Many ecommerce businesses are feeling the effects of an incorrect commerce architecture and they don’t even know it. It’s all business-as-usual until someone, or something, shines a light on the subject and a shift of awareness takes place. It’s one of those things that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. In this case, however, it’s a good thing. Understanding the consequences of an incorrect commerce architecture can be the catalyst for beneficial change that can have a profound positive impact on an organization's bottom line and operational efficiency. It’s the Holy Grail of ecommerce.
This article is meant to be that shining light, the introduction to commerce architecture that, when explained, will start you down that path of enlightenment.
Have you ever…
Have you ever stepped back from your business and though “I wish my site could do this” or “I wish this aspect of my business was more streamlined” or “I wish I didn’t have to enter this information here and here.” Maybe you’ve looked at a successful competitors website, or even just another ecommerce site that you enjoy, and you’ve wondered “how have they been able to do so well?” Well, considering what your ecommerce website can and can’t do ties into the overarching concept of your commerce architecture.
Commerce architecture, 3 things to know
A commerce architecture is the ecosystem of software that runs your business. This is more than just your ecommerce platform. It also includes any software or 3rd-party digital service, both offline and online, you use for marketing, accounting, sales, operations, fulfillment, inventory, etc. Commerce architecture is the all-encompassing term for all of it.
This leads to the first important point to understand, the fact that all of the tools you use to operate your business are not merely standalone pieces of software, but one component within the scope of your entire business. Think of each component as a Lego block. Each block is its own thing, but it can be pieced together with other blocks to make something bigger. Something bigger is your commerce architecture.
Now, continuing with the Lego analogy, just because you have a bunch of random Lego blocks doesn’t mean that they will all connect together nicely. Some of them will, but some of them wont. Think of the blocks that connect as software that can transfer data between them (via APIs). The blocks that don’t connect are disconnected, and so data cannot be sent between them. This is the second important point to know, that the software within your commerce architecture may or may not be able to share data between them. The more Lego that connects, the more efficient your commerce architecture can be because the data that gets sent between them can automate processes that would otherwise need to be done manually.
The third important point is that there are different types of commerce architecture. In fact, in the world of ecommerce, there are three main types that we typically talk about. The names may differ from one organization to the next, but the three types of commerce architecture I’ll discuss are:
1. Commerce-led architecture
Commerce-led architecture is the most prevalent in ecommerce today. It’s the idea that an ecommerce platform is the cornerstone of your business and dictates what data connections can be made. Think about Shopify, BigCommerce, SquareSpace, Wix, and the plethora of other SaaS based ecommerce platforms out there. These are ecommerce platforms where you pay a monthly fee to use the platform and it takes a front-and-centre role in your business. Getting back to Lego, this is like buying a box set. You open it up, it has a whole bunch of pieces, and you simply follow the directions to make your website. Everything fits.
However, what if you try to introduce a different set of Lego into the mix? Some pieces will surely connect, but not all. The pieces that don’t, never will, and therein lies the downside of a commerce-led architecture. An organization using this type of platform and architecture will eventually reach a point where some of the software they use will not connect and the consequences will be felt. The consequence of an incorrect commerce architecture via commerce-led architecture is disconnected data, or in other terms, processes where the transfer of data is manual and therefore time intensive and expensive. What’s worse is that the more successful the business becomes, the more time intensive and expensive any manual processes become. We call this swivel chair processes and it’s a problem that only gets worse.
The consequence of an incorrect commerce architecture via commerce-led architecture is disconnected data, or in other terms, processes where the transfer of data is manual and therefore time intensive and expensive. What’s worse is that the more successful the business becomes, the more time intensive and expensive any manual processes become.
There are many benefits of a commerce-led architecture for new and small businesses, but proven and mature ecommerce businesses using a commerce-led architecture typically struggle to scale. This is mainly due to the limitations of the underlying ecommerce platform that the business started with and is built around. In most cases, the only fix is to replatform to something that has a more open and flexible capacity to integrate with other software. Being that Acro Media is a strong believer in open-source solutions, we would typically recommend an open-source ecommerce platform such as Drupal Commerce or an open SaaS ecommerce platform such as BigCommerce. Replatforming is a natural progression for many businesses at this stage. The cost associated with the type of site build I’m talking about when using these platforms is why most businesses don’t start with them right out of the gate.
