The long fought battle of the eCommerce platforms has been intensifying ever since the DIY eCommerce boom of the early 2000s. Throughout the years we’ve seen a number of promising contenders pop up, some with staying power, others as short trends.
Two eCommerce platforms we’ve personally hosted shops on have managed to stick around, and for good reasons. Let’s see how they match up against each other: toe to toe for 12 rounds. This is eCommerce platform fight night!
Fighting out of the red corner, hailing from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, we’ve got Shopify, who dubs himself “the best ecommerce platform”. Shopify is a public company that generates half a billion dollars in annual sales. In the blue corner from Salt Lake City, Utah, USA is our challenger, Big Cartel, holding it down for artists & makers. Big Cartel is a small, independent private company that generates millions of dollars annually.
Shopify will pull no punches. The underdog Big Cartel has a tough match ahead of him. This is a heavyweight powerhouse clashing with a quick and nimble contender. Gonna need some rope-a-dope action here. Let’s get ready to RUMBLLLLLLLLE!
Tale of the Tape
Ease of Use
Setting up an online shop through Big Cartel is a frictionless process, allowing you to upload products, add categories and choose a design fairly quickly.
When you initially sign up to Big Cartel, you’re presented with a setup wizard that guides you through the process of adding your store info and choosing a payment gateway. In Big Cartel, due to the fact that all you need to do is connect either your Paypal or Stripe account to accept payments and start selling, there really aren’t much steps to encounter.
Shopify also sports a user-friendly dashboard and admin interface. When you sign up to Shopify, you’ll see a step by step ‘checklist’ for setting up your shop. Since Shopify has more features, there will be more things for you to setup in order to launch. While this shouldn’t be an issue as a new online seller, you might feel a little impatient about the various steps. However, you should take your time to set things up right, so don’t fret about this.
Despite the additional setup steps you need to take in Shopify, you’ll still have a very smooth and easy experience.
Winner: Big Cartel
Even though Shopify is jam packed with a ton of great features and settings, they can be overwhelming to someone new to eCommerce. Big Cartel gives you only what you need and skips the fluff. If you just need an easy to set up, simple shop and nothing more advanced, Big Cartel is your pick.
Shopify and Big Cartel provide the features you’d expect when adding a product. You can do things like:
- Upload images
- Add a description
- Add product options
- Set prices for each option
- Mark products as ‘On Sale’ or ‘Sold Out’
- Assign a product to a category
You know, the basics. At first glance, both platforms seem pretty even when it comes to what you can do at the core; upload products to sell. But, when it comes to what you can do beyond this, you might encounter a few limitations with Big Cartel, such as:
- Limits on number of products: The max number of products you can upload to Big Cartel on their starter premium plan is 25. For their highest tier plan, the max number of products is 300
- Product Options: While you can add an unlimited number of options to your products, unfortunately, you can’t divide these into groups like ‘Size’ and ‘Color’. This multiple option groups feature requires the use of a premium add-on.
In Shopify, you’ll find that it’s easier to organize and manage your products. With various categorization options and bulk editing tools, you’ll have no issues with the ongoing maintenance of your store listings.
Even though the initial ‘set up a product’ phase is practically identical in Shopify and Big Cartel, Shopify comes out way ahead when it comes to ongoing management of your product catalog.
Outside of the general product and category features, Shopify includes an impressive suite of built-in useful features. With the importance of blogging for your clothing brand, Shopify’s got you covered with it’s blogging capabilities. You can create multiple blogs (or blog categories) with unlimited posts. Big Cartel doesn’t currently have built-in blogging functionality. You’ll need to generate a blog feed from an existing externally hosted blog (ex. WordPress), using a tool like FeedWind.
While both platforms are search engine optimized by default, Shopify gives you virtually full control over the on-page search engine optimization of your shop. You can edit meta data, such as the title and description that shows up in Google listings. Although these tweaks are only a small part in how your product and page listings show up in Google results, the ability to make these adjustments can give you an edge in helping potential customers find you through search engines.
