Magento Review: Why Magento is worth it… for some

Magento is a powerful ecommerce system with a steep learning curve, aimed at larger ecommerce sites. However, when developing your ecommerce solution it needs to be about more than technology.

When it comes to ecommerce I am platform agnostic. I care little about the underlying technology as long as it delivers an optimal user experience and tools that allow the store owner to run a streamlined and cost effective enterprise.

That is probably why Headscape has built with a large range of ecommerce tools over the years from simple shopping carts to complex custom built systems that underlie multi-million pound operations like Wiltshire Farm Foods.

Whether we build the solution ourselves or use off the shelf software, all we care is that it is the right tool for the job. It therefore didn’t really disturb us much when a new client asked that we build his ecommerce site on Magento Enterprise.

Magento Website

Although we had been aware of Magento for sometime, this was the first time we had used it in anger. Despite some challenges, it is a piece of software we would recommend to some of our clients.

Who is Magento for?

Note that I say we would recommend Magento to some of our clients. Magento is certainly not for everybody. I agree with Mark from our forum when he writes:

I’ve been on record saying for quite a while that if your expected turnover isn’t at least $1m/year, Magento is almost certainly not right for you.

Although we don’t do a lot of ecommerce that would fall below that figure, we do occasionally build small ecommerce solutions as part of bigger projects. In that kind of scenario we are more likely to recommend  a hosted solution like Shopify.

Shopify website

Mark goes on to write:

It’s not really great for the amateur PHP hobbyist either. The learning curve is steep, reflecting the power.

This was certainly our experience too. At Headscape we are comfortable working with systems a lot more complex than Magento. However, without a doubt Magento has a steep learning curve and is not a system for the enthusiastic amateur. It’s a serious tool for a professional solution.

A steep learning curve

The phrase “A steep learning curve” comes up again and again when you mention Magento. Whether I was talking to our own developers who worked with the software or in the forum the consensus was the same – It has a steep learning curve but it is worth it.

Another poster to the forum summed up the general consensus:

Like others have said it is a really steep learning curve and I struggled with it in the beginning.  However, once you get to grips with it you realise just how powerful it is and I haven’t come across any other e-commerce cms’s which compare.

That said it would appear that getting a basic simply customised version up and running isn’t too challenging. Craig (@cargowire) one of our lead developers at Headscape commented:

It is very easy to do a standard installation, nearly on par with WordPress’ one-click-ness.

Leigh (@leigh) our UX consultant went on to say:

To simply skin the default Magento install is pretty easy.  I managed to get a custom design with products/categories up and running and looking different enough from the default install in a couple of days.

Of course you are not limited to skinning the default Magento install. Magento is extremely powerful offering a wide range of customisation options.

Flexible and powerful

There is no doubt that Magento is a serious ecommerce platform for store owners. It offers powerful reporting features, handles complex discounting and vouchers and can be integrated into other systems such as stock control and accounting. In fact based on our first experience of using the system it covers all of the bases any serious store owner would insist on.

Beyond that it is extremely customisable. Much of this customisation can be done via the admin interface which is generally easy to use (although it does have its quirks).

Magento Admin Panel

Beyond the admin interface customisation is done using XML modules. Although Craig described this process as “quite elaborate” they do provide documentation which apparently isn’t bad.

In addition to the XML modules there is also a plugin architecture that works in much the same way as WordPress. What is more, as with WordPress, there is a vibrant community producing plugins you can use.

A strong but confusing community.

One of Magento’s strengths is its community. With so many contributors there is always somebody who has built a plugin or knows the answer to a specific problem. There are also books, blog posts and much more.

Magento Connect

As Leigh, Dan (@sheerman) and Craig all independently pointed out when I asked about community, the quality of community contributions is patchy. You are never sure how up-to-date information is and whether it was even accurate in the first place. This is true of any open source community but with only limited official documentation this can prove problematic.

To make matters worse there are two versions of Magento with the vast majority of the community content focused on the open source version.

Enterprise vs. community.

Magento offers two versions of their software. The community (open source) version and their Enterprise offering.

The enterprise version is not cheap but does come with improved functionality, better support and indemnity insurance.

