As a business grows, systems multiply. Tools and additional platforms are brought in to meet the challenges of scale and enable expansion. But when you add them up, complexity mounts. Growing tech stacks need management, which pulls organizations away from the very things that fueled growth to begin with: people and products.
Often, blame is laid on the ever-increasing toolsets themselves. But the number of tools isn’t necessarily at fault. As we’ve been learning over the past three years talking to ecommerce managers, CTOs, and frontline employees, one of the most overlooked and important ways to address this complexity is to change how ecommerce systems connect.
Complexity, Scale, and the Truth About Ecommerce Technology
In the beginning — think 15 to 20 years ago — scaling an ecommerce business through early-stage development was hard. Every change required a large investment. Tasks like opening payment gateways, maintaining security, and matching server capacity with volume all required custom coding. This meant that every change in strategy increased the difficulty of running a business in a big way.
Then came software-as-service (SaaS), and the investment required to make these changes was reduced significantly. Rather than custom development, SaaS freed businesses to choose plug-and-play options. This made new strategies simpler and easier to experiment with.
Unfortunately, once an organization moves beyond early-stage growth, keeping up with the rapid pace of change and innovation in the market introduces new and even more difficult challenges. Changes to how the company operates (everything from inventory and order management to multi-channel sales to international ecommerce, etc.) require compounding investments to scope, implement, and integrate new systems.
Why? Because, to adjust quickly, companies often rely on manual work and new hires, followed by the addition of new technology. As those tools stack up, making changes becomes exponentially more work.
Online retail isn’t the only industry beset by this struggle. In Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, Geoffrey West explains: “As they grow, companies tend to become more and more unidimensional. … Change, adaptation, and reinvention become increasingly difficult to effect, especially as the external socioeconomic clock is continually accelerating and conditions change at a faster and faster rate.”
For some online businesses, ecommerce platforms remain at the center of their systems. Around them is a constellation of additional platforms and apps.
For others, their ecommerce platforms become a checkout. This configuration is often referred to as headless commerce.
Instead of one monolithic “store” running everything, content (the front-end) is served through a CMS (content management system) while commerce (the back-end) is governed by enterprise resource planning, an ecommerce platform, and/or customer relationship management software.
But for both setups, the same fundamental problem remains. Businesses need to find ways to reduce the mounting difficulty of change and make room for more experimentation. Growth hinges on maintaining the speed and flexibility that made them successful when they were small.
We believe one of the most effective ways organizations can do this is by taking advantage of automation to, yes, offload work but also to link their tools together in a more adaptable way.
Automation and the Promise of Sustainable Scale
What is ecommerce automation? Simply put, it’s the combination of software, processes, and mindsets that reduce manual workloads, increase front and backend efficiency, and allows people on the frontlines of ecommerce to experiment for growth quickly and efficiently.
The most obvious applications fall along three roles:
To focus on such benefits, however, would miss the revolutionary nature of automation as a built-in feature: the ability to connect systems without having to wade into APIs or code. It comes down to control. Automation is truly powerful not just because it saves us time in general, but it gives us a choice. You can choose how to spend your resources — above all, time.
The promise of ecommerce automation is to grow your business at a rate that outperforms what’s required to power that growth.
This approachability eases the burden of integrations and enables change, experimentation, and/or the elimination of low-level tasks. Systems become manageable, configurable, and changeable by people, not developers.
Are We There Yet?
In under two years, businesses on Shopify Plus using ecommerce automation have offloaded over 1.1 billion tasks. Those tasks add up to more than 9.2 million hours of reclaimed time. Moreover, those tasks have been configured by a person working within their role, rather than an engineer. We’ve also found that the larger a business is, the more likely they are to use automation to combat complexity.
But the fact remains that large businesses still have many tools and systems to connect. I believe that we at Shopify Plus, our community of Partners, and all ecommerce providers have more in this space to do. Large online businesses can and should exist outside the bounds of ecommerce platforms. And ecommerce platforms themselves should enable that choice, not hinder it.
About the Author
Katie Cerar is a Product Lead at Shopify Plus, building solutions that support the complexities of Shopify’s most successful merchants. She joined Shopify in 2016 through the acquisition of design and development consultancy Boltmade Inc. Her hobbies include lifting heavy things, cat wrangling, and coffee drinking.