Demystify Custom eCommerce Solutions – When to customise and when not to


Customisation in eCommerce comes in many forms. For ease of summary, we view customisation as a deviation away from out-of-the-box solutions' regular features and functionality. The nuances and priority differences between platform providers are best understood by reviewing their features information. We recommend becoming fully aware of the functionality and attached costs of any platform you are considering. It can save you time and money in the long run.

In this piece, we discuss what we have seen to be common reasons and causes for eCommerce businesses to need customisation. It's important to note that your business is unique, so be calculated when concluding and keep your business priorities in mind throughout. If you would like to open a discussion around the rationale for your business's need for customisation, feel free to reach out to us for an open discussion.

The case for customisation

How customisable or modular are your products?

Depending on the selection or complexity of your product offering, there may be a necessity to invest in a customised eCommerce website.

Most non-customised website solutions will allow you to add SKU variations within a product. However, going further than the typical size and colour variations can become cumbersome or simply impossible.

Out-of-the-box solutions are designed to fulfil the most common requirements of eCommerce brands. This is logical as platform providers seek to appeal to most eCommerce brands to achieve a larger market share. Furthermore, this gives providers the best chance to gain a return on investment (ROI) from their development efforts. Whereas developing niche functionality relevant to a small proportion of their target market will show diminishing returns.

You then need to decide if you wish to offer unique functionality or enjoy additional back-end capabilities. If there is a requirement for customisation, brands will need to re-platform to a solution that matches their needs. It is possible to customise on top of their existing platform in some circumstances.

What shipping and payment options do you want to offer?

Although shipping and payment are separate areas of eCommerce, the case for customisation has commonalities. Brands looking to offer variations away from those provided by out-of-the-box solutions will require a level of customisation.

In the context of eCommerce payments, eCommerce solutions rarely support a comprehensive variety of payment solutions. This only becomes an issue for less established brands if they wish to offer customers a unique payment model or structure. However, as a brand's revenue grows, so does the importance of lower percentage fees, faster availability of funds, or other benefits.

When selling products with regular sizes and weights, brands and their customers will find that out-of-the-box solutions offer enough capabilities not to require customisation. Complexities come when a brand sells a range of product types with differing fulfilment requirements. For example, if a brand wishes to sell internationally, it will need a solution that works with different customs specifications. In the case of a marketplace, brands will find that each seller on the platform will favour a specific fulfilment option based on their product and location.

For example, if a brand sells and ships its products within the same country, an out-of-the-box solution will make this a painless process. However, if the brand wishes to enter a new market or offer a unique payment structure, out-of-the-box solutions are unlikely to meet the requirements. In this case, selling in a new market will likely require multi-currency functionality and offering a unique payment structure will require customisation of the checkout process and back-end. In some cases, plugins or third-party apps can act as workarounds for these issues but be aware that compromises will likely have to happen to gain a functioning result.

Does your industry have specific rules or regulations?

Each industry has unique regulations and rules that eCommerce businesses need to know. Take the time to understand the regulations involved in selling your products in your desired market.

For example, perishable goods that require refrigeration require a different fulfilment solution to a piece of apparel.

Each fulfilment solution has its capabilities and prices attached. In some cases, providers ban the shipping of substances such as combustible items. The reasons behind this are entrenched in the logistics industry, and so eCommerce brands are required to look to more niche fulfilment options for specialist products.

Do you require custom coupons or promo codes? (or rules on when they can be applied)

Coupons and product codes are a great way to improve customer loyalty and Lifetime Value (LTV). Some out-of-the-box solutions offer this functionality, but brands will likely find them limiting when available.

For example, if you wish for a discount code to only apply to specific items, you'll likely require a customised solution. In this case, out-of-the-box solutions may allow brands to offer a discount for all the products, but any desire for greater flexibility puts you in the realm of customisation.

Do you need to integrate with back-end software?

The need for integration with other systems and software is widespread in eCommerce.

For example, you may have an order entry system on the back-end to track each order from when it's placed to when it's fulfilled and shipped. However, you also need to input that order into your invoicing and accounting systems.

Depending on the back-end software you use, integrating it with your eCommerce website can be straightforward or require a good deal of work. In the latter case, you'll likely want to use a custom-built website, as this will allow you to integrate with any required systems.

Do you have unique reporting needs?

It's common for eCommerce businesses to require tailored reporting functionality, especially in more established brands. There are many reasons why a brand may need this. The most common is when separate teams within a business are interested in different information or when there are specific security requirements, making the passing of data require segmentation.

In practice, more affordable out-of-the-box solutions will offer limited reporting flexibility. Enterprise focused out-of-the-box solutions do exist, offering greater functionality that may suit your requirements. However, you can expect to see the cost increase as you look at more capable solutions.

Do you have security concerns?

