The Best E-Commerce Platform For Your Business: A Woocommerce v. Magento Showdown

In your search for the best e-commerce platform, there’s no doubt you’ve come across both Magento and Woocommerce. These incredibly robust software platforms are built for housing online catalogs. Both have matured to a point where, feature by feature, they offer nearly identical functionality.

Both platforms can produce the same user experience. Both have easy-to-use administration interfaces. Both can be extended to support all sorts of custom applications.

So if you’re at a stage where you’re trying to choose the best e-commerce platform for your business, how are you going to decide between these two? If you don’t have time to read the next 2000 words, here’s the TL;DR bullet points:

  • A Woocommerce store costs far less to develop, maintain, and host than an equivalent Magento store.
  • Magento is better suited for large-scale catalogs of a million products or more.
  • Magento is better at integrating with the operations of a large company.
  • Woocommerce & WordPress are better tools for marketing.

Choosing the Best E-Commerce Platform

For a deeper dive, keep reading. There are a lot of points to consider that could lead you to an easy decision …

Cost Factors

Magento and Woocommerce are both open source software platforms, and to grossly over-simplify, that means they are free.

The exception is the “Enterprise” version of Magento, which is first to receive new features, gets priority on security updates, and comes with direct support from the Magento development team. But unless you’re in a website budget range of over $1M, you’re most likely going to be working with the free “community” edition of Magento.

Woocommerce doesn’t have a pricey Enterprise edition, it’s an add-on for the WordPress CMS, and the latest and greatest will always be 100% free out-of-the-box. But, although Woocommerce and Magento Community Edition [MCE] do not require any licensing fees, there will be setup costs, additional plugins to purchase, and possibly even monthly fees associated with 3rd-party features. You’ll also need somewhere to host your e-commerce site, that is, you’ll have to rent space somewhere for your website to live. In each of these requirements, the costs can be wildly different between the two platforms depending on your needs, so let’s just start with the most obvious.

Setup Costs

There’s a slim chance that a person lacking any web development experience could set up a Woocommerce site without having to hire anyone. Basically, you’d need to find hosting from a company that provides WordPress-specific solutions, then you’d need to buy and install a Woocommerce-compatible website design (“theme”) from a marketplace or theme developer, and finally configure the site to talk to a payment processor – which can be as simple as plugging in your PayPal email address.

But if you need any custom features installed, if you want some non-standard shipping rules, if you want to change the graphic design or optimize your website for search engines, you’ve reached the limit of DIY capability. Actually, you may have already made things worse.

Without an expert to set up the website for you, it’s likely that you’ve made things more difficult on the people you’re going to hire to make upgrades. Anybody can buy a turbo for their car from eBay, but would you ever try to install it without the right tools or a detailed knowledge of your engine? If you try anyway, you’ll still end up needing a mechanic, who will have to charge time for fixing what you broke.

It’s really the same with websites. There are certain plugins that should be avoided, security enhancements that always should be made, and SEO considerations that need to influence very structure of your site. Often, repairing and optimizing a website that was built incorrectly can cost very close to just starting over and building it from scratch. In the long run, it’s possible that going the DIY route will end up costing you more money than hiring a qualified agency from the start.

That said, the ease-of-installation and abundance of free and inexpensive enhancements will translate to a far lower set-up cost from a Woocommerce-familiar developer than if you decide to use Magento Community Edition. Magento cannot be setup by an Excel-savvy marketing manager. It really shouldn’t even be set up by most web developers. Magento stores are best developed and maintained by Magento specialists, who do not come cheap.

Maintenance Costs

Cost differences don’t end there. Ongoing maintenance of an MCE store is also going to require a Magento expert. Minor updates and security patches are sometimes performed automatically in the background, but for major upgrades, a series of testing protocols should be followed. Someone familiar with the design templates and custom plugin code should be overseeing each patch for ongoing compatibility with new feature releases.

A Woocommerce store should also go through the same kind of testing series with each major WordPress and Woocommerce plugin update, but your pool of available labor for running a Woocommerce upgrade test is greater by a factor of many large numbers. The process is so simple, your unpaid intern can probably handle an upgrade QA, at least until a problem is found. That said, there is a pretty big caveat to consider:

In the ideal world, where you hired a qualified WordPress developer to build your Woocommerce store, develop upgrade-ready theme code, and properly implement your needed custom features, website upgrades are a simple, stress-free process. But with each random plugin from the WordPress plugin directory added to the site, the upgrade process becomes a little more complicated and risky.

If you purchased a theme from one of the popular WordPress theme stores (Themeforest, Envato, etc.), your chances of having an upgrade-ready store design falls dramatically. And if the development team you hired didn’t do their job according to WordPress and Woocommerce best practices, again, the risk of something catastrophic happening during an upgrade is multiplied.

