Zoran Zoran
20 minute read

What is Shopify?

The most straightforward answer to this question is the following: Shopify is a cloud-based all-in-one eCommerce platform. It’s a single entity that puts together different technologies necessary for building, maintaining, running, and growing an eCommerce business. Shopify gives you access to all of the business tools you need in one place, under one account.

Shopify home page

The big advantage of cloud-based and cloud-hosted platforms is that clients do not have to worry about hardware, as well as software, upgrades and maintenance. In addition to this, they also don’t need to be concerned with installing software on their local machines. These types of platforms are subscription-based, so you just need to pay a monthly or yearly fee, and everything else, from hosting to security, is taken care of.

Now that you have a general idea about Shopify, we’ll take a closer look at the platform and get to know the details on how it works and what it does. Now... let’s dive right in.

Shopify Makes Ecommerce Convenient and Rewarding

Shopify makes it extremely easy for people to set up and launch an eCommerce store. Compared to, say, WordPress, Shopify doesn’t require any expertise and the learning curve is pretty smooth. On top of this, you don’t even need a computer to launch your online business. With Shopify, you can set up an eCommerce store and run it directly from your phone. 

It used to be that you needed a web designer and serious coding skills to launch a sales website or something along the lines of an eCommerce store. Now, Shopify makes the whole process a breeze.

Can you imagine how much time and money a platform like Shopify saves you? It’s not just the different types of software you’d need to search for, combine, and check to see if they’re compatible. It’s also the fact that, if it weren’t for web platforms like Shopify, you’d need to deal with banks and payment processing, which could really be a headache.

Your store on Shopify is independent and stand-alone, it’s not part of a huge marketplace. This is in contrast to online markets like Etsy. However, on the flip side, if you have an eCommerce store with Shopify, you have to build an audience and customer base by yourself from scratch. That may be a difficult thing to do, but at the same time, it can be highly rewarding.

A Very Short History of Shopify

Shopify was founded in 2004 by Tobias Lütke and Scott Lake, and the platform was launched in 2006. Its headquarters are in Ottawa, Canada, and it’s the biggest tech company in the country.

Shopify was sort of created out of frustration. One of the founders, Lütke, couldn’t find a satisfactory and scalable eCommerce platform to sell his snowboard equipment, so he decided to take things into his own hands and created the platform he needed himself.

The first important thing the company did was build a strong community of developers revolving around Shopify. These developers were able to create their own apps through the Shopify APIs and then sell them on the site. Many programmers who weren’t Shopify employees indirectly contributed to the development of new software for the platform. The new apps and features attracted a sizable audience, which in turn attracted new programmers, starting a snowball effect to the advantage of everybody involved - the company, the community of developers, and the users.

As Shopify was growing, it acquired 11 other companies between 2013 and 2019, among them Oberlo (dropshipping) and 6 River Systems (artificial intelligence and robotics).

In January 2017 Shopify was integrated with Amazon and in 2019, with Snapchat. In the meantime, it started a partnership with Facebook and Google.

In 2019 it became the second-largest retailer in the US, ahead of eBay and Apple.

Shopify has been highly creative and innovative. It revolutionized and democratized the whole eCommerce market, so now everyone can have access to the tools and opportunities previously reserved for bigger companies with big budgets, but at an affordable price.

The history of Shopify tells a story of a highly successful and reliable company.

Who Uses Shopify and Who Is It For?

According to a study published on Enlyft that included 146,676 companies, the large majority of businesses that use Shopify fall within the category of small businesses. The platform is mostly used in retail, apparel and fashion, and wholesale industries. It’s most popular in English-speaking countries, more precisely, the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. As a matter of fact, in 2019, Shopify was the leading eCommerce company in the US and one of the 40 largest companies in North America. In terms of sales, it was second, right behind Amazon. 

Shopify works for both inexperienced absolute beginners and seasoned business people. It’s suitable for all kinds of businesses. You can sell both physical and digital items. Since it provides you with the necessary tools to sell online and offline, Shopify is useful even if you have a brick-and-mortar store. If you’re wondering how this is possible, you’ll see very soon.

The Set-Up Process

Setting up a Shopify store is fairly simple and quick. Enter your email address, the name of your store, and a password. Then, answer a couple of questions related to your business and store, and leave some additional personal information (name, address, city, etc.). After that, you can upload products (or do a bulk import through a .csv file), customize the design, and keep your account and payment information up-to-date. 

If you purchase a custom domain name from Shopify, it’ll be automatically activated. Alongside that, SSL will be on by default right off the bat. Even if you don’t buy a domain name from Shopify, connecting your own domain name is a simple and relatively short process.

