E-Commerce Platforms: Buy vs. Build
It’s still tempting to fall into the custom-build line of thinking when scaling an e-commerce channel. Why? Well, we commonly hear that one’s business is just too complicated or unique for a platform out of the box. Or, there’s the strong influence of organizational pride or temptation from sunk cost in the “proprietary” system.
Don’t fall into these traps. In today’s world, there is simply no need to build e-commerce solutions from scratch. There are many options that are readily available and proven to scale.
Why Buy vs Build?
Businesses generally aren’t that special. The Pareto principle (or “80/20 rule”) applies here. In our experience in serving and building enterprises, businesses are fairly similar in their processes and supply chains. We’ve found that any reputable and proven software solution has been engineered to solve most of the business needs out of the box. For the small number of actual idiosyncrasies in a business – say 20% – these enterprise platforms have enough extensible and customizable components to answer the call.
Off-the-shelf then becomes a compelling value proposition that allows an expert team to focus on the 20% of the “hard stuff” instead of wasting resources in reinventing features and functionality that are readily available. Even better, we find the focus on this 20% of the equation actually creates 80% of an e-commerce channel’s distinct value. Strategic efforts here bolster mechanics that help differentiate the user experience, mine customer insights, deploy targeted marketing, improve retention and maximize operational efficiencies.
Every custom line of code requires a lifetime of internal support and limited resources for maintenance. It becomes a black box over time, beholden to tribal knowledge and perpetuation when faced with inevitable maintenance and improvement opportunities. Custom systems significantly restrict agility and available options as technology and business need change. Instead, when a business chooses to “buy versus build” their platform, they get the benefit of millions of dollars of annual R&D by the publisher and/or 3rd party market for little or no additional cost. And an army of contract support resources open to a myriad of options.
Full-stack e-commerce platforms can be either total commerce-in-box solutions to get you up and running super-fast, or they can be hybrid, pairing a core commerce engine with a separate digital experience or web content management platform acting as the presentation layer.
There are a core set of features that come native in any e-commerce solution including but not limited to: customizable catalog, skin-able themed user interface, shopping cart, merchant account integration, purchase confirmation, shipping and tax integration, ERP integration, extensive canned and ad-hoc reporting, scalable to support thousands of SKUs and thousands of concurrent user sessions.
The only real benefit of building your own is the lack of a licensing cost. However, the total cost of ownership of maintaining an own-built platform and keeping it up to consumer expectations is significant enough to outweigh the licensing costs.
Even if you have a very niche need with a propensity for building your own technology, you can pick a headless commerce platform and then “build-your-own” user experience for it.
Headless commerce is a clean separation of a website’s front end from the back end, allowing both to operate independently of one another. By using commerce APIs to deliver services between the two halves, this improves flexibility to power a wide range of omnichannel scenarios.
We urge clients to keep their expert focus on building the aspects (20%) that truly drive differentiation and value (80%), rather than reinventing the optimized staples of an off-the-shelf e-commerce platform. So, go give it 20%!