eCommerce Platform Buyers Guide:

The 7 Considerations when Choosing an eCommerce Solution

The eCommerce Platforms market is crowded with dozens of vendors all claiming to offer similar capabilities and benefits - so how do you choose which solutions are best for your business? There is no “Best eCommerce Platform” and therefore, when evaluating solutions, you should focus on matching your company’s specific requirements to each vendor’s offering.

Over the past several years we’ve guided thousands of businesses through the process of choosing the right eCommerce solution for their needs. Elastic Path was a great fit for many of those companies, but we have also guided lots of businesses towards some of our competitors, because quite frankly, in those cases, our competitors were just a better fit for their business needs.

As a result of all these customer conversations, we’ve gotten a really good sense for the key factors that help businesses navigate their eCommerce software vendor evaluation and selection process. We have broken it all down for you into the following 7 categories:

  1. Digital Maturity: Low to Advanced

  2. Architecture: Platform-based vs services-based

  3. Architecture: Headless vs Non-Headless (i.e. traditional)

  4. Customizability: Out-of-the-box vs custom business functionality

  5. Customizability: Plugins vs bolt-on APIS vs API First Approach

  6. Hosting: Self-Hosted Vs SaaS

  7. Commercial Model: Vendor-supported vs open source

Consideration #1:
Your organization's digital maturity

The first step in evaluating the best digital commerce solution for your business is identifying your organization’s digital maturity on a scale from 1-4. This is important so you can select a technology vendor that matches the way your team works. By digital maturity, we are referring to the technical capabilities of your team, and/or system integrators or agency you hire, your internal processes, organizational structure, and level of intention to leverage technology to unlock a competitive advantage in the market. With each level of digital maturity, there will be a different group of eCommerce vendors that will be the right fit to help with achieving your business goals.

  • Level 1 - Low: you are Level 1 if you have little-to-no in-house technical expertise, your established competency for leveraging sophisticated technologies, and/or leveraging technology as a competitive advantage, does not align to your business strategy. Being Level 1 is not a bad thing at all – again, this exercise is about finding the best vendor solutions to match your needs. For Level 1 companies, out-of-the-box eCommerce platforms vendors such as Shopify and BigCommerce will be the best fit.
  • Level 2 – Low-to-Medium: you are Level 2 if you have a dedicated eCommerce team of marketers and merchandizers, but do not have technical team members dedicated to eCommerce (either in-house or through a hired System Integrator or agency). You also aspire for a “set it and forget it” approach where your business model won’t require continuous changes to the underlying business logic of your commerce software. You understand that technology is an important part of your eCommerce business, but you do not view technology as a key factor in creating competitive differentiation. For Level 2 companies, traditional eCommerce platforms like Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Magento, and SAP Hybris will be the best fit.
  • Level 3 – Medium-to-High: you are Level 3 if you have a dedicated eCommerce team of marketers, merchandizers and dedicated technical team members (either in-house, through a hired System Integrator or agency, or if your eCommerce team members are highly technical). You have adopted, or aspire to adopt, agile best practices, where you’re able to continuously implement changes to the underlying business logic and front-end experiences of your commerce software; and launch new commerce-enabled touchpoints very quickly. Also, you aspire to be a technology innovator and leverage technology to gain a competitive advantage in the market. For Level 3 companies, a headless microservices vendor like Commercetools or Elastic Path will be the best fit.
  • Level 4 – Advanced: you are Level 4 if you resonate with everything in Level 3, and have a large in-house technical team dedicated to supporting the eCommerce business. For Level 4 companies, the best approach will be an open source solution like Saleor or Reaction, a headless microservices vendor like Commercetools or Elastic Path, or a custom home-grown “DIY” solution.

 

Consideration #2:
Architecture: Platform-based vs services-based

What you need to know:
A platform-based eCommerce architecture provides you with the standard functionalities required to run your commerce business, bundled in an all-in-one, typically monolithic platform architecture, from a single vendor. A services-based eCommerce architecture approach allows you to pick-and-choose the commerce services that best meet your specific business requirements and compose them together to deliver the overall commerce experience.

platform/services

 

When a Platform-based architecture is the right choice:

  1. You have minimal unique requirements for your business
  2. You Have minimal unique requirements for your business
  3. You Have a technical maturity of Level 1 or Level 2, and/or
  4. You Want a standard store up and running fast.

Examples of eCommerce software vendors that use a platform-based architecture include: Shopify, BigCommerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Magento (now owned by Adobe), SAP Hybris, & Oracle Commerce Cloud. Essentially, a platform-based architecture is more rigid by nature, and so it will become difficult, timely, and costly if you want to customize the vendor’s out-of-the-box capabilities to fit your unique business requirements.

When a Services-based architecture the right choice:

  1. You have unique requirements for your business
  2. You want the control and flexibility to customize the functionality of your store
  3. You have a digital maturity of Level 3 or Level 4, and/or
  4. You willing to trade-off out-of-the-box features to build (and continuously update) the  exact experience you want, and do so much faster than a platform-based architecture would be able to support.

