eCommerce Platforms In 2021 - Where We Are Headed

2020 was a year like no other for anyone involved in eCommerce. The business challenges were unique and the rate of technical change sped up. Between the impact and challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, increased competition, emergence of new technologies, and rate of investment and adoption, the momentum has been staggering.

Over the course of 2020, we gave more demos and presentations of our Slatwall Commerce platform than ever before. Not to mention having the chance to share its robust set of features and functionality at various virtual conferences across the world, something we probably wouldn't have been planning to do before the pandemic. Despite being a difficult year, going virtual presented a lot of new opportunities.  

So, what did we learn during all of this? Quite a bit. Here are some of the noteworthy comments and questions that made an impression on us and our thoughts on what businesses should be paying attention to when considering eCommerce platforms and digital transformation in the new year.

The Mad Scramble

What we heard: “I can no longer wait on this!”

This statement was uttered during a Slatwall Commerce demo we gave early last year. Was it panicked? Not really, but the speaker had come to the realization that now is the time to make a significant investment towards a new eCommerce platform and services or risk falling behind. 

What we’ve witnessed over the past 11 months is that the rate of evolution has continued at warp speed. While change is always inevitable, COVID-19 pushed the gas pedal down a little further. Whether on a local or global level, an entirely new kind of competition is on the horizon for a number of businesses. Companies are scrambling to get online or reinvest resources into their storefronts. Simply being online is no longer enough, your team actually has to be good at it. Beyond the competitive landscape for merchants, ever-changing customer expectations are having a huge impact on what businesses need. Emphasis continues to need to be placed on matching the standard customer experiences. 

Adjusting for these changes will require agile technology that allows businesses to level up their online commerce marketing and operations. With more competition in the marketplace, taking a wait-and-see approach is not an option and will ultimately result in businesses falling behind at a rapid rate.

eCommerce Investment Is A Balance

What we heard: “Well, the developers were sold, but marketing…not so much.”

It’s the swinging pendulum of eCommerce platform happiness. Can all stakeholders be satisfied with a single platform? It’s usually an ongoing tug-of-war between development and technology teams and their colleagues in marketing and business operations over who controls the eCommerce decision-making process. It’s something we hear a lot.

So, how can an eCommerce platform work for all parties involved? By being flexible, highly efficient, stable, and secure. Headless commerce platforms started to gain traction at enterprises because they promised a more flexible approach to the build and deployment of storefronts. More options and creative control over the design and implementation - less restriction and more choice. 

Sounds great, right? Well, sort of. Growth and knowledge around the headless commerce platform market have happened rapidly. Of course, the variety of implementation options and services has created confusion about the benefits and downsides of the new platform services. Headless commerce platforms that are built solely for the developer and technical teams mean that the requirements of the business and marketing users are overlooked. The lack of features means that marketers have to search out and find additional marketing tools that mean additional expenses or compromises. 

Going forward, enterprises have to find platforms that provide a full suite of tools to begin running their businesses but still give creative control and flexibility for building. Integrating multiple services for marketing and business operations is always an option, but businesses need a core level of features and functionality to maintain and grow their business. Going forward best-of-breed platforms have to deliver features that give both teams to be successful out of the box.

Aim For Smaller Improvements

What we heard: “There’s so much to get done. Where do we start?”

We see it all the time. There’s a tendency to want to go live in a big way - whether you’re throwing a birthday party, launching a rocket into space, or building a new storefront. We get it - it just feels better. A step-by-step approach to improving eCommerce performance isn’t as exciting and feels less gratifying, but, from our experience, leads to much more successful project implementations in the long run. 

Given the flood of new storefronts and businesses into digital commerce, there’s the added challenge of adapting quickly to be better than the rest, whether that’s delivering better customer service experiences or selling. 

New microservices across the eCommerce landscape now offer the ability for businesses to connect services together to build a custom technology stack like never before. In addition, there are ever more options for the commerce services that can be used as well a growing number of options to build and deploy storefronts. These new microservices allow businesses to strategically improve aspects of their storefronts or operations without the need to upgrade the entire commerce service. It’s a lot to think about. 

But, we can’t say it enough: Plan. Launch. Measure. Over and over. The process of prioritizing and keeping the to-do list smaller and more manageable isn’t particularly fun. It means having to say “No” or “Not right now” a lot. But it works.

eCommerce Partnerships Are Important

What we heard: “There are so many services, how can we connect them all?”

Right now, in addition to choosing the right technologies that correspond with your business outcomes, it’s important to consider how these services will be connected with each other. On the one hand, this has gotten easier, thanks to APIs, and according to a recent study by Gartner, “By 2023, 50% of new commerce capabilities will be incorporated as API-centric SaaS services.” 

There are always two truths to the eCommerce development and build process. First, there are going to be integrations between a storefront and some external services (payment, shipping, back office - it’s universal), and secondly, getting those integrations to work together can be challenging, whether it’s reliability, speed, data ownership or any number of other items.  

Going forward, any service or platform that’s connecting into an organization's commerce ecosystem has to work well as a smaller piece of a larger solution. Rarely is an organization’s entire technology stack in need of replacement - usually, there are links that are weaker than others, or just missing entirely. Being able to choose which services to add or replace will be key. Whether it’s a customer-facing service or a back-office integration, the value of being open to connection or integration cannot be overemphasized. Mature or legacy solutions that are holding back an enterprise carry considerable costs in terms of efficiency and growth into the future.

Wrapping Up

We agree with the majority of analysts that the pace of change is going to continue to grow. More businesses are moving larger pieces of their business online and relying on a broader set of tools and services. The differentiator will continue to be the strategic application of eCommerce, and related technologies into the business to deliver exceptional experiences for their customers and ensure they have access to everything they need, including smarter product selection, competitive pricing, customer service experience, and communication.

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