Before you launch your eCommerce store, you have to ensure that it shows adequate and correct contact information about you and your store in an orderly fashion: official email address, legal business name, currency, and location. This should be one of your top priorities.

In addition to this, it’s recommended that you create legal pages, like a refund policy, privacy policy, terms of use, and shipping policy. Shopify offers templates for these kinds of pages and, since they’re customizable, you can modify and tweak them to fit your industry, branding, and products.

Pricing Plans and Costs

The overall cost of a service is crucial and, in certain circumstances, is often the decisive factor in choosing a platform for your online business. You’ll see how Shopify fares in this category shortly, but before we go any further, let me clarify something. 

Below, I’ll talk about the pricing plans and costs in more general terms so you can get a broad picture of how much Shopify actually costs. Since there’s a lot to be said on this topic, a detailed analysis would require a separate article, so, today, let’s just cover the basics.

Pricing Plans

The platform offers a 14-day free trial that doesn’t require credit card information, only basic info, so literally anyone can try it out.

Let’s have a look at the prices of the three regular Shopify plans: 

Shopify pricing

With Shopify, the startup costs are low. If you’re just starting out on an eCommerce career and you don’t need or want to integrate commercial third-party apps yet, 29 bucks per month to kickstart your online business is highly affordable.

There’s a set of core features available with all plans. In general terms, this is what every plan contains: unlimited products, customizable and responsive templates, tools to sell online and in-person, an integrated payment gateway, a checkout, SEO and marketing tools, shipping, and access to the Shopify APIs and development tools (important for programmers). 

The differences between the plans are twofold: 

  1. Different quantities of the same thing. For instance, more staff accounts and lower transaction fees with the higher-tier plans.
  2. More features that are also more advanced when compared to the cheaper plan. For example, the Shopify plan includes professional reports that are missing from the Basic Shopify plan, while the Advanced plan provides an advanced report builder that's not included in the Shopify plan.

Besides these plans, there are two more options: Shopify Plus and Shopify Lite. 

Shopify Lite is considered to be a good value for money. It’s for situations where you already have an eCommerce store built on another platform, but you want to utilize some of the advantages Shopify offers. When you subscribe to this plan, what you get is a buy button you can place on any website, the possibility to send invoices, a chance to use Facebook Messenger for sales and marketing purposes, free themes, a payment gateway, gift cards, discount codes, finances reports, mobile POS, and more. All this for only $9 per month. Sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it?

Shopify Plus is a completely different animal. It’s a custom enterprise-level plan. The price goes from $2000/month upwards. Now, based on the study we looked at earlier, most Shopify users are small business owners and it’s generally thought that the platform is not perfectly suited for large businesses. But if you do want to run a large business on Shopify, this would be the plan for you. Scalability is one of Shopify’s most notable characteristics. In line with this and contrary to the widespread opinion, according to Shopify, there are more than ten thousand large businesses that have their eCommerce stores running on the platform. Some names that may ring a bell are Heinz, Lindt, Gymshark, and 2 Chainz (if you’re into hip-hop 😉). 

Shopify Plus is foolproof when it comes to handling a lot of traffic, it improves conversion rates, it lets you customize your checkouts, it reduces the risk of experiencing downtime to virtually non-existent, it allows you to run multiple stores and staff accounts from your admin panel, it helps you reduce the costs of doing taxes, and a lot more.

Like the bulk of the platforms today, Shopify gives discounts on annual and biannual subscriptions too: 10% and 20% respectively. This reduces your costs, but on the downside, you need to have the money to pay the whole sum upfront.

Additional Costs

However, you should be aware that paying for a monthly or yearly subscription is only a part of your overall expense. And costs can really add up with time due to transaction fees and add-ons. 

If you use Shopify Payments, you won’t have to pay any transaction fees; only the regular credit card rates. But, with other payment processors, like PayPal, you pay 2%, 1%, or 0.5% for the three regular plans per each transaction. However, it should be noted that these fees are lower than on Etsy and Amazon Handmade.

I mentioned add-ons because Shopify offers gazillions of them and as your business grows and your needs increase, you’ll probably want more and more of them. There are free apps on the Shopify app store, so you can make use of some of them. But if you need more advanced functionality, then chances are you’ll have to go with paid integrations, and they’re not always cheap.

Therefore, you should make a careful and smart decision. You don’t want to pay for something you won’t really need or use, nor opt for a plan that doesn’t fulfill your real needs. Think this through, and only then act.

