The internet has made it easier than ever for anyone to set up shop and start selling. There are plenty of nifty web hosting services you can use to create a snazzy-looking website but you can’t ask your customers to use offline methods to pay you. For that, you need online shopping cart software, and Shopify (which begins at $9 per month, plus fees) is perhaps one of the most popular tools out there. Its reputation is justified thanks to its ease of use, modern templates, and flexibility. Want to set up an account for an online store? No problem. Want to set up a point-of-sale (POS) terminal with your iPad in your physical retail store? Shopify has you covered. I created a comprehensive virtual store in less than 30 minutes, and the experience was so good that Shopify is PCMag’s clear Editors’ Choice for online shopping cart services.
For this review, I signed up with a Basic plan to set up an online storefront on an existing domain called “Super Fun Tech Shop” to sell a mix of handcrafted items. The starting price tag of my online store, with basic shopping cart tools and an existing domain, was $29 per month. If I’d had to register a domain, then Shopify would have tacked on an extra $9 for the first month.
Shopping Cart Packages
Shopify offers users a 14-day trial, which gives small businesses the opportunity to actually set up a store and test transactions before committing to the software. Shopify accepts all major credit cards. Competitor 3dCart offers a 15-day trial.
Shopify offers five packages starting with the $9-per-month plan that lets you sell products on existing websites or on social media. The Basic plan is $29 per month with no transaction fees if you use Shopify’s commerce gateway. This plan includes unlimited products and storage, 24/7 support, a website and blog, an SSL certificate, and two staff accounts. The $79-per-month Shopify plan includes everything in the Basic plan as well as three additional staff accounts, reporting, and abandoned cart recovery. The Advanced Shopify plan starts at $299 per month and includes 15 staff accounts, an advanced report builder as well as auto-shipping rate calculation. Shopify also offers an enterprise-grade Plus plan that is custom-built and offers custom pricing.
Not all shopping cart services charge transaction fees. 3dCart and Pinnacle Cart are alternatives that don’t charge. But keep in mind that whichever merchant account and payment gateway you wind up using with those services will charge you transaction fees. The benefit of Shopify is that it handles all of that for you, freeing you up from dealing with merchant accounts and their additional bills. If you decide you don’t like Shopify and you don’t choose a pricing plan during your free trial, then your account will be frozen and you won’t be charged for anything when your trial expires.
Setting Up a Shopify Store
Shopify makes it easy to get a store up and running. After I created an account with an email address and password, Shopify figured out my tax rate and currency based on my physical address. The service also used my store’s name to create a customized URL for my dashboard: super-fun-tech-shop.myshopify.com. This way, you can see the store online right away even if you don’t have your own domain yet.
The dashboard is where you do all of the work, and it’s straightforward. There are ways to see information about existing orders, product inventory, and customers. I found it easy to add third-party e-commerce apps such as recurring billing and loyalty programs to enhance my store’s capabilities, and the theme store offers easy-to-use and attractive templates.
The app store is extensive, with plug-ins for external sales channels on social media, accounting tools, help desk tools, and even access to other sellers. Be aware that adding these features can make your monthly bill skyrocket. Scrutinize all payment details for each add-on before selecting it. If you think you will need a lot of third-party extensions, then scrutinize some of the other competitors in the field to determine exactly what you will need, who provides it, and how much each will charge.
On the Add a Product page I entered the title (the name of the product) and a description of what I was selling, uploaded images of my products, assigned a price (with a checkbox specifying if it was taxable), listed the associated SKU and bar code, told Shopify to track inventory, and saved the total shipping weight. This screen is also where you can specify variations, such as size, material, style, and color as well. Shopify automatically handled assigning prices and unique SKU codes for each variation. All of the way at the bottom, I saw how the product page would display on search engine results so that I could focus on search engine optimization (SEO). I created tags and collections to make it easier to group similar products in my store. If the sheer amount of information this page asks for feels overwhelming, then you may prefer BigCommerce which breaks out the product page into different tabs, or Pinnacle Cart, which has bulk import options.
