In the modern digital landscape, there are dozens of different platforms available for creating an online store. Digital commerce has evolved and includes major platforms like BigCommerce, Lightspeed and Shopify, to Woocommerce and Magento, or any of a myriad other products and sales plug-ins – the options are extensive. Over the past few years the opportunities for retailers to begin their foray into digital commerce, or to grow their existing online businesses, has continued to expand and evolve. The number of systems and platforms available specifically to businesses in the GCC has also kept pace, meaning that managers and business owners have numerous options to choose from. Additionally, support for regional currencies and payment systems has expanded substantially, meaning nearly every regional currency can be supported easily. Shopify, as an example, now provides full support for most regional currencies, and a multitude of credit card and payment gateways are available to support the commercial and digital ambitions of every kind of business.
The systems and platforms that are available today provide burgeoning entrepreneurs and established retailers with excellent tools to push their businesses forward online. Some of the key differentiators between the various solutions are primarily related to cost, core features, flexibility and the opportunity to integrate with other third party tools, such as accounting, inventory management, fulfillment and Point-of-Sale systems. Selecting a platform that suits a business will mean having a clear idea of how your online store will integrate with your existing operations. If a business will operate solely online, without physical bricks-and-mortar locations, then it will not be necessary to include certain integrations; however, for many retail businesses, it will be critical to have an integrated inventory management system that provides for synchronized inventories with Point-of-Sale systems to support both their physical retail and online store. Additionally, keeping your accounting systems correctly updated when sales are made, or returns are processed, is critical to ensuring your data is accurate. Ensuring the platform you choose provides a robust and well rounded collection of integration possibilities is an important consideration when making a decision of which platform meets your business structure and goals.
Working with many customers and clients over the years, it is often noted that managers and business owners have a vision of e-commerce and an online store as operationally independent from the rest of the business. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. If a business will operate on any digital platform, it will be critical to ensure there is some form of integration to other crucial business systems. Whether this is an accounting or finance system, inventory management, or point-of-sale – the necessity of having your online store integrated with these can not be overstated.
In many multi-channel retail environments, where sales are made from both brick-and-mortar stores, as well as online, stock will be pulled from a common inventory. Unless you will segment out a portion of your inventory for online sales only, there is a clear and critical requirement to ensure your inventory remains synchronised at all times. This becomes increasingly important as customers demand more comprehensive online sales options, such as ‘click-and-pick’, where they make a purchase online for pickup in one of your physical retail outlets. If the systems are not correctly integrated, you run the risk of making online sales for product that you no longer have in stock. This will lead to a disappointed customer, and a loss of faith in your brand overall.
The critical nature of such integrations is not limited to inventory control, but extends to accounting and other systems as well. A lack of real-time integration in your finance and accounting systems could mean that any sales, customer and tax data that is generated from your online store will need to be manually input to your existing accounting systems. This is both error prone and time consuming, and opens your business to a multitude of probable losses resulting from an inaccurate flow of important financial data.
What should be clear from all of this, is that integration is a key component to any online store platform you choose. Working with your team, or a qualified external partner, it will be important to qualify precisely which systems you currently use, and whether your selected platforms will integrate. In the cases where they will not, it may be worth considering changes to other key business systems, in order to build a fully integrated business platform to support your business and lay a strong foundation for future growth. It will also be likely that in order to expand your business to include an additional sales channel such as an online store, will require the addition of new components to your business systems, including fulfillment and shipping, marketing and other critical tools.
Fulfillment, Warehousing & Logistics
Getting products to your customers in a timely fashion is one of the most important parts of any online store or business. Shipping delays, or delays in processing an order, all add up to disappointment by an increasingly expectant customer. E-commerce has evolved over the past decade, and today’s customer is used to offers of ‘next day delivery’, or even ‘same day delivery’ by some of the largest online retailers in certain cities. In order to compete effectively, it is important to ensure your logistics/warehousing and fulfillment processes and partners are efficient, fast and accurate. Warehousing, logistics and fulfillment is one element of an online business that can benefit enormously by working with a third party partner. For many SME’s, the time and cost associated with staffing and training for these key roles may be mitigated or eliminated by working with a partner that can provide a full solution. This means your products can be warehoused, picked, packed and shipped quickly once an order is placed from your online store. If you have chosen an online platform that offers integration with one of these 3PL providers, you can benefit from more streamlined business operations, and focus on more commercial tasks such as marketing and brand development.
Most retail business owners will note that while many platforms are excellent for presenting products to consumers, there are varying levels of support and features within the different systems to address key business operations. First on this list, is logistics and fulfillment, which for many retailers is the ‘make or break’ element of their business. Finding efficiencies in supply chain and logistics can bring much greater margins to retailers, and is definitely worth the effort to organize well. In addition, making the “last mile” in fulfillment and ensuring on time delivery to customers is a critical piece of the online retail environment, and requires care and attention to get it right.
Supporting this effort are various third party plug-ins and inventory management solutions that will help retailers to integrate their store systems with sound inventory management practices. A list of a few of those which have been reviewed and tested by Effentii is available here – we recommend reading the pros and cons of each of these systems, and how they may help in creating strong back office inventory management solutions.
Fulfillment is one of the most important aspects of running an online retail business and there is a gap in the integration opportunities for local retailers to efficiently streamline their last mile delivery solutions to customers. ShopGo states that they have integrations with Aramex in the region, but on further investigation, it becomes clear that this integration is not functioning in a manner that provides full integration. Specifically, for retailers looking for a warehouse pick-and-pack solution, which would provide warehouse space and delivery when a sale has been made – this type of service, while stated as being possible, hasn’t successfully been demonstrated. Recent conversations with the ShopGo sales team confirms that they are still working on developing the solution. Similarly, Flow logistics out of Saudi Arabia, and other services, are not well aligned with online retail platforms, and such services remain limited when trying to create an integrated platform. Two options that do stand out however, are Fetchr and Shipwire (Ingram Micro), which offer comprehensive integrated solutions to retailers.
What follows is an overview of potential fulfillment solutions that can be used in the region. They are intended to represent efficient and economical solutions that provide online retailers with delivery and warehousing solutions that enhance their service to customers, and allow them to excel in online retail.
Materials Handling and Fulfillment Solutions
Aramex – https://www.aramex.com/AtlanticPlus
DHL – http://www.dhl.com.sa/en/ecommerce/business_customers/international_shipping.html
Fetchr – https://fetchr.us/fetchr-for-business/fulfilment-by-fetchr/
SwissLog – Click&Pick System – http://www.swisslog.com/en/WDS/ME-Warehousing-Material-Handling-Automation-order-fulfillment-ASRS-Middle-East-Saudi-Arabia-UAE-MENA/ClickandPick-e-commerce-logistics-fulfilment-middle-east
Shipwire (Ingram Micro) – https://www.ingrammicrocommerce.com/
Online Store Platforms
The variety of platforms available is vast, and while a complete ERP system with integrated online components may be within the grasp of some larger companies, the expertise, cost and experience required to implement such systems are often well beyond the ability of most small-to-medium sized businesses. With that in mind, we’ve provided a shortlist of some of the most mature and scalable platforms available, that are within the reach of most SME’s in terms of cost, while offering an ease of management and maintenance that can generally be done without much third-party assistance.
The size and scope of your operations will have an impact on the platforms and systems you choose for your online store. Taking the time to ensure you have a functional understanding of your business, and the processes that are used within it, will assist you in defining precisely which system is right for you. Placing further attention on the necessity of integrating existing systems, or potentially transitioning to new systems that will provide more comprehensive integration and intercommunication will provide the core strength and foundation for your business to grow into digital commerce.