Over the last 12-18 months, the demand for SaaS-based eCommerce platforms has sky-rocketed, with benefits in scale, cost-of-ownership, reduced platform maintenance & management overheads being some of the biggest drivers. Platforms like Salesforce Commerce Cloud have been a prominent SaaS option in the mid-market for a number of years, but in more recent times they’ve been challenged by the likes of BigCommerce and Shopify Plus. This article is focused on Shopify Plus and BigCommerce, which have both seen considerable growth over the last 12 months, in different areas.
BigCommerce is currently a lot more prominent in the North American markets than it is in Europe (across both B2C and B2B) – whereas Shopify Plus has a global footprint now. BigCommerce is also very popular in Australia, which is where the platform was originally introduced, but they’re only now entering the European markets. Shopify Plus has grown aggressively in a lot of different markets over the last few years and have developed a presence in the UK, France, Germany, Australia and lots of other key eCommerce regions. In terms of the mid-market B2C market, it appears Shopify Plus has more big brands, high volume merchants and it’s proven for ‘straightforward retailers’.
BigCommerce has recently secured a $64 million investment round (led by Goldman Sachs) with the intention of pushing the European markets, accelerating the product and its ability to compete with the likes of Shopify’s growth and impressive ecosystem.
This article will provide an overview of the core features, selling points and limitations of both BigCommerce Enterprise and Shopify Plus, as well as the general market fit and the types of retailers the platforms are most suited to.
Overall, both platforms are very similar in terms of native features, approach, cost of ownership and target market (with a few exceptions), but in my opinion Shopify Plus is more established and has a stronger eco-system and BigCommerce is a lot more focused on extensibility (with a real push around headless) and is also better suited to the B2B market than Plus. Both platforms represent really strong options and they both have a lot of the same challenges / limitations, particularly around multi-store and international, but BigCommerce is building their platform to allow for more complexity and Shopify Plus appears to be more focused on innovation and enabling retailers to be lean and agile.
Introduction to Shopify Plus
Top-level overview & key selling points:
- Scalable SaaS-based eCommerce platform with a low cost of ownership ideal for relatively straightforward online retailers
- Very strong technology partner eco-system and lots of existing integrations with complimentary systems – helps to reduce time-to-market for new features, in comparison to most platforms
- Very strong integration partner network / eco-system (lost of very experienced integrators, many of which are exclusive to the platform or a larger SI)
- Proven in the enterprise bracket for non-complex B2C retailers – lots of big brand retailers already using the platform
- Very well documented (from a technical perspective) and big developer following
Shopify Plus is a very well established SaaS eCommerce platform that’s based on the core, SMB-focused Shopify platform. Shopify Plus has being growing rapidly over the last few years, with lots of high profile B2C brands moving to the platform. Shopify Plus has built a really strong ecosystem around the platform and they have a number of well-known, high volume retailers using the platform, such as Bebe, Decathlon, Gymshark, Kylie Cosmetics, Dr Axe, Steve Madden, MVMT Watches, Leesa, Remember Minkoff and lots of others.
Shopify Plus is particularly compelling when it comes to fashion and lifestyle brands – with the simplicity and ease of use generally aligning with the requirements and skills of these types of businesses.
Shopify Plus has grown globally, but they’re particularly prominent in the UK, Australia and North America. Shopify Plus has done really well with developing relationships with leading integration partners, which is a real strength of the platform offering for me.
Introduction to BigCommerce Enterprise
Top-level overview & key selling points:
- Scalable SaaS-based eCommerce platform with a low cost of ownership (very similar to Shopify in this respect)
- Strong native feature-set that’s relevant to B2C and B2B customers
- Good list of established B2C and B2B retailers using the platform (not as strong as Shopify in terms of known brands, but lots of high volume customers)
- Building out robust APIs across the platform and focused heavily on de-coupling core parts of the platform and pushing headless commerce
- Partner eco-system is growing fast
BigCommerce Enterprise isn’t a new platform option and it’s been relatively prominent in the mid-market and SMB markets for a number of years. The main BigCommerce platform is focused on the SMB market (as with Shopify) and is offered as a low-cost SaaS product with a rich set of native features and a relatively strong ecosystem of third-party solutions and apps. The Enterprise version of the platform is designed for higher volume and more complex retailers and it has a number of features that aren’t available to users of the lower tier versions. We’ll go through these features further on in this guide.
BigCommerce has been growing steadily in Northern America for a number of years and there are some great brands on the platform, including Skullcandy, Sharp, Ford and Gibson. However, they’re only now starting to compete against Shopify Plus for a lot of the larger B2C deals (with Skull Candy representing a big win). Shopify Plus also have a big headstart in Europe, which is a new focus for BigCommerce, which we’ll come onto later.
