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Developing with Bigcommerce: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By on Mar 18, 2014 in Blog Posts, Internet | 0 comments

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Note: This article was originally posted to the new defunct Ecommerce-platforms.com back in May 2013. It got a lot of attention and Bigcommerce reached out to review some of the issues I presented. I’ve added an update to the bottom of the article as well.

Six years of experience in ecommerce has taught me one thing: no platform is perfect. They all have pros and cons and often what separates the best from the competition is a handful of features and customer service. I’ve come to accept that I’ll never find the perfect solution without building it myself and let’s face it, ain’t nobody got time for that.

I recently had a project come up and spent a lot of time testing different platforms to find one that could handle digital products the best. For various reasons I settled on Bigcommerce and began building out the store. I knew from reading the Ultimate Bigcommerce review that I shouldn’t expect great things from their existing templates and that turned out to be true. They were pretty generic and didn’t suit my needs, so I began adapting a new one to the platform.

That’s when the fun began. To put it nicely, the Bigcommerce platform leaves a lot to be desired for programmers and developers. The only real documentation that they provide hasn’t been updated since 2009 and is missing just about all of the variables. It’s useless as anything more than a basic overview of the system and Bigcommerce uses a massive number of variables in their template designs, which means that you’re going to need to know what they are and how they work. There are a number of “Advanced Tutorials” published in their knowledgebase and on the forums that help developers work around some of the items normally covered in documentation, but that just means you have to spend a lot of time searching rather than getting work done. Fortunately a developer named Spring Merchant has created a template variable search on their website which is helpful, but not official or complete. I don’t understand why Bigcommerce can’t provide a complete list themselves. I’ve lost track of how much time I’ve spent trying to find variables and figure out why it is they they do or do not work. If you ask design or programming related questions when you contact support, even if they are specific to Bigcommerce variables, they copy and paste the “Sorry, but we can’t support custom development.” response in the live chat window. I would agree with this policy if they provided decent documentation.

That brings us to the next issue: sometimes things just don’t make any sense. If you want to design a new template for Bigcommerce you have to start with an old one in order to be able to view all of the files. FTP and WebDav access doesn’t display all of the files on the server for some reason. You can’t test your new template without making it live on the server because there is no live preview or sandbox environment. To test a new template you have to save a backup of the existing template, upload the test template, make it live, test it, then back it up and re-activate your old template (I’m actually simplifying the description of that process). You also have to manually delete all of the files via FTP or certain images and other items will appear from the old design. Since there is no preview functionality, Bigcommerce’s recommended solution is to setup a trial store to test your design on, but that’s folly since there is no way to backup all of your store settings in order to make sure you’re testing it properly.

Speaking of backups, there is no single click solution to backup your store. Currently you have to perform manual backups in five different areas and as I mentioned, that doesn’t backup the myriad store settings at all. Why can’t there be a single button to backup everything at once?

Then there are the things that just don’t work or even exist. For example, you can’t display the raw product image. A variable to do so doesn’t exist. You can’t rename, add or delete templates – you just have to overwrite existing ones. You can’t display custom fields individually; it’s all or nothing. The login/logout variable doesn’t work outside of the top menu area, and there are many other variables that only work in certain panels or snippets for no apparent reason. There is no short description or excerpt field for products. No subscription based payment option. You can’t configure discounts based on different types of items in the cart, and you can’t automatically select a shipping option in the cart, even if that option is “FREE” and it’s the only option available.

I’ve been in communication with several people at Bigcommerce regarding these issues and after long delays between responses I was told that they are making improvements and that I should post my suggestions to ideas.bigcommerce.com. A quick review of the top issues indicates that there are a lot of other people out there who share my concerns, many posting them years ago, but without any movement from Bigcommerce. Out of the 20 items on the first page only two are in development; one of them has been without an update for almost three months and the other missed the estimate for implementation.

Like so many shopping carts before them, Bigcommerce has grown quickly and done a lot of things right. They provide an affordable solution that has the best product rule set creation tool on the market and their support is excellent as long as you’re just asking basic feature questions. Uptime and server performance are excellent. If Bigcommerce can find a way to implement more of the features their customers are asking for in a timely fashion and significantly improve their documentation and template system they could easily be the platform to beat.

Update 03/18/14: It’s been almost a year since I first posted this article, but not much has changed at Bigcommerce. They added some theme documentation back in July 2013, but the documentation is woefully incomplete and missing more variables than it lists. Nor does it address how Bigcommerce handles CSS, show output code for variables or link from one section to the next intuitively (like a Wiki). It doesn’t even have a search feature. Bigcommerce has been busy over the past year, but other than the theme documentation, I don’t think anything has been addressed from my original post.

I have run in to other issues since, including one nagging problem that there is no solution to; no variable exists to display all products from a specific category on a page. That means you have to use the product category pages which means creating a new product category and manually assigning each product to it every time you want to display products in a certain way. That’s very cumbersome and a big oversight.

Have you experienced some of these issues? Perhaps you’ve found some solutions. Please share in the comments!