Ecommerce Design / How to Sell Online

The All Too Common Challenges with Open Source, Custom Ecommerce Website Design

Caroline Ruhland / 5 min read

Developers and site owners alike are often impressed by the immense freedom they have on open source, custom platforms such as Magento. They laud the flexibility it gives them to create a site that fits their exact needs and wishes. However, although the unstructured open source format does provide great opportunities for an experienced team, it oftentimes opens the door to many unforeseen issues and complications –– especially for the typical ecommerce retailer.

These issues often arise as a function of ever-evolving ecommerce best practices. As teams alter the vision of their online storefront, request new features and hire additional or various developers to build the site, inconsistencies end up causing major problems. These then lead to UX and other technical issues with the site itself and, eventually, customer distrust and high bounce rates.

Here, we outline the major challenges that ecommerce retailers need to consider before they choose an open source platform.


For an ecommerce site to succeed, its back-end needs to be properly synchronized, meaning that it needs to be built and coded cohesively so that everything works together properly and consistently.

Many times, sites developed on an open source platform do not have this kind of synchronization, and as a result they cannot be built upon and stabilized effectively. Why? Open source sites are usually created in many stages using multiple developers, and these developers often create conflicting codes. This leads to incompatible connectors, unsupported extensions, and, in the big picture, a back-end that simply cannot function seamlessly.

If this happens, the resulting website will be structurally frail and likely in need of redevelopment or a redesign, which means lost revenue, lower conversions, lost time and various unnecessary expenses. Keep in mind that open source platforms already come at a higher total cost of ownership and initial investment.

What’s the alternative?

For many, template-based platforms offer a simple and effective solution to these problems, since these platforms don’t even give developers access to the site’s back-end or source code.

Instead, they only allow developers to work within the structure of their chosen template, essentially simply importing their data, purchasing pre-configured extensions and filling in the blanks. Working in this way not only ensures consistent and compatible development, but also helps maintain brand consistency, clean design and a responsive, crash-free site.

READ MORE: Early Testing of New Ecommerce Themes Shows 10% Increase in Conversion

Branding Consistency

Consistent, aesthetically pleasing branding is essential if a company wants to build brand recognition, interest and trust on its site.

Think about it: if you go on an ecommerce site only to find that it’s cluttered, inconsistent or off-putting, what are the chances you’ll stay on that site and make a purchase? Probably not very high.

Prospective customers want an aesthetically pleasing, cohesive online experience, and they want to feel like they can easily understand a company and find exactly what they’re looking for.

It could be difficult to maintain this kind of consistency and accuracy on an open source platform. Many site owners and developers simply don’t know how to design their site in order for it to be high-performing and high-converting. They lack these UX skills or haven’t hired the necessary professionals. Instead, site owners or developers get lost in things like aesthetic, trends or poorly conceived design decisions and end up with a design that either does not function or does not work toward accomplishing their company’s larger goals, CTAs and KPIs.

Note: UX designers are very different from the developers you’ll need to implement the designs. They will add additional costs to your deployment. See your total cost of ownership on a open source platform. 

Even if these confusions are avoided, it can be technologically challenging to implement design decisions on an open source platform. Much of the time, changes made on a single page do not carry across the entire site, and each change usually needs to be customized, formatted and coded from the back-end. This clearly requires skill, training, capital and time that many ecommerce retailers do not foresee nor necessarily have budgeted for the project.

What’s the alternative?

Utilizing a template-based platform, once again, helps solve many of these issues, keeping the site consistently modern and up-to-date and encouraging site visitors to continue exploring the site and convert in the checkout process. Specifically, it helps maintain consistent format, carry design elements throughout the site, and keep it clean and aesthetically pleasing.

READ MORE: The Benefits of a SaaS Solution for Your Ecommerce Operations

Insufficient Automation

If an ecommerce retailer finds out down the line that their site has insufficient automation, it can dramatically impede the growth and success of their company. For this reason, retailers are encouraged to consider their needs and decide what is essential to automate as they begin developing their site.

This is easier said than done. When considering what to automate and what to continue doing manually, site owners should take into account their budget, the nature of their business, the purpose and goals of their website, and its potential for growth. Small companies that only sell one or two products, for example, may not need to automate inventory or accounting. While this seems straightforward enough, the problem is that some of these factors are difficult to pin down at a site’s conception, since a company’s vision could change, customer feedback could give them a brand new product idea, etc. In reality, then, sites usually need to evolve, redirect, and automate as they go.