BigCommerce has a good offering in the B2B space, which is an area where a lot of SaaS competitors (particularly Shopify Plus and pre the Cloudcraze acquisition, Salesforce Commerce Cloud) are weak – representing one of the only viable mid-market platforms in the B2B market and also one of the only SaaS options actively targeting the market. This seems to be a real area of growth for BigCommerce and they have some huge volume B2B and wholesale companies on the platform, including Knobs Co, FlexFire LEDs, Spectrum Audio and Restaurantware.
The move to come into Europe has been, so far, primarily focused on the UK, with BigCommerce having already built a team of ~12 people since opening their first office only a couple of months ago and they appear to be getting a lot of traction.
How does BigCommerce compare with Shopify Plus?
To be honest, this is the big question that everyone tends to ask with BigCommerce, due to the popularity of Shopify Plus in recent years and the level of penetration they’ve achieved in the mid-market space. Overall, from a high level, they’re really similar platforms with very similar propositions (reduced maintenance overhead, reduced time-to-market for new features, reduced cost of ownership etc) – but there are some key differentiators.
Shopify Plus is more proven at different levels and has more customers, as well as a very strong eco-system around the platform, but BigCommerce is ticking off some very important areas of their platform as they look to target a slightly more complex average user.
Product management & merchandising
There’s a level of subjectiveness here (as people want to structure data differently) and it does massively depend on your specific product catalog and any other systems you’re using (e.g. if you’re using a PIM to manage data or if you’re heavily relying on an ERP etc), but it can be a differentiator between these platforms.
Shopify isn’t great for managing complex product data, due to the restricted nature of ‘tags’ and meta fields / custom fields not being fully native. This, in comparison to having proper product attributes where you can define the scope and usage, isn’t great for admin users and it can get messy at scale. Although it’s not as strong as platforms like Magento or Salesforce Commerce Cloud in this area, BigCommerce does at least have the concept of product attributes, where you can create a field, choose the scope and assign a number of pre-defined options etc. You can also create option sets (which are essentially the same as attribute sets in Magento terminology), which allow for different sets of values to be assigned against different groups of products (e.g. apparel sizing vs shoe sizing).
Custom fields are also native in BigCommerce, allowing for users to create custom data points that can either support outputting content on the front-end or back-end functions (e.g. values that are passed to third parties).
This is very top-level, but overall BigCommerce is more geared up to handle larger, more complex product catalogs where a solution like a PIM isn’t involved. BigCommerce also provides more options around product filtering, broader use of price lists, native parent <> child category relationship, ability to create rules around product options – e.g. multiply price for this option by X% or adjust the product weight etc. All of these features can be achieved using Shopify Plus (and will have been) but they’re more likely to require customisations or an app.
Neither of the platforms are brilliant when it comes to visual merchandising and a larger retailer would generally use a third party solution, such as:
Both BigCommerce and Shopify Plus allow users to achieve complex product setups, but natively they’re relatively similar – supporting simple products and variants / options as the main options. Bundled (if you decide to have the bundling logic in the platform) and grouped products can be achieved via scripting or apps and BigCommerce supports downloadable products natively too. Shopify supports gift cards (which can also work with Shopify’s POS) and BigCommerce supports gift certificates natively.
Focus on extensibility in general
This is one of the most interesting things when you’re comparing these two platforms – as the real benefit and reason behind the growth of Shopify Plus has been the rigid nature of the platform, which keeps costs low and generally makes everyday things easy for merchants. This would’ve been the same for BigCommerce up until ~12 months ago, when they started to focus on giving customers a certain level of extensibility, particularly on the front-end.
When you’re comparing these two platforms with some of the on-premise solutions, there’s a huge benefit to merchants around reduced cost of ownership and faster-time-to-market with new features of not being able to customise the platform and cause additional overheads around maintenance – however, BigCommerce appears to be trying to open up their platform a bit more with a view to be more compelling to bigger retailers.
BigCommerce have more robust APIs (higher usage limits and more granular in places) and they allow for more customisation on the front-end (via the checkout, allowing for headless implementations etc) – but this isn’t relevant to a lot of retailers that are looking at these two platforms yet, in my experience.
I’ve seen some really nice features developed with Shopify Plus, be it through custom apps (where users generally have more experience in extending the platform than with BigCommerce) or via third parties – it’s often a lot more extensible than people think (as long as there aren’t too many individual complexities or additional variables that end up making the platform messy and eliminate the benefits of the simple nature of the platform). It’s very true though that, currently, Shopify aren’t trying to make their platform more complex, where as it appears BigCommerce want to allow retailers to extend more areas of their platform.
