ECommerce Essentials

by Andrea Hill, November 2019

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There was a time when buying a car was a daunting task, best attempted by people with mechanical knowledge. There were a lot of choices to make, and those choices had real bearing on how the car performed and how long it lasted. Today, automobiles have essentially standardized, and apart from a few performance choices and appearance, most people feel comfortable choosing and buying a car.

But Ecommerce sites . . . that’s a whole different thing. Like cars in the 50s and 60s, Ecommerce choices are fraught with complexity. So, let’s break it down a bit to make the choices you face more understandable and less anxiety-inducing.

Three Basic Types of Ecommerce

The first choice you need to make is your system. You will be choosing one of three types of systems:

  1. This is a write-your-own website approach. You will be responsible for all code developments, integrations, and improvements over time.
  2. Website Builder. An ecommerce platform is an environment that provides everything you need to sell online, from drag-and-drop design interfaces to shopping cart functionality and credit card processing. The list of ecommerce platforms is large and growing, and includes brands like Shopify, Wix, WooCommerce, BigCommerce, Squarespace, Weebly, and PrestaShop.
  3. Content Management System (CMS). A CMS is a software program that was designed to manage the creation and ongoing evolution of digital content. Examples of CMS systems include WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Magento, Typo3, Serendipity, and Chamilo.

How do you choose from between these options? Let’s do a simple comparison to help you see some of the things you should be considering.





Ease of Setup

Extremely difficult

Extremely Easy

Slightly challenging.

Set It Up Yourself

Only if you’re a skilled HTML5 or PHP coder.

Absolutely. Your grade-schooler can do it.

If you’re technically comfortable, yes. No coding, but there is configuration. You can also use a configuration partner to get everything set up for you.

Manage it Yourself

Only if you’re a skilled HTML5 or PHP coder.

Absolutely. Keep that 4th grader on payroll!

Yes. After a slight learning curve, you’ll be able to manage most tasks yourself.

Time from “idea” to “in business”

Six to eight weeks for an extremely well-managed project.

1 day to set up. Could take up to a week to enter all your products.

Two to four weeks.

Inherent Security (how secure the code itself is from hackers and misuse)

All depends on your coding skills and discipline.

High. Platform providers pay a lot of attention to security.

High. CMS providers pay a lot of attention to security.

Practical Security (how secure the site is based on user behavior like taking updates or adding features)

All depends on your coding skills and discipline.

High. The platforms limit any choices that could reduce security and force all security updates as part of the platform.

It depends. If you take all security updates in a timely fashion, and don’t modify the system to open it up to security risks, CMSs are very secure. But user choice plays a significant role in how secure individual sites are.

Initial Cost to Get Started

High. You will be paying for development time. Typical cost of custom websites in 2018 was $15k - $25k.

Low. Many platforms will allow you to start for free, or for a minimal fee.

Very Low to Moderate. Many CMSs are Open Source, which means they are free. If you can do the setups yourself, then startup costs remain low. If you employ a partner to do the initial setups, then the price goes up. Typical cost for an “assisted” CMS site development in 2018 was $2k - $8k

Cost of Ownership. How much it costs you to maintain and update the site over time.

High. You need to pay for development for every upgrade, security enhancement, and change.

Moderate to High. These systems make their money by charging a monthly subscription fee and/or a percentage of sales.

Low to Moderate. CMSs offer very low cost-of-ownership, as long as you haven’t customized them so much that they are now functioning like a “custom” site.

Ability to Customize to Your Needs

Very high. If you can imagine it – and pay for it – you can pretty much have it.

Low. The platforms are designed to accommodate the most common requirements for website features functionality. Some will offer the opportunity to use “addons” or “integrations” to add additional features.

High. Most CMSs are extremely flexible in their capabilities. In the case of WordPress, Joomla, and Magento, literally hundreds of thousands of free or very low cost addons are available to provide additional functionality.


You have to arrange for the hosting and manage technical features like DNS, SSL Certificates, and host performance.

You don’t have to do anything (except maybe set up your Custom Domain). The website-builder manages all your hosting needs for you.

There are several options. Many CMS website owners also manage all their own hosting requirements. But there are also shared-hosting and “hosted” options for CMS sites that are more similar to what the website-builders provide.

What They’re Good For

Selling an extremely unique or differentiated product or service that can’t be properly demonstrated or sold using a website-builder or CMS.

Ecommerce for small sales organizations – the larger your sales, the more these sites will cost. Basic creative porfolios or small business sites that don’t need a lot of pages or information.

In addition to ecommerce, CMS sites are excellent for rich content like business information, blogs, video, and podcasts. Forums, social networks, auction sites, schools and training programs – any site that requires more than just product and sales data.


You have complete creative and functionality freedom.

1. Ease of use.

2. A website can be set up quickly and easily.

3. You don’t have to worry about maintenance, security, or backups.

4. Support comes with the package.

1.  Can be used to create any type of website for any size of audience.

2.  Creative flexibility: you can build with a standard theme, one of thousands of available theme-builders, or build your own theme.

3.  Many thousands of “plugins” to chose from to extend your functionality.

4.  Choose your own hosting environment.


1.  Expensive to develop.

2.  Expensive to maintain.

3.  Risk of development partner going out of business or moving on to something else (it’s hard for coder to pick up where a different coder left off).

4.  Risk of development partner falling behind in technology skill.

1.  Customizations are limited.

2.  Not suited for all website needs.

3.  You can’t move the site to a new host.

4.  You might not own your domain.

5.  If the provider goes out-of-business, so does your site.

1.  Some are not intuitive. There will be a learning curve.

2.  You are responsible for all updates and maintenance. Not difficult – but you must remember!

3.  Support is available, but must be purchased separately.



You will also find some hybrids that blur the lines between these categories. For instance, there are several Wordpress hosting options that function a lot like website-builders.

