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CMS vs. Custom Development (2024 Comparison)

Last Updated on 07th Jun, 2024 | Ecommerce

cms vs custom development

What’s the Difference Between CMS and Custom Development?

Choosing the right ecommerce platform is one of the most important decisions a business can make when venturing into online sales. The platform acts as the foundation on which the entire online store is built. When evaluating options, key considerations include CMS vs Custom Development, as the platform impacts everything from design capabilities and scalability to security and performance.

There are two primary options for choosing right ecommerce platforms – using a content management system (CMS) or having a custom ecommerce website built from scratch. Both options have their own sets of pros and cons. The best choice depends on an evaluation of the business’s specific needs and goals.

Key Takeaways:

  • Content management systems like WooCommerce and Magento provide quick, low-cost setups with lots of built-in features.
  • Custom-built platforms allow full control over functionality and design but have higher costs and longer timelines.
  • Factors like business size, budget, timeline, and technical capabilities should guide the decision between CMS and custom build.
  • Many businesses choose a middle path – starting with a CMS and customizing it for a tailored solution.

CMS vs Custom Development: A Quick Comparison

Here is a comparison table of CMS vs Custom development for ecommerce:

Factor CMS (Shopify, WooCommerce, etc) Custom Build
Cost Lower initial cost, monthly licensing fees Higher upfront development cost
Speed to Market Very fast setup, days to weeks Slower, months of development
Design Customization Limited by themes/templates 100% customizable design
Feature Customization Plugins/extensions available Can build any required features
Scalability May face limitations at high volumes Built to scale smoothly
Security Reliant on platform and plugins More control over security
Ongoing Management Handles updates and maintenance Requires in-house or agency support
Technical Expertise Needed Low, usable by non-developers High, developers required
Ownership Platform owns code and data Full ownership and control
SEO Capabilities CMS-level limitations Can optimize for search engines
Integrations CMS and plugins offer some Custom built with APIs as needed

The best choice depends on the specific business needs, timeline, budget and capabilities. Many businesses start with a CMS and later customize for a hybrid solution. But a highly customized platform with complex needs may warrant a custom build from the start.

What is a CMS?

A content management system or CMS is a software application that allows users to create, manage, and modify digital content on a website without needing specialized technical knowledge.

Popular CMS platforms provide easy-to-use interfaces, pre-designed templates, and drag-and-drop content creation tools. This enables users with no coding experience to build professional ecommerce websites quickly.

Top Ecommerce CMS Platforms

top ecommerce cms platforms

Some of the most widely used CMS platforms for ecommerce include:

  • Shopify
  • WooCommerce
  • Magento
  • BigCommerce

Shopify eCommerce Platform

  • A fully hosted SaaS ecommerce CMS with powerful built-in features
  • Suitable for small to large businesses selling physical/digital goods
  • Offers unlimited products, 24/7 support, and seamless integration

WooCommerce eCommerce Platform

  • An open-source WordPress plugin transforming sites into online stores
  • Very customizable with thousands of free and paid extensions
  • Ideal for small businesses needing a basic online presence

Magento eCommerce Platform

  • A self-hosted enterprise-level open-source ecommerce platform
  • Scales to support huge catalogs and complex websites
  • Better suited for mid-sized to large businesses

BigCommerce eCommerce Platform

  • SaaS ecommerce platform combining ease of use and enterprise functionality
  • Integrated tools for search optimization, security, promotions etc.
  • Ideal for growing mid-market brands wanting flexibility

Advantages of Ecommerce CMS Platforms

Using a pre-built CMS for ecommerce offers several benefits:

  • Cost-effectiveness – CMS platforms provide a quick and budget-friendly way to launch an online store compared to custom development. Shopify Basic plans start at $29/month.
  • Ease of use – Intuitive CMS dashboards and simple content creation tools mean no technical skills are needed. Users can set up stores and make changes instantly.
  • Pre-designed templates – CMS platforms offer professionally designed ecommerce templates across categories to choose from. This saves time and effort over coding a custom site.
  • Add-ons and apps – Extensions and plugins can add advanced functionality like loyalty programs, email marketing, and additional payment options.
  • Regular updates—Reputable CMS platforms frequently roll out new features, security patches, and performance improvements to keep stores up to date.

