Jul 21 2017
platform boxes

Emerging or Enterprise: Choosing Between Ecommerce Platforms

Invest in a custom solution or focus on simplicity?

Work with an extended deployment cycle or have rapid deployment?

Have flexibility to grow and scale or risk running up against a wall?

These are just a few of the questions retailers must answer before deciding not just what ecommerce platform to use now, but which one will be the best solution for them in the future.

For most consumer brands, ecommerce has been a component in some form or another for the past few decades, but more and more organizations are looking to bolster the way they sell online. In fact the projected growth into 2019 is set to hit $480 billion, with more than 75 percent of consumers making their purchases online.

On one hand there are mom and pop shops who are gaining increasing access to easy to use platforms that are free or nearly free, and on the other hand enterprise level organizations such as Nike are now branching out to sell on marketplaces such as Amazon. Regardless of the level, revenue, and products being offered, each brand has their own set of unique needs, most of which is centered around the needs of their customers.

Unfortunately the needs of customers can’t always be met when facing budgetary constraints, fighting for internal buy in, or trying to force technology adoption in a short window of time, which then often leads to the use of nimble solutions and simple platforms. Simple platforms are designed to get your brand up and running with a well designed website in a shorter amount of time, but in the long run may end up costing more than investing in a fully customized solution upfront.

There are quite a few pros and cons to consider when making a platform move, so we’ve done some of the heavy lifting for you. From the freemium systems that are becoming more popular, to the large platforms that require a greater investment, you can find a perfect solution for every B2C and B2B brand.

The Freemium and Entry-Level Approach

Unlike the larger platforms that require an annual license or monthly fee, freemium and entry-level platforms allow brands to jump right in and test the waters with ecommerce. While free, in most cases these systems are generally nothing more than a virtual shopping cart, slapped onto an online store, and you can list a limited number of products.

Anything beyond the basics, these ecommerce platforms will then quickly start to add up on costs for anything such as analytics, exit-intent prompts, better designs or templates, and integrations with other basic systems. As a starting point, these can work great, but for existing retailers, these are typically quickly skipped over due to their limited feature set, which is why brands will look into either simple platforms or the ones they must invest into them. Take for example the Blue Acorn website, which is built on WordPress. Based on our clients, potential clients, and those we hire, it’s the perfect solution for each persona’s needs. However, if we were to start selling 100 different kinds of blue acorns rather than building award winning ecommerce sites, we’d likely need to invest in a stronger solution such as Magento or Salesforce Commerce Cloud.

Strengths:

  • Free or low-cost up front
  • Great for small businesses testing the water
  • Typically easy to find a simple, streamlined design

Weaknesses:

  • Tend to cost money as you expand feature set
  • For custom designs, expect to pay more
  • Some require self-hosting and technical knowledge
  • Not ideal for scaling
  • Few enterprise brands use them
  • Few if any features for B2B

Some freemium to entry-level ecommerce platforms are Wix, Shopify, Volusion, BigCommerce, WP ecommerce, X-Cart, Magento Open Source (formerly Community Edition)

Simplistic Platforms and Limitations

The disruptors, the up and comers, these are the platforms that have intense marketing budgets or are associated with brands that also cater to enterprise customers. Platforms such as Shopify Plus are increasingly popular among the SMB market, primarily due to their ease of use, ability to practically self-onboard and design and develop the site in-house, and templatization of their offering.

What may take between six months to a year in development for an enterprise will take anywhere from two to three months with one of these offerings, which is why they are considered nimble, simple solutions. However, while quick to launch and typically the sites do look great, their largest barriers are due to the inability to scale, be fully customized, have unclear product roadmaps, lack rich internationalization features, non-native social monetization features, and a slew of others that are becoming more commonplace.

Rapid Deployment and Ease of Use

Not a fan of long-term projects or working with a limited budget? Both of these are common pain points for ecommerce brands, and are also both commonly solved by these mid-size platforms. The other component is that most of these have visual design editors that allow you to drag and drop features in place, add the basics such as content and blogs, and of course easily manage sales and featured items. On the surface it will look great, but on the backend you likely won’t get as much intel out of who your customers are, what they are looking at, or retaining them either. Have you ever seen a retargeting ad for the item you just purchased follow you around? That’s what happens when you pick quick and pretty versus steady and right.

On the flipside, due to the availability of responsive theming, standard features and applications, these are also great solutions for those looking to expand their offering in a short period of time, but should note that in the long run these will cost more to maintain and expand in functionality.

Emerging Platform Strengths:

  • Typically involves incentives to use platform (free for several months)
  • Designed for medium businesses, but branching into enterprise
  • Onboarding process and time to market are shorter
  • Typically easy to find a simple, streamlined design
  • Some have strong connections into Amazon ecosystem
  • Easy to implement mobile sites
  • Designed for set and forget style approach

Emerging Platform Weaknesses:

  • Not ideal for scaling
  • Few enterprise brands use them
  • Few if any features for B2B
  • Higher risk due to less product maturity
  • Can’t fully customize to customer needs. Options are typically based on templates, small selection of apps, and plugins.
  • Scalability of products or traffic
  • Magento Open Source offers more out of the box, but takes more technical know how to get it setup than Shopify Plus.
  • Some of the code bases are either proprietary or use things like Liquid which are less popular (harder to find or more expensive talent)
  • Extending functionality gets more pricey vs Magento in some cases.
  • There are more apps on Magento, but customization and custom apps/integrations do cost more.
  • There are not designed for the needs of B2B
  • Designed for set and forget style approach

Customizable Platforms and Return on Investment

Magento Commerce (formerly Enterprise), Salesforce Commerce Cloud (formerly Demandware), Oracle, IBM, and Hybris, these are all big names that any ecommerce organization should be familiar with. Across the pricing spectrum, each of these cater to varying degrees of some of the strongest or largest brands on earth, with their bread and butter in the enterprise space.

