Shopify vs Medusa (2023) – Can Open Source Ecommerce Compete with an Industry Giant?

Shopify needs no introduction. Since its founding in 2006, the platform has become the leading online store builder. Its name is dropped in nearly every eCommerce article, and for a good reason – Shopify makes selling online simple. Its many in-built features guarantee newbie sellers have all they need to build a successful business.

However, the platform famously has one downside. There comes the point that Shopify’s infrastructure no longer allows as much scalability and customization as your business might like. While you can extend Shopify with plugins, the speed of your site gets bogged down, and there’s little you can do to address the issue.

This is where open-source platforms like Medusa JS enter the stage. 

Medusa was built as an open-source, headless commerce API that takes a modular approach to scale your online store. It’s designed for Javascript developers, ensuring they have all the freedom they might want to bring their eCommerce vision to life.

On their website, Medusa JS describes itself as a “Shopify alternative,” so naturally, we have to ask: Are these two services comparable? Is Medusa a viable option when pitted head-to-head with this well-established industry giant? 

Let’s find out.

About Shopify

Shopify, founded in 2006, is an out-of-the-box eCommerce solution praised primarily for its wealth of features and ease of use. That’s why they’ve amassed around 2.1 million daily active users. Moreover, its community is one of the most dynamic of its kind, with thousands of articles, videos, forums, and more at your disposal.

Once you pick a theme, you can customize it to suit your brand and use a wide range of in-built selling, order, and inventory management features to launch and govern your online store. 

On top of that, Shopify’s app store comprises thousands of plugins, so you can easily extend Shopify’s base functionality. 

Aside from its online capabilities, Shopify also comes with a POS solution, making it an excellent choice for those looking to sync their brick-and-mortar store with their online selling efforts. 

About Medusa

In comparison, Medusa JS is new to the market, founded in 2021 with backing from a range of investors. Since then, it’s grown its community to include 4,000 members with over 20,000 projects. For software this new, the numbers are promising.

Unlike Shopify, Medusa is a headless commerce API, which in a nutshell, means that your online store’s front and back ends are detached from one another. As a result, you can apply Medusa’s backend capabilities, like its shopping cart, order management features, etc., to an existing website or blog.

Whereas Shopify employs a SaaS pricing model, Medusa is open-source and free to use. Another key difference is that Medusa requires its users to understand javascript to make the most out of the platform, whereas, with Shopify, you don’t need any coding know-how. 

Shopify vs Medusa: Their Key Features Compared

At their core, both Shopify and Medusa enable you to build an online store with a fully functional shopping cart and checkout. Both platforms provide everything you need to handle your products, orders, customers, and inventory through their dashboards and display products for sale for your customers to purchase via your eCommerce site.

With Shopify, these features come out of the box, so you can start using them immediately. In contrast, with Medusa, you’ll need to install and configure certain features with a few lines of code. But fear not; you can seek guidance from Medusa’s self-help developer documentation.

So, with all that said, here’s what you can expect from these platforms’ base capabilities: 

Shopify’s Core Features

  • You can sell unlimited digital and/or physical products and set up flexible product variants.
  • Shopify comes with a range of basic SEO tools, like editing URLs, meta tags and descriptions, creating redirects, etc.
  • You can create discounts with fixed percentages or fixed amounts off, specify which customers qualify for them, how long they should run for, and more. You can also create, sell, and give out gift cards. 
  • You can run targeted Facebook ads from your Shopify account.
  • There are over 70 professionally designed themes, all of which cater directly to eCommerce. You can customize these with your own content, colors, images, etc. But note there are only nine free themes. 
  • Shopify protects your storefront with secure, managed hosting, a free SSL certificate, and Lvl 1 PCI-compliant security.
  • Your store benefits from unlimited bandwidth and automatic updates
  • It’s easy to add a blog to your website with Shopify’s blogging engine.
  • Access to 24/7 support via phone, email, and live chat.
  • You can sell via multiple channels, including in-person POS, Facebook, Instagram, and Google. Walmart, using a buy button on a separate blog or website, and more. You can also sell on wholesale and B2B platforms like Hanshake.
  • You can sell internationally with multi-currency support. 
  • Customers can create accounts, save wishlist items, and efficiently manage their shopping cart. You own your customer data, can segment customer groups, and automate personalized messages via email or SMS, such as thank-you notes or order confirmations. 
  • Where inventory and order management are concerned, you’ll receive order notifications and low-stock alerts. You can also create shipping and order rules alongside other store policies.

