Big Cartel vs Shopify — Which is the Best Store Builder?

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Big Cartel vs Shopify (the two logos on a screen, side by side).

Big Cartel vs Shopify — which is best? In this comprehensive comparison, I’m going to help you answer that question! I’ll take you through the key features, pros and cons and pricing of both these well-known e-commerce platforms — and help you decide which one is right for you, your budget, and your business.

Read on to discover what you can and can’t do with each platform, and learn about the key alternatives.

Let’s begin by answering a key question: what do Big Cartel and Shopify do?


Big Cartel and Shopify: an overview

Big Cartel and Shopify are ‘hosted’ online store building tools. This means that they run ‘in the cloud’ and there’s nothing to install on your computer.

So, as long as you have access to a web browser and the internet, you can build and manage your store from anywhere using either platform.

Both solutions allow you to:

  • sell your products online
  • take payments from your customers
  • ship your products around the world
  • sell products in physical locations.

And they both do these core e-commerce jobs very well.

But, as you read on, you’ll see that they don’t quite do these tasks in the same way or to the same extent. This is largely because both products have quite different histories and userbases.

Let’s dig into these.

Big Cartel’s history

Big Cartel has been around since 2005 and it currently has 46 staff members. It was originally conceived as a solution for selling creative products.

Since its inception, the platform has hosted well over a hundred thousand online stores — creating over $2.5bn in sales for Big Cartel users.

Big Cartel
Big Cartel is marketed primarily at an artistic audience

And who are those Big Cartel users and store owners making that revenue?

Well, by and large, we’re talking about the same business demographic from Big Cartel’s early days: artists, musicians and small businesses. This is where the ‘art’ in Big Cartel comes from!

A considerable proportion of Big Cartel’s user base consists of:

  • artists
  • photographers
  • visual artists
  • jewelers
  • makers.

It also includes small businesses focused on selling:

  • fashion products such as bags, shoes and clothing
  • makeup
  • music merchandise

and many other craft-based small businesses with a limited inventory of products on offer.

Shopify’s background

Shopify was founded in 2006 and now has upwards of 7,000 staff working on the platform. To date, Shopify has helped its users generate $356bn in sales, dwarfing the more-than-respectable Big Cartel total.

According to internet statistics company Builtwith, there are currently in excess of 3.2 million online stores running on Shopify.

Shopify
The Shopify platform

Shopify’s users come from a very wide range of industries and sectors — some of the more popular categories of industries its users originate from include:

  • clothing and fashion
  • health and Beauty
  • food and drink 
  • electronics
  • sports and recreation 
  • furniture
  • art and photography.

And, whereas Big Cartel is focussed on individuals and small businesses, Shopify’s platform caters for online businesses of all sizes — from micro-sellers to large, household-name enterprises like Tesla, Pepsico and Red Bull.

So as you can see from the stats above, Shopify is by far the bigger platform, both in terms of its userbase and the revenue it generates.

Now, before we delve deeper into each platform, a quick note on why size matters here.

In the past, some e-commerce companies have ceased operation suddenly, resulting in a difficult situation for their customers and short-notice migrations of their stores to new platforms.

(A key example of this is Magento Go’s disappearance).

With this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that because Big Cartel has a much smaller market share than Shopify, it is the riskier platform to choose — the likelihood of a company the size of Shopify suddenly going bust is remote.

But that said, Big Cartel is a well-established e-commerce solution that has stood the test of time to date. And, as we’ll see later on in this comparison, there are some upsides to a ‘small is beautiful’ approach to e-commerce.

More on that later, but first let’s look at how the pricing for these two platforms compares.


Big Cartel and Shopify pricing

Big Cartel fees

Big Cartel provides three pricing plans:

  • Gold (Free) — $0 per month.
  • Platinum — $9.99 per month.
  • Diamond — $19.99 per month.

All Big Cartel pricing plans come with free themes to design your store with, and all plans allow you to:

  • use a custom domain
  • sell online and in person
  • offer discounts and promotions
  • calculate sales tax with ‘Sales Tax Autopilot.’ 

It is important to note that Big Cartel’s ‘free’ plan is exactly that! It is not a free trial that expires after a set time period. You can run and make sales on a basic store on this plan indefinitely. Very few of Big Cartel’s competitors facilitate this, with the notable exception of Ecwid

As you might expect though, there are limitations to the Big Cartel free plan.

Most significantly, it limits you to selling a total of just five products. It also restricts your ability to edit your site’s code, add Google Analytics and keep tabs on how much inventory you’ve got left.

Despite these restrictions, the ‘free’ plan can be a great way to get started with selling online, testing the market and developing sales and marketing techniques.

In short, the free plan may be basic — but it is the strongest argument in favour of using Big Cartel over Shopify.

Big Cartel pricing
Big Cartel pricing

Moving on to the paid-for plans, the ‘Platinum’ plan at $9.99 per month allows you to sell a maximum of 50 products in your store. It also gives you access to inventory tracking, increased editing functionality for your theme, and, importantly, Google Analytics. All these help you make the most of your online presence.

The most expensive ‘Diamond’ plan, which costs $19.99, increases your product inventory limit to 500 products. Otherwise, all of its bundled features are the same as those of the Platinum plan.

So all in all, the Big Cartel pricing plans offer access to an e-commerce platform at very competitive prices. If you are offering a limited range of products, and you have a small budget to play with, Big Cartel is certainly worth some serious consideration.

However, many users will be disappointed with the product limits that the plans are built around. If you have more than 500 products in your inventory (or if you plan on having an inventory larger than 500 products),you will need to look elsewhere for an online store builder.

Shopify imposes no limits on the number of products you can sell — no matter which Shopify plan you choose.

Let’s take a look at these.

