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e-Commerce Provider Comparison: Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion, Pinnacle Cart…

by / Friday, 24 June 2011 / Published in eCommerce
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If you’ve ever ventured in to e-Commerce, you know that the platform choices can be mind boggling. From developing your own store to hosting it with a WordPress plugin to leveraging a 3rd party provider to getting started on a fully hosted service like Etsy, the options are so complex that it’s not a question of if and how easy it is for you to get started online, it’s trying to figure out where and why.

Years ago I built my first store on the Yahoo Store platform. I was so frustrated with learning a completely different language and framework, there, that when I had my first run in with fraud and dealt with the FBI before closing that venture, I promised never to work with anything complex again. Since, I’ve set up a handful of e-Commerce sites via WordPress; you know I’m a passionate evangelist of WordPress as a CMS for any site and reasoned that the extensibility, for eCommerce, would be a great thing. While I’m still a big fan of plugins like WP-Commerce, the complexity of a store really begs for simplicity in administration where ever else possible.

It’s with that experience in mind, and a new opportunity before me, that I dove headfirst in to an exploration of Shopify, BigCommerce, Magento, eBay ProStores, Amazon, and Volusion. Determined to find an easier platform, and a huge fan of web services and cloud computing, my new direction emboldened me to persevere with an in depth investigation.

Let me jump ahead to the conclusion and share here that that emboldened perseverance didn’t last long

e-Commerce Provider Requirements

I’m not going to point any fingers at the unreasonableness present in e-Commerce provider feature lists. I understand what providers are trying to accomplish for folks with those lists; if you want to know what we do, here’s the list of the few thousand bells and whistles associated with our platform. At the end of the day, we merchants (or rather, me potential merchant), have a brief list of requirements and only want to map that list to your capabilities. Here’s my list:

  1. Easily customizable, templated designs
  2. White label experience – my domain, no cobranding
  3. Search optimized architecture and flexibility to change everything related to SEO
  4. Mobile accessible (mobile app is a huge plus)
  5. Integrated with Facebook: Connect, Like, Store page
  6. Catalog distributed through shopping engines & eBay
  7. Credit card, PayPal, and G. Checkout (is that necessary to point out?)
  8. Discounts, coupons, gift certificates, shipping deals, etc.
  9. Product options
  10. Reviews and comments
  11. Inventory and return management
  12. Site search
  13. Tax management
  14. Reporting and Google Analytics integration
  15. Email marketing integration and CRM
  16. Recommendation intelligence
  17. Affiliate tracking (or better: white label affiliate platform)
  18. Accounting integration

You may have your own unique needs and admittedly, I’ve probably overlooked something, but that’s what I have in mind and I don’t think there is anything there unreasonable.

Shopping for Shopping is DizzyingNow, take a moment and try to figure out exactly who offers that and at what cost; which of those features are built in vs. add-ons; which are truly available and not just listed because, of course you can add a Facebook Like script to your product pages. What is really a part of their platform? I’ll give you a day. It’s taken me longer than that and I’ve just about given up.

No, I’m not going to be critical of the e-Commerce provider’s sales experiences, but in the era of dynamic web sites where decision tree analysis is easy and friendly, I should be able to indicate what I want and wait moments while you spit out whether or not you can cut it, exactly what I need from you, and how much it will cost.

Without that, here is my first attempt, an attempt upon which I will build, to highlight the feature variations between e-Commerce providers.

e-Commerce Vendor Comparison

Could also be called, the differences between Shopify, BigCommerce, and Volusion because that’s where I got frustrated and called it quits

Before you read my matrix let me be clear that this is NOT accurate. I couldn’t figure out whether or not these providers offer all of these features. What I’ve done is map what I could find from each and tried to understand whether or not the same was available elsewhere.  I FULLY expect that this is complete and ask the providers to help me clean this up.  Beyond Volusion, Shopify, and BigCommerce, I do want to plot what’s available from Magento, eBay ProStores, Amazon, and others.  I’m just exhausted.

By the way, *stars* refer to updates I’ve received from the provider; those features are available but were not discovered through my original review.