These attributes are vital for keeping up with customer expectations for modern and engaging digital commerce experiences. Examples of eCommerce software vendors that use a services-based architecture include: Commercetools, Skava, & Elastic Path. Essentially, this architecture is more customizable but will require the services of your choice to be composed together by a technical team, which can be challenging for organizations that don’t have sufficient technical resources and expertise.

 

Consideration #3:
Architecture: Headless vs Non-Headless

What you need to know:
Headless commerce basically describes the decoupling of the front end of your eCommerce experience (i.e. the user interface that the end-customer interacts with when buying goods/services from your online store) from the back end (i.e. the rules that manage the business logic that powers your commerce business). While non-headless commerce (i.e. traditional commerce platforms) describes an architecture where the front end and the backend are delivered as a full-stack architecture. Decoupling the development of the front and back end allows you to focus on the customer experience without worrying about the impact on critical backend business logic and systems. Coupling the development of the front and back end, on the other hand, allows you to develop and manage your system in one place.

Headless

When a Headless architecture is the right choice:

  1. You have a unique brand vision you want to bring to life through the UX your customers will interact with
  2. You want to be able to make rapid design iterations
  3. You need to deliver a seamless and consistent experience across multiple channels such as web, in-store, mobile, IoT, voice, etc
  4. You want the flexibility to use a vast variety of languages and frameworks to develop various UI experiences.

Examples of vendors that enable a headless commerce architecture include Elastic Path and Commercetools. Headless solutions provide more flexibility, but the major drawback is that you will need to build the front-end experiences yourself versus using out-of-the-box UI templates. Pro tip: if you decide to go headless, in order to avoid unnecessary complexity that mitigates the benefits of a headless approach, make sure your vendor is natively headless versus using a traditional eCommerce platform architecture that has been retrofitted to support headless.

When a Non-Headless architecture is the right choice:

  1. You are comfortable with the “out of the box” UI templates that come with a traditional commerce platform
  2. You want to enable website experiences only (i.e. not looking to deliver multiple UI touch points)
  3. You don’t mind having to pause your websites to make changes with developer in the back end code
  4. You have a digital maturity of Level 1 or Level 2

Examples of vendors that enable this architecture include: Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Magento, and SAP Hybris. This option makes it very simple to get your store up on running, but needs to be setup and run in a specific order to run well, and gets costly and slow if you need to customize.

 

Consideration #4:
Customizability: Out-of-the-box vs custom business functionality

What you need to know:
Business functionality refers to the business rules and workflows that drive the full commerce lifecycle with your customers for your digital business. By this, we simply mean how processes are handled, how data is created, stored, and acted upon, and how commerce transactions are executed. Out-of-the-box functionality are standard features that come with most traditional eCommerce solutions to get your store up and running. For example, these standard features include tax calculation, currency and language conversions, catalogue functionality, etc. Custom functionality refers to the ability to customize the features and functionality that are needed to fit your specific business needs such as regulatory compliance, negotiations for B2B merchants, or complex SKU details. This isn’t about the features themselves, per se, but rather the ability of your eCommerce software to support the customization of features and functionality, the level of effort to do so, and the level of customization that is possible.

When out-of-the-box functionality is the right choice:

  1. You need a fairly straight-forward store for selling standard goods or services (e.g. t-shirts via website only)
  2. You are comfortable that the “out of the box” themes and templates sufficiently meet your requirements
  3. You need only simple configurations and settings such as SKU variation, multicurrency, multilanguage, and tax variations by state, etc.

Examples of eCommerce software vendors that focus primarily on providing out-of-the-box features include: Shopify, Magento, BigCommerce, and Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Please keep in mind, you can probably configure out-of-the-box functionality to achieve more advanced capabilities, but it requires a lot of time and adds additional complexity into the system, which can cause issues when making changes in the future.

When custom functionality is the right choice:

  1. You have an eCommerce business with multiple business models (e.g. B2B, B2C, and/or B2B2C)
  2.  You want to provide specific product assortments and configurations to multiple stakeholders (e.g. customers, resellers, distributors, wholesalers, etc),
  3. You sell regulated products or services (e.g. alcohol, pharmaceuticals, etc.)
  4. You want to allow, modify, or prevent behaviors in your commerce experience such as implementing price negotiations, limits on product reservations, and order blockages due to delinquencies on invoices.

Examples of vendors that support custom commerce functionality include headless microservices vendors such as Elastic Path and Commercetools, and open source solutions such as Saleor and Reaction. You can usually do some level of customization with most eCommerce solutions – but headless microservices and open source solutions offer much more granular control and are essentially designed to support customization. The challenge with this approach is that you need to setup the functionality to work according to your business requirements yourself. As long as the out of the box features in a traditional eCommerce platform work exactly the way your business needs them to, then that may be an easier approach.

