72 years old, white-haired, with thick-rimmed glasses and a cheery demeanor — Jane Snowball didn’t fit the stereotype picture of a tech trailblazer. And yet, in May 1984, Jane literally pushed a set of buttons on her TV remote, and set in motion one of the fastest-growing industries on earth: ecommerce.
With Amazon — the sector’s most well-known company — making nearly a billion dollars a day, and the entire earth dependent on it during parts of the last few years, ecommerce has picked up speed like an ever-growing snowball, continually gathering pace over the last 35 years, to reach almost every person on the planet.
Jane was a great grandmother, living in Gateshead, England. The town was the center of a trial in ‘home shopping’, run by an entrepreneurial inventor named Michael Aldrich. She had the choice of over 1,000 products, displayed directly on her TV, using a system Michael had pioneered called Videotex. She was purchasing from a retailer still known in many parts of the world today: Tesco.
Today, ecommerce is significantly more complex. Just as consumers have more choice, retailers themselves have a huge number of technology choices to make. Perhaps the largest among those is which core ecommerce platform technology to base their businesses on. This article looks at the ‘big three’ mid-market to enterprise platforms, providing an overview, and summary of each.
There is no shortage of ecommerce platforms to choose from, but it’s commonly accepted that Magento, Shopify, and BigCommerce are three of the biggest names in the industry. For a complete overview of the entire ecommerce replatform process, you can download a step by step guide from BigCommerce experts to walk you through the entire ecommerce replatform process.
For those of you ready to compare the ‘big three’ platforms, read on:
Head to Head: Shopify vs Magento vs BigCommerce
Whereas a few years ago the big head-to-head decision many ecommerce companies or retailers would make when thinking about platforms was Shopify vs Magento, today that question increasingly splits three ways to Shopify vs Magento vs BigCommerce.
This guide will take you through each platform at a high level, before moving on to pricing, hosting, ease of use, security, major pros and cons and for whom each is most suitable, and an overall wrap up.
Let’s dive into each of the three contenders:
Platform Comparison: Shopify vs Magento vs BigCommerce
Shopify hosts over a million stores, including ‘direct to consumer’ darlings Gymshark and Kylie Cosmetics.
Originally launched as a single online store called Snowdevil, Shopify pivoted to become a platform for others to launch their own stores many years ago and, in recent years, has grown hugely in volume of customers. Its traditional roots were put down among very small stores, with fairly basic needs, but over the years Shopify has added higher volume customers and a greater mix of features.
Shopify is a SaaS platform (software as a service), meaning you don’t buy the platform license and hosting separately. You pay them to run your store on their software, on their servers.
Whereas some SaaS platforms have grown to become almost as flexible as on-premise server solutions, Shopify still maintains tight control of many aspects of the platform, payments being a good example of this.
A small, simple Shopify store can be launched in days at very little cost. For something more complex, merchants may need to hire an agency to get started which can be more costly. Most Shopify sites run using a combination of the core platform, tweaks provided via theming, and bolt-on apps from third-party providers.
Shopify comes in 2 broad flavors:
- Shopify: from $29 per month, supporting businesses just starting out online.
- Shopify Plus: an Enterprise platform, powering sites from Lindt, Heinz, and Allbirds.
Magento’s past meanders through several eras. At one stage, it was a go-to platform for the very smallest shops right up to enterprise platforms for brands covering the world like The North Face. Magento was once owned by ebay, then later bought, taken private, and evolved into a second-generation platform known initially as Magento 2. It’s now owned by Adobe, which is partway into the journey of integrating it fully into their cloud of online services.
Magento is known for having a huge developer base, with over 300,000 coders across the world working on sites using the platform. Since its transition to Adobe, Magento has pushed upward targeting Enterprise businesses. It now comes in two distinct flavors: Magento Open Source (which is free, but often needs large amounts of support to keep going, and Magento Commerce (once known as Magento Enterprise). Magento Commerce also offers two options: On-Premise (where you purchase hosting provision yourself), and Commerce Cloud (hosted by Adobe).
