Big Cartel Review.

The United Pixelworkers t-shirt emporium is now live, and, with that, I’d like to take a minute to vent discuss rationally our shopping platform of choice, Big Cartel, a hosted, pay-by-the-month shopping cart system built by Indie Labs and which, according to their slogan, is “easy to use, customizable, and awesome.” We’ll see.

The Good.

It’s no accident tasteful designers like Dan Cederholm and Matthew Smith chose Big Cartel when they decided they were ready to unleash their t-shirts and posters on the world. The good stuff is very good. A quick line-item recap:

Beautiful control panel.

The control panel is a work of art. Nearly everything is logical, fast, and beautiful. Many areas were enhanced with Javascript to avoid page refreshes and make tasks like re-arranging products simple. The control panel is hands-down the best part of the Big Cartel experience.

Reasonable price.

If you’re anything like us, you’re not looking to quit your day job to sell t-shirts, which is why $9.99 / month is a big win. Sure, we could develop our own system or use something free off the shelf, but most of our time is spent working on other people’s stuff not our own, remember?

We also could have paid a flat rate for something self-hosted that is a bit snazzier and more fully-featured. To be honest, that’s tempting, and it may be something we explore in the future. For now, though, the monthly fee is less upfront investment. Who knows where we’ll be in a year anyway.

Helpful support staff.

The questions I had about the templating system were answered quickly and professionally. Across the six questions I emailed to the support staff, the average response time was 27 minutes, the shortest was eight and the longest 49. That’s excellent.

The templating language.

The HTML-like templating language handled the core tasks well. I had no problem getting the majority of the site up and running. As long as you stick to something that looks and feels similar to Big Cartel’s bundled themes, you should be in good shape. As soon as you go off the beaten path, however, you’re going to run into trouble. The templating language does allow for several dynamic features, just don’t plan on building your own CMS from scratch. That said, a little PHP support would have gone a long way.

Mostly good documentation.

The documentation was almost great. The first 90 percent was everything I needed it to be. Once I started digging into the filters and parameters, however, I found that not every element was completely and thoroughly documented. There’s room for improvement, but overall, if all the documentation I had to work with was this complete and well-considered, I would be a happy developer.

Easy setup.

The process of getting up and running with the default skin was as painless as anything possibly could be. That’s the biggest upside to a hosted service, of course. Pick a plan, answer a few questions, enter your credit information, then start adding products. Jay could probably have even done it himself.

Custom URL.

Speaking of using a hosted service, a custom URL is a must. (Preferably something easy and memorable, like, oh, unitedpixelworkers.com.) Thankfully, Big Cartel knows this and provides easy-to-follow instructions for re-directing your existing domain name. For bonus points, I would have liked to have seen similar instructions for re-directing the bare domain (without the www). Most people won’t have any trouble, but for those who do it would have been nice.

The Bad.

I hate to harsh on Big Cartel, but there are a few enhancements that would go a long way toward making the system as powerful as we would have liked it to be.

No custom fields.

Ouch. The default product fields cover the essentials: title, description, price, images, etc. What if you have multiple descriptions depending on where the product is being viewed (home page v. product page) like we did? Too bad. We had to scale the design back in places, and in others, we’re entering things by hand in the templates and using assigned variables and conditionals to determine what should appear.

If you’re familiar with WordPress development, you know the pain caused by the minimal custom field architecture it has compared to a real CMS. Working with Big Cartel is like that, except worse. I’m sure they have legitimate technical reasons for not allowing custom fields, but I hope that’s something they plan to add in the future.

No server language.

While we’re on the subject of programming pain points, I have to point out that your options for dynamic content are their custom templating language or … well, that’s it.

If the templating language was more robust, we could have probably lived without PHP (for example). Unfortunately, this is where the inflexibility of using a hosted service really bites you. The built-in contact form was alright, but we would have liked to remove the captcha and the subject field. That’s just not possible with the current system. The fallback plan was to write our own form, but that would have meant processing it on our servers. In the end, since the site is aimed at people who live and breathe the Internet, we decided an email link would suffice. There were several other instances, however, in which using a real language and not a templating language would have made our lives significantly easier.

All that said, I suspect the vast majority of Big Cartel’s customers have no need for scripting support. It probably wouldn’t make sense (financially) to spend the time building it in. Those of us who do need it, however, would certainly appreciate it.

Minor gripes.

Custom fields and a real scripting language were the big hurdles, but there were a few niggles that made my life more difficult than I prefer.

Big Cartel uses Prototype to process their forms and add basic functionality if you choose to use their templates. That’s a problem for two reasons. First, I’m a jQuery man myself, and that means I either need to trip my way through Prototype or include another library. I chose to include jQuery.1 Second, including jQuery introduced an obscure Prototype + jQuery + Opera bug that took a long time to track down.2

The only way to edit the templates is in the browser. That means you can’t download the templates, edit in your text editor of choice, and upload to an FTP location somewhere on Big Cartel’s servers. It’s inconvenient for sure. They try to make your life easier with a full-screen editor and by automatically closing tags (which is more annoying than helpful), but it’s a poor substitute. Perhaps as projects like Bespin advance the in-browser editing experience will be less painful. Relatedly, all custom assets must be loaded onto a separate server that you control. Every CSS, Javascript, and image file we use is being served from somewhere else. It’s not a problem for us, but it certainly seems like something Big Cartel can and should offer, perhaps for a fee.3

Last, and definitely least, once a product has been created, there’s no way to change the URL. Actually, there’s no way to affect the URL at all, so choose your product names carefully.

Conclusion.

Look, we know nobody does TL;DR as well as we do. (Wait, I meant to say, we know all of our posts are way too long.) So here’s the skinny:

Big Cartel is, like they claim, easy to use, customizable4, and awesome. We’re very happy. If you want to build a custom store to sell your stuff in one week, you can’t go wrong.

  1. I know, I know. I’m killing the page load time. []
  2. For those interested, it had to do with the scrolling navigation and calculating height. The first fix I found ended up breaking things on iPhone OS devices. Here’s the winning jQuery patch. []
  3. Also of technical note, in order to get some details just the way we wanted them, we had to grab the Big Cartel store Javascript file as well as the FancyZoom script, tweak them, and call them on our server rather than from their default location. We think the bandwidth will be offset by the improved experience. []
  4. Look, we have to dock their score slightly on customizable. Sure, if you just want to tweak the CSS or make minor, cosmetic changes to the default theme, it’s customizable. If wholescale, skeletal changes are your thing, you might want to at least look around at other systems. That said, check out our store. We think it shows how far Big Cartel can stretch. []

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