There is no shortage of software options for building a web site with basic ecommerce capabilities. The challenge comes when you try to change the design of the site so it looks less like a cookie-cutter duplicate of other sites using the same system. Is it possible to customise your online store without spending a fortune and creating an environment that's difficult to upgrade?
The topic of customisation was front and centre at a media launch event for NetSuite's SuiteCommerce Enterprise platform in Sydney yesterday. SuiteCommerce plugs into the existing cloud-based NetSuite ERP system. While that platform has long included ecommerce functions, customising the way they were delivered was much trickier in previous versions, as customers at the event were quick to acknowledge.
Peter Macaulay runs Kitchenware Direct, which now operates 11 separate sites off a single main NetSuite instance. The most recent of those, homewares site Avago, is one of just 100 testing out the SuiteCommerce Enterprise platform ahead of its global launch in 2013. The site currently features more than 5000 products (which will rise to 15000 next year), as well as integration with Facebook.
Those options would have been very difficult to introduce with earlier NetSuite releases, Macaulay said. "The existing ecommerce platform has been fantastic for us but you do have to jump through hoops to make it look how you want it to look and work how you want it to work."
"We loved the backend; it was fantastic, but it was very difficult to find a company to customise it for the Australian market." Kitchenware Direct located a partner in (of all) places Uruguay, but that company was eventually bought out by Netsuite itself. "At that stage, we set up our own team to develop the front end," Macaulay said.
That was made simpler by a shift by NetSuite towards the use of well-defined standards, including HTML5, meaning that customisation didn't require in-depth knowledge of the NetSuite platform. "Any web developer with a current skill set can do it. It gives us more flexibility and that time to market is a lot faster."
The challenge of customisation takes on an extra dimension when sites are aimed at business-to-business (B2B) interactions, as much greater levels of data integration are required. "Customers in a B2B environment expect a B2C [business-to-consumer] experience," NetSuite CEO Zach Nelson said. "B2B has been harder to solve than B2C because of all the back-end processes."
You might conclude that business-to-business buyers will be less concerned about the appearance of a site, but not everyone agrees. "Our customers are very different; they're somewhere between business and consumers," said Mark Geraghty, general manager strategy and marketing at Elders, which sells to farmers via its Agsure site. Purchases of farm supplies can often be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but "they make those decisions on an emotive basis", Geraghty said.
"How do we interact with a group that behaves like that? As a business they want stuff faster, cheaper and better, but they also want a shopping experience that's a bit like buying a designer dress. They expect instant information and they research everything online before they make purchase decisions."