Optimization glossary

Ecommerce platform

What is an ecommerce platform?

An ecommerce platform is the content management system (CMS) and commerce engine websites use to manage catalogued products, register purchases and manage a users relationship with an online retailer.

It doesn't matter if your business is large or small, B2B or B2C, selling tangible goods or providing remote services. Companies need to meet their customers in the right place to increase their sales, and today's customers increasingly want to connect and shop online.

According to Statistica, 80% of Americans shopped online in 2020. As of March 2021, Pew Research noted that over 30% of Americans are online "constantly," meaning their attention has shifted away from their physical environment to the virtual world. This statistic is sure to climb in the next few years.

Successful companies incorporate ecommerce platforms into their business operations to meet consumers where they are. 

Key takeaways:

  • Defining an ecommerce platform 

  • Why you should choose an ecommerce platform

  • Three different types of ecommerce platforms

  • Four things to consider before selecting your ecommerce platform

Defining an ecommerce platform

An ecommerce platform is a software solution that allows businesses to centrally manage their virtual assets, omnichannel marketing, digitals sales and operations.

Platforms like Optimizely DXP offer powerful, cloud-based shopping features with prebuilt marketing, content, and sales frameworks that integrate seamlessly into existing workflows. Today's successful companies have switched to digital experience platforms (DXP) or agile content management systems (CMS) to centralize their marketing and sales processes. Companies using ecommerce platforms see increased efficiency return on investment (ROI).

You have three options for the best ecommerce platform

Choosing the proper foundation for your ecommerce website will have a significant impact on your business' growth potential, regardless of pricing. There are only a handful of options for building this kind of customization.

  • Select a proven ecommerce platform. The benefits of existing ecommerce platforms are enormous if you look at some great examples of successful online stores such as Shopify or even Amazon. The best platforms are cloud-based and offer built-in customer personalization. And they scale to your needs --- often making them more affordable than the other options.

  • Build your platform from scratch. This option is more feasible for the largest, most successful companies and yields the most customized functionality. Platforms are expensive to build and can be costly to run. Customized ecommerce platforms also require a trained DevOps team to maintain and upgrade as technology continues to evolve.

  • Use a plugin. CMS plugins may work for tiny businesses or those experimenting with ecommerce, but they are rarely an ideal solution. Plugins are limited in capability and cross-channel integration, and developers can suspend support at any time.

Established cloud-based ecommerce platforms such as DXPs and Agile CMSs are the best option for most companies. They allow small- and medium-sized businesses to participate and succeed in the digital landscape and are extensible to every company's needs.

The three platforms

Assuming an ecommerce platform is the best option for your company, there are three types of platforms to choose from:

  • Open-Source

  • SaaS (software as a service)

  • Headless commerce

Open-source ecommerce platform

An open-source ecommerce platform allows you to modify and control everything --- across the board. This option is excellent for tech-heavy companies with internal DevOps teams who can easily tweak open-source software to do their bidding. However, it's rarely a solution for small- and medium-sized businesses or those with no development team.

Software as a Service ecommerce platform

SaaS ecommerce platforms are effective for getting up and running quickly. You don't have to build or maintain software, because you rent your ecommerce platform from a provider.

You can still retain some flexibility for your in-house developers, too. A reputable SaaS ecommerce platform will come with an API library, so you can integrate your existing teams' tools to work with the SaaS ecommerce platform. Many allow you to modify and redesign the UX buildouts as well. Such systems are often called open SaaS ecommerce platforms.

Headless ecommerce platform

Headless ecommerce platforms are also called CaaS platforms. They organize and distribute content as a service (CaaS). Headless platforms decouple the shopping cart from the CMS completely. This decoupling offers several benefits:

  • Platform flexibility -- you won't be tied to a single, monolithic system

  • You can use APIs to set up a separate SaaS shopping cart

  • You are more flexible and open to front-end changes in the future

Many companies find that a headless ecommerce platform provides the best of both worlds. First, they control a monolithic, typically cloud-based, storage over their marketing, sales and product assets. Even better, businesses can pick and choose which front-end services to use and easily connect to them using APIs. If companies decide they want to change shopping cart services, they can switch easily, as they aren't tied to a monolithic, front-end and back-end SaaS.

Digital experience platforms (DXPs) and Agile CMSs (a form of headless CMS) are two types of headless ecommerce platforms that are gaining popularity among companies of all sizes for their flexibility.

Four attributes to consider when choosing an ecommerce platform

Picking an ecommerce platform is never easy. When considering your options, you need to keep four specific attributes in mind.

1. Budget for everything you need

One mistake many companies make is that they only budget for specific platform tasks without realizing the hidden costs of maintaining or offering ecommerce options. Ecommerce platforms require an investment upfront, and the costs can scale when they start increasing your market share.

If you decide to go with an open-source solution, for example, you'll end up paying for all of the following things out-of-pocket at some point -- likely upfront. Use a DXP or SaaS option, and the costs will scale along your growth, which is actually more affordable.

Determine costs and your budget for all the following:

  • Web design

  • Platform development and integration

  • Custom app creation

  • Cybersecurity

  • Monthly hosting

  • Maintenance

  • Licensing

2. Target market

Remember, the point of ecommerce platforms is to meet your market where they are --- online --- and make sales. You need to find a platform that makes it easy to target market your customers on the channels they use. Omnichannel delivery is crucial.

3. Scalability

How easily will a chosen platform scale with your business? Perhaps one option is more affordable at your company's current size and will allow for scalability as you grow. An ecommerce platform that doesn't scale affordably is one you should avoid!

4. Provider's customer service options

If you decide to use a SaaS or headless ecommerce platform, choose a company with reliable customer service and maintenance options. If a problem arises, you want to be sure your company gets help to respond to the situation as quickly as possible. Customer service trickles down to your team and customers. Choose a well-known, reputable and proven provider.