Shopify vs. Big Cartel: What’s the Best Online eCommerce Platform of 2024?

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Author Scott Whatley
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Shopify and Big Cartel were both founded over a decade ago, and the idea of setting up your own online shop has been around for even longer than that, but it still feels like it’s only very recently that a more widespread and mainstream audience has started to recognize how easy, fun, and profitable it can be to run an online store.

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Even to this day, many people still don’t realize the incredible potential that exists on the internet for a limitless amount of businesses. One of the biggest opportunities exists for independent people who make or sell any number of different types of products.

The internet makes it so easy to reach a ton of people, regardless of what your business is. If you sell handmade earrings, or vintage clothing, or custom hand-stitched leather wallets, or movie memorabilia, or whatever you can imagine – there are people online, every single day, looking to buy stuff. Having a storefront on the internet makes it possible for them to find you, and it’s not hard to setup anymore.

Back in the day, Before it was EASY to create an online store

There was a time when creating an online store was a huge hassle. You’d probably end up needing to hire your own developers, you’d spend a ton of time and a ton of money on getting everything integrated correctly, and another fortune down the road to keep everything up to date.

It was just a big headache if you wanted to run your own store. Of course, there were (and still are) options like eBay, but that’s not really your own store, you were too dependant on the eBay ecosystem, and you don’t have the same potential to grow your own brand. Also, as sites like eBay or Etsy go out of favour, you soon realize you’ve been building your empire on someone else’s land.

Having your own store, that’s branded entirely after your business, rather than just being another little stall in a bigger marketplace, has many advantages. We’ll assume that you already want to create your own online store, and that’s why you’re here, so we won’t go over all of the great reasons for setting up a shop online – we’ll take it for granted that you know that already. We’re going to be focusing, instead, on two of the most popular platforms for creating and launching a store online, which are Shopify and Big Cartel.

Let’s get started with an introduction about each company, some of their main selling points and features, and where they differ from one another. By the end of this page, you’ll have a clear understanding of what both platforms have to offer, and how to decide which one may be a better choice for you. We’ll also go over a third option that many people are finding very viable, which has its own set of advantages over both Shopify and Big Cartel.

About Big Cartel

Founded in 2005 by Matt Wigham when looking for a way to sell band merchandise online, Big Cartel has grown into a major player in this space. First things first, they’ve passed the test of longevity, which is always important.

They’re also very conscious of social issues, for example, they use industry standard wages to give all of their employees in the same role the same salary, so there’s no pay disparity based on things like an employee’s ability to negotiate, their gender, or anything other than the job they’re performing.

In a world where startups are clamouring for that next round of VC money to keep their fancy offices afloat, there’s something fiercely independent about Big Cartel, likely inspired by their closeness to artists and musicians, and makers, and the whole indie DIY world which they grew from.

Their description on Crunchbase reads: “Big Cartel is where artists set up shop. They provide clothing designers, bands, jewellery makers, crafters, and other artists with their own customizable store to sell their stuff online.”

Big Cartel’s Plans

Now, let’s look at the different plans that Big Cartel has to offer. After that, we’ll quickly go over the basics of Shopify, we’ll take a look at their plans, we’ll compare the two, we’ll go over the third option, and you’ll be all set to start creating your online store today.

A nice feature with Big Cartel is the fact that they offer a Free plan. The downside is that you can’t use your own URL/domain name with it, and it’s only limited to 5 products, but it’s still great for people who want to test out the platform just to see if it functions well for them, or for small bands or groups that have a shoestring budget and need to spend as little as possible.

It’s cool of them to have that option. Shopify also offers a free trial, but it’s based on time rather than limiting how many items you can post.

Big Cartel has plans that are more affordable than Shopify, but they’re also more limited. You can only have up to 5 images per product (Which is plenty for things like t-shirts but could feel limiting for certain types of products), and the difference between all of their paid plans is simply the number of items you can list for sale.

Once again, these limits won’t really matter for many types of shops, but if you’re one of the ones that need more items listed for sale or more images, then it’s a deal-breaker.

About Shopify

Shopify operates as a complete eCommerce solution for a ton of different types of businesses that want to sell online.

Shopify is super easy to use, quick to setup, and has a TON of different integrations. They work with a lot of other large startups to create useful integrations that make Shopify easier to use, and more powerful. Even without these additional integrations, there’s a lot going on under the hood here. Shopify really handles the entire process for you or at least gives you the tools to do so.

It’s a complete platform, jam-packed with everything you need to get your online store setup and running effectively as soon as possible.

Shopify’s Plans

Now we’ll look at the plans that Shopify offers.

