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Episode 25 - Building Large Catalog Stores in Shopify

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The Podcast

Show Links

  • Upwork
  • Excelify- Shopify app for importing Excel product files
  • Product Filter & Search - Shopify app for filters on collections and search results pages
  • Smart Tags - Shopify app that automates the tagging of products to conform to the store's taxonomy
  • Photos Resize - Shopify app that converts all product photos to a common aspect ratio

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Hello.  Scott Austin here.

One of Shopify's weaknesses is that it doesn't provide good tools to help manage large catalog stores.  And by large catalog, I mean tens of thousands of products like you could have in an automotive parts supply store.  You can build a large catalog store in Shopify, but you are going to have to manage that catalog tightly on your own.

In this episode, I'm going to go over a bunch of tools and processes that stores can use when bringing together large quantities of products from multiple manufacturers.  I've recently built a few stores for distributors who were providing parts and components for their customers.  So their product catalogs were very large.  And getting product data from the manufactures and into Shopify in a way that makes the products easy to find in the store is not easy.  In fact, at times it can be quite infuriating.  So let me walk you through the general process that I use for large product catalogs from multiple vendors or manufacturers.  I'm going to bucketize the work into 3 buckets:

  • Bucket 1 - Getting the Product Data
  • Bucket 2 - Getting the product catalog into Shopify
  • Bucket 3 - Creating the customer's shopping experience

So let's begin.

Bucket 1 - Getting the product data

You can add products to your Shopify store one at a time through the Shopify admin.  But if you have hundreds or thousands of products, then adding products manually will take too much time and be prone to errors.  What you'll want to do instead is get a product feed from your supplier and import the data into Shopify in a bulk process.

So to do this, you'll need a Product feed or file from your manufacturer.  Now, many manufacturers provide a product data file for their customers for this exact reason.  So if that's your situation, then you are in luck.  Get the files from your manufacturers and proceed to Bucket 2 which is getting the product files into Shopify.

But the amazing thing is that even today, there are many manufactures who do not have a product file to give to their customers.  And they push the burden of creating one onto you, the distributor.  Now, if you have the choice between two different manufactures and one provides a product data file and the other doesn't, I would definitely go with the one that provides the file as it’s a sign that they will be easier to work with and care about you being successful.  But there may situations where you have to go with a manufacturer that doesn't provide a data file.  If that's the case for you, here are your options.

First, you can create the file using whatever information your manufacture has like product sheets.  Now, this is going to be a manual process, so be prepared to spend some time on it and be diligent to minimize human errors. 

But, if the manufacturer has a website that lists the products, you can instead get a data file created by a process called web scraping.  Web scraping is a common practice these days.  It's when software tools go to a website and extract certain information from it and structures that information for you.  For example, if your manufacture does have a website with its products on it, those products are going to be presented in a common way.  Much like your Shopify product template does, their products will have information presented in a uniform way on their site.  So web scraping software can easily extract the information and give you the product data in a usable format.  Web scraping does take a bit of setup as someone needs to evaluate the manufacturers' website to determine where and how the product data is presented.  And the great thing about web scraping is that there is a multitude of companies and freelancers out there that have already built their own web scraping software.  So they are easily and very cost-effectively able to get the data you need from the manufacturers' website. 

A great place to find a web scraping firm is on UpWork which I'll include a link to in the show notes. 

Bucket 2 - Getting the product catalog into Shopify

So now that you have the product data in a file or a set of files, the next step is to format that data in the way that Shopify needs it.  Shopify has plenty of good documentation on how to import product data into Shopify.  But you are most likely going to need to do quite a bit of work to get the data from the format that you received it in from the manufacturer or web scraper into the format that Shopify will import in.

So let me talk about file formats here.  Shopify imports products in a file format called CSV, which stands for Comma-Separated Values.  A CSV file is a text-only file and can be edited in a text editor like Notepad.  But you are going to want to edit your CSVs in a spreadsheet like Excel as it provides a lot more helpful tools.  And Excel can easily open a  CSV file and save in CSV format.  But remember that a CSV is text only.  So there are a lot of Excel features like formula's, filters, formatting and more that don't get saved in the CSV format.  So my best practice is to build or edit a product file in Excel and then export or save it as a CSV when I'm ready to import it into Shopify.  And if you need to work on the file again, work on the Excel file.  And resave or export to a CSV file when needed for importing. 

