Wading into eCommerce: Testing out Drupal and Shopify

ecommerce is a horror showThis search for a 'simple' way to sell a product from my website has become like watching a horror flick.  You know something gruesome is coming but you just can't bring yourself to stop watching or to look away.  Know what I mean?  If I didn't really need this capability, I probably would have dropped all of this craziness several paragraphs ago.  Well .... maybe not.  Truth be told, now I'm hooked on this melodrama and probably would keep 'watching' anyway just to see how it turns out.  I'm betting the State of Washington turns out to be the guilty party.  Yep.  That's my bet.

First try - Drupal/Stripe

In the previous post, I came to the conclusion that my ultimate solution most likely will involve either a Stripe/Drupal combo or maybe Shopify.  The least expensive strategy would be to trick out my Drupal website to use Stripe and integrate with TaxCloud as the sales tax handler.  So that's where this episode begins. 

Heading over to search for Stripe-related Drupal modules, quite a few hits are returned.  It's looking hopeful.  Narrowing the field down to those that work with Drupal version 8, it shrinks to 9 modules.  Three of those can be ruled out immediately.  That's no concern.  I only need one, if it does what it's supposed to, so let's investigate and see if any of the remaining options are going to work.  The modules returned by the search are:

The Commerce Stripe and Ubercart Stripe modules are designed for websites that want to become full-fledged store sites.   Customers acquire user accounts on the store site.  Order info and such is recorded in their user accounts.  Very powerful.  Very complex.  Quite time consuming and a bit frightening to get setup right.  Not something that can be tackled simply and quickly.  And the Register with Stripe module is also designed to turn customers into registered users of the website.  The Payment module is a payment platform for other modules to plug into.  It's Stripe plugin doesn't list a release for version 8. 

That narrows the field to Stripe API and Stripe Checkout.   APIs are intended for other modules to use, so that rules out Stripe API.  We're down to one.  Installed that module and gave it a look.  What it does is enable entry of a grand total and submit that amount to Stripe for payment.  No address, shipping or sales tax handling.  As is, Stripe Checkout  won't cut it for my intended use.  Not the answer I hoping for.  And that exhausts the list of possibilities.  Now what? 

I could probably dig in and try to extend that module to make it do what I want it to do or maybe take a stab at writing a completely new module.  Wouldn't be my first choice.  I retired to avoid having to do that sort of thing!  So let's go take a quick peek at Shopify.

Up next - Shopify

Up until now, I've put off contacting Shopify to get clarification concerning their 'automatic' tax calculations and if the post about free real-time shipping estimates is true and includes the cheapest Shopify Lite option.  Now it's down to it.  Time to ask.  So I did.  Turns out, it's all true. 

  • For states with destination-based sales tax, they calculate the appropriate rate based upon the destination's zipcode.  Check!
  • The dashboard has an option to select applying sales tax to the shipping charges.  Check!
  • And the real-time USPS shipping estimates are free for the US and Canada.  Check!
  • All the thorny issues associated with doing business in Washington State are covered for $9/month.

A totally automated, hands-free solution.  Shopify offers the first 14 days for free.  That gives a little time to figure out their system and setup some products.  Even a little time to push those products out to Facebook, in addition to my own blog.  Adding a Shopify setup to a web page is a bit geeky, but not insurmountable.  They do offer some examples to help speed things along.  Still, probably going to take a couple awkward days of fiddling to get the magic to work.  But this is the closest to a relatively convenient and totally automated solution that has emerged so far.

Beating the bushes one last time

Hosted competitors

That $9/month is going to be hard to beat.  Other hosted platforms start at more than that and may offer less functionality

Free options

There are "free" platforms such as

While the basic platform is free to download and use, digging a little deeper reveals that various plugins/themes will be required to get full functionality.  Those tend to be contributed by 3rd parties and can be costly:

And, even when the plugin doesn't cost anything, the service it connects to may.  There are articles that discuss how much it really costs to get WooCommerce up and running and most of the articles talking about Magento setups scare folks away by estimating the developer costs to set it up.  I guess the take home lesson is that free can become expensive right before your eyes.

Social payments

Another option that merited a look is this whole business of person-to-person (P2P) social payments, through services like Venmo. 

Venmo also doesn't seem to be a business option at this time:

" Right now, Venmo in other apps is in limited release with select merchant partners. Venmo does not support purchases made through unauthorized merchants. "

No help there.

A few paragraphs ago I cited an article that said Facebook is doing a lot of interpersonal business through Messenger.  But that, too, is not "officially" for businesses right now.  Facebook guidelines for selling via Messenger say:

" ... sending or receiving money in messages should only be done with your friends and family. If you send or receive money in messages for your personal business, you may lose the option to use payments features on Facebook (ex: Payments in Messenger, ads). "

So how are all those people selling on Messenger?  Really?

Google Wallet looked really good until I ran across the following

" Limited Liability Companies (LLC), Partnerships, and Corporations, regardless of size, are unfortunately not supported. " 

By not supported they mean your account will be abruptly closed without notice.  My business is a LLC so...

A couple of these services are more business friendly: Square Cash and PayPal.me.  I checked out reviews of PayPal.me and Square Cash.  Some good points and some bad. 

OK.  All these P2P payment services come across as blunt-edged tools that might be able to gum eCommerce into submission but leave a lot to be desired.  All tax and shipping calculations will need to be done outside these services and rolled into a grand total that gets served up to the customer.  No doubt, a separate invoice will need to be sent to the customer to explain the charges.  Awkward. 

If it boils down to manually gathering the shipping and tax values and preparing an invoice with a pay button that gets emailed to the customer to do the deed, a regular PayPal business account will do all that much better.  That looks like a better way to go.

So what's it gonna be?

If I had a lot of confidence in my product and my website already had a lot of traffic, I'd go with Shopify and be done with it.  But that's not how it is right now.  It's going to take some time to build traffic to the website and there's no idea when interest in the product will develop.  So I'm going to go with PayPal for business and do the 'email an invoice with pay button' thing.  I'll stick a form on my website for interested parties to fill out and submit to get the ball rolling. 

Upon receipt of their info, shipping costs can be calculated using the USPS online postage calculator, or via the Shippo dashboard.  Then the sales tax for shipments bound for a Washington address can be retrieved from the Washington state online service.  Plunk those values into the PayPal invoice creator and email the request to the customer.  If they do the deed and successfully pay, then a return visit can be made to either the USPS site or Shippo site to purchase a shipping label.  And then it goes in the mail to the customer.  Done.

I know.  This is an awkward and somewhat laborious solution that won't really delight customers and won't scale at all.  The attraction is that it won't cost anything and won't take a lot of time to setup.  I already have the PayPal account.  Coming up with a webform won't be hard, either.  If traffic picks up and/or interest in the product develops, dropping this setup for Shopify won't forfeit any significant investment. 

So that's the plan. Now, the next step is to get completely legal and collect all the necessary permits and licenses.