Choosing a B2B Ecommerce Platform: Weighing the Risks

When considering a B2B ecommerce platform, it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the software solution you select. There are, in my experience, three types of software for B2B companies to choose from.

First, some software solutions are primarily open-source content management systems without dedicated support teams. Examples are WordPress, Umbraco, and Drupal.

Second, other platforms are built primarily as ecommerce solutions, such as Shopify, AspDotNetStorefront, and Magento. They enable users to easily add and edit products, create categories, and have a checkout process for purchasing products.

There are many software solutions that are either strong CMS platforms or strong ecommerce platforms. But it is rare to find software packages that are strong at both.

While many CMS platforms have bolt-on ecommerce solutions, and many ecommerce platforms have some content management functionality, most are strong in one area and weak in the other.

These options can work okay for many B2C — business to consumer — shops. However, B2B companies typically have both complex content needs (spec sheets, reference documentation, videos) and specific ecommerce requirements (unique customer pricing, custom shipping rules).

The third option is software platforms that are strong in both content and commerce. These are more expensive than alternative solutions and there aren’t many of them. Examples include Acquia, Episerver, and Sitecore. (My company, I should add, is a reseller of Episerver and AspDotNetStorefront.)

The Risks Of Saving Now

I have worked with many companies that have chosen less-expensive software platforms and pieced together an ecommerce site. I’ve seen what can work as well as what can go wrong. It’s important to understand the risks ahead of time.

  • Doesn’t integrate well. When solutions are patched together, you often lose the ability to integrate content with ecommerce. In addition, CMS software platforms are often not built for linking your other systems and easily fulfilling orders the same way that ecommerce software platforms are.
  • Not customizable. Depending on the software, you may be limited in terms of what types of customizations are possible. Many B2B companies have custom business rules, such as custom shipping for certain products, or different rules for distributors versus direct customers. These kinds of customizations are not supported by many software options.
  • Requires sacrifices. To deploy your site on a software platform that isn’t built for your needs, you may need to forgo some of your original requirements. For example, you may not be able to offer the same special pricing and discounts for specific customers that you do offline. Or you may not be able to sell all of your products online, selecting a subset of products instead. What sacrifices are you willing to make to save money on a software platform? And what might those sacrifices cost your business in the long run?
  • Higher website support costs. When the software isn’t set up with features that support your needs, there are often workarounds developed that are time consuming for your internal marketing or IT team. This can mean maintenance headaches, additional expenses, and a website that is out of date.

Less Expensive?

So, when is it okay to take the less expensive route? The key is to understand your requirements and risks in advance, and plan for them.

I typically warn against implementing a B2B ecommerce site with a software system not specifically designed for ecommerce. It can be reasonable to select ecommerce software for your site and forgo a CMS, or to use an ecommerce software and CMS software together. Understand the dangers in advance, plan for how you will handle them, and watch for the point where moving to an enterprise content and commerce platform would make more sense than maintaining the system you have.

It comes down to what it is worth to your business. Depending on your budget, your commitment to your online business, the amount of revenue you expect from it, and the number of employees you plan to have involved in your site, look for the choice that offers the strongest return on investment.

I recently met with personnel of a manufacturer that had built its website on a CMS platform that was not designed for ecommerce. They wrote custom code to provide the ecommerce features they needed. Over time, they added several features and developed workarounds to integrate with different systems. They reached a point where the maintenance time and costs became expensive. To meet their goals, they now have to start over with a new software system.

That is painful decision for them as they will lose most of the money they have put into this platform, and it will initially be a significant investment to move to a platform that will meet their needs. But in the long run it will better enable them to compete, and prosper.

Lori McDonald
Lori McDonald
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