Some older clients still use Magento 1. Support ended for this in mid-2020, and those remaining on the old system at that point were faced with the issue of whether to switch to a rival platform, keep going on an unsupported platform, or move to Magento 2 which was essentially a completely different platform. Most Magento-based stores heavily customize the platform to meet their distinct needs.
BigCommerce launched in 2009 with Eddie Machaalani and Mitchell Harper’s ambition and mission to solve online commerce for modern retailers.
Today BigCommerce has over 800 employees and powers online stores in over 120 countries. The platform is designed to truly grow scalably with their customers — a promise offered by various competitors but actually delivered by BigCommerce.
The platform offers 2 broad flavors:
- BigCommerce Essentials: for small and medium-sized businesses, with plans starting at $29.95 per month.
- BigCommerce Enterprise: a true enterprise platform, with clients including Ben & Jerry’s, Skullcandy, and Woolrich.
BigCommerce is a SaaS solution (Software-as-a-Service), but unlike some similar solutions, it does not offer the traditional model of SaaS. A key differentiator is that BigCommerce is an open SaaS platform provider, which provides merchants with the unique advantage of flexibility and customizability. With its open SaaS capabilities, BigCommerce also offers headless functionality, allowing you to build its ecommerce technology into any number of different content systems.
While it’s not everything, price is an extremely important factor in choosing an ecommerce platform. While all three platforms have an ‘enterprise’ offering, the total cost of each can be wildly different over the lifetime of your site. Paying attention to license costs, hosting costs, and some of the other ‘hidden’ costs that may crop up can really help your profitability over time.
Shopify: Affordable, with higher total cost of ownership.
From a pricing point of view, Shopify’s lowest plan starts out at $29. There is a version beneath that level, Shopify Lite, marketed at single-person-businesses, but Shopify doesn’t proactively offer it. For that you get access to Basic Shopify, including all of your hosting costs, as well as the software cost of the platform. It also includes access to Shopify POS Lite, meaning you can take in-person payments.
Shopify Plus, the enterprise edition of the platform, starts at around $2,000 per month. For that, you get the full platform and all hosting costs.
Like other platforms, there are standard credit card processing fees to be expected on top of the monthly platform fee. Shopify’s own payment provider (at the time of writing, this is powered by Stripe) and does not have transaction fees, but if you choose to use another payment provider there is a transaction fee, ranging anywhere from 0.5% to 2% for Shopify merchants based on their plan.
It’s worth mentioning here that some Shopify customers would add extra costs here: Firstly payment costs, which can add up for high volume sites. Secondly add-on costs. Whereas some other platforms are fully rounded based on core functionality, Shopify is a little like a mobile phone: In order to make the best use of it, you need to install various add on apps, many of which cost money.
It would not be uncommon for a Shopify store to be using dozens of apps, some costing nothing, some costing hundreds or even thousands per month on top of the core license and hosting fee. As a result, the ‘total cost of ownership’ of Shopify can be a lot higher than the list price.
Magento: Priced for Enterprise.
Magento has an ‘Open Source’ edition, which is essentially license-free.
The primary download page for Magento Open Source positions it like this:
“Magento Open Source eCommerce software delivers the features you need to build and grow a unique online store from the ground up. However, for those who need an all-in-one cloud solution that is optimized for Magento, easy to deploy, provides enhanced security, and is packed with additional integrated capabilities to accelerate sales, consider Magento Commerce.”
In other words, even Adobe (Magento’s owner) currently tries to steer website owners away from the Open Source package.
If you have a great in-house tech team with Magento experience or a highly trusted agency you’d happily partner with for life, Magento Open Source may be a good option for you.
The alternative is Magento Commerce. Pricing for this depends on several factors:
- Your revenue forecasts
- The number of storefronts you require (countries/languages)
- Your ability to negotiate
- Bandwidth required for your store(s)
For Enterprise customers setting up shop with Magento Commerce, the team will talk you through pricing, and put together a custom quote based on your situation and future plan. License terms tend to last two to three years, with annual payments, but can last longer which sometimes brings your price down.
