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October 31, 2018

Choosing an E-commerce Platform


By Josh Fiorini

Having an online presence today in retail is almost a necessity for success and, at a minimum, is massively advantageous. The choice to get online can seem to be a no-brainer from a sales revenue perspective, but getting there is also something beyond the comfort zone of many, as few business owners outside the tech space also consider themselves programmers, coders or web designers.

Thankfully, there is expert help for hire for anything web related, as well as a wide range of software products and apps that can drastically simplify the process. Which route is right for you and your business?

As with most things, the more customized a solution the more complex and expensive it is. A custom suit will always cost more than one off the rack — and while Mom may be able to hem your pants, making a full garment from scratch is more than she wants to do. And boy does that custom suit feel just right! This analogy brings us to your first decision point in creating an online retail presence: go custom or pre-made?

Having it All (Will Cost You)

Many tech and web design firms are more than happy to code, layout and manage a completely custom e-commerce portal just for you. It will look the way you want, capture all the backend data you need, interface with your existing systems (POS or ERP) and be easy to manage from your end with changes made via a phone call or email. However, this type of custom work can be very costly, tens of thousands of dollars at the low end and upwards from there, depending on the features and functionality you want, combined with the level of maintenance required and the relative uniqueness of the site’s design.

If you have a very niche product offering or a large-scale sales operation from which you would anticipate millions in online revenue, this avenue can make a lot of sense. Little things matter a lot when factored to powers of 10. But, as for many folks a custom suit doesn’t make sense, so is the argument against custom web solutions.

Lots of (More Economical) Solutions

Today there are many web design and e-commerce platforms that can work together (or are the same product) and do a good job at an economical price. Further, these products are now designed to be intuitive and user-friendly to anyone with a bit of computer savvy and some time. Many domain hosting companies also offer proprietary site-builder tools, and nearly all allow the integration of WordPress, which is a highly flexible and easy to use html-based framework in which you can import “themes” of your choosing and integrate “plugins” such as e-store programs. Indeed, whether you do it yourself or hire a site designer who works with small businesses, it is likely your site will be built on WordPress or a similar platform.

The Gun-Friendly Consideration

Before you commission any work, be sure to mention you are in the shooting sports trade. Many relatively budget-friendly products offered today are both e-stores and site design in one. As you well know, and as I talked about in my last article regarding the no-guns policies of Shopify and others, you do not want to pay for a beautiful website whose retail processing functionality prohibits the sale of your products.

This is where semi-customizable platforms like WordPress can offer you the ability to work with an affordable site design contractor or do it yourself, still make a unique looking site and provide e-store capabilities through a plugin. All of the general e-store platforms mentioned in the last article (WooCommerce, BigCommerce and 3DCart) integrate with plugins, and all major POS systems (including RapidGun) can also integrate with these e-store platforms. In other words, you buy the suit off the rack and tailor the details to your preference.

What to Expect if You Don’t Go Custom

Even a semi-customized site using existing software products comes with its share of legwork on your end. You or a contractor will have to do at least some light site design work, and you and your staff will need to create your own product photos, descriptions and listings. The latter can actually be potentially advantageous, as many search engine algorithms give preference to unique content, which means your unique product listings can truly stand out from the crowd. The downside, depending on the number of SKUs you carry, is that this can represent a laborious task, as well as a significant investment in maintenance of the data and listings.

Is There a Middle Ground? Yes!

Options are available to streamline this process that are targeted specifically to the shooting sports industry, those e-commerce platforms I mentioned previously such as Gearfire and Ammoready. With these that inventory legwork is done for you — i.e., product descriptions are written, photos taken or provided and UPC codes entered. These platforms can also mirror/stream inventory directly from major distribution partners through to your site.

What this means is that, unlike the custom suit or the rack suit taken to the tailor, this is the “uniform” option. You get a highly functional “garment” designed and researched to meet the needs of those in your profession, and you can put your department or unit’s logo on it and get it in different colors. The streaming functionality you get with these partners can be a powerful tool, and there is no contest compared to others when it comes to ease of use on your end as the retailer. The only downside is that your online store will potentially lack some uniqueness and that in turn may mean it won’t rank as high as you’d like in search engine discovery. I think that’s a fair trade-off if you’ve made the decision to have an online retail presence. If budget is a consideration and you want to get online quickly, stream distribution inventory and keep the time investment from you and your staff to a minimum.

When choosing an e-commerce platform ask about ease of use, integration with your current software and systems, its capability, SEO and customer experience. Most importantly, ask yourself how important customization is to you, and what price in dollars or time you’re willing to pay. Options exist at all ends of the spectrum, and whether you need a custom suit, a uniform, or something in between is up to you.

About the Author
Josh Fiorini is the former CEO of PTR Industries, Inc. He spent the first decade of his career in finance, holding positions as an equity analyst and portfolio manager before starting his own hedge fund. This experience, along with a deep background in manufacturing, banking and private equity, has made him a sought-after contributor on numerous boards and discussion groups on political and economic issues for media outlets, corporations and community organizations. Fiorini currently invests his time and resources with non-profit initiatives and acts as a contributor and management consultant to various firms in the firearms industry as the founding and Managing Partner in the firm Narrow Gate Management.

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