Disadvantages of Ecommerce CMS Platforms

There are some potential downsides with CMS ecommerce solutions to consider as well:

  • Limited customization – While templates and themes allow some branding changes, extensive customization requires developer skills.
  • Scalability concerns – Out-of-the-box CMS builds may struggle with large catalogs and high traffic volumes.
  • Reliance on extensions – Important functionality may only be available through third-party extensions that add costs.
  • Security risks – Every plugin added expands the potential attack surface. Vetting third-party extensions is important.

What is a Custom Build Website?

Custom build website involves building a platform from scratch to match the business’ exact specifications, rather than using an off-the-shelf CMS solution.

Experienced developers first analyze the requirements before planning and coding the front-end user experience, back-end infrastructure, APIs, integrations, and custom features needed.

Top Custom Website Builders 2024

top custom website builders

Some of the most widely used custom website builders include:

  • WordPress
  • Wix
  • Squarespace
  • Weebly
  • Webflow
  • Hostinger
  • GoDaddy

WordPress Website Builder

  • The most popular open-source content management system
  • Highly customizable with thousands of plugins and themes
  • Suitable for all types of websites, from blogs to complex ecommerce sites

Wix Website Builder

  • A user-friendly drag-and-drop website builder with a wide range of templates
  • Offers a variety of apps and integrations to extend functionality
  • Ideal for small to medium-sized businesses and individuals needing a simple, customizable website

Squarespace Website Builder

  • An all-in-one platform known for its beautiful design templates
  • Provides built-in ecommerce, blogging, and SEO tools
  • Best for creatives, small businesses, and personal websites

Weebly Website Builder

  • A drag-and-drop website builder owned by Square
  • Includes built-in ecommerce features and various integrations
  • Suitable for small businesses, personal sites, and online stores

Webflow Website Builder

  • A visual web design tool that allows designers to build responsive websites without coding
  • Offers advanced customization and CMS capabilities
  • Ideal for designers, developers, and businesses needing high design flexibility

Hostinger Website Builder

  • An affordable website builder with a variety of templates and customization options
  • Offers integrated ecommerce and SEO tools
  • Suitable for small businesses, personal websites, and online stores

GoDaddy Website Builder

  • A popular website builder with easy-to-use design tools and templates
  • Includes built-in marketing and ecommerce features
  • Ideal for small businesses, personal websites, and entrepreneurs looking for a quick and simple solution

Advantages of Custom Build Website

Opting for custom build website offers these key advantages:

  • Full design control – Every aspect of the user interface can be tailored for a unique branded experience without template restrictions.
  • Match specific needs – Instead of retrofitting an existing solution, custom builds are crafted to perfectly fit the business model and customer journey.
  • Scalability and performance – Custom code and infrastructure choices allow seamless scaling, while CMS-reliant stores often face bottlenecks under heavy loads.
  • Enhanced security – With no unnecessary modules or legacy code, the attack surface is minimized for stronger protection.
  • Innovative capabilities – Custom builds enable the implementation of creative features difficult to achieve with off-the-shelf systems.

Disadvantages of Custom Build Website

There are also some downsides to weigh with the custom development approach:

  • Higher upfront cost – Developing a fully custom platform requires significant initial investment compared to licensing an existing CMS.
  • Longer timelines – Whereas a CMS site can launch in weeks, custom builds typically take several months from planning through testing and launch.
  • Technical expertise is needed—In-house developers or agency partnerships are essential for planning, building, and maintaining a custom platform.
  • Ongoing updates – New features, technologies, security fixes etc. require ongoing investment unlike the bundled CMS updates.

Key Factors in Choosing Between CMS vs. Custom Development

Making the right choice between adopting a CMS or building a custom ecommerce platform depends on several key factors:

Business Size and Growth Plans

  • Small businesses with modest product lines often fare better with an out-of-the-box CMS for faster launch and lower risk.
  • Companies projecting rapid growth in SKUs, sales, and traffic should consider custom systems engineered to scale smoothly.

Budget

  • Limited budgets typically steer choices toward CMS platforms like Shopify with monthly licensing models and free themes.
  • Companies with ample budgets to invest can create fully customized brands with custom builds.

