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Choosing the Right E-commerce Platform

It’s common to associate e-commerce with shopping for fashion items, airline tickets, household items, and the like. However, B2B companies also are significant players in the space, having significant needs when it comes to digitizing  their operations. With different audiences, payment structures, and tech stacks, choosing an e-commerce platform is not as simple as just following the B2C leaders. Choosing the right e-commerce platform will come down to understanding your long-term business goals, revenue streams, tech stack, internal capabilities, and budget.

If you’re still one of those people saying ‘why e-commerce?’ (Are there any left, at this point?) consider this: those who made early investments in automation, e-commerce, and other areas, are realizing higher revenues and total returns to shareholders than those who are just starting to increase their digital maturity. According to a McKinsey survey, digital leaders had a return to shareholders of 47% in 2020, compared to an average of 27% for their peers.

A robust e-commerce platform is the basis for modernizing a commerce ecosystem, enabling much-needed scalability for global manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers. Knowing where to start and how to evaluate the myriad options out in the marketplace is the first step.

Getting Started

So, what encompasses e-commerce? An e-commerce platform is software that creates an online store that allows online businesses to manage customer, product, and inventory data, plus website hosting, digital transactions, and a host of e-commerce needs.

Manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers make use of B2B e-commerce platforms. B2C solutions help businesses to sell to customers.

The main difference between an e-commerce platform and a website is its purpose. An e-commerce platform acts as an online store for sales transactions. A website acts mostly as a source of information. For instance, bbc.com is the website of the BCC, which broadcasts news and other programs. The website provides news and information; it doesn’t act as a portal for sales.

Do Manufacturers Need E-commerce?

Manufacturers can’t afford to ignore e-commerce; it’s an unstoppable force that is becoming an increasingly larger share of overall revenue. Several factors have contributed to this necessity.

The Legacy of Covid-19

The global pandemic had a heavy toll on manufacturing companies, causing major supply chain disruptions and affecting operations and procurement of supplies. These factors have caused a monumental move toward digital commerce.

Industrial companies have lagged behind retailers when it comes to adopting e-commerce strategies to grow their businesses. B2B sellers have been slower to adapt to e-commerce, believing that their customers need and would insist on in-person sales interactions. But research is showing that B2B buyers are already operating online, scouring the web for what they need. In fact, a McKinsey survey found that two-thirds of B2B customers prefer remote human assistance or digital self-service when making a purchase.

While only 9% of total B2B U.S. product sales occurred via an e-commerce website before the pandemic, Forrester predicts that B2B e-commerce will grow to 17% of all B2B sales in the U.S. by the end of 2023, reaching $1.8 trillion.

The Buyer Is Online

Most (73%) of the B2B buyers are tech-savvy millennials.  They are comfortable online and are used to researching products, placing orders, making payments, and tracking orders online. These people do most of their shopping online and want the same level of online services from B2B sellers as they are accustomed to from B2C sellers.

Personalization and Education

E-commerce allows you to reach a massive audience, market to them, and incentivize them to purchase your products and services. You can now communicate with existing and prospective customers anywhere in the world through your e-commerce platform by posting informative blogs, white papers, and other content about your industry, your products, and future developments on your e-commerce website.

E-commerce is also a way for companies to inject personalization into the marketing of their products and services to B2B customers, offering bundles, subscriptions, alerts for restock, etc.

Alternative Commerce

When considering how your business sells (or could possibly sell) its products, alternatives to the strict e-store model abound. There are B2B, B2C, D2C, dealer portals, and marketplaces to consider as possible avenues.

We all know the mammoth  marketplaces like Alibaba, Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Google Express. These marketplaces are popular with B2C and B2B buyers alike. In fact, One-third of B2B companies make at least half of their purchases on online marketplaces.

Whether you’re looking to sell on large scale marketplaces or plan to create your own, choosing an e-commerce platform that integrates with online marketplaces or supports that functionality will keep your business adaptable and enable you to reach more customers.

 

keyboard with shopping cart key

Ecommerce Considerations

Looking at the architecture of e-commerce platforms, there are a few common types of solutions to weigh out: open-source vs. hosted, and monolith vs. headless. Each has their pros and cons, and depending on your top priorities and any non-negotiable technology stack features, you’ll be able to narrow in on the right solution.

If you have, like many others do, unknown unknowns, or don’t feel confident in fully developing your digital roadmap enough to select an e-commerce solution or platform, this is a great time to get a technology partner involved to help guide you through the process of identifying business strategy needs, determining implications of integrations or non-compatible technologies, develop user experience stories for new digital experiences, and outlining an iterative roadmap for a long-term digital transformation. We’ll talk more about this later – but just a heads up on it now.

SaaS or Open-Source

This is the first question to consider. A SaaS solution will give you everything you need out of the box for a subscription fee. Your online store is hosted in the cloud, and hosting is taken care of for you. However, with a subscription-based solution, you can’t access the source code, so your options to customize your store are limited. SaaS models usually come with a support model, so if you uncover a large problem, count on engaging with a support team to resolve the issue.

