When you start looking into ecommerce platforms, you’ll quickly find that the amount of options can be staggering. You’ll probably compare features and functionality to come up with a short-list. Then, it’s tempting to take that short list and start looking at features side-by-side. While this strategy works well for most goods, comparing ecommerce platforms in this way might not be as beneficial as it seems. Let me explain.
Comparing features seems logical, but it’s backwards
Looking at features is a great way to narrow down your list of choices. It lets you quickly see what a platform can do, so you can quickly weed out options that don’t fulfill your most basic requirements. However, if you’re ultimately only looking at platform features to make your final decision, you’re going about it backwards, putting the cart before the horse. What a platform can do vs. what your business needs the platform to do can make all of the difference.
What is it that your business needs to be at it’s best?
This is the first question you should be asking yourself before you even start looking at platforms, and it leads to deeper questions. Most ecommerce platforms will perform the most basic requirement of your business, selling something, but don’t assume that it will do everything you need. Really dig into your business requirements and try to answer these questions:
What is the best way to sell your product?
If you’re selling large quantities of different items (i.e. Amazon), this is the most standard type of ecommerce business. Almost all platforms will support this. However, if you only sell a handful of unique products (i.e. Apple), being able to really tailor your product pages and customer experience might be a key requirement. If that’s the case, most out-of-the-box SaaS ecommerce platforms won’t give you that ability to customize the product page in the way that you want. Being able to combine content and commerce in an unrestricted way is a gem that you might only find in the open-source ecommerce platform market.
The example above is for a physical product, but maybe you’re selling (or reselling) digital goods, subscriptions, licenses, tickets, services, etc. Whatever it is that you intend to sell, determine what you need to be able to do to sell it best.
How do you manage your inventory?
Inventory (or stock) management is something that can actually be quite complicated. Most platforms assume that you have a single storage space or warehouse that all of your products are coming from, but what happens when you have multiple stores or warehouses in your country or around the globe. Do you need (or want) any of the platforms that you’re considering support this? Do you need to be able to move inventory from one warehouse to another? Do you want your platform to automatically choose what warehouse the inventory is fulfilled from? The larger your business, the more important these questions, and more, become.
Even if your inventory situation is more simplistic, what do you want your platform to do when an item is low on stock or out of stock? Do you have some items that are always in stock? Do you want your system to automatically order more stock at a certain stock level? Do you want to accept back-orders? Do you want to accept pre-orders? So many possibilities, but what is important to you?
How do you plan to fulfill orders?
Managing orders and order fulfillment can be one of the most time consuming aspects of your business, and time is money. So when an order comes in and needs to be fulfilled, what is the ideal process you need to follow? How many steps are involved in the process? Will it be you or a team of people handling the order, and do you need to update the customer or anyone else notified at specific stages? Would you like shipping labels automatically available to print? What other parts of your fulfillment process could be automated, and does the platform your considering support that?
Do you also sell your products in-store? If you don't now, will you want to?
You may be looking to access a new revenue stream by taking your existing business online. Or, maybe you’re strictly selling online for now but you want to leave the door open to potentially sell in a physical locations, be it a storefront, market or tradeshow. In either case, the ecommerce platform that you selected could ultimately become the single platform that runs both your online and offline stores, keeping order history, customers, inventory and everything else contained in one place.
Point of sale and ecommerce is something that can really separate one platform from the next. Some platforms don’t offer any offline component. Some offer a completely integrated set of tools. Others support 3rd-party integrations to varying degrees. Depending on your requirements, this is something that can make or break your platform choice. Here’s an assessment workbook to help you determine your point of sale needs.
Where else do you want to sell?
Do you also want to sell your products on Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Google, etc. The list goes on. You might only be focused on selling on your own website now, but do you plan to also expand your reach to other online marketplaces in the future. Do the platforms your considering support this? What does that look like?
