Jul 18, 2018 - Justin Emond

Shopify Plus vs. Magento (Spoiler: Magento Wins in Only 6 Cases)

arm wrestling

A tremendous amount of change is underway in the digital commerce platform market. Here are a few highlights:

1. Niche players like Hybris and Drupal Commerce are failing

2. headless commerce options are maturing by addressing important use cases

3. ambulance chasing ADA lawyers are sprouting up like weeds

4. non-debt installment payment options are about to be everything among US merchants

5. And Adobe’s acquisition of Magento just turned the mid-market upside down

What all of these trends have in common is that the leading commerce platforms for your mid-market project are likely down to just two: Shopify Plus and Magento.

Comparing the Benefits of Magento & Shopify Plus

While the Adobe acquisition and the legacy of flawed technical decisions made in the architecture of version 2.0 risk putting Magento on a path of slow yet terminal decline, Magento remains the undisputed leader of full code control commerce platforms.

At the other end of the technology spectrum is Shopify Plus, the enterprise version of Shopify.

Here’s how they stack up against each other:





Open source (with a closed source commercial version) full custom code control platform

Cloud platform with full frontend code control and limited backend code control

Founded in 2007 as an independent company, owned by eBay for several years, and now owned by Adobe.

Publicly traded company founded in 2004 with HQ in Canada

No real cloud strategy; Magento Cloud is simply white-labeled Platform.sh hosting

Robust, modern cloud ecosystem

Traditional software license business model, with none of the advantages of modern platform business models

Platform business model, reaping the same network effects driving the incredible growth of Uber and Airbnb

Requires extensive, custom infrastructure work to scale at all levels

Scales infinitely without effort

Robust extension ecosystem, though most Magento 1 extensions will not work with Magento 2 without extensive modifications

Robust plugin ecosystem in the form of the app store

Strong support for custom apps and use cases

Supports custom apps for uncommon use cases

Supported by a large ecosystem of agency and technology partners

Supported by a large ecosystem of agency and technology partners

Implementation budgets are generally higher due to having to include both frontend and backend implementation effort

Reduces implementation budgets and time through eliminating the need for at least half of the backend development effort normally needed with alternatives

The Outlook of Magento

An architecturally flawed yet mature software codebase, large partner ecosystem, strong market share, and robust corporate backer make Magento the best mid-market commerce solution available when you need custom code control and you can’t use a cloud platform like Shopify Plus. Still, even from this position of strength, the future position of Magento is mixed.

Let’s look at an acquisition example that can establish some tangential precedent.

After MySQL, a popular open source database, was acquired by Sun Microsystems (which was itself later acquired by Oracle) a number of the leading developers left to start a rival project which would in just a few years eclipse MySQL as the most innovative SQL database solution available (MariaDB).

With Magento now in the hands of Adobe and likely moving upmarket we should expect talent to quickly head out the door and start building competitive platforms. However, for the right use case, Magento remains a low-risk choice for clients for the next three to five years.

The Outlook of Shopify Plus

Three trends are fueling a very positive long-term outlook for Shopify Plus:

  1. the network effects of its platform business model

  2. demographic (cultural) trends fueling the continued success of digitally native brands at the expense of traditional CPG companies

  3. the growing sophistication of third-party technology solutions in the areas of customer engagement and system data integration.

In simplest terms, a platform business is a virtuous circle where you have two (or more) sides of your business and growth on one side causes the opposite side to grow.

An example: Every new listing on Airbnb means there are more helpful options to people looking for a place to stay on Airbnb, and the more valuable it is to people looking for a place to sleep the more attractive it is for people to list their places, thus increasing the housing inventory and making it even more attractive to prospective customers.

For technology and innovation, the inexorable march of time means that more is always becoming possible with less. Luckily for the Shopify platform, this combines with its platform business and makes the solution even more useful to merchants over time.

Most Likely, Shopify Plus is the Right Platform for Your Situation

As cloud SaaS solution users of Shopify Plus will find, there is much about the platform they can customize but you will still encounter a hard limit much sooner than full code control platforms like Magento provide.

And while the limitations of customization are very real and need to be carefully considered, the bottom line is that Shopify Plus is far and away a superior solution to Magento.

Let’s look at a few examples that show the breadth and how capable the Shopify Plus platform really is for ecommerce.

For speed: One of our clients is the publisher of a daily newspaper. When major news events happen, like when a certain local football no one outside of Boston seems to like wins the Super Bowl, people want to buy a copy of the newspaper front page that is framed.

Our client maintained an aging and expensive-to-upkeep store using the Drupal Commerce platform that was continuously crashing under the spikes in load that are part of selling newspaper front pages.

We took a look at the existing store and knew we could help. In less than five days we migrated their entire store from Drupal Commerce to Shopify. The new store had a beautiful and consistent theme with the newspaper’s brand, suffered zero downtime, and automagically scaled for every traffic spike ensuring the experience was always fast for customers (hey Boston sports team tend to win a lot). No lost orders ever again. Not bad for five days work!

For integration complexity: We recently had a client that was selling a large line of highly regulated products to customers in all fifty American states. Beyond the complex regulations involved in selling alcohol, the overall commerce experience was a typical browse and buy experience.

