Choosing Among Today’s Ecommerce Frameworks: How to Determine Which One is Right for You

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Global ecommerce sales are projected to reach $6.5 trillion by 2023.

Ecommerce Frameworks Statista Graph

You’re most likely very accustomed to shopping online by now. But if you're new to operating in the ecommerce world, it can seem daunting.

How do you determine which framework to use to create your ecommerce website? What's the difference between open source frameworks and SaaS frameworks? And what about headless commerce?

No one solution works for every business — so you need to identify your business needs to choose the framework that works your business to enable online payments, prioritize customer experience and ensure your customers’ information security. 

Let’s look closer at your ecommerce framework options and how to select the one that works best for you.

What is an Ecommerce Framework?

An ecommerce framework refers to the type of software you’re using to build your ecommerce store. For example, ecommerce software Magento uses an open source framework, while BigCommerce is SaaS. Both also enable a headless framework.

Types of Ecommerce Frameworks

You can choose among three primary types of ecommerce frameworks. All three will work a little bit differently, and all three have their own strengths and weaknesses. Those frameworks are:

  • SaaS.
  • Open source.
  • Headless commerce.

1. SaaS Ecommerce Framework.

SaaS stands for “software as a service.” Users subscribe — as opposed to buying — to software that the vendor continues to host, maintain and improve. SaaS platforms, on average, come with more out-of-the-box functionality. And, while customization is limited, SaaS platforms today are becoming more and more flexible thanks to APIs and pre-built integrations.

Pros:

  • The vendor can push out real-time feature upgrades as they continue to improve the software over time. 
  • Total cost of ownership is typically much less than with an open source or headless commerce frameworks. 
  • SaaS can help you get to market quickly.
  • Security and maintenance are included in your costs, and you won’t have to worry about hosting.

Cons:

  • Not as customizable as open source or headless commerce frameworks.

2. Open Source Ecommerce Framework.

Open source software is software that allows users to access and change the source code on their own software instance. It’s often — but not always — written in PHP, a popular general purpose scripting language. Open source ecommerce platforms offer a high level of customization, but it comes at a cost. 

You’ll need developers to not just make the customization's you want, but also to maintain the code over time — the more customization, the higher the risk of unintended consequences — and ensure continued cybersecurity defenses to protect your business and your shoppers.

Pros:

  • Almost limitless customization opportunities. 
  • Engaged communities of developers.

Cons:

  • You’ll be responsible for installing software updates and security patches.
  • The ability to customize also means that the software is more complex, and you’ll be more reliant on developers not just at implementation but over the lifecycle of your business.
  • The TCO is typically high once you factor in all the related extraneous costs. (No software is ever truly “free.”)

3. Headless Ecommerce Framework.

Headless commerce decouples the back- and front-ends so retailers can choose their own front-end presentation layer to deliver a differentiated customer experience. This also gives you the opportunity to take a multi-vendor approach, using one vendor for the back-end solution and something different on the front.

Decoupled approaches like headless are a potential advantage to enterprise businesses because they allow for greater freedom and control. You can also develop some elements of your system to operate independently from each other instead of having everything be fully joined together.

Pros:

  • You’ll have the flexibility to use the front-end of your choice, from digital experience platforms to PWAs and more. 
  • You can use your back-end to power multiple front-ends for a multi-site experience. 
  • When your front- and back-ends are decoupled, each can undergo development work without risking impacts to each other.

Cons:

  • The total cost of ownership can be high, because you’ll be paying for your back-end, front-end and development work. 
  • Architectures can be complex and require developer expertise.

Key Features Your Ecommerce Framework Should Have

Different types of online businesses need different frameworks, because they need to adapt based on different customers or industries. But there should always be some common things you should look for.

1. Product management.

Your products are, obviously, central to your business — so you want to make sure that managing your inventory, from adding products, editing their information and tracking stock levels, is easy to do.

From SKUs and variations (size, color, quantity) to product names and images, some ecommerce frameworks will allow you to get a high-level view or drill down to the specifics with very little technical know-how.

You also want to make sure that your platform can support the number of SKUs you want to carry, and the number of variants per product that you may need in your online shop. 

And if you’re looking to support an omnichannel strategy, make sure your framework supports connecting inventory to online marketplaces like Amazon, ad channels like Google, social media and point of sale (POS) solutions of your choice for a centralized channel management hub.

