As a marketing operations lab we try hard to keep up with the technology options our clients can use to merchandise and promote their products or services.
Demands on those promotional tools, the most common being a website, usually extend to incorporate other business-processes the team wants to support. The goal for a company technology stack inevitably widens to more efficiently run their ongoing social media, sales, service and back-office operations.
So if Websites are the #1 category of technology we are asked about, I have to say that ecommerce is the particular flavor that raises the most questions.
Why? Websites can be a powerful marketing tool to attract customers and the right ones can help support other business functions like sales programs, customer handling, and direct-to-customer transactions of ecommerce. So the software you choose matters.
For this analysis of using WordPress for ecommerce, we invited Developer and colleague Scott Williams of Inkblot Digital to share insights from a “coder’s” perspective. Measured Marketing Lab’s approaches the topic from an “operations” perspective.
What follows will help you decide if, given your staffing and risk tolerance, WordPress is right solution for your ecommerce website.
First, look ahead two to four years
Different company growth-stages require different solutions. Typically, when businesses mature the complexity of the technology stack increases accordingly.
- Marketing first wants a blog, then a “refer a friend” tool, then new landing pages for every campaign.
- Sales soon wants wholesale accounts, custom pricing capabilities and visibility to the customer database.
- Next Finance wants to integrate data directly into inventory management as well as accounting systems, and so on.
As that tech-stack changes so does the ongoing investment and reliance on the software systems being used. Over time Companies sink dollars into any solution they choose which makes switching solutions later more difficult. For those reasons we advise Clients to get informed up front before making technology decisions they will live with for the next two to four years.
A note on operating costs: Startups and emerging brands are always going to have competing demands on dollars and staff. As the analysis below will point out, no matter which ecommerce solution you choose, you are not avoiding cost - the only difference is where you pay them.
What makes ecommerce websites different from standard websites?
When the business model includes direct-to-customer financial transactions, the required technology moves from a “presentation-site” or “lead-generation-site” to full “ecommerce” functionality.
Electronic commerce draws on technologies such as mobile commerce, electronic funds transfer, supply chain management, Internet marketing, online transaction processing, electronic data interchange (EDI), inventory management systems, and automated data collection systems. Modern electronic commerce typically uses the World Wide Web for at least one part of the transaction's life cycle although it may also use other technologies such as e-mail. When the number of steps involved in a transactions goes up so does the complexity of the supporting software code
(Read the full definition of E-commerce at Wikipedia)
What category of software is WordPress?
WordPress is a content management system. A CMS provides an interface to organize and publish the individual web pages that make up a “business log” commonly referred to as a blog.
Originally designed as a blogging platform, WordPress code is “open source” meaning independent developers can and have coded features and functions offered as “plugins” - think twitter-feed scroll or contact-forms. These plugins are designed to grow WP from a simple blog to a broader role as a “website.”
Advocates will tell you that WordPress is a “has it all” platform - it’s open-source so the code can be modified, offers a nice content management system (CMS), has plenty of free and paid plugins and services, has an intuitive interface for beginners and possibility of development for the advanced, and finally gives you the option to make a multipurpose site. In effect WordPress gives total control over your site.
While this works great for many purposes, we have also observed the flip side of having that control is that you also have that responsibility. And do not overlook the part about “paid plugins” - in our experience a site typically requires more than a few investments to get best-of-breed features.
So, is there a WordPress plugin suitable for ecommerce?
Individual developers have coded many plug-ins for product merchandising and transactional shopping cart experience to support basic ecommerce. Over the last decade other developers have coded additional plugins to support processes like shipping label printers and ways to sell your catalog of items on Amazon or eBay.
When the requirements are as simple as a “publish a product catalog” WordPress can meet this challenge treating each product detail page as if it were a custom post.
But it’s the other customer database, financial and inventory transaction systems that are layered on top of WordPress code to make it capable of ecommerce where the issues can start to show themselves.
Remember that each plugin code has a different developer and therefore has it’s own update schedule. Conflict between plugins causing a weird display or behavior is common. Even when utilizing a suite of plugins from the same company, these are still features that are not native to WordPress. And don’t forget, the best plugins have a cost to use them.
How is WordPress + ecommerce plugins different from a purpose-built ecommerce solution?