An open-source solution is free to install, but you will need technical know-how to use the software. In addition, you will be responsible for your own hosting and the security of your site.

E-commerce platforms that use headless technology fall into both buckets – SaaS and Open Source. They are fully customizable and can be used by companies of all sizes. You can use e-commerce APIs to create a unique online presence for your business. Overall, an open source headless e-commerce platform will be less expensive than a SaaS-based one, but you’ll spend more on additional services, which leads into our next point.

Monolith vs Headless

The monolithic structure was the standard model for e-commerce for many years. As a one-size-fits-all approach, customizations are minimal and time consuming (and a little risky), so what you see is what you get. In terms of market trends, you’re at the mercy of the software provider to initiate any feature updates, meaning you’ll probably fall behind industry-leading companies and how they respond to consumer demands. If you did decide to customize and any of those customizations broke something on the back end, with a monolithic system, the whole site goes down.

It’s not all bad – monolithic platforms are great if you want a solution to plug and play and don’t see the needs of your business changing dramatically.

But, headless platforms evolved out of the limitations of the monolith. Headless solutions introduce microservices and detach the back end from the front end, allowing you to choose best-in-class solutions for each area of your business and connect them together via APIs. Another draw for headless architecture is agility and adaptability – you can more quickly add features and customization by adding services – without system downtime. Scalability plays a roll as well, as you can add functionality when you need it, instead of perhaps paying for features for years before you’re ready to implement them.

Total cost of ownership

Open-source solutions may seem more cost-effective upfront, but they can involve higher development and maintenance costs in the long run. SaaS solutions, on the other hand, offer many ecommerce capabilities out of the box, scalability, and dedicated support but don’t offer as many customization possibilities and involve ongoing subscription fees.

It’s a good idea to take your time to compare e-commerce platforms in terms of features, capabilities, and total cost of ownership (TCO) before making a decision.

Business Complexity

Manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers run complex businesses that require robust enterprise-level platforms. The platform must be set up to deal with a large inventory of products and should support complex order processing. You will need B2B-focused features such as customer-specific pricing, account management, request-for-quote (RFQ) functionality, custom catalogs, and tiered pricing based on customer segments. Also, the platform should facilitate bulk orders and quick reorders for B2B customers.

These complex systems, which may also increase in complexity as your company matures in e-commerce, might not be suited to a lightweight, open source solution.  When considering your business complexity, you can’t just factor in your current state, but where you see yourself several years down the line, and invest in a scalable solution.

Integrations

Can your e-commerce platform integrate with tools you already use to run your business? At the very least, you should be able to connect it with your existing customer relationship management (CRM), product information management (PIM), and ERP (enterprise resource planning) tools.

Also, consider how the platform will integrate with third-party applications. Does it integrate with applications that you are already using, or are planning to use? What does the cost to integrate and maintain those connections look like? Is there a simpler solution?

Time to market

How quickly can you set up and launch your online presence? If a high level of customization is required to tailor the platform to your business needs, it can require extensive customization and integration with existing ERP, CRM, PIM, or other third-party systems. This work may require advanced development efforts, which can increase the time to market.

If this is a concern, you might consider opting for a subscription-based solution with many features out of the box so you can be up and running fairly fast.

This is a bit deeper, but consider also Agile vs waterfall delivery – both are development approaches of the e-commerce platform itself. Agile development allows for incremental updates and continuous improvement, while waterfall development follows a sequential process. Agile development has gained popularity due to its flexibility. Being customer-centric, the focus is on delivering working software in short intervals, inviting feedback from stakeholders and end-users during each iteration. This approach ensures that you will tailor the platform to the needs of the customer. TMG operates in a strictly agile methodology. We’re SAFe-certified and we’ve brought the benefits of agile development to many of our clients, delivering continuously to bring their projects across the finish line.

Scalability & Support

E-commerce platforms for manufacturing, wholesaling, and distributors must be able to grow and scale with the business. These enterprises have massive product volumes that can only be handled efficiently by enterprise e-commerce platforms that provide automation on a large scale. Markets change, product inventory expands, and your commerce platform should not be the limiting factor of your growth.

You also don’t want to migrate your business to a platform and suddenly be stuck with problems that your technical staff can’t resolve without help. Make sure the solution you go for has the backing of support staff that will be available to your team 24/7 via live chat, phone, or email, and has tiered solution support. Keep in mind that open-source solutions often offer no or minimal customer support. If you go for an enterprise-level solution though, most vendors do offer specialized customer support at an extra cost.

Living in the Future

Once you set up your e-commerce platform, you need to keep abreast of industry developments and platform enhancements so you can capitalize on them, keeping your platform up to date and your business ahead of the curve.

Choosing the right e-commerce platform is a weighty task, but with the right team and the right questions, your field of choices will narrow into a small sect of worthy platforms. TMG works with many e-commerce solutions, and has helped select the right vendor for the right client time and again. For strategy, roadmapping, and delivery of a best-in-class e-commerce solution, contact TMG today. We offer solutions that can be tailor-made to suit your business needs.

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Jenn Daugherty
Jenn Daugherty
August 14, 202311 minute read
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