How to Know Whether An Open Source eCommerce Platform is Right for Your Brand
The rapid growth of eCommerce as a dedicated channel leaves many brands figuring out how to evolve. Hundreds of eCommerce solutions have popped up in recent years, ranging from WordPress plugins to dedicated SaaS platforms.
There’s no one right approach to selecting an eCommerce platform for business. The best platform for you is the one that helps your brand grow. One caveat, though: Dotcom Distribution CEO Maria Haggerty points out that as a brand grows, its technology needs to grow along with it. That means processes must be put in place to manage increasing sales, expansion to new markets, increasingly complex fulfillment requirements and everything else that goes into growing an eCommerce business.
There’s one scalable option that is worth taking a closer look at: Open source eCommerce platforms. Specifically, we want to find out whether the flexibility of open source outweighs its (often hidden) costs.
As you look to grow the eCommerce focus of your brand, we are committed to giving you the tools to succeed. An open source eCommerce platform may be a good fit in some situations; in others, it may prove too limiting or complex.
In this post, we help you get to the bottom of which is true for your business.
Open Source vs. SaaS vs. Full-Service Solutions
There are essentially three options for eCommerce solutions as a brand grows: out of the box SaaS platforms like Shopify, open source code for introducing eCommerce to your site and full-service eCommerce solutions.
A transportation analogy is useful for understanding the differences:
- A SaaS platform is like public transport. It can get you from one fixed point to the next. There is no order fulfillment or operations management with this option.
- Open source is like driving your own car. You can go wherever you need to go, but you still have to learn how to drive the thing and how to maintain it. Those can be expensive responsibilities. An open source eCommerce solution gives you flexibility, but it also comes with challenges.
- Full-service is like having a chauffeur. You can go wherever you need to, but a professional takes care of the service so you can focus your time, energy and attention on something else.
Bill Carmody of Trepoint highlights the fact that which eCommerce solution you go with depends a lot on your current capabilities and future plans for growth: “You have to choose a platform that can meet your own distinct feature requirements as appropriately and as uniquely as your individual business model.”
Open source offers flexibility, but it may not be for everyone. Development agency Dinarys suggests that enterprises answer three questions about their eCommerce needs: whether your shop needs custom features, whether you have a budget for a team of developers, and whether you need custom web design for your business.
If the answer to those three questions is yes, your business has most likely outgrown simple SaaS options like Shopify or WooCommerce.
The Potential Benefits of Open Source eCommerce Platforms
Here are three reasons some brands find that going the open source eCommerce route is the best choice for them.
One of the main draws of open source platforms is the apparent lower cost. After all, any open source project offers a free version for companies to use and developers to play with — the Magento Community Edition, for example.
That keeps month-to-month costs lower. But Ranan Rahim, writing for WeDevs, points out that open source eCommerce solutions typically have a higher upfront costs than the alternatives. Whether or not that will be true for your business depends on your in-house technical capability, as we’ll see below.
Many experts point to the flexibility of open source platforms for eCommerce purposes. Take DivanteLTD CEO Tom Karwatka’s perspective, for example: “In e-Commerce flexibility and safety are crucial. That’s why the Open Source Software has become so popular in the industry.”
For fast-growing companies, this can be important as they need multiple versions and deployment in multiple areas.“Since there are no licensing restrictions, companies can immediately install additional copies to meet development and scalability needs without incurring additional cost,” says Varun Bhagat, senior technology consultant at PixelCrayons.
Adam Gurr, eCommerce manager for Zones UK, highlights how this level of flexibility offers more value to the customer. “Different customers have different procurement processes,” Gurr says. “Customers may have different ways to route purchase orders for approvals. They may want to be able to put a purchase order on hold in a portal, then route it through internal workflow for authorization.”
This translates into blending portals to drive global sales. Open source eCommerce allows this kind of customization to platforms. Usually, this requires a great amount of familiarity with the code, though Dezzain points out that companies can instead opt to use prebuilt extensions.
A Support Community
Last but not least, one benefit of open source is the dedicated community for fixes and workarounds. There’s no question that open source eCommerce platforms often have a passionate community behind them.
Mayra Pena, communications manager at Liquid Web, highlights how helpful this can be for store owners: “So many developers around the world actively working on the platform means that when store owners face problems, they’re either already solved, or the community can craft a new solution.”