 

Consideration #5:
Customizability: Plugins vs bolt-on APIs vs API-First Approach

What you need to know:
Plugins, bolt-on APIs, and the API-first approach are all used to incorporate additional features and functionality to your eCommerce store(s). Plugins provide a standard set of functionalities built within your platform that you can turn on through a marketplace. Bolt-on APIs are built on top of a traditional platform and allow you to invoke certain functionality via API call. While API-first means the eCommerce software was built from the ground up to be consumed by APIs. For example, with plugins, you can add a pre-built checkout system, while with the API options, you can call in specific functionalities to develop your own checkout experience.

When a plugin approach is the right choice:

  1. You have a digital maturity of Level 1 or Level 2,
  2. You only need the standard functionality from the plugin to fit your business requirements.

Examples of vendors that enable plugins include: Magento and Shopify. With this approach, it becomes extremely complex and time consuming to customize the functionality of the plugin, however.

When a bolt-on API enabled approach is the right choice:

  1. You have a digital maturity of Level 1 or Level 2
  2. You have an existing traditional commerce platform but are looking for some additional flexibility
  3. You want additional\functionality that plugins can’t help with.

Vendors that utilize bolt-on APIs include Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Big Commerce, and Magento. It is important to note that the these “bolt on” APIs are essentially implemented by punching holes into the monolithic platform box that existed before APIs become popular, which can make them a challenge to work with for many use cases.

When an API-First enabled vendor is the right choice:

  1. You have a digital maturity of Level 3 or Level 4
  2. You want to have a developer friendly approach
  3. You want full programmatic control over all of the features of your commerce solution
  4. You want to customize each integration to your precise business requirements and only use the parts of the functionality needed, which reduces bloating of the system.

Examples of API-first vendors include Commercetools and Elastic Path. However, please remember you will need technical developers to manage the implementation and updates to API-first integrations and functionality.

 

Consideration #6:
Hosting: Self-Hosted vs SaaS

What you need to know:
A self-hosted solution requires you to buy, download, and install the software on your servers and physical infrastructure (or private cloud hosted). A Software-as-a-Service(SaaS) solution provides you access to the software via the internet, usually licensed on a subscription basis.

When self-hosting is the right choice:

  1. You want to be in control of storing information on your onsite servers 
  2. You have a dedicated, expert data center administrators for infrastructure configuration and updates
  3. You want a high level of customization of the hosting environment
  4. You have the infrastructure or upfront capital to buy all the equipment needed for hosting.

Examples of self-hosted platforms include: Magento Open Source, WooCommerce, and OsCommerce. It’s important to note that with the level of control you receive, you will need to take on the responsibility for uptime, security, and scalability of the hosted infrastructure.

When Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) hosting is the right choice:

  1. You want a technical team from your vendor to handle all hosting, security, and maintenance
  2. You want on-demand scalability to adapt to peak demand periods on your site such as holiday shopping and new product launches.

Examples of SaaS vendors include: Shopify, BigCommerce, Elastic Path, and Salesforce Commerce Cloud. However, it is important to note most SaaS offerings are hosted in public cloud infrastructure such as AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud, and as reliable as those platforms are, your eCommerce SaaS vendor is subject to the availability of those cloud vendors.

 

Consideration #7:
Commercial Model: Vendor-supported vs open source

What you need to know:
A vendor-supported commercial model refers to when a software is developed, maintained, and supported by a commercial entity, for a licensing fee, in which the source code can’t be copied or modified. An open-source model refers to when software is developed through a collaborative effort, in which individuals can contribute to the final product and is self-maintained, and the software is freely available.

When a vendor-supported model is the right choice:

  1. You want complete support of the system handled by a 3rd party;
  2. You don’t want your source code to be easily changed or be susceptible to security vulnerabilities over time
  3. You want to easily ensure your business is compliant with industry regulations like HIPAA and ADA.

Examples of vendors that use this type of model include: Commercetools, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Elastic Path, and Shopify. It’s important to note that this supported model may cost more up-front, and you won’t be able to fork and customize the source code.

When an open-source model is the right choice:

  1. You have a digital maturity of Level 4
  2. You want complete control over your source code for editing and collaboration
  3. You want a community of developers constantly updating and helping with bug fixes.

Examples of open-source vendors include: Magento Community Edition, Saleor, and React Commerce. However, although it is free to get started, ongoing support and maintenance costs can get expensive. Also, teams need to take on the process of supporting your eCommerce system and stringing third-party applications into the open source frameworks, which can be quite intricate and require a team of expensive certified developers to assemble all the resources for a functioning digital commerce store.

 

Next Steps

We hope you found this Buyers’ Guide helpful. Now that you’re equipped with the top considerations for evaluating the various eCommerce software vendors in the market, we want to make sure you have all the information you need to understand if Elastic Path is the right eCommerce solution for your business.

Please feel free to book a meeting with one of our experts if you’re interested in learning more about:

  • Our pricing options
  • Specific details on how we compare against other vendors you may be evaluating, such as Commercetools
  • How to start a trial or POC
  • The back story of the Elastic Path cow bell :) 

We’d be happy to jump on a call and answer all your questions.