Transitioning Your Site Between eCommerce Platforms

Transitioning Your Site Between eCommerce Platforms

In this interview I talk with Patrick Garman from Mindsize to share with us his own experiences and what he has learned from helping many clients through this transition. He helps us with:

  • Clarifying what it means to use a platform or plugin for your online store
  • Some of the reasons online store owners make this transition
  • The challenges of moving from an eCommerce platform to a WordPress plugin, using WooCommerce and Shopify as examples
  • The challenges of moving from an WordPress eCommerce plugin to a platform, using the same examples
  • Why developers on both sides are adamant about their own choice, but are they becoming more open-minded for their clients’ sake?
  • Patrick’s largest challenge when working with a client on this kind of a transition
  • What Patrick has experienced with the recent update of WooCommerce 3.0 and his tips on hitting that update button

In a nutshell, what are the pros and cons of using a platform or a plugin?

Patrick: I think that two of the big players in the industry right now are Shopify and WooCommerce, which are all fairly well-known. Big stores and small stores are using them both. The real big difference is that Shopify is a platform. It’s not something you need to have a server for. You don’t need to update it. It’s got a whole team of developers and operations engineers running behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly. You just put your products there and sell. But with WooCommerce, you have total control of the entire platform. You do have to host it, you do have to manage it a bit more closely. But no matter what you want to do, you can do it. It’s just a plugin on WordPress, which is free, and ust like WordPress, it lets you do whatever you’d like.

Why do people end up switching?

Bob: Now, we’re talking apples and oranges here obviously. Because no doubt there are a lot of differences. Before we get into the challenges, which can be huge, what are some of the top reasons—we’ll just use WooCommerce and Shopify that people go from WooCommerce to Shopify or from Shopify to WooCommerce? Why do people end up switching?

Patrick: It goes both ways. Both of them have their pros and cons. I worked a lot more with WooCommerce, more recently I’ve worked a lot with Shopify, but a lot of people who are moving from WooCommerce to Shopify, it’s usually to get away from the headache that I usually associate with WooCommerce, where you are a mom and pop shop and you don’t have an administrative assistant sitting right next to you to run your store with you. You just want to sell your products. You know how to make this product and it is awesome and it’s great, and everyone wants to buy it. But you don’t want to deal with the store site. Something like Shopify allows you to just build your store and sell your products. You focus on your product and your business and you’re not longer worrying, is my site online, is this updated WooCommerce updated, like will the new 3.0 take it down? Maybe it took your store down, so now you have to go fix it or hire someone to fix it. It’s a lot more hands-off.

Maybe the fees are too expensive and you want to get to something you have more control over and less cost outlay. Sometimes it’s, you want this feature that you just can’t do on Shopify. Because it’s a platform and you don’t have control over where that platform goes. Tomorrow they could decide to pit their whole business and do something completely different that doesn’t align with your own business goals. Something like WooCommerce, because you can control it, you actually can decide how that platform is going to work for you. Extend it or pull it back as needed.

Using WooCommerce as an example, what are the challenges going from a platform to WordPress?

Patrick: Sure. Because you no longer have a full company of engineers and operations sys admins running that platform for you, you take your store and you go to Bluehost and you decide you’re going to host it there. You’re going to run your store. You now control that. It’s your responsibility to keep your store online. Think of it like a mall. Malls have security and everyone who keeps everything going, versus just a store on the side of the street. You have a bit more responsibility to keep your store secure, after hours, because you don’t have a big building around you keeping everything up and running. You just need to make sure that you are aware of how to manage your updates, what am I going to do if my store goes down? If I get a lot of traffic and it hurts my store, what are my plans for that? You don’t need to think about that on a platform.

And the challenges you see going from the WooCommerce plugin on WordPress to Shopify?

Patrick: The big one that I see most often and I actually was just chatting with someone yesterday about, is that lack of control of having ultimate say in how your store runs. On WooCommerce you might have customized discount promos or customized shipping options, where you spend a certain amount or buy a specific product. Maybe that one specific product gets free shipping and has a slight discount also. These things are not simple to do on a platform. 

But I believe that on Shopify, to do that stuff, you have to be on their plus level account, which essentially means you’re paying somewhere in a range of 2,000 dollars a month, just to get these certain features, to do customized shipping options, that are very dynamic rather than, for example, fixed rates of table rate shipping. It’s just that feature issue. I must know if I’m doing this one custom thing on my store before I decide I’m moving to that platform, I have to know how I’m going to do that special thing, if it’s a requirement.

Should developers be helping their clients think through this decision?

Bob: I know that on both sides of the community, there are a lot of people who are very open and say “Hey, whatever works for you.” Then there are those who, no matter what you say, will not agree that it’ll be good to move from one to the other. I guess that people are starting to think that through more, and thinking, like you, “Hey, I’ve got to make the customer happy,” You work on both these platforms and you’re making sure they’re going in the right direction. Do you think more developers are actually starting to grasp that and not be so one-sided?

Patrick: I hope so. I just moved down to Texas recently. A really good comparison is trucks. You have people who no matter what happens, they know the brand of truck they want. That’s what they’re going to do. Just like politics. Everyone chooses sides and they just stick to their guns, no matter what. Every industry, it’s the same thing. But within this space, say I decided I only want to build WooCommerce sites. I would be hurting myself if I didn’t at least know about the other platforms.

If a customer comes to me and says, “I want this WooCommerce site, but I’m also looking at Shopify. Can we talk through that and see what works best for my business?” Then I would like to be able to have good conversation, where I know what I’m talking about with them, of these are the reasons Shopify would help you, these are the reasons it would hurt you. These are the reasons WooCommerce would help and hurt you. Let’s figure out what works best.