Shopify fees

Shopify has five different pricing plans:

  • Lite: $9 per month.
  • Basic: $29 per month.
  • Shopify: $79 per month.
  • Advanced: $299 per month.
  • Plus: this is negotiable, but usually costs around $2000 per month.

You can reduce your Shopify plan’s cost by purchasing an annual or biennial plan. By doing this you will receive a 10% or 20% discount on your plan fees.

You can also avail of a free Shopify trial lasting for 14 days. This is available from the Shopify website.

Shopify pricing for its most popular plans
Shopify pricing for its most popular plans

Now, in terms of the differences between each Shopify plan, the $9 per month ‘Lite ‘plan is something of the odd man out here. It allows you to start selling your goods online — but it doesn’t provide you with a fully-functional, standalone online store.

Instead, it allows you to:

  • make use of a “Shopify Button” — an embeddable widget, similar to a Paypal ‘buy now’ button, that adds a shopping cart to an existing website
  • use your Facebook page to sell products
  • sell your goods in physical location (at a ‘point of sale’), while using Shopify’s inventory management and order processing system.

The main differences between the other plans are:

  • the number of users who can access an account — the higher the plan, the more users you can have (you get 2, 5, and 15 staff accounts on the Basic, Shopify, and Advanced Shopify plans respectively)
  • professional reporting features — these are only available on ‘Shopify’ or higher plans
  • third-party shipping rate calculations (these are available on the ‘Advanced Shopify’ plan or higher)
  • multi-currency features —you can set your own currency conversion rates on the ‘Shopify’ plans or above
  • phone support — this is only available on the $29 ‘Basic’ plan and up.

Every Shopify plan includes fairly comprehensive point-of-sale functionality that lets you sell goods in physical locations (retail outlets, market stalls etc.). This can be further enhanced via a premium ‘POS Pro’ add-on (more on which later).

Finally, the Shopify ‘Plus’ plan is an enterprise-grade solution for large businesses. It offers advanced features involving security, APIs, fulfillment and automation of marketing tasks. Fees for this are negotiable.

(If you’d like a more detailed breakdown on the differences between Shopify plans, please check out our article on Shopify fees.)

So, we’ve looked at how much Big Cartel and Shopify plans cost — but how do stores built with these two e-commerce platforms actually look?


Templates and visuals

Quantity

Big Cartel has 18 templates or ‘themes’ to choose from — you pick one of these, and it forms the basis of your store’s design.

This selection is a lot smaller than most other well-established e-commerce platforms. For example, Wix gives you 600+; BigCommerce offers over 170; Squarespace offers around 130.

On the plus side, all of Big Cartel’s templates are entirely free of charge, which isn’t the case with all competing platforms.

In terms of editability, Big Cartel’s themes are customizable — but the options available on this front are fairly limited.

Big Cartel template
Example of a Big Cartel template, ‘Ranger’

As for Shopify, the platform offers 10 free themes, all of which come in 2-3 styles.

Shopify also has 71 paid-for premium themes on offer. These range from $100 to $350 in price.

Shopify theme
Example of a Shopify paid-for theme

One thing worth noting about the Shopify paid themes is that the customer support for some of them can be limited. You may find that you have to deal directly with third-party theme creators if you encounter problems with your template, which can add a layer of extra hassle.

But overall, when it comes to the choice and variety of themes, Shopify takes the win.

Quality

Big Cartel themes are good overall. They are all fully responsive — meaning they’ll adapt themselves automatically to display nicely on any device (mobile, tablet, desktop etc.) — and there is reasonable variety across the 18 theme options.

Most of the themes are suitable for visual creatives, photographers, and all types of makers. They are built primarily for selling products — not just showcasing your talent in general.

Big Cartel’s themes have decent aesthetics, although it does feel that some of the differences between them are a bit superficial. 

One thing you should note about Big Cartel’s themes is that although it’s possible to customize certain aspects of a Big Cartel theme, this can require a degree of coding ability.

On to Shopify! 

Shopify’s themes are very attractive and of high quality across the board. Many themes offer you the option to add video backgrounds and parallax scrolling effects to further enhance the visuals.

Like Big Cartel’s, all Shopify themes are fully responsive, and the large range available means that you should be able to find a very professional-looking theme for your niche without difficulty.

Many Shopify themes possess really excellent design elements that you won’t always find in Big Cartel, including:

  • image zoom features for your products
  • sizing charts for clothing
  • parallax scrolling effects
  • video backgrounds
  • multi-level menus
  • a wide variety of image galleries
  • related product displays

A nice plus on the ‘user experience’ side of using Shopify’s theme store is the filtering options available when choosing a theme. You can filter the templates based on price, industry, navigation styles, layout and more.

Ultimately Big Cartel’s templates offering is solid, but Shopify’s offering is more extensive, and has more class.

Now, let’s take a look at how these two platforms compare when it comes to how easy it is to manage your content.

Content management and interface

Ease of use

Big Cartel and Shopify’s interfaces are, for the most part, both easy to use.

In Big Cartel, you have a very ‘uncluttered’ dashboard with an icon-based navigation menu at the top, which you can use to move around the interface easily.

The Big Cartel interface
The Big Cartel content management system

This menu lets you access analytics, add products, view orders, set up discounts and change account settings. 

The Big Cartel navigation icons
The Big Cartel navigation icons

Finding the Big Cartel template editor is rather difficult however! Unlike the platform’s other core functionality, the template editor is not accessible from the main navigation bar at the top of the screen — you have to go to the ‘account’ section of your Big Cartel store and find a not-very obvious ‘design’ button to open it.

Once you’ve done so, you’ll find that the interface for the Big Commerce’s template editor is pretty simple to use, with settings in a menu on the left hand side of the screen. Changes made using these are visible on the right hand side.

There is some basic drag-and-drop functionality available — but only for changing the order of products in a list or grid.