2. Mobile supported ecommerce.

Shoppers are using mobile devices more and more to browse stores and even to make purchases. That’s why your ecommerce framework has to support a good shopping experience across devices. Mobile commerce was predicted to bring in $314 billion in 2020 — 44% of total ecommerce sales. If you don’t offer a mobile-friendly checkout experience, you could be hurting your growth prospects. 

Pick a framework that lets you create a simplified, user-friendly mobile checkout process. Think fewer fields, bigger buttons and integration of popular mobile payment methods such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, Amazon Pay and others.

3. Security.

During the first half of 2019, there were at least 23 million stolen credit cards for sale on the dark web. Online stores are an attractive target for hackers. The move to shopping online during the pandemic made it an even more lucrative venture. 

You’re responsible for keeping your customers’ information safe, and it’s important for your business viability and brand reputation to avoid data breaches. According to a study by KPMG, about 30% of customers would stop purchasing from a company temporarily after a data breach. 

Some frameworks, like SaaS and headless commerce with a SaaS back-end, provide some levels of security, while with open source solutions like Magento, you’ll have to manage security controls yourself. That may mean protecting your own servers with managed security or installing security patches from the vendor in a timely fashion.

  • PCI-DSS compliance. This is a globally-recognized standard for securely processing payments. Vendors pass rigorous testing to earn this status.
  • SSL/HTTPS support. A SSL certificate is a ‘must’ standard for encrypting sensitive data a buyer provides to your shopping solution during checkout.
  • Anti-fraud and data security tools. Make sure you can monitor suspicious user activity and block potentially fraudulent transactions and brute force intrusion attempts either natively or using an integrated third-party system.

4. Built-in SEO capabilities.

Several features within an ecommerce framework should support improved SEO capabilities, including control over your URLs, title tags, header tags and metadata. Search engine optimization (SEO) can be a powerful tool to grow your business —  but some ecommerce platforms are better suited in this area than others. Some of the less customizable SaaS platforms will limit your ability to fully optimize. (BigCommerce provides robust SEO functionality.)

5. Extensive plugins or integrations.

Every ecommerce platform will give you some out-of-the-box features, themes and/or templates, but you’ll certainly need some other functionality as well — especially once you discover what your shoppers really want. Identify what, if any, features or functionality you’ll need to add on that doesn’t come native to the platform. 

The future of ecommerce is everywhere — and that’s where the most successful store owners will sell. When investigating an ecommerce platform, you need to know how easy or difficult it will be to integrate social commerce and sell on marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. 

If you also run brick-and-mortar operations, you can integrate data from your point-of-sale systems and online storefront to gain a holistic view of customers’ shopping behaviors and inventory in real time.

10 Best Ecommerce Frameworks

There are plenty of ecommerce frameworks on the market today, but the one that’s right for you will depend a lot on your business model, choice of products, intent to scale and even the abilities of your internal team. Let’s look at some of the ten most popular and some of their advantages and disadvantages.

1. BigCommerce.

BigCommerce is a SaaS platform with highly flexible APIs and a strong headless commerce offering. Core platform components enable extension and connection to any other environment. 

Because BigCommerce falls on the more flexible end of the spectrum for SaaS products, it can have a somewhat higher learning curve than some of the alternatives. That said, the platform also offers 24/7 global support and thousands of agency partners to help you launch and maintain your store if needed.

2. Shopify.

Shopify, a hosted ecommerce software, offers a low technical barrier for building a store with basic functionality out of the box. This makes the setup and store management part easy.Some non-native tools require a separate subscription. Integrations with more than 4,100 apps that increase functionality — such as Google Analytics and Smile.io — can be activated in one click.

3. Magento.

Magento is open source software that can be deployed on-premise on your own servers or in the cloud (PaaS). Written in the PHP programming language, Magento is highly flexible and scalable — if you know your way around open-source PHP development, that is. It’s also now part of the Adobe Experience Cloud, so integrates with Adobe products like analytics, a customer data platform and more.

Magento has a large community of experienced developers, but many businesses have migrated off of Magento because of its high dependence on developers to set up, maintain and update your store. Even a basic store on Magento Open Source using a template and no extensions can cost $20,000 to $45,000, depending on complexity. Plus, since you have your own instance of the software, you’ll have to install your own updates and security patches.

4. Volusion.

Volusion was one of the original contenders in the SaaS ecommerce space. Operating since the early 2000s, their shopping cart solution provides a mix of core commerce and SEO/marketing tools for starting and growing your business. In July 2020, Volusion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to a blog post on Volution’s website, the company is still open and operating as usual.

