With Sites Like Squarespace, Shopify, Wix, etc., Is Custom Web Development for eCommerce Sites Now Dead?

Photo adapted from “shopping” by Hamza Butt (Flickr, Creative Commons, photo credit link).

When you’re a web developer, *all* people like to talk to you about web site issues. We get feedback from a broad range of people — clients, of course, but also just normal business colleagues. In recent months, I seem to be hearing from quite a lot of people (especially those with merchandise to sell) that they’re considering abandoning their own development efforts and simply moving their sites to somewhere like Shopify or Squarespace. This naturally raises the question: Is traditional self-hosted / developed ecommerce web development basically dead?

Well, you know… it just might be — at least for mid-range businesses with web dev budgets of less than, say, $20k+ or so. As a web developer, I hate to say that, of course. But, the reality is that, for ecom sites in particular, these now-mature specialized platforms offer average users the ability to leverage massive capabilities that formerly required herculean efforts from web developers (or whole teams of them).

Of course, there will always be those who absolutely want to control 100% of their data / code, ecom and all, not to mention 100% of the UX. But, when you sign onto a Shopify-type system, many of the normal IT concerns just vanish. I’m not even talking about the more routine areas such as setting up SSL; rather I’m talking about all of the technical and platform challenges that web developers face. What types of migrations will be coming to the selected ecom platform, the server, the database, the CMS… on and on. When a client signs onto such a large service, all of that vanishes; the client can then focus exclusively on the content, the product line, the marketing. These are, frankly, all of the things that the client would rather focus on, anyway, rather than dealing with an internal tech team.

So, again, while I think there will always be those who want to roll their own, tech marketing and web dev agencies are probably going to have to get used to a new role as middle man between clients and these larger ecom platforms. Instead of coding and customizing the various apps, we’ll be doing things like helping migrate data from isolated servers into these large collective ones, and helping clients achieve the look and feel they’re after *within* these larger systems. And thankfully (for us, anyway), that’s not always easy. Turns out that, sooner or later, solid HTML / CSS and coding skills actually do come in handy anytime you want to do anything more advanced on these platforms.

There is probably some kind of graph one could make to chart the tech-savviness of the general populace, which has historically been painfully low. What’s happening to reverse this, though, is at least two things:

  • The general populace is both aging and (finally) learning. No longer are business owners completely unfamiliar with tools of the tech trade. They may not know how to query a database, but they at least seem more knowledgeable about what one is and what one can do. Also, the younger (much more informed and fearless) crew is slowly muscling in on the management territory (and it’s about time).
  • Second, the large platforms are simultaneously maturing, thanks to the advancements just mentioned above, the natural evolution of best practices in web site user friendliness, rising norms of expected functionality (e.g., ease of migrations into these platforms, seemingly unlimited scalability, seemingly unlimited payment options already configured), better/faster servers, etc.

In the end, one has to either embrace it or deny it. Profit-wise, it seems embracing it would be bad for web development agencies. But, that wasn’t the case with CMSs, after all. After CMSs all but replaced the more “artisanal” (as I like to refer to it) approach of developing static and/or custom-coded dynamic web sites, there was still plenty of other work to be done. Our roles are simply changing a bit, I think. And that’s okay… change is the only constant, after all.

But Is It Completely Done?

No, not completely. Here at Array Web Development, we still actually do a fair bit of ecommerce work, ranging in scope from easier / quicker solutions to various on-server platforms. For example, plenty of clients still have a need for 100% custom-scripted order forms and so forth. For those, the user might have to fill out a bunch of fields, and then a program calculates the total in some novel way that’s not readily available on an outside platform. Quite often, they may want some Paypal-only type thing that is also very fitting for a custom script, or maybe a custom integration with an Authorize.net API.

Other times, we use on-server platforms (CMS extensions), such as Virtuemart, J2Store, Joocommerce, and others. Still other times, we code up whole platforms for highly specific needs. We had a client once with 4,000 products who needed to be able to (very quickly) get online. To update, they wanted to be able to upload a CSV file, and then download the CSV file to make changes before reuploading it. So, based on the clients’ desired processes, we also sometimes code up custom solutions.

I guess that reminds me of one other point about the above platforms… which is that, while they *are* becoming more accommodating, as noted, they do actively define whatever the process will be ecommerce-wise. That is to say, instead of stating your preference and then having a solution built to suit it, these platforms say: “Here’s how it works.” And you (the client) simply defer to that.

That’s a vastly different dynamic, when you think about it, compared to the previous models which were fairly unique per-client. But, thankfully, they’ve presumably put quite a lot of R&D into what they do, which (one hopes) probably includes a fair bit of market research into consumer preferences. So, if a platform says “here’s how we work,” it’s really (hopefully) saying “here’s how the majority of our clients want a system like ours to work” … which more and more of us are accepting as standard.

If you are among those making the move to such a platform, and have a massive catalog that needs to be migrated (and likely need some help with that), feel free to contact us for assistance.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com.