Platforms & Apps

What Flavor Is Your Shopping Cart?

Ecommerce platforms can be divided into a few categories. Knowing what these categories are may help you choose the one best for your business.

Ecommerce platforms can be divided into a few categories. Knowing what these categories are may help you choose the one best for your business.

Ecommerce platforms are software solutions that make it possible to build an online store, display products, and complete transactions over the Internet. In spite of a relatively simple definition, these software tools can vary greatly in cost, features, and purpose. The ecommerce platform a merchant chooses will impact success.

In January, Practical Ecommerce columnist David Sasson wrote about how his company had changed ecommerce platforms.

“We switched from the Yahoo store platform…to OpenCart. The Yahoo store platform was restrictive,” Sasson wrote. “We had to build many outside tools to accomplish what we wanted. Some simple tools we were unable to create.”

In his column, Sasson was wise to point out the possible problems switching ecommerce platforms can create, but the move was ultimately good for his business. By month four after the switch the store’s conversion rate had increased 60 percent.

Bottom line, the ecommerce platform your business uses will affect your success. Choose the wrong one for your particular situation and an otherwise great business plan might fail. Pick a good one and you’ll avoid many problems and expenses.

Software-as-a-service Ecommerce Platforms

Software-as-a-service — SaaS — is a popular software licensing and delivery model. In the ecommerce platform context, SaaS solution providers will host the source code that powers the platform; manage everything related to the server; and deal with the Payment Card Industry Digital Security Standard (PCI DSS) requirements.

Effectively, SaaS ecommerce platforms can give an ecommerce business a big boost. This is especially true for small companies; businesses without significant technical resources; or Internet shops that do not require special features or services. In fact, most small ecommerce operations should probably use a SaaS ecommerce platform.

Some SaaS ecommerce platforms have expanded their offerings to include brick-and-mortar point-of-sale solutions. So, small omnichannel retailers can use related systems to manage inventory and accept payments both online and in-store.

There are limitations.

For one, SaaS ecommerce platforms limit access to the server-side source code. While good SaaS solutions will typically allow some level of interaction via an application programming interface or similar, site owners cannot necessarily change the code that drives the site.

This may mean some features that would be relatively easy to execute in the server-side source code become somewhat complex as a client-side solution, if they are possible at all. This was the exact problem Sasson’s business was having with its original, SaaS ecommerce platform.

What’s more, some forms of integration will also be more difficult with a SaaS ecommerce platform. For example, the most efficient way for a brick-and-click retailer to synchronize in-store and online inventory and pricing is likely to be direct communication between databases, but this is almost certainly not possible with a SaaS ecommerce platform.

SaaS ecommerce solutions can be launched quickly and make operating an online store much easier. But, with SaaS platforms, merchants trade control for ease of use.

Licensed Ecommerce Platforms

The term “licensed ecommerce platform” can describe a broad range of solutions available for purchase or use under a traditional software licensing agreement. These solutions may be proprietary or open-source, expensive or free.

Included in this category are products like the powerful SAP Hybris platform or the far more basic WooCommerce add-on for WordPress.

Licensed solutions almost always require some level of technical expertise to implement. The merchant would likely need to be a developer or employ one. Some of these products could be deployed by a relative novice, but it would take some work.

In most cases, the ecommerce business will also be responsible for the server, PCI DSS requirements, and many other details. You may end up with features that you won’t need. Since these solutions are meant to include a set of core features, odds are good you’ll want some of those core features, like built-in email marketing or built-in (read “basic”) order management.

These solutions do, however, tend to offer significantly more flexibility. Within the confines of the platform, merchants can customize just about everything. Turning again to Sasson’s column, his business was able to significantly boost conversions when it took control of the source code.

Licensed ecommerce platforms can certainly be the way to go for growing ecommerce operations that require flexibility and control to fine tune their business performance.

Custom Ecommerce Platforms

It is, perhaps, the golden age of application development. As I wrote in “App Development Trends Favor Custom Ecommerce Platforms,” current application developers are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Not too many years ago, if you wanted to write a custom software solution, you would start with a blank screen and a blinking cursor. You would need to write thousands and thousands of lines of code, read through hundreds of pages of API documentation, and spend, perhaps, hundreds of hours testing and iterating. The task would have been monumental.

Now, it is possible to bring up a complete, albeit basic, custom ecommerce platform in a week. A more robust solution might take a month or two.

Here are a couple of examples.

Using a service like Schema, you could easily develop all of your page templates, and simply call the Schema API to store product information, customer data, and orders. You wouldn’t need to develop or manage the database.

If you know Node, you can employ the Sails framework, MongoDB, and Node Machine to have a functional ecommerce solution connected to payment platforms — Authorize.Net, Stripe, WePay, or Coinbase — and integrated with Twilio for text notifications, Mailgun for transactional emails, Facebook ads for promotion, Twitter to connect with your community, and YouTube to host product videos, as examples.

Custom ecommerce platforms take flexibility to the next level. If you know you’re going to use ShipStation for order processing, there is no need to write an order processing suite.

For online stores with considerable development assets, building an ecommerce platform to suit your business’s specific needs can be effective.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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