Some areas where I’ve personally seen Shopify extended:
- PIM – use of third party PIM to support complex product data, workflows etc – the same can be applied to BigCommerce though
- Internationalisation – a lot of Shopify Plus partners have proprietary solutions to support different aspects of internationalisation (such as scripting, workflows around imports and sync’ing solutions) – the same applies with BigCommerce, but the partners I’ve dealt with have less experience here
- Things like automated assigning of store credit, various customisations around subscriptions, customisations around supporting wholesale activity, rule-based front-end personalisation etc
These are just a few examples and, whilst most of these could be achieved via BigCommerce, in my experience Shopify Plus has been pushed a little more by it’s merchants and partners.
Admin, ease of use and UI
Both platforms are very easy to use, generally – they both have very clean admin interfaces and the general look and feel is intuitive throughout. That said, Shopify definitely wins in this area as the admin interface is more straightforward and cleaner – they also clearly put a lot of thought into how they structure options throughout the platform and usability in general.
SEO flexibility and control
This is an area where BigCommerce is stronger – not necessarily in terms of how well optimised the platform is natively, but more in terms of the control that’s given to users over different SEO-focused aspects of the platform.
I wrote this piece on Shopify Plus SEO last year, detailing some of the limitations and how you can work with them – however, there’s still no way to change the over-arching URL structure and users also aren’t able to use the robots.txt file. Although these can be worked with and they’re not blockers by any means, BigCommerce has a strong offering here and allows for the following:
- Freedom with URL structure – users can choose how they structure URLs, including the ability to use parent / child structures – Shopify doesn’t allow for directories to be defined by a user and all pages have to be within /products/, /collections/ and /pages/ folders.
- Ability to edit the robots.txt file – users are able to edit the robots.txt file within the admin.
- Parent / child relationship with categories in general
It’s worth noting that Shopify Plus isn’t a bad platform from an SEO perspective, it’s just very inflexible.
One feature that Shopify Plus has that’s really strong compared to other platform alternatives is ‘Shopify Flow’, which allows for automation of tasks and the creation of workflows. Shopify Flow supports a wide range of triggers from the Shopify Plus platform and also now integrates with technology partners (e.g. LoyaltyLion or DotDigital). I wrote this piece about Shopify Flow but some of the key usages span order management, reporting / notifications, product tagging, customer tagging, order tagging, fraud management, product management and lots more!
Shopify Flow has a huge amount of potential and is likely to be extended to allow for better integration with both Shopify Plus internal features and third parties.
Focus on headless architecture
Over the last 12 months, the headless eCommerce trend has gone from being a bleeding edge approach to a sensible consideration and lots of mid-market and enterprise retailers have already moved to de-coupling the front-end of their website. There are various approaches in this area, but it’s something that most platforms (particularly those building out micro-services-based approaches) are really focusing on at the moment, including BigCommerce.
Although there are quite a lot of Shopify and Shopify Plus stores that are using their storefront API to allow for a headless approach, the platform is nowhere near as pro headless and capable in this area as BigCommerce, who are really pushing their ‘commerce-as-a-service’ offering. In addition to building out their front-end APIs, BigCommerce has also built checkout APIs and developed integrations with WordPress and Acquia, in order to allow for more front-end flexibility, provide content-led sites with a commerce engine and give merchants the option of building around modern front-end frameworks and adopt things like PWA.
Examples of headless Shopify sites include:
- Rachio – GatsbyJS + Shopify
- Yoga Girl – Contentful CMS + Shopify
- Augustin Baber – Shopify Plus + Contentful CMS
These headless Shopify and Shopify Plus sites feature a custom front-end but users are then taken back to the Shopify checkout as part of the journey.
Examples of headless BigCommerce sites include:
- Young tribe – BigCommerce + custom react front-end (uses BigCommerce checkout API)
- Carluccio’s – BigCommerce + WordPress
- Molekule – BigCommerce + Vue front-end (uses BigCommerce Checkout API)
It’s worth also noting that both Shopify Plus and BigCommerce have very flexible front-ends and this is an area that both platforms have improved a lot in recent times.
Cost of ownership
The pricing of Shopify Plus and BigCommerce generally comes out very similar – the licensing is comparable (with BigCommerce Enterprise being based on order volume and Shopify Plus being a GMV model with a minimum fee) and build costs are generally in the $75k – $200k bracket for both, in my experience.
Shopify Plus does have some additional charges if you choose to use an external payment provider, but this is relatively low (0.25%). I wrote this piece on Shopify Plus Costs a year or so ago and I’m planning on creating another piece that looks at other platforms in more detail too.
