6 features of eCommerce engines for unusual and custom projects

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Building an eCommerce infrastructure tailored for unusual and custom projects calls for a departure from the tried and true. In an environment where universal solutions fall short, navigating the complexities of business models and bespoke architectures requires a discerning eye and advanced problem solving.  

But what does this mean for the centerpiece of the entire ecosystem: the eCommerce engine? How should you balance the all-so-important reliability with flexibility, which also becomes a must? What features to prioritize, and what pitfalls to avoid?  

These are the questions that we’ll be tackling to try and define the best eCommerce engine for custom implementations and unusual business models. If this describes your business, make sure to read on. 

1. Non-Saas


As a general rule, SaaS software tends to follow the one-size-fits-all philosophy. This can be a huge benefit when such systems support run-of-the-mill stores built on standard business models. Limiting the number of variables and options means that every user’s experience is more or less the same and can be precisely refined. As a result, setting up and daily management of such implementations tends to be a breeze, and issues rarely come up. 

It’s the dream scenario for every eCommerce manager, but sadly, one that isn’t realistic when it comes to more demanding implementations. The tradeoff for the smooth experience that’s offered by SaaS is that the default built-in solutions must be enough; the ability to tinker with them tends to be extremely limited. Custom implementations, on the other hand, are all about tinkering and finding solutions that work for one particular business and not necessarily the average customer.  

SaaS products offer many tempting benefits, such as seamless scaling and often attractive pricing, but this one crucial issue all but disqualifies them as viable candidates for highly customized implementations. This would be like trying to make a sleek MacBook work in a project that calls for a purpose-built server running on Linux. 

2. Modularity for a quick MVP 


Even with the very best planning, unusual projects are inherently prone to pivots, scope changes, and other similar circumstances throughout. You simply can’t predict everything if you haven’t previously completed a project exactly like it. As a result, there’s a good chance that there will be some trial and error involved, and the final shape of the eCommerce infrastructure won’t look precisely like the one planned at kickoff.  

This is where a modular eCommerce engine can make all the difference. Building such an infrastructure allows you to develop its various parts independently of one another. It gives you the freedom to experiment and validate ideas through a series of small-scale minimum viable products (MVPs) of individual modules.  

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Image source: Unsplash

Because you’re only working on a small fragment rather than the entire engine at once, this can cut down the time required to test ideas from months to mere days. Errors get less costly, trials get more rewarding, and there’s a much higher chance of finding a solution that perfectly responds to your unique business needs.  

3. Best-of-breed 


This point is a little deceptive. You’ve probably read a few similar articles, and they’ve likely hammered it home that there isn’t such a thing as a universally best option. There are only those that are good or bad matches with your unique needs. Here at Cloudflight, tech agnosticism is one of our core values, and we wholeheartedly agree with this approach. 

Where did “best-of-breed" come from, then? What I mean by the expression isn’t the best eCommerce engine but rather one of the established market leaders and, preferably, a member of the MACH Alliance.  

When planning a highly custom solution, it might seem attractive to look into niche systems to power it, but that’s often a trap. When the project itself is, to some extent, an unknown, the last thing you should do is double it by introducing an unproven engine into the mix. Unusual projects come with unusual problems, and this is why the key benefits of best-of-breed solutions, such as established technology, clear roadmaps for future development, and robust documentation and customer support, are doubly important. 

Of course, it’s unlikely that when building an unusual eCommerce infrastructure, you’ll be able to go with one of the market leaders every time. Some modules or packaged business capabilities (PBCs) will probably require niche and highly specialized solutions to accomplish the expected results. However, this will happen at a lower level of complexity. An unproven single-purpose module, say, a mailing solution, is much easier to manage and troubleshoot than an unproven eCommerce engine. 

4. Robust API support

 

Although it’s not a universal rule, there’s a good chance that an unconventional eCommerce infrastructure will require some kind of third-party integration. For instance, if you’re building a store that lets customers create custom phone cases, you might want to plug into a stock picture library, such as Envato Elements. 

This is where application programming interfaces (APIs) come in. They create nearly endless opportunities to expand an eCommerce platform’s functionality beyond built-in features and make it possible to build highly tailored solutions. APIs also enable various levels of automation and workflow optimization. 

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Image source: Envato Elements

Support for robust APIs is almost a given in modern eCommerce engines that follow MACH principles. After all, “API-first” is even included in the acronym. That said, there’s more nuance to the topic than simply verifying if a platform supports APIs or not. 

What to look for in an API 

A combination of multiple factors determines the quality of an API. The key ones include: 

  • Documentation: You should look for clear and comprehensive documentation with examples and explanations of endpoints, parameters, authentication methods, and error handling. 
     
  • Ease of use: An API should be intuitive and easy to use. Clear naming conventions, logical endpoint structures, and consistent response formats are all significant factors.  
     
  • Consistency: Consistency across endpoints and versions is essential for an API's usability. Simply put, developers should be able to predict how different parts of the API behave based on their prior experience with it.  
     
  • Performance: Response times and throughput are the key metrics you should be looking for here. A fast and reliable API ensures that developers can build responsive applications without being hindered by latency or downtime. 
     
  • Reliability and stability: A good API is characterized by minimal downtime and consistent availability. Unplanned outages or frequent changes can, obviously, cause disruptions in workflows that you’ll set up between your eCommerce ecosystem and third-party systems. 
     
