What’s the best ecommerce platform?

What’s the best ecommerce platform?

Episode #3

With Paul having a well-earned holiday in France to celebrate his birthday, James has been let loose on his own!

This podcast attempts to tackle the challenging question, “what’s the best ecommerce platform for my business”. No platform is 100% perfect for any business, so it’s sensible to understand the key influences on platform suitability. James discusses:

  • The importance of understanding budgetary constraints.
  • Matching platform models to your operational requirements.
  • Assessing admin tools and how your teams will use them.
  • Why you shouldn’t look at technology until you have agreed what will drive the decision.

Follow-up reading (to cure your insomnia): a replatforming guide, What’s the best ecommerce platform?

Text transcript

Hello and welcome to the third episode of the replatforming podcast. I’m flying solo this week. Paul my cohost is out in France at the moment having a well deserved holiday to celebrate his birthday. So today I’m going to talk about a key question that often gets asked. I’ve been asked it loads of times and I know other people have asked this in public forums or to other consultants, and that is “What’s the best ecommerce platform for my business?”.

In order to answer this effectively there’s a series of key questions that you need to ask before you can work out the type of platform that will suit you because no ecommerce platform is a hundred percent perfect fit for any business. Every platform comes with its own pros and cons. There are different models, different implications operationally for each of these models.

Therefore, the best thing to do is work out the kind of questions you need to answer to help you decide the type of platform that suits you. And then when you know the type of platform you can align the vendors in the marketplace that provide a platform that fits that model. So I’m going to talk you through a couple of questions I always work through with clients to help them decide the type of platform that is best.

The first consideration is budget. How much realistically do you have to invest in initial development? If you’re only willing to spend a few tens of thousands, you have a small budget and that’s fine. That’s the reality for some small businesses. You’re not going to be looking at the likes of a Hybris or IBM, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Netsuite etc. You’re looking at a simple accelerator store, something where you’ve got loads of things built into the platform, out of the box in a template manner.

You could feasibly get a Shopify store up and running within that budget if you had a simple set of requirements where you stick to what the core platform does and not trying to extend, customize or plugin lots of integrations. So budget’s an important thing. And you should think about the total investment that you’re willing to spend. There’s upfront development costs but there’s also things like UX/UI design. A platform that has prebuilt themes where you can take a theme and, with minor customisation, have a website that looks good enough for you to accept from a brand point of view, that will save you a lot of money.

The next question is thinking about support and maintenance. Are you buying a platform where you will need a lot of resource either internally to maintain the platform or will you need to pay an SI partner a decent amount of money per month? If it’s not provided by the vendor versus you’ll have to pay for it somehow, or do you want to invest in a SaaS platform like Shopify or Big Commerce where you’re buying something where all of the application management and hosting is already covered. And therefore all the scalability, application releases, patches et cetera are paid for within the license fee. Therefore you don’t have to worry about an additional support budget for critical application support.

The next bit is your desired operational model. So where does an ecommerce platform fit in within the business? What part of the technology do you want to own and why?

A good example, are you likely to want to have full control over the presentation layer? So you could create completely custom views from an ecommerce point of view, depending on the channel that you sell into. This could be the ability to have in-store digital kiosks that have a completely different look and feel, information architecture and user journey than your core online website. Do you want to push out commerce capability into apps, into other devices, channels, et cetera, where you want the ultimate flexibility and you don’t be restricted by the store frontend that the ecommerce vendor provides you.

This is where headless becomes more popular. The ability to take ecommerce components via proven API services and take that platform, push it into multiple front ends where the front end layer is controlling the presentation, but the commerce capability is being pushed in via API so you don’t have to recreate the ecommerce functionality provided by the vendor. That suits some organisations well, others don’t want it. Many want to have a platform where they can literally just run an accelerator store where they take existing templates, and they don’t want to have to build out a custom front end in a JavaScript framework or they don’t want to take a really flexible content management solution like Contentful and build their own front end website and their own admin panel, et cetera.

Others might like the idea of a completely flexible, customisable front end and decoupled architecture that headless enables but they might not be ready for it. Therefore they want to find a platform that has got robust and strong API but they also have an accelerator store and templates that they could use out of the box, and then extend into a fully headless mode later on down the line. Platforms like Big Commerce are really well suited this. They’ve got a market leading API. You could use them headlessly or you can actually just take their storefront templates from the start, extend and change the front end as you go forward.

The next thing to consider is the complexity of your solution. So how many other systems does ecommerce need to plug into? That’s when the flexibility of the platform, the API capabilities come into play. Also the proven connectors with third party tools like ERP is critical if you have a lot of complex systems, for example an international organisation with multiple ERPs and warehouse management systems, depending on the locations in the world. In such cases, the cost of a project will extend rapidly. The more integration you need where those integrations aren’t existing, increases complexity. Each platform will have its proven connectors, whether it’s Salesforce Commerce Cloud or Shopify, so the question is what tools do you currently use and need to keep using? Do platforms already have existing plugins, connectors, and proven integrations that can help reduce the risk and the initial development cost?

The next thing is comsidering what admin tooling capabilities you want to have access to. So all platforms will have admin interfaces. The question is how extensive are they? You look at top end enterprise tools such as Salesforce Commerce Cloud and IBM WebSphere; there’s a huge amount of functional capability within the admin tool. However, not all the interfaces are equal, not all are as simple to use. Some require people with more technical knowledge in order to be able to use them. Some of the systems need more coding skills to enable you to use some of the functionality within them. So you need to understand how easy is it to self-serve on the platform. So this means looking at things like product catalogue management, payment management, shipping and delivery and returns management, content management, all of those areas where business teams will need to go into platform and do something. Whether that is configuration, editing, amending or publishing new content.

And understand the amount of resource you will need to be able to deliver stuff in house. How much resource do you have to do this? If doing something within an admin interface is really simple, then actually you can do more tasks with a smaller team than if it takes a lot of time to execute something, Whether it’s a update to a product in the catalogue or creating a new promotion, with a complex admin panel that’s going to eat up more of your time. For your internal team, you have to understand not just whether a platform can do something but how does it do it and how easy is it to do it at scale.

And the next thing is to look at critical functionality versus desired , using something like a MoSCoW rating system. The reality is that there will be functionality that platforms can provide that you might never get round to using or the potential impact in terms of revenue or customer experience isn’t significant enough to warrant you having to put loads of time and effort into using those capabilities. So select the platform based on the core components that you’ll be using day in, day out. Because if those aren’t right, that will have more of a material impact on your operational capability. Then you can outline the desirable capabilities that somebody might use once in a blue moon, and those are simply value add options.

So those are some of the key things that influence the type of platform that you’re best suited to. I think by framing the decision around these questions, it helps people to have a more honest discussion internally about what they’re looking for before they even start to look at the vendor marketplace. Once you’ve done this, it’s then more productive to go and look at things like the Gartner magic quadrants or Forrester wave reports and check out the key players in there, look at the pros and cons, look at the models they provide, are they SaaS, are they a Platform as a Service? Do they enable headless, are they API first, et cetera, all those things. If you start off by understanding as a business what you need operationally, then you can match it back to these vendors and platforms and make hopefully a smarter decision.

I hope that has been useful. If you want some additional information then on the Digital Juggler website there are some ecommerce guides and one of them is about what’s the best platform. If there are any questions off the back of this, then please feel free to give me a shout on social media via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Do stay tuned for the next podcast. And if you’re not already receiving alerts, please sign up on the website for emails and we’ll mail you as soon as a new podcast is available. Thanks very much.

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