The community version on the other hand has its active community and there is no guarantee the advice and plugins they provide will work with the enterprise version (although they normally do).

In most cases the community version is more than adequate. In many ways the decision between the two comes down to a business decision as much as a technical one.

Its important to remember that business and users needs comes first when considering whether to adopt Magento.

Remember, its not about the technology.

Magento is great, no doubt about it. However, it is important not to get caught up in its features and functionality. As with choosing any piece of software you need to step back and ask what you need rather than what the software offers. For some, Magento will simply be too complex and the additional functionality will confuse users and complicate the running of the site.

Equally when considering who to implement your Magento solution do not just think in terms of development skills. Magento developers are a dime a dozen. Despite the steep learning curve it is not an insurmountable challenge. The trick is finding an agency who has a track record in delivering a return on investment through solid ecommerce business advice and great user experience design.

For help with your ecommerce site Visit Headscape or watch my presentation on creating more effective ecommerce sites.

  • http://twitter.com/knowj John Knowles

    Magento is an amazingly powerful platform but the documentation is poor and any literature is usually out of date before it gets on the shelves so you have to spend a lot of time searching code or forums to get somewhere close to the answer you want.

    It’s one of them drawbacks of using an off the shelf system that makes 90% of your job 100% easier but the remaining 10% of the job 1000% harder.

    I’ve spend all day doing something that would usually take me 5-10 minutes our custom built system. However to replicate the functionality of Magento would take a team of developers years to get anywhere close.

    It’s a love/hate relationship.

  • http://twitter.com/PauldeWouters PauldeWouters

    have you used WordPress based solutions before? Which would you recommend?
    I had a bad experience with Magento, nad I think you make a good point that it’s a steep learning curve if you need to customize it, even customizing the theme was challenging because of the file structure.

  • http://tutorial-plus.pl/ Thomas

    For me, magento is very demanding system, and not having the good you can forget about Site Uptime Enterprise magento.

  • jniden

    We’ve actually tried to put up a site with magento and agree that it’s not for companies with turnovers under 1 million dollar/year, so we had to switch to less complex prestashop :).

    • http://twitter.com/garrysibbald Garry Sibbald

      I’m not sure I follow why you feel this is so, we have used Magento for new starts as well as established businesses.
      There is a learning curve but this is not uncommon for any system that you are using for the first time and should not put you off choosing Magento.

      Choosing a less capable platform at the outset and then having to advise a client to switch a short time later because they have outgrown it would not rest comfortably for me.  Much better to persevere and get it right first time!

      • http://twitter.com/digitaldaz Darren Nicholls

        Agree with you there Garry. At some point there’s always going to be a learning curve no matter the system. It’s worth the initial investment even if you’re using it for small scale or large scale projects.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vitorf7 Vitor Fernando Martins Faiante

    I have to say that I really loved this post. As a graduate Web Developer still getting his feet on the ground and learning PHP still as the course I did focused too much on Project Managemnt rather than the Web Development that I was interested in. However in my last year at Uni I came into contact with both Shopify and Magento and my final year project was an hypothetical project where someone is opening their 1st business and I as a consultant had to recommend what was the best solution both in terms of business selling method (which for that specific business that was selling Bodybuilding Supplements I recommended DropShipping Selling method due to it’s safety if the person does not get many orders) and the online platform (which I ended up choosing Magento because although as said on the post there is a steep learning curve in the end once you get the hang of it, the platform really helps businesses due many of the important things which is to give offers to customers, cross sales, up sales, vouchers, etc which Yes I know it is focusing too much on the features but if your business is going to be benefited with those in the future it is always nice to have a system that can already do that from day one rather than getting a bespoke system that you will need someone else to change and add that functionality when the time comes)
    All in all I love both Shopify and Magento.

    Great Post once again.

  • A Boagword reader

    What a sales article for Headscape. I was at least hoping for more than a press-release type of article from you Paul, with some real content in it.

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      Really? Why did you feel it was a press release? Was it because I mentioned other Headscape people? 

      My problem is that I hadn’t worked with Magento personally so all I could do was fall back on opinion I received from other Headscape people and contributions from the forum.

      Of course to some extent you are right. Everything I write has a sales dimension to it because I hope it will reflect positively on us. However, I still feel this was a fair assessment of Magento.