Big Cartel’s template editor

Overall, getting to grips with the Big Cartel interface doesn’t involve a steep learning curve at all. However, the functionality it offers is fairly basic by comparison to many competing products.

When it comes to Shopify’s interface, it provides a better experience in almost every way.

On the left hand side of the Shopify interface, you’ll find a menu that gives you access to all the platform’s key features. This allows you to get to more places with fewer clicks than Big Cartel.

The Shopify content management system (CMS)
The Shopify content management system

When you access a feature using Shopify’s left-hand menu, the relevant controls or information are displayed on the right hand side of the screen. Here you can edit content, view data and add products easily.

In terms of editing content, with the release of its new ‘Online Store 2.0’ content management system, Shopify now provides a drag-and-drop editor for laying out your text, images and products.

This gives you a lot of flexibility about how you lay out your pages, and goes far beyond what’s on offer from Big Cartel’s more traditional ‘What You See is What You Get’ (WYSIWYG) editor.

Shopify's new drag and drop editor
Shopify’s new drag and drop editor lets you lay out pages using movable content sections and blocks

You should note however that Shopify’s drag-and-drop editor isn’t yet available for all its templates — at time of writing, it’s included in only one free Shopify theme (‘Dawn’).

(Themes that come with drag-and-drop functionality are identifiable by the ‘OS 2.0’ labels in the Shopify theme store.)

Overall, you could argue that because of Big Cartel’s smaller range of features, it’s a bit easier to use than Shopify. However, you won’t face a particularly large learning curve with Shopify either — and its new drag-and-drop editor makes laying out pages easier than in Big Cartel.

Importing and exporting content and products

Uploading products to Big Cartel is very straightforward. You can upload products one at a time, or use the ‘product imports’ feature, which allows you to use a CSV file for bulk uploading.

Adding products to Big Cartel
Adding products to Big Cartel

Exporting order information from Big Cartel is possible too — but strangely, there’s no obvious way to export product data. This may prove frustrating for merchants with larger product catalogues who decide to move to another platform down the line.

Shopify also lets you bulk import and export products information via CSV, as well as bulk update your products (again, using a CSV file).

As for importing and exporting ‘static’ content (i.e., pages and blog posts) the options are less extensive on this front with either Big Cartel or Shopify — there are no built-in tools to help you with this, and many merchants migrating to or from either platform may end up having to do a bit of copying and pasting.

That said, there are some paid-for apps available in the Shopify app store which can speed up the process (for example BlogFeeder or Exlm).

Product images and galleries

The basic image features of Big Cartel are adequate for simple presentation of your products. However, Big Cartel themes lack more interactive image features like product image zoom.

The Big Cartel templates are a also bit fiddly when it comes to things like adding galleries to pages, and a decent level of comfort with CSS is often required to customize pages and themes.

Image zoom in Shopify
Image zoom in Shopify

On the Shopify side of things, 65 of its themes come with product image zoom functionality built in, and there are a host of apps available that give your customer more ways to get up close with your products.

It is also less challenging to add a gallery to a Shopify store than a Big Cartel one, thanks to a wide range of gallery apps that are available from Shopify’s app store.

Gallery apps in the Shopify app store
Gallery apps in the Shopify app store

(More on the app store later.)

Blogging features

When you’re running an e-commerce business, it’s important to be aware of the benefits of blogging. It is essential for inbound marketing, because high-quality content can attract visitors to your store — and more traffic means more sales opportunities!

Unfortunately, Big Cartel doesn’t offer built-in blogging functionality. This is a shame, because the target audiences of Big Cartel stores (i.e., those with an interest in all things artistic and creative) might benefit greatly from merchants sharing unique perspectives on their fields of interest.

So, if you want to blog using Big Cartel, you’ll need to use a third-party app to do so — a good option for this is the DropInBlog tool. However this requires a setup which, if you are a beginner with HTML, you may find a little intimidating.

Shopify, by contrast, does provide built-in blogging tools. And for most merchants’ purposes, these tools will cover the main bases.

Shopify’s blogging features are fairly basic compared to, say, Squarespace or Wordpress, however. You can apply tags to Shopify blog posts, but not categories. And there is no content versioning or Yoast-style SEO plug-ins available.

For enhanced capability, third-party blogging tools like the DropInBlog app mentioned above can also be used on Shopify to add additional features (for example, SEO post analysis, categories, and multiple contributors).

Mobile apps

Big Cartel and Shopify both provide mobile apps for their users to manage their stores on the go.

Big Cartel provides one mobile app, available for both iOS and Android. The iOS app is the better of the two, giving you some extra functionality for taking in-person cash payments and issuing receipts (it scores more highly on the iOS app store too, getting 4.8 stars out of 5 to the Android version’s 3.5 out of 5 on the Google Play store).

The Big Cartel mobile app
The Big Cartel mobile app

The Big Cartel app allows you to:

  • create, edit and add products
  • add product images
  • track order status
  • manage discounts.

You should note that you can only accept in-person card payments with the Android app if you are using Stripe as your payment gateway (more on payment gateways shortly).

Shopify provides a bigger mobile app offering than Big Cartel.

First, there’s the main ‘Shopify’ app which lets you

  • manage orders
  • edit products
  • manage your sales channels.

The other main app that many Shopify merchants will need to use regularly is its ‘POS’ (point-of-sale) app. This is geared towards merchants using Shopify to sell in physical locations and lets you:

  • scan barcode labels with your phone camera
  • accept major credit cards, Apple Pay, Google Pay and cash
  • collect customer contact information
  • connect to Shopify’s point-of-sale hardware
  • manage returns.

There are also a few other Shopify apps available, including a customer chat app (‘Shopify Inbox’); an app for managing local deliveries; and a photography app.

