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Expert Interview: Replatforming your e-commerce store

Is your e-commerce platform holding your brand back? What are the key indicators that it is time to replatform? Is SaaS, such as Shopify Plus, the best approach? And how should you approach replatforming your e-commerce store?

We Interviewed Paul Rogers, e-commerce consultant at Vervaunt and partner of We Make Websites for an expert in-depth look at replatforming. We cover when brands should consider a new platform, what options are available and how to plan and execute a successful replatforming project. Over to Paul!

What are good reasons to change e-commerce platform?

In my experience, this tends to vary a lot, but the most common ones I see are:

More freedom/agility (native features and integrations)

Overall, this is probably the most common reason I see retailers looking to replatform, as they’re being held back when it comes to releasing new features and generally trading their store. I’d say this is applicable at all ends of the market, however, a lot of the projects I work with are with mid-level brands, who often have a legacy platform, be it bespoke, some form of agency proprietary solution or just an older system.

Solutions like Shopify Plus, Magento Commerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud etc have so much native functionality and such a strong list of existing integrations and modules, they provide a far more agile solution for retailers. 

Cost of ownership

Another reason, often combined with others, that retailers often look to replatform are the costs of operating. I’ve worked with a number of retailers who are working with a platform on a legacy GMV agreement or some form of a very expensive agreement. The replatforming process is then more focused on reducing licensing costs over a set period and investing that money in developing and enhancing the store.

I ran a discovery with one retailer who was using a very old e-commerce platform which was extremely inflexible, but they were still paying several hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees, based on the existing agreement. This was a fairly complex B2B store and the fear of moving was the main thing keeping them on the platform.

I’ve also seen a lot of merchants moving to Shopify Plus, having worked out that they can save a lot of money by eliminating hosting fees, reducing maintenance fees and removing some other overheads (team time, upgrades etc). I wrote this article specifically focused on Shopify Plus vs Magento, which covers some of these areas.

Longevity/sustainability 

Lots of merchants end up having their hand forced when it comes to replatforming, with platforms announcing an end-of-life deadline or lack of support for a specific version – with Magento 1.x, Fresca and Venda being good recent examples. Other enterprise platforms like Hybris generally stop supporting older versions after a period of time, which could prompt a decision to replatform rather than upgrading (as this is generally quite a costly exercise).

In a scenario like this, it’s often better to move sooner rather than later, to ensure that the investment being made in the existing platform isn’t wasted. Merchants migrating from Magento is the example I see most commonly where merchants are reviewing options earlier rather than leaving it to the point where Magento stops supporting the platform and continuing to invest in new features, maintenance and the front-end.

Scalability, stability & security etc

Another reason I’ve seen merchants move to a new platform is due to security and general stability issues. There are a number of mainstream platforms on the market that can very easily fall victim to security issues if best-practices are not followed (which could be anything from applying upgrades and security patches, hosting, access setup etc), which can have a very severe impact on a business. I’ve worked with a few different businesses who have suffered from hacks that have resulted in them getting fines – ultimately leading them to reconsider their technology.

Hosted solutions like Salesforce Commerce Cloud and Shopify Plus provide a platform-as-a-service offering, removing the headache for the merchant – which often makes these more attractive.

Scalability is another key consideration, with merchants often moving away from a legacy platform due to issues with peaks and scaling in general.

There are lots of other reasons why retailers look to replatform, including:

Change in leadershipMoving from in-house management to outsourced team structureOther changes in business systemsIntroduction of new channels (e.g. B2B or B2C or multi-channel features needed)How does this differ for smaller or larger businesses?

I think overall the same principles apply for smaller businesses, it’s just that the discovery / functional requirements gathering phase is likely to be less comprehensive as, generally the builds aren’t as complex – but overall, I still think this process should be applied. 

In terms of reasons to replatform, again I think the reasons are similar (particularly things like the current platform not being flexible enough, longevity and security), but the options considered are likely to be very different.

I’d personally say that some of SaaS solutions on the market (particularly Shopify and Big Commerce) are generally perfect for smaller businesses (excluding edge cases where a merchant has complex requirements or a large/complex catalog), purely because they take away a lot of the headaches of maintaining the software, security, the infrastructure etc. Just taking away these areas and allowing a retailer to focus on merchandising and marketing is enough of a reason to replatform in a lot of cases. The same principle applies at higher ends of the market too in a lot of cases – I’ve found myself recommending Shopify Plus more and more, just purely because it allows teams to focus on the areas that are going to drive growth.

I would also say that the agency/integrator are also likely to be relied on more by smaller businesses, in terms of needing to provide more guidance around solutions and best practice, as the smaller merchants will have less in-house capabilities.

With larger merchants, there are a lot more stakeholders when making the decision to replatform, which can often add a lot of variables – I’ve seen lots of larger retailers replatform due to investors or senior figures making decisions, rather than it being based on a specific need.

There are also a lot more areas that need to be covered for larger retailers, particularly with integrations, multi-currency / multi-language / multi-warehouse, managing multiple brands, payment options (e.g. finance, international payments etc), multi-channel considerations etc. This would make replatforming a much bigger decision and it would likely impact all areas of the business and take a considerable amount of time, as opposed to smaller projects which would have a much lower overhead. 

What process should retailers follow when planning for a replatforming project? 

In my opinion, the most important part of a replatforming project is the initial requirements gathering/specification phase, as it’s vital to post-launch performance and the timing of the project to ensure that the requirements defined match exactly what you ‘need’. Defining the must-haves, could-haves and phase two items is also key – I’d generally use the MoSCoW methodology for this.