      What exactly would you have wanted content wise?

    • ecoluce

      My thoughts exactly.

  • D Sentker

    Magento is a huge software project, but has a poor documentation (for the backend AND for coders!) and the installation process is bugged.

  • http://www.facebook.com/troy.oltmanns Troy R Oltmanns

    Hey Paul,

    Thanks for the quick overview. Our company has been throwing around the idea of moving our ecomm to magento, currently using shopatron. I think it’s weird that they offer a community vs enterprise edition. 

    Being a php developer, I feel like I could handle coding changes and such, even some module development. Is it right to assume that with enterprise that you are just getting the SLA for code mods and the total hands off approach to the code? Any reason a seasoned developer would shy away from the community edition? And what is professional, what kind of revenue generating stuff does that have?

  • http://www.facebook.com/facundo.villaveiran Facundo Villaveiran

    I would agree that it is a big learning curve. Not sure it is bad
    documented or not but it is definitely difficult to digest to say the
    least. I would also agree with the 1 mil turnover comment, mainly based on the thinking of what budget can the client allocate to proper maintenance (which is not cheap with Magento’s challenges where things take more time/effort to be sorted). We tend to recommend the self-hosted options too for smaller businesses. Has anyone tried the new Magento-Go? I’ve done quite a bit of reading and looks very promising, especially for its support vs a self hosted community edition.

  • http://peterwilsoncc.wordpress.com/ Peter Wilson

    Paul, you’ve written previously that Magento – along with most off the shelf solutions – require JavaScript for users to make purchases. 

    Is this still the case or have you managed to code around it?

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      Don’t quote me on this (as I have not actively worked on this project), however as I understand it nothing has changed. Its just something we have been forced to live with and is another reason why I wouldn’t recommend Magento for more projects.

  • http://twitter.com/Adams_Jeff Jeff Adams

    There’s quite a bit of buzz about developing Magneto templates to sell at places like Themforest – bit of passive income for freelancers.

    What would be great though is if at some point in the future you could do a post on the basic functions of e-Commerce – like what’s needed to set up, the different options etc. That’s if you haven’t already :-)

    I tend to get scared when I hear the word eCommerce – it really puts me off projects and I don’t know if I’m the only one?

  • http://www.facebook.com/rodeoramsey Ramsey Stoneburner

    Thank you for this article!  I’ve recently delved into the demanding world of e-commerce design and development and since I’m a one-woman shop (and primarily a front end designer), writing my OWN e-commerce script from scratch is out of the question, so I’m left with choosing an existing option.  I think that Magento has a GREAT marketing plan because some of my new e-commerce clients have heard of it, whereas they haven’t heard of some of the other options I’ve used in the past.  I believe, for myself, the learning curve is too steep and until I have the time to learn it on my own (not many clients are willing to pay for me to learn a new platform), I will have to go with some “smaller” options (which might not necessarily be “lesser”).

    Has anybody ever used FoxyCart with success?

  • http://8gramgorilla.com/ Gordon McLachlan

    ” …if your expected turnover isn’t at least $1m/year, Magento is almost certainly not right for you.”

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve dabbled with Magento in the past and its power and potential is vast but, as you pointed out, the learning curve is horrendous and the functionality overkill for smaller businesses. I think it’s really about picking the right tool for the job which, in some cases will be Magento, but for others it could simply be something like Shopify. There’s no point in having blind allegiance to a single product as very rarely will it cover every scenario.

  • http://twitter.com/benfrain Ben Frain

    It’s funny. Although I’m a front end guy, I do quite a bit of development work with Magento – mainly as that’s what clients request. However, I often advise smaller projects against it as it’s too much ‘flab’ for their needs, or because I know that if I give them a quote to ‘build it right’ (with the most likelihood of being upgrade proof) in Magento (using a local.xml style setup) they think I’m taking the proverbial. To theme a Magento site correctly takes about twice as long as something like Opencart. Sometimes more. It also needs a VPS to get the most out of, speed wise once it’s done. It’s certainly not for the feint hearted yet there seems to be some mis-guided snobbery that all e-commerce websites should be built with Magento now. So, to re-iterate: don’t use a bulldozer when a dust pan and brush will do.

