Complex Commerce: Managing the Multi-Store Problem


Despite massive investments in digital transformation, the soaring trajectory of innovation, and consumers who increasingly expect exceptional commerce experiences, much of the infrastructure powering digital commerce has remained unchanged for the past 20 years. The limitations and perceived complexity of traditional e-commerce catalogs have made it difficult for multi-faceted businesses like franchises, channel partnerships, multi-brand organizations, and distributor-to-supplier networks to succeed. In reality, however, the problem is not complexity. The problem is a lack of strategic processes for managing that complexity, leading to poor integration of new data into catalogs and diminished brand identity, tarnishing the customer experience and reducing revenue. Poorly managed complexity causes back-office systems issues that ripple into front-end consumer interfaces and experiences.

This dynamic is intensified by the fact that many companies operate on multiple commerce sites, managed by multiple people, across multiple geographies; a model that makes coordination of infrastructure and experience even more challenging. Keeping storefronts (and the catalogs underlying them) organized can feel impossible. This is called the “multi” problem, which creates complexity, increasing and expensive complications for the IT department. In order to address it, digital commerce companies will have to invest in updating the infrastructure underlying their catalogs to offer a consistent customer experience and reduce the strain on IT. 

Who has the “multi” problem and why?

Businesses utilize digital catalogs in various ways. Some have similar storefronts operating in a franchise model, while others may have unique product brands unified under a single consumer packaged goods company. But at the most basic level, any business that sells a common set of products through a network of digital commerce storefronts can encounter multi-store management challenges. Some companies may then face added complications based on the specifics of their approach. 

For example, downstream companies in the B2B2C model may encounter unique issues when attempting to make changes to an upstream company’s product catalog. These situations are technically and operationally complex for the distributor and the downstream company. A small business that wants to list some of its services or products online alongside its larger supplier may struggle to make the adjustments. For the upstream company, ensuring timely communication of any changes to products, categories, catalogs, pricing, and integrations is equally demanding.

To avoid these challenges, manufacturers or distributors will update their commerce instances for each partner and create custom processes to support the synchronization of products, integrations, and more. While it addresses some of the issues of the multi-problem, this approach is still unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming, creating too many opportunities for error and requiring too many technical resources. It also stunts scaling, because an approach that requires such consistent development, maintenance, and support for each storefront quickly becomes unsustainable when a franchise begins to add brands. Parent companies are overwhelmed and downstream retailers are without the digital infrastructure and support needed to showcase goods and services, resulting in lost revenue for both the retailer and manufacturer.

Managing multiple stores at the organizational level

Parent companies can address this complexity by affirming their control over defining products, categories, pricing, catalogs, and integrations and pushing that data downstream. They can also decouple the frontend from the backend, so that individual downstream brands can control how their site looks and feels for their customers and make occasional product adjustments if necessary.

A flexible, composable, microservices-based catalog architecture helps achieve this by enabling the parent company to “stream” key product data to each of its downstream partners. Integrations to back-office systems can also be managed centrally with a “write once, run everywhere” methodology. That way, commerce teams don’t have to worry about replicating data and recreating integrations. This makes it easier for each brand or franchise to customize its storefront for promotions, product bundles, flash sales, and more—while still having access to the latest product information from the parent company. These responsive, up-to-date storefronts facilitate positive customer experiences that benefit both downstream brands and parent companies. 

Whether businesses have one or multiple digital commerce storefronts, they need a single, integrated source of truth for managing and monitoring their products across stores. This solution saves time, reduces errors, and provides valuable insights into overall business performance. At the same time, composable architecture empowers individual brands or store owners to preserve their identities and remain flexible enough to run custom promotions and manage day-to-day business operations seamlessly. This combination of control and flexibility allows more companies to take advantage of available digital shelf space without the technical pain that traditionally comes with older, legacy architecture.

Bryan House is the Chief Experience Officer at Elastic Path.

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