The great debates never get old: Ford vs. Chevy. Mac vs. PC. Boxers vs. briefs.
And if you’re an eCommerce nut like I am: Shopify vs. Bigcommerce.
If you’ve explored starting a store, chances are good you’ve struggled with this decision, as Shopify and Bigcommerce are the two best known hosted carts. So which do you choose?
I know a lot about each of the platforms, but realized recently I’ve never actually used either platform to build a store, as I’ve run my stores on Magento for years. It’s not often that inexperience is an asset, but in this case it positioned me well to try out both platforms with no experience bias and to report on the results.
In this post, I’ll be creating a store from scratch on both Shopify and Bigcommerce (selling MC Hammer pants, no less!), and sharing my thoughts on the process, features and experience.
A Few Disclaimers
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty review, there are a few things you should know:
I’ve met with and know people from both companies and, in the case of Shopify, collaborated with them to write a book on drop shipping. So while I’ll do my best to give you a fair, honest review, you should be aware of that background.
Also, this review contains affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you sign up for either service. If you’d rather not use those, you can click on these non-affiliate links for both Shopify and Bigcommerce.
With that being said, let’s build a few stores.
Shopify Setup & First Impressions
Getting set up with Shopify was really straightforward. I was expecting a somewhat long process involving entering a credit card, registering a domain, etc. But to my surprise, I was up and running, customizing my store, 30 seconds after entering my email address – no payment required.
My goal with onboarding was to see how long it took to get my account set up, get a feel for the interface and get a very basic store live with a customized homepage, name and product added. With Shopify, it took me about 30 minutes from signup until I was proudly able to introduce the world to MC Hammer Express: THE place to go for all your parachute pant needs.
Overall, the process was straightforward but it did take a little digging to find a few things. For example, finding the settings to customize the homepage sliders took a few minutes, as it was 2 or 3 menu items deep. I also had to re-login to activate the theme I selected for my store, which was a bit odd. But, heck, I was able to be open for business in 30 minutes. Try doing that with Magento!
My Shopify Homepage
My Shopify Product Page
Bigcommerce Setup & First Impressions
Just like Shopify, I was in my Bigcommerce account and configuring things within 60 seconds of submitting my email. Total setup time – to get the site live, slightly customized and with a product – was similar at about 25 minutes. You can see the Bigcommerce version of MC Hammer Express below.
But I did feel the setup/onboarding experience was slightly more intuitive with Bigcommerce. The wizard did a really good job of walking me through all aspects of the process, and I was quickly able to find where I could customize the slider for the homepage. Not a huge difference – it took 25 minutes vs. 30 minutes to get set up in Shopify – but it was noticeable.
Bigcommerce Product Page
Adding products to both carts was a snap, particularly in Shopify. Everything I needed to add items was on one streamlined page, including quickly adding three variants for my Hammer Pants. It couldn’t have taken more than 2 or 3 minutes to have my product live.
Bigcommerce’s product-adding interface isn’t quite as streamlined and spans a number of tabs. And trying to get basic sizes set up for my product was a bit more confusing – definitely not as intuitive as Shopify’s interface.
But if you’re after more advanced product options, Bigcommerce seemed to have more options and customization available, at least out of the box. It was possible to show different product pictures when different options were selected, and commonly used option sets could be saved to be easily applied to products added in the future.
Adding Products in Bigcommerce
Adding Products in Shopify
I’d heard horror stories in the past that both platforms didn’t allow customizing of the most basic of SEO tags. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Shopify and Bigcommerce both make it really easy to set what I consider the three most important page-level attributes: page meta title, meta description and page URL. Below is Shopify’s interface for setting SEO tags, which looks almost identical to Bigcommerce’s:
Catalog & Category Management
Shopify doesn’t use categories. Instead, it uses what are called collections to group products. On one hand, it offers some neat functionality in the ability to automatically group products with common tags into a similar collection.
But it’s impossible to create sub-collections (or sub-categories). You can achieve a sub-category feel by manually creating nested menus in the navigation, but it’s a bit tricky. And it makes implementing navigation breadcrumbs difficult.
Bigcommerce’s category management is more traditional and familiar. You can create categories and sub-categories quickly. And at least for the theme I was using, the categories were then automatically reflected in the store’s drop-down navigation structure.
Theme Selection & Quality
Up until a few months ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated in telling you that Shopify had a far superior collection of themes – something even I think Bigcommerce folks would have admitted was true. But with the recent Bigcommerce “Next” release, that gap has closed.
Bigcommerce’s theme library now boasts a number of great-looking, professional themes. While it’s a welcome addition, members of the eCommerceFuel private forum have bemoaned the fact that most/all of the fully responsive themes are paid themes, something that caused disappointment.