Technical Expertise

  • Non-technical founders will favor CMS platforms that enable e-commerce sites without coding skills.
  • Access to in-house developers or agency partners helps manage complex custom builds.

Unique Functionality Needs

  • Most CMS platforms support standard e-commerce features that are out-of-the-box. Unique functionality often needs custom development.
  • Exceptionally complex catalogs, workflows, and innovation needs point to custom system advantages.

Time-to-Market

  • For an MVP launch on tight deadlines, SaaS CMS platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce provide the fastest go-live.
  • Custom builds sacrifice speed-to-market for better long-term capability and scalability.

Examples of Good CMS and Custom Build Candidates

The best choice depends greatly on the specific business model and objectives. Some examples:

CMS Platforms Work Well For:

  • A small retailer selling fewer than 1000 products online who values fast launch over custom features.
  • A bootstrapped startup needs to validate its ecommerce concept quickly before major investment.
  • A supplier with a simple flow of wholesale orders from business customers.

Custom Build Websites are Better Suited for:

  • A large grocery chain rolling out localized online ordering and delivery capabilities.
  • An innovative digital marketplace connecting different types of users and businesses.
  • An international brand needing consistent localized experiences across regions.
  • A pharmacy or healthcare provider handling sensitive patient information.

The Hybrid Approach: Mixing CMS and Customization

The choice between adopting a CMS versus building a fully custom system does not have to be black-and-white. Many businesses opt for a hybrid model that combines the strengths of both.

Customizing a CMS Platform

Many companies start by licensing an ecommerce-focused CMS like Magento or Shopify for faster launch. After validating the market fit, they then invest in custom design revamps and develop advanced custom modules integrated into the CMS to enhance capabilities.

Integrating a CMS and Custom Build

Another approach is running a headless CMS on the backend simply for managing content, while building a completely custom front-end ecommerce experience using modern frameworks. The CMS handles content while developers own the UI and advanced functionality.

Choosing the Right Balance

Determining the right integration balance depends on the level of desired customization and control versus the need for speed and simplicity. Even brands utilizing a turnkey CMS platform can achieve a great deal of uniqueness through creative template modification and complementary custom-coded features.

Final Thoughts

Choosing between a CMS solution and a custom build option for an ecommerce platform does not have a universally “best” answer. The ideal choice depends on an honest assessment of internal capabilities and limitations, coupled with the current and future needs of the online business. Many businesses find success by initially adopting an established CMS for quicker market validation, before eventually investing in more extensive customization. This approach allows businesses to test and refine their models before committing to more complex solutions.

A hybrid approach, combining the convenience of a CMS with targeted custom development, often strikes an optimal balance. This strategy leverages the strengths of both methods to meet specific business needs effectively. Regardless of the platform chosen, delivering a standout user experience across all customer touchpoints is crucial for ecommerce success. The chosen technology should enable these experience goals rather than restrict them, ensuring the platform supports and enhances the overall user experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the most popular CMS platforms for ecommerce?

The most widely used CMS ecommerce solutions include Shopify, WooCommerce, Magento, and BigCommerce. They provide a balance of ease of use, built-in ecommerce features, add-ons and reasonable pricing.

What expertise is needed to manage a custom ecommerce platform?

Successfully planning and implementing a custom-built ecommerce site requires strong in-house technology talent or partnering with an experienced ecommerce development agency.

Does a custom platform provide better security than a CMS?

Custom code provides more control over security than pre-packaged CMS platforms. However, proper vetting and configuration of CMS add-ons is important to minimize risks.

When does it make sense to pay more for a custom solution?

The higher costs of custom e-commerce development make sense for large complex platforms needing scalability, tight integrations, and custom processes that are difficult to achieve with CMS solutions.

Can I start with a CMS and later switch to custom development?

Many businesses start with a CMS platform to validate their concept before investing in migrating to a custom site. However, rebuilding on a new platform has costs and risks.

How do I choose between an open source and SaaS CMS?

Open-source CMS platforms like Magento offer more control over hosting and software customization, while SaaS options like Shopify and BigCommerce emphasize convenience.

What is a headless commerce architecture?

Headless commerce decouples the frontend ecommerce experience from the backend CMS and infrastructure. This allows using a CMS for content while fully customizing the customer experience.