WordPress websites make every intersection of code, and hosting your responsibility and leave you to develop and test disparate plugins coded by different teams. You’re also the one to manage or mitigate every risk related to financial data security. Updates and maintenance of WordPress and related plugins are also your responsibility.
And as each plugin is added you potentially slow the download speed of the site because each new element of code you added on must also run on the server and/or load to the visitors browser. Why does that matter? Data shows that roughly 40% of visitors will leave a site that takes longer than 3 seconds to download and a 1 second delay in page response can result in a 7% reduction in conversions.
The alternative is a purpose-built ecommerce platform that bundles virtually all the core features together ensuring they already work well, and many manage the “hosting” for you. In the latter scenario they virtually absolve you of any issues related to financial data security. Updates and maintenance are included with your license or subscription.
Within purpose-built ecommerce options the objective is to accommodate as many aspects of a business as possible with a single tool set. We’ve found that some all-in-one tool sets increase the odds of up time and can lower the ongoing costs of operation.
What risk is involved in hosting an ecommerce website?
Start by thinking of a website as a folder of files on your computer’s local hard drive. Now imagine that, in order to allow the public to interact with the website folder, the folder must be sitting on a hard drive that’s connected to the internet. That server containing the hard drive is providing the hosting.
Buying a server, loading a folder, and paying the electricity to run the electronics is not the hard part. Keeping it “up” meaning constantly connected to and accessible from the internet by itself is no small technical feat. Then keeping data flowing quickly and consistently is a key value-added-service of a host requiring load-balancing and traffic management skills normally outside the average company IT staff experience.
For technical reasons alone we don’t recommend Clients take responsibility for hosting and instead subscribe to space within a professionally managed “cloud” of servers. But beware, all hosting providers are not the same. Take the time to select from the handful of major providers to be sure you have backup systems and support. For those reasons we suggest avoiding the cheap discount hosting providers.
A better, hosted platform is built to allow scale in a way that a basic $3.99 a month shared hosting plan can never compete with. This offers assurance that your platform can grow with you and increases up time.
Who watches out for hacking theft of your customer database?
With a WordPress-based platform, you do. And the United States Federal government.
Why? A hack of your ecommerce website potentially exposes customer Credit Card and PII (personally identifiable information) and that is federally regulated. The standard called PCI Compliance was created to increase controls around cardholder data to reduce credit card fraud and it applies to ecommerce site of every size.
Securing customer and credit card data is a key responsibility for all who handle the data, but it’s also a consideration in the coding of every plugin and CMS customization. It is important to ensure that payment gateways manage the transactions in a PCI compliant way. Before the data gets to your systems of restricted user access, it’s the firewall and security controls within the code that keep hackers out of your customer data.
In a WordPress + plugin environment you potentially have multiple points of exposure at every plugin. And its popularity can also be the downfall of WordPress. It’s no wonder that, with it’s large installed base, WordPress is constantly under attack from various kinds of hacking techniques. Sure WordPress releases updates all the time, but who wants to live under constant threat of getting hacked? Especially for ecommerce sites, security is a fundamental requirement.
With a purpose-built hosted ecommerce your subscription includes enterprise level security measures, updates, and support.
Do small merchants have to be PCI compliant?
Bottom line - Yes.
If your business accepts payment cards with any of the five members of the PCI SSC credit card brands (American Express, Discover, JCB, MasterCard, and Visa), then you are required to be PCI compliant within various levels, as determined by your transaction volume.
What are the consequences of violating PCI compliance?
Aside from the financial cost, there are also other potential liabilities that could affect your business. According to PCI Security Standards, failing to comply with PCI standards and resulting data breaches could result in:
- Lost customer confidence
- Lost revenue and fraud losses
- Legal costs, settlements, judgments, bank fines and penalties
- Cost of giving affected customers an identity protection, credit monitoring service
- Termination of ability to accept payment cards or higher subsequent costs of compliance
- Lost jobs (CISO, CIO, CEO, and dependent professional positions)
- Going out of business
So in our opinion, no, we don’t recommend making WordPress handle ecommerce
In our experience site owners are neither saving much money nor gaining much control by using WordPress instead of a hosted solution.
- Our data shows that site owners are basically substituting costs of random down-time and labor for constant development instead of a corresponding amount spent as the subscription fee of a hosted solution.