  • Joaquin Garrido

    But why did you use it ‘in anger’? Is that the name of some small hamlet in the UK you operate out of? ;)

  • Khurram Ali

    Amazing & useful post , I do agree with you that Magento is great with unlimited features :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1539338378 Sarmen Boyadjian

    sorry but magento is garbage. they have made it extremely difficult for no reason at all. what they are trying to accomplish by this? the site also takes forever to load. i feel that the makers of magento are drugged up entering useless code and laughing at all of us who are forced to learn it.

    • manesh sonah

      Sorry Sarmen. I do not agree. And I think you’re just judging the book by its cover. I wrote an article about why it may not be for you. It’s not just a choice wether to go forward or not with Magento “It’s not only about power, but mostly about what can be achieved with control.” like our Senior Magento Programmer says. Please read on my blog http://www.maurisource.com/blog/magento-montreal-agency/

  • bilouteboy

     Yes, Magento is bullshit. WAY TOO SLOW too.

    Don t pay for the Enterprise Edition, as the support offered by Varien on Magento is a big joke.

  • Phu-Xuan Le

    I work for a Magento developing company, http://www.fowara.com, and I knew nothing about Magento when I first got started. But through my training, I was really able to appreciate the power of Magento in the ecommerce world. Although it is difficult, I think the amount of capabilities that Magento allows you to do is just out of this world.

  • Galina

    I have to disagree as well. Magento is considered a world leader in eCommerce and it’s not groundless. Yes, learning curve is steep but it offers the best set of features that can be imagined. Just check out some of them: http://www.shopping-cart-migration.com/useful-articles/42-magento/5822-magento-gets-on-top

  • Andy

    Magento ecommerce solution has become the most demanding open source platform of today’s online retail store businesses since it provides a tremendous advantage. With Magento Ecommerce
    Platform, online store owners are being given the capability of handling multiple stores and facilitate a more systematized browsing of items for sale. Improved management of customer’s orders and having more developed promotional or advertising tools also becomes possible with Magento Ecommerce.

    Andy
    iLoveMage

  • http://www.ymagestore.com/ Magento Development

    For me, Magento is the best and this is the reason behind always used magento for e-commerce development.

  • Arrow

    We have been using magento for an ecommerce marketplace model in india and it works well. I agree that while it makes the job easier for 90% of the work but for the balance 10% it’s a lot of hardwork and hit and trial before you get it right. Good for a big business with a large catalogue, not so good for smaller businesses and especially marketplace with shopping cart. We cracked it somehow and offer accesses to all our merchants to view and process their respective orders.

  • beyowi

    I agree with you. Magento is not for everybody, Magento has an overly complicated coding style and thousands of files which require a lot of time to learn. Magento is not the right ecommerce solution for beginners.

  • http://www.apptha.com/ Camrie

    You are exactly right. I read the previous comments. And I would say even though it is very complicated, Magento is the best and trusted ecommerce solution. And these points are really valuable one. I have owned an ecommerrce store and installing many new magento extension. Recently I tried Magento product reviews extension and it was perfect. So I strongly recommend magento for any ecommerce store.

  • http://jakeemflores.blogspot.com/2013/06/magento-developers-should-develop.html Oleg Suarez

    Magento, being the primary e-commerce system in requirement, performs the top part in developing effective and solid web styles which is very much necessary for e–commerce or digital business.

  • Joompixel

    Interesting article and reviews as well. I’ve been using Magento for one of my customer, I agree with some of you Magento is not a good choice for a small business. The coding is quiet complex but Magento is still one of the best solution for ecommerce!

  • Kira

    Seems like everyone agree’s that Magento is very heavy! I personally use OpenCart for my projects, its fast, user friendly and the code is so well structured! The communities really helpful there but just like Magento there’s a slight lack in documentation for developers but if you know any PHP you shouldn’t have a problem following the code. I’d like to play with Magento for a project at some point but the I don’t know if the curve is worth it

  • Hannah

    The best part about Magento is free and it’s features makes it more impressive. Magento customers highly speak of SEO. Features like multi-store capabilities and immediate bug fixes and code updates make it a better cart to shop with. http://coalitiontechnologies.com/

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