Despite the improvements, I’d say Shopify still has the advantage in terms of available themes. They’ve had their theme marketplace open to designers longer, and there’s a deeper pool of talent developing themes for them. Browsing the Shopify theme store, there just appears to be a larger number of quality themes available.
It’s influenced heavily by the specific themes I picked, but I also noticed my Shopify store had a much cleaner look to it out-of-the-gates than my Bigcommerce shop (see pictures above). I tend to like stripped-down designs that I can slowly add to versus designs I have to subtract a lot from, and I liked that Shopify started with a less-cluttered approach. But again, this is largely influenced by the specific themes that I picked.
Making Design Changes & the Template System
Before signing up, I expected both platforms to have a drag-and-drop interface for editing the store. So I was surprised when I discovered this was available on Bigcommerce but not Shopify. Given how convenient the visual interface was in Bigcommerce, I wondered why it wasn’t a Shopify feature.
Investigating further, I chatted with eCommerceFuel private forum member Andrew Bleakly of AndrewBleakley.com. He’s worked extensively to customize both Shopify and Bigcommerce stores and had this to say on the difference between the two platforms’ design framework:
Shopify provides direct access to the store data and supports a programming language to manipulate the design based on the user, cart, product or order. This makes templates in Shopify infinitely flexible and customizable but necessitates having a developer on board to make changes and updates as required because the templates can be easily broken by someone not familiar with code.
Bigcommerce uses a more shielded combination of static templates instead of providing direct access to data. This allows Bigcommerce to offer DIY drag and drop design tools for store owners looking to self-manage but limits the flexibly of the templates and design choices.
So, Bigcommerce does offer a really convenient drag-and-drop interface but – according to Andrew – you’ll be giving up some advanced template and design capabilities for it. With Shopify, you’re more likely to need a developer to make customizations, but they’ll have much more control and flexibility as a result.
Andrew’s opinion was backed up by Stephen Tangerman, a fellow private forum member and developer who examined both platforms and ultimately chose Shopify due to the development implications:
As someone with a development background, Shopify’s framework is big for me. Their “liquid” language allows me to create just about any dynamic HTML snippet utilizing almost and data property in the core store data model.
Shopify also offers the Desktop Theme Editor, a downloadable app for the Mac that makes it easy to design a theme on your local computer and quickly sync the changes with the live store.
Wrapping your head around design interfaces can be a bit difficult, so I’ve put together two screencasts below walking you through how changes are made on both platforms.
Bigcommerce Design Interface Walkthrough
Shopify Design Interface Walkthrough
Available Apps & Feature Sets
Shopify has, hands down, the most vibrant add-on app marketplace. They offer more than 650 apps, nearly four times more than Bigcommerce has available. You’ll definitely be more likely to find the exact app you need in the Shopify marketplace.
Bigcommerce has always been touted as having more built-in default features, which I found to be true. Shopify doesn’t include some features on all their plans that Bigcommerce offers by default – things like real-time shipping quotes, gift certificates, product reviews and integrated email marketing tools. Some of these features are included with higher-end Shopify plans, while others require apps.
Just about all of these features can be duplicated in Shopify, sometimes using free apps. Take, for example, the numerous free product review apps available in the Shopify marketplace. So it’s a mixed bag. You do get more features with Bigcommerce by default, but you have a much larger selection of apps to supplement your store on Shopify.
Developer & Support Community
Shopify definitely has the advantage here, boasting a larger community of developers and designers than Bigcommerce. This is partly due to the fact that they’re larger, and partly due to the fact that only recently (Q1 of 2014) did Bigcommerce open up their theme and app store, incentivizing developers and designers to proactively create for the platform. A few examples:
As we’ve mentioned, the Shopify app store has nearly four times the number of apps. In terms of themes, it’s not nearly as large of a difference, but there are definitely more available for Shopify – especially on the high end. Both are direct results of the number of people working on the platform.
When browsing the Shopify and Bigcommerce expert partner pages, Shopify has significantly more design and developers listed. And comparing skill sets of eCommerceFuel private forums members, Shopify seems to be the most widely known platform: more than twice as many consultants were experienced with Shopify than Bigcommerce.
I am and always have been a 100% online retailer – no bricks and mortar for me. But if I did have an offline presence, Shopify’s POS integration (that stands for “point of sale,” for everyone snickering right now) would be really hard to turn down.
The Shopify POS integration uses an iPad and a special card reader to allow you to easily accept payment in your store, all while maintaining centralized customer and inventory records across both your online and physical stores. The Shopify POS system also has a mobile app that pairs with the card reader, making it easy to sell at remote locations like trade shows or fairs.