Of these additional apps, the most useful is probably ‘Shopify Inbox’. This app lets you manage queries and share product information with customers when chatting with them through Facebook Messenger or Apple Messages (support for Instagram is on the way).

Analytics and reporting

When you’re running an e-commerce business, the more you know about how your users interact with your store, the more you can adapt your offering and brand strategy to clinch more sales.

So, the type of reporting available in an e-commerce platform is very important.

Big Cartel offers some very basic reporting ‘out of the box,’ providing you with a very simple overview of how your visits and sales are going. However, for detailed analytics, you’ll have to connect your store to Google Analytics — and you can only do this if you are on a paid-for plan.

Shopify’s in-built analytics and reporting features outshine those of Big Cartel, giving you:

  • finance reports
  • sales reports
  • customer reports
  • acquisition reports
  • behavior reports.

There are many types of report available within each of the above categories — allowing you to drill down into various perspectives on each.

Conversion reporting in Shopify
Conversion reporting in Shopify

However, a major downside to Shopify’s approach to reporting is the fact that you are pushed towards the more expensive plans in order to access the most useful reports — many of the reports that merchants will require are only available from the $79 ‘Shopify’ plan and higher.

Shopify also permits you to create custom reports, but only if you are on the ‘Advanced Shopify’ and ‘Shopify Plus’ plans.

So, Shopify certainly beats Big Cartel in the area of reporting functionality — but at a financial cost to the merchant.

While you’re here — have you seen our Shopify video review?

Read our full Shopify review | Access Shopify free trial


E-commerce features

So far, we’ve looked at how Big Cartel and Shopify stores look, along with some of the key features of their content management systems.

But of course what matters most is how they let you sell your products.

So, let’s drill down into both platforms’ e-commerce features, starting with their payment gateway options.

Payment gateways

A payment gateway is the software that lets you accept credit card payments on your online store.

Shopify offers a built-in payment gateway — ‘Shopify Payments ‘— but also lets you make use of external payment gateways.

By contrast, Big Cartel only uses integrations with external payment providers.

In terms of the number of payment gateways you can use with both platforms, Shopify lets you connect with over 100 of them. This dwarfs Big Cartel’s integration with just four providers: Stripe, Paypal, Square and Venmo.

(You should note that Shopify Payments is not available in all countries, however.)

Many Shopify merchants simply opt for Shopify Payments. As an ‘out of the box’ payment system it involves less setup than an external gateway, and Shopify won’t take a cut of your sales (i.e., a transaction fee) when you use it.

You will however still have to pay a credit card fee on each of your sales if you use Shopify Payments (these vary by plan and by country).

Big Cartel doesn’t charge any transaction fees whatsoever when you accept a payment through your store. However, you’ll still be charged credit card fees by your chosen payment gateway. Taking Stripe as an example, this typically equates to 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction in the US (fees can be lower in other territories).

If you use an external payment gateway with Shopify, you will have to pay transaction fees on top of whatever your payment gateway is charging you (2%, 1% and 0.5% on the Basic, Shopify and Advanced Shopify plans respectively).

In short, Shopify gives you a world of options for taking payments, whereas Big Cartel’s options on this front are very limited.

Just make sure to factor in the associated fees if you plan on using a third-party payment gateway with Shopify.

Now, let’s move on to how much stuff you can sell on each platform.

Product numbers and product options

When it comes to inventory size, the differences between Big Cartel and Shopify are clear cut.

Big Cartel limits you to a maximum of 500 products on its highest plan, whereas Shopify allows you to sell an unlimited number of items on all of its plans. This makes Shopify the much more suitable platform for merchants with larger product inventories.

Both platforms allow you to add tags to products and organise them into categories, and create multiple product options and variants.

Product options in Big Cartel
Product options in Big Cartel

Big Cartel lets you create 150 options per product listing — these let you offer your products in different sizes, colors, flavors and so on. As you enter options, you also set a price for each option.

You can also use a feature called ‘product option groups’ to further expand ways of combining product variables. This entails creating groups like size or color, to which you add variations like small, medium, large, or green, pink, black. Each option group displays in a separate list, allowing customers to choose their preferred combinations. 

Shopify allows three options per product as standard and 100 product variants in total. So, it could be argued that Big Cartel offers more flexibility here.

However, third-party apps such as Infinite Options (by ShopPad) enable Shopify merchants to significantly expand the number of product options and variants.

So, for merchants with products that come in hundreds of variations, Shopify remains the more obvious choice, thanks to the functionality provided by third-party apps. This does often come at an additional cost, however.

Managing product collections

Shopify’s capability when it comes to managing product collections is excellent.

Products can be added to a collection manually or automatically — and if you have a large product range, the ‘automatic’ option can save you a lot of time.

This feature involves setting up simple ‘if-then’ rules — based on product titles, tags, type, price etc. — which automatically categorize your products so that they end up in the correct collection.

So, for example, you could set up a rule that automatically puts all products tagged ‘Vintage’ into a ‘Retro’ collection; or decide that any product with the word ‘Trousers’ in its title should go into a ‘Trousers’ collection.

Automatic product categorization in Shopify
Automatic product categorization in Shopify

Once you get to grips with how this works, and so long as you are consistent with how you tag and name your products, you can really save a huge amount of time with this feature.

Big Cartel does let you create categories and assign products to them easily enough — however, you can’t automate the process like you can in Shopify (a ‘bulk edit’ tool can be used to speed things up a bit, however).

Bulk editing product categories in Big Cartel
Bulk editing product categories in Big Cartel

Abandoned cart features

One area where there is no contest between Big Cartel and Shopify involves abandoned carts.

Cart abandonment refers to a situation where online store visitors add items to their shopping cart, but exit the store without completing their purchase. Figures for cart abandonment vary, with Baymard Institute estimating an average of 69.80% — that’s a lot of incomplete sales!

