One of the most common use-cases for the internet as a medium is e-commerce. The ability to combine informational websites that can educate users about the features and benefits of your products, then quickly introduce the capability to purchase the item with limited effort on the part of the user, has changed commerce as we know it.
Sure, e-commerce has been around for almost 25 years now. But, statistics have shown that e-commerce transactions have grown as much this year as they had in the previous 25. Now, most certainly, our purchasing behaviors have changed in recent months due to the pandemic situation, but in reality, this was a level that was going to be reached sooner or later in terms of online commerce. We just got there a lot faster.
In recent months, we’ve seen companies that excel with their e-commerce offerings grow exponentially both in usage and stock price. Shopify is now the number one valued stock in Canada. Amazon has increased by 60% in market cap just this year. It’s safe to say that the entire commerce model, as we know it, has transitioned to the digital medium and won’t be going back anytime soon.
As a business owner, you are now presented with many options for selling your products online. Whether you are selling “widgets” or cars, computers, or t-shirts, you can sell your products online. And now more than ever, you have many choices in terms of how you sell your products.
Since we are a custom web development shop, we won’t focus too much in this post on which off-the-shelf products you can utilize. There are great options, such as WooCommerce, Magento, Shopify, and many others. Instead, we want to focus on the businesses that may be handcuffed by those platforms. Frequently, you don’t know until it’s too late what those platforms can and can’t do concerning your business. This week, we’re going to look at some areas of concern you should focus on when determining if your digital point of sale should be taken off-the-shelf or custom developed.
Let’s dig in.
First, An Aside…
I want to take a second to define what e-commerce is. Many folks believe that e-commerce fits a similar definition every time. A shop, a database of products, and then a cart from which you eventually check out. Indeed, this is typically common in most digital transactions. However, e-commerce can be more complicated than that. All sorts of different commerce sites exist. Just because your site may not be selling 10,000 products in a single database doesn’t mean you aren’t in the category of e-commerce. This simplification of what defines e-commerce makes finding the right solution difficult for you as the buyer of a software solution. My point, in a quick summary: traditional “e-commerce” platforms aren’t always the right fit for you. You may need to think a bit outside the box to best sell your offerings to the end-user.
So now, here are some areas where we tend to focus our attention when determining what platform to recommend.
By far, the most often-requested features for a custom e-commerce project revolve around the idea of product customization. Off-the-shelf solutions are ideal when you have a large number of products (what we’d call “SKUs”) that are relatively simple in terms of their metadata and related assets. So, let’s say you were selling 10,000 widgets, as an example – if those widgets have zero customization, you have a relatively simple use-case. As such, almost any off-the-shelf platform will accommodate your requirements nicely.
However, let’s look at more complex applications. Take Tesla, for example. You can literally configure and buy a Tesla via their website. Cars are sophisticated, and as such, have many different customizations and each with various dependencies. As such, there isn’t a perfect off-the-shelf solution that would accomplish their use case, and Tesla invests heavily in its software platform.
Cars are complicated, of course, but they aren’t the only example. Even lower priced items can require massive customization. So the idea of custom e-commerce being used only by large-scale corporations isn’t entirely accurate. Many industries and small businesses can benefit from allowing their user to configure their products and complete a transaction online. And, having such a system can lead to lower manpower requirements and therefore cut costs.
How do you know if your product is sophisticated enough to require a custom approach? Well, to make things sound overly simplistic – sometimes ya just know! But, if you are unsure, speaking to a developer about how you’d ideally allow your products to be browsed, configured and purchased will go a long way in getting you to a final solution that works well for you and the buyer.
Bespoke payment procedures
Off-the-shelf systems are great at taking a credit card, e-check, or other electronic means of payment. However, what if you are a B2B company with a complex business model, where transactions have many dependencies and calculations? In this case, you will take these systems quickly out of their comfort zone and down a road of complex customizations.
What are some examples of unusual payment structures? Well, anything that requires multiple payments tends to get messy with off-the-shelf software. So let’s say you do a layaway program, or have a deposit and varied payment schedule. This quickly becomes a nightmare for software to manage and integrate into your accounting software.
Even simple things such as splitting payments across multiple payment methods can be confusing and disjointed. Yet again, this is a scenario where a custom approach can remove the headache before it starts by crafting a payment process that matches how you do business, as opposed to the opposite, where you are changing your methodologies to match software.
Intense Back-office Integrations
Many businesses rely on bespoke back-office systems to keep their enterprises afloat. This may mean in-house inventory systems, platforms for accounting or bookkeeping, or sometimes systems that manage the entire workflow of a business. No matter what these systems do, they may be putting you in a position where you’ll need to look for a custom e-commerce solution.
On the one hand, you may need to work to build a custom integration into these systems. This may mean tying into an API that doesn’t have an interface with off-the-shelf systems. Or it may mean something more akin to building your own API or import/export system. Either way, your ability to connect and maintain that connection to your software could be challenging with off-the-shelf software.
On the other hand, having older, in-house systems that perform specific tasks may allow you to combine your website’s operation with those back-office tools via an even more customized platform. For example, we’ve taken numerous clients and transitioned them from other back-office tools to a CMS that not only manages their website but also operates their businesses. A single-screen solution closes the loop between two distinct systems which never connect together perfectly, allowing for easier overall operations.
One observation from my many years in this business is that companies with customized back-office needs often need individualized front-end needs due to the nature of their business. As such, custom web development and a customized commerce platform may make the most sense.
Intense Security Requirements
While it can be said that almost all e-commerce platforms available today generally tick off many of the boxes in terms of how they handle security, it still happens that companies have security requirements that are somewhat more involved, requiring bespoke solutions. Every organization approaches security differently, with some taking a more conservative approach and others being more liberal in what their specific requirements are. With e-commerce, taking a conservative approach makes the most sense. A single infiltration to an online shop pretty much instantly means you have legal and insurance problems that need to be addressed.
It’s vital to make sure that you can achieve all identified security concerns and requirements. In these cases, custom e-commerce may make sense as an option.
Finally, on this note, it’s essential to also remember that e-commerce platforms are sophisticated. Magento, as an example, is an enormous piece of software. In some cases, they may be overkill and make it difficult to achieve compliance with your in-house team. Simplicity could be another reason to consider a customized approach.
E-commerce is much like anything else in terms of production. You can take and reuse software, or you can build it. To determine what is right for you, you need to take the time to understand what makes your scenario different. It could be features or use-cases. Or it could be compliance and standards. Merely knowing your differences versus the more common use-cases can help you decide what approach makes the most sense for your business.