Though there are some exceptions and not counting marketplaces, each of these platforms also have similar strengths and weaknesses that prevent an organization from launching on them in a short window of time; however, that production time typically leads to fully customized solutions that meet each of their customer needs and then some. Without breaking down each platform, which there are plenty of opinions on each of them in the market, here’s what you’re most likely to run into.

Cost

  • Cost comes down to a few different things with the big players, and that starts with a license, subscription or annual fee. To use any of these platforms you will have a base cost just to use them.
  • Development, design, and implementation costs vary widely depending upon using an experienced partner, onshore or offshore support, or even building an internal team.
  • Extensions and integrations, while in some cases have native support, may require a development team to connect the dots between what you are currently using and the new platform.
  • Customizations are another cost that deserve a separate callout from development. For custom extensions and features, these add additional man hours, which in turn add to your total cost.
  • Support is essential and should be built into any plan, regardless of the platform. Post launch bugs can surface, new features will be released, and keeping things secure and running smooth requires regular attention.

Features on Features on Features: The Commerce Stack

In order to scale as needed, ship internationally, have a feature-rich site that is custom designed around customer needs, and be set up for success with the latest tools, these larger platforms are not just a nice-to-have but are a requirement. The issue between enterprise level platforms is that each year they compete toe-to-toe, leading them to have similar solutions. According to Forrester, “firms must instead focus on tool set usability, extensibility, suite integration, and innovation when evaluating these solutions.” If compared to a simplistic platform, in most cases these enterprise offerings achieve both of these. With some work and customization, a few of the stopgap solutions can also fall in line, but still lack things like scalability and the maturity of a trusted solution.

The other component is that when it comes to finding a new platform, businesses typically don’t just need a platform. Ecommerce is no longer just product listings and logistics to get them shipped. It’s everything from sophisticated omnichannel fulfillment, to SMS integrations, personalization, order management systems, experiential management, and product information management.

Return on Investment

What’s the tradeoff for getting a simple store up and running within a three month window of time? In four months when a new, necessary feature is released and other bigger platforms have it, a brand will be left in the dark. For the larger platforms that require an investment, each of them have clear roadmaps as to where their platform is headed and what will be released. This is anything from more support for B2B to switching from self-hosting to a cloud environment. Investing in a platform also leads to a lower total cost of ownership as a result.

The other big factor for platform ROI is on scalability. Some of the smaller platforms and simple solutions offer the ability to add more products in stores, but they are cost prohibited, bandwidth limited, or simply will bog down site speed. Take for example the typical holiday season. The holidays are days away, ground shipping is about to hit it’s final day, and in turn your customers are going to have more urgency to buy. That means more traffic, more cart adds, and more sales in a very short window of time. If a platform can’t scale up or down and be priced accordingly, site speed will be affected and so will sales. Brands have seconds to capture the attention of their prospective customer, and if the site struggles to load, they will move on with their search elsewhere. Holiday shoppers are finicky enough, but to lose them early on due to something as simple as site speed is an easily avoidable problem.

Enterprise Strengths:

  • Highly scalable and feature rich
  • Some platforms designed for B2B use
  • Easy integration with hundreds of apps and plugins
  • Use most payment gateways
  • Easier to be data-driven and implement personalization
  • Commonly adds new features and solutions
  • More stable, mature platforms

Enterprise Weaknesses:

  • Requires a time and financial investment
  • Less intuitive for design purposes
  • Requires technical experience to customize

ABO – Always Be Optimizing

I’d also like to point out one last thing before our inevitable sales pitch in this piece, and that is on optimizing your site. Post-launch there will (or at least should be) on going maintenance to ensure it runs smoothly for years to come, but to really get the most return on your investment, we always suggest incremental changes as well.

In a world increasingly requiring brands to focus on personalization, tools such as Optimizely and Monetate allow you to appeal to the funnel on top of the individual, the potential customers that you have essentially only seconds to capture someone’s attention before they are off to a competitor. By optimizing your site through things like A/B testing, you’re more likely to squeeze more out of the traffic flowing to your site than those who simply set their design and customer journeys and forget them.

Making the Best Choice for Your Customers

Choosing between platforms in this scenario is like picking between differently sized boxes. At the base of it, and it’s core, a store will enable any business to sell their products. In theory there should be no limitations for how much a company can drive in revenue either, regardless of the size of that box and how simple it is; however, the reality is slightly more complex.

Simple platforms are great for smaller brands because their requirements are simple: to drive revenue and sales regardless of device. Up to a certain point this works well, but eventually that same brand will be pressed up against the wall of their small, simple box, and will then be limited by proprietary platforms, hosting constraints, or a mix of other potential red tape.

Simple platforms offer you the basics, are easy to deploy, are often nimble, and the more popular ones are cloud based so they can scale with traffic. Beyond that, if a brand wants to begin using marketing tool suites, personalizing the experience for their customers, or even use simple integrations they’ll need a more complex offering, which eventually will prevent a brand from growing any more. In the end, the primary argument to be made is that of what a business’ needs are now and what they will be based on projected growth in the years to come.

Have questions about what platform may be the best fit for your brand? Reach out to our team. For full transparency our team works on the more complex customizable solutions, but are platform agnostic and will recommend solutions that are the best fit for your needs.

Elliot Volkman

Digital Marketing Manager

Elliot is Blue Acorn's Digital Marketing Manager. He hold a master's degree in communication from Gonzaga, and has several awards for journalism and digital marketing. In his spare time he is a long-distance runner and triathlete.

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