E-commerce software solutions

By Adam Turner

Your digital shopfront needs to tie into your backend inventory and financial systems to help your business run smoothly.

Just like setting up a physical store, selling stuff online is more complicated than simply putting out a sign on the digital footpath and waiting for the money to roll in. You'll need a decent e-commerce platform to underpin your digital shopfront and deal with your online customers.

In reflection of the traditional buying process, the components of an e-commerce platform include a dynamic website for browsing products, a shopping cart and checkout for making purchases, a payment system for accepting money and a fulfilment system to ensure your customers actually get what they paid for.

Your digital shopfront also needs to tie into your backend inventory and financial systems to help your business run smoothly. This is especially important if you want your e-commerce platform to scale rather than grind to a halt when more online customers start knocking on your door. You'll also need to think about how you'll get customers there in the first place and how you'll keep track of what they're up to. Consider how your e-commerce platform will interact with your marketing and customer relationship management systems.

Paid versus free

The rise of open source software and passionate developer communities means there are decent 'free' alternatives for every IT system, but don't buy on price alone.

You might not need to pay upfront for an open source e-commerce platform, or for a single open source component such as the shopping cart, but the open source business model is built around services and support. Even if you can download everything for free, how hard will it be to get it up and running smoothly? Do you have the time and expertise to do it in-house? What is your time worth?

If you can't set up your e-commerce platform yourself, then you'll need to need to pay someone else to install it, configure it and perhaps maintain it. Your choice of platform will dictate your options. You need to allow for initial and ongoing expenses in a total cost of ownership comparison with a paid e-commerce solution. Paid solutions can use different pricing models, so you might be up for ongoing licensing fees.

Web hosting is one area where you definitely get what you pay for, particularly when it comes to speed and reliability. A dynamic e-commerce platform is a lot more demanding than a static website. All your efforts can be for naught if your store is regularly offline or so slow that people walk away. Remember, potential customers are far more likely to abandon their online cart than they are to abandon their trolley at the supermarket checkout when faced with poor service.

Turn-key versus best-of-breed

An all-in-one 'turn-key' e-commerce solution might make it easier to get up and running, but will it meet your long-term needs?

Be wary of turn-key solutions which lock you into specific vendors, technologies or components. Think carefully about the systems you already rely on and how your e-commerce system will fit into the big picture. How easily can you customise a turn-key solution? Can you redesign pages or are you limited to a small set of templates? Does the developer have a history of offering regular updates, issuing security patches and keeping up with new technologies, or are you locking yourself into a dead end?

This said, evaluating a new e-commerce platform presents the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate your other IT systems. You don’t want to start from scratch next year just because you need to change your customer relationship management system or add a new payment method. A best-of-breed solution makes it easier to embrace new technologies as they emerge, or abandon technologies and providers which have fallen behind the times.

Of course a best-of-breed system increases the likelihood of needing to call upon a third-party IT services company or systems integrator to stick the whole thing together. You could be locking yourself into an expensive long-term relationship. You could also find yourself at the mercy of every software provider in the platform, with any one vendor able to break the entire system with an incompatible update - further increasing your dependence on a third-party to keep the lights on. Look for a proven track record and talk to existing customers before tying your fate to an IT services company or systems integrator. Make sure you have some control over the site rather than needing to cough up more money whenever you want something changed.

Plan for mobile

The figures make it clear that the future of shopping is online and the future of online is mobile. Even if you don't need a mobile-friendly e-commerce platform today, make sure it's ready to make the move to mobile when the time is right. You shouldn't need to rebuild your e-commerce platform from scratch just to cater for small-screen mobile devices.

If 'showrooming' is a growing threat in your industry, with customers browsing in physical stores and then buying elsewhere online, make sure your website is ready to serve those mobile shoppers so you can seal the deal on the spot.


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