Magento offers two hosting models: self-hosting, and Magento Cloud hosting. Many merchants choose to self-host with a different provider to allow for maximum control. Cloud Edition starts at $40,000 per year which of course includes both the license cost and the agreed-upon hosting costs. However, if you go over your usage limits, there can be overage fees on top of this.
Many merchants want maximum control so self hosting with a different provider tends to be a better option. I wouldn’t try and help Magento push that their hosting is great but more expensive.
We should mention that these are estimates. Whereas Shopify and BigCommerce are a little open about their fees, Magento strongly encourages you to speak directly to them about pricing.
BigCommerce: Affordable, with predictable costs
BigCommerce starts at $29 per month, with higher-tier plans at $79 and $299. Enterprise packages come in at similar prices to Shopify, albeit usually at a lower ceiling.
Merchants will experience standard credit card processing fees with BigCommerce and Shopify, but a key difference is that BigCommerce does not charge transaction fees on top of these. Shopify only offers zero transaction fees when a merchant uses Shopify Pay as their payment processor.
BigCommerce’s core platform includes many features that create a quick and intuitive user experience, for example, a drag-and-drop page builder tool. Unlike Magento, BigCommerce has made this tool available to all customers, and not just enterprise businesses. BigCommerce’s page builder tool also has an advantage over Shopify’s in that customizations can be made on a wide range of pages on a merchant’s site. For Shopify, this tool only allows a merchant to customize their home page.
If you’re looking for the most affordable offer with great functionality, BigCommerce may well be the solution.
Hosting on Shopify, Magento, and BigCommerce
Hosting is a key differentiator for ecommerce businesses. A fast, well-run hosting system keeps your store running smoothly, and customers happy. A flakey hosting package can result in customers leaving your site, security issues, and site outages. Here’s a look at how Shopify, Magento, and BigCommerce stack up:
Shopify is fully cloud-based. Pay your license fee each month, and all hosting costs are included. That’s useful as it means even spikes of millions of visits are included within one core price. Shopify’s cloud hosting is extremely fast, and ‘speed’ of the core platform is rarely a complaint across customers.
Magento: On-premise or Cloud
Magento’s primary hosting model is on-premise. That’s a term meaning that it literally runs on-site at its client businesses, on physical servers. In reality, the majority of on-premise Magento clients simply host with one of the large hosting providers. Though on-premise and self-hosting are often used interchangeably, the second scenario is an example of self-hosting.
Magento offers their own Cloud offering. This is a great way to simplify your suppliers; rather than dealing with a separate host and license provider, you simply deal with one source. The downside is it can be much more costly, particularly if you’re the type of business that simply wants hosting without great support needs. A merchant also has less control when using Magento’s hosting solution.
BigCommerce also offers purely cloud-based hosting. This is built on top of Google’s cloud infrastructure, which means it’s extremely fast and totally scalable. All costs are included within your plan, and therefore there are no surprises each month.
Ease of Use Across Platforms
We’ve covered the main features, and price, and hosting, but perhaps much more important: How easy is it to build your store on each? How easy is it to maintain and grow once you’re up and running? These are key to your success. The wrong match can drag your business down, the right match can fuel your growth over the next three to five years.
Shopify was built from the ground up to be intuitive for small businesses. The enterprise features have gradually been bolted on over the years through apps, but the intuitive nature of the core platform remains.
If you’re looking to run Shopify out of the box, with an off-the-shelf theme, it’s likely you’ll have little problem in getting to grips with its features, running your business smoothly. However, if you have more complex products or an extremely large catalog it will become more difficult to manage over time.
If you heavily customize it, using your own theme and adding features on top, then it becomes easier to hit snags. Particularly in areas related to the checkout, trying to go outside the bounds of the ‘Shopify’ way of doing things can lead to trouble later on.
In contrast to Shopify, Magento is a whole other beast when it comes to setting up and maintaining your platform. Magento was built for developers so there is a very steep learning curve and it’s almost impossible to have a Magento store without developer resources.