Both platforms give you the ability to add custom pages. As with a blog, additional pages are important for communicating your return policy, answering frequently asked questions, and telling your brand story. Shopify has a simple page editor that allows you to upload images and edit your text appearance (headings, lists, bold, etc.).
While Big Cartel’s page editor allows you to upload images, you’ll need to host the image through an external image host (ex. Cloudinary) and obtain the image url. Also, the page editor feels restrictive when it comes to making styling adjustments to the text.
Out of box, Shopify is clearly superior when it comes to “non-product” features. Overall, Big Cartel falls way short when it comes to these additional features.
Shopify plans range from $29/mo to $299/mo. Shopify does have an enterprise Shopify Plus option, but it’s more suited to multi-million dollar brands. There’s also a Shopify Lite plan for $9. However, this plan doesn’t include a hosted online shop. You can create products and generate a ‘Buy Now’ button for those products, but you need your own separate web host for the actual shop interface.
In addition to the base price, you need to pay a 2% transaction fee for the Basic plan, a 1% fee for the ‘Shopify’ plan, and a 0.5% free for the Advanced plan. This fee is waived if you choose the ‘Shopify payments’ gateway.
Before purchasing a plan, Shopify offers a 14-day free trial, with no credit card required. The free trial provides all of the features of the ‘Basic Shopify’ plan ($29/mo), except for being able to take payment. Shopify can get a bit expensive as you start adding more and more apps. While there are numerous free apps, premium apps can spike your monthly bill.
Big Cartel plans start at $10/mo, with the highest cost plan at $30. Big Cartel also offers a lower tier ‘forever free’ plan for up to 5 products. A great thing about Big Cartel is that there are no transaction fees. The only fees you pay are from your payment processor (Paypal or Stripe). With this pricing structure, you get to keep your overhead very low, while still getting essential features to run your online shop.
Winner: Big Cartel
Big Cartel clearly has a lower point of entry, price wise. While the free plan is virtually unusable for a serious clothing brand, the $10/mo pricing plan is definitely a viable option to get started with.
A great thing about both platforms is that they come equipped with several free themes, allowing you to have a premade shop design in an instant. You don’t need to mess around with code to have a presentable storefront. When it comes to making basic customizations, you can easily carry them out without issue.
While some of the free themes are very impressive, you’ll be restricted when it comes to making certain customizations. Fortunately, Shopify has over 50 premium themes available in their own marketplace, along with hundreds of high quality themes in marketplaces such as Theme Forest and Template Monster.
Big Cartel has a much smaller pool of premium themes out there, with high quality premium themes available through Theme Fiend. These themes extend the basic functionality of Big Cartel, allowing you to do things like add additional content blocks and assign links to different navigation areas (ex. footer, header, etc.). The Capsule theme for example offers versatility that rivals any Shopify theme out there.
With Shopify’s expansive theme selection and aesthetics, you’ll have no problem finding a theme that suits your online apparel shop.
Custom Design / Development
Even with the themes available for both platforms, you might want to make an adjustment or two (or five, or six) to your shop appearance to get it to look just right.
As stated in the ‘Themes’ analysis, you can make customizations using the controls that come with the theme. The Shopify ‘section’ functionality allows for ultimate flexibility over the order of page elements and repeatable content blocks. Most themes allow you to easily add elements such as image grids, videos, featured products, Instagram feeds and more to your core pages.
Big Cartel themes lack the ability to execute this degree of page functionality, without coding knowledge. Adding custom page elements or moving existing elements around requires HTML/CSS knowledge. If you’re familiar with web design and development, there’s almost no limits to how you can customize your shop appearance.
Shopify is easy to customize with no coding knowledge while providing access to all theme files for further editing.
Experts for Hire
Because of Shopify’s popularity and usage, there’s a wide community of experts available to customize your online shop. These developers can build a fully customized online shop for you. You can also find developers through Fiverr and Upwork, if you need some small tweaks done or low cost site development.
It’s much easier to find a web developer for Shopify than for Big Cartel.
