When I first decided to try out BigCommerce (a hosted e-commerce shopping cart service), I was hopeful, but honestly a bit skeptical.
Over the years, I’ve tried several different full-fledged e-commerce systems—Magento, Zen Cart, PrestaShop, CubeCart—as well as a couple WordPress-based e-commerce plugins.
They all had at least 1 major issue that made it difficult to recommend them to clients.
Some were resource hogs and had terribly inefficient control panels. Others were a nightmare to customize (table-based layout) and produced incoherent URL’s. Some were glitchy and unstable, while others were not kept up-to-date or promised features that simply were not fleshed out enough to be used on a production shop.
That’s not to say that these shopping cart systems are unusable. Many will work just fine depending on your requirements. However, finding a good, solid e-commerce system that you can recommend to clients is sometimes a daunting task.
BigCommerce: Not Perfect, But Closer Than Most
First off, if you’re looking for the perfect e-commerce system that will work for 100% of projects, you might as well stop reading. If I’ve learned one thing over the years about shopping cart systems, it’s that you will never find a system that works for every single store.
That said, BigCommerce is far more likely to work for the average shop than other systems out there.
What BigCommerce Does Well
BigCommerce has a lot going for itself. Here are some of the things that BigCommerce gets right.
BigCommerce is a hosted e-commerce shopping cart system.
Usually that means that you don’t have any real control over your data or the look of your site. And to a certain degree, that is true. You do not have absolute control of your site like you would if it were self-hosted.
However, BigCommerce gives you an amazing amount of control over your product and customer data, as well as how much you can customize your store.
Flexible Templating System
One of the most frustrating things about working with e-commerce systems is the maddening, 1990′s-style markup many still use.
Sure, you may be able to get a site up and running, but having to put on armor to battle table-based layouts and out-dated template code is frustrating.
BigCommerce comes with many high-quality templates (96+) by default. The templates in BigCommerce use XHTML/CSS-based code, along with panels, snippets and their own tagging system that is simple to use.
But if you’re a designer, you don’t want your site to look like everyone else’s, so you’re gonna want to create your own design.
If you already know how to build sites using XHTML/CSS, then you know about 95% of all you need to know.
Page templates are just .HTML files. There are proprietary tags used to ‘include’ reusable code (either other HTML files or snippets of code) similar to PHP includes.
In BigCommerce templates, custom template files override the originals in must the same way as WordPress.com stylessheets and Thematic themes.
In other words, you only have to add files that have been changed. Instead of copying every file from the original template and then making changes, you only need to include files that you’ve edited. If you like one of the themes, but only want to change the layout of the footer—just include a modified Footer.html file in your Panels directory and you don’t have to touch any other template files.
This makes it very easy to manage changes that you’ve made to the original template.
You can also create custom product and custom page templates which adds to the flexibility of your store design.
As easy as it is to understand BigCommerce’s templating system, they have thankfully included a Design Guide (PDF) that outlines how to design a site in BigCommerce.
FTP Access To Template Files
While you can edit your template files from within the BigCommerce control panel, I prefer FTP’n into the server to make changes. BigCommerce gives you access to template files via FTP.
That is a huge plus right there.
Completely Customize Your Store Designs
It’s possible to get many different looks even when basing your design on the same template.
For example, I created a shop for Long Road Travel Supplies using one of BigCommerce’s standard templates. Using the same standard template as a starting point, I also designed the store for EarPops™ Bandless Ear Muffs.
Both the above sites are based on the same template, but, since you have so much control over the design and layout, you can do practically anything.
This is one of the advantages of BigCommerce over Zen Cart. With Zen Cart it is a job of work to customize a shop, and unless you go through practically every aspect of the templates, you can tell it’s a Zen Cart site. Not so with BigCommerce.
Search Engine Friendly URL’s
Another area where BigCommerce shines is the URL’s it generates for both static pages and product pages.
If you’ve ever looked at the URL’s that Amazon uses, you can see how ugly they are. BigCommerce product page links look similar to this:
While static pages look like:
Moving from Zen Cart to BigCommerce helped one of my clients go from the 2nd page of Google to the #2 spot on the 1st page in under 1 week for 1 of their major keywords.
Your results may vary, but this was pretty impressive to me.
Easy-To-Understand Variations System
Entering products with multiple variations (options) is very quick in BigCommerce.
Instead of taking the literally hours it took to add all the options and possible combinations for products in Magento, I was done in just a few minutes.
You can also adjust images, SKU’s, and prices per variation.
While the current variations system is not perfect, the developers are working on a new, improved, more flexible system for managing variations.
Some cart software require would-be customers to register for an account with the store before completing their order. This is just another step that gets in the way and can cause many people to bail out of the checkout process and never come back.
BigCommerce allows people to complete their order as a guest, without having to sign up for an account.
While the ‘create an account’ option is selected by default, it can be changed to select the guest account option by default with a fairly simple template edit.
BigCommerce also allows for 1 page checkout. This results in more completed orders and fewer abandoned carts.
Simplified Control Panel
When you first log into the BigCommerce control panel, you won’t be overwhelmed with unnecessary information.
Order information and simple order total statistics are found on the front page.
Other areas of the control panel are accessible via drop-downs and tabbed pages.
While some of the information could be organized a little more logically, still; very easy to get around.
A shopping cart system is only as useful as it’s documentation.
It’s pretty easy to find answers to questions or suggest new features. Many of the current features are there because users suggested them.
When you’re paying for a product or service, nothing is more frustrating than dealing with poor or non-existent tech support.
BigCommerce provides support via phone, support tickets, and email.