BigCommerce Volusion Shopify Pinnacle Cart
Design
Drag & Drop design x *
Edit HTML & CSS in browser x x x *
Edit via FTP x * *
W3C/XHTML compliant templates x x x *
Customizable Email templates x * * *
Web based control panel x x x *
Promotions
Coupons x x x *
Free Shipping x x *
Gift certificates x x *
Promotion banners x
Discount rules x x x *
Product lists x *
Marketing & SEO
Integrated blog x * WordPress
Auto-redirect www. x * * *
Edit robots.txt x * *
Edit 301 redirects x * * *
Per-page meta / title x * * *
Public sitemap x * *
XML sitemap x x x *
Uses H1 tags x * *
SEO friendly URLs x * * *
Custom image alt text x * * *
Use nofollow x * *
Comparison Shopping Sites x * Google *
Email Marketing x x *
Facebook Like x * * *
Affiliate tracking x * *
Affiliate platform x
Sell Via
Facebook Store x x *
MySpace x
eBay x *
Mobile friendly format x x * *
iPhone app
Android app
Other app
Ordering & Checkout
Single page checkout x x *
Pre orders x * *
Bulk discounts x x *
Guest checkout option x x * *
Refunds & credits x * * *
Custom checkout fields x * *
Order messaging system x * * *
One click re-order x
Shipping
Delivery dates x * *
Shipping estimates x x * *
Shipping tracking numbers x x x *
Send tracking link to customer x x * *
Shipping label printing x x *
Products & Merchandising
Physical and digital products x * *
Product options (size, color, etc.) x x * *
Custom fields (text on a shirt) x x *
Gift wrapping option x x *
Photo editing x * *
Call for pricing option x * * *
Create/assign brands/manufacturers x x * *
Per-option SKUs x * * *
Embed video x * * *
Description HTML x * *
Suggested Retail Price x * * *
Sale prices x x * *
You may also like… x *
Product comparison x x
Related products x * *
Inventory
Per product x x x *
Per option x x * *
Automatic inventory
control
x * * *
Low stock indicators x x x *
Auto-disable purchase x * *
Bulk manage inventory x * * *
Payment
Accept credit cards x x x *
Paypal, Google checkout x x x *
Offline payment options x * * *
COD, pay in store, check x * * *
Order by phone x * *
Taxes
Taxation x x * *
State, Country, Geo zones x x *
Flat tax option x * * *
Exclude tax x * *
Reporting
Google Analytics x x *
Conversion rate x *
Top customers x * *
Best selling x * * *
Customer location x x
Inventory x * * *
Revenue x * * *
Search keywords x * x
Cost & profit reporting x x *
Store
Search
Suggest / Did you mean? x *
Filter x x
Related searches x *
Images
Unlimited x x * *
Auto-gallery x * *
Auto-thumbnails x x * *
Zoom x x * *
Popup/lightbox x x * *
General
Hosted service x x x *
Product reviews & comments x x *
3rd party comment platforms x *
Private wish lists x x
Public wish lists x x
Gift registry x
Customer address book x x x *
Drop shipping vendor avail. x * x *
3rd party apps * x *
Warehousing vendor avail. x x *
Multiple currency x x *
Live chat vendor x * *
A/B testing x
Multivariate testing x x
Return / RMA system x x *
Own DNS record x x x *
Mobile admin x *

Providers, contact me here for corrections, I will be diligent about ensuring this is accurate. I realize you may not appreciate what I’m trying to do here but small business owners trying to figure out how to sell online have an unreasonable experience before them. Let’s make it easier.

Everyone else, if you want to add a feature or entirely new provider, let me know

My Conclusion OR Why Providers Should Care

eCommerce ProvidersEven though it sucked trying to go through the BigCommerce feature list with a fine toothed comb, that chart (as of June 24, 2011) speaks for itself. Though I can’t tell if BigCommerce has blog infrastructure integrated with its platform, it seems to do everything else I need. Shopify is a close second because it does what I want and I think it’s safe to presume most of those missing features are part of the platform (they are pretty standard features); besides, their App Store (integrating 3rd party tools and features) is brilliant. Their shortcoming? The apparent lack of any significant marketing capabilities. Volusion’s built in affiliate platform, if I’m right in reading what that is, is a HUGE advantage but they seem to lack in many other cases.

Again, I fully suspect my investigation is incomplete, but that’s what their websites tell me; I shouldn’t have to jump on the phone with a sales person to figure that out and I’m certainly not motivated by a free trial just to find out that provider doesn’t do what I want – that’s the information with which I’m making a decision. Please, share with me what’s missing and let’s help everyone make the right decision.

Update: I received a great note from Shopify (three cheers for them) and revised the matrix accordingly. The original post remains otherwise unchanged as I’d offer (and encourage of Shopify) that my original review is still a reflection of the challenge store owners have in evaluating each provider.