Shopify offers free, attractive, and modern-looking themes in 11 different categories, including Home, Clothing, Food, Accessories, Art, Electronics, Books, and Other. These are among the best-looking store themes I’ve ever seen; the free templates are better than the ones you will get through 3dCart, for example. I browsed through the themes and clicked on Demo buttons to see what the entire page would look like. Once I was happy with a theme, I clicked Publish to apply it to my account. I was satisfied with the free themes but, if you want something more sophisticated, then you can visit the Shopify Theme Store, which has more than 100 free and premium templates. Some premium templates are pretty expensive, so keep an eye on your total monthly bill.
Shopify keeps your previously used themes in your account so that, if you ever change your mind, you can just scroll down on the Themes page in the dashboard to find the older one to switch back to. You can customize the theme with a built-in, drag-and-drop editor, and edit the HTML/CSS through a built-in text editor.
An online store isn’t just inventory pages and order forms. You also want your shoppers to find the information they need. Shopify lets you create a blog to engage with customers, as well as static pages such as About Us and FAQ pages. It also integrated my Google Analytics (GA) codes for web metrics. You can also capture customer data via user accounts, which users can also access to see order status or enroll in a loyalty program. Shopify doesn’t offer a built-in email marketing tool, which is a huge omission. However, it does offer a feature called Kit, which is a virtual marketing assistant that helps you do things such as create Facebook and Instagram Ads and send a few templatized emails, such as “Thank You” auto-responders.
I had the choice of using an existing domain or registering a domain through Shopify and letting the company act as my domain registrar. Prices begin at $14 per year for common domains such as .com and .net, $14 per year for a handful of country domains, and then they rise up to $46 and higher for custom domains. I used an existing domain for this review. Shopify provides thorough instructions on configuring the DNS records on your domain to point to Shopify’s servers. I could have also just stuck with the free Shopify-generated URL and not bothered with my personal domain.
I was able to get my store completely set up within the 14-day trial period. I selected the Basic plan to unlock my store and activate the site as my last step. Remember, though, that the Basic plan doesn’t have a lot of helpful features, such as gift cards. Make sure to really scrutinize the feature list on the Shopify site to make sure everything you need is available on your site.
Customer Experience and Payments
The easiest shopping cart software is worthless if the customer finds it difficult to find products and pay for them. I found the user experience (UX) easy and seamless as a customer trying to buy the product and as the seller managing the transaction. There was no Shopify branding anywhere on the site, giving me, as the customer, a consistent UX.
Shopify by default uses its own payment gateway Shopify Payments as well as PayPal Express Checkout. It can also integrate with 70 other payment gateways. For this review, I set up PayPal. Remember that PayPal also charges its own credit card transaction fees. If you use Shopify Payments, then Shopify waives the transaction fees. 3dCart and BigCommerce don’t charge transaction fees, so they are good alternatives if you don’t want to deal with Shopify Payments.
Shopify also supports alternative payment systems such as BitPay, Coinbase, Dwolla, and GoCoin, as well as offline payments such as check, money order, and bank deposits. If you are uncomfortable having Shopify charge customer credit cards automatically—or you want to wait until everything has been shipped before charging the card—then you can set up the store to just authorize payments and manually charge the card when ready. Shopify offers a very helpful page explaining the difference between automatic and manual payment capture.
Excellent Customer Service
As I mentioned earlier, Shopify lets you use the same platform for online and physical store sales. There is also the option to put a Buy button on another website, which may be useful if you don’t want to use Shopify’s site builder tool.
The manual is easy to use and there’s email support, too, but Shopify also offers 24/7 phone and chat-based support when emailing is not enough and you need a person to help you out. There is also an active discussion forum. Customers based in North America, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore have a designated regional phone number. I found it easy to get someone in chat even at 1 a.m., and the phone support representative was very helpful in answering my questions about the different options available in each package.
Great Shopping Right Out of the Box
Simplicity is critical when setting up an online store. The customer doesn’t want to jump through hoops to give you money, and the seller doesn’t have much time to learn how to use the software. Shopify makes it easy to get off the ground with basic features and the ability to fine-tune features at a later date. Shopify is our Editors’ Choice for shopping cart tools for its intuitive and easy-to-navigate dashboard, and its ease of use for first-time merchants.