Editor's note: This post was originally published on September 4, 2015 and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Over the past 20 years, eCommerce has seen an astounding rise in importance in B2C relationships. It’s become so significant that for many businesses, their brick-and-mortar physical presence comes second to their online presence.
Accordingly, it’s critical that business owners get proactive about their online experiences, making sure that their eCommerce site appropriately represents their brand. Of course, the site also has to be professional, user-friendly, and effective in what it sets out to accomplish. To manage this, an eCommerce platform is usually necessary.
But with how far we’ve come over the past few years, business owners might be surprised at just how many eCommerce options are available. But before we dive too deeply into modern eCommerce platform solutions, we need to start at the beginning with a more fundamental question: Should you build your own platform or buy?
In a word? Freedom.
When you have a vision for your site and you don’t want your platform holding you back, it makes sense to build. Many traditional eCommerce platforms come with restrictions on what types of integrations can be made or what type of content can be presented. If a company has unique plans for designing its site, these restrictions may prevent them from unlocking the full potential value of their investment.
Imagine being satisfied with your eCommerce platform only to receive a broad update that forces new features and updates that you don’t want or need. (Alternatively, you may be needing an update, but you must wait for the platform developers to take action.)
This is an understandable concern for companies running carefully controlled eCommerce experiences. Building your own platform gives you the freedom and flexibility to take complete ownership of your eCommerce presence, guaranteeing that you’re the ultimate decision-maker on how your platform runs.
Retaining control is a recurring theme of platform ownership. When you build your own platform, you’re able to dictate what features should be included and how you want them to be implemented to suit your business needs.
There are also your existing assets to consider. Many companies fall in love with their content management systems (CMS) and would prefer not to part with them. If so, building your own platform can be a good choice, as it’s easy to set up a custom build for integrating key business software, extensions, or other systems that let you sell exactly the way you want.
In other words, you’re no longer at the mercy of your platform’s specifications if you choose to build your own.
Bear in mind that your platform choice won’t only affect your customers – it’ll affect how your team manages your eCommerce experience. On the backend, you’ll have people from virtually all departments using the platform’s integrations – inventory management, marketing, accounting, and so on. A custom eCommerce build makes it easy to manage these integrations across all users, ensuring that they have the information they need to make well-informed business decisions.
Because of the complex nature of building a platform, you’ll be outsourcing your development to a team that specializes in eCommerce platforms.
This is a big point of relief for business owners with enough work on their plates already. You won’t have to do any of the heavy lifting; simply work with your developers, state your requirements, and let them work. A quality development team will support you throughout the design process, launch, and testing. And if you end up needing more features, you’ll have a reliable resource to fall back on.
These people have learned your business, and they can help you continually make your eCommerce site function in the best way possible.
There are plenty of benefits to building your own platform, but some companies will do fine with a less involved purchasing approach.
If your business is small and exists to sell simple products, then it makes sense to keep your platform simple too. There may very well be an existing platform that suits your needs without the need for extensive integrations or a separate CMS; in these cases, purchasing a platform is an easy, cost-effective option.
Additionally, if you have a business without complicated transactions or a large volume of customers, you’ll have less need for extensive, customized back-end features. If so, purchasing a platform will be the quickest way to get your business up and running with eCommerce.
If your business has a restricted development budget, then it’s probably best to forgo building your own platform. Given that your platform is the heart of your eCommerce operations, it’s risky to cut corners in the development cycle. And while the custom development process is certainly more affordable than it used to be, it’s still generally cheaper to stick with purchased platforms.
If you build your own platform, you’re responsible for not only building, but maintaining the platform for its entire existence. If your business doesn’t have an adequate development team, or the expertise necessary to do this kind of thing long-term, they may struggle to keep up with this ongoing goal. As mentioned above, tackling this process without being fully prepared will expose a business to risk – so unless you’re prepared to take complete ownership of the project, purchasing may be the better choice.
While the above platform options have been foundational to eCommerce growth over the years, the industry is evolving fast – and new solutions are emerging that may give business owners the best of both worlds. For example, Slatwall Commerce is an eCommerce platform built with an approach called headless commerce. This is a different type of eCommerce infrastructure that provides many of the benefits inherent to both buying and building.
Headless is a decoupled type of eCommerce architecture that separates the backend from the CMS, giving companies control and flexibility in how they set up their storefronts. It’s a level of convenience that companies could only find through custom builds in the past, and as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach to eCommerce, headless lets business owners enjoy the stability and security of letting a provider manage hosting details. And as an API-first platform, Slatwall Commerce allows full integration with all of your existing eCommerce applications and services.
Taken together, it’s a different type of eCommerce experience that lets businesses sell how they want, all without being forced to build a platform from scratch.