Abandoned cart recovery is your friend here — it allows you to email those store visitors who added something to their cart but didn’t complete the checkout process.

Setting up abandoned cart saving in Shopify
Setting up abandoned cart saving in Shopify

The good news for Shopify users is that abandoned cart recovery is a core feature, available on all its plans. The feature lets you send one automated email to users who abandon their cart.

By contrast, there is no abandoned cart functionality available out of the box Big Cartel. You can however connect an email marketing app like AWeber or Mailchimp to proceedings in order to gain this feature — but more configuration will be involved.

So, when it comes to abandoned cart recovery tools, it’s a clear win for Shopify.

Point of Sale (POS) options in Big Cartel and Shopify

Online store owners increasingly have a need for point-of-sale technology to allow them to process transactions in person at events, festivals, markets and brick-and-mortar retail outlets. Both Big Cartel and Shopify facilitate this.

In order to use POS hardware such as receipt printers and barcode scanners with Big Cartel, you’ll need to use hardware from one of their 4 payment gateway providers — these are Stripe, Paypal, Venmo, and Square (Afterpay is to be added to the mix soon).

By contrast, Shopify can service your POS needs directly — a full range of POS hardware is available directly from the company; and it has its own dedicated POS app for payment processing, inventory tracking and receipt issuance to customers. This means that Shopify POS is much more tightly integrated with your online store’s back end.

Shopify's point-of-sale hardware. In a Big Cartel vs Shopify shootout, you'll find that the POS options in Shopify are much more extensive.
Shopify’s point-of-sale hardware.

All Shopify plans cover you for on-the-go sales via the standard ‘Shopify POS Lite’ features. These let you:

  • process payments
  • use POS hardware
  • manage orders and products
  • manage customer profiles.

However, to get the most out of Shopify POS, you may need to fork out a fee of $89 per month, per location for a ‘Shopify POS Pro’ add-on.

This allows you to do things like:

  • work with a large number of POS-only staff
  • allow customer in-store collection
  • use an unlimited number of registers
  • get access to in-store analytics
  • define specific staff roles and permissions
  • provide custom printed receipts
  • attribute sales to individual staff members.

Ultimately, while you can meet core POS requirements with either Big Cartel or Shopify, because of its ‘out of the box’ nature and more extensive feature set, the winner in this area is definitely Shopify.

Selling digital products

From audiobooks and music to printables and craft patterns, more and more people are selling digital products through their online stores.

So, how easy is it to do this with Big Cartel and Shopify?

To sell digital products, Big Cartel requires the use of an app called Pulley — and this brings significant extra costs to the mix.

Pulley provides 8 plans, which are priced according to how many products you wish to sell. Costs range from $6 per month (for a 25 product limit and a 100MB storage limit) to $299 per month (for selling an unlimited number of products using a 30GB storage limit).

The Pulley app
Selling digital products with Big Cartel involves a quite expensive app called ‘Pulley’

Shopify makes it much easier and cheaper to sell digital products: you simply use its free ‘Digital Downloads’ app to do so. In terms of file size limits, you can sell files of up to 5GB in size.

If the free Digital Downloads app doesn’t meet your requirements, are plenty of other digital download apps available for Shopify that provide enhanced features and functionality.

For example, the SendOwl app for Shopify lets you stamp PDF files with your customer’s name — a great way to reduce fraud. It also lets you ‘drip release’ digital products to your customers over time and it even comes with a brandable streaming video player.

The SkyPilot app lets you bundle digital and physical products together, and sell files of up to 5TB in size.

So all in all, it’s a win in this area for Shopify — you can sell digital products out of the box with no extra charges being involved, but if you do want to use another app to sell files, a much wider range of options is available to you.

Custom fields and file uploads

Some merchants will require customers to provide some additional information when purchasing a product — usually in the form of some text, or an uploaded image file.

For example, jewellers might require inscription text; a t-shirt maker might need an image to print on the t-shirt.

Big Cartel doesn’t let you do this — which is surprising really, given that many of its users work in the sort of creative industries that make personalized products.

Unlike BigCommerce (pictured above), neither Big Cartel or Shopify make adding custom fields to products particularly easy.

Shopify does allow you to capture this data, but it’s a fiddly process. To capture additional text, you’ll need to create a ‘line item property’ by adding some HTML code to your template. The alternative is to pay for an app to do the job.

It’s a similar story with file uploads in Shopify: if you need to offer your customers the option to upload a file during their purchase, you’re going to have to get coding or buy a suitable app.

It would be better, as is the case with competing product BigCommerce, if this was simply a standard feature.

Automatic tax calculations and VAT MOSS

A particular challenge of selling online is that you can end up making sales in a variety of jurisdictions with different tax rates — and this is something that you have to reflect in your products’ pricing.

To help you out here, Big Cartel and Shopify both provide tools that perform tax calculations automatically.

Big Cartel’s system, Sales Tax Autopilot, works well for sellers based in the United States — it automatically applies the correct tax rate for each US state.

Big Cartel sellers outside the US have to set their tax rates manually, however. European Union merchants can choose to collect tax for their home country or the whole EU; and sellers in other countries can set taxes for their store’s home country only.

Enabling tax collection in Big Cartel
Enabling tax collection in Big Cartel

As for Shopify, its automatic tax calculation features work in the US, EU, UK or Canada. If you’re based outside these countries, you’ll need to create your tax rules manually, or find a third-party app that does this automatically for you.

One thing to pay particular attention to when it comes to tax calculations is something called VAT MOSS (short for ‘VAT Mini One Stop Shop’).

Regardless of your location, if the consumers of your digital goods are in the EU, you’ve got to apply country-specific rates of VAT to these products — there’s one VAT rate applied for Germany, another for Sweden and so on.