You'll need to use your business sense to get the files from your manufactures into the formats that you'll use for Shopify.  As there is no common standard used by manufacturers for how the data gets stored.  So you'll be doing a lot of reformatting.  Here are a few things to think about when doing that work:

  1. The first is to realize that this will probably be an iterative process.  When I'm doing this work, it can take several tries to get all of the data included in the import file and get an import into Shopify without any errors.  So don't be surprised if your first run at this doesn't look good or is full of errors.
  2. If your store is already live, be careful as you can easily impact the customer experience.  As I Shopify Partner, I can create free, developer stores.  And I use developer stores to get all of the products properly set up before putting them in a live store.  If you work with a Shopify Partner you can ask them to create a developer store for you.  Alternatively, if you are on Shopify Plus, that plan includes up to 10 separate Shopify stores.  You can use one of those for your own developer store.
  3. A useful app to use for importing of product files is Excelify which I'll link to in the show notes.  A useful feature of Excelify is that you can easily import multiple photos for a product on a single row.  In a CSV file, each photo needs to be in its own row and getting that setup properly is not the easiest task.  Also, Excelify allows metafields, which I'll talk more about later, to be included in the Excel upload.  Metafields can't be included in the Shopify CSV import.
  4. You'll need to decide what should be a product and what should be a variant in your store.  For example, your product feed from the manufacturer may separate different colors to be different products.  But you may want color to be a variant under a single product.  So you'll need to structure the data as variants in your import file.
  5. During this process, you'll be importing files into Shopify, specifically product photos.  Now if your product feed includes links to product photos that are stored on the manufacture's servers, Shopify will be able to make a copy of those photos and add them to your Shopify store.  But if instead you have a folder on your computer or a thumb drive of the photos, you are going to have to store these photos on the internet where Shopify can access them.  Common methods of doing this include Google Drive and Dropbox.  If you have the choice, I recommend using Google Drive as it stores the photos in a more readily accessible fashion.  If you have to go with Dropbox, then you'll have to reformat the URLs in your product data file.  This is because the default URLs that Dropbox gives you for the photos isn't actually the URL of the photo but is the URL of a page that contains the photo.  So converting to a photo URL requires two steps:
    1. Step 1.  Replace the domain with
    2. Step 2.  If there is a question mark in the URL, like ?dl=0, then remove the question mark and everything after it.
  6. Now is also a good time to think about SEO improvements for the product photos.  Specifically the filename and alt text.  An easy step for alt text is to use the product title or variant information as the alt text for product photos.

Bucket 3 - Creating the customer's shopping experience

The bulk of the work in Bucket 3 involves defining and implementing your product taxonomy.  Product taxonomy is just a fancy way of saying how you'll classify your products so customers can find them.  For example, if you sell clothing, your top level navigation could be Mens, Womens, and Childrens.  And the navigation level under Mens could include Shirts, Pants, Shoes, Outerwear and Accessories.  And Shoes could have sub-categories of Athletic, Dress, Casual and Boots.  Now Shopify doesn't have a taxonomy tool.  Its something we have to create for ourselves.  I highly recommend that you actually write down the definition of your taxonomy so all store staff are on the same page about its definition and can easily follow it.  You'll refer to this documentation anytime you need to import more products in the future.

Now here's some of the tools in the Shopify data model that we can use to build our taxonomy:

  1. Collections.  Collections are groups of products.  In Shopify, you can have automated collections.  Those are ones that have rules that determine what products go in the collection.  For example the Shoes collection could have a rule that places every product that has a product type of 'shoes' in the shoe collection.  And for your large catalog, you are going to want automated collections.  That way when new products get to added to the store they will automatically get added to the right collections as long as you are following your defined taxonomy.
  2. Products.  There are a number of product fields in Shopify that we can use to define our taxonomy.  And its important for you to define what values are allowed for each of these fields.  Shopify will let you put anything in place and will allow you to enter misspellings or synonyms.  Being consistent in how things like color or sizes are defined will drastically improve the customer experience in your store.  All of these product fields can be used to define smart collections. 
    1. Product title
    2. Product type
    3. Product Vendor
    4. Product Price
    5. Product tag or tags
    6. Compare at price
    7. Weight
    8. Inventory stock
    9. Variant's Title
  3. Menus.  Shopify uses menus to build out the customer navigation.  For our Shopify experience, we'll have menu items that point to collections, collections filtered by tag, products, and pages
  4. Metafields.  Shopify has good documentation on Metafields.  But Metafields are not exposed in the Shopify admin, so many store owners are unaware that they exist.  Metafields can be an important component in a large catalog store.  Here's one common scenario with metafields to demonstrate their usefulness.  Let's say that you have installation manuals for some of your products.  Let's say these manuals are PDFs files that are stored in your Shopify store.  We'll use Metafields to expose them to customers.  We can define metafields for our products.  In this case, we'll create a metafield named manuals.instructions.  And we'll store the Shopify URL of the PDF file in that metafield.  Then we can add some liquid code to the product template that checks to see if there is any data in the manuals.instructions metafield for the product.  If there is, the liquid code will add a button to the product page that says 'See Instructions' and links to the PDF file.  With metafields and liquid edits to the product template, we can create rich, dynamic product page experiences.