But the compliance burden was real, complex, and impacted access, search, shipping costs, tax rates, and order fulfillment. Our team was able to deeply integrate a powerful third-party cool called ShipCompliant into every point of our client’s Shopify Plus store experience to ensure full legal compliance.

For odd use cases: Last year we migrated a client from a custom coffee based commerce platform to Shopify Plus. The trickiest part of the project was integrating the digital commerce experience with their custom warehouse fulfillment process.

All coffee beans shipped were roasted the very day the order was picked, packed, and shipped to ensure freshness and the best possible coffee drink experience for their customers. Our team was able to customize Shopify to integrate with this crucial fulfillment workflow that was crucial to our client’s brand and cultural commitment to quality of coffee experience.

6 Reasons Why You Should Choose Magento Over Shopify Plus

The reality is that you should use Shopify Plus unless there is a reason you need to use Magento. Those reasons are real, but they are far less common than you think.

If any of these use cases match your need, you likely will be best served by Magento. If none of them do, Shopify Plus is going to serve your needs well.  

#1: You need to serve your PDP in a CMS

A headless commerce experience is when you take a content management systems (CMS) like WordPress or Drupal and serve the product details page (PDP) through the CMS and not the commerce platform. In this approach, the cart and checkout flow might be served by the commerce platform (hybrid approach) or the CMS (full headless).

You can achieve single sign on and a shared cart easily with the Shopify Plus Multipass integration (she knows it’s a multipass!). This works great when you have a separate content site -- maybe a blog or recipes or articles section -- but less well when you want the actual PDP on the CMS side of the house.

#2: You sell desktop software subscriptions

A purely headless commerce platform like Elastic Path works well when you have a non-commerce experience that needs to add a feature to make hardwired purchases, that is, a specific product at a specific time at a specific price. Browse and buy this is not.

If you are selling a subscription to a desktop software product (think Photoshop) it initially looks like a strong use case for a headless commerce platform.

But dig a little deeper into the requirements and you will soon realize that what you really need is a tightly coupled integration between the experience layer (to sell the product) and the backend systems layer (to fulfill the product) because fulfillment requires tracking identity, providing SSO, curating entitlements, custom communication between the commerce layer and your software product, and converting upsells.

Magento shines for this use case because what you really need is an integration middleware layer and the best middleware is still the middleware with full code control.

But why Magento and not an off-the-shelf middleware option? Because Magento is built to be a commerce platform and something built for commerce is going to be better at commerce than an unspecialized platform built for any use case.

#3: You need a rich and custom front end experience that requires tight coupling to proprietary backend data or systems

The Shopify Plus experience layer is very flexible and you have complete over the front end stack, including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. However, some front end experiences require custom backend systems to make them rich and immersive.

A great example of this would be needing to build a custom product configurator that relied on a large custom data set and business logic you maintain in a separate backend system. To make this kind of experience seamless you would probably use React (or something similar) on the front end and wrap your backend data layer (whether it’s Salesforce or SAP or Oracle or a custom system) in Node.JS to ensure scale and stability.

To make this kind of experience flawless you need greater control over the commerce platform source code than Shopify Plus provides making Magento a good solution for this use case.

#4: Your commitment to open source is important for your company culture or bottom line

If your business relies on supporting open source products or a open source evangelism is a critical component of your company culture, then Magento will be far more culturally compatible than Shopify Plus, since Shopify Plus is not open source.

#5: You require a custom backend

Understanding whether your commerce team needs the administrative support function of your commerce platform to match their process or their process can be altered to work with the platform is crucial to identifying the right solution.

Magento is going to offer a much more flexible framework for altering the backend administration experience than Shopify Plus because Shopify is a SaaS solution. Magento is going to offer a much better path to success for your team if their processor willingnessis more rigid.

#6: Does a platform business model offer your organization value?

Most people completely that the most fundamental difference between Magento and Shopify is that Magento is a traditional software license business model and Shopify is a platform business.

Magento is more like Microsoft selling Windows licenses in 1998 while Shopify is more similar to Uber and Airbnb that derive their value from the network effects of their large community of customers and partners.

To really understand what Shopify offers you need to understand how different a platform business really is from a traditional business. The first place to see evidence of this is in the strikingly different cultures that exist in each organization.

It is useful to spend time understanding what a platform business is to determine if these differences are going to be meaningful to your ability to execute your business strategy.

Three Questions to Choose Between Shopify Plus and Magento

I’ll leave you with this. Ask yourself these three questions and you’ll have a pretty strong idea of which one to go with.

Question 1: If I could reduce the development budget by 30%, what would be the return on spending those dollars on other efforts, like engagement optimization or marketing?

Question 2: What do my integration ecosystem and requirements look like in five years? What other departments in my business might ask for projects that involve integrations? What are the staffing goals of the business and for IT in five years?

Question 3: Do I have a traditional browse and buy experience, or something else?

We’ve helped company after company migrate to the solution that they should have started with from the beginning. Let us know if there is any way we can help you make your decision or start off on the right foot as you build your solution!

Don't be a stranger.

Keep up to date by signing up for our newsletter. It’ll be fun, we promise.

You May Also Like