Sep 11, 2020 - Linda Topp

Freedom of Choice: Dealing With Variant Limits in Shopify

If you’ve found your way to this article, you’re probably tackling one of Shopify’s most unappreciated ‘quirks’: the product variant limit. For any given product, Shopify allows up to 3 variant options and a total of 100 unique combinations (aka variants) thereof.

For most merchants, regardless of catalog breadth or depth, this isn’t an issue. We’ve found that for most clients we serve, the total variants required per product are much lower. But for merchants with a multi-faceted, complex, or highly configurable line of products, the variant limit can seem at best, frustrating - and at worst, a dealbreaker. Organizations of all sizes are drawn to Shopify for the platform’s scalability, reliability, and deep feature-set -- hence it’s worth exploring how best to overcome the variant restriction.

Much has been written about this topic, and many a casual blogger out there will tell you how to “fix” the problem or “remove” the limitation. Google this topic for a while. You’ll find a plethora of apps that “extend variants” with product options, or developers offering copy-and-paste code snippets to manipulate the user experience.

Let’s clear the air. No app, plugin, or custom code exists that will magically extend the number of actual variants you can achieve per product; the limit is an immovable part of Shopify’s infrastructure. Instead, these are workarounds. They generally fall into two categories: a) divvy up your variants amongst multiple products, or b) dynamically create and delete variants as they are needed.

Making the best choice for the way you operate will hinge on a good understanding of how these workarounds work, so let’s take a look at the guts behind them. As I’ve hinted at above: both methods require custom development, whether you use an app or do it yourself.

The Product Split

Split a single product from your catalog into two or more products to get all the variants you need. For instance, a pair of slacks come in blue, black, and tan and have an additional waist, inseam, and fabric options. For example, you would split the color options into three separate product entities: Blue Slacks, Black Slacks, Tan Slacks, leaving plenty of variants to work within each. On the front end, you’d bring all the variants together into one ‘main’ product page and hide the others from visitors - which will be crucial for avoiding duplicate content and negatively affecting SEO. Some clever scripting and UI work on the product page would be needed to pull in and display options as required. Pros, cons, and considerations:

  • You’ll have an entire set of every variant you need and will be able to use them as such. I.e., inventory, and other variant-level settings...
  • Product maintenance and administration are likely to be non-trivial - but adopting an integrated PIM solution could significantly reduce this overhead.
  • No app or back-end work is strictly necessary.

Product Variants Made to Order

Create new variants for a product on the fly as needed, and then delete them afterward, ensuring you never hit the limit. This method dynamically constructs a new variant based on the combination of selected product options. Typically, the new variant only gets created when the customer enters checkout - since, from Shopify’s perspective, that’s the first time it’s needed. Dynamically generated variants would then be eliminated after the customer completes checkout or freeing up variant allocation after some time threshold. Several apps offer this functionality, or for a more custom, targeted solution with a smaller footprint, building a private app is a solid choice.

Pros, cons, and considerations:

  • With dynamic variant creation, tracking inventory at the variant level becomes unrealistic.
  • Remember that you’ll still be at the mercy of the 100 variant limit. So if there’s a real possibility that more than 100 customers could be checking out at the same time with the same product configured in over 100 unique ways, you’ll hit the ceiling.
  • This method requires back end development work or installation of an app to handle the variant creation.

As with all things, the strategy you adopt will depend on your product catalog, your business rules, and your processes. The 100 variant limit has been around since Shopify was conceived, and as far as we know, the platform has no plans to change this tenet of their constitution. But armed with the right information, and with careful consideration, you can craft a solid plan for your catalog -- and enjoy all the benefits of a stellar eCommerce platform.

 

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