Customer groups vs customer tagging
Both platforms provide the ability to group customers together and control various aspects of what they see on the front-end, via customer tags (Shopify) and customer lists (BigCommerce). BigCommerce allows for customer groups to be used across the platform and this feature can be used to control pricing, discounts and promotions, product visibility, credit limits, shipping rules etc. Shopify Plus provides the same capabilities via customer tags, but doesn’t have the same B2B capabilities built into the main eCommerce channel (however it can achieve a lot of these via their wholesale channel, which is treated as an independent store essentially).
Integration partner ecosystem
One area where BigCommerce isn’t as strong as Shopify Plus is their integration partners eco-system – with fewer specialist agencies solely focused on the platform than with Shopify Plus. That said, this is an area where there’s clearly been improvement and they’re now working with agencies like BORN Group, Silk, Inviqa and lots of other mid-large systems integration partners – they’re just not as experienced with the platform as agencies like WeMakeWebsites, BVAccel and Fostr etc are with Shopify Plus. These agencies represent a mix of specialist Shopify-only agencies and larger multi-platform agencies (OneRockwell and Demac Media) who work with Shopify Plus.
With BigCommerce being a relatively new platform to the UK market, there aren’t too many hugely experienced partners in the space, but some that are starting to work with it include:
- BlueLeaf Commerce (mostly Salesforce Commerce Cloud, recently started supporting BigCommerce)
- GPMD (mostly Magento and Shopware, recently started supporting BigCommerce)
- Greenlight Digital (mostly SAP and Salesforce Commerce Cloud, recently started working with BigCommerce)
- Inviqa (platform agnostic, support both BigCommerce and Shopify Plus)
- 5874 (most experienced BigCommerce partner in the UK market – built the YUMI and Carluccio’s websites)
Some of the more experienced partners with BigCommerce include American Eagle, Digital Haus, Redstage and EYStudios – all of which are in North America. There are other agencies supporting BigCommerce, but these are some of the better known ones that are actively pushing the platform.
Some examples of larger, experienced Shopify Plus partners include:
- WeMakeWebsites (the agency I tend to work with the most – one of the leading Shopify Plus agencies globally – offices in London and NYC)
- BV Accel (one of the leading Shopify Plus agencies globally, HQ in San Diego)
- Fostr (another leading agency in the UK)
- Eastside Co (based in Birmingham – have worked on a lot of Shopify Plus sites)
- Bounteous (formerly Demac Media – have a lot of big brands on Shopify Plus – based in Toronto)
Technology partner ecosystem
As with most eCommerce platforms, there are a number of parts of both BigCommerce and Shopify Plus that are weak natively, with obvious examples being multi-store management, filtering and search (for both platforms) – for limitations like these, you’d likely use a third party solution.
Examples of some areas where this would likely be required include:
- Filtering and merchandising
- Multi-store / managing data across different stores
A lot of bigger companies using the platforms are also looking at or already using a PIM – which can help to reduce the overhead of managing multiple stores, particularly for international retailers. Both platforms have integrations with PIMs like Akeneo and Jasper.
These are just a few examples of where you may want to use a technology partner or a third party app. This is an area where Shopify Plus is slightly stronger, as they have a lot more integrations with third parties, apps and also dedicated technology partners focused on their platform. Examples of technology companies who have an integration with Shopify Plus but not BigCommerce include Ometria, Emarsys, Attraqt, Gorgias, Kustomer, Replay and others. This said, BigCommerce has definitely got stronger in this area over the last 6-12 months and they’re really pushing this part of their ecosystem.
Point of sale
Shopify and Shopify does have its point of sale solution to support multi-channel merchants – and this has improved since they introduced multi-locations. This is a nice easy-to-use, easy-to-integrate solution for smaller merchants, however bigger retailers are likely to use a third party solution anyway. Overall, I would say the POS is great for smaller retailers, online retailers with a small offline presence or for popups – but this isn’t a major differentiator.
The major weakness of both BigCommerce and Shopify Plus for larger stores, international brands and multi-brand stores is around multi-store – or the lack of it. When competing with platforms like Magento Commerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud and SAP CX, this is a big weakness of both platforms and, although there are workarounds, it can be a big limitation.