Unfortunately, there is no way to apply these complex VAT MOSS rates in Big Cartel. By contrast, Shopify calculates the relevant tax automatically for you (when you use its free ‘Digital Downloads’ app). This is a fantastic feature and fairly unique to Shopify.

So, because it offers more extensive functionality and in more countries too, the winner when it comes to tax calculation is definitely Shopify.

Now, how do Big Cartel and Shopify compare when it comes to getting your products to your consumer?

Shipping

Both Big Cartel and Shopify  provide a wide range of shipping options, allowing you to offer your customers free shipping, flat rate shipping and  in-store pickup amongst other methods.

And, if the built-in shipping features of either platform don’t quite meet your needs, you can  turn to a 3rd party app to gain enhanced functionality. For example, you can use Shipstation with both platforms — this provides a suite of tools for automating aspects of your shipping and managing inventory more effectively.

Shopify’s shipping features are more comprehensive than Big Cartel’s, however.

For a start, Shopify lets you calculate shipping prices based on weight — somewhat inexplicably, Big Cartel doesn’t.

Second, Shopify’s built-in real time shipping quotes allow you to show your customers a ‘live’ shipping price for your items from a variety of postal companies.

And, if you are based in the USA, Canada or Australia, the ‘Shopify Shipping’ service gives you discounted rates from several local postal services (including UPS, Canada Post and Sendle). These discounts can be as high as 88%, depending on the plan.

For more detailed info on ‘Shopify Shipping’, check out the video below.

But what about that other type of shipping that is all the rage — dropshipping?

Dropshipping with BigCartel vs Shopify

Dropshipping is a way to sell products online without incurring the cost of ordering stock. Rather than making, storing or fulfilling goods yourself, all you do is take an order through your online store, and leave its fulfilment to a supplier.

Big Cartel offers two useful dropshipping options, via Printful and The Art of Where. Both these services let you upload artwork which is then printed onto products that you can sell to your audience — with manufacture and delivery being handled by the companies involved.

(The below video shows you how the integration between Printful and Big Cartel works).

Shopify is the hands-down winner in the dropshipping department, however, giving you the option of working with hundreds of suppliers. A quick search for dropshippina integrations in the Shopify app store returns close to 400 results.

Importantly, most of these apps do not restrict you to just selling items involving printed artwork or logos — they let you dropship a very wide range of products.

Dropshipping apps in the Shopify app store
Just a few of the dropshipping apps available in the Shopify store

The bottom line here is that Big Cartels’s dropshipping options are a good fit for its user base of artists and visual creatives, who will appreciate the opportunity to turn their artistic efforts into printed goods — but Shopify simply offers too many options for Big Cartel to keep up.

The Shopify dropshipping starter kit

If you’re interested in dropshipping, I’d recommend that you take a look at Shopify’s dropshipping starter kit — with this, you get 14 days of free access to Shopify plus lots of bundled resources and tools that show you how to launch a successful dropshipping Shopify store.

You can access the starter kit here.

Multi-currency selling

Displaying prices in your customers’ currency — or, at the very least, giving your customers the ability to change the currency to their own one — generally leads to more sales. The ability to sell products in local currencies is therefore very important.

Different degrees of multi-currency functionality is available from Big Cartel and Shopify — with Shopify’s being more extensive.

Although Big Cartel lets you use 24 different currencies in your store, only one can be enabled.

By contrast, Shopify facilitates true multi-currency selling, prompting users to pick their relevant currency (via a country selector) and enabling them to check out in that currency.

There are restrictions to multi-currency functionality in Shopify however, which depend on your plan.

First, you can only adjust currency conversion rates manually if you’re on a ‘Shopify’ or higher plan (doing so gives you fine grain control over product pricing for different markets).

Second, it is only on the enterprise-level ‘Shopify Plus’ plan that you can avail of automatic currency conversion — where IP addresses are used to work out visitor locations and automatically display the relevant currency for your customer.

And finally, the built-in multi-currency features only work if you use Shopify Payments, Shopify’s own payment gateway.

You can do away with these restrictions however by using a third-party app to handle currency conversion — a good option here is Bold Multi-Currency.

The Bold Multi-Currency App
The Bold Multi-Currency app

I would prefer to see automatic currency conversion available on all Shopify plans — not just Shopify Plus — but the functionality provided is nonetheless better than what’s on offer from most key competing platforms.

But all in all, when it comes to multi-currency selling it’s another clear win for Shopify.

Integration with other apps

Both Big Cartel and Shopify feature ‘app stores’ that provide you with ways of increasing your store’s feature set, or allow you to integrate it with other web applications. 

Big Cartel has 25 apps available, which include tools for:

  • payment processing
  • store management
  • order fulfillment
  • marketing and promotion
  • shipping.
Some of the apps available for Big Cartel
Some of the apps available for Big Cartel

Now, while a selection of 25 apps might seem miniscule — and pales in comparison to the 6000+ available for Shopify — it is important to note that Big Cartel also integrates with syncing service Zapier, which lets you hook Big Cartel up to a further 500 apps or so.

The downside here is that using Zapier often means paying an additional monthly fee — not all integrations are free, or are limited to a certain number of ‘syncs’ between apps each month.

As a side note, Big Cartel does have one important app integration that Shopify doesn’t — and that’s for Mailchimp. Mailchimp withdrew its official integration with Shopify after a legal dispute around data protection issues between the two companies.

The Shopify app store

Shopify’s app and integration options are far more extensive. The 6000+ apps in the Shopify app store testify to the sheer number of merchants using Shopify and also the broader ‘ecosystem’ that has grown up around the Shopify platform.

Given the large number of apps available for Shopify, locating the right apps for your project might feel a bit daunting. However, the filters and checkboxes in the Shopify app store — along with clearly defined categories — make finding an app to suit your needs pretty straightforward.