This phase is likely to determine the overall success of the project and will also have a direct relationship with the timeliness of the launch. I work a lot in this area and for me it’s key to really understand what functionality you have available currently to start with and what you need to keep – so going through all existing features you rely on and any third party integrations and modules you need to retain (and also how these need to work – integrations need to be spec’d in as much detail as possible and this is another really key part of the project). It’s important to remember that the fewer ‘shiny items’ and customisations in the new platform, the easier it will be to maintain and the better it will scale. 

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The next phase will be to sit with all of the key teams and stakeholders and build out additional requirements around things like new features, data importing, the front-end of the store, key third-party integrations (e.g. OMS, WMS, ERP etc), order management, customer services, multi-store setup (if relevant), marketing, SEO etc etc etc. Once you’ve done this you can then start to map the requirements and their importance. I’d generally recommend bringing in a consultant to support this process as it’s important to have an outside view and also use someone that’s been through the mistakes before (to ensure nothing is overlooked).

Once this document has been prepared, you can start reviewing each line item against the native features/functionality of the platforms you’re considering and marking the ones that are likely to be a challenge and require a customisation / third party. Doing this will help you to understand how much customisation is involved with each platform, the overall TCO (with the third parties etc) and the complexity for each option (with the level of customisation). You will be far better placed to understand the right platform after this process.

I wrote this piece last year, which is still relevant, about preparing an e-commerce RfP.

What are your thoughts on choosing between cloud/saas vs a self-hosted solution?

Overall, I’d say this comes down to the business and how the team is setup etc – if you have complex requirements around the integration of the platform, you may well need more flexibility and access to the core of the platform, so a self-hosted platform may well be a requirement. However, if you’re looking to eliminate the headache associated with the dev ops / operational side of things, then a SaaS offering may well be the best route.

I’d say there’s definitely a shift towards cloud-based, PaaS options (with Shopify Plus, Salesforce Commerce Cloud and Magento Commerce Cloud all picking up new merchants all the time), however, it does definitely depend on the requirements again. 

What else needs to be taken into account when making the ultimate decision?

I’ve covered a lot of these points above, but I think overall it’s the cost/benefit analysis (outlining the TCO and the benefit of moving platforms) and the value that’s being added over a 3-5 year period. It’s vitally important to ensure that a platform meets all of your requirements, but it’s equally as important to ensure that it’s able to achieve the following:

Support future growth (allowing for things like entering new markets, higher transaction volumes, increase in product catalogue size, different payment options etc)Reduce or retain time-to-market of new features etcAllow for reliable integration with key business systemsNot be locked in with a specific integrator (ideal, but some businesses don’t consider this as important)Enable all teams to operate as or more efficiently (e.g. customer services, merchandisers, marketing, operations etc)Provide a positive overall customer experience (covering things like front-end performance, purchasing program, customer comms etc – ideally the platform would allow for likely phase two items like personalisation, customer segmentation etc)

Other areas that are likely to be important are ensuring that a launch can be achieved outside of peak trading periods, fitting the project into a specific budget, agreements around contract terms etc.

What are some of the key elements of a successful re-platforming project and pitfalls to watch out for?

The biggest pitfalls and the key areas that lead to a successful project are generally the same in my experience – with the following being key areas that could quite easily turn a positive project into a negative one and vice versa.

Organic search / SEO

SEO can make or break a replatforming project and covering all the bases is fundamentally important. I’ve seen lots of brands lose ~50% of their organic traffic and revenue as a result of not allocating resource/budget to the technical SEO side of things, as well as applying redirects and importing all core SEO data (e.g. metadata, long descriptions, category descriptions, legacy redirects etc).

In addition to the obvious bits mentioned above, the following also should be ticked off:

Mirroring the structure of the website (ensuring all categories and even any non-primary pages receiving traffic are retained on the new site)Reviewing how things like dynamics pages are handled (e.g. filter pages, search pages, pagination etc – these need to be redirected and you need to consider how you want them to be crawled and indexed on the new site)Legacy redirects – existing redirects in place are often missed off

As much as I personally hate SEO these days, this side of things is vitally important and will directly impact how successful the project is.

Project scoping

Equally, the scoping of a project will directly influence several core areas, such as the timeliness of delivery, the budget/cost, the quality of work and the general happiness of both parties. If a project isn’t scoped correctly or if there are assumptions left unanswered, there’s room for issues with scope creep and disagreements, which will result in additional costs and time.

The discovery process going into a build project is hugely important and it’s something that needs to be invested in properly – this is where consultants or investing in a really strong partner add a lot of value.

Partner selection

Selecting the right partner (based on the right criteria) is also really key, as moving partner halfway through a project is usually a disaster for many reasons (e.g. the new partner scapegoating the previous partners work, lots of additional costs, slowing down the project etc).

I’d suggest really validating the suitability of a provider before appointing them, to ensure that they’ve delivered similar projects, are assigning a suitable project team, have worked with similarly sized retailers to the same spec in the past etc. This is really important as I’ve worked on far too many rescue projects with clients, where the retailer has needed to find a new partner to clean up the work or even start over again.

Integrations

The other see a lot of issues with is integrations with important third-party systems – usually because they’re not delivered to spec, the bulk of the work is pushed into a phase two or because they’ve outsourced to a partner who isn’t equipped to deliver the work. 

I’ve mostly seen this with quite complex projects, but integrating with things like your ERP, OMS, WMS, accounting platform etc is really important and it’s something that needs to be invested in. 

 

Thanks to Paul for a really in-depth view of the whole replatforming process. If you're ready to take the plunge and move to Shopify Plus, send us an enquiry to see how we can help. With 8 years experience, we know Shopify Plus like the back of our hand — we're the best in the business.

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