Medusa JS’s Core Features

  • Thanks to its headless commerce capabilities, you can implement Medusa’s commerce API on any website.
  • Providing you have the coding smarts, you can integrate Medusa’s capabilities with your existing tech stack. 
  • Medusa offers two quick-start storefronts that you can implement with just a few lines of code. After that, you can customize it to your heart’s content (limited only by your design, coding skills, and imagination).
  • You can add different regions to your store, allowing you to customize how customer location impacts the products. For example, you can change the currency or pricing for products for certain parts of the world, set different shipping rules, etc.
  • Add product variants based on size, color, or anything else you want. You can also configure what product information to include on your product pages in the backend.
  • You can import or export products in bulk using spreadsheets.
  • You can enable customers to create accounts so that users can log in/log out, reset their passwords, manage their shipping addresses, etc.

Shopify vs Medusa: Customization

Thanks to its many plugins and available themes, Shopify is pretty customizable. As a result, users can generally achieve the front-end look they want. 

If you have the skill, it’s possible to edit your Shopify theme with custom CSS and HTML. The WYSIWYG editor is easy to learn, but you might have to purchase a more feature-rich premium theme for full drag-and-drop functionality and more advanced customization.

Medusa, however, doesn’t limit what you can edit. Still, you’re responsible for manually customizing your site through code. Moreover, it doesn’t come with a simple theme editor or a theme market. However, because it’s a headless ecommerce solution, you can use whatever platform you want to manage your website’s front end. As such, Medusa’s customization is mostly relevant for the backend of your store. For instance, you can integrate with other CMS services to manage your products, orders, and customers in any way you like. Unfortunately, some of these modifications are impossible in Shopify, which limits its scalability. Not least because Shopify only works with its own dashboard and themes specifically compatible with it.

Shopify vs Medusa: Ease of Use

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that for the layperson, Shopify is by far the easier platform to use. Once you’ve made an account, you can build your Shopify store using your chosen theme. Also, from the convenience of Shopify’s intuitive dashboard, you can access your stores’ settings, products, customer lists, orders, and more. Every step is visual and well-guided, with a multitude of articles and video tutorials available on the web that make it even simpler.

Put simply, while the sheer amount of features means a small learning curve, Shopify is generally considered beginner-friendly.

In contrast, it can’t be said that Medusa is difficult to use by comparison. In fact, for a Javascript developer, it’s straightforward to install and use. You just need to install the CLI on your server and create a store by generating a seed. Only three code snippets are needed to get set up with a basic storefront, the admin panel, and the backend. However, all this requires development knowledge. So what might be easy to some will be nearly impossible to others. 

The bottom line: Medusa.js won’t be for you unless you’re a developer. 

It’s also worth noting that because of its limited out-of-the-box features and native plugins, even developers should expect to pour quite a bit of time into Medusa JS to build the features they want.

Shopify vs Medusa: Pricing

You’ve probably heard of the age-old adage you need to spend money to make money. So how much will these pieces of software set you back?

Shopify Pricing

Shopify has three pricing plans, which you can pay monthly or annually. The latter grants 10% off! You can also try Shopify for free for three days or try the Basic Shopify plan for three months for just $1 per month.

Shopify’s Basic plan starts at $26 per month when billed annually but charges a 2.0% transaction fee for online payments. In addition, this plan comes with two staff accounts, a full online store, unlimited products, 24/7 phone, email, and live chat support, and much more. Amongst the list, there’s abandoned cart recovery, a free SSL certificate, gift cards, discount codes, basic reports, marketing automation like automated discounts to encourage additional purchases, and customer segmentation. In other words, Shopify’s basic plan is all you need to start your own store. 

Then, there’s the Shopify plan for $71 per month (billed annually). This extends the number of staff accounts to five, comes with more advanced reports (order reports, sales reports, retail sales, and profit reports), and reduces the transaction fee to 1.0%. This upgrade makes sense once you start generating more sales and want to grow your team. 

Finally, there’s the Advanced plan for $266 per month (billed annually). This facilitates a team of 15, offers advanced reporting (including customer and custom reports), reduces the transaction fee further to 0.5%, and calculates duties and import taxes for you.

There’s also an Enterprise plan with pricing starting from $2,000 per month called Shopify Plus. This unlocks the full extent of Shopify’s wholesale features and other advanced tools. In contrast, Shopify Lite might be the right solution for more casual sellers. For $5 per month, this plan allows you to sell products via a buy button without creating a full online store.