It’s unusual to run a Magento store of any size without a good amount of internal or external technical resources. Larger Magento sites often have tens of developers working on them constantly round the clock, with long development roadmaps, patches and updates, integration projects for extensions that may last weeks, and heavy regular QA testing.
If you have an agency or an in-house team, much of this can be smoothed, but for many businesses these are prices they pay to customize the platform to other business functions, or for very specific UX requirements.
BigCommerce: Easy to build.
BigCommerce neatly treads the path between Shopify and Magento. It’s intuitive to put together a store and begin to grow it; it’s intuitive to run and maintain it. Adding and amending products is straightforward, managing orders is simple.
As with Shopify, it has a straightforward theming architecture: You can choose from any of hundreds of themes, tweaking them to your needs, and be functioning at relatively little cost and time. Putting together a totally bespoke look tends to be cheaper, and quicker than Shopify, too. A Shopify launch project may start in the mid five figures with a larger agency, whereas with BigCommerce a similar level of agency may be half that amount.
Even advanced features on the platform such as building customer groupings for wholesale and retail customers, or building price lists to set prices for different groups or currencies is easy to get a handle on.
If you’re choosing to make use of its headless features to offer commerce functionality through another CMS, it connects easily on the backend, allowing you to continue using platform features you already know well on the frontend.
Comparing Platform Security
Finally, we come to security. There’s no worse feeling than laying awake at night wondering if your customers’ data is secure. Cyber crime is a real threat, and it’s worth being fully on top of
Shopify is a fully SaaS solution, with more than a million stores running on the platform. They’ve tightened up even further over the last few years on the payments area, further increasing an already secure area. The platform is fully PCI compliant, with regular monitoring & network testing.
Magento: Security is a shared responsibility.
Magento continually releases patches to cover issues, albeit these are infrequently related to security issues. The merchant is responsible for installing these. Adobe offers a Security Scan tool for Magento Commerce customers.
Magento is an almost fully customizable platform. As such, security is largely up to the competence of your team or your agency.
BigCommerce: Very secure.
As with Shopify, BigCommerce is a full software-as-a-service platform and offers SSL as standard, DDoS protection, and level 1 PCI compliance. One key difference is that BigCommerce is ISO certified.
Should You Use Magento, Shopify, or BigCommerce?
Having read through this, you should now have a picture of how the three stack up. Each has its pros and cons, and each is the right fit for a different type of business.
Magento: Larger companies with significant budgets.
Magento is designed as an enterprise platform. If you approach their sales teams with a smaller site, they will happily tell you your business is a fit, but you may be overreaching. The most successful Magento sites have teams of developers working on them, constant testing and monitoring, regular security updates, and regular maintenance.
Shopify: Just starting out, or with a defined path.
Shopify is perfect for smaller businesses wanting to take the first step into online selling, or for brand-heavy businesses with a significant budget to invest and the will to spend extra on extensions and add-ons. If you don’t mind using Shopify’s preferred payment gateway and have a simple catalog, then Shopify is a great fit. If you would like to be able to choose your own payment processor, expect to pay transaction fees in addition to the standard credit card processing fees that will have to be paid on any platform.
BigCommerce: Brands ready to scale.
BigCommerce is ideal for those looking for a growth path over the next few years. With a simple path from smaller sizes to enterprise levels of revenue, intuitive features, predictable costs, and excellent security features, it’s the right choice for brands ready to scale.
Overall, BigCommerce aims to accelerate growth, not complexity. At present they’re offering 4 months free for those migrating from Magento.
In summary: The three big platforms of the current day offer exceptional features for brands and retailers, excellent scalability, and a wide range of customer experience options.
If you’re at the upper end, with complex requirements, and legacy system integration needs, Magento may be for you. If you’re just starting out, or have a well-defined path and are happy to pay fees for payment flexibility and the knowledge and budget for extensions, Shopify may be the right path. If you’re a brand ready to scale, with predictable costs, then BigCommerce is likely the option you’re looking for.