Overall a pretty cool feature, and not something that’s available on Bigcommerce.
Payment Options & Checkout
Both platforms will let you connect with just about any payment gateway, from PayPal to Authorize.net. So if desired, you can shop around for the best merchant provider for your needs and plug them directly into your shopping cart. And if you’d rather get started selling immediately, both also support payment exclusively via PayPal.
PayPal integrates a bit differently between the two platforms. On Bigcommerce, you have the option to enter all of your personal details on your store’s native checkout page. Then you’re transferred to PayPal to make the final payment.
With Shopify, customers need to enter all their information via PayPal’s interface. While this isn’t a big deal for customers with an existing PayPal account and saved information, it’s a slightly less streamlined process for customers without a PayPal account, as they’ll be taken off your site for a longer period.
The native, on-site checkout process is also different between carts. On Shopify, customers leave your store’s domain to check out via a shared Shopify checkout funnel, which isn’t customizable.
Bigcommerce’s checkout is more streamlined. Checkout pages are hosted on the store’s domain, and the template is somewhat customizable. So the base URL will stay the same, and you can make tweaks to the checkout look and feel as needed.
Built-In Merchant Processing
Shopify is the only one with its own in-house payment gateway that you can apply for quickly within the Shopify interface. It’s a nice choice if you want to get up and running as quickly as possible and don’t want to fuss about with a third party.
While definitely convenient, the rates aren’t going to be rock bottom and are tied to the plan you’re on. If you’re on Shopify’s cheapest plan, you’ll pay 2.9%, which is definitely on the higher side for processing rates.
This drops to 2.25% for upper-level plans, which is more competitive. But if you’re doing a lot of volume, it’s always good to shop your rates around to get the best price – something you won’t be able to do on Shopify payments.
Shopify’s built-in merchant processing also offers the advantage of having all payment data natively integrated into your Shopify store to ensure more seamless accounting, refunds/upcharges and reconciliation without having to use a separate payment interface.
To get a sense of support quality and time, I contacted each company via phone and instant chat.
I’ve always heard great things about Shopify’s support, so I was a little surprised that it took 15 minutes to get someone on the phone. When I did, they were very helpful and friendly, and followed up immediately via email with links to documents we had discussed. Chat support was also fast and responsive, and I had someone online almost immediately.
I was able to get a Bigcommerce rep on the phone in about 5 minutes who was also knowledgeable about my question. And after signing up, a rep from Bigcommerce also reached out to me via email and called to see if I had any questions and/or could help, which was a nice touch.
Bud oddly, when I tried to start a chat session, it became unavailable. This occurred in the mid-afternoon during business hours, so I’m not sure if there was a technical glitch or what occurred. I asked around in the eCommerceFuel private forums, and other Bigcommerce users mentioned they’d also noticed chat randomly going offline midday.
There are always horror stories that get circulated, but I think it’s safe to assume you’ll receive a reasonable level of support from either company.
July 2014 Update: Bigcommerce is now offering 24/7 support via phone, chat and email.
Educational Content & Training
I debated including this in the write-up, as publicly available educational content on the web isn’t really something you need to commit to a platform to enjoy. Ultimately, I decided it was worth mentioning, because it illustrates each company’s dedication to continuing education and putting quality eCommerce content into the world.
Historically, I’ve been really impressed with Shopify’s commitment to producing high-quality eCommerce content – both in terms of their blog and educational guides. As I mentioned, I’ve worked with them on a number of content projects and initially sought them out, given their impressive track record in the area.
Bigcommerce has definitely been stepping up their content marketing and blogging efforts recently, and I’ve come across a number of interesting posts they’ve created in the last few months. I’m looking forward to watching that trend continue in the future.
One word on pricing before we dive into the specifics: Few things irritate me as much as people claiming to be “serious” entrepreneurs obsessing over a $5 price difference. Or, even worse, refusing to sign up with a service because it costs $20/month.
To some extent, price is – of course – always a consideration. But if you’re unwilling spend $20/month on your business or an extra $5/month to upgrade to the right platform, I doubt you’ll last long in the eCommerce game. People complaining about pricing at this level usually are simply distracting themselves from the hard work of getting down to it and building their business. Or they’re too cheap to invest in building a real business.
So don’t let that be you! Now that I’ve finished venting, let’s discuss pricing.
- Silver Plan: 5GB storage limit, unlimited products and bandwidth, 2% transaction fee – $34.95/month
- Gold Plan: Unlimited storage and bandwidth, no transaction fee, extra features (abandon cart, loyalty, omni-channel) – $79.95/month
- Platinum Plan: All features of the Gold plan, “White Glove” store setup and high-volume API access – $199.95/month
Bigcommerce recently rolled out this new pricing plan, which caused some consternation among store owners and sparked a very active and opinionated discussion in the private forums. The two biggest issues: transaction fees and API rules/access.