2. Experience-led architecture
Experience-led architecture is a type of architecture used when a business requires full control over content creation and the ability to provide customers with a tailored customer experience. A content management system (CMS), or experience engine, becomes the backbone of the business with an integrated commerce component of your choice added to provide a seamless checkout. In thinking of this solutions using Lego blocks, this type of solutions is like buying a couple different Lego sets along the same theme. Individually, each set can be built standalone, but you can also mix and match the sets together to make something greater. The amount of integration you can achieve between the CMS, your commerce engine, and the other software within your experience-led architecture will vary depending on the software used, but typically you can achieve a much greater level of connectivity between components. This connectivity, coupled with your ability to control your customer experience, is the benefit of an experience-led architecture.
A greater level of connectivity within your experience-led architecture is mainly due to the fact that most CMS platforms out there, and the ecommerce components that plug into them, are based on open-source software. I’m thinking the dominant open-source CMS players such as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla, but there are many others as well. Open source software give you access to the underlying code where you can change, modify, and build onto the code however you like.
These platforms have accessible APIs, or connection points if you will, that allow developers to connect with other APIs to transfer data between. This is how an integration can be made between software components to get around the problem of disconnect data that you find with most commerce-led architectures. Of course, the consequence of an incorrect commerce architecture via experience-led architecture is initial cost. Making these connections means that a much greater level of involvement is required from a technical perspective. Business will most likely require a skilled in-house IT team or 3rd party development service provider to do the work. For a business that is just starting out, this type of architecture, and the cost associated with it, can be a financial burden not worth taking while cash flow and budgets are tight. However, it might be where the business ends up 5 or 10 years down the road once it’s had time to stabilize and mature.
The consequence of an incorrect commerce architecture via experience-led architecture is initial cost. Making these [integration] connections means that a much greater level of involvement is required from a technical perspective. Business will most likely require a skilled in-house IT team or 3rd party development service provider to do the work.
3. API-led architecture
Finally, we get to API-led architecture (AKA headless architecture or decoupled architecture). This is typically where you find enterprise-level businesses, but it’s not limited to just businesses of that size. Like an experience-led architecture, an API-led architecture has the ability to connect it’s software components through APIs. This architecture goes further though by prioritizing APIs above everything else. This is to achieve the greatest level of control and flexibility over the systems and the flow of data.
In terms of Lego, and API-led architecture resembles that of a Lego baseplate. It doesn’t matter which Lego set you buy or the theme the set is from, all of the Lego can be connected via the baseplate. This is the primary benefit of an API-led architecture, it provides unlimited possibilities to integrate SaaS, open source, homebrew and legacy software together for complete control. Any type of automation between components is possible as long as the data is available to use.
The consequence of an incorrect commerce architecture via API-led architecture is cost and complexity. This is because of the level of technical expertise needed to build and maintain this type of ecosystem. However, chances are a business using this type of architecture didn’t adopt it without knowing this already. Like I said, this is generally where you find mature, enterprise-level businesses or businesses that require a high-level of technical expertise anyway. This most likely isn’t something a business stumbles into without knowing.
The consequence of an incorrect commerce architecture via API-led architecture is cost and complexity. This is because of the level of technical expertise needed to build and maintain this type of ecosystem. However, chances are a business using this type of architecture didn’t adopt it without knowing this already.
Why the right commerce architecture is important
Simply put, the right commerce architecture is important because it aligns with a business's goals and promotes operational efficiency and business scaling.
A commerce-led architecture makes sense for new businesses that need a quick and easy solution to get to market fast, but probably won’t scale well once a certain threshold is reached.
An experience-led architecture is great for businesses who have their customer experience top-of-mind and who have a larger IT budget, but does cost more time and money initially to begin with.
And finally, an API-led architecture, though expensive, is best for businesses who need connectivity and agility more than anything else. A greater IT budget is required, but the automation that can be achieved could provide a greater profit margin that supports the extra budgeting. That said, it only makes sense for certain types of businesses.
What is the right architecture for your business?
That’s a great question and we’ve built a tool (link below) that will help you determine the answer! It’s quick, self-guided, and free to use. Try it out today and see what you come up with. If you ever want to discuss anything about your architecture further, drop us a line. We’d love to help.
- Tool: Ideal Architecture Analysis
- Video: How to Plan For an Open Source Commerce Architecture
- Video: Understanding Digital Commerce Architecture for Successful Scalability
- Blog: Commerce Architecture for Scalability vs. Growth
- Blog: Commerce Architecture Is More Important Now Than Ever Before
- Blog: Drupal for Open Source Experience-led Ecommerce
- Blog: Enabling Business Transformation through Digital Commerce
- Blog: Eliminating Swivel Chair Processes from your Ecommerce Business