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Build your own Online Store with Shopify

What is Shopify?

Shopify is a web application that allows you to create your own online store. It provides you with several templates that can be customised to meet individual users’ branding requirements, and the system allows physical or digital goods to be sold. One of the key ideas behind Shopify is that users without much in the way of technical or design skills can create a store without recourse to 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, allowing you quite a degree 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 onto servers; the idea is that (nearly) everything you need to build and run your store happens ‘out of the box’. Shopify state on their website that there are currently 150,000 active Shopify stores currently operating.

Shopify pricing

Shopify represents one of the cheaper ways into online store building, with its starter plan costing $14 per month and allowing you to sell up to 25 products. There are quite a few limitations on this plan however – you can’t use discount codes, edit the CSS or HTML of your store or use carrier shipping with it for example. As you move up the pricing scale, you encounter the ‘basic plan’ for $29 per month; the professional plan for $79 per month and the unlimited plan for $179 per month. All of these plans allow you to sell an unlimited number of products, but various restrictions apply regarding bandwidth, file storage and features depending on the plan you’re using. Key features to watch out (and perhaps not miss by selecting the wrong plan) are:

  • the abandoned cart recovery tool – this allows you to email users who nearly completed an order and see if you can persuade them to follow through, and is only available on the professional plan and up
  • real time carrier shipping, which is only available on the unlimited plan.

There is also a ‘Shopify Plus’ plan – an ‘enterprise grade’ solution which is really designed with big businesses in mind rather than the average user; it offers advanced features regarding security, APIs and fulfilment. This review is going to focus on the four basic plans.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that you don’t have to pay for plans on a monthly basis – Shopify offer a 10% discount on an annual and a 20% discount on a biennial plans, when they are paid upfront. However, it is only worth availing of these options if you are 100% certain that Shopify is going to meet absolutely every business requirement you’re likely to have for your store over the next 1 / 2 years – otherwise, a monthly plan is a safer bet.

Overall Shopify’s pricing is pretty consistent with key competing products like Bigcommerce and Volusion (its starter plan is the cheapest of the three, and after that, the pricing structure is fairly similar).

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, which is powered by Stripe. If you use this, you can expect to pay a rate of between 1.8% and 2.4% of each credit card transaction plus 30c (the exact rate depends on the type of plan you are on).

Alternatively, you can use a third party ‘payment gateway’ to process card transactions. This 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, or a monthly fee or both. If you use a payment gateway, Shopify will still apply transaction fees (0.5% to 2% – the percentage again depending on the plan you’re using). 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. For me the transaction fee issue is one of Shopify’s biggest weaknesses by comparison to key competitors: Bigcommerce and Volusion both offer 0% transaction fees on certain plans.

One important thing worth noting about Shopify Payments: it is available only for users based in the US, Canada and the UK – so if you’re not selling from one of those countries then you will have to use a payment gateway provider. Fortunately Shopify works with an extensive range of well-respected payment gateways; so if you are selling outside of the aforementioned countries, you should easily be able to find one that’s suitable for your location.

Shopify Templates

An example of a free Shopify theme (click to enlarge)

Shopify provides 10 free templates that you can use – each of these comes in a few different variants, so the 10 templates actually translate to 30 different designs. These are all good designs, and they are responsive too, meaning they will display nicely across all devices.

Alternatively you can use a paid-for template, of which there are around 90. These range in price from $100 to $180.

You can browse all the free and paid templates by category, so you should be able to locate a suitable theme for your store fairly easily.

Key features

As discussed above, the features you get with Shopify vary according to the pricing plan you opt for, but the main features are as follows:

  • 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 attractive themes, many of them responsive
  • credit card processing via Shopify Payments or a third party payment gateway
  • integration with Paypal
  • blogging functionality
  • import / export of customer functionality
  • 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
  • ability to send a reminder email to people who abandoned their carts (note: this functionality is fairly basic though: you are only allowed to send one email to people who abandoned their carts, and it’s a bit of a fiddly process if you want to include a discount code in the email. Just for the sake of balance, Bigcommerce handles this aspect of running a store considerably better).
  • discount coupons /  gift vouchers
  • the ability to edit CSS and HTML
  • point-of-sale integration (more on that below)

Point-of-sale applications

One nice feature offered by Shopify which deserves a special mention and makes it stand out from its competitors is its ‘point of sale’ (POS) kit. This lets you use Shopify to sell not just online but in retail outlets too – as long as you have an iPad (2, 3, 4 or Air). The point of sale kit comprises a barcode scanner, cash drawer and receipt printer – you can buy any of these items individually or as a package. You can use your own card reader with the system. 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.

Using Shopify in-store is more expensive though – it costs $40 on top of a regular plan to use Shopify online AND in-store, or $20 more to just use it in-store (i.e., a basic ‘online plan’ costs $29; an ‘online + retail’ plan costs $69; and a retail-only plan costs $49).

Interface and ease-of-use

Shopify’s interface is clean and easy to use (click to enlarge).

Shopify is pretty straightforward to use – it’s got a nice clean, modern interface. Editing the design of your store and adding products is very easy; the only thing I don’t like about Shopify’s interface is its approach to organising the site navigation – it requires you to create ‘link lists’ an use ‘handles’ – a drag and drop approach would be simpler. Overall though, Shopify’s interface if user-friendly and shouldn’t present too much of a learning curve to most users.

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. Examples include:

  • data capture apps
  • accounting apps (that let you integrate your store with popular tools like Quickbooks etc.)
  • 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 well help.

Support

Shopify’s support is very comprehensive – you can contact the company 24/7 by email, live chat or phone. This is better than the support options offered by some competitors – for example Squarespace don’t provide phone support at all; and Volusion don’t make it clear on their website what hours their support desks are manned. Bigcommerce offers a similar level of round-the-clock support however.

Shopify pros and cons

These are the main pros and cons of using Shopify:

Pros

  • Shopify represents one of the cheapest ways to start selling online using a hosted solution
  • It has a clean, easy-to-use interface
  • It provides a good range of free, responsive templates
  • The point-of-sale options are excellent and help Shopify stand apart from its competitors
  • Simple Paypal integration
  • There are 150,000 active Shopify stores online, which makes it a relatively safe bet that the company (and thus your online store!) is not going to disappear any time soon.

Cons

  • Shopify Payments (Stripe) only allows you to sell from certain countries – US, Canada or the UK. If you want to sell from another country you will need to use a payment gateway.
  • You can’t avoid transaction fees, whether using Shopify Payments or a payment gateway.
  • Implementation of the abandoned cart saver could be a bit better.
  • Creating drop down menus and adding items to them is a fiddlier process than it should be.

Shopify review conclusions

Overall, Shopify is one of the best hosted solutions for those wishing to create an online store – and probably the best for anyone who wants to use one product to sell online AND in a retail outlet. It’s competitively priced, easy to use, and its templates are strong.

The main disadvantages of using Shopify are its transaction fees (some of its competitors don’t charge any on certain plans) and its fairly basic abandoned cart saver.

Of course the only way to find out if Shopify is for you is to try it out fully – a 2 week free trial is available here.

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