Design and Customization

Templates

Shopify offers hundreds of free and premium templates for different parts of your eCommerce store (products page, home page, navigation, etc.) and different industries.

Shopify templates

After you set up your Shopify account, you get instant access to 9 free themes from the admin dashboard. But if you don’t feel like using those, you can go to the theme store where you can purchase a template that’s more in line with your taste and branding.

The Shopify templates are well-designed and professional looking right out of the box, so you can use them as they are. But if you want to do some tweaking before going live, you’ll have to use the editor.

Editor

Shopify offers a drag-and-drop editor to customize the look of your store. This is how it looks when you’re customizing your home page: 

Editor home page

And this is your products page:

Editor products page

It’s really easy to find your way around the admin dashboard and start customizing. Modifying the template is also a breeze even if you don’t know how to code. While customizing, you can see how your page/site looks on multiple devices.

A general problem of drag-and-drop editors is that they’re not flexible enough. The same applies to the Shopify page editor: you can do some tweaking, but you’re limited. However, what gives you more options is possessing coding skills. So, if you’re tech-savvy and you know some coding, Shopify allows you to experiment by clicking on the Theme Settings section and then choosing Edit code. 

Design is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Visuals are so important when you do online business. Shopify has more than enough templates on offer, so choose carefully and don’t underestimate how much you can achieve with a little bit of tweaking.

Integrations

One of Shopify’s objectives is to be flexible and not bloated. This means that out-of-the-box Shopify doesn’t come with a host of integrated eCommerce tools, but it’s compatible and integrates with thousands of third-party apps if you want to extend its functionality. 

With respect to integrations, Shopify is a lot like WordPress. There are 6000+ apps in the Shopify App Store. To a certain extent, this is one of the things that makes it so special and different from its competitors. Wix comes the closest to what Shopify does and offers, but it’s still far behind when it comes to having as many apps to offer to its customers. Basically, every big and small company that means something in the eCommerce world has an app on the Shopify App Store. Here you’ll find literally, without exaggeration, anything you need for running an online store.

Shopify addons integrations

Some of the apps are paid, others are free. They’re sorted into many categories depending on their purpose. There are apps for adding chatbots, customer retention, payment, bookkeeping, shipping, and more. For instance, some popular shipping add-ons are ShippingEasy, Ordoro, and ShipStation. You can search for and add apps from within the dashboard.

An extremely useful app for dropshipping is Oberlo. It lists only confirmed suppliers and it ensures that you’re dealing only with reliable companies. Oberlo offers a free plan which allows 500 products and up to 50 orders in a month, which is pretty cool. With it, you get real-time sales reports and tracking numbers at your disposal. 

Another significant app in the Shopify App Store is DropInBlog - SEO Friendly Blog. Unlike the built-in Shopify blog, it’s a fully-featured blogging app and in contrast to WordPress, it’s a modern blogging solution. Check out this side-by-side DropInBlog vs Shopify’s Blog vs WordPress comparison and see why DropInBlog is considered to be the best blog for Shopify.

An interesting thing about Shopify is that even with added apps, your store still loads fast. According to research carried out by Google, mobile users leave sites that don’t load in less than 3 seconds. Shopify takes care that this doesn’t happen to its clients. But even if it happens, Shopify provides online store speed reports allowing you to see what may be the cause for the slow load time. This means that you can intervene and remove the hindrance at any time. 

Because it’s easy to get carried away or get lost in this sea of apps, it’s highly suggested that you learn more about the apps you’re interested in before paying for them or installing them. You can avoid redundancy, deteriorated page load speed, and save money if you just focus on your real needs and do a little research before taking any action.

Customer Service

There can’t be a good company without good customer service. Shopify performs well in this area too. 

The company offers help and provides support through multiple channels: phone, live chat, email, help center, social media, documentation, video tutorials, webinars, and community forums.

Shopify support

The best thing is that Shopify provides real-time live chat, phone, and email support 24/7. This is a lifesaver, especially for small businesses, since the owners usually don’t have technicians responsible for maintaining their eCommerce stores.

Another major plus is that around-the-clock support is available with every pricing plan.

User experience with the Shopify customer service staff is exceedingly positive. The members of the support team are good listeners, well-informed, very professional, helpful, and responsive. 

Of course, there are some not-so-favorable reviews. For instance, there are claims that the support is too general (I suppose this means that the customer didn’t get specific responses to their specific questions) or complaints regarding the support available for the Shopify APIs. But, those negative reviews are rare and you’d be hard-pressed to find a large number of harsh critics.

Features

Shopify offers so much in quality and quantity when it comes to features.