5. Shift4Shop.

3dcart, as it was formerly known, was acquired by Shift4 payments — one of the leading payment processors — to create Shift4Shop. 

Shift4Shop comes stacked with more out-of-the-box features than most SaaS platforms, but that can make it somewhat challenging to use.

6. Woocommerce.

WooCommerce is a popular self-hosted, open source framework for WordPress websites. Developed and maintained by Automattic, WooCommerce has a decent starter selection of essential ecommerce features for checkout. 

Because it’s open source, you have complete control over customization and store management. You’ll also find a large community of WooCommerce Meetup groups that you can tap into for help managing your store. 

The disadvantage is that many must-have shopping cart features such as single-page checkout, abandoned cart recovery and discounts are not available natively (unlike a solution like BigCommerce). Plus, adding additional payment, catalog management, and marketing features becomes costly and time consuming.

7. Kibo.

Kibo Commerce is a unified commerce product designed to enable your teams to deliver personalized experiences across touchpoints. It is an API-first platform built on a microservices model. Kibo was formed in January 2016 by the merging of Fiverun, MarketLive and Shopatron. In 2016, Kibo then acquired Baynote and Mozu, followed by two more 2019 acquisitions: Certona and Monetate.

This developer-centric platform can be complex, with a steep learning curve and potentially high total cost of ownership. They have just 18 solution partners to help bolster store functionality, and because their market presence is low it can be difficult to find the information you need online.

8. Salesforce Commerce Cloud (Demandware).

Salesforce Commerce Cloud (previously Demandware, prior to acquisition by Salesforce) is a SaaS platform for businesses that want to streamline their omnichannel operations. It enables you to manage sales in digital and physical channels from one solution and includes native AI tools for personalization. 

One disadvantage of Salesforce Commerce Cloud is the relatively small number of agency partners that are familiar with designing and developing on the platform.

9. Squarespace.

Squarespace enables quick and easy site updates and media management rather than requiring an outside developer. This SaaS framework offers  template designs and built-in inventory tools. 

But if you don’t understand all the features, you may miss some crucial elements that could take your site even further. Some disadvantages to choosing Squarespace include that it only offers integration with four payment processors — and if you’re subscribing to their cheapest plan, you’ll pay a 3% transaction fee on every sale.

10. Wix.

Wix is a SaaS platform geared toward small businesses. It’s quick and easy to get started, and you can drag-and-drop to create your site. Design is simple with Wix, as you’ll have access to 500+ templates.

Making Sure You Select the Best Ecommerce Framework

Some platforms have a lot of features out of the box, making set-up quick and easy but customization down the road more difficult. Other platforms enable fully customized sites but require lengthier setup and costly ecommerce development. As you compare platforms, prioritize your needs based on your unique business.

1. Identify business needs.

Every ecommerce business has different needs, depending on your business model, products, preferred sales and advertising channels and more.

Business model: Is your business B2B or B2C? B2B businesses have specific ecommerce needs that many platforms can’t meet out of the box. If you have an online store and a brick-and-mortar, you’ll want to make sure you can integrate your inventory and sales so you always have a unified view of your business. And if you’re thinking of a hybrid B2C/B2B approach, you’ll need to find a platform that can support those alternate needs without incurring a great deal more expense.

Products: How many products will you be selling? How many variants will those products have? Make sure the limitations of whatever platform you choose can handle what you intend to sell.

Sales and advertising channels: Will marketplaces like Amazon or Wish be part of your sales strategy? What about selling and/or marketing and advertising via Facebook, Instagram or other social media channels? Making sure you have a seamless connection between your store and those sales channels will help you keep a unified view of your business and — especially — your inventory.

2. Consider your budget.

Total cost of ownership can vary wildly across and even within the different frameworks, based on their features and capabilities. Plus, the way costs are structured may impact your business’ finances.

  • SaaS will provide you with a relatively consistent cost on an ongoing basis, so your future financial position is easier to forecast. 
  • Open source frameworks often require a hefty licensing fee at the outset, plus you’ll have to plan for variable implementation costs and the cost of development and maintenance over time.
  • Headless frameworks can be costly based on the number of systems they integrate plus your choice of front- and back-end, but merchants looking for heavy customization may find it worth it.