This is a fairly hefty consideration against Woocommerce to keep in mind during the decision-making process. WordPress and Woocommerce are so easy to set up, the bar for becoming an “expert” is so low, that practically anyone who ever took a high school computer class will be trying to sell you their services.

Magento is a much more complicated piece of software with an exponentially higher barrier of entry. So if somebody has a resume or portfolio that includes a successful MCE store, you’re probably safe trusting them with your money and website. Unfortunately for you, it will be a lot of money.

Hosting & Site Speed

The last big chunk out of your budget is going to be in website hosting. Neither Woocommerce or Magento are going to be cheap to run, and even though a lot of places advertise hosting that could technically run either store at less then $20/month, it would be like trying to pull a camper with a goat. That won’t be fun for anyone.

For Woocommerce, one generally needs to look for hosting specifically optimized to handle high-volume traffic WordPress sites, with servers running PHP 7 that implement object caching, provide access to a CDN, and, ideally, include features like automatic backups and a synchronized staging site. (Why manage these things yourself when somebody else can do it?) There are a few excellent options out there around the $100/month price point.

MCE, more-or-less, has the same hosting requirements, but the highly complex nature of the codebase often results in extremely slow websites running on the same hardware as a similarly sized Woocommerce store. For comparison, on my personal testing environment, the sample Woocommerce store has an average front-end page-load speed of under 1 second per page, with administration pages loading in 3-5 seconds. On the same environment, the Magento sample store takes an average of 10 seconds per front-end page-load, with admin pages taking between 15 to 60 seconds to load. That’s not only frustrating for you and your customers, it’ll kill your search engine ranking.

If dedicated hosting (that is, you either physically own or rent an entire computer somewhere that houses your website) isn’t a viable option for your MCE store, you’re going to want to find a “managed” Magento hosting provider – a company that advertises servers specifically tuned for Magento sites, and that support the raw processing power required by the MCE codebase.

Yes, if you Google “magento hosting” right now, you’re going to find providers offering to run your site for under $50/month (I saw one even as low as $4), but again, these companies are just providing a goat to pull your camper: expect page loads of around a minute per page. The legitimate organizations offering specialized Magento hosting start at about $100/month, providing enough power to service a couple hundred customers a month, and a couple hundred products (at most). If you have thousands or millions of SKUs, your needs simply are not going to be met by any hosting service that costs less than $300/month, and likely, you’re looking at much more.

From start to finish and every day after, Magento is going to cost a lot more, requiring anywhere between 2 to 10 times more budget than a comparable Woocommerce store. But is the cost difference worth it? Does Magento provide enough value to justify the time and expense required to run it?

Operational Competence

In the past, we might look at the number of products in your database to decide which to go with; 1,000 products used to be an easy dividing line – fewer than a thousand, go to Woocommerce, over a thousand, go MCE. But Woocommerce has matured to the point where, with robust enough hosting, it can easily sweat 100,00 SKUs. The dividing line hasn’t disappeared yet, instead it’s moved to a very fuzzy million, but the reason for the line existing at all is based on the inevitable complexity of large catalogs.

No company has a million different versions of one product. Likely, if you’re sitting on a million or more unique products, they are grouped into hundreds of categories, variations, attribute selections, and applications. Your company almost certainly needs the website integrated with accounting software, to communicate with shipping logistics, and to synchronize with an external stock database. By design, Magento’s complexity is simply better suited to handle all of these needs. Woocommerce is the best choice if letting the website take over your daily operations is a possibility, whereas Magento was made to fit in as just another piece of your business’s operational puzzle.

That isn’t to say that Woocommerce can’t be wedged in to fit that role, but in doing so, a lot of custom code is going to be required and the cost differences between the two platforms are going to get a lot slimmer. Might as well start off using the right tool for the job.

Beyond E-commerce

Your website often will wear a few different hats. It should not only fulfill the needs of an online store, but should be a big piece of your marketing efforts – it may need a blog, it may need to communicate with social networking platforms, it may need a resource library, it may need some kind of interactive showroom, or it may need any number of business-specific features. In this case, Woocommerce is the clear winner because of the platform it runs on: WordPress.

WordPress is the most widely used content management system on the internet, running over 25% of websites online today. With such popularity comes lots of options for customization and feature add-ons. It’s a very easy platform to write code for, and whatever your company needs the website to do, there’s probably already a plugin to do it.

This can be dangerous in some ways, a lot of very badly written and insecure plugins have flooded the marketplace in recent years, but with an expert guiding your development, many feature requests can be accomplished in a fraction of the time necessary to develop an equivalent for Magento. Again, it does come down to cost, but savings on development means budget can be redirected to marketing efforts that will bring people to your store.

But Wait, There’s More!

Even if you’ve considered all these elements, there isn’t always a clear winner between two of the best e-commerce platforms. There are a lot of factors to consider that could be entirely unique to your business. So give us a call! We’ll listen to your needs, and help you find a platform that will most effectively run your store.

Just, please, don’t go to Shopify.