How does a freemium CMS function?
Since it’s the titular example, let’s look primarily at Prestashop. Written in PHP and first released back in 2008, it’s an open-source retail CMS — meaning you’re free to adapt the code however you like — that’s funded through a freemium service.
The split is simple:
- the platform itself, complete and fully updated, is available for free
- the developer covers its costs and yields its profits through the various modules on offer in the Prestashop Official Addons Marketplace.
If you need an eCommerce platform to support your store and don’t have any need for complex themes or rich integrations, then you can use Prestashop as a completely-free retail solution. You’ll still need to pay for hosting, of course, but that won’t come through the developer: instead, you’ll find a suitable host separately (ideally one versed in Prestashop).
Development of the platform
The continuing development of the software is conditional upon enough people paying for additions, though. Whether you’re looking to export your Prestashop inventory to an Amazon storefront or implement a loyalty scheme, you can pay a one-time fee for a suitable addon (usually with an option to pay more in return for guaranteed updates and version leaps).
You can relate this to other eCommerce platforms that aren’t freemium, instead of having distinct free and paid versions (with the free versions being hampered and aimed at small-scale businesses or those simply looking to try them out before they decide what to invest in).
A true freemium service isn’t pushy about the payment: it makes it wholly possible to achieve significant things without spending anything at all with the provider. Handled well, it can earn enough goodwill that people will choose to pay for addons.
The freedom and flexibility of self-hosting
There’s significant convenience in using a hosted service like Shopify or BigCommerce, but convenience isn’t everything. The best freemium platforms (like Prestashop, Magento, or the ever-popular WooCommerce extension for WordPress) work through self-hosting. In other words, you need to download the software and separately pay for a hosting package.
This allows for a degree of flexibility that those hosted services can’t approach.
If you happen to find a better hosting deal with greater bandwidth and lower costs, you can simply move the site over and cancel your old hosting. This gives you more leverage, too. Using a hosted solution essentially means that you’re locked in one place: while you may have options for exporting your store, your current host clearly won’t make it easy for you to leave.
We touched upon the significance of a freemium platform being open-source, but there’s more to that. In addition to adapting the platform however you wish, you can use whichever version you prefer.
If the developer releases a big update that produces unwanted changes, you can simply wait until they’re resolved. Not so with the average online store. That store runs on systems that update automatically, giving you no choice in the matter.
The perils of paying for modules
The modular nature of freemium platforms isn’t entirely good, though, as there are three major issues stemming from it.
- Firstly, there’s the matter of cost for large-scale operations.
The more functional additions you need, the greater the price, and the further you get from the efficient everything-in-one-package model of other platforms. Instead of getting to pay a small amount each month, you may need to pay thousands of dollars upfront on one-time module fees — economical in the long run, maybe, but quite inconvenient.
- Secondly, there’s the difficulty of keeping myriad modules updated and cooperating.
It’s not so bad when they’re all installed through the same marketplace, but different developer update schedules can produce friction. Cooperation between systems is mission-critical, particularly for omnichannel support (whether you’re running a Crisp Chat-style shared inbox or using cross-channel support tickets).
- Thirdly, there’s the sheer complexity involved in choosing and maintaining the modules you need.
It’s so much easier to have a predefined selection of features developed to cover most bases. Having to pore over your requirements and select the most appropriate solution for each one can be time-consuming and drive you to frustration.
With all that said, these issues may not cause you problems. If you only need a handful of modules, it won’t take you long to choose them, it won’t cost you that much to pay for them, and you won’t find it particularly arduous to keep them on the same page (particularly if they’re from the same developer and intended to be used in combination).
Should you choose a freemium CMS?
Returning to the titular question of whether freemium eCommerce platforms offer strong versatility for store owners, the answer is a clear maybe. Alternatively, you could frame it as yes, in some cases.
It really depends on the store owner in any given case:
- what they’re hoping to achieve,
- what level of technical expertise they have,
- and what kind of budget they wield.
Shopify and WooCommerce, the two top dogs, ultimately both have a lot to offer.
If you just want your store ownership experience to be as smooth and painless as possible, then you shouldn’t choose a freemium platform. Even without the need for any modules, the nature of self-hosting and dealing with manual updates would soon leave you annoyed. There are plenty of free or low-cost hosted solutions that you’d find more agreeable.
On the other hand, if it’s important to you that you have full control over your store and can adapt or develop it however you like, then a solid freemium platform could really suit your needs. There are even large communities out there through which other platform users share development advice, making it much easier for you to get up to speed.
If in doubt, test things out. Set up a test version of your chosen freemium platform on some low-cost hosting, start a free trial of a comparable paid platform, and see which one you’d like to use in the long-term. That way you won’t end up looking back and wondering what might have happened had you gone in the other direction.