Build vs. Buy. Compare Off-the-Shelf and Proprietary eCommerce Platforms

How to compare off-the-shelf and proprietary eCommerce platforms? This is a very important question, the first you will have to answer before everything else. 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 eCommerce platform (buy). The most popular option is to buy an off-the-shelf SaaS solution such as Shopify, SquareSpace, BigCommerce, 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.

One last, and certainly the more expensive and complex option, is to create your own proprietary e-commerce platform (build). In general, I would not recommend this option. However, if your business model doesn’t fit well with standard eCommerce platforms, or if the user experience is at the core of your business model, you should consider creating your own own platform. Be aware that’s an expensive option, and you must have the budget and resources to create and maintain the software platform. You must also be able to 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 budget and resources to create and maintain your own platform, or to deeply customize and extend an existing platform, the benefits can be huge

Comparing eCommerce Customization: Build vs. buy

Implementing any deep customization of an eCommerce platform is very 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 will soon discover features essential to your business model that are not included and can not be easily added.

Missing features, and major issues with popular eCommerce platforms

eCommerce platform are designed to accomodate the need of the average seller or reseller. If you are in vertical market or your embracing a unique business model it’s almost impossible to find an eCommerce platform that fits well with your needs. Here is a list of scenarios exposing the lack of certain features from many popular eCommerce platform.

  • eCommerce Scenario 1: We want or need to define custom-relationships among products in our catalog that are specific to the vertical market we are addressing. E.g., we are selling software and product B is a plugin of product A, or product D is the maintenance for product C. Standard eCommerce platform don’t do a very good job in helping to define this kind of relationships.
  • eCommerce Scenario 2: We want to create conditional-discounts. Conditional discounts are discounts available only to qualified users based on business rules defined by you or your business model. implementis this kind of business rules on a standard eCommerce platform could be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Many times these rules are defined by the product manufacturer or distributor and we don’t have any control on them. I’ve seen crazy rules like: if the customer purchased at least two maintenance contracts in the last 5 years then they are entitled to a 20% discount. Try that with Shopify! Some marketing department can be very creative in defining convoluted business rules. If we are online resellers, we can’t afford to ignore those rules and the revenues that comes with them. In my experience, this kind of issues could be very challenging.
  • eCommerce Scenario 3: We are selling customizable products with a subscription business model. On any given platform there will be plugins or apps to help us implement a subscription based eCommerce, called recurring payments by many platforms. There are also plugins and apps to build customizable products. By leverage two separate plugins or apps to implement our business model, we will soon discover that there is no integration between the two. Information collected by a plugin is in a silo and inaccessible by the other plugin. The typical way the end user experience this limitation is by being able to customize only to the first delivery of the subscription, but not to the following.
  • eCommerce Scenario 4: One last example of the limits of the most popular platforms is the “extreme customization” problem. By “extreme customization” I don’t mean anything crazy. Let’s consider for example a Wine Club. Let’s assume we are offering to deliver 5 bottle of wine every month, while letting our members to select the 5 bottles from a catalog of 50 different wines. Well, if we try to create a customizable product in a popular eCommerce platform like WooCommerce, we better be prepared to witness something very weird! As we define all the customization option, WooCommerce will populate its database with all the possible combinations of wines. That means 50 x 50 x 50 x 50 x 50 = 312,500,000 products. Don’t try this at home, you will certainly crash WooCommerce. If by chance you manage to succeed, the eCommerce platform will then ask you to define a price, a stock quantity, and to upload a picture for each one of thems! Obviously it doesn’t make sense to create over 300 millions product records with prices, SKUs, descriptions, and images when we only have 50 different types of wine.

Customizing proprietary eCommerce platforms

If your eCommerce is running on a custom-built solution or you are working on a deep customization, features like custom-relationships and conditional-discounts can be quickly implemented and updated with a relatively small effort. Product customization will take a larger effort, but it could be done in a reasonable time. 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: build vs buy solutions

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 to meet Google SEO guidelines. The only way out is to invest heavily in a a super fast infrastructure and leverage expensive solution like CDNs.

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]


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