It’s no secret United Pixelworkers was hosted on Big Cartel for the first year. We blogged about it, and they were kind enough to write about our store not once but twice. At the time, we had no idea our store would become such a core part of who we are and what we do. It was a side project that we certainly hoped would bring in a bit of revenue and maybe even move us slightly in the direction of products. We wanted something quick, easy, and proven. Big Cartel fit the bill. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. So when we say it was time for us to move on, we want to make it absolutely 100% clear: it’s not you, it’s us. It’s an old, old saw, but it’s appropriate.
All the things that made Big Cartel great are still true—a beautiful control panel, reasonable price, responsive, helpful support staff, and enough flexibility and reliability to build a business. Big Cartel is a tremendous product from some really smart people. We owe them much more than the few dollars a month they charge for their product. If you need a hosted shopping cart, we highly recommend Matt and his crew at Big Cartel.
So what happened?
Briefly: we grew. First we had three products then five then 10 then 25 then 75 and now we have 107 total products with up to 15 more each month. Big Cartel can handle up to 300 products, but it was clear the software was optimized for smaller stores. When we took stock of where we were and where we hoped to go, it became clear we needed more flexibility. As we surveyed the field, we knew what we wanted, basically Big Cartel with more bells and whistles.
Truthfully, we didn’t survey the field for long. Like a hermit crab shedding its shell, we weren’t looking for something different, just… roomier. Shopify was a natural fit. We could use the same Liquid templating language and we could continue to use our PayPal account, so while the design would be new, our customers wouldn’t need to know or care that we’d switched platforms. Plus, Shopify had some real strengths that we could take advantage of down the road like additional payment methods, a more robust API, an app store, meta fields, and a blog engine.
Now that we’ve been using Shopify for the past two months, here’s an unvarnished look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Everything mentioned already plus the ability to have theme sandboxes is an improvement (for our needs) over where we were. We don’t have complete control over the checkout process, but we are finally able to offer seamless credit card transactions without leaving the site. Having extra themes means we can work on new features without completely breaking the site for our customers. With Big Cartel, modifying templates meant manually copying and pasting the new code in. That’s an intensely frustrating and error-prone process. Now we can upload changes via a Textmate bundle. It’s not painless (more on that in the bad and the ugly), but at least it gets the job done.
The single best part about moving to Shopify has been the abstraction (mostly) of PayPal, the world’s most-hated way to pay and get paid. Now we can see customer and order information in a relatively performant manner. We can look up customers, cancel and refund orders, and get all manner of statistics that PayPal believes should be granted only after extreme torture, if ever. Not only that, but we can potentially move away from PayPal completely if we decide that’s a good idea. (Spoiler alert: that’s a real possibility.)
Shopify has a strong system for handling email notifications complete with template-level control. We had a custom system running before using Postmark, but we don’t mind handing that responsibility off to Shopify at all. If you don’t have the chops to write your own, definitely consider letting Shopify handle that. (Side note: Postmark is great.)
With our old system, we were shipping at basically a flat rate. International had one rate, domestic had another. Now, shipping is calculated based on weight and you can offer as many (or few) shipping services as you like. It’s a much fairer system.
Shopify also supports adding sales tax. Depending on your product type, that’s potentially a big deal.
Finally, we use a handful of Shopify apps to move or analyze data. Some of them are great, others are just okay. While the marketplace is not without its flaws (more on that later), Shopify is better for them and they have the potential to incredible.
Bad / Ugly
Shopify is a great service at a fair price, so dwelling on the tiny issues that we would like to see improve would be silly. For the sake of thoroughness, though, here’s a quick list.
We would love to see API access for promotions so we can generate discounts programatically. (By the way, discounts and refunds are customer service’s best friend.) We would also like the ability to offer someone one completely free product with no shipping charge. Since we give away bunches of shirts each month, it would be nice to not need to handle those manually.
The blog is not a replacement for WordPress. We used it because it was quick and could live on the same domain, but the feature set is quite limiting. As soon as we get some time, a more robust blog is coming on a sub-domain.
Like all extensible platforms, the Shopify application store is a mixed blessing. It’s certainly good for providing new and innovative features, but it has downsides as well. Features that seem like they should be native require visiting third-party websites and the applications themselves are hit or miss. Overall it’s absolutely a net benefit to have an app store. Still, the experience is fragmented and occasionally underwhelming. We have had to resort to third-party applications for administrative access to meta fields and sales statistics. (And the statistics that are available are in Flash. Come on, guys.) Those certainly feel like they should be part of the core experience.
We also still find ourselves handcuffed by the templating language. It makes complete sense for those with limited programming experience, but for us it just turns trivial tasks into obstacle courses. (While we’re complaining, the iPhone app is a touch buggy and not being able to change customer orders is rather inconvenient. Though we understand why order mutability is probably a bad idea, we get 3-5 customers each month who want to make a change.)
Shopify has been a nice step up for us from where we were. We’ve been able to play with more features while staying within the comfortable hosted sandbox. Despite our minor gripes, we’re pleased with how things are turning out and we have a lot of improvements we’re itching to make. If a robust hosted cart is what you’re looking for, I don’t know how you can do better than Shopify. We still love Big Cartel, of course, and there are other good carts that work really well for certain people, so do your homework before jumping in.
Here’s the takeaway: selling stuff online today is infinitely easier than it was just a few years ago and these guys are a big part of the reason why.