The big thing that stands out is that Shopify doesn’t differentiate their tiers based on things like how many images you can have, or how many products you can have. They offer unlimited storage for files, and all of their plans allow you to sell an unlimited amount of different items in your shop.

Big Cartel, on the other hand, bases their pricing tiers essentially on how many SKUs, or different items, each plan allows for.

Shopify’s pricing is more based on your bottom line, for example, their higher tier plans can save you money on payment processing and on shipping, so it’s really easy to choose the right Shopify plan simply based on whether or not it makes sense for you financially. Saving money on shipping adds up really quick, and so do lower processing fees, but there’s a big difference between Shopify’s $29 plan and their $299 plan. All you’ve got to do is run the numbers. Start with the basic plan while you’re getting your shop up and running, then when you’re doing enough business that that 0.5% savings in credit card fees or the better shipping rates are enough to cover the costs, it becomes a no-brainer to upgrade.

With Shopify’s retail package, you can easily integrate your retail location with your online store to manage inventory, accept payments, and it really helps to merge things for companies that already exist with a physical storefront and who are looking to take a step forward and sell online as well.

The “Staff accounts” is one aspect that’s different between Shopify’s different plans (which doesn’t revolve around saving you money on fees), and it represents how many unique accounts you can have for different staff members. Having individual staff accounts allows you to set up unique permissions for each one. Staff members could share accounts, too, so it’s not a hard limit, but Shopify recommends giving people their own individual accounts none the less, so if you have a larger team, it’s a good idea to make sure you have an account for each person that will be accessing the backend of your Shopify store.

You can setup restricted areas and permissions, so that not every single staff member is able to access all of your sensitive information, or which items sell the best, or your margins, or whatever else you’d prefer to keep private. This can be a very powerful collaborative tool, which allows you to bring on extra help to improve your store, without having to expose all of the trade secrets you’ve collected from your shop’s analytics and sales info.

The Third Option Besides Big Cartel or Shopify

Now, before we choose our overall favourite, let’s go over a third option, which is self-hosting your own store.

As we said earlier, this used to be a really complex process, but it’s not nearly as tricky to setup as it used to be.

When platforms like Shopify and Big Cartel came out, it was much trickier to open a store. These days, setting up your own web hosting and installing the script to run a store is easier than it’s ever been. You’re still going to have an easier time, overall, with Shopify or Big Cartel, but this third option is great for people who want to save some money and have a little more control over their store, too.

Using a hosting account, and WordPress, you can get everything setup the very same day. We recommend Bluehost because they make it incredibly easy to get WordPress setup. Once that first step is done, you’re ready to start customizing your new website. There’s a big number of “shopping cart” and online store plug-ins for WordPress. Going this third route instead of Shopify or Big Cartel does involve some more elbow grease, but it will save you some money if you’re on a very tight budget, at least initially.

You can get away with using a cheaper shared hosting plan from Bluehost to get started, but if your shop becomes very popular, you’ll need to upgrade to a higher-tier server, and eventually even Shopify’s most expensive plan will be cheaper than a high-end dedicated server, not to mention all the costs of maintaining, having developers on hand, keeping everything secure…

So, Which One is Best Overall?

In high-volume cases, it’s probably a better idea to go with Shopify because they have everything setup and ready to go for you.

If you want absolute control over your store, however, then getting your own hosting account and installing your own software on it might be your best bet. With a WordPress-based site, you can move it to any hosting company you want.

With Shopify and Big Cartel, they manage the software side of things and the hardware side. Having that all in one place, and managed by the company that runs the platform, definitely has its advantages, even if it means you have a little less control. For a lot of people, it’s worth the trade-off, because they want to focus on growing and building their online store, instead of fussing around behind the scenes with server administration stuff.

If you’re on a tight budget, and if you don’t have a lot of different products to sell, and if you don’t need more than 5 pictures of each product, then Big Cartel will likely save you some dough instead of going with Shopify.

If you don’t mind spending a little more in order to get cheaper shipping for your customers, lower payment processing fees, and unlimited items, and overall using a more cohesive and complete platform, Shopify comes out on top.

The best option for one person probably won’t be the same answer for the next person, since everybody has different needs, experience levels, and ambitions for their online stores.

If you still aren’t sure where to start, check out Big Cartel’s free plan, check out Shopify’s free trial, and see what works best. If you’ve setup websites in the past, you should have no problem getting your eCommerce store setup with Bluehost, running WordPress, and a plug-in like WooCommerce.

Sometimes, the best way to choose is just to try them all out, there’s no harm and no risk when you can get free trials.

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