How to Create Subcategories in Shopify

Tristan Stocker
min read
13 Sep

Subcategories are a crucial element for all ecommerce websites. They allow customers to quickly find the general product type they're looking for and easily narrow down their search to find exactly what they're looking for. Think of when you walk into a supermarket and are looking for toothpaste. Without the large department banners clearly denoting “toiletries” above the aisles, it would take ages to find the section with the product you were looking for.

These menu items are a UI element that modern customers expect to be available on any reputable ecommerce website that they might consider using. Therefore, being able to create subcategories within Shopify is important.

A clarification should be made at this point: while most ecommerce platforms refer to these menu items as subcategories, Shopify calls them collections and sub-collections. These terms can generally be used interchangeably.

This article will demonstrate three methods for creating subcategories within your Shopify store:

  1. Organizing collections into a hierarchy using Shopify's built-in navigation features
  2. Using product tags on certain Shopify themes to filter collections
  3. Using Merchstack for unlimited subcategories

Organizing collections into a hierarchy using Shopify's built-in navigation features

Collections in Shopify are organized as a flat, unordered list. However, it is possible to use Shopify's navigation feature to nest menu items that point to collections, creating a psuedo-hierarchical relationship between those collections. A top-level menu item can have up to two levels of menu items nested beneath it, which allows you to build fairly complex drop-down menus.

These instructions will summarize the easiest method of organizing your collections into hierarchical categories and subcategories in your Shopify store. These steps are possible within Shopify's default features and require no coding knowledge.

Arrow pointing to 'add menu item' within Shopify.
  1. Go to the 'Navigation' settings section of your Shopify store.
  2. Click the 'Add Menu' button and add your 'parent' collections. For example, 'Men' and 'Women' could be your first parent collections.
  3. Once a parent collection has been created, further collections can be added. In order to do this, add a menu item pointing to another collection (like "Men’s Accessories") and drag it under the parent collection to nest it beneath it.
  4. When you are happy with the organization of your menu items into collections and sub-collections, click the 'Save Menu' button.
Add menu item showing list of available collections within Shopify.

This method of adding sub-collections is easy given it makes use of Shopify's built-in features and is as simple as dragging, dropping and clicking. It is likely the most straightforward method for creating menu items and subcategories.

However, this simplicity comes at the expense of flexibility. Indeed, there are a number of drawbacks to this method of implementing subcategories:

  • Firstly, the categories aren’t clearly connected to each other. This is due to every collection within Shopify being fundamentally individual within a flat hierarchy. It is therefore difficult to create breadcrumbs on the product display page (PDP), for example.
  • Secondly, you can also only go 3 levels deep, which is not nearly deep enough for large stores. As an example, Bob’s Stores has 7 levels of categories and subcategories. Shopify's built-in features limit your ability to customize your online store.

There are a number of plugins that let you extend your Shopify store's subcategories to 4 levels, but only for the mega menu, so it is impossible to make a left-hand nav like Amazon/Etsy. Even for a small store like Freiraum, you can’t create a navigation like "Men › Clothing › Hoodies & Sweatshirts › Hoodies". It is possible to use filters to replicate this, known as tags, and we'll get into that in a moment, however that solution has its own drawbacks.

Although this method is likely the simplest given it uses Shopify's default features, it can prove to be difficult to modify and restrictive in terms of limiting your online store to only 3 subcategories of menu depth. Adding certain third-party themes to your Shopify store can extend this subcategory depth to 4 levels.

Using product tags on certain Shopify themes to filter collections

Another option is to use certain Shopify themes that enable you to use product tags to filter collections. This extends the possibilities of sub-categories within Shopify, enabling an extra layer of subcategory depth on top of Shopify's maximum 3. The Vogue Theme, pictured below, uses product tags ("Dress", "Gown", "Lace", etc.) to filter the products of a collection.

Image of 'Vogue Theme' for Shopify stores.

This approach enables you to extend beyond the 3 level deep maximum of Shopify's default navigation options. However, it only extends it by one more level and at the same time comes at the cost of SEO. Because this option relies on tags, these pages cannot be read by Google's bots when they crawl your website. The tags merely narrow down the search in a customer-facing way without changing the canonical URL.

Image showing how canonical tags point to different URLs.

Therefore, although this may be a good option from a customer user experience perspective, from an SEO perspective it is a poor option. If you had a website for 'Dresses' with tags for 'Midi Dresses', 'Shift Dresses', Maxi Dresses' etc., clicking on the tags would filter the products, but Google would not see this change. Google's bots would not know how good your website is for Midi Dresses and even if someone searched Google for that key word, Google would not rank your website highly.

Using Merchstack for unlimited subcategories

If the previous options are not flexible enough to attain the quality of sub-categories desired for your ecommerce store, then Merchstack is an excellent method of successfully implementing sub-categories and a sidebar menu.

Merchstack allows you to organize your collections into a true hierarchy, with no limit on how deep your hierarchy goes. This offers far more flexibility and depth than Shopify's default options, and can be simply organized by simply dragging categories into the hierarchy that suits your online store.

Animation showing how easy it is to organise subcategories within Merchstack.

Not only does Merchstack enable unlimited subcategories within your Shopify store, it also unlocks a navigation sidebar. This navigation sidebar is used by successful stores including Amazon, Etsy and Walmart and used to be nearly impossible to implement into a Shopify storefront.

Image showing categories within Merchstack.

In conclusion, there are a number of methods to add subcategories within your Shopify store. Using the straightforward, but somewhat limited default features within Shopify is a good starting point and with certain themes this functionality can be extended. If these options become too limiting, Merchstack is a fully-featured solution, giving users the option for unlimited SEO-compliant subcategories and website sidebars instead of simple tagging.

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