are significant. Scaling servers to meet the demands of your business can be a finicky task, and downtime can result in thousands of dollars in lost sales.

However, when it comes to design and development, the Shopify Plus value proposition falls off the wagon. The main draw of Basic Shopify has always been its out-of-the-box appeal. Businesses are willing to trade a limited selection of themes, a lack of dynamic product options, and the loss of control and customization in exchange for something that works now.

But while Shopify Plus allows for front-end development—meaning you can hire a developer to create a custom theme—you still have to hire a developer to create a custom theme. And because Shopify Plus uses a proprietary framework called “Liquid,” you will have a smaller pool of developers to choose from.

Furthermore, Shopify Plus doesn’t allow for any back-end development. While you can find a lot of features in their plugin store, you will still need someone to help with the setup and configuration of those product features on your website. And even with these plugins, you will still have very real restrictions in terms of what product categories you are allowed. If your store is particularly complex or involves a lot of product customization, it may not work at all.

So, with Shopify Plus, you lose the value of a fast and easy launch, but retain the constraints of a closed-source platform, along with at least a $2,000/month subscription price tag.

But hey: at least you don’t have to worry about server administration.

WooCommerce: Open-source, developer-friendly.

Pros:

  • Open source code for full back-end development.
  • Runs on WordPress.
  • No monthly subscription.
  • Full control over your data.
  • Powerful CMS capabilities.

Cons:

  • Design and development costs.
  • Management and administrative costs.

As we said earlier, Shopify Plus’s strongest feature is its server administration. If you don’t want to worry about scaling your server hosting, then that’s one item off your plate.

Of course, server administration is something every website needs, so using WooCommerce just means you’ll be hiring someone to manage it for you. Since you’re already paying $2000/month to Shopify Plus to do that for you, this is a manageable trade-off.

But, whatever inconveniences may exist from having to manage hosting and server administration are blown away by the increased capabilities offered by an open-source platform. WooCommerce means that both front-end and back-end developers can create custom solutions for your e-commerce business.

Furthermore, running on WordPress is a significant advantage to many businesses. Currently, over 25% of the Internet runs on WordPress sites, which means that there is no shortage of developers who understand the language and know how to use it. It also means there are more apps and plugins available, increasing your likelihood of finding a solution that fits your business to a T.

WordPress is also a more powerful CMS. The danger of using a site like Shopify Plus is that you may end up with a store on one platform, and your blog on another. This isn’t just inefficient; it leads to a bad experience for users. Hosting everything on the same platform allows you to create custom content types, integrate your sales and marketing more effectively, and run a dynamic content marketing strategy.

So, while you will have costs associated with the administration and management of your site, these come in lieu of a monthly subscription fee. And the increased performance of a fully-customized site will more than account for any additional expenses.

If you’re working with developers, choose the platform designed for developers.

From a user perspective, both Shopify Plus and WooCommerce have extremely accessible user interfaces. Both platforms have strong incentives to create user-friendly experiences, and have devoted many resources to ensuring the appropriate balance between usability and functionality.

However, the platforms vary widely in terms of developer use. While Shopify Plus may have expanded its front end to developers, it remains limited by the number of developers who can work with Liquid, and back-end development is a complete non-starter.

Meanwhile, WooCommerce prides itself on being developer-friendly. As an open-source WordPress plugin, any developer can customize it to meet the exact specifications of the task at hand. WooCommerce is exactly as good as your developer can make it—all the way up to enterprise-level service.

Of course, a developer-friendly platform can sound intimidating to non-developers. But if you’re working with a developer anyway (which you must do, for front-end development), you want them to use whatever helps them do their job best.

Developers can’t adjust what they don’t have access to. Shopify may be fool proof, but at the price of also being expert proof. Give your experts the best tools, and you’ll see results that match.

Wondering what kind of results you can achieve using WooCommerce for your e-commerce store? Read our e-commerce case study.

Published 07/24/18 by Laura Lynch