Rather than, and some people do this, they just hear WooCommerce sucks, Shopify sucks and they decide they are going to work on just this one platform. That’s no good for anyone. I know there are people who are opening their eyes a bit more and hopefully, as I talk to them about differences between the platforms, they can see what works best for the client’s store or the store owner.

Bob: That’s exactly what I hoped to hear. I hope the same thing, because I know that I’d written a blog post on Shopify on my blog, and somebody came in … I had to just chuckle. They said, “Bring in Shopify and it’s like inviting the devil.” I just had to smile at that one.

Patrick: Yeah. You can look at it both ways. You can have a Shopify blog and go say the same exact thing about WooCommerce. Each side, they both say they are going to nickel and dime you to death or charge you to death for everything, which is fine, because each platform has their ways they do that. Shopify will have their transaction fees or you can get away from the transactions fees if you use their special payment gateway service, but then you’re paying the transaction fee in the payment gateway. Up until recently you had to pay for a higher level play just to be able to have an option of having USPS and UPS and all those rates automatically calculate on the fly, rather that having fixed rates shipping. On the other hand, WooCommerce, is a free plug-in but  you’ve got to pay for your shipping plugin in your payment gateway, the special coupon plugin that you want, your service that’s going to send the emails afterwards. It’s just funny seeing them say things like that, when they’re doing the exact same thing on their platform in a slightly different way.

What has been one of your most challenging projects?

Bob: From the different jobs you’ve done, the different projects, can you give us an example of one of your more challenging projects? You don’t need to share who it was or anything, but it came to this transition and what those challenges were?

Patrick: It definitely comes back to feature parity and planning for specific features. A lot of people, they get annoyed by this, but you come to a website, it pops up and it says, “Hey, join our email list and you get a free coupon.” That’s very common and everyone gets a little annoyed at it, but also says, “Yeah, but it’s the best way to get your email list to grow.” I’m not a marketer so I don’t know for sure. In Shopify, as an example, if you’re moving from WooCommerce to Shopify, to get access to the discounts API and point, which is how you programmatically create discounts and coupons on the fly, you have to be on that plus level plan.

For most stores that are going to be thinking about this, they’re not paying that 2,000 dollars a month or higher to be on that plus level plan. You sign up for the newsletter, you send that user a specific coupon code that’s attached to them, that’s not possible in there anymore. Some people get around that by just having a single coupon that’s sent to every single user that’s always the same. It’s planning for the future, and if you have any sort of feature, making sure you know how you’re going to do an apples-to-oranges comparison: take your apple and turn it into an orange. That’s usually the biggest roadblock.

What’s the word on the WooCommerce 3.0 update? 

Patrick: Depends on who you talk to. I’ve known 3.0, which actually was 2.7, was coming for a while. I’ve been doing my part to try and share. This is coming, here’s the development blog where they talk about it. Here’s data one for RCU one, star testing your stores, it costs you zero dollars to test your store, 15 minutes of your time to spin up a dead site and just hit update and see what breaks. As usual, some people did it and it worked great for them, because they saw an issue that broke, or nothing broke and they were able to update their live site and it went just fine. Others just didn’t have time to test, didn’t know yet that they need to test and their stores, some of them are sitting down right now, where they are unable to take orders, because of updating a live site without any testing.

This comes back to where, if you’re on a platform, this is not a concern at all. But if you’re on a self-hosted solution like WooCommerce, you have to be aware of these issues. They could pop up and take your whole store down. If people are relying on you for their income and you don’t take the time to do this preparation, you could be down. There’re some people who may not lose much because they’re not doing many sales yet, but there are stores that are likely going to have these issues, that could lose thousands of dollars. Just because of not knowing. I’ve seen this a number of times. I’ve been, like I said, working with WooCommerce for a long time now. I remember being on the WooCommerce support team earlier on and I think it was when version 1.6 came out, when all the template files were r- architectures themes at the time and still now will just copy over that template folder into their theme and who cares if it breaks?

So many stores were down just with broken templates, because they didn’t have the chance to test or didn’t test at that time. If anyone takes anything away from this podcast, I think the number one piece should be just plan for all your contingencies. Platform or self-hosted, make sure that you know what can happen in the future and how you can avoid it, how you can plan around it, what to do if your site’s going to go down. Because the one thing that will help you to get going faster, if that happens, is having that plan in place.

Bob: I bet you miss those days on support, don’t you?

Patrick: I traded in one fire fighting job for another one. Going from dealing with so many people through support to working with stores directly and working full-time for a company, where my job is to monitor the site and keep the site online. It’s made it very clear to me what needs to be done. I actually gave a talk at word camp Dallas-Fort Worth last year. I believe I’ll be doing it again at a few other wordcamps coming in the next few years. It’s essentially titled “How to prepare for and deal with your website imploding.” The whole purpose of it is for site owners all the way up to developers to plan for this. There’s nothing worse than launching a sale and within two minutes your entire site blowing up in your face and having no way to save it.

Bob: You can’t say this enough. I did coaching and training for six, seven years in this WordPress room and part of that was an e-commerce too. You can’t say it enough. Backing up, moving it into a staging site. All these things to prepare yourself, testing, testing, testing. Sometimes I feel like I told the same people this over and over, maybe after three of four huge failures, they finally caught on.

Patrick: Sometimes it takes for things to crash in front of them and impact them for them to realize, this is what I need to do going forward. Because I don’t like that pain and I don’t want to feel it again.

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