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WooCommerce, Shopify, and sustainable e-commerce practices

By DEREK NEUTS, MS

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There are tons of comparison sites that provide general information between multiple e-commerce platforms readily available on the internet. You’re not going to find that here. Instead, I’m going to discuss my own agency’s experiences with WooCommerce and Shopify to provide some professional feedback that can be used to make decisions between platforms such as these. I hope both younger and more mature businesses can use this information to implement more strategic decisions for long-term sustainability.

Shopify and the SaaS (Software as a Service) model

Shopify is a different contender in the e-commerce marketplace, much like Squarespace. Its offering comes in the form of a software subscription model, focusing on three tiers of fees for the end-user: the platform, merchant services, and plugins to expand the base functionality of the storefront. Shopify has been popular among cash-strapped startups, crowd-funded tech innovators, drop shippers, and business models that don’t require traditional website infrastructures or support teams. Why? Because the initial investment is low and a functional storefront can be spun up rather quickly, from a matter of hours to just a few weeks, depending on one’s needs. More focus can be placed on pipelines and selling products rather than IT strategy and maintenance to support operations and marketing.

Shopify can be used to set up pages, product catalogs, and product detail pages using pre-built, customizable templates. This ease-of-use for non-technical users, such as marketing or sales personnel, was deliberate by design. The purpose was to focus on usability, store management, and sales while minimizing the need to hire a developer. While this is mostly true, some merchants can find themselves requiring additional solutions or customizations. These alterations can be accomplished by paying monthly or yearly subscription fees for plugins or hiring a professional developer to code custom features for you using the Liquid template language. However, all modifications must be done within the limitations of the Shopify architecture.

Due to the ease in which stores can be built and published, this platform has also become one of the most heavily exploited in terms of unscrupulous individuals spinning up “burner stores,” receiving payments, and never providing merchandise, all the while retaining the ability to simply remove the shop and establish a new one at a later date. Ever bought something from a Facebook ad and then never received your merchandise? Or go from a Google search to an online store that looked more like a template, and it made you feel a bit hesitant to buy? Those are typical examples of shoppers being taken advantage of due to the ease of setup and take-down with this storefront platform. According to consumer complaints, many feel helpless against this. It’s not only a reputational issue for “bad” merchants, but it hurts legitimate ones, and the platform itself.

WooCommerce and open-source model differences

Now we’re going to change gears and talk about a completely different e-commerce model that requires development support. WooCommerce is an open-source project that provides basic e-commerce functionality to websites built using the self-hosted WordPress framework. While WordPress was originally intended as a user-friendly blogging platform, this isn’t necessarily the case anymore, as our firm (and many others) uses WordPress as a software delivery platform for our clients. With this in mind, a WooCommerce store would be deployed as a plugin on top of a dedicated instance of WordPress, transforming the site into an online shopping platform. In this scenario, WooCommerce would need to be maintained and secured as a fortified WordPress installation, as with any other web application.

With this model, the client will require a PHP developer with experience in both WordPress and WooCommerce construction, along with knowledge in e-commerce best practices (not just a theme setup technician). Based on organizational needs, WooCommerce will need to tailored to the company’s operations, logistics, and sales funnels for maximum effectiveness. This is true of all e-commerce platforms, especially self-hosted types, but nothing will be sustainable without a sales and marketing plan. Often, it’s the planning and execution strategy that’s missing from cloud-based, turn-key solutions like Shopify due to its DIY culture.

A lot can go wrong with any PHP-based, self-hosted solution such as WooCommerce, which is why we don’t advise clients attempting to set this up themselves. For example, payment gateways need to be established and configured. The correct hosting account level needs to be set up with an appropriate level of bandwidth and caching to support incoming traffic, site security must be addressed, and PCI compliance should be taken into account, and the list can go on. Additionally, there’s the matter of having support from a team that understands online shopping trends and appropriate interfaces, funnels, and behaviors, which can bring together a winning concept. With all of these basic elements in place, shoppers can feel more connected and engaged. There are fewer chances of abandoned carts and increased bounce rates.

Part of that budget should include development, support, and professional guidance for the venture to increase the probability of long-term success. Not all solutions come packaged as a plugin or template, so an experienced team will need to provide a coded alternative.

