Sunday, March 13, 2011

Building an Online Shopping Center - What E-commerce Platform Is The Best For Me?

There are bunch of nice-looking off-the-shelf open source solutions for those planning to put up their own online shopping website for their customers. There's X-Cart, ZenCart, OsCommerce, PrestaShop, Magento and many more. But, have you ever seen a medium to large internet retailer or enterprise use those in spite of the promise perhaps of a better look-and-feel and user experience?

The answer, NO, and if you do see one, it would most probably have been heavily modified. These large enterprises usually settle for expensive yet rock-solid proprietary software (although ironically, many are probably built from open source technologies) or have built / maintain their own e-commerce platform.

But why? The reason for that is simple. In terms of IT architecture, the ones which I mentioned above are more or less designed for individuals and SMEs, nothing more. Therefore, when used on a grand scale, a wide variety of issues show up because they weren't intended for such in the first place. They are especially problematic on components such as search, navigation, catalog management, scalability, performance and integrations. But, if you think your product catalog won't go beyond 10,000 and not expecting any radical or consistent growth in records anytime soon, then you should be more than okay with any of the above. If you go beyond that, say in the magnitude of 100s of thousands with expected steady growth and belong to "large" class, it would be more than probable that you'll encounter issues mentioned above with a degree of surprise that's fatal for the unwary (i.e OMG, my database crashed. WTF, it took 5 minutes to render the page. Where's my site??? - 500 Internal Server Error).

To give you a high-level idea, here are the fundamental e-commerce subsystems that are mammoth in their own right given that you have a catalog exceeding 100,000 and enough traffic to make your site busy.

1) Product Information and Asset Management
2) Product Information and Asset Delivery
3) Product Search and Navigation
4) Content Management for SEO/SEM and Merchandising
5) Shopping Cart and Checkout
6) Order Management and Integration to 3rd party providers like payment gateways
7) Customer Relations Management
8) Integration To Your Back Office and ERP (Warehouse, Shipping, Handling, Accounting etc)

You will notice that the features and control panel of any of the off-the-shelf platform solutions above are mostly comprised of a bit of everything from the components above, rolled into one. It will be most likely that the first issue that you would encounter with any of those products is product discovery. And if you are serious with conversion, which relates to number 1-3 above, you would find this frustrating. So, if you fall to the criteria of a  "large" enterprise, don't attempt to customize off-the-shelf solutions without expert guidance as it would only be potentially more costly and would cause irreparable issues to your business unless you are willing to handle such undertaking. Just seek out enterprise-class e-commerce solutions, with good support, whether open source technologies or not, or better yet, seek expert advice from e-commerce professionals. They'd have all the answers you need. I'm sure you can easily reach one easily right now if you look closely ;).

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