Historically, people criticized Shopify because they charged a transaction fee and Bigcommerce didn’t. Not having to pay a transaction fee was one of the more common reasons people cited for choosing Bigcommerce over Shopify. So I, along with others, was pretty surprised to see Bigcommerce institute a 2% fee on all transactions (this is in addition to credit card fees) for the Silver plan.
The other noteworthy change on the new pricing: API access. All plans but Platinum limit API calls to 20,000 requests/hour and don’t provide support for API troubleshooting and integration (full details here). This call limit shouldn’t be a problem for most users, but you will need the highest tiered plan to get help with API questions, which may be frustrating for smaller merchants building custom integrations.
All Shopify plans (apart from the Starter plan) come with unlimited products, a free card reader and 24/7 support.
- Starter – 25 product limit, 1GB storage limit. No card reader, discount coupons or HTML/CSS editing – $14/month
- Basic – 1GB storage limit. No transaction fee if processing cards with Shopify, otherwise 2% – $29/month.
- Professional – 5GB storage, gift cards and cart recovery. No fee if processing cards with Shopify, otherwise 1% – $79/month.
- Unlimited – Unlimited storage. All Professional plan options plus real-time carrier shipping. No transaction fees regardless of processing merchant – $179/month.
Shopify offers a bare-bones plan at $14/month, but it offers minimal functionality. The real comparable plans to Bigcommerce’s offerings start at $29/month with the Basic package.
Most notably, there are no transaction fees as long as you use Shopify’s in-house card processing. As we discussed earlier, this may or may not be the best choice for your business. If you do use an outside merchant, you’ll likely be paying a transaction fee between 1% to 2%. Only the highest level Shopify plan offers no transaction fees under any circumstances.
Finally, there is no limitation on API access or support. For advanced users, having access to API support at lower price tiers is definitely a major plus.
But note that Shopify plans don’t include a number of features in the lower-level plans that are included by default in all Bigcommerce plans, including real-time shipping quotes and gift certificates. You’ll have to upgrade to the Professional level plan for those.
So which platform is right for you? If you’ve made it this far, there’s certainly a lot to consider. Fortunately, there’s good news.
Both Bigcommerce and Shopify are excellent platforms and eons ahead of what I used to build my first store. I challenge anyone to set up and customize a store with Zencart (my original cart) in a few hours that doesn’t look like death, and I guarantee you’ll be dancing with joy over the decision you get to make.
Ultimately, your decision of which cart to pick will not make or break your business. Instead, your success will come down to offering a great product, adding value, taking great care of your customers and marketing/hustling like crazy. The platform can help, but it’s not what you should be losing sleep over at night.
So if this is the 14th Shopify vs. Bigcommerce review you’ve read – stop! Quit reading, pick one and move forward with building your business! You’re wasting valuable time.
With that being said, here are my thoughts on both platforms.
Final Shopify Thoughts
Shopify is – and has been for some time – the market leader in hosted carts for small to medium-sized merchants, both in terms of customers and the size of their ecosystem. They’re probably your best bet if you:
- Want the most options. From theme selection to developer talent to app selection, Shopify is hands-down the winner.
- Need a fully integrated retail solution. Shopify’s the only one to offer an integrated point-of-sale system for offline selling and built-in payment gateway.
- Don’t want to pay up for API support. If you want to build your own custom integrations on Bigcommerce, you’ll have to pay a minimum of $200 per month for access to API technical support.
- Are aesthetically focused. If you sell fashion products, or anything else with strong visuals, it’s hard to beat Shopify for quickly building a great-looking, uncluttered store. There are simply more professional themes to choose from and a larger pool of designer talent.
Final Bigcommerce Thoughts
I was impressed with the Bigcommerce platform, especially with the setup and onboarding process. They’re still catching up to Shopify in a number of areas – specifically in terms of their ecosystem – but they’ve made some great progress in the last year.
Bigcommerce is probably your best bet if you:
- Have a large and/or complex catalog of items. The product management interface has more options for accommodating complex options, and it’s easier to create a traditional nested category hierarchy.
- Value the ability to make basic changes using a visual drag-and-drop interface without having to code. Bigcommerce is the only platform to offer this.
- Value maximum out-of-the-box functionality. All Bigcommerce stores include features like real-time shipping quotes, gift certificates and integrated email marketing – tools that aren’t included with all Shopify plans. It’s possible to recreate many of these with apps, but Bigcommerce still has the edge in terms of built-in default features.
- Must have the ability to customize your checkout process. This is currently impossible with Shopify.