For its wealth of features, intuitive dashboard, website builder, and themes, Shopify is generally considered outstanding value for money. Plus, you don’t have to pay for separate hosting.

Medusa Pricing

Thanks to its open-source framework, Medusa JS is entirely free to use!

However, suppose you want premium support from the Medusa team. In that case, you’ll have to contact Medusa directly for a custom quote. Don’t forget you’ll also need to shell out for your own domain and hosting, so be sure to factor that into your budget. 

Pro Tip: Because you’re responsible for your own security and maintenance, it’s better to spend a little extra on hosting that provides security features such as firewalls, regular automated backups, and more.

Shopify vs Medusa: Customer Support

Shopify is often heralded for its incredible customer support. You get 24/7 support via phone, live chat, and email. Perhaps more important than that is the sheer amount of self-help resources available. Shopify has an extensive knowledge base, a bustling community forum, and hundreds of videos on its features. In addition, you could hire numerous Shopify experts if you need extra assistance.

In contrast, Medusa doesn’t offer official customer support unless you negotiate this with the team; however, as we’ve already hinted, there’s an extra undisclosed fee for this. Besides this, Medusa’s only resources are its developer documentation, which includes many helpful guides, and its Discord community which you’re free to join and participate in at any time. 

Shopify vs Medusa: Pros and Cons

Before we wrap up, below is a quick pro-con list highlighting how Shopify and Medusa compare:

Shopify Pros

  • Shopify is easy to use and beginner-friendly – anyone can build a store with Shopify.
  • Shopify’s feature-rich, even its Basic plan includes everything you’ll need to run a successful eCommerce business.
  • Shopify’s themes are easy to customize.
  • There’s a huge app market available with thousands of plugins to extend the functionality of your store.
  • You get access to dedicated 24/7 support, including phone and live chat.
  • Shopify’s super-active community ensures you always have peers to ask for advice or gain inspiration from
  • Shopfy has various marketing features, including an in-built blog, coupon generation, and abandoned cart recovery.
  • You can sell unlimited products. 
  • Hosting and unlimited bandwidth come as standard.

Shopify Cons

  • If you don’t need all of Shopify’s features, Shopify might work out more expensive than an open-source platform.
  • Extra transaction fees are imposed if you don’t use Shopify’s native payment gateway: Shopify Payments.
  • You can’t extensively modify the backend of your Shopify store.
  • Customization is somewhat limited – while a premium theme (which is also a considerable extra expense) might provide more customization options, you can’t edit all your front-end’s code as much as you might like to. 
  • If Shopify changes its pricing plans or features, you’re stuck with their direction (unless you migrate platforms).

Medusa Pros

  • Medusa’s headless commerce API allows you to transform an existing website into an online store.
  • For Javascript developers, Medusa is easy to set up and well-documented
  • As it’s open source, Medusa JS is completely free to use
  • You get access to a helpful community on Discord.
  • You can extend and modify the backend endlessly. 

Medusa Cons

  • Medusa’s out-of-the-box sales and store management features are all fairly basic.
  • Whereas Shopify has an extensive app store comprising over 8,000 plugins, Medusa only integrates with 35 tools. For anything else, you need to code your own integrations.
  • No direct customer support is provided as standard.
  • Medusa has too steep a learning curve for beginners/ non-coders.

Shopify vs Medusa: My Final Verdict

At the beginning of this article, we asked if Medusa was a viable alternative to Shopify. But, I think upon reflection, the two platforms are too different to compare as easily as that. 

The simple fact is that if you’re not a JS developer (nor do you have one on your team), Medusa isn’t an option. On top of that, even if you do have some coding smarts, you might ask yourself whether Medusa offers anything standout that Shopify doesn’t. For example, suppose you only want a basic store and don’t have specific customer requirements. In that case, Shopify likely covers everything you need. Moreover, the platform is quite scalable where bandwidth and features are concerned and supports so many plugins that you won’t be left high and dry anytime soon.

It’s only when you stumble across unique use cases that Medusa might present a viable alternative. For example, if you’re keen to work with your own CMS, a local payment provider, or international currencies outside Shopify’s standard capabilities.

Medusa, in any case, lends itself more to innovators and those wanting full control over their store from the get-go. It comes with a higher learning curve and relies entirely on your skill to make it work. This is an exciting open-source product for developers seeking a basic commerce framework that flexibly fits with their projects.

For anyone else, Shopify likely remains the much more user-friendly solution.

That’s it for our Shopify vs Medusa comparison; let me know in the comments below – would you consider Medusa JS a viable Shopify alternative?

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