UPDATE: It’s been a while since this article was initially written, and I’ve been incredibly impressed by Shopify’s added features. Maybe they read this article! Ultimately, I can now say that Shopify is my very favorite eCommerce solution. I’ve updated my reason below.
Of all of the self-managed custom eCommerce platforms, I’ve whittled my list down to Highwire and Shopify…. So, those are the only two I’m mentioning here, but I’d love to hear thoughts on other online store solutions. Feel free to comment below.
I’ve just spent about 480 hours comparing the two custom eCommerce platforms side-by-side. Ironically, I began this exercise to prove that Highwire was the right direction for one of my clients. I’m here to tell you, folks, that Shopify is DANG IMPRESSIVE.
…(Highwire Leads Out of the Gate)
Bottom line, Highwire is a really strong platform that costs about one half as much as Shopify. So…. a strong argument for test driving them first.
Highwire offers a GREAT deal. The monthly fee is substantially less ($29.95 for their most popular plan) for unlimited bandwidth and storage, up to 10,000 products and NO transaction fees. Included in the monthly fee are all sorts of built in features, a killer Facebook App, a gift certificate feature, and a deep and impressive admin dashboard for managing products and customers. The equivalent plan at Shopify is $59 per month, only offers up to 2,500 products a month, unlimited bandwidth but only 5GB of File Storage, and taxes you 1% per transaction.
There are a lot of key features built into Highwire that you have to create separately in Shopify using their 3rd party developer App store (which range from free to several hundreds of dollars in additional monthly fees). The Facebook Fan Page on Highwire is a home run. With a simple set up, the store creates a tab on your fan page where a complete transaction can occur…. I call this your Golden Egg. Shopify offers a Facebook Fan Page in the App Store, and it is free, but you can’t sell all of your products on it.
UPDATE: While Highwire still remains slightly less expensive, Shopify has since created a starter account for just $14/month! They also made their next level account ($29/month) a lot more enticing.
…(Shopify Quickly Catches Up)
From what I can tell, Highwire nails all the important features for the user-friendly experience. Processing transactions is an intuitive, seamless process. It offers an effective gift certificate option (which Shopify does NOT offer). The checkout is clear and the sharing tools obvious. There isn’t any customization possible for the secured checkout pages, other than to add a logo, but this didn’t bother me terribly.
So… Shopify has this App Store where 3rd party developers (much like Apple) can provide single features to their hearts’ content. Just like WordPress plugins, there are great options (sometimes too many), and you have to be careful to read small print on pricing, that the style can be incorporated seamlessly into your website, and that customer support is possible should you need it (Shopify does not offer support for Apps).
The App store at Shopify lets you customize the style of the checkout slightly more, which could strongly influence the user experience for your specific eCommerce needs, and then would be worth the hassle of installing Apps to and fro.
Customer Support Comparison
…(Neck and Neck)
Highwire isn’t easy to reach by phone, but their iChat system is phenomenal. I’ve always reached someone immediately, and they give me great answers and links to offer additional support. I’ve also found their developer team very accessible and genuinely open to customer feedback.
Shopify is hard to reach via iChat (always offline when I check), but excellent on the phone. I had to wait quite a long time (I was notified I was number 13 in the que), but once first in line, a really cool chick named Shannon cheerfully helped answer my LONG list of questions. She followed up with an email that I could respond to directly anytime I need. I was impressed.
UPDATE: Shopify’s customer service has proven to be better and better over time. It’s now phenomenal, and I would say this puts Highwire a few steps behind. Shopify is 24/7 live human contact via phone or chat. Can’t beat that.
Product Management Comparison
…(Looks Like a Tie)
These seem to be fairly comparable… Highwire might have the edge here, and for the price, they really do kick butt with a stellar admin panel. But, Shopify’s Apps once again come into the equation to offer exceptional customer and product management tools.
UPDATE: I’d have to say now that Shopify’s integration with payment, shipping and fulfillment companies makes it easier to run your store products. Highwire isn’t bad, but fulfillment integration remains an issue.
Social Sharing and SEO Comparison
…(Highwire Has Great SEO, But Shopify Pulls Ahead in the Category)
Highwire’s social sharing tools are fairly moderate- just the simple sharing buttons placed on the Product Description pages. Their SEO is great, allowing each and every product page to be uniquely optimized. But, if social interaction is the priority, I think they could offer MUCH better sharing tools.
This is where Shopify shines, and may just take the edge. I’m happy to spend a few extra bucks a month that will create my social universe, and they provide the Apps I would want. Great sharing tools, great user monitoring, excellent analytics that dig deep…
Appearance: Customization Comparison
…(Shopify Crosses the Finish Line and Takes the Victory Lap)
Highwire’s theme store is not terrible, but not very exciting. Shopify, on the other hand, had me drooling immediately with their theme templates (ranging from FREE to almost $200) and these offer more features (like including a blog and being fully responsive) and feel more “current”. As a designer, I’m drawn to the Shopify themes more, and they are friendlier to edit and customize than Highwire.
For me, Shopify really has the edge here. Because the themes are better, less customization is required. As a designer, it is easy to provide custom design and the code is very accessible. Both platforms are do-able, Shopify just seems a bit easier to work with. That means I can play and produce more in less time, which translates to better value for the client.
Custom eCommerce Conclusion: Can’t Lose
…(Shopify Wins, But Highwire Gets a Strong Second)
If budget is your priority, Highwire is an EXCELLENT custom eCommerce solution to consider. If you are able to afford a higher monthly expense, Shopify provides a higher quality product (and charges you for it).
To figure out which custom eCommerce solution would be best for you, you’d want to select the platform that would best fit your projected monthly sales volume… but you also want to build the store that will promote growth (“Build it and they will come!”). Like I mentioned, as I prepare to design a really cool custom eCommerce self-managed site for an amazing client, I am surprisingly leaning towards Shopify. I’ll be sure to report any challenges I face. Wish me luck!
UPDATE: I can report now that I am extremely happy with Shopify’s growth and progress. They continue to improve, and truly listen to the needs of their customers…. US. Take a look at my own Shopify store, featuring my video and book!