Build vs. Buy. How to Compare Off-the-Shelf and Proprietary eCommerce Platforms/CMS

This article was first posted on LinkedIn on June 19, 2019.

When creating an eCommerce system, one of the first steps is to decide if we want to build or buy the software platform and CMS (Content Management System). For small-medium businesses, there are many advantages in selecting an existing platform (buy). The most popular option is to buy an off-the-shelf SaaS solution such as Shopify, SquareSpace, or Wix. The second most popular choice is to install and customize an open-source platform such as Magento or WordPress with the popular WooCommerce plugin.

The last, and more expensive and complex option, is to build your proprietary platform (build). In general, I would not recommend this option. However, if your business model doesn’t fit well with standard eCommerce platforms, you should consider creating your platform. Be aware that’s an expensive option, and you must have the resources to create and maintain the software platform, and you must be sure you can afford a qualified team of software developers. If this is the case, the benefits of a custom-made platform can be huge.

If you have the resources to create and maintain your platform, the benefits of a custom-made platform can be huge

eCommerce Customization

Implementing any deep customization of an eCommerce platform is expensive and should be limited to features that can provide a significant competitive advantage and generate a significant ROI. No matter how flexible your off-the-shelf solution, you discover features that are essential to your business and that are not included and can not be easily implemented or added. A typical example is the definition of custom-relationships among products that are specific to the vertical market you are addressing (e.g., product B is a plugin of product A, or product D is the maintenance for product C). Another example of a feature that can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to add to a standard platform is what I call conditional-discounts. Conditional discounts are discounts available only to qualified users based on a business rule. If we are reselling somebody else products, we must be aware that the manufacturers or distributors can be extremely creative in defining convoluted business rules. If your eCommerce is running on a custom-built solution, features like custom-relationships and conditional-discounts can be quickly implemented and updated with a relatively small effort. Here is when deep customization can provide a significant competitive advantage to us as sellers, but most important, it can significantly simplify the user interaction and experience by letting the software platform takes care of offer and pricing complexity.

Some of the most popular off-the-shelf eCommerce solutions: Shopify, Wix, Magento, Squarespace, and WooCommerce.
Some of the most popular off-the-shelf eCommerce solutions: Shopify, Wix, Magento, Squarespace, and WooCommerce.

eCommerce Speed

No matter how good your off-the-shelf or open-source-platform is, the page loading speed is going to be disappointing. Flexibility is what makes those general-purpose platforms appealing to merchants like us. Those platforms can be used to sell almost any sort of product. However, there is a performance cost that we have to pay in exchange for the flexibility. For example, let’s assume we are selling simple products, and we don’t have to deal with product’ configurations and sizes. The platform configuration and sizes subsystem, even if we don’t need it, will be running anyway inside the platform, taking away resources from more critical tasks. For a single subsystem it’s a small overhead, but when we multiply it for all the subsystems and features that are not relevant to our products and target market, we get a platform that struggles to meet minimal page-load time requirements. Under such conditions, it can be challenging to attract and retain mobile users abd to meet Google SEO guidelines.

The importance of page load time.
The importance of page load time.

A custom-built platform doesn’t have those constraints, it doesn’t have to include all possible subsystems. Your development team deploys only the code and subsystem that your ecommerce needs and uses. Having full control of the platform allows your team to fine-tune every aspect of the website to ensure the best performance, including HTML tags and structure, image compression, position and size of Javascript libraries, complexity and size of CSS styles, etc.

Comparing eCommerce Platforms performance on Google PageSpeed Insights.
Comparing eCommerce Platforms performance on Google PageSpeed Insights.

The image above shows a massive gap in performance between off-the-shelf and custom-built platform. According to Google benchmarking system, the website page tested on the left, implemented on the SquareSpace platform, has a problematic performance of 3/100. Websites created with Shopify, WordPress and Magento have similar disappointing performances. The web page tested on the right, implemented on the custom platform I built for Novedge, is presenting the same product, and performs much better at 91/100. I used Google PageSpeed Insights to evaluate the loading and rendering speed for both pages on a mobile device. The results for the desktop platform are even more striking.


Franco Folini lives and works in the eCommerce territory, a wild area between the Kingdom of Technology and the Kingdom of Marketing. He speaks fluently the language of both realms. For many years, Franco has been helping people bridge the divide and successfully collaborate.

If you want to find out more about Franco, visit his LinkedIn profile or send him an email folini[at]gmail.com