Using filters to search for apps in the Shopify app store
Using filters to search for apps in the Shopify app store

Always remember to factor in the additional costs associated with adding paid apps, however — those monthly charges can start to add up!

But overall, when it comes to apps and integrations for your online store, the winner is — again! — Shopify.

Email marketing with Shopify and Big Cartel

In recent years, leading e-commerce platforms have started to offer built-in email marketing tools that let you host mailing lists and send e-newsletters without leaving the platform.

Shopify, Wix and Squarespace now all offer this as a service, and at competitive prices too.

In the context of a Big Cartel vs Shopify discussion, it’s worth noting that while Shopify now offers a built-in email marketing solution (the appropriately named ‘Shopify Email’), Big Cartel doesn’t. This means that Big Cartel users have to rely on a third-party service like GetResponse or Mailchimp to send e-newsletters.

With Shopify Email, you can send up to 2,500 emails per month to your customers for free. After that, you pay $1 USD per 1,000 additional emails sent (or $0.001 USD per additional email).

While Shopify Email is far more basic in nature than dedicated email marketing tools like AWeber and Mailchimp (don’t expect any autoresponders or advanced marketing automation, for example) it’s easy to use and very cheap.

You can learn more about Shopify Email here.


Search engine optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization (SEO) is absolutely vital to the success of any online store — without traffic, it’s impossible to generate sales.

So, how do Big Cartel and Shopify compare on the SEO front?

Well, Big Cartel does some things that Google likes — it gives you:

However, it’s not all good news.

First, a key SEO feature, the ability to edit URL structure and create redirects, is very strangely implemented in Big Cartel.

The structure of page URLs helps Google understand what your content is about — so it’s important to have full control over this (you can read Google’s guidelines on URL structure here).

Redirects are important because when you change a URL, you are telling Google where the new version of that page lives, and asking it to index the new URL instead of the old.

It seems that in Big Cartel you can edit product URLs, but you can’t redirect them (they automatically redirect to the home page, not your new product).

As for pages, you can’t edit their URLs (they are created based on the title you give a page), but you can redirect them.

This is a very weird setup which means that you will have to think extremely carefully about how you name your pages and products.

Another big omission in Big Cartel’s feature set is the ability to change meta descriptions (the page or product descriptions that are typically displayed under titles in search results).

This matters because the quality of meta descriptions can influence clickthrough rates (CTR) in search engines, which in turn can boost rankings over time (higher CTRs can lead to higher positions in search results). So not being able to create or change them is a definite SEO disadvantage.

By contrast, Shopify gives you full control over all these aspects of SEO.

There’s no issue with changing product or page URLs in Shopify; and redirects can be easily created (automatically, if you like). Adding and changing meta descriptions is very simple too.

Unlike Big Cartel, Shopify makes changing meta descriptions and URLs very straightforward.
Unlike Big Cartel, Shopify makes changing meta descriptions and URLs very straightforward.

It’s also easier to get Shopify to meet Google’s new Core Web Vitals standards — a set of targets relating to the speed and responsiveness of a website. You can do this in Shopify using apps, or by editing the site code.

Now, because SEO is not exclusively about the technical setup of a website (strong content and external links to your site are hugely important too), it is definitely possible to attain good search rankings for a Big Cartel store.

But if you are serious about SEO, or operating in a highly-competitive niche, then it makes far more sense to opt for Shopify.


GDPR Compliance

Please note: I am not a lawyer and what follows isn’t legal advice; it is my personal take on how GDPR issues impact Big Cartel and Shopify store owners. 

In 2018, the European Union introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — a comprehensive set of rules on data storage and online privacy. These rules apply to any website that receives visits from the EU, no matter where that website is located.

There can be significant financial penalties for breaching GDPR regulations. Large companies such as Google and British Airways have already been fined tens of millions of Euros for doing so — but financial penalties for transgressions apply to business owners of any size.

As I see it, the main aspects of GDPR rules require online store owners to:

  • process and store data securely
  • ensure adequate privacy and cookie notices are in place
  • obtain clear opt-in from mailing list subscribers
  • provide users with the ability to opt out of non essential cookies on a website before they are run — i.e., to give ‘prior consent’ to them being used.

While both Big Cartel and Shopify make it easy enough to meet the first three requirements, sorting out the cookie consent issue requires legwork on both platforms.

Cookie consent banner
Cookie consent is a vital part of GDPR

In the case of Shopify, you’ll need to find a suitable cookie banner app from its app store (many are available, but not all provide genuine compliance with the ‘prior consent’ rule).

Unfortunately no such apps are available in Big Cartel’s app store, so you’ll need to look into a separate solution like CookieYes to add a compliant banner.

So, Big Cartel and Shopify could both do more to make GDPR-compliance — at least in the area of cookie consent — easier.

(For the record, one platform that handles cookie consent particularly well is BigCommerce.)

But of the two platforms under discussion here, the winner when it comes to GDPR is Shopify — simply because its app store does offer adequate cookie consent banners, and Big Cartel’s doesn’t.


Security

The main advantage of using hosted platforms like Big Cartel and Shopify is that the companies that make the software take responsibility for the security of the platforms.

This differs, for example from running a self-hosted WordPress site, where you constantly have to stay on top of software, theme and plugin updates to ensure there are no security vulnerabilities that could lead to your website getting hacked.

There are a couple of Big Cartel vs Shopify security differences worth paying attention to, however.

Two factor authentication

Two Factor Authentication — or 2FA — is an additional layer of protection used to ensure the security of online accounts beyond a username and password.

