The Case for Custom E-commerce on Sitecore

Jason Sindel Jason Sindel
September 24, 2015
Sitecore , Web Strategy , User Experience Design , Context Marketing , Digital Marketing

Not too long ago, in a sales briefing with a prospect, the topic of e-commerce came up with a request for a recommendation. At first, we hemmed a bit-- we’d need data and content requirements, budget, integration dependencies, etc. and only then could we provide a definitive recommendation after a thorough discovery…yada..yada…yada. It wasn’t until later, driving back, that we discussed as a team what we had all been thinking in the meeting. For many of our customers, in many scenarios, it makes more sense to build custom e-commerce than try and find something on the one size fits all market. Period.

Let me explain.

A majority of the sites we design and build are in Sitecore, an extensible .NET framework for managing content, data and the presentation layer of a website. Sitecore is a powerful engine for marketing and integrating 3rd-party systems. So when I talk about custom e-commerce, what I’m really talking about is customized Sitecore development. Just to be sure I’m understood, I don’t mean code from scratch, I mean that the amount of deep or shallow integration with other systems, e.g. CRM, ERP, or other marketing automation is up to you and the customization of the design, the product and the product data is architected to your specifications exactly.

“The truth is, e-commerce platforms are often one size fits all, over engineered software packages with all the bells and whistles for a lot of money.”

There is a popular myth in the business world that e-commerce software are a necessary evil and that they are indispensable. In regards to the engineering, most requirements for online checkout is pretty standard stuff, but the few things that do make one e-commerce experience unique from another are often exactly the type of thing an e-commerce platform doesn’t do. The result can be additional customization on top of out of the box functionality, or as many IT professionals call it: technical debt. These customizations can build up over time, one on top of another, morphing a “robust out of the box solution” into a many headed hydra of more and more technical debt. The real kicker is the maintenance and upgrade path of your dual system just went from difficult to impossible to risk manage.

One way to think about this is to ask the question:

What are the basic feature sets provided by an e-commerce platform vs. custom Sitecore?

Standardization of Design - A huge part of the feature set of e-commerce platforms have to do with the presentation layer, that is, the browse and cart user interface. Customizing this design within a e-commerce platform can often be a somewhat clunky affair, besides Sitecore already manages content and design in a superior fashion so why pay for this part of the e-comm platform at all?

Product Content Management - Photos, specs, videos, what have you. E-Commerce platforms connect product data with product assets, so it can display your products in different ways on your various digital channels. Again, this type of data, design and content is exactly what Sitecore is developed to manage and once again, it does an amazing job of this. This is true with SEO and Metadata as well.

Product Data - Here e-commerce platforms manage your SKU, price, inventory, options, extras, etc. through some sort of merchandizing interface. This functionality is fantastic if you’re a digital pure play without other channels, POS, mail or by phone, etc. But if your organization has an existing ERP, than the e-Commerce platform is either duplicating back-end data or has become a silo for it. Many e-commerce platforms promise seamless integration, but this isn’t as easy as they make it sound. Why not manage all product data in one place with connections to and from the ERP via web services and/or API calls? That way the content management system is rendering and displaying content while the ERP is supplying the relevant data and only the relevant data for product display online or in apps.

Pre-determined Categories and Architecture - Most e-commerce platforms offer product catalogues based on product categories and sub-categories but often this leads to an arbitrary set of categories and product duplication. A custom schema might be exactly the right approach or better yet use what already exists in the ERP and merely apply referential categories for display purposes or for tracking purposes.

Customer Accounts - Again a huge part of the e-commerce features set, but already this means a separate account managing the purchase history of the customer than the user account of the website. That means data synchs, SSO, and other integration headaches.

Personalization and Marketing - Dynamic pricing? Upsells? Product suggestions based on website implicit customer data from the website analytics? Sitecore’s experience marketing and xDB can personalize the customer experience from landing page to thank you page. Again, why buy a separate system to manage this type of personalized, intelligent display when Sitecore is literally the leader in the space.

What about Sitecore’s own E-Commerce solution? If you’re on Sitecore and you’re looking for an e-commerce solution that can accelerate your time to market and integrate tightly with your current Sitecore CXM, this may be the exact option you’re looking for. Sitecore Ecommerce Powered by Commerce Server is designed for tight integration with the CMS, so data is 2-way, and the business users can opt to use Sitecore for product management or Commerce Servers native apps. In addition, there’s back-end integration with Microsoft’s Dynamics ERP, so that data can be shared for omni-channel management and B2B e-commerce. If you intend to leverage Sitecore’s experience marketing in e-commerce and the future of your organization is based on the type of intuitive business intelligence provided by Microsoft Dynamics, than this choice is a clear winner.

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