"Free" is an incredibly attractive word. For an entrepreneur, it promises that you can get your business started without needing an up-front investment, which sounds great no matter your budget. WooCommerce is a popular choice for this reason: it's a free, open-source plugin for WordPress, itself free and open-source software. But is it really the best choice for your eCommerce website, or are there better options?
It's always best to do your due diligence before choosing an eCommerce platform, even if you aren't making a significant investment. It might seem odd to compare the pricing of a free platform like WordPress/WooCommerce with another, but there are always costs involved — and the more you know about them at the beginning, the more prepared you'll be to avoid mistakes that could hurt your business. As you'll discover, even open-source eCommerce software has its hidden expenses, and if you're not prepared for them, you'll run into trouble. Let's analyze these costs so you can choose the best alternative to WooCommerce for your online store.
Since WooCommerce is a free plugin for WordPress, there are no plans or membership tiers to compare to one another. Everyone who uses WooCommerce will get the same features unless they extend the software with additional plugins. However, this doesn't mean you can run a WooCommerce store for free; you may not be paying for the actual software, but you'll still be paying for other things necessary for running your website.
Instead of paying for WooCommerce itself, you'll instead pay for web hosting and security, possibly plugins and themes, and maybe even custom design or development if you can't find a theme or plugin that does exactly what you want. If you were attracted to WooCommerce because of the word "free," this can be a rude wake-up call — but it's the same for every open-source platform.
With Shift4Shop, everything is included in a single, neat package: web hosting, built-in payment processing via Shift4 Payments, PCI compliance (required to accept credit cards), 24/7/365 tech support, and more. Shift4Shop also has easier access to features and integrations than WooCommerce, with most of its functionality built right into the platform, and all extra features available from a single app store. This is why Shift4Shop is considered an "all-in-one" eCommerce platform. By going with Shift4Shop, you'll save tons of time and effort — and best yet, there's a free plan available for merchants on Shift4 Payments, making budgeting easier, too.
Many entrepreneurs new to WordPress assume they can create a free WordPress.com account, install WooCommerce on it, and start selling from their free website. Unfortunately, this is not the case. No matter how you choose to host WordPress, you'll need to pay before you can use WooCommerce.
First, we'll need to explain a bit about how WordPress works: there are 2 available versions, WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
As you can see, despite WooCommerce itself being free, there is no way you can get around paying for something, whether it's a WordPress.com Business account or an independent web host.
Web hosting for WooCommerce will vary in price, and while you can certainly find an independent host that costs less than the $300 per year of a WordPress.com Business account, this comes with some caveats. Lower-cost web hosts will invariably have some restrictions on bandwidth, and will charge overages or shut your site down entirely if you exceed them. Your allocated disk space can also be an issue, and you may not be able to upload as many high-quality product images or videos as you want.
The quality of your web host is also a concern, and not all are created equal — some struggle under high traffic (even if you're not penalized for bandwidth usage), and others have extremely poor technical support that can leave you in the dark if something goes wrong. Ultimately, you simply cannot run a successful online store with a cheap web host, and while you may be fine with a low-cost plan at the beginning, you'll eventually need to upgrade to support your growth.
WooCommerce itself lists some web hosting partners they recommend for your site, and we can use them as examples: while the cheapest option starts at $3.95/month, recommended hosting for "growing stores" runs at a minimum of $45/month, and more advanced hosting (as needed by larger businesses) quickly reaches the range of $549 – $999/month. While not every business will grow quickly enough for hosting to become their bottleneck, you can use these as examples to see the type of escalation typical among the pricing of independent web hosts.
On top of that, you'll also need to register your own domain name, which is usually around $10/year. That doesn't seem like much after we've looked at the growing costs of WooCommerce web hosting, but it's still yet another expense.
Security for eCommerce includes an SSL certificate to encrypt your website to prevent information from being intercepted by bad actors, and PCI compliance which is a more complex collection of standards you'll need to meet to accept credit cards online. Some recommended WooCommerce hosts include a free SSL certificate, but with others, you may be on your own.
PCI compliance is another matter entirely. To become PCI compliant, a business must meet certain minimum security standards including a vulnerability management program and regular inspections. WooCommerce states clearly that its platform is not PCI-compliant by default and that compliance is on the shoulders of the online store owner. Since PCI compliance is required before you can accept credit card payments, depending on your web host you could be in store for a huge amount of additional expenses to become and remain compliant.
Shift4Shop completely avoids this problem by including full PCI compliance and SSL certificates with every online store, ensuring there will never be a question as to whether your website meets the standards to accept credit card payments.
In most contexts, a plugin is a small piece of software that can be installed to extend the capabilities of base software. Just as WooCommerce itself is a plugin for adding eCommerce functionality to WordPress, plugins exist to add extra functionality to WooCommerce stores. These include advanced tools for custom promotions, marketing, and more.
While many WooCommerce plugins are free, some come with a cost. This is because of the open-source nature of WooCommerce: developers are free to create what they want, and charge whatever price they choose. Since plugins are meant to extend functionality, what this means for you on a practical level is that if you find WooCommerce lacking a desired feature, you'll need to search for appropriate plugins and possibly pay extra to add them to your site. This adds another set of expenses that is completely dependent on your needs as a business and therefore unpredictable.
The design of your website is a central factor for how well you can attract and retain customers, and also affects your SEO, since search engines give preference to fast, mobile-responsive websites. Web design isn't easy, so eCommerce platforms usually offer a selection of themes or templates to instantly apply a complete design to your store. Each platform handles this its own way in the sense that the number of themes varies, as does the number of sites where you can get them.
WooCommerce makes a few themes available on its own official website, with many others available from third-party sites like ThemeForest. The pricing of these can vary, and while some are free, many will cost you. Additionally, you may need to pay for support for your theme.
Since WooCommerce is free and extremely popular, there's a huge selection of themes to choose from across multiple sites, which at first seems like a great thing — but keep in mind that their quality can vary. When you consider the other variables in play, the problem becomes clear: it can take ages to find a theme that is guaranteed to update for compatibility with unavoidable WooCommerce updates, comes with the support you need, fits your budget, and works for your brand. Of course, you could opt for custom design, but that can run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.