Typically, an additional piece of information — such as an SMS message or code generated by an authenticator app — can be requested by online services before access to an account is granted. This makes that account much harder to hack.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to enable 2FA on a Big Cartel store; but Shopify lets you set it up easily (you can use SMS, an authenticator app or a security key as your second means of authentication).

PCI Compliance 

PCI compliance relates to all companies that accept or transmit credit cardholder data.

(The full name for this is the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard; it’s usually shortened to PCI or PCI DSS).

Shopify is fully PCI compliant, so you don’t need to worry about the security of credit card transactions.

Big Cartel, on the other hand, is not PCI compliant.

Now, given that all store payments with Big Cartel go through third-party payment gateways (Stripe, Square, etc) you can simply avail of your payment processor’s PCI compliance. However — and as Big Cartel’s merchant user agreement makes clear, you still remain responsible for your Big Cartel store’s potential liability.

So, if greater PCI compliance is a must for you, the safer bet here is Shopify.


Customer support

If you’re new to e-commerce, then the quality of customer support is going to be a key concern. So how do both platforms stack up against each other in this department?

Well, Big Cartel has a decent number of help articles that provide plenty of insights for making the most of your store. These articles are clear, well written, and packed with useful tips and information on all aspects of running a store on the Big Cartel platform.

The picture is less rosy with Big Cartel when it comes to support from real people however — the availability of this isn’t great. The company’s 13 support staff are only available Monday-Friday from 8am to 6pm EST. Furthermore, Big Cartel’s only support channel is email — no live chat or phone support is available.

And finally, Big Cartel’s customer support is only offered in English — other e-commerce platforms (including Shopify) offer support in a variety of languages.

The support options offered by Shopify are much more extensive. Shopify provides chat, email, and phone support, and you can contact the company 24/7. The support materials provided come in over 20 languages, too.

Shopify support options
Shopify customer support options

Now, it’s worth mentioning that you only get access to the contact details for Shopify’s support team once you’ve already searched for answers on the help site. It would be better if Shopify removed this barrier and gave more direct support access.

Another thing to be aware of is that the type of Shopify support you get may vary depending on whether you’re enquiring about a Shopify-built app or template, or a third-party one. Shopify’s in-house support for its own templates and apps is very comprehensive, but the quality of support for third-party ones will depend on their developers.


Big Cartel vs Shopify: conclusion

All things considered, it’s hard not to view Shopify as the winner in a Big Cartel vs Shopify shootout. The platform provides merchants with a huge range of features that Big Cartel simply doesn’t — an unlimited product inventory, more templates, abandoned cart recovery, a huge app library, multi-currency selling, product export, 24/7 customer support and much more besides.

BigCartel has an edge over Shopify when it comes to pricing however — it is unquestionably cheaper; and its free plan is more than good enough for those with very simple selling needs. It’s also commendable for its plucky, independent, and ethically minded ethos; this a good fit for its target audience of ‘creative’ sellers. 

But in pure e-commerce terms, Shopify offers pretty much everything you need, whatever your size or industry — and it can facilitate the scaling of your business as it grows.

Below you’ll find a final summary of why I’d use either platform over the other, but I’d strongly recommend that you try both Big Cartel and Shopify for yourself — experimenting with these two store builders will help you figure out which platform chimes with your way of doing online business.

You’ll find links to the free trials of both Big Cartel and Shopify below:

Advantages of using Big Cartel over Shopify

  • You can sell online for free indefinitely using Big Cartel; all Shopify plans involve a fee.
  • Big Cartel’s three plans are extremely cheap by comparison to Shopify’s.
  • All Big Cartel templates are free — some Shopify ones involve an extra fee.
  • The simpler feature set and more basic interface will suit some sellers.
  • It has human values and an independent ethos.

Advantages of using Shopify over Big Cartel

  • Shopify lets you sell an unlimited number of products on every plan.
  • It’s much better for dropshipping.
  • Shopify has bigger and better ‘point-of-sale’ facilities.
  • It’s easier to calculate tax rates automatically in Shopify.
  • The template offering is much stronger
  • It provides built-in abandoned cart saving functionality.
  • It lets you export product data; Big Cartel doesn’t.
  • Its app store contains thousands more apps than Big Cartel’s.
  • Shopify is fully PCI compliant; Big Cartel isn’t.
  • Significant shipping discounts are available using Shopify (depending on territory).
  • Shopify integrates with far more payment gateways.
  • It has a built-in blogging tool.
  • It provides built-in email marketing.
  • It’s better from a GDPR compliance point of view.
  • Customer support is provided using more channels and it’s available 24/7.

Alternatives to Big Cartel and Shopify

If you’re hoping to build an online store, there are plenty of alternatives to Big Cartel and Shopify out there.

If you’re working in a ‘creative’ area — as many prospective Big Cartel users will be — Squarespace is an obvious alternative to Big Cartel. It’s great for presenting portfolios of artworks, photographs or music — and on top of that, its e-commerce features are significantly stronger than Big Cartel’s. You can learn more about Squarespace here.

Similarly, Wix might work for some creatives as it is budget-friendly and provides a wide range of presentation options. You can learn more about Wix here.

If you’re hoping to build a feature-rich e-commerce site, you should definitely explore BigCommerce. It offers a huge range of selling features out of the box, and its multi-currency features are particularly strong. Dip into our BigCommerce review and our BigCommerce versus Shopify comparison to learn more about this platform.

Finally, it’s worth investigating online marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy (Etsy, like Big Cartel, is targeted in particular at merchants operating in creative and artistic niches). You can learn about these platforms’ pros and cons  in our Shopify versus Amazon and Shopify versus Etsy comparisons.

Big Cartel vs Shopify — over to you!

Got any thoughts about Big Cartel vs Shopify? Or any questions about either platform? Do leave a comment below — we read all queries and always do our best to help.

Did you know? We also have an in-depth Big Cartel review available.

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