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What is Shopify? The ecommerce website builder explained

Shopify can help you create, launch and run a successful online store. But how exactly does it work?

Shopify is a subscription service that helps you sell products, online and offline. It’s best known as a website builder, but Shopify helps you sell via whatever channel you choose, including social media and marketplaces such as Etsy and Amazon. You even get a card reader for collecting payments in person. Then, as your business grows, Shopify has all the tools you need to scale.

Shopify’s prices are higher than less businessy website builders like Wix. However, the most popular plan – normally £19/mth – is currently just £1/mth for the first three months, after three days free. So there’s never been a better time to explore Shopify.

We explore Shopify’s plans in much more detail in our guide to Shopify pricing. In this article, we’ll focus on how Shopify works, what you can do with it, and what it can do for your growing business or side-hustle.

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How does Shopify work?

Shopify is a complete ecommerce platform. As well as letting you build your own online store, it also works as an all-in-one business dashboard where you can manage an inventory of items to sell, create listings, publish those listings in various places (eBay, your own website and so on), then collect payments and organise shipping.

Your data is stored and hosted in the cloud, so you can access your Shopify dashboard from any device, whenever you want. Security, technical maintenance and software updates are all handled for you by Shopify, so you’re free to get on with the creative and business side of things. Your inventory is unlimited, so you don’t have to worry about maxing out any usage limits.

This easy scalability makes Shopify an excellent choice for beginners and growing businesses alike. Many sellers build an online store using Shopify’s built-in website builder, then add (and remove) other sales channels such as eBay, Amazon and even a bricks-and mortar shop, as and when they want.

Business tools like sales tracking, payment processing, customer accounts, marketing and reporting are built into every Shopify plan. Shopify will even help you find products to sell, via its network of dropshipping suppliers such as Alibaba and Wholesale Central. To expand your Shopify toolkit with functions such as buyer reviews, currency converters and Pinterest Pin It buttons, head for the Shopify App Store.

What can I sell on Shopify?

Shopify supports sales for pretty much anything you can legally sell online, including:

  • Physical products that you make and ship yourself;
  • Digital products delivered via download, such as ebooks and music files;
  • Products sold in person, for example at a popup shop or festival stall;
  • Subscriptions and memberships with recurring payments;
  • Online courses and tutorials;
  • Tickets for events and attractions.

Prohibited items include alcohol and cigarettes, fireworks, medicines and live animals. If you try selling one of these, Shopify will automatically remove it. Try it again, and Shopify may close your account.

How do I start selling with Shopify?

It’s free to sign up with Shopify, and you can start selling straight away. Whatever plan you choose, Shopify won’t start charging until after your free three-day trial, and you can upgrade at any time. Shopify doesn’t even ask for card details upfront.

Shopify’s account setup wizard is quick and simple to follow. The wizard connects your initial sales channels (such as eBay) and social media accounts, and you can change and expand these at any time.

You don’t have to build a website at all at this point. You can if you want, unless you’re on the very basic Starter plan (normally £5/mth; just £1/mth for the first three months, at the time of writing), which is the only plan that doesn’t include Shopify’s website builder. However, we’d advise sorting out your inventory and trying your hand at a bit of channel selling first. To do this, list some items. Enter item details, pricing and images for products that you make, source yourself, or source via Shopify’s dropshipping network.

Next, choose your payment options. You can opt to include more than 100 third-party payment gateways such as PayPal or Stripe, but it makes sense to include Shopify Payments because it cuts your transaction fees to zero. Shopify Payments is free to use, and you can activate it with one click to start accepting payments right away. Find out more about Shopify Payments in the extensive Help Centre.

As orders start rolling in, manage everything via your Shopify dashboard. Shopify’s built-in tools help you set up efficient workflows for orders and shipping, including emailing order confirmations and delivery tracking details to your buyers.

If you need help with anything, Shopify’s excellent customer support is available 24/7 via phone, email and live chat. Shopify also has busy online communities of merchants and developers, and channels on Facebook, Slack and Discord.

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What is Shopify’s website builder?

Website builders are drag-and-drop online tools for creating great-looking websites without needing any coding or web design skills. Shopify’s website builder is particularly easy to use, with plug-and-play customisable themes plus SEO tools and free stock photos to make fast work of helping you create your own branded website and app.

Shopify’s website builder is incredibly popular. In 2022, it had the world’s fifth biggest market share of any content management system (CMS), with over 3.7 million live websites – more than Weebly, Blogger or GoDaddy.

Your Shopify site is your own branded site, too: no irritating Shopify branding emblazoned across your pages. Leading UK brands including Radio Times, Vogue, Gymshark, Amnesty International and the Science Museum all use Shopify to power their online stores.

Your Shopify website, inventory and data dashboard are fully hosted, with servers and content delivery networks all over the globe, so you don’t have to worry about technical stuff behind the scenes. You will need to sort out a domain name, though. Unlike some website builders, Shopify doesn’t include a domain for free. It does sell them, though, and the domains section of its website is packed with advice on choosing, buying and renewing a domain. Expect to pay around £10/year for the first year for a domain.

Note that Shopify’s cheapest plan, the £5/mth Starter plan (currently £1/mth for the first three months), doesn’t include the website builder. All other plans do, including the Basic plan, which is normally £25/mth (paid annually) or £19/mth (paid monthly) but is currently just £1/mth for the first three months.

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Is Shopify a good choice for selling online?

Yes, it is. Even if you’re a complete beginner, you can very quickly set up a fantastic-looking store and sell through multiple sales channels. The ease of getting going, and the simple integration with other sales channels, works as a great motivator, and the potential for growth is huge.

Shopify’s website builder templates can be a little basic, and the sophistication of built-in features such as blogging can’t compete with the likes of WordPress. But you get a tonne of business and marketing tools built in, including abandoned cart notifications and automated email marketing, plus thousands more functions via the Shopify App Store.

How much does Shopify cost?

The cheapest of the plans that includes the website builder is Shopify Basic, which ordinarily costs £25/mth if you pay monthly, or £19/mth if you pay annually. That may sound a lot, given that Wix (our best all-round website builder) charges less than £6/mth for a site with free domain, but Wix isn’t designed to help you sell online. Shopify is, and for less than £20/mth it will help you sell far more than £20’s worth of stuff.

The £5/mth plan (Shopify Starter) doesn’t include the usual website building tools. Instead, it’s a simple tool for adding products to any website or blog, then applying basic order management and analytics tools. Shopify doesn’t have a free plan, but there’s a free 3-day trial with all plans, including the ‘Shopify’ plan (£65/mth monthly; £49/mth annually) and the top-level Advanced plan (£344/mth monthly; £259/mth annually). For more detail on these plans, see our article on Shopify pricing.

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