One of the most underrated aspects of ecommerce is business automation. Inventory and supply management, shipping and fulfillment, accounting, marketing, customer service, content creation, the list goes on. In an ideal situation, how much of your business can be automated by software? Do any of the platforms you’re considering support this.
A second part of this is do you use any antiquated systems that are critical to running your business? Sometimes, instead of learning a new system it might make more sense to integrate that system into your ecommerce platform in some way. Not all platforms will be able to support this kind of custom integration, but some will.
How would you prefer to spend your money?
Ecommerce platforms and fees are an interesting topic because they’re all over the map. There’s no single consensus on what a platform is worth, so fees that you may or may not pay vary greatly between each platform. You’re going to have to spend money, so when it comes to fees you are generally looking at one of the following scenarios.
- Fully managed SaaS platforms
These are ecommerce platform services where you sign up for an account and then start using the service. Typically, these types of platforms are quick to get up and running and come with some sort of usage fee. This fee might be a monthly recurring cost or a transaction fee. Usually, the more business you do, the higher service tier you need. Over time, your operating costs to use the service can be quite significant. Many SaaS platforms are quite rigid in what you can do with them, but they are very user friendly and good for your typical, best-practice online store. On the other side, atypical functionality might be impossible to achieve.
- Open source platforms
Instead of paying a usage fee, open source ecommerce platforms are available for free. However, you would need to host the platform yourself pay any other normal business fees for taking payments and whatnot. You also are likely to pay an agency or in-house development team to get your store up-and-running and maintained. This can be an attractive option though if you want to own your software and control what it can and can’t do. By diverting usage fees to custom development, this is the best option for moulding your platform to your business, not the other way around.
Is custom functionality important to your business?
Going along with business automation and SaaS vs. open source platforms, how important is it to your business that you can build and innovate custom functionality. This question has some significance because if you plan to spend your money on custom development, you want to make sure that the architecture of the platforms you’re considering are modern and capable of doing what you need them to do.
What should your customer experience to look like?
So far this article has only talked about your business, but it’s also important to consider your customers and what you want their experience to be when using the platform. What kind of reporting and analytics can you get from any given platform about your customers habits? Can you easily A/B test promotions and offers? Can you integrate marketing tools? Can you personalize emails and other communications? Is the platform fast? Do you want to offer tailored rewards or give points for shopping?
Lately there has been a lot of talk on the ability to use an ecommerce platform headless. This basically means that the management of your store is all done in a back end interface, but the front end public-facing side of your site is completely decoupled, using a front end framework such as React or Angular. This might not be so important for your website per se, but if you also might want to build a mobile app that pulls in content from your ecommerce platform, then this IS important to you. Your customer experience should be seamless across all touchpoints, so the ability to access their cart and other information between website and phone app is the way of the future.
How important is content to your marketing?
Another important alternate point to consider is how important content (not just products) is to your business marketing. There’s this whole concept of content+commerce where there is a deeper integration between the marketing content that you produce for your business and how it ties in with your products on your website other elsewhere. Companies like Apple and FitBit do this well, where instead of just selling you a product, they’re selling a lifestyle that their product fits into. To support this, they are content heavy and make you want to strive for that lifestyle. A robust blog, customer stories, how-to or interest-based content, special events and giveaways, product announcements, etc. If you want your company image, marketing and customer experience to be more than just a product or service, you’ll want to make sure that the platform you choose has the ability to provide the type of additional content that you need to make that happen.
Bringing it all together
Bringing this topic back to the beginning, I think you see now why you shouldn’t choose and ecommerce platform based on features alone. Comparing feature sheets side by side will only give you part of the overall picture. To truly now what platform to choose, you need to know your business and your ambitions in as much detail as possible so that you can pick the commerce architecture that suits your business best, not the other way around. Simply put, the success of your business depends on how well you can execute your strategy. Do your due diligence now and find the best architecture for your business, because choosing the right platform now based on your desired architecture can save you replatforming costs down the road.