In today’s interconnected world, ecommerce systems aren’t just isolated digital outposts: they’re the connective tissue between multiple business assets including websites, mobile applications, third-party marketplaces, fulfillment providers and retail POS. That brings challenges. According to Gartner, by 2023 the average ecommerce experience will comprise over 30 integrated applications, with most of the cost attributed to system integration.
To help brands cope, ecommerce strategists and tech vendors have developed a wide range of different approaches, including multichannel, omnichannel, headless, composable and modular ecommerce. Now, a new approach — unified commerce — is promising to cut through the noise and give brands the technologies and resources they need to succeed.
That’s an enticing proposition. But as with any new technology, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and lose sight of your real business needs. To succeed, brands must stay focused on what really matters. It’s not tech solutions, but the broader strategic goal of deploying the right technologies in the right ways to deliver unified customer experiences across B2C and B2B.
What is Unified Commerce?
At its core, unified commerce promises to strip away complexity and deliver a frictionless front-end shopping experience supported by efficient back-end operations. Of course, that’s also the goal of multichannel, omnichannel and headless ecommerce. So, what makes unified commerce so special?
It helps to think of ecommerce as an evolving system. Single-channel commerce gives way to multichannel, with multiple touchpoints but segregated experiences and distinct back-end functions. From there, ecommerce evolves into an omnichannel framework with more integrated back-end functionality, typically by leveraging headless or composable infrastructure for flexibility and efficiency.
A unified commerce strategy goes a step further, delivering increased agility, personalization and flexibility by integrating all aspects of commerce, and connecting back-end and front-end operations into a single cohesive system. Everything from inventory to customer service to marketing data is brought together in one place, enabling brands to deliver a personalized experience across any number of touchpoints.
Under the Hood
Sounds good, right? But the devil is in the details. The key thing to realize is that the strategic goals of unified commerce and the technologies supporting those goals are two very different things.
It’s easy to see the strategic appeal of a seamless approach that goes beyond the decoupled front- and back-end of headless infrastructure, or the fragmented back-end tech of composable solutions, unifying all aspects of the ecosystem. But to support that strategic goal, unified commerce vendors have devised technological solutions that, in practice, often hold merchants back.
Some, for instance, offer colossal all-in-one platforms. Clearly, vendors such as Salesforce or Oracle have the power to offer a sprawling network of solutions, but they also have the power to lock users into lengthy contracts. That’s contrary to the strategic goal of unified commerce, because it makes it hard for brands to respond with agility to their changing needs.
Unified vendors also often add features by acquiring other vendors’ products, or by bundling third-party microservices. Again, such approaches ostensibly serve the strategic goals of unified commerce, but do so in a disjointed and resource-intensive way, with essential data siloed into separate tools. The upshot: Technologies that don’t serve users’ real goals, and that exacerbate the problems unified commerce was supposed to solve.
A Better Way
Of course, pure unified commerce platforms can work for some businesses. But determining whether they’ll work for you requires a deep understanding of your business needs now and far into the future. For any but the simplest and least customized implementations, monolithic solutions are unlikely to be the best fit. Even for the simplest scenarios, locking your brand into a long-term vendor relationship can constrain your growth for years to come.
Fortunately, there’s another approach that overcomes these drawbacks: the modular platform. This approach offers the same flexibility and high-quality task-specific tools used in the microservices approach, but delivers that modularity within a single unified framework to ensure efficiency and compatibility across the entire deployment. Users can turn on the solutions they need (and ignore the ones they don’t) on a flexible basis, with a solid core product and modular add-ons to cover functions such as CRM and marketplaces.
Going modular eliminates the constraints of an all-in-one system or a patchwork of microservices, and lets you build a flexible solution for your immediate needs. Essentially, the modular approach allows you to treat unified commerce at the strategic level, and let your strategic goals guide your technological decisions, rather than vice versa: instead of letting a unified commerce platform define your strategy, your strategy defines your tech stack.
Future Proof Your Business
The key to building out a truly futureproof tech solution for your ecommerce brand, then, is to take a strategic approach. Don’t rush to jump on the unified commerce bandwagon until you’re sure it’s right for your business. When you do, make sure you’re letting strategy guide your tech purchases, rather than the other way round.
Success in ecommerce depends on understanding your customers, knowing what kind of experiences you want to offer, and building compelling journeys across all touchpoints. From there, you’ll also need to understand your business needs, and build a system that can deliver the dataflows and technologies necessary for growth. That’s the strategic goal of unified commerce. But it’s up to you to build a solution that supports your evolving journey toward those goals, rather than locking you into a potentially suboptimal trajectory.
In today’s world, buyers want to connect in as many ways as possible. That means unified commerce is the future of online selling — but as a strategic imperative, not a rigid or monolithic technological framework. The goal should be efficiency, scalability, and most importantly the flexibility to innovate the customer experience. It’s up to every brand to find the solution that lets them unify their operations, serve customers’ changing needs and adapt to whatever tomorrow brings.
Yoav Kutner is the CEO and co-founder of Oro, Inc