How to Choose Between Shopify, Squarespace, and All the Other E-commerce Sites


In the early days of e-commerce, users were limited to the few content management systems that were set up specifically for those purposes, like Zencart, Bigcommerce and Spree. Now, people starting out rarely use a content management system of their own, and instead use a hosted platform like Shopify or Square. There are a variety of factors to consider when choosing which platform is best for you—and consider them carefully, because once you make a choice, you’ll find it’s hard to switch.

Before you even start your search, simplify

Setting up e-commerce, in a word, sucks. Every part of it, from pricing, to taxes, to fulfillment, and customer service is complicated and hard in a unique way. There is a reason so many companies are trying to remove pain points, but they often simply add more. The best way to find the right hosted platform and to get off on a good foot is to simplify your offering as much as humanly possible in all the major aspects of selling: Have simple products that have a simple pricing and discount structure, simple shipping options, and are easy to fulfill.

The platform you choose probably won’t work for all your needs out of the box

However much you simplify, you will still likely need to install plugins, add-ons, extensions or whatever your particular platform calls the bolt-on services you’ll pay additionally for. There are extensions for marketing, shipping, lead development, customer service and every other aspect of your store. They can connect your store to other services you use for payment or shipping. When you are researching the various platforms, you should also be exploring their extensions, and ensure they offer the functionality you need at a price you find acceptable. All of these platforms let you have your own domain name, which you can register with them directly or from the registrar where you purchased it. 

Shopify

Best for: Businesses that plan to scale and are primarily e-commerce based
Price: $29-299/month
Customizability:  You can customize the content and the basic colors and fonts. You have to know a little coding to adjust the layout and affect things like padding. 
Flexibility of e-commerce: Out of the box you can configure basic products, shipping, and payment. It’s very hard, or requires finding just the right extension, to support complicated pricing, configuration or shipping schemes. 
Ease of use: One of the easier dashboards to use, with many tools that offer basic support, you need to add on modules for more functionality. 

If you are primarily building a store—not a website that sells a few things, but a store that has a few webpages—you should choose a platform that specializes in e-commerce. Shopify has been built around selling products, and features that help you do that job better. Out of the box, there are reporting tools that aren’t overwhelming (they also might not be robust enough for most people), marketing recommendations, customer service tools and templates that are built for sales. 

Generally speaking, if people are building a store, I recommend they look at Shopify first, and only look at other platforms if there’s good reason not to use Shopify. Some of those reasons might be that Shopify templates are fairly basic; if you want to get a highly customized experience, you need to hire a developer who specializes in the platform. If you intend to have a blog in addition to your store, Shopify doesn’t make it particularly easy. This is also true of landing pages, which are an essential part of marketing your store. There is also, like with Squarespace, no backwards compatibility. So if you are on an older version or theme of Shopify, you can’t upgrade to a newer one easily without rebuilding a lot of the site.

Shopify works on a codebase called liquid that isn’t hard to pick up if you use any other coding language. It does a decent job of separating CSS and layout from the actual content of the site.

Square

Best for: Companies with an in-person or store experience in addition to online
Price: $29+/month
Customizability:  Basic themes are offered, and you can customize the content of that theme using a block system that focuses mostly on selling products. 
Flexibility of e-commerce: If you have a single outlet (online only vs. online and in-person) you’ll have an easier time. Otherwise, Square offers roughly the same flexibility as Shopify, with a far less robust extension library. 
Ease of use: The dashboard is like being lost in a Vegas casino.

Square has a foothold on many businesses for the most basic reason: Square was the first to product a mobile card reader. Square also invested heavily in POS (point of sale) displays for small businesses like coffee shops and restaurants, so when they introduced websites, people chose to build a site where their inventory already was.  The problem is, from the dashboard of Square, these two functions (website and products) live in entirely different parts and feel totally separate. 

Square does a good job of allowing for configurable products with many variables. However, I find the dashboard absurdly hard to understand and use; it feels like features are built on without any relationship to previous features. For instance, if you sell wine in your restaurant, and also for pickup, you can’t use the same product, since in the restaurant you sell by the glass and bottle, but for pickup, you’d only sell by the bottle. In fact, setting up your store is, despite there being a quickstart guide, almost impossibly difficult.

Still, if you are going to sell your products primarily in person or in person and online, Square may still be the best choice, because the integration between the two is better than any other platform. If someone purchases a product at a craft fair, if you use the app and the reader, it will come out of your collective inventory.

