How do I select the right eCommerce platform for my business?

We explore the five eCommerce features you must explore to ensure long term success. Hint: it’s got nothing to do with functional requirements. 

eCommerce platforms have shifted in the last five years. From self built technology mash ups to full stack SAAS platforms, it has never been easier to establish a basic eCommerce presence.

So, as eCommerce platforms start looking and sounding the same from the outside, how do you differentiate between them?

The obvious and most often used path is comparing them on functional requirements. And it makes sense initially. At a granular level, not all platforms are equal. Different platforms will have friendlier checkouts, better search, faster load, better design.

However, one platform won’t win every feature. And what you see today will be different in 12 months. In most cases, critical eCommerce functionality can be met in one or another if it is not delivered out of the box.

The real platform differentiators are in business alignment. That is, ensuring that your business goals align with your potential eCommerce technology partner.

When selecting an eCommerce platform, you’re not just buying a piece of technology. You are most likely buying into a three, five or forever year relationship. This is a relationship which will play a large role in whether your business can scale. You aren’t buying what is there today. You are buying into the value that can be extracted in that lifespan.

Selecting for functionality delivers for today. Selecting for business alignment delivers for the future.

With the in mind, let’s leave functional requirements behind and explore alignment principles which will drive long term success.

1. Platform Community

Ever walked into an eCommerce meet up and the first question you get asked is “What platform are you on?” eCommerce retailers are proud platform nerds. We are so passionate about them… and we LOVE talking about them. The best platforms embrace and empower these communities. They hold events and meetups. They connect retailers within the platform. They hold open training sessions and updates. They create forums where retailers can help each other. We’re a competitive bunch but if we can flex our platform muscle to help others, we generally well. These communities are important for smaller teams who prioritise learning and development. Platforms who do this well are Shopify, Magento and Salesforce. Understand how your platform can harness the power of its community.

2. Tech Ecosystem

We have recently seen popular independent platforms get eaten up by the bigger guys. Salesforce swallowed Demandware. Adobe took on Magento. Outside of acquisition, there are often friction points (see Shopify and Mailchimp’s recent messy breakup). It is crucial important to understand WHAT technology integrates and HOW it integrates. Can your current stack easily integrate? Is it done with apps, API’s or custom built? How do they remain compatible? What are the cost and speed impacts of many integrations? Before jumping in, map what and how you will bring this ecosystem together.

3. Team Usability

A benefit of current eCommerce platforms is that they allow retailers be retailers and technologists to be technologists. It is likely that there will be many hands on and in the platforms within your business. This includes developers to managers to customer service. It is also likely that this team won’t always be stable. If you choose a complex platform, it will impact on boarding and operational costs. Platforms who invest in user friendly back ends, training programs and self help portals set you up to maximise team effectiveness. This is a strong differentiator if you want your team focused on customers rather than code.

4. Team Resources

No matter how much functionality you get out of the box, you will want access to development partners. This could be for new functionality, maintenance or, heaven forbid, emergency moments. There’s not one structure for how you access these resources. They could be in-house, freelance partners or via agencies – whatever suits your business. You just need to be able to access them. Platform popularity and the development language will usually determine their scarcity. In the early days of Salesforce Commerce (aka Demandware) there was only one development agency in Australia. Despite being a great platform, this ruled it out for many at the time. This challenge is still experienced by emerging platforms (e.g Workarea) and legacy platforms (e.g. Magento 1). Even without committing to development partners, understand how you can access them before locking in with a platform.

5. Revenue Model

No, not the cheapest. The fairest. There has been a general shift from the license model to the revenue share model. While scalable, it doesn’t make total cost of ownership any easier to forecast – especially for high growth businesses. It is important to understand the ideal model for your business. If you are open to a revenue share model where you pay based on what you sell, a Salesforce or Shopify model might work best for you. If the more traditional tiered license model works better, IBM Websphere or Hybris may appeal. If you want to build your own package, Magento 2 fits the bill. If you don’t want to pay for the platform but are willing to invest in development, WooCommerce may be an option. It won’t be simple but you need to be comfortable with what you are paying. Good relationships are ruined when one party feels they are getting ripped off.

5. BONUS: Omnichannel & International Capabilities

I know we weren’t going to talk about functionality… but… I’m going to skirt around it for two exceptions. Omnichannel and international functionality. These two areas currently differentiate the enterprise players from the entry level. If you want a great experience across countries or connected store formats, you need to dig deep into these platform capabilities. Most platforms can be hacked to achieve outcomes in both areas but it can come at a cost and has limitations. If omnichannel and international are important for your business growth in the next three to five years, make sure you understand the technology roadmap ahead.

In summary, select your eCommerce platform partner by prioritising business alignment over functionality. This approach will set you up for a successful long term relationship and deliver the value you need to hit your growth targets. To bastardise a famous quote… “Functionality fades, alignment is forever”.

Written by Nathan Bush. Nathan is the founder and lead strategist at eCommerce consultancy, 12HIGH.

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