Developers vet e-commerce platforms, with many to choose from

With a growing variety of e-commerce platforms available, channel firms in the business of e-commerce websites seek the one that suits them best.

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Channel companies in the business of building e-commerce websites face a staggering array of choices when it comes to platforms for creating online stores.

Web designers and developers typically use e-commerce platforms to build stores, as opposed to creating stores entirely from scratch. An e-commerce platform includes website templates that can be modified to suit a customer, a set of developer tools and tools for managing the site once it's in place. Tom Robertshaw, co-founder of Meanbee Ltd. and an e-commerce speaker and researcher, identified 77 such platforms in his April 2014 eCommerce Survey. Twenty-eight of those platforms were new to this year's survey.

Companies weigh a number of factors when selecting tools. The ability to readily customize a platform to create individualized storefronts is a key selection criterion. They also value the developer ecosystem around a given platform. Third-party extensions can shorten development time, which means customers can ring up e-commerce sales sooner. The sophistication of a given e-commerce project may also influence tool selection.

Other considerations: e-commerce platforms come in freely available open source versions, commercial open source versions and closed-source commercial versions. Some open source vendors offer both freely available and commercial versions of their software. In addition, some platforms are hosted in the cloud, while others call for the developer to make hosting arrangements.

Finding the right tool

Bluefish Digital, a Web designer and developer based in Beverly, Massachusetts, has tested different e-commerce platforms in recent years. Jeremy France, partner and creative director at Bluefish, said the company got into e-commerce using WordPress and add-on functionality, but wasn't happy with that approach and decided to look elsewhere. He said the company also used AspDotNetStorefront, but found it expensive to develop with. Bluefish then came across Shopify Inc.'s e-commerce platform. The company began working with the platform about two years ago.

We prefer to be a master of one [e-commerce] platform as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades.
Jon Woodallmanaging director, Space 48

"We built one store on [Shopify] and fell in love very quickly with it," France said. "Any time anybody asks for e-commerce -- certainly in our target market -- Shopify is almost always the solution."

Bluefish focuses on small and medium-sized businesses of up to $20 million in revenue. Clothing and footwear are important e-commerce niches for the company.

France cited simplicity of development as one of Shopify's attractions. He said Shopify's Liquid programming language is easy to learn. Liquid is used in conjunction with HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), according to Shopify.

"Our developers know CSS and HTML," France noted. "Liquid is a pretty quick learn, and we get people up to speed quickly."

Roman Yoffe, managing director at Miami-based Web design firm Absolute Web Services, has similar views regarding CS-Cart e-commerce software. The company recently used the platform to create a merchandise section for the Mike&Gian comedy website. Absolute Web Services built a WordPress-based site for Mike&Gian and integrated the merchandising portion into the overall design.

"In general, CS-Cart is very clean and an easy-to-customize framework," Yoffe said. "That is the biggest advantage of working with it."

The ease-of-use factor has a customer dimension as well. The Web integrator eventually hands over a new site to the online merchant, so uncomplicated administration becomes critical.

France said his customers like Shopify's interface for managing their stores. "I forget, as the person working under the hood all the time, that once you are just using it, it is really pretty simple," he noted.

Mike Ray, president of Harbor Trading Co., hired Bluefish to help create websites selling Western boots. A recent example is the Austin Jolene site, which focuses on women's boots. Ray described the Shopify platform as relatively intuitive, noting that the platform makes it easy to import and export data. He said he needed just a small amount of training to learn the import/export function.

CS-Cart, meanwhile, makes it simple for an e-commerce site's owner to manage products and catalogs, Yoffe said. He noted that the company provides two hours of training to customers via remote desktop or in Absolute Web Services' office if the customer is local.

A platform's feature set also plays a role in selection. Space 48, an e-commerce consulting company based in Warrington, England, focuses on Magento Inc.'s e-commerce platform. Jon Woodall, Space 48's managing director, said his company has been working with Magento since late 2008 and became a partner in 2010.

Woodall cited Magento's "feature-rich platform" as among its main benefits and also pointed to the product's third-party support. A number of developers make add-ons and extensions for Magento's platform, providing capabilities such as marketing automation. Woodall said the ability to leverage extensions speeds implementation, which means customers can "start earning sooner rather than later."

Absolute Web Services' Yoffe called Magento's network of extensions a "huge advantage" for the platform. Instead of developing a rewards program add-on from scratch, a Web designer can acquire a rewards program extension and customize it, he noted. The availability of extensions, however, may sway Absolute Web Services to use Magento instead of CS-Cart, which Yoffe said is less cumbersome and more user-friendly than Magento.

A customer, for instance, may want to integrate its e-commerce site with a warehouse or fulfillment house and need to sync inventory management. Magento, Yoffe said, has many extensions that make it easier to integrate with warehouses and inventory systems.

A Web designer may employ a couple of e-commerce platforms depending on a customer's circumstances. But for Yoffe, the main idea is to use a widely adopted framework as opposed to a custom e-commerce framework. He said he tells clients that buying a storefront solution based on a developer's own framework makes them dependent on the developer's staff, since only they know how to work with it.

A platform with broad developer support, however, gives a customer the ability to switch to another Web designer.

Platform philosophy

Web designers working in e-commerce tend to believe the fewer platforms, the better to maintain a sharp focus.

"We prefer to be a master of one platform as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades," Woodall said.

He said making Magento Space 48's top platform makes training and collaboration easier. For a 20-person company of e-commerce specialists, PHP developers, project managers, account managers and marketing personnel, it is more practical to focus on one platform as opposed to many, he suggested.

The emphasis on Magento, however, has made Space 48 something of a target for recruiters.

"Magento is a hot skill right now, and lots of people want Magento developers," Woodall said. "That is an issue we are having."

On the other hand, Space 48's status as a Magento Gold Partner helps it land deals. That was the case for the company's project with Better Bathrooms, an independent bathroom retailer in the United Kingdom. The retailer hired Space 48 to redevelop the company's website and has retained the company to perform additional work.

Woodall said Better Bathrooms' site had been in use for more than 10 years.

"It had evolved to the point where it was a bespoke platform, which was a bit of risk for them," he noted. "The risk of the previous bespoke platform was that the majority of knowledge around the technical aspect of the site was held by one person. They had concerns around this and obviously identified it as a risk. With their ambitious growth plans, this had to be addressed. Magento was the perfect solution, and Space 48 offered the technical skills needed to replatform to Magento. Magento helps [Better Bathrooms] future-proof their e-commerce plans as it is better supported by developers."

Moving the e-commerce site to Magento, however, gave the client more security, Woodall added.

This was first published in June 2014

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