In the early stages of eCommerce, businesses tend to be overly complacent about their security. Although this is understandable, it is not acceptable. Complacency often comes under the pretence that out-of-the-box solutions should tick the relevant legal boxes. However, your business and industry may have requirements outside the 'standard' security requirements.

Using out-of-the-box solutions makes it hard to know whether you're doing the right thing. Custom solutions allow you to benefit from the expertise of developers and security professionals who know how to protect your customers' data best. Be careful here, as not all developers will see security as a priority as most non-technical people will not know the difference until it's too late.

Do you want to build genuinely unique features for your shoppers?

Every business is unique, with different values and priorities. Many early-stage eCommerce businesses will find affordable out-of-the-box solutions a viable option. That is unless your business fits into one of the mentioned points. If an affordable out-of-the-box solution allows you to sell your product online, why would you want to customise?

There are a plethora of reasons a business may wish to customise. For example, if you want customers to view your brand as one of a kind or make their shopping experience memorable, you should have a website that reflects this.

Out-of-the-box solutions prioritise ease of setup and affordability, sacrificing scalability and flexibility. However, if you wish to deliver a unique customer experience for shoppers, you'll have to look towards customisable solutions.

If you research eCommerce businesses with the highest revenue, you'll struggle to find one that uses an out-of-the-box solution. Instead, they all run a From Scratch fully customised eCommerce solution that allows them to be unique and offer an outstanding customer experience at scale.

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Have you outgrown your out-of-the-box e-commerce solution?

As mentioned, out-of-the-box solutions are tailored to early-stage businesses. The result of the compromises made to offer convenience and affordability is that out-of-the-box solutions often struggle with scaling alongside your business. There is plenty of noise around the logic and causation behind companies re-platforming to an infrastructure solution that fits their business needs. Although indicators such as those mentioned in this piece exist, there is an overarching conclusion that every business is unique. Your appetite for business growth will ultimately define the 'right' time to re-platform.

Decision-makers at eCommerce businesses will struggle to ignore the growing pains they will experience while scaling their business using an out-of-the-box solution. The crux is that the limitations of an out-of-the-box solution will start preventing you from achieving what you want to. Additionally, you may realise that the out-of-the-box solution will be costing you as much as a custom solution due to the percentage cuts taken and the added cost of plugins or time spent doing workarounds.

How to decide what your business requires?

In short, there is no secret formula. However, key indicators will help you decide which path to take.

Level of customisation required: bespoke customer experiences.  

Focus first on your customer experience, and success will come. Therefore, customer experience should become a driving ethos for development.

As COVID-19 has accelerated the race to a digital-first world, brands need to work harder to provide richer and more compelling shopping experiences that retain their customers' attention in an increasingly competitive eCommerce market. Additionally, brands must innovate as technologies to create differentiated experiences quickly become standardised among the major eCommerce platform providers.

So how can you give your customers the best possible experience? A bespoke (customised) platform will provide you with a unique competitive advantage and allow you to stand out from the crowd. But can your business afford it at this point?

Business revenue: how far do you want to take your business

The most straightforward answer will be your business's size and growth potential. If you're trying to build and maintain a relatively basic website in the shortest possible time, out-of-the-box solutions will most likely do the job. However, suppose your goal is to aim for the big leagues. In that case, you should launch using a flexible platform that allows for some customisation according to both your business and customers' unique needs. If you achieve around one million pounds in yearly revenue, the latter will usually be suitable. But as you start growing into an eight-digit mark, you'll find the whole structure inadequate to sustain your growth. It usually becomes too complex to drive significant change, too rigid to integrate, or too expensive to align all the components.

It is not surprising that almost all the top 150 largest marketplaces globally don't use an out-of-the-box solution.

Maintenance capabilities: create a solid foundation for growth

eCommerce businesses need to focus on flexible maintenance capability first. This way, future activity (development) has a robust foundation for crafting bespoke experiences and allows for accelerated revenue growth.

If you are on the journey of starting your business, the critical question will be whether you already have a team or plan to hire a team of specialists? It's common for companies to choose the technology they have the most capability to build on. If you have a team of developers, you'll want to utilise this advantage. However, if you have selected your platform and are searching for developers, make sure they are well versed in your preferred platform to sustain your growth. In addition, it's vital to secure robust maintenance capabilities in-house or through a strategic partner and make sure you take full advantage of your customisable infrastructure.

Final words

How do you have confidence in your decision to customise or not with all this information? We recommend that you view customisation as an investment. If you are re-platforming to resolve a single low impact issue, you may struggle to see an ROI. Alternatively, if investing in a customised eCommerce solution will give you a unique competitive advantage, leading to accelerated growth, the decision may be apparent. Understand what the current Total Cost of Ownership is for your platform. In some cases, businesses may find re-platforming to a customised solution more cost-effective.

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