I wrote a piece around managing multiple Shopify Plus stores a few months back and the same principles apply for BigCommerce – with the most common workarounds being a combination of:
- Use a combination of your PIM and ERP for pushing data into multiple stores
- Write sync’ing scripts to share data and changes across the different stores
- Manage core areas of the platform via import / export and manage the rest manually
The different stores with both plates forms are essentially independent of each other – so there’s no way to manage data at different levels and share logic etc – plus things like product IDs are different. This is something that’s being worked on with both platforms currently and the following are expected:
- Shopify Plus is expected to release ‘product center’ (which appears to essentially be a lightweight PIM) in Q1 / early Q2 this year
- BigCommerce are expected to release some form of add-on to support managing data across different stores before the end of the year
The situation is very similar with both platforms, but there appears to be a lot more international stores operating on Shopify Plus with workarounds – e.g. Gymshark which uses scripting. There are also a number of solutions like Syncio and Replay that exist to support this issue with Shopify Plus.
B2B & wholesale
Shopify Plus has improved their wholesale offering over the last 12 months, via their wholesale channel which, although very limited in a lot of areas, can achieve a lot of requirements for basic wholesale retailers. You can also achieve a lot of requirements if you’re using a separate store for wholesale, but it’s not comparable to solutions like SAP CX or Magento.
BigCommerce is definitely focused on pushing into the B2B and wholesale markets, with a strong native feature-set and a number of APIs that support their offering. BigCommerce has developed a number of native B2B features into their platform, such as:
- Support for price lists
- Support for customer lists – ability to set customer-specific visibility of products and catalogs
- Support for quotes and purchase orders
- Tiered pricing and dynamic pricing
- Support for wholesale shipping rates
- Credit limits
- Payment terms
- Ability to set purchase limits
- Account restrictions
Although Shopify’s wholesale channel can support a lot of these areas in a basic form, it’s not as scaleable as it doesn’t allow for customisation of the theme or any additional customisation beyond the areas that are configurable against the channel. BigCommerce is stronger in this area.
Focus and strategy around payments
Shopify Plus has their own payments offering, which is called Shopify Payments. This is essentially a white-labelled version of Stripe and it’s pretty competitive and gives you a host of out-of-the-box payment methods, including Apple Pay and Android Pay. Merchants are able to use an external payment gateway, however there’s an additional charge of 0.15% for Shopify Plus users (higher for non-Plus). The integrations with third party payment providers can be a bit messy with things like 3d secure, but lots of retailers make this work via alternative fraud protection solutions. This is often considered a disadvantage for retailers not wanting to use Shopify Payments.
BigCommerce push their payments partners and have a host of native integrations with key payment providers within the platform. This can be a big plus for some retailers wanting to stay with their existing gateway, but equally, Shopify Payments can be really competitive, it’s very well integrated and it’s convenient. This generally comes down to the specific requirements and preferences of the retailer.
Promotions & discounts
BigCommerce has a strong promotions engine natively, whereas with Shopify Plus you would generally use their scripting option to build complex promotions logic (this would also often be factored into things like bundling). That said, the basics of simple and rule-based promotions and discounting are covered by both platforms natively, it’s more user-specific promotions or complex logic-based promotions where you’d generally look to extend Shopify Plus via scripting or an app.
Although BigCommerce has a strong capability natively, Shopify Plus can easily be extended and Shopify Scripts are really nice and easy to work with – I’ve managed to use them in the past without the help of a developer.
BigCommerce Customers & Website Examples
Skullycandy.com – probably the biggest B2C brand using BigCommerce
One of the differences between BigCommerce and Shopify Plus is that BigCommerce has a big B2B presence, whereas Shopify Plus is almost entirely B2C. I’ve tried to include examples of both B2B and B2C retailers using the platforms below.
B2C retailers using BigCommerce
- Gibson (headless)
- Carluccio’s (headless, BigCommerce WordPress integration)
- Cutter & Buck
- KOHLER At Home
- Charlie Bears
B2B retailers using BigCommerce
- HD Supply
- General Electric
- Harvard Business Publishing
- Brown Forman
I’ve had a lot of very positive experiences with Shopify Plus and I’ve never had a client be unhappy when they’ve moved to the platform. I’ve also found that the ease of use, cost and time to introduce new features and level of control that the merchant has over the platform is excellent.
I don’t have the same level of experience with BigCommerce, however they’re building a really strong proposition in the mid-market space. There are areas of BigCommerce that are stronger than Shopify, but in most cases this ends up being a toss-up with an area where Shopify is stronger.
BigCommerce is more extensible and I do think the push around headless will be good for them. They’re definitely stronger for B2B currently, but I’d expect Shopify to up their game in this area in the future.
I actually think they’re both great platforms and the big differentiators for me are Shopify’s eco-system and BigCommerce’s extensibility – it’ll be interesting to see who wins on the international / managing data across multiple stores, as this is currently a big weakness for both platforms.