3. Scalability and future growth.

If your ultimate goal is growth, consider not just your needs today, but your needs in the future. Over time you may need a platform that can handle higher traffic, more SKUs, more variants and more API calls. If you want to expand internationally, you’ll want support for international regulations and compliance, multi-currency functionality so shoppers can pay in their own country’s currency, and possibly even multi-store functionality to completely personalize the experience.

4. Make sure there is customer support.

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are with technology or ecommerce — a new software platform will have a little bit of a learning curve. You need to know what support your ecommerce platform offers during the onboarding process and beyond.

Wrapping Up

To help you choose the best ecommerce platform for your business, we’ve outlined three of the most popular types of framework and explained what they are as well as their key features that will be beneficial to any online store owner. The right ecommerce framework can help you create an agile, scalable website with a great shopper experience. 

Now that you're familiar with the basics of all three ecommerce frameworks, it's time to determine which type will work best for your business needs. There’s no one-size-fits-all ecommerce framework option out there. The right framework for you will depend completely on how you want to run your business and what your ecommerce site needs to support.

Ecommerce Frameworks FAQs

What’s the advantage of a SaaS framework over open source?

SaaS stands for “software as a service.” Users subscribe — as opposed to buying — to software that the vendor continues to host, maintain, and improve. SaaS platforms, on average, come with more out-of-the-box functionality. And, while customization is limited, SaaS platforms today are becoming more and more flexible thanks to APIs and pre-built integrations. Open source software is highly customizable but at a cost. You’ll need an experienced developer or development team on hand to keep your site moving at a rapid pace.

If I choose to deploy Magento in the cloud, does that mean I don’t have to manage security updates?

No. Choosing Magento hosting just means that Magento is managing the servers that your software sits on. You’ll still have to maintain the software — and that includes both updates and security patches.

What are some common use cases for headless commerce?

Here are a few use cases for headless commerce that we see frequently:

  • Highly personalized experiences: you can deliver entirely different front-end experiences to different shoppers (e.g., a customized experience for UK residents versus U.S.).
  • Content led commerce: if you’re educating and entertaining as much or more (in terms of pages/products) than you’re selling, headless is a great way to build and incorporate more robust content.
  • Lightning-fast mobile speed: Using a PWA on the front-end of your headless architecture can ensure fast load times across devices.
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What is a SKU and why does it matter for my business?

SKUs, or “stock keeping units,” are unique identifiers for each of your products. They help you track your inventory, streamline ordering, simplify integrations, and keep all systems up to date. Our partner Brightpearl has more on SKUs and their importance.

How many people are shopping via mobile devices?

Mobile commerce was predicted to bring in $314 billion in 2020 — 44% of total ecommerce sales.

Why are some platforms better for SEO than others?

Some ecommerce platforms allow you to customize the things that matter most for SEO when you’re building your website. Others restrict that customization.

Why do I need so many plugins to run my store? Can’t I just choose a platform with everything I need built in?

Some platforms certainly have more out of the box than others, but the reason it’s not advisable to include all features in all platforms is because that kind of robust functionality would make the software unwieldy. (Some very large enterprise software options have a similar issue.) Using plugins to make your store exactly what you want gives you the opportunity to stay agile and create the experience you want without paying for what you don’t.

Why does it matter whether I’ll be selling to consumers or businesses?

B2B businesses have specific ecommerce needs that many platforms can’t meet out of the box. If you’re thinking of selling all B2B or taking a hybrid B2C/B2B approach, you’ll need to find a platform that can support those alternate needs without incurring a great deal more expense.

What are some good reasons to choose an open source solution?

Open source frameworks often require a hefty licensing fee at the outset, plus you’ll have to plan for variable implementation costs and the cost of development and maintenance over time but store owners looking for heavy customization and who have experienced development teams on hand may find it worth it.

What should I be thinking about if I want to scale quickly?

If your ultimate goal is growth, you may over time need a platform that can handle higher traffic, more SKUs, more variants and more API calls. If you want to expand internationally, you’ll want support for international regulations and compliance, multi-currency functionality so shoppers can pay in their own country’s currency, and possibly even multi-store functionality to completely personalize the experience.

What are three different types of ecommerce frameworks?

You can choose among three primary types of ecommerce frameworks. All three will work a little bit differently, and all three have their own strengths and weaknesses. Those frameworks are:

  • SaaS. 
  • Open source. 
  • Headless commerce.
VIEW LESS

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