Ecommerce APIs: The future is here
In Part Three, we look at the growing complexity of the API economy, and the opportunities it's opening up for ecommerce innovators
Welcome to the final installment of our Ecommerce API Integrations series.
In Part One, we outlined the broad definition and relevance of ecommerce API integrations.
In Part Two, we looked at the history of ecommerce APIs, and how that history got us to the current state. We concluded by touching on the integrations challenge, which is what we’ll focus on in-depth in Part Three.
Integrations on a spectrum
In Part Two, we asked: how can developers take advantage of the breadth of potential integrations while delivering robust functionality to their users?
A quick definition: Any given ecommerce app–sometimes referred to as cartridges, extensions, etc. depending on the ecommerce platform–is in essence an integration with that platform’s API that connects to an external service or infrastructure. For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to these as services (the integrations and the app are just vehicles for the service).
As it turns out, many of the customers we talk to struggle with this nuance. All ecommerce integrations basically provide the same functionality: they connect an outside partner or service to an ecommerce platform’s data…right?
In the open ecommerce app marketplace, the breadth of potential API functionality has exploded as more platforms have exposed more endpoints to developers. The functional complexity of various integrations has increased in turn. As a result, ecommerce infrastructure apps have become more specialized. The importance of that specialization is probably the most overlooked quality that we encounter with potential buyers.
Today, an ecommerce integration’s value to a given user can best be broken down across three main vectors: specificity, functional complexity, and platform coverage.
- Specificity refers to the specific function the integration or app is designed to do. Some of the most common or popular apps focus on very specific functions like Buy Now, Pay Later payment providers. Others take a more generalized approach with integrations focused on general workflow automation. Other common functions for ecommerce APIs today include shipping and fulfillment services, inventory management, customer relationship management (CRM), and payment gateways.
- Functional Complexity is defined as the depth of the integration with the ecommerce platform.This is the extent to which it bi-directionally connects with specific and nuanced functionality of the ecommerce platform itself. The domain of this functionality is also important: Does it involve operations risk? Real time inventory tracking? Order management? Customer payment information? Personally identifiable information?
- Platform coverage is defined by the number of ecommerce platforms supported for a given service. Merchants typically only require apps that integrate with a single ecommerce platform. But for third parties like the emerging sales channels we serve, the number of platforms, and thus merchants, they can work with is an essential consideration. It saves them the valuable time and expense of having to integrate with each platform themselves.
Because platform coverage doesn’t matter as much for merchants, it’s often the most overlooked attribute of ecommerce apps. For emerging sales channels though, it’s the most important, and the hardest to duplicate in house. Providing deep, complex functionality across many ecommerce platforms is much harder than providing them for one, because it requires normalization across all of the platforms. Platform coverage both multiplies the work required to build and maintain an ecommerce app, but it also has the potential to multiply revenue or market share for it’s users.
Specificity, complexity, and platform coverage are crucial to compare the relative fit or value to a given customer. Quality of an integration is important, for sure. But the biggest challenge and opportunity today for developers is not how to build a “good” integration, but how to use ecommerce integrations to orchestrate specific and complex functions across multiple ecommerce platforms. That’s exactly what Violet does.
From integration to orchestration
We believe orchestration is the key to helping developers build next-generation commerce experiences. Like integrations were a decade ago, ecommerce orchestration is going to be one of the most exciting parts of ecommerce’s future, and one of its biggest opportunities.
Today there are a few companies focused on orchestration, but only Violet provides universal, native checkout orchestration. Other ecommerce integration APIs have emerged to focus on other unique challenges in things like FinTech and basic workflow automation. But we focused on checkout because we believe it’s the necessary infrastructure to unlock a distributed commerce future where shoppers can purchase products wherever they discover them..
To build our checkout orchestration API, we needed three main components:
- Onboarding: The first and last and easiest part of our orchestration is onboarding, or walking merchant partners through the process of connecting with and authenticating our integration to allow for native checkout with them from any online channel.
- Integrations: Integrations into various ecommerce platforms are the first building block for our checkout orchestration. These integrations on their own are fairly straightforward. They facilitate authentication from a merchant to the Violet API, and they establish the mapping of a given platform’s data to our normalized schema.
- Infrastructure: This middle layer is the hardest and most important part. It’s the core value of Violet’s API. To normalize across multiple ecommerce platforms requires a headless, multi-platform distribution system. We built ours specifically to connect checkout on any sales channel with any source ecommerce system.
These three components are required for any orchestration, but the infrastructure piece is especially complex for native checkout. This is for two main reasons:
For native checkout to work between any channel and any merchant, the infrastructure needs to allow for bi-directional syncing between the merchant and channel sites. This means syncing data on things like product catalog, carts, tax & shipping rates, orders, fulfillments, and returns / exchanges in real time for both the channel and the merchant.
Native checkout also requires highly complex workflow normalization and automation across a wide variety of platforms and product types. Fulfilling an online order of a pair of boots is very different from that of a boat or concert ticket, and each ecommerce platform organizes their workflow and schema differently. When you think of all the steps that come between when a shopper sees a product online to when it arrives on their doorstep, Violet’s infrastructure has to account for and support bi-directional communication for all of those processes.
While building the infrastructure layer for orchestrated, native checkout was challenging, we knew the payoff for our customers would be well worth it. Checkout orchestration sidesteps the pitfalls of other quick-fixes that have surfaced over the past decade to meet the same need:
- Affiliate networks: The internet is exploding with affiliate links today, but all affiliate link revenue services for sales channels fall victim to the same set of drawbacks: bad or spammy customer experiences, leaky funnels, poor attribution models, and the loss of users’ attention when they click out to checkout.
- Feed aggregators: Feed aggregators may amass catalog information in one place, but their advantages stop there. Because they were not built for checkout, they rely on outdated technology with brittle implementations, and often only partner with a patchwork of suppliers.
- Manual re-ordering: Manual re-ordering describes a process in which shoppers complete orders natively on the channel’s site, but because there is no integration or orchestration, that channel then has to manually replicate the order with the merchant themselves. This process slows order turnaround time, drives up overhead, and is incredibly error-prone.
While these models have clunky user experiences and shaky tech, their biggest issue is their inability to scale effectively. Fundamentally, this is because affiliate links and feed aggregators were built for an advertisement-driven internet. But as we covered in our August 2022 issue of The Writeback, the future of ecommerce is and will be powered by a checkout-powered internet. People don’t want to discover products through ads: they want to take advantage of all the experience-rich, personalized content the internet has to offer. And they want to be able to purchase where they discover. Native checkout orchestration is the only efficient and scalable way to power that kind of experience in the long term.
While we believe that checkout will prove to be one of the most critical functions in the future of ecommerce, we’re equally convinced that orchestration of a variety of functions is the future of ecommerce APIs. To fully deliver on the complexity, breadth of function, and platform coverage, channels will require partners who understand the orchestration layer, and have built the infrastructure to make that orchestration a reality.