  • Security: Security is paramount for any API, especially when handling sensitive data or performing transactions. Proper authentication mechanisms, authorization controls, and data encryption help protect the API provider and its users from potential threats.  

5. Customizability 


“Well, duh,” you’re probably thinking. It’s obvious that when building a highly custom eCommerce infrastructure, you should be looking for an engine that creates as many avenues for customization as possible.  

What exactly does this mean, though? What makes one product more customizable than another? Here are a few of the most important factors that you should consider when making such a decision. 

Hooks and extension points 

These are both mechanisms that are proactively introduced into digital products to create dedicated access points for potential customizations. Extension points are predefined locations in code where custom functionality can be added or extended. Hooks, on the other hand, are specific locations or events within a codebase that allow developers to execute custom logic or alter the one that’s built in. For example, developers can hook into the checkout process to add custom validation or payment methods. 

Modular architecture 

Although modularity has already been mentioned in the context of a quick MVP, its impact on customizability is just as profound and deserving of attention. This is one of the rare occasions when increasing the number of moving parts in a project increases its quality and, paradoxically, reduces its complexity.  

When developers are given the option to modify, extend, and replace individual modules without impacting the entire system, it becomes much more realistic to fine-tune each individual component precisely to your business needs. At the same time, they don’t need to worry about the whole intricate ecosystem going up in flames like they do in the case of monolithic architectures. 

Freedom in selecting and customizing the front end  

From your customers’ perspective, there’s nothing more important in your eCommerce infrastructure than the front end. All the intricate business logic and fancy systems that support it will come to nothing if they aren’t presented to the end user in a clear and intuitive way. Simply put, your front end needs to give you as much freedom in customization as the back end. 

Luckily, this is fairly easy to ensure. Barring minor exceptions, composable eCommerce engines that we’re considering here are almost always headless. Decoupling the back end from the front end means that you get complete freedom in choosing one of the ready-made front ends available on the market. You can even create a fully custom one from scratch if that’s what the project calls for. The only limiting factor is creating the correct APIs to bring the two layers together. 

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Image source: Envato Elements

Business logic 

Unusual business models often require highly customized modules and packaged business capabilities, but also the whole underlying logic that binds them together. For instance, what if you need to modify the usual eCommerce shopping path by adding some sort of approval process that we often see in a B2B setting? Or, coming back to the example of custom phone cases, include manufacturing in the order fulfillment process? 

Making such big adjustments isn’t just a matter of adding a plugin; they’re very fundamental changes to the whole business logic of conditions and dependencies. Because of this, not every eCommerce engine will be equipped to handle them. You should be looking for systems that allow developers to extend or override existing functionalities to accommodate unique business processes. 

Data models and databases 

The typical eCommerce system is built to handle only a few basic types of data, such as customer info, images, and formatted text for product descriptions and mailing. In some cases, even a simple PDF file can cause problems because it isn’t a format that’s often encountered in eCommerce, and systems aren’t designed to support it. 

On the other hand, highly custom business models and eCommerce architectures can necessitate the use of unusual data types and structures. You might need to use niche formats, connect to certain databases, or generate highly customized materials such as catalogs and reports. In order to be prepared for such scenarios, you should look for eCommerce engines that provide flexibility in customizing the data model and database schema to accommodate unique data requirements. 

6. Community and support 

There’s much truth to the stereotype that developers spend as much time googling as they do coding. This has nothing to do with laziness or lack of expertise, though. Even the very best specialist can’t have all the answers, and leaning on the knowledge shared by peers is often the best way to build a high-quality product. 

This is why a vibrant community around your eCommerce engine of choice can be an underrated clutch factor. In cases of unusual projects, there’s a chance that questions that come up during the development process will be so obscure that they won’t be answered through any official means. In those situations, the support of a community tends to be the best shot at avoiding a grueling process of trial and error. It can smooth out the development process and help create a better experience for end users. 

Our choice for unusual implementations 

After over a decade of building various eCommerce products for clients with very different needs, we can conclude with full confidence that each implementation is custom in one way or another. In some of them, however, the uniqueness and complexity rise to a whole different level and require truly specialized solutions. These are the projects that we’ve been considering throughout this article. 

Recently, our preferred eCommerce engine for this kind of implementations has been Spryker. It checks all the boxes mentioned above and provides just the right marriage of solid foundations and flexibility. Its massive customization capabilities empower our developers to build highly tailored solutions that address specific needs, industry requirements, and growth objectives of our clients. 

Spryker is easy to work with, modify, and extend while its established position on the market guarantees that support is readily available. In circumstances with tough cases, its community is among the most active in eCommerce circles, and it’s enthusiastic to brainstorm for solutions.  

Next steps 

Although we suggest Spryker as our go-to choice, but this is by no means the only viable solution. Ultimately, the best eCommerce engine for your business will depend on factors such as your specific needs, budget, technical capabilities, and long-term growth strategy. By prioritizing the six factors discussed throughout the article and thoroughly evaluating your options, you can make an informed decision that will be different than our suggestion but just as good in terms of capabilities. 

There’s a lot of nuance that goes into making such fundamental decisions, and this is far from a complete guide. Even a dozen such articles would only scratch the surface. Because of this, consulting with eCommerce experts might be the way to go when planning a highly custom implementation, so make sure to get in touch with us whenever you feel ready to take this step. 

Published May 21, 2024

6 features of eCommerce engines for unusual and custom projects
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