This post was originally written July 2014. Since then we have developed and maintained numerous WooCommerce and Magento sites. The following is an updated version of the original post with almost 2 additional years of experience under our belts.
For many small business owners the most important decision when building an E-commerce site is determining which platform to use. There are numerous products and services available, but from our experience the two best open-source solutions available today are WooCommerce and Magento. While both options are widely used and have large user and development communities, they are very different creatures. The choice of platform at the outset will have a significant impact on the business, so we have broken down some key differences based on our extensive experience with each in order to help you choose which platform best suits your needs.
Number of Products and Complexity of Site
WooCommerce, a popular and well-developed WordPress plugin, is a great solution for businesses with a limited number of products. It is very intuitive and easy to set up (it uses the same well-known administrative system as WordPress) and has all the basics needed to start selling: products (with optional attributes and sale prices), categories, a persistent shopping cart, basic shipping methods and rates, coupons, PayPal Express payments, and configurable tax rates and notification email addresses.
Once you get beyond the basic E-commerce functions, WooCommerce will require additional plugins and/or custom development will become necessary. For example, will you have separate customer levels with separate pricing for each? Do you want to run a “Buy 2 get 1 Free” special for a product during a holiday weekend? Do you want to use the USPS API to obtain accurate shipping rates? If so, each of these will require an additional plugin with some small additional cost (typically $99 or less). Like WordPress itself, there are numerous plugin developers out there, and not all plugins are created equal and require due diligence and research before using.
Magento is very powerful “out of the box”. It has the aforementioned features not available to WooCommerce by default plus many more. Possibly the most powerful feature of Magento is its native ability to run multiple stores through one consolidated back end. For example, you can have an apparel store and a shoe store on different URLs and entirely different themes, yet all products, customers, and orders for both stores will appear on the same back end, simplifying your store management. Furthermore, Magento is very advanced in its ability to organize and filter products through attributes and stores. This feature is extremely useful when a store has thousands of products with variations. Magento is also packaged with SOAP and RESTful APIs to integrate with an inventory management or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, allowing it to become an element in a much larger ecosystem.
This complexity comes at a price. Compared to WooCommerce, Magento has a much steeper learning curve. It typically takes substantially more time to understand the system and manage products prior to launching the site. Magento’s extensions are generally more expensive than WooCommerce extensions, often running hundreds of dollars each. Magento’s technical complexity makes it challenging to customize and develop, incurring higher development costs compared to similar work in WooCommerce.
For many small businesses looking to simply sell something on the Internet without much hassle or expense, WooCommerce is a great solution. With that said, some businesses with more complex requirements begin with WooCommerce and quickly grow out of it. In these situations, it is easier to begin with a more robust platform like Magento then to try to migrate from one platform to another after the site is active.
As a small and efficient plugin in a very efficient Content Management System (CMS) platform, WooCommerce is very light on server loads and takes up little disk space. As such, it is possible to run a WooCommerce site on a “bare-bones” hosting platform that only costs a few dollars a month.
Magento’s complexity requires significantly more server power and space. It is very common for even modest Magento sites to eat up several GB of disk space, and the complex operations tends to cause significant server loads. If you are considering using Magento, it pays to do your homework and choose a hosting provider who offers great performance and large amounts of disk space. We have seen Magento installations on budget hosting providers become maddeningly slow, so it pays to spend some extra money on a high-performance hosting provider. Nexcess in particular is a great Magento host with outstanding customer support at reasonable prices.
While both Magento and WooCommerce are free initially, the long-term costs vary considerably. WooCommerce allows for less expensive hosting, less expensive plugins, and generally lower development costs. Unless you stick to Magento’s out of the box functionality, costs can escalate quickly due to expensive extensions, higher development costs, and generally more expensive hosting requirements. The trade off is that Magento is much better suited to handle the needs of medium and large businesses; running a shop with thousands of products and dozens of plugins to extend functionality on WooCommerce may prove to be a frustrating experience.
Integration with CMS and/or Blog
Another important consideration is whether or not the site is strictly an E-commerce retail site or a an informational site that also has an E-commerce component. For instance, you may be using the bulk of the site to “sell” a product with the opportunity for the site visitor to buy that product. A huge advantage of WooCommerce is its ability to leverage the tried-and-true powers of WordPress to create a content-rich site with minimal fuss. WooCommerce integrates seamlessly into WordPress, giving you the ability to use the intuitive menu structure, set up and publish blog posts, create content with its easy-to-use CMS, and take advantage of the almost limitless plugins available to make your site do practically anything. For example, in addition to your products you may run training events that would use an Events Management plugin, and a forum for customers to discuss the best ways to use your products.
For all of Magento’s substantial E-commerce strengths, its CMS is nowhere near as well developed as WordPress, and creating a custom menu structure is substantially more challenging than the well-loved WordPress drag and drop user interface. An extension is required to even establish a blog in Magento, whereas WordPress was created originally to publish blogs.
What is the Best Choice?
While both platforms have their merits, it essentially comes down to your business model. If you are running a small business with a modest budget and simply want to be able to sell a limited range of products ASAP, WooCommerce is definitely the way to go. Medium-sized businesses with a large number of products and greater financial resources are better off using Magento, and in some cases (such as requiring multiple stores controlled through a single admin interface) require Magento. Small businesses that anticipate more complex needs for the future (an increasingly large and complex product line, multiple storefronts, integration with an ERP, etc.) should consider Magento as well since it is far, far easier to stay with one platform than to migrate once you realize WooCommerce no longer meets your requirements.
While this post just scratches the surface, hopefully it is useful to you as a starting point. Questions? We can help you make the right decision for you business. Give us a call at 971-645-4352 or use the contact form to the right.