Integrations & Add-Ons
Shopify’s expansive app store allows you to integrate almost any (reasonable) functionality you can think of to your online shop. You can automate marketing and customer support processes, get detailed advanced analytics, set up loyalty programs and more.
A few great Shopify apps we recommend for clothing brands are:
Big Cartel has a small, but growing selection of apps and integrations. Most of the apps available through Big Cartel’s app page handle backend management of your shop. There are a few user facing apps and add-ons, such as:
Another really cool integration that both Shopify and Big Cartel has is Mailchimp eCommerce integration. You can automatically save customer data to Mailchimp and segment your customers based on their order history and data. This is great for retargeting past customers and providing relevant offers to them.
With hundreds of apps, sky’s the limit when it comes to extending the functionality of your Shopify store.
Orders & Fulfillment
For inventory management, both Shopify and Big Cartel have built in systems for tracking product inventory. Shopify goes a step further by allowing you to track inventory replenishments and the speed in which your stock sells.
Both platforms integrate with shipping fulfillment systems like Shipwire and Ship Robot, for handling your own fulfillment. If you’re using a print on-demand service like Printful to handle fulfillment, you’re able to integrate your inventory to both Big Cartel and Shopify.
When it comes to selling in person (stores and events), Shopify offers a POS (point of sale) system, allowing you to accept orders and sync with your online inventory. Big Cartel also has a point of sale feature, integrating with the Square app.
Shopify’s inventory management, shipping and order fulfillment functionality make way for a very seamless, yet powerful end-to-end flow for order processing.
Now, Shopify does have it’s share of bad reviews out there. However, when reading through them, most of the complaints seemed to be about things that were clearly explained on Shopify’s site or issues that had nothing to do with the actual platform.
You might come across some bad reviews about Big Cartel, but these reviews are in regards to specific shops hosted on Big Cartel. These negative reviews typically have nothing to do with the actual Big Cartel platform.
On other review websites, both Shopify and Big Cartel are highly rated. Here’s how the ratings shake out across the web:
With big name endorsements, raving reviews and a much larger user base, Shopify gets the edge when it comes to reputation.
It’s relatively difficult to find Big Cartel help, outside of the their help board. Luckily, their help board is a pretty solid resource and their support team addresses any questions or issues you may have in a timely manner. As a small team, their support hours are Monday – Friday, from 9am – 6pm EST and they typically respond within 4 hours.
With 24/7 email support and a discussion board consisting of other customers, Shopify gets the upper hand when it comes to customer support.
We’ve personally sold products through Big Cartel from 2008 – 2011. At the time, Big Cartel and Shopify were pretty much neck and neck as far as buzz and popularity goes. Throughout this time, we began developing Big Cartel themes starting in 2010. Despite being big fans of Big Cartel, we eventually switched to Shopify.
We switched to Shopify in 2011 for a few reasons. For one, Shopify had more advanced product discount, cross-selling and upselling features that we really wanted to take advantage of to promote to our customers. Shopify also had more robust and easier to understand shop analytics. And one of our top reasons was the SEO factor. While Big Cartel gives you virtually no control over the optimization details of your store’s pages, Shopify basically gives you complete control.
We usually recommend Shopify to almost everyone, but we have definitely worked with some brand owners who chose to go with Big Cartel due to wanting to keep expenses low. We find that this is the main driving factor to deciding on Big Cartel. Keep in mind that just because you’re paying more for Shopify, using it won’t automatically make you sell more products than using Big Cartel. We’ve worked with Big Cartel shop owners who have been able to make several sales daily despite the lack of top notch selling features.
We just liked it better.
Despite the low price and ease of use advantage that Big Cartel has over Shopify, we’d recommend Shopify, due to the fact that the platform can grow with your brand, while still being relatively affordable to get started with. However, Big Cartel is a good option if you plan on staying ‘small’ and want to run your business as lean as possible.
Big Cartel is also great for if you want to test the waters with your brand, before investing more resources into it. After choosing your platform, learn more about setting up an effective eCommerce shop through our Apparel eCommerce book