Also, when you sign up for a trial account, a representative is assigned to your account. They are very helpful in answering questions. If they don’t know the answer, they will suggest who to contact in order to find answers.
Plays Well With Others
You can accept many different methods of payment in your BigCommerce store. You can accept payments via credit card through your own merchant account, or accept payments through Authorize.Net, PayPal, Google Checkout and others.
You can also call in shipping calculations from UPS, USPS, FedEx, Canada Post, and more.
BigCommerce also makes it easier to share your products with others.
Facebook and Twitter Integration
Visitors can like your products on Facebook, tweet about them on Twitter, and share them on other social media sites right from your product pages.
You can also export your entire product line to Google Base/Merchant Center for inclusion in Google Shopping results.
It’s also possible to sell products via Facebook or eBay and allow product comparisons via Shopzilla, Bizrate, PriceGrabber, Shopping.com and others.
You can also test variations of your store design with built-in Google Optimizer settings.
Mobile Devices and Mobile E-Commerce
BigCommerce also lets you sell to mobile users visiting your site through a mobile device such as iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android-powered phones, Palm Pre and Blackberry devices by automatically serving up a mobile version of your store.
While most modern smart phones will work just fine rendering the regular design of your shop, there may be reasons you want to serve up a mobile version to mobile visitors.
For instance, embedded videos and large images can take much longer to load, depending on your mobile network’s speed. Faster browsing equals more sales.
In the control panel, you can easily select which mobile devices you want to to serve your mobile templated shop to.
BigCommerce also has an option to purchase an SSL certificate that supports SSL encryption on mobile devices.
BigCommerce offers a free 15-day trial. Just like MailChimp’s free plan, you don’t have to enter any credit card info to start your trial.
The trial store they give you is not crippled—you get access to all the features you would have if it were a paid account.
All plans do charge a 1-time initial setup fee of $49.95. Pricing starts at $24.95/month for the Bronze Plan, which includes up to 100 products (variations/product options do not count toward the number of products).
They have 5 plans available, which will meet most of your clients’ needs—including 2 different unlimited products plans.
No Transaction Fees
Unlike most hosted shopping cart services, BigCommerce does not charge any per transaction fees. You pay your flat monthly plan, and you get to keep your profits.
What BigCommerce Gets Wrong
While there are many things that BigCommerce gets right, there are still some things that need work.
Discounts and Variations
While quantity discounts (ex: Buy 1, get 1 free) are listed among BigCommerce’s features, they are limited to products that do not contain variations.
This is very limiting since most shops contain at least some products that have options (colors, sizes, etc).
The good news is that the BigCommerce/Interspire team is working on revamping the current variations system and this is one of the areas that they are hopefully addressing.
A work around for this is that you can still apply discounts to the items in the cart, or use coupon codes to provide discounts. The coupons option is nice because you can see how many people used a particular coupon and view their orders.
Easier Product Page Customization
While it’s simple to customize nearly every page of a BigCommerce store, product page customization still takes more work that one might think if you want to rearrange the layout of the product pages.
The issue lies in the fact that some of BigCommerce’s special tags and global variables will only work on certain pages. While it is possible to create custom product pages, if you want to drastically change the layout of the page, it may take you a while.
If you need help with this, let me know and I can give you some pointers.
Removing Newsletter Forms
Not everyone uses newsletters. While it is possible to remove the newsletter sign-up forms from the sidebar panels by editing the templates, this required editing many different template files. Also, none of this removes the newsletter sign-up option in the 1-page checkout.
Anyone who signs up for a newsletter goes into limbo if there’s not a newsletter option setup for the site (MailChimp, for example).
There needs to be a single option in the control panel to disable newsletters and newsletter forms site-wide. This is much more preferable than manually editing numerous templates.
Changing Product Names Changes URL’s
Say you have created a product, but later on want to change the name of it. Be careful, because changing the name of the product will generate a different URL for your product.
This could have serious SEO impacts if you already have links from other sites going to the previous product URL.
You can always assign a 301 redirect via BigCommerce’s control panel to forward traffic to the new URL, but it’s still a big inconvenience.
No Language Translation Options
While you can accept currencies from other countries, BigCommerce is only available in English and does not support translating your store’s text into other languages. This, unfortunately, leaves out non-English-speaking customers.
The ability to change or set your own global language variables would be a nice addition. Perhaps this feature will come in upcoming versions, but if you need this functionality right now, then it’s a no-go.
This is kind of a 2-edged sword. One one hand, you don’t have to worry about the security of your server, and you don’t have to worry about PCI compliance.
On the other hand, although you can export your data, you do have less control over your data than if you were running the cart software on your own web host. For some, this may be unacceptable.
And while BigCommerce has a paid self-hosted version of BigCommerce (Interspire Shopping Cart), it does seem to lag behind the hosted solution a bit. However, this might be a good option if you need more control.
If your store relies on certain affiliate systems or 3rd-party services that require passing certain extra information along with orders, this may not be possible with BigCommerce.
BigCommerce does many things well like having a flexible template system, search engine friendly URLS, integration with many popular services and sites, a great 1-page checkout process, and fantastic documentation and tech support.
However, BigCommerce is not perfect for every store’s needs and there are some things that need fleshed out and improved upon. However, it’s the easiest e-commerce shopping cart system I’ve ever worked with.
Here are some helpful links to more information about BigCommerce.
- BigCommerce Designer’s Guide (PDF)
- BigCommerce User Guide (PDF)
- BigCommerce Developer API Documentation (PDF)
- BigCommerce Features (Summary)
- BigCommerce Features (Full List)
- Features For Designers