Derek Neuts, MS

The marginalization of agency solutions

Clients typically make decisions on e-commerce platforms based on advertisements online, articles, and reviews, but rarely are those decisions made by engaging with a development firm. Platforms such as Shopify, Squarespace, and even Wix are aggressive with advertisements targeting business owners, decision-makers, and those whose organizations best fit into the software as a service (SaaS) mold. Messages convey ease of use, no coding, cheap rates, and getting sites up within hours with no developer support. While that sounds great, it’s not reality. What’s painful is seeing companies make decisions based on pop culture marketing snippets versus talking with professionals about all of their available options. There are situations in which I wholeheartedly support a SaaS offering, such as Shopify, but it needs to make sense for the client, their budget, strategic scalability, and long-term operational needs.

While the profession of coding and development has been under attack in favor of “easy solutions,” this marketing culture and its inherent issues guarantee longevity for professional developers. Larger development firms in the Portland area, many of which I consider my peers, offer Shopify development services because brands require professional support. In fact, most legitimate agencies offer Shopify development services because they’re needed. Contrary to marketing-speak, e-commerce isn’t something that should be managed by the client in-house. The hidden and unanticipated costs involved with Shopify, including any DIY website and e-commerce platform, range from lost sales revenue due to poor funneling to subscription fees for nearly everything. Just because something is marketed as a DIY service doesn’t mean that one can mimic the expertise of those who do this for a living. It’s a complicated layering of disciplines.

There are many more instances in the marketplace now with small business owners turning away from hosted solutions out of fear, frustration, and a lack of tangible (and experienced) support. For example, restaurants that once used PHP or even WooCommerce are turning to Wix or Squarespace, and shop owners that used BigCommerce or Magento are switching over to Shopify. In the end, many of those owners who made the switch away from hosted solutions will want to explore pathways to come back when the “magic bullet” of the SaaS platform doesn’t perform as expected. Additionally, if things are done right from an e-commerce standpoint, and the business still isn’t seeing results, the only other logical conclusion is to examine internal failures: the business model, pricing, channels, and positioning, to name a few areas. A professionally-implemented online store, no matter what the platform, can’t fix a flawed operating environment.

Many decisions to switch back and forth among platforms can be traced back to a lack of agency expertise and developer support, as many such “firms” offer services they really don’t fully understand themselves and can take clients only so far. Part of taking on a client is the educational process, to help them make informed decisions, even if those decisions leave you out of the picture. Businesses eventually have to face uncomfortable details surrounding poor decision-making on chosen technology pathways, implementation strategies, and sustainable practices that should have been client-centric. Instead, incompetent agencies set their own needs first to profit from what they know will inevitably be a failed venture due to their lack of expertise. These agencies and individuals are easy to identify. They’re the ones spinning performance tales that are too good to be true and making promises that are unlikely to be kept.

When should I use Shopify?

As an agency owner and developer, I would support Shopify if the business model and existing infrastructure were right for a SaaS offering, be it Shopify or even Squarespace. For example, if the business was in its early stages, lacked an existing website infrastructure, had a focused product offering, and needed to have a website presence, then a SaaS solution would be a viable option. In addition to meeting those requirements, I would ensure that the sales and marketing teams understood the pros and cons of this type of offering, had a good rapport with one another and understood reasonable budget expectations for the first three years. Part of that budget should include development, support, and professional guidance for the venture to increase the probability of long-term success. Not all solutions come packaged as a plugin or template, so an experienced team will need to provide a coded alternative.

When should I use WooCommerce?

For smaller and more mature companies working on national brand recognition, those who already have an investment in sustainable technology infrastructure, with an established commercial hosting account, I would recommend WooCommerce if they are already using a coded WordPress solution.  In the hands of amateurs who can install some plugins and fake e-commerce expertise, WooCommerce can be a dangerous liability for a client. For starters, it’s an easy open-source option to setup (initially). Still, it requires extensive WordPress development knowledge, procedural and object-oriented PHP experience for customizations, and e-commerce best practices to be successfully implemented as a competent solution for a growing brand.  It comes with basic features in a base configuration, so think of it as a framework for the storefront that you’d like to have, only it must be built by experienced PHP developers.

Final thoughts on e-commerce platform choices

While the focus of this article is on WooCommerce as a scalable and configurable platform for niche e-commerce scenarios using PHP, there are other alternatives. For example, there are platforms more suitable for situations involving higher traffic, advanced shopping features, or even headless commerce solutions (e.g., Magento, Drupal Commerce, or BigCommerce + WordPress, respectively). I don’t advocate any particular approach, but instead attempt to understand the client’s business, model, operational requirements, sales goals, and customer engagement, to formulate a unique technology solution for them. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. There are both subtle and contrasting differences between various storefront platforms out there, and I need to keep on top of those changes to help my clients make an informed decision that’s right for them.

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