Magento Review: Why Magento is worth it… for some

Paul Boag

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.