Now, I already mentioned how this can be an iterative process.  As you import the data and then structure it to be viewed by customers, you'll see things on the customer-facing side of the store that just weren't easy to visualize in the product data files.  So you will most likely be going back and forth between Bucket 2 and Bucket 3 of this process a few times.  You'll see the results in the store and notice improvements you can make.  Don't be afraid to go back to the data files and edit them to support improvements to your taxonomy.  And do the importing again.  Remember the quality of your data and the ease with which customers can find what they are looking for can be a differentiator for you over your competitors.  So I encourage you to invest some time and energy in this process as it will pay dividends in conversion and customer satisfaction.

With any eCommerce store, customers can find the products they are looking for by either browsing through the store's navigation or doing a site search.  Both are going to be important for your store with its very large product catalog.  And filters are going to be an important tool to both the browse and search experiences.  No theme that I've used includes filters that are good enough for a large catalog.  I recommend using an app.  The one I use is called Product Filter & Search and I'll include a link to it in the show notes.  The app is truly amazing and makes it much easier for your customers to take a large collection, say Men's Athletic Shoes and filter the product choices to those that are for basketball, in stock, red or green and under $100.  The app gives you all sorts of control over how these filters appear and behave.  And the app is amazingly speedy.

Now one of the things that filters are highly dependent on is Tags.  And your original data file from the manufacturer probably included no tags.  As you process the data files in Bucket 2, you'll probably be adding tags.  And there's an app you can also use to automatically add tags as you add products to Shopify.  For example, you could create tags for color by searching the product title and description for certain keywords.  So you could add the tag 'Red' for any products that have 'red', 'burgundy', 'scarlet', or 'crimson' in the title or description.  Automating the tagging process not only save you a great time over manually tagging thousands of products.  It also helps enforce the taxonomy be eliminating spelling errors or synonyms.  The app is called Smart Tags and I'll add a link to it in the show notes. 

So in the end, your taxonomy documentation could look something like this.  Have one doc for your navigation.  It should show all of the nodes in your navigation and the hierarchy of the nodes.  For example a level 3 node could be Men's Athletic Shoes.  Its level 2 is Men's Shoes and the Level 1 is Men's.  And for each navigation nodes, specify how the automatic collection is defined.  And automatic collections can be defined by more than one rule.  So the Men's Athletic Shoes collection definition could be Product Type is equal to Men's Shoes and it is tagged Athletic.  That said, I generally make my Product Types the same as the lowest level in the navigation.  So my level Men's Athletic Shoes collection would be defined by the product type being set to men's athletic shoes.  Then the Level 2 node of Men's shoes would include any products where the product type is equal to Men's athletic shoes.  And there would also be rules from the other Level 3 nodes under Men's shoes, like Men's Dress Shoes.  Unfortunately, we can't use other collections to define collections.  So the level 2 can't just say any product that are contained in level 3. 

Things that are important to be clear about in your documentation include:

  1. Punctuation.  Is Men's spelled with or without the apostrophe?
  2. Plural or Singular.  Will you be using Shoe or Shoes.
  3. Capitalization.

And your taxonomy should have a second document.  This one should contain all of the acceptable values for fields like Vendor, Product Type and Tags.  This way your store staff will use the right values when adding new products. 

Now creating a taxonomy takes a bunch of time and effort.  You are going to have to use your logical left side of the brain.  But don't beat yourself up when it doesn't work out in the first iteration.  Even Spock would need a couple of iterations to get it right.  And many errors are quick to spot as you navigate your collections and apply filters.  So your testing should include browsing through your entire navigation and applying filters at each node.

We are almost done here.  I just want to recommend one more app for you to help with your large product catalog.  And that app is Photo Resize which I've linked to in the show notes.  This app will automate the process of making all of the product photos from all of the different manufacturers the same aspect ratio.  I recommend making them all square.  Making all of your product photos the same aspect ratio will make your collection and product pages much more uniform.  That will make it easier for customers to scan the pages and find the right products for them.  In addition, it will make your site look much more professional.

So, in summary.  You can use Shopify for large catalogs with 10s of thousands of products.  It will take some effort on your part to define, implement and enforce a taxonomy.  But the result will be a drastically improved shopping experience for your customers.  Which should provide increased conversion and customer satisfaction.

Thanks for listening.

JadePuma is a certified Shopify Expert. If you need any help with your Shopify store, we can help.