How to choose the best eCommerce approach for your business

We’re comparing two popular online store approaches : Shopify Plus and Custom-built, to help you decide which one is best for you.

At Dynamo, we do a lot of custom work in branded eCommerce, and love helping startups and other innovative companies create outstanding customer experiences. Over the years, we’ve built award-winning branded eCommerce products for companies like Glossier, Blue Bottle Coffee, and LOLA, to name a few. Most of our work in this domain is built on Spree/Solidus, a scalable, dependable, and highly customizable open-source framework built with Ruby on Rails.

Over the past year, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of requests to work with Shopify Plus — a hosted eCommerce platform, devised to meet the needs of growing small and medium-sized businesses. Although it doesn’t provide as much flexibility as open-source eCommerce, we’ve found that it can be a great solution for online stores with more constraints. So here’s a little guide sharing our expertise in this area, aiming to help you decide which approach is right for you. Rest assured that if you come to us looking for help to build an branded eCommerce experience, we won’t be shy to voice our opinion about which option is best for you. The following are some general guidelines that you can apply to your assessment process when choosing a platform.

To Shopify or not to Shopify?

Based on 17 years of experience in the industry, we’ve chosen to build most of our online stores on Solidus, while avoiding other platforms for various reasons including code ownership, true design flexibility, developer happiness, etc. As the market grows and evolves, however, we continually explore new solutions. Lately, we’ve found that Shopify Plus is an attractive alternative that fits well with specific use cases. Based on our experience, we recommend asking yourself the following questions before choosing an eCommerce platform.

Is your business logic relatively simple?

If you’re planning to have a large combination of complex features on your website, like allowing users to create custom bundles, subscribe to certain types of product, or collect and redeem loyalty points, then your business logic is not what we would consider simple. If you choose to go the Shopify route, keep in mind that some UX and design customizations will not be possible, or will be subject to a number of constraints that come with leveraging apps to enable these features.

Are you a digitally native brand?

We believe that digitally-native brands are best served by building, owning and adapting their own technology. If you want to truly be a tech-first business, your own software (and data) is your key asset. Going custom means you build what you need when you need it.

What’s your tolerance for risk?

If you are building a Shopify Plus store, you will using a basic set of existing applications and features, and there are fewer unknowns about how these elements will work. The flexibility of building a custom environment comes with the risk of creating something new.

Do you have a large enough budget to invest in an internal development team down the road?

Going custom means you should be prepared to eventually invest in an in-house technical team, and to manage technical risk closely throughout the life of your business. If you choose to go for the Shopify Plus route, you have the option of developing in-house or hiring an external partner for design expertise and help with feature customization. Now is a good time to jot down your budgetary expectations for hiring an internal tech team, and the projected monthly expenses for your online store. See the next section on pricing to determine what platform best fits with these expectations, and keep in mind that Shopify Plus tends to be the less costly of the two platforms we work with when it comes to initial setup and paying a team to maintain it.

This point goes hand in hand with asking yourself whether you are a digitally native brand. If your core business is based on a brick and mortar model, and your online store will represent a small portion of your overall sales, Shopify could be a great solution. Digitally native brands face a very different reality than brick and mortar shops (including lower overhead costs for physical spaces), and they should prioritize making a more significant investment in a unique, seamless online shopping experience. A robust, scalable online storefront is as much of an asset to a digitally native brand as a flagship store and numerous retail locations are for brick and mortar businesses.

Are you planning on sticking with a basic site structure?

If you don’t plan to add too many new features as your business grows and evolves, and the only thing that needs to be updated is new content, Shopify could be a great fit.

Are subscriptions an essential part of your business plan?

It’s possible to set up subscriptions within a Shopify Plus framework, but you will need to be prepared to face some quality tradeoffs. The user experience for checkout will not be as seamless with Shopify Plus as with a custom site build, for example.

Does your store need to be in multiple languages?

At the moment, Shopify Plus does not give developers an ideal solution for configuring multilingual sites. Perhaps this is something that may improve with time if there is enough demand for it on the platform.

Is your content structure simple or complex?

An example of simple content structure would be a traditional blog housed on a separate page of your website, while your product display pages show only the basic information for each product, such as a photo, a description, size and colour variations, and price.

Linking your products to a list of stored ingredients is an example of complex content structure. The product display page would show the ingredients that each product is composed of, and you could use ingredients in addition to other types of content filters to generate recommendation lists of related products for users. This kind of content structure is best suited for a custom approach, whereas a site with simple content structure could be a nice fit for Shopify Plus.

Pricing considerations

When choosing a platform, you will of course need to take budgetary constraints into consideration. The costs below serve as estimated ranges only for an eCommerce project with Dynamo, as each project is unique. Keep in mind that you have the option to develop in-house with Shopify Plus, and that movement within the ranges below is dependent on key features and goals.


Shopify Plus

  • Initial eCommerce build with Dynamo: $75k-150k
  • Server/ hosting/ DevOps: $2000/month (flat fee for Plus subscription)
  • Third party services: $0-$500/month (Shopify apps)
  • In-house tech team: 1 full stack or front-end developer typically goes a long way

Custom

  • Initial eCommerce build with Dynamo: $125k-$300k
  • Server/ hosting/ DevOps: $150-$750/month (various cloud hosting/ deployment services)
  • Third party services: $0-$500/ month (typical add-on Saas products for advanced reporting, mailing integration, etc)
  • In-house tech team: You’ll need at least 1 front-end developer (JS) and 1 back-end developer (Ruby)

Here’s a simplified checklist to help you choose between these two options:

What is your company’s most important asset?

Keep the above points in mind as you proceed with internal discussions to narrow down your choice of eCommerce platform, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you need some professional advice. Whether your business is best suited for a Shopify Plus eCommerce site or a Solidus site, we understand that your online store is an important investment and you want to get it right. We’d be happy to discuss any of the above in more detail — shoot us a line at hello@godynamo.com or tell us about your project here.

Thanks to Simon Walsh for collaborating on this post.