Update: Just heard from Volusion so we have a full report of features available from the three.  As I’d done with Shopify, the features updated by Volusion are flagged differently so as to distinguish the provider features obviously available from those according to their update.

Update: Thanks to the incredible team at Pinnacle Cart, I’m pleased to share the first major update to this report, adding a forth and very popular solution to the e-Commerce platform comparison matrix that the Pinnacle Cart analysis is not my own but provided, faithfully, by the team there. Please let me know if you see any discrepancies.

20 Responses to “e-Commerce Provider Comparison: Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion, Pinnacle Cart…”

  1. PE says :

    Thanks for the great review. I’m in the process of moving a Yahoo store… expensive and just not today’s social media, multimedia features friendly. I was impressed with Volusion look & feel and their Wow core values… but their pre-sales support was terrible (4days to get a “Wow” response… ) Their plans also are half the bandwidth and no Facebook store unless you upgrade to almost $100 a month. Just wondering if 3DCart came in to mind when doing your review. http://www.3dcart.com/volusion_vs_3dcart.html

  2. PE says :

    One big featured I failed to mention, and should matter to any merchant is whether or not a fully compatible, out of the box ready and auto generated Google Base feed is provided. Making one on your own is pretty scary, and a must however to be listed in Google shopping. XML feed, site map etc will get you to the regular Google search but not the shopping engine which is where you want to be. BTW… I would love to hear more about what you recommend for WordPress.

  3. Thank you for this. I’ve been humming and hawing over which ecommerce platform to choose for my business and found my way here via Quora.

    I like shopify – I used it to set up my girlfriend’s b2b store, but I suspect it would be too lightweight for my needs down the road. I do wish BigCommerce had a comparable developer and design community behind it, however.

    I’ve read terrible things about Volusion regarding SEO and page load times.

    Thanks again, this looks like it took a lot of work.

  4. SEO'Brien says :

    Great to hear from you PE. Amusing coincidence, I got my start working with Yahoo and pretty closely to the Store team.
    In fact, I have looked briefly at 3dCart and if I can ever find the time to update this post, I have those details and more coming.

    As for WordPress, WP eCommerce all the way.

    Trevor, really appreciate that input as it’s those subtleties that are hard to nail down. Am too a big fan of shopify though I’m wary of any platform that turns to 3rd parties for so much functionality… what happens if…?

  5. Elliot says :

    Fantastic article – any reason Adobe Business Catalyst didn’t make the review?

    Cheers

  6. SEO'Brien says :

    No reason Elliot other than an unfamiliarity with it and, frankly, very little inclusion of it in the typical set of platforms considered. I’ve never even heard of it. Any insight to it? Happy to add it up there with a blockquote crediting you as the source if you want to send me a feature list that matches what I’ve published.

  7. Skye says :

    Hey mate, thanks for an excellent read and effort…I am a time poor person with family and day job, while also trying to manage our own e-store, so although I am very computer literate, I just dont have the time with private web design and development…Shopify and BigCommerce type solutions are a breeze in this sense, as I can manage things from anywhere, and more important, my Mrs can too! This is an often neglected aspect, you need to be able to explain things to your wife/employee etc who are not as tech savvy as you etc…I appreciate if you could answer 3 questions…

    1-) I understand that BigCommerce seems much more powerful in terms of marketing and promotion tools…Would you be able to compare to what degree BigCommerce is more powerful than Shopify, with its marketing tools? Would Shopify be likely to close the gap quickly? Would apps for Shopify easily cover those gaps without having to pay much…

    2-) My feeling is that Shopify is the iPhone of hosted e-commerce solutions, and BigCommerce is the Android…Is this a fair analogy? I am an Android friendly guy and do not use iPhones, iTunes etc, but when it comes to e-commerce content management and template design, because of how time poor I am, I would not mind an iPhone/Shopify…

    3-) With these solutions, how easy or difficult is it do you think to change from one solution to another…For example, lets say you started with Shopify, then want to change it to BigCommerce, or vice versa, would it be too hard to change to BigCommerce…You cant of course export the source code I would imagine but will you basically need to re-do everything? And once you do it, can your website change to the other hosted solution overnight? in a snap? Or would they bleed you good before you can change to another solution…Gotta take into account your payment gateway as well…

  8. SEO'Brien says :

    Here’s my take Skye

    1-) Shopify includes a blog which can pay off in spades for a commerce site (so long as you use it). On the other hand, BigCommerce has a publicly exposed sitemap which more effectively indexed your pages in Google (than the typical sitemap with which you might be familiar). BigCommerce is also better integrated with Shopping channels, eBay, and Facebook where customers are more likely to consider what you have to offer. Win goes to BigCommerce BUT do the Shopify Apps make up for that gap? They might. I didn’t do that investigation and don’t intend to. I don’t want a store enabled by a bunch of third party technologies so even if apps DO put Shopify on par with Big, they aren’t in my consideration set.

