Shopify held their fourth annual “Unite” conference last week for partners in their ecosystem. (“Partners” in the Shopify world are agencies like us, as well as app developers, theme developers, and other folks trying to tap into the broader Shopify business ecosystem.)
Here's a little view into the conference itself, what stood out to me the most, as well as my general thoughts on Shopify as a company now and in the future. This won’t be a recap of the event. For that, take a look here at the official list of all new announcements.
For the 2nd year now, Shopify took place in Toronto, Canada. My first time there was last year and I really enjoyed the city. This year it was a month later (June instead of May) which meant better weather, which made it all the better. I really like Toronto.
Overall, the conference venue and events were a bit more buttoned up (and boring?) than last year. There were around 2,000 attendees this year, which is up from last year, and with that we moved to a larger venue (this year it was held at the Beanfield Center).
The afterparty last year was bananas, but this year they put us in the Rebel Nightclub which I believe is a rave party venue, and they brought in a nice fellow named Lupe Fiasco to entertain us with his rap music.
The big themes this year were: International, Retail, Fulfillment (i.e. Shopify Prime)
There really were a huge number of improvements announced and in the works.
A few of the new features that I’m most excited about:
Shopify is now (finally) allowing us to have Sections on every page, not just the homepage.
Value for merchants: more powerful, sensible tools for managing content on your site beyond the clunky single-textbox feel of the current CMS.
Theme content will no longer be tied to a theme.
Value for merchants: This is a big pain point currently and will make it so people can upgrade themes without losing or having to migrate theme content.
Shopify are adding support for new media types in the product gallery.
Value for merchants: Right now you can have images, soon they’ll add support for video and 3D renders (including further improving AR). No special players needed or anything like that (although they’ll also pull in Youtube videos).
This means better tooling to help answer those questions that prevent conversion. e.g. how big is this? Will this fit in my car? What does this look like from the side? How will it fit when I walk? Their goal is to be “better than retail.”
Converting images over to support the WebP image format, which is a 30% smaller download without degrading image quality.
Value for merchants: faster page loads (which leads to better engagement and conversions). Everyone will be automatically upgraded.
They’re making is so apps will work in the checkout!
Value for merchants: This means cool stuff like more seamless integration with subscription apps, and stuff like upsells at checkout. I’m extra excited about this one. (This also makes their earlier announcement about not supporting third party checkouts feel more reasonable.)
They’re improving and supporting tooling around headless implementations.
Value for merchants: This is a little too deep to dig into here, but it’s great to see Shopify taking it seriously as an option for merchants who need/want it. We will see more and more of this in time, particularly for more established merchants who primarily target mobile.
Multi-store, multi-language, multi-currency, and multi-location are becoming a reality at long last.
Value for merchants: Single Sign On for merchants who will get access to all their Shopify shops. Rolled up analytics. Ability for merchant to easily create multiple stores, including dev stores (coming soon: cloning and syncing). Manage all staff, customers, products, locations, and Flow flows from a single admin. For those who need multiple stores, particularly international stores, this is going to be a game changer and make Shopify a viable option in the more traditionally “enterprise” space here where Shopify has traditionally fallen short.
A whole new Shopify POS with new hardware.
Value for merchants: POS is growing up, and might finally be viable for more serious B&M merchants. It’s graduated from the weekend warrior/street fair/farmers market crowd to something more viable for serious retailers.
Order Editing, finally!
Value for merchants: this too comes with an order editing API which is pretty cool and should allow stuff like adding free gifts with purchase, post purchase upsells, and other juicy stuff. I’m real excited to see what this enables.
Shopify Fulfillment Network. (Shopify Prime™? 😉)
Value for merchants: Shopify are getting into the fulfillment game competing with (primarily) FBA and other players in that space. Their end goal is to allow merchants with as few as 3 orders per day to tap into their network and offer affordable 2 day shipping to 99% of the continental United States.
This is an Amazon jab. Without naming them they even talked about current pain points with FBA like allowing merchants to put their own branding on packaging, having access to customer data, working with smaller merchants, and not having them rip off your idea and compete with you. Shopify are going to invest $1 Billion on developing this network. To me this was the biggest bombshell of the conference and it will be very interesting to see how this unfolds.
Some final thoughts
Shopify Plus: It seems like a focus for Shopify Plus is going to be around multi-store. There’s a lot of tooling and structure being built around this, and I think it will both enable merchants who already know they need multi-store, and put it on the radar of merchants who can use it to solve problems in their business, but don’t know it yet.
Shopify tends to take a thoughtful and mature (and sometimes painfully slow) approach to solving problems (i.e. not just slapping a half-baked feature on). And once they release something, it’s typically well-considered, if short of perfect.
The Shopify Fulfillment Network feels like a really big deal: and the Market seemed to agree as I watched the already absurdly high stock price jump after this was announced).
I would not want to be competing with Shopify: I’ve felt and said this before, but they’re using their considerable financial resources to make big bold moves, and to make what feels like an unbeatable platform. They’re setting out to build what they’re calling “the world’s first global retail operating system.” This has its pros and its cons. On balance, I think it’s great. They’re democratizing many aspects of ecommerce and in so doing making it approachable for more and more entrepreneurs, which is a global lift and a Good Thing. That said, I wouldn't mind seeing a strong viable competitor for them in this space to keep them honest. I can't currently imagine who that would be.
I don’t think there’s a question anymore of who is winning in this space, or if Shopify is a viable platform for merchants, or my agency to focus on. These were questions we wrestled with in the past, up to even last year. But this year it seems clear that off-marketplace ecommerce now belongs largely to Shopify.
I like Shopify’s attitude of love for, and belief in the power of entrepreneurs: a big soft spot for all of us of course, but I do believe that there is a sincere interest in letting that guide their roadmap. They’re not perfect at it, but the company ethos around this is pretty strong, and that came through in the conference, which satisfied me, at least for now.