Shopify features

However, I’ll single out a handful of noteworthy tools and features:

  • Free web hosting and unlimited bandwidth with each plan

Shopify’s got your back when it comes to hosting. The platform provides CDN and a domain name generator... because the name of your store is as important as any other facet of your eCommerce business. It has to be memorable, unique, and likable. Shopify helps you get a high score on this too.

  • Built-in SEO and blogging

Blog posts can really bolster your SEO rankings. That’s why blogging is a very important aspect of today’s online businesses, as the history and popularity of WordPress clearly demonstrate.

It’s good that Shopify offers a native blogging option, however, its blogging functionality is pretty basic and underwhelming. So, if you don’t want your blog to be underachieving, you’ll be much better off using DropInBlog.

  • Security

Shopify provides SSL certificates and is PCI compliant to ensure that your clients’ information is safe and secure during transactions.

  • POS (Point of Sale)

POS Lite is available with every plan. For the more advanced pro version, customers have to pay additional fees.

But what is POS? Basically, it’s a place where customers pay for the goods they purchase. It can be a physical or a virtual place.

You don’t need to sign up separately for Shopify POS. In order to get Shopify POS Lite, you just need to set up your store, register, and order the necessary hardware. It’s for brick-and-mortar stores that want to sell both online and on-site. The inventory and orders are always synced and managed from one account.

With the Shopify POS, you can accept various types of payments, sell gift cards, create custom receipts, offer discounts, scan barcodes with a mobile phone, create a list of daily sales, follow order histories, track inventory, and so on.

  • Payment processing

You can use the built-in Shopify Payments option or any of the 100 available payment processors. 

Shopify allows numerous payment methods; it accepts the bulk of known credit cards (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and more), Apple Pay, Google Pay, etc. 

It allows payment processing in 133 currencies.

  • Shopify Checkout

Shopify provides a customizable checkout, where the emphasis is on speed and customer experience.

  • Shipping

Shopify Shipping is available for the US, Canada, and Australia, but of course, there are options for other countries too.

One of the most interesting concepts in this field is dropshipping. Dropshipping means that you don’t have to have anything in stock. When someone purchases something from you, you forward the order to a supplier who takes care of everything for you and delivers the product directly to your customer. 

This is very convenient for small businesses with limited investment capabilities, as they don’t have to own a warehouse. However, to enjoy all the benefits of dropshipping, you’d need to install an additional app. This option doesn’t come as pre-installed software with Shopify.

  • Mobile app

The Shopify mobile app allows you to launch and run your businesses no matter where you are.

  • Analytics and reports

Shopify offers excellent and useful analytics tools. For instance, you can use Google Analytics for performance optimization.

  • Marketplace

Shopify Experts is the name of the Shopify marketplace where you can search for professionals who can build tools tailored to your specific business and brand.

  • Abandoned cart recovery emails

Unoptimized checkouts equal high cart abandonment rates. Luckily, as mentioned before, the Shopify checkouts are customizable. For instance, you can offer your customers various options: check out with an account, check out with email only, or even check out with a phone number. However, in those cases when a customer leaves the checkout without finishing the payment, Shopify enables you to send them an email that serves as a reminder. Believe it or not, this technique is very efficient.

  • Promote your business on social media

Shopify allows you to connect your already existing sites and social media accounts with your Shopify account. For example, you can create Instagram, Facebook, and Google shopping campaigns through your Shopify account. Also, you can link your store with eBay and Amazon to extend your selling options. You’ll receive notifications from these two colossal marketplaces on your Shopify account when someone orders something from you.

The super-convenient thing is that when you link your social media accounts to your Shopify account, the feeds will be updated on the social media apps if you post a new item on Shopify.

Another way to make good use of this option is to drive more traffic to your site through ads on social media.

  • Multiple-language support

As a global company for the global community, Shopify supports more than 50 languages.

  • Discounts

Discounts are an important aspect of a marketing strategy. With Shopify, you can set up discount codes, automatic discounts, or sales for specific products.

Over and Out

I hope this article gave you an informative and satisfactory answer to the question of what is Shopify.

The important thing to note at the end of this piece is that Shopify still continues to invest in cutting-edge technologies and still tries to find ways to keep improving its service. The eCommerce market has never been more competitive, so this is only the natural thing to do to stay relevant. After its investment in the artificial intelligence and robotics company 6 River Systems, the near future for Shopify looks pretty bright.

If you intend to launch an eCommerce store, test-driving Shopify for 14 days is a good way to start. The platform holds really high ratings and is at the very top on Capterra’s list of best eCommerce software based on users’ reviews. So, you’ve got nothing to lose. 

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