Many website development firms create their own “website platforms” using Magento, Joomla, or Drupal. These platforms use the core code of the CMS, but they are in fact custom sites due to the amount of custom programming that goes into turning them into platforms. If you bought a website service for a Magento site – but you find you can’t take over the management of it yourself, or hand the management to a different Magento management firm – you’re in one of these platforms.

Not One-Size-Fits All

All of these options — custom, website-builder, and CMS — can be excellent options for an ecommerce site. The important thing is to choose the option that is right for your application. And that means evaluating your needs. This can be challenging to do. Most people who sell website services specialize in one application – either they do custom design, or they do Wordpress, or . . . they sell the thing they know. But the thing one website developer knows is not necessarily the thing that suits your business best. Let’s look at a few scenarios to see how these different ecommerce options might apply.

Scenario 1: Studio Jeweler Wants Online Presence

Scenario: A studio jeweler with a very active boutique and by-appointment business. Most of her revenue comes from word-of-mouth and walk-in customers looking for something special. She’s not sure she wants a big online business, because she doesn’t think she could keep up, and she’s happiest working with her in-person customers. She just needs an online site to sell things she’s made that are still in her inventory – less than 100 items - and to entice new customers to come to her shop. She would be happy if she sold two or three pieces per month on her ecommerce site. She definitely does not want to spend time building an online profile, blogging, or creating a lot of digital content.

Solution: Website builder. A website builder will give her a fast, easy way to put her products online. Because she anticipates that this site is going to have low sales, and will simply supplement her offline business, the cost-of-ownership related to transaction fees is likely to be reasonable.

Scenario 2: Wholesale Producer Wants Stronger Online B2B Presence

Scenario: A jewelry production company that produces non-branded products wants to increase the amount of time they spend online with their B2B customers, and make the ordering process simpler. They produce over 5,000 different SKUs, and each of those products can be ordered in different metals, with different gemstones, and in different sizes. They want their customers to be able to process a purchase order through the site. They also want their customers to be able to sell the whole catalog through their own retail websites using an integration or an iframe.

Solution: CMS. The CMS can facilitate functionality that most website-builders do not support, and with 5,000+ items, it’s good to be in a system that does not charge transaction fees.

Scenario 3: Jewelry Designer with Large Line

Scenario: A jewelry designer with some independent retail presence wants to increase sales and exposure by offering their collections online. They want to sell their 2,500-item catalog online, take special orders and special configurations, and introduce new collections regularly. They also want to increase their SEO values (and therefore, website traffic) by producing regular blogs, video shorts, and other rich content.

Solution: CMS. While a website builder would work for the ecommerce portion of this plan, a CMS is better-suited for the development and distribution of rich content, and a CMS will provide more configuration options to facilitate special orders.

Scenario 4: Jewelry Retailer with Many Brands and Custom Jewelry Offering

Scenario: A retail jeweler with a strong community presence has a solid brand offering and their own line. Plus, they do a consistent custom business and employ several in-house jewelers, CAD design, and design advisors. They want to sell their 3,000+-item catalog online, take special orders for their brands, promote their custom offering, and introduce new products regularly. They also want to increase their SEO values (and therefore, website traffic) by producing regular blogs, video shorts, and other rich content.

Solution: CMS. While a website builder would work for the ecommerce portion of this plan, a CMS is better-suited for the development and distribution of rich content. A CMS will also provide more configuration options to facilitate special orders, and can include lots of extra functions like appointment-setting, private areas for custom clients to watch the build and monitor the status of their custom item, and share feeds with preferred brands and designers.

What About Custom?

It’s hard to come up with a scenario that justifies a custom website today. It’s true that one highly creative developer can come up with something that is truly unique and differentiating. The question is, will that level of differentiation bring enough extra business to justify the high costs of custom work? If the answer is yes, then go for it! But be prepared to be in the “website business” in addition to your jewelry business – because when you commit to a custom site, the development work never ends.

Once you have decided which “type” of ecommerce site you need, you will need to make choices within each type. Shopify or Wix? Wordpress or Joomla? To answer these questions, you should have a clear understanding of what you want your website to do. This is the opposite of how most people approach website design!

Most small business owners approach website development as follows:

  1. Pick a system. For instance, Shopify (website builder) or Wordpress (CMS).
  2. Start playing around with templates.
  3. Put in the basic pages (Home, About, Contact, Services) and plug in a bunch of products.
  4. Wait for the orders to come in.

In other words, they develop their website based on the most obvious functionality of the tool they selected. But a better way to develop a website is this way:

  1. Make a list of the things you want your website to accomplish. This list should include both deliverables (sell products, bring in SEO traffic) and metrics ($$ sales, or ## visits).
  2. Consider how your website will deliver on your strategic differentiation. That’s the answer to these three questions:
    1. Who are we?
    2. What do we do that makes us different?
    3. Why do we matter?
  3. Create a list of desirable features or experiences that will help you deliver your strategic vision through your website.
  4. Compare your list of website “expectations” to the list of features of each of the website systems you are considering.
  5. Choose the website system that comes closest to your vision, your budget, and your capabilities.

Creating an ecommerce website is less expensive and easier than ever before, and standards for performance and quality have stabilized across most tools. Just remember to do the planning for a new website the way you would for a new physical store (you wouldn’t just run in with a paint can, right?), and you’ll make the right choice for your business.


Written for MJSA's 2020 Buyer’s Guide

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