Why shouldn't you choose an ecommerce platform based on features?
When you start looking into ecommerce platforms, you'll quickly find that the number of options can be staggering. You'll probably compare features and functionality to come up with a shortlist. Then, it's tempting to take that shortlist and start looking at features side-by-side. While this strategy works well for most goods, comparing ecommerce platforms in this way might not be as beneficial as it seems. Let me explain.
Comparing features seems logical, but it's backwards
Looking at features is a great way to narrow down your list of choices. It lets you quickly see what a platform can do, so you can quickly weed out options that don't fulfill your most basic requirements. However, if you're ultimately only looking at platform features to make your final decision, you're going about it backwards, putting the cart before the horse. What a platform can do vs. what your business needs the platform to do can make all of the difference.
What is it that your business needs to be at its best?
Most ecommerce platforms will perform the most basic requirement of your business, selling something, but don't assume that it will do everything you need. The first question you should be asking yourself before you even start looking at platforms has to be about business needs and objectives. That question leads to more profound questions. Dig into your business requirements and try to answer these questions:
What is the best way to sell your product?
Combining content and commerce in an unrestricted way is a gem that you might only find in the open-source ecommerce platform market. If you're selling large quantities of different items (i.e. Amazon), this is the most standard type of ecommerce business. Almost all platforms will support this. However, if you only sell a handful of unique products (i.e. Apple), being able to tailor your product pages and customer experience might be an essential requirement. If that's the case, most out-of-the-box SaaS ecommerce platforms won't give you the ability to customize the product page in the way you want.
The example above is for a physical product, but maybe you're selling (or reselling) digital goods, subscriptions, licenses, tickets, services, etc. Whatever it is that you intend to sell, determine what you need to do to sell it best.
How do you manage your inventory?
Inventory (or stock) management can be pretty complicated. Most platforms assume that you have a single storage space or warehouse that all of your products are coming from, but what happens when you have multiple stores or warehouses in your country or around the globe. Do you need (or want) any of the platforms you're considering to support this? Do you need to move inventory from one warehouse to another? Do you want your platform to automatically choose which warehouse the stock pulls from for fulfillment? The larger your business, the more critical these questions, and more, become.
Even if your inventory situation is more simplistic, what do you want your platform to do when an item is low on stock or out of stock? Do you have some items that are always in stock? Do you want your system to order more stock at a certain stock level automatically? Do you want to accept back orders? Do you wish to receive pre-orders? So many possibilities, but what is important to you?
How do you plan to fulfill orders?
Managing orders and order fulfillment can be one of your business's most time-consuming aspects, and time is money. So when an order comes in and needs to be fulfilled, what is the ideal process you need to follow? How many steps are involved in the process? Will you or a team handle the order, and do you need to update the customer or notify anyone at specific stages? Would you like shipping labels automatically available to print? What other parts of your fulfillment process could be automated, and does the platform you consider support that?
Do you also sell your products in-store? If you don't currently, will you want to?
You may be looking to access a new revenue stream by taking your existing business online. Or, maybe you're strictly selling online for now, but you want to leave the door open to potentially sell in physical locations, be it a storefront, market or tradeshow. In either case, the ecommerce platform you selected could ultimately become the single platform that runs both your online and offline stores, keeping order history, customers, inventory and everything else contained in one place.
Point of sale and ecommerce is something that can separate one platform from the next. Some platforms don't offer offline components, while others provide a completely integrated set of tools. Even more support 3rd-party integrations to varying degrees. Depending on your requirements, this can make or break your platform choice.
Where else do you want to sell?
Do you also want to sell your products on Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Google, etc.? The list goes on. You might only focus on selling on your website now, but do you plan to expand your reach to other online marketplaces in the future. Do the platforms you're considering support this? What does that look like?
What parts of your business can you automate?
One of the most underrated aspects of ecommerce is business automation. Inventory and supply management, shipping and fulfillment, accounting, marketing, customer service, content creation, the list goes on. How much of your business can be automated by software in an ideal situation? Do any of the platforms you're considering support this.
The second part of this is: Do you use any antiquated systems critical to running your business? Sometimes, instead of learning a new system, it might make more sense to somehow integrate that system into your ecommerce platform. Not all platforms will support this kind of custom integration, but some will.
How would you prefer to spend your money?
Ecommerce platforms and fees are an interesting topic because they're all over the map. There's no single consensus on what a platform is worth, so fees that you may or may not pay will vary significantly between each platform. You're going to have to spend money, so you are generally looking at one of the following scenarios when it comes to fees.
Fully managed SaaS platforms
These are ecommerce platform services where you sign up for an account and then start using the service. Typically, these platforms are quick to get up and running and come with a usage fee. This fee might be a monthly recurring cost or a transaction fee. Usually, the more business you do, the higher the service tier you need. Over time, your operating costs to use the service can be pretty significant. Many SaaS platforms are pretty rigid in what you can do with them, but they are very user-friendly and suitable for your typical, best-practice online store. On the other side, atypical functionality might be impossible to achieve.
Open source platforms
Instead of paying a usage fee, open source ecommerce platforms are available for free. However, you would need to host the platform yourself and pay regular business fees for taking payments and whatnot. You also are likely to pay an agency or in-house development team to get your store up and running and maintained. This can be an attractive option if you want to own your software and control what it can and can't do. By diverting usage fees to custom development, this is the best option for moulding your platform to your business, not the other way around.
Is custom functionality important to your business?
Going along with business automation and SaaS vs. open source platforms, how important is it that you can build and innovate custom functionality to your business. This question has some significance because if you plan to spend your money on custom development, you want to make sure that the architecture of the platforms you're considering is modern and capable of doing what you need them to do.
What should your customer experience look like?
So far, this article has only talked about your business, but it's also important to consider your customers and what you want their experience to be when using the platform. What kind of reporting and analytics can you get about your customer's habits from any given platform? Can you quickly A/B test promotions and offers? Can you integrate marketing tools? Can you personalize emails and other communications? Is the platform fast? Do you want to offer tailored rewards or give points for shopping?
Lately, there has been a lot of talk on using an ecommerce platform headlessly. This basically means that the management of your store is all done in a back-end interface, but the front-end public-facing side of your site is completely separate, using a front-end framework such as React or Angular. This might not be so important for your website per se, but if you also might want to build a mobile app that pulls in content from your ecommerce platform, then this IS important to you. Your customer experience should be seamless across all touchpoints, so the ability to access their cart and other information between website and phone app is the way of the future.
How important is content to your marketing?
Another important alternate point to consider is how important content (not just products) is to your business marketing. There's this whole concept of content+commerce where there is deeper integration between the marketing content you produce for your business and how it ties in with your products on your website elsewhere. Companies like Apple and Fitbit do this well, where instead of just selling you a product, they're selling a lifestyle that their product fits into. To support this, they are content-heavy and make you want to strive for that lifestyle. A robust blog, customer stories, how-to or interest-based content, special events and giveaways, product announcements, etc. Suppose you want your company image, marketing and customer experience to be more than just a product or service. In that case, you'll want to make sure that the platform you choose can provide the type of additional content that you need to make that happen.
Bringing it all together
Bringing this topic back to the beginning, I think you see now why you shouldn't choose an ecommerce platform based on features alone. Comparing feature sheets side by side will only give you part of the overall picture. To honestly know what platform to choose, you need to know your business and your ambitions in as much detail as possible so that you can pick the commerce architecture that suits your business best, not the other way around. Simply put, the success of your business depends on how well you can execute your strategy. Do your due diligence now and find the best architecture for your business because choosing the right platform based on your desired architecture can save you replatforming costs down the road.