Jan 9, 2020 - Justin Emond

Shopify Plus vs. Magento in 2020 (Magento Wins in Only 2 Cases)

arm wrestling

In mid-2018, we wrote how Magento beats Shopify Plus in only 6 use cases. Heading into 2020, Shopify Plus continues to make moves that will make it the best platform for enterprise merchants. Let’s dive into why. 

Shopify’s Big Moves in 2019

The major announcement from Shopify in 2019 is their forthcoming fulfillment network. As we all know, Amazon has changed the game in digital commerce shipping by making fast, free shipping the norm. Consumers now expect it. 

With the availability of the Shopify fulfillment network merchants will be able to tap a sophisticated, nation-wide fulfillment network that rivals Amazon, all without any capital investment. But Shopify’s move into a fulfillment network is about so much more than just sending products out quickly. 

Once you have the products in hand Shopify can offer other services at the click of a button for merchants, like automated 3D imaging, cross-brand upsells, personalization at scale, and easy environmental alignment (like a checkbox to have all of your fulfillment powered by wind power).

The other major moves in 2019 fill major product holes around global commerce support — better support for multiple languages, multiple locales, and multiple currencies — and back office support with features like improved administration UIs. 

Comparing the benefits of Shopify Plus and Magento

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.

Here’s how they stack up against each other:

Open Source vs. Closed: Magento is open source (with a closed source commercial version) full custom code control platform. Shopify is a cloud platform with full frontend code control and limited backend code control. 

Cloud Strategy: Shopify has a robust, modern cloud ecosystem while Magento doesn’t have a real cloud strategy; Magento Cloud is simply white-labeled Platform.sh hosting.

Scalability: Shopify scales infinitely without effort. Magento requires extensive, custom infrastructure work to scale at all levels.

Ecosystem: Shopify Plus has a robust plugin ecosystem in the form of the app store. But Magento still leads with a robust extension ecosystem (though most Magento 1 extensions will not work with Magento 2 without extensive modifications). Magento has strong support for custom apps and use cases while Shopify supports uncommon use cases.

Budget and Time to Market: This is where Shopify shines. Shopify reduces implementation budgets and time by eliminating the need for at least half of the backend development effort normally needed with alternatives. Magento implementation budgets are generally higher due to having to include both frontend and backend implementation effort.

But we knew all of this already. The fact is that Magento is the platform of the past and Shopify Plus is the platform of the future. Commerce platform selection today is where server hosting was in 2013: Most company servers were on-premise and the IT guys and gals were arguing about whether to move to the cloud or not. Today you would get laughed at for suggesting to your CIO that you should run all your organization's servers on-premise. Oh, how times have changed.

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

As cloud SaaS solution users of Shopify Plus will find, you can customize quite a lot 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 team 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: In 2017, 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.

The Only 2 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 needs, 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

In 2018 we wrote:

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.

Here’s our 2020 take: The established best practice is to not use headless commerce for browse and buy, but instead use a side by side experience. Shopify Plus excels at side-by-side, so this is no longer one of the six reasons to go with Magento over Shopify.

#2: You sell desktop software subscriptions

In 2018 we wrote:

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.

Here’s our 2020 take: Since writing the original analysis, headless commerce options have matured considerably and offer a much more compelling (less expensive, faster time to market) than Magento. This no longer applies.

#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

In 2018, we wrote:

If your business relies on supporting open source products or an 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.

Here’s our 2020 take: It is still unclear if Adobe, a company whose wealth is built on proprietary, closed-source software, will really support the open source ecosystem of Magento. Caveat emptor.

#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 process—or willingness—is more rigid.

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.

  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?
  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?
  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!

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