E-commerce platforms; everything you need to know | Den Creative

Knowledge sharing

17/08/2021

E-commerce platforms; everything you need to know

E-commerce can feel like a minefield, especially if you’re new to it, but it doesn’t have to be. In this article, Product Owner, Jordan, takes us step-by-step through all things e-commerce.

Time taken to read blog post

8 mins

The term ‘e-commerce’ has been around for quite a while now, in fact, since the 1970’s when Michael Aldrich created an online transaction service for TV sales. The e-commerce world has been booming for the last 20 years with the eBay’s and Amazon’s sparking a widespread trend away from traditional brick & mortar retail and has become an essential part of the worldwide retail framework. In part spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses are recognising the need to invest in their online offerings and to scale existing sites to meet surging online demand. In this article, we outline what an e-commerce platform is, the types available and different things to consider when choosing which to go with.

So let’s start with basics – What even is an e-commerce platform?

The term e-commerce is thrown around a lot, but it’s simply the selling and buying of goods and services over the internet. By allowing businesses to sell, market and manage their products online, an e-commerce platform means businesses can reach more customers than if they were to have brick-and-mortar shops.

So now that we understand what an e-commerce platform is, what’s next? What options are there out there? Below you’ll find a whistle-stop tour of the different types of e-commerce platforms and a look at what you need to keep in mind when deciding which one you go with.

What are the different types of e-commerce platforms?

Subscription-based services
Designed with the sole intention of making e-commerce sites as easy as possible to build and maintain, SaaS e-commerce platforms are subscription-based providers of pre-built features at a low initial setup cost. They, therefore, provide an efficient and scalable solution for businesses to gain access to online sales as quickly as possible without huge costs. However, this does come with limitations as the building blocks cannot be fully customised to fit all specific requirements. These types of platforms use third-party apps to enable developers to build sites, but the actual ‘code’ to build these features is closed off except for small areas of customisation.

Positives:
– Quick and efficient to build and manage
– Low setup costs

Negatives:
– Narrow feature boundaries
– Increasing complexity and cost as the site scales

Examples of subscription-based e-commerce platforms:
Shopify
BigCommerce
WooCommerce

Bespoke frameworks
Truly custom platforms provide the basic architecture by which developers can create detailed and complex e-commerce solutions, which means that all features and requirements must be built from the ground up. These platforms allow sites to be tailored to exact requirements and create a feature-rich and highly customisable solution. These bespoke solutions take longer to build and require greater expertise in implementing requirements than Saas platforms. This can increase initial build and setup costs and will also extend the time it takes to get your store live.

Positives:
– Fully customisable
– Scalable and futureproof

Negatives:
– Everything has to be built from the ground up
– High up-front costs

Examples of bespoke e-commerce platforms:
Magento
Laravel

At Den, we have built many e-commerce websites for our clients (Buster + Punch, Nourish, NICE Wine and JEALOUS) and we always follow a defined process when selecting an e-commerce platform. The first step in this process is always to sit down with our clients and understand their specific circumstances, this includes factors like budget, time and levels of unique customer journeys, as well as their future aspirations. Let’s take a deeper dive into each factor and how they affect which platform to go with.

How to decide which type of platform to go with?

Time to market
Some e-commerce platforms take longer to build than others so how much time you have will partly determine which type of platform you should go with. If you have less time, it’s likely you’ll want to go with a pure SaaS platform such as Shopify and BigCommerce as these enable fast and efficient development of the common features you would expect from a standard e-commerce site. Whereas, if time is on your side, a bespoke platform may be an option. 

Initial setup cost
For many, the biggest benefit of SaaS platforms is their low initial setup costs. Given their reliance on ‘plugins’ or third-party applications that make up the bulk of expenses, purchasing the original platform falls in the low hundreds of pounds. This is important for those on a tight budget, but also for those who are conscious of the initial investment required. Although bespoke solutions are not expensive in their initial implementation cost, they do require more development so the cost of that needs to be taken into consideration.

Maintenance cost
With a subscription-based platform, there are various costs in running the site, including third-party applications and platform subscription costs. These costs can quickly escalate if your site requires lots of plugins, due to both the cost of the plugins and the time required to maintain them all. So, while a bespoke platform may cost more due to more development time, the expense may be balanced with the reduced cost in the long-term as they don’t require ongoing subscription costs nor as much ongoing maintenance once live.

Scalability
Pure SaaS platforms are designed with growth in mind. They are good solutions for sites that need to handle a fast increase in purchases and customer traffic. Platforms like Shopify enable businesses to have faith in their site’s ability to handle surges like for example on Black Friday. However, SaaS platforms do have a threshold for functionality, so while they’re great for a fast-scaling business, you could hit a point where you can’t add certain functionality that you realise you need (such as white-labelling your store for instance), meaning you might have to start again but on a bespoke platform. On the other hand, while a more bespoke system can certainly handle these waves in traffic, they are more suited to growing and scaling at a slower rate, as they are built with current traffic levels in mind. So, if you plan to see sustainable growth in traffic over let’s say 5 years, a bespoke solution could be a good option as you can then optimise for each traffic level. 

Security
For all of our clients, the security of their site is of great importance. SaaS platforms successfully mitigate against security issues using out of the box solutions. With a bespoke build, you can have greater specific protection, but bespoke security systems do require more skilled and competent developers for setup and maintenance. The key thing with security is that no solution or platform should ever compromise security, so although comparisons can be drawn, an insecure solution shouldn’t be on the list to choose from.

Control and customisation
The biggest benefit of bespoke e-commerce platforms is how customisable they are. While SaaS platforms give a range of pre-built features for you to use and customise to some extent, bespoke solutions, like Laravel, can be designed completely to your business and customer needs. This level of customisation doesn’t just apply to the customer-facing side of the site, but also the administrative area, where you track orders, stock and fulfilment. With no limits to the levels of automation and digital innovation that can be built into bespoke solutions, you can control everything from fine-tuning customer journeys to optimised stock management.

As well as customisation, the scale and longevity of your site can be much better handled via a bespoke solution. Sites that are designed to grow and develop with your company are most often bespoke builds, as they allow for greater room for optimisation and enhancements over time. With SaaS platforms, it is more difficult to add features or optimise existing features.

Payments and checkout
Designing a site with a bespoke platform means you can fully customise the checkout and payment processes. With the basic Shopify system, a pure SaaS platform, the checkout page is a standard and generally uneditable, page that all Shopify-built sites use. This can be a drawback to those who want their brand and products to be front and centre in the buying process [editable with Shopify plus]; it also limits the available payment methods that a particular customer can use, as Shopify and others require you to use their in-house payment methods. However, the setup and use of this checkout procedure for both you and the customer is as easy and straightforward as they come. The more bespoke you go, the more customisations there are available to you, allowing you, for example, to integrate fraud services into your system. This also unveils other payment providers such as Stripe, as well as invoicing capabilities. But as with many of the benefits of bespoke builds, this takes time to design and build, increasing timelines and budget for initial setup.

Rounding up

We’ve outlined what we mean when we talk about an e-commerce platform, we’ve looked at the different types of platforms, from a pure Saas platform like Shopify all the way to a fully customisable framework like Laravel, and we’ve analysed the factors worth considering when deciding which to go with.

E-commerce can feel like a minefield, especially if you’re new to it, but it doesn’t have to. We take a lot of care and time during our discovery phase, working closely with our clients to understand the business needs and, most importantly, their users’ needs, before helping them to choose the right platform to deliver for them. If you have any questions for us or would like to have a chat about an e-commerce platform, don’t be a stranger! Get in touch with us here.

Jordan Coles

Product Owner

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