While open source platforms may not have the dedicated support staff of an enterprise solution, they do have the community to back up the development of your eCommerce platform. As Adobe’s Matt Asay concludes, this is the decentralized engagement that defines open source projects (eCommerce or otherwise)
Of course, this can be a limitation in and of itself. Whether it’s a good idea to use this kind of resource depends on whether your business is in a place to take on this kind of development. You can employ developers in-house or hire them on an hourly basis, but this can get costly.
The Drawbacks of Going Open Source for eCommerce
Now, here are three reasons some brands find open source eCommerce is not a good fit.
There is a flipside to the flexibility of an open source eCommerce platform: the complexity of an open source eCommerce platform.
That complexity manifests itself in a few ways:
- Community-based maintenance. Will your version of the software be maintained by its community?
- Compliance. Does the platform keep up with relevant laws and regulations?
- Security. You’ll have access to a vast marketplace of plugins — some of which could breach your security protocols through negligent or malicious design. In September 2018, Milena Dimitrova at Sensor Tech Forum reported that MagentoCore, malware created to skim users’ credit cards, managed to infect thousands of shops.
- Vision. Your brand wasn’t created to be an eCommerce software company. If you spend all of your time managing your eCommerce software, however, that’s how your company will behave.
Case in point: Magento is a purely open source eCommmerce solution, while Shopify offers an open API with more than 2,000 independent add-ons to its platform. The result in both cases is fragmentation.
With open source, you lose the stability, security and easy scalability of an integrated solution. The open source tools may not work together as well because they were not built by the same dedicated team. In some cases, you risk incompatibility from third party add-ons. eCommerceFuel’s Andrew Youderian even asks whether the complexity of Magento has killed its appeal.
Further, as brands grow, they need an integrated solution to eCommerce as they deal with external complexities like international taxation, payment requirements and international logistics. Addressing these complexities with an open source tool is essentially starting from scratch — which is why SimpleThread’s Justin Etheredge says that software complexity is killing us.
In trying to find a solution to increasingly complex business processes, many developers end up creating overly complex software instead of going with the simplest option.
The other major drawback is that using an open source tool for your store can come with a host of hidden costs. Take the opinion of Brian Hughes, CEO of Integrity Marketing & Consulting: “Open source carts may be free to use, but they also require higher technical knowledge. You may even end up shelling out extra cash for a professional web developer to install and customize your cart.”
Think just in terms of compatibility. Once you’ve customized, will the next version of the software work with your platform? Will the plugins remain compatible?
Furthermore, there is the issue of scaling. At a certain stage of growth, the global costs of infrastructure, maintenance and secure compound at near-exponential rates.
All other things equal, going open source for your eCommerce store could end up costing you more than you think. IT specialist Andy Jordan agrees in his article for InformationWeek. “One of the biggest mistakes organizations make when switching to open source is underestimating the time and human resource commitments involved,” he writes.
Ongoing Management of the Technology
While an open source solution can introduce flexibility, it can also come with challenges for implementation.
Most companies will end up needing to seek out professional development support to solve issues with an open source eCommerce platform. As business advisory group Invest NI notes, developers are almost sure to be needed to address compatibility issues, create patches and introduce integrations.
Industry publication The Manufacturer sums up the give and take of open source in a nutshell: “The primary advantage [of open source eCommerce] is flexibility. However, along with that flexibility comes the need for a lot of handholding. If you’re up for it, you’ll be in great shape. If you’re not, you’ll be better off going with a proprietary solution.”
The Bottom Line: Find What Works For You
As we stated from the beginning, this post is not supposed to convince you which eCommerce solution is objectively better. What matters most is what will work best for your business needs.
The best eCommerce solution will be one that gives your company the infrastructure it needs to grow into a big player in the online retail space. The goal of investing in an eCommerce platform should be to scale and grow online revenue quickly, not simply a workable shopping cart.
In all of this, remember these words of wisdom from RetailGeek’s Jason Goldberg: “It’s great if a shopper walks in your front door and quickly buys the product displayed in the window, but it’s even better if that windows display entices them deeper into the store to make an even bigger purchase!”
Goldberg is talking about how your eCommerce site should meet the needs of all your customers. Is your current eCommerce approach doing that?
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