Open source platforms don’t make this kind of evolution and redirection easy, since adding automation down the line is time-consuming, expensive and difficult to integrate into an existing open source structure. This means that site owners who find that they have insufficient automation while using open source will likely be left with a suboptimally performing site, scrambling to find the resources and bandwidth to keep up and make the necessary changes.

What’s the alternative?

With various applications like OneSaas and integrations with automated and industry-recognized platforms like Square, PayPal and Avalara, template-based platforms simplify this process significantly, making these integrations quick and easy to manage –– and available only when you need them.

Resources: Time and Money

Open source, custom platforms inevitably require that site owners invest way more resources. Typically, open source platforms can cost at least 4x more than template-based platforms, and development and maintenance takes hundreds of more hours. Further, this cost is often unpredictable, with unforeseen expenses like extensions, security patches and redevelopment creeping up all the time.

Here, the cons can outweigh the pros here for many ecommerce retailers. Many companies simply cannot afford this kind of investment or don’t have the internal bandwidth to keep their site performing optimally. Even for those who can afford it, it is often the case that these resources would be more productive if put into something like product or marketing efforts.

Once again, then, we recommend that online retailers think tactically and keep their larger goals in mind, determining if the freedom of open source is a gift or a trap for their company in particular.


As implied, site owners are oftentimes unable to add to or manage their site on open source platforms, both during and after development. Why? First, there are many necessary implementations, such as PCI compliance and security implementations, that are difficult to understand and integrate into a site without the help of a skilled ecommerce agency.

Similarly, many features that increase revenue and conversions –– like abandoned cart recovery programs and simplified checkouts –– need to be custom-coded and integrated by skilled developers, with the site owners usually lacking the necessary technical knowledge to take a hands-on role in this process.

Finally, open source platforms have notoriously complicated admin panels that often require extensive training to master and understand. Even then, most ecommerce retailers need to hire an agency to really get it right. This means that, even after development, site owners will not be able to run their site autonomously and productively on an open source website. This could be a welcome relief for some, but raises big problems for retailers that want to take the reigns on their site.

What are your thoughts? Does your company prefer open source or template-based platforms –– and why? Let us know in the comments!

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  • The full purpose of your eCommerce website is to be able to sell products, give information, and expand your brand. If your having trouble with sales you’re probably facing one of these issues on your website.

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  • Connie Albus

    Nathan – Thank you for your reply. I am overwhelmed this year so moving to Stencil just is not yet an option and I see from the updates it’s going through the typical “new” tweaks as more people use Stencil.

    In the forums it looks like it does not yet offer many of the features of the old templates but it sounds like a lot of progress in taking place or in the works. Thanks again – I am following those who switched to Stencil.

  • Nathan Booker

    Connie, thanks for your feedback.

    It’s true that a SaaS platform will never have the complete range of flexibility as an open-source solution, where any aspect of the code can be modified.

    However, SaaS solutions like BigCommerce have a different philosophy – we try to service as large of the market as we can, while maintaining a platform that’s secure, has a known cost of ownership, is PCI compliant, and “evergreen” – new features and improvements are added constantly without any expense on the merchant’s part for upgrades, patches, testing, alignment with best practices, etc.

    It’s become apparent in our interactions with large numbers of the install base for some of these open source solutions that these things are actually much more valuable to them than the ability to create “anything” on open source. In fact, these conversations make it apparent that many people were oversold on open source solutions – they were sold on the ability to do “anything”, but ultimately that isn’t what their business needed – they need to sell online. BigCommerce and other SaaS players offer a solution purpose-built for that use.

    You’re right that a traditional limitation of BigCommerce has been data availability within templates, which limited some of our merchants from being able to realize their creative vision on the frontend. We’ve heard that feedback, and it is this sort of thing that drove the development of our new Stencil platform. Stencil (available in “early access” today) offers a much lower level of access to the templates, as well as the ability to be much more specific about which data are available where.

    I’d encourage you to take a look at our Stencil documentation to get a sense of the latest and greatest coming down the pipe from BigCommerce! :)

  • Connie Albus

    I agree but the templates also need enough flexibility and globally accessible fields to accommodate a variety of eCommerce situations. The ability to add custom fields that can be globally accessible and manipulated with script make a huge difference in the ability to make a site user friendly for the customer.
    BC seems to have a very narrow scope of templates due to the narrow scope of globally accessible fields, which may be fine for a set store type. Cramming important info which should easily be displayed on the category page into an item link name which is also the item page name – is not SEO friendly and not user friendly for the customer.

    So I agree on the open source – screw it up yourself systems, especially when multiple programmers have updated the code – BUT to me BC is on the opposite extreme of non-flexibility designed for a very narrow subset of stores.

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