Squarespace

Best for: Companies that have a website that sells a few items, rather than a store with a few webpages
Price: $16-49/month
Customizability:  A really robust template marketplace exists for Squarespace, and these themes run on stock html, css and javascript, so they are more tweakable than other platforms. Still, if you’re just a non-coding user, you’ll be limited to changing basic layout within blocks and colors. The Squarespace color system could make you crazy. 
Flexibility of e-commerce: All marketing aside, Squarespace isn’t really built for products. The product customizations are fairly limited compared to other engines, and do best for highly visual products with a few variations, like t shirts. 
Ease of use: The Squarespace dashboard doesn’t do much, and as such, is pretty easy to use. 

People choose Squarespace because they’ve heard of it. Tons of marketing money went into that endeavor, and Squarespace has done a good job of making it easy to have a good-looking website. They do that by locking down how much you can change anything, so pages have a lot of white space, and lots of visuals. If you want to build pages for any reason, whether that’s a blog or landing pages, it’s pretty easy. You can also set up paid memberships fairly easily, which will lock down selected site content for everyone except those with a paid subscription. However, setting up tiers of subscription is not out of the box, so it’s all or nothing. 

It’s quite hard to get products on a page, except in the limited way Squarespace wants you to, and it offers little control of the look of those products compared to other websites. Squarespace wants you to have a products page, and direct people to it. For that reason, Squarespace is not my first choice for an e-commerce store, but rather for a website that might sell a few things, like a subscription to a blog. Squarespace is another platform with no backwards compatibility: If you’re on a specific version of Squarespace, going to a new version requires a rebuild. 

Having built many Squarespace sites, I can tell you that the biggest quirk is that there is a universal style guide that follows you around, but it’s absurdly hard to just change the color of one block or button or headline on your page, and you will inevitably end up screwing up other parts of your site. This is a routine headache I hear about from Squarespace users.  

The dashboard is delightfully simple, which I appreciate, but doesn’t offer a lot of data about your customers or hints about marketing. 

WordPress with WooCommerce

Best for: Companies that have highly specialized needs that other platforms can’t accommodate, and have money for monthly maintenance/support
Price: Free, but prices can skyrocket based on the number of extensions your site and store need
Customizability:  Infinitely customizable
Flexibility of e-commerce: Even out of the box, WooCommerce has the most customizable product configuration options, but also features the most robust extension market on the internet.
Ease of use: WordPress offers the most functionality and flexibility, but that also means the most possibility for problems. While the WordPress and WooCommerce dashboard are both well organized, it is best to have professional support in place.

WordPress actually has many highly functional e-commerce plugins available for use including Easy Digital Downloads for virtual products and ShopWP which will integrate your Shopify products on your WordPress site. But WooCommerce, which got so popular it was acquired by Automattic a few years ago, has the top slot as the go-to e-commerce plugin for WordPress sites. 

This is a little complicated, so bear with me. WordPress is the platform, and WooCommerce is a plugin for WordPress. Additionally, WooCommerce has its own very robust marketplace of extensions to give it lots more functionality. Out of the box, WooCommerce can create almost any kind of product with almost unlimited variations. Because e-commerce isn’t really WordPress’s main feature, the area you build out those products isn’t as prominent as it is on other platforms.If you need any additional functionality, you go looking for add ons that do so, either in the WordPress plugin directory, which might yield a free possibility, or in the WooCommerce directory, which is more likely to yield a paid, but supported add-on. 

Since the codebase is WordPress (a mix of html, php, CSS and a hefty dose of javascript), and the codebase is open source, you can customize the look and functionality to your hearts content without “hacking” it. With 40% of the world’s websites using WordPress, it’s not hard to find a developer, but you’ll definitely want one to help you. You can host WordPress almost anywhere, but you’ll do well to choose a specialized WordPress host like Flywheel. 

All of this aside, one of the main benefits of WordPress is that you don’t have to choose between being mostly a store or mostly a website—you can easily build as many pages as you need for any reason, host a blog that is highly functional, and add on infinite functionality on top of all of that. All the data is neatly structured and portable, but again, all that freedom carries a lot of responsibility. 

Choose a platform for your e-commerce website that fits where you are now

You will likely be rebuilding your website or at least re-theming it every few years.  The choice you make today isn’t locking you down forever, but based on the number of products you have, migration becomes more labor-intensive. Still, choose the platform that fits your needs today (and in the next 24 months) based on the above criteria. Almost all these platforms have free trials and free demos. Talk to people who’ve used those platforms and find support before you start building from someone besides the platform itself. 

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