- The impact of stacking plugins shows up in slower performance. When you Page Speed Test a WP + Plugin website you’ll find less than stellar speed in downloading your site to the Visitors browser.
- And when you factor in the steps needed to mitigate hacking risk and PCI compliance, on top of mission-critical factors of up-time, processing speed, and safe extensions for marketing campaigns and business processes, we don’t think it makes sense to take on the risk of making WordPress into a solution different from the blogging platform it was conceived to be.
Instead we suggest ecommerce site owners intent on real growth and the resulting changes in scale, choose from within purpose-built ecommerce solutions where hosting and tech support is provided.
Commonly referred to as SaaS ( software-as-a-service) these companies are allocating their substantial development costs across thousands of users making the monthly subscription to you the store owner very reasonable. We compare that cost to all the hidden costs and responsibly of operating your own set of code.
These SaaS systems were purpose built to support the complex dance of merchandising and transacting direct to customer with the most efficient code (“fast”) for quick page loads and responsive features giving customers the best possible experience.
Many ecommerce SaaS providers have done a great job of incorporating marketing and customer service modules alongside warehouse, shipping, and inventory management. Each guarantees all features work together and every update is tested before it's rolled out.
Note: there are "apps" for hosted platforms as well. The main difference is these are vetted by the platform developers so are guaranteed to work. As for security, when installing you see the access that you are granting does not include access to credit card data.
Which ecommerce website solutions are safe and affordable?
Many. As we said in the opening of this analysis, which technology you need depends on the growth stage of the company. More specifically, each software platform out there has a slightly different set of features bundled in. Remember that each provider has it’s strengths over the other so be sure to compare based on your functional requirements. For example if your product has more than 3 variables (size, color, quantity) the popular Shopify platform will not work. If your product requires a Lot # in addition to SKU, you’ll need to look at tools like Lead Commerce.
On top of that, most of the popular hosted ecommerce platforms have feature levels that are constantly changing so you need to stay on top of the latest advancements and choose the one with the best fit for the way you operate. But in general you can start a subscription with a few features for a low cost and can grow into more features later for higher subscription fees.
The leadership of the SaaS team is important so we look for indicators that signal which have momentum that will keep the product fresh and not be an old tool that suffers from cut-backs in ongoing development or customer support.
One recent move in the industry was notable: In mid 2015 BigCommerce hired a new CEO who brings fresh enthusiasm to the platform. Prior to working at BigCommerce he was a real-estate online-rental and payment solution HomeAway, which went public during his tenure. He was also CEO of PayPal Europe between 2005 and 2009 so we suspect there will be native support of payment processors like Apple Pay and Google Wallet coming soon to Big Commerce.
So how does a business decide what ecommerce technology to use?
The easiest way to shop is with a shopping list.
We suggest you bullet list the specific merchandising and promotion functionality you’ll need for marketing, sales and service, as well as order-processing and inventory management steps in your business model. To choose the best SaaS platform it's wise to spend at least a few hours detailing your "functional requirements."
After detailing the tasks the website will perform, we like to look a bit wider to where data goes - inventory systems, financial systems, analytics and reporting systems, and customer database / CRM systems. Each of these are also components of the solution to run, and more importantly scale up, an online business.
From there we compare the various brands of software available against these “functional requirements.” Before a final selection is made we’re particularly interested in the cost-of-ownership of the technology options and the demands each option puts on a Client’s internal team or need to outsource help
Pro Tip: At Measured Marketing Lab we use a requirements checklist containing a dozen ecommerce topics covering 140 details
ranging from image-zoom functionality to shipping label printing to RMA and inventory management utilities.
Let us know if you want to discuss developing functional requirements for your ecommerce business.
About the Authors:
Christopher Chaput, MBA is the Managing Director at Measured Marketing Lab in Massachusetts. He’s a marketing operations practitioner with 3 decades experience of activating marketing, sales and service technology and processes. He brings a customer-first approach blended with a by-the-numbers discipline.
Scott Williams is an Ecommerce Web Developer + Pastor in California. As founder and CEO of Inkblot Digital, Scott manages an ecommerce development company specializing in custom code programming and support for small to mid-size implementations of BigCommerce, Lead Commerce, Shopify, or Volusion. Scott has worked with WordPress sites deployed for ecommerce over the years so he speaks from experience.