    2-) “Shopify is the iPhone of hosted e-commerce solutions, and BigCommerce is the Android” I’d disagree. Yes, iPhone has apps so I see how you are drawing that conclusion but it’s the wrong analogy. Instead think of it based on the iPhone operating system vs. android. That way, I’d reverse the analogy and say that Big is the iPhone and Shopify is the Android. Why? EVERYTHING BigCommerce offers is through BigCommerce; iPhone is effectively the same – one platform, one app store, one technology. Shopify’s app marketplace makes it a little more analogous to Android: different platforms, different vendors.

    3-) I started such an in depth review because I don’t want to switch. Look at it from their perspective… eCommerce providers can work on more features to keep you happy OR they can make it difficult to switch. Certainly, they are going to do both BUT therein is the fact that it can’t be easy to switch. I don’t know that for sure; just a bet I’m happy to make.

  9. Shepperd says :

    WOW what a great read , im interested in creating an mp3 portal like beatport.com

    Type of Store: Online Music Store
    Product Formats: Digital MP3’s (DOWNLOADABLE)
    1. Ecommerce Shoping Cart
    And Check out
    2. Login & Registration for Visitors/Members
    3. Search Bar (For Product Searching)
    5. Payment Services
    Plugins

    The store should include special plugins such as FACEBOOK and TWITTER plugins , this will allow users to share the product links and also comment on the products using their social network accounts .
    MP3 Flash Player
    MP3 players will allow users to preview the tracks before the buy.
    Coupon Codes

    An mp3 store Basically , with unlimited space … how can i do that without the use of HTML or CSS

  10. Jordan Foutz says :

    It looks like there have been a number of different updates and iterations to the original post. Would it be feasible to factor in a 4th provider. I’ve built stores in BigCommerce myself, but would like to see how Pinnacle Cart holds up against the carts you’ve reviewed here. Please let us know if that is an option.

  11. SEO'Brien says :

    I’d be happy to Jordan, can you send me a brief that covers the details I’ve reviewed?

  12. seobrien says :

    I actually have a couple other services I’ve been meaning to add to this review… working on it now. Yes, 3dcart is in the mix.

  13. GVZ says :

    @ You know, I am impressed, because all around is talking about quick Volusion support and their site. ( Because am also looking to migrate to another platform,  I am decision making process as well) While comparing, you can look at the post  Shopify and Bigcommerce here http://www.shopping-cart-migration.com/useful-articles/55-bigcommerce-useful-articles/5374-bigcommerce-vs-shopify-make-a-difficult-decision-simple- They offer nice idia to migrate. Just don’t know the BigCommerce pricing policy.

  14. GVZ says :

    You know, I am impressed, because all around is talking about quick Volusion support and their site. ( Because am also looking to migrate to another platform,  I am decision making process as well) While comparing, you can look at the post  Shopify and Bigcommerce here http://www.shopping-cart-migration.com/useful-articles/55-bigcommerce-useful-articles/5374-bigcommerce-vs-shopify-make-a-difficult-decision-simple- They offer nice idia to migrate. Just don’t know the BigCommerce pricing policy.

  15. ShaneJHayes says :

    Nice article. Very helpful. 
     
    Did you look at subscription functionality at all?
    Also, I love your domain name. My uncle had the same initials which is what drew me to the site at first.
    Shane

  16. seobrien says :

    @ShaneJHayes Thanks Shane.  I did but clarify how you mean; subscription to what?  In the context of a blog, newsletter/subscription forms, subscribing to products or categories, or a complete different meaning – subscribing to the platform?

  17. ShaneJHayes says :

    @seobrien @ShaneJHaye what I meant was an ability to sign up for a monthly subscription to physical good s. a la Birch Box.

  18. seobrien says :

    @ShaneJHayes Great question; I did not.  Let me know if you do the homework and we’ll throw it in here (attributed of course)

  19. Whitney says :

    Prostores? Did you wind up ever looking at them vs BigCommerce…just curious…

  20. SEO'Brien says :

    I have not Whitney but only for the reason that my world moved to WordPress. I have an audit of the major WP platforms forthcoming, if I can ever get around to it. If someone wants to take a crack at Prostores, I’ll get it in here with credit!

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