The US economy is robust, unemployment is at a 17-year low, federal corporate taxes have been slashed, and the stock market continues to break new record highs.
So, at long last, we are in an era when America’s online businesses can ‘breathe easy’ and ‘enjoy the prosperity ride’, right? Wrong.
Despite all the positive economic news, US businesses discover daily that competition for customers remains fierce; and while the Internet has created a multi-billion dollar marketplace for products and services, even in a booming economy, companies competing in the eCommerce space remain on the forefront of the ongoing fierce competition to attract, and retain, customers.
To further delineate themselves from their competitors, eCommerce companies continue to find new, innovative ways to offer their products and services; as the proliferation of smart phones has grown—a 2016 Google survey found that ‘mobile’ surpassed desktop as the preferred method for product searches—the importance of successful, user-friendly eCommerce platforms has also increased.
Understanding eCommerce Platforms & Their Role in Online Prosperity
Let’s begin by defining the terminology: an eCommerce platform is essentially a software application allowing online companies to manage their operations, as well as their organization’s sales and website; given those responsibilities, it’s self-evident how critically important a role eCommerce platforms play in determining the long-term success—or failure—of online businesses.
While there is the option for online companies to establish a ‘self-hosting’ eCommerce platform, doing so can be a very complex—and expensive—endeavor; and while self-hosting eCommerce platforms can provide the benefits of greater control over many aspects of conducting business online, over the long term, the website maintenance and software updates required for a self-hosting platform can add considerable costs.
As a result, many online businesses rely on ‘hosted’ eCommerce platforms—also often referred to as Software-as-a-service, or SaaS.
SaaS platforms help simplify conducting business online, and can also greatly reduce the costs involved with everything from data security and software updates to a host of other issues inherent with eCommerce; some have compared the choice between self-hosting eCommerce platforms and SaaS platforms to choosing between owning and renting your home.
As a homeowner, if your roof leaks, you are solely responsible for paying for its repair, while a renter can call either a landlord or superintendent with the expectation repair costs will be absorbed as part of the lease agreement. Similarly, choosing an eCommerce platform that’s ‘hosted’ places the burden of costs related to repairs, maintenance and software updates on the shoulders of the ‘rented’ platform, rather than the online company.
Of course, the choice of self-hosted vs. hosted platforms also depends on individual company and its history.
“Your eCommerce platform is effectively the foundation, and the intelligence, of your business, and choosing the right one is going to reward you for years to come,” explains Curt Fignar, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of TF Source, a leading online company specializing in the buying and selling of action figurines and collectibles. “Choosing the wrong platform could mean you’re going to have lots of challenges on an almost daily basis.”
Peter Marlenga agrees.
“Selecting the right (eCommerce ) platform is vitally important to the overall success of an online business,” explains Marlenga, Director of Operations for TechArmor, an eCommerce business specializing in providing protection for smart phones and similar devices. “Understanding the ‘ins and outs’ of each type of platform—and what they can do for you—is an important part of the decision making process (of choosing a platform).
“You also need to be honest about what your business’ needs are, both now—and in the future,” adds Marlenga. “Switching between eCommerce platforms can be expensive, and the learning curve in doing so can also be steep; that’s why taking the time to do research before making this decision is important, as it can really affect your company’s bottom line.”
Choosing an eCommerce Platform: A Critical Business Decision
For eCommerce companies, the overriding questions then becomes: what constitutes a high quality eCommerce platform, and what criteria should be used in choosing an eCommerce platform best suited for a company’s particular needs?
The key questions online businesses should likely consider when choosing an eCommerce platform include:
The ability to integrate with social media platforms: As of last fall, Facebook alone boasted in excess of 2 billion monthly active users. When one factors in other popular social media sites, including—but not limited to—Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube among others, the importance of social media integration for an eCommerce platform becomes self-evident.
Platform Limitations: Of course, the goal for any successful business is growth; attracting new customers is a universally accepted principal for achieving success. In order for that to occur, the eCommerce platform selected to partner with an online business must have the capacity to handle–and process–an increasing number of both clients and new products. Ensuring the platform will be able to handle all of your products and clients, both now and in the future, is an important factor when choosing an eCommerce platform.
User Friendliness/Customer Support: State-of-the-art technology is both desirable and important in an era of ever-evolving IT advances. However, study after study confirms that—even in 2018—for many customers there is no substitute for being able to speak to a ‘live person’ when addressing questions about a product/service; therefore, online businesses need to ask if their eCommerce platform outsources its customer service; in addition, it’s important to know if the platform offers the opportunity for customers to actually speak to someone who can address their concerns.
“In selecting an eCommerce platform, you want to ask ‘does it fit our current needs?’,” says TechArmor’s Peter Marlenga. “For example, if you want your platform to be able to list your product information onto Amazon, you’ll need to make certain that feature is included. Also, you’ll want to ask if the platform is adaptable to your potential future needs. If, for example, you think you’ll be moving to new accounting software, you need to ensure your platform is compatible with multiple accounting software.”
Marlenga adds that an eCommerce platform should also reflect the business’ knowledge and resources.
“If you have an excellent in-house computer programmer—or a reasonably priced offshore one—then utilizing the Magento platform might work best, as you already have the resources to deal with the coding requirements,” he says. “If not, however, you may want to select a platform such as Shopify, or another hosted platform, in order to ensure more user friendly design.”
Responsibility for eCommerce Success Still Rests With Management
While technology continues to evolve—and with it, more sophisticated eCommerce platform options—ultimately, the responsibility for both the selection and the proper utilization of the eCommerce platform remains that of the online company itself. Consistent monitoring of both the platform—and the evolving eCommerce needs of an individual business—remains the sole responsibility of those operating the online company.
“I believe that constantly evolving, and building on the foundation we have already built, are our primary responsibilities,” says TF Source’s Curt Fignar. “In the case of our company, we’ve invested heavily–over the long term–in building out a platform that is highly customized and customizable, that is adaptable as the market changes, but also adds high levels of integration and automation to ensure the platform does the ‘heavily lifting’ for us. As a result, we can then focus on what matters most–which is being focused on our business, and its growth.”
In much the same way that a booming economy may provide an opportunity for eCommerce success, choosing an eCommerce platform that fits your business needs also provides an “on-ramp” for the road to online prosperity.
But at the end of the day, maximizing the ROI of any eCommerce platform still remains the responsibility of those charged with managing the company’s day-to-day operations.
Even in an era of economic prosperity—and constantly evolving high tech—that’s one business principle that remains unchanged.