Why you shouldn’t try to build your own airplane

Published on November 18, 2016 by Guest blogger

Roman Zenner from commercetools tells us why developing your e-commerce system can be like building an airplane, and gives us five steps to experience-driven commerce

Imagine you manage a major airline, and you’re responsible for purchasing and maintaining your aircraft. You’ll surely face questions like: how much will it cost to purchase and maintain the aircraft? Will my pilots be able to fly the aircraft safely? And of course the big question: Will my customers enjoy the flight and recommend my airline?



Best-of-breed approach

For aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing, the answers to those questions are vital to their business. In order to be able to build airplanes in a cost-efficient way and innovate quickly, they purchase pre-assembled parts for their new products, delivered by expert suppliers around the world. In other words, rather than constructing and building everything themselves, they rely on specialists contributing their individual expertise to the final product.

If you think about this, this makes perfect sense: Building a plane wing requires an entirely different set of skills than constructing engines, seating or navigation software. All that Airbus and Boeing need to do is define the overall product design and the interfaces the contributors can then use to plug in their systems. They shape the experience both for the employees who fly the aircraft and the customers who board it, ready to travel to their long-awaited vacation.

However, it wasn't always like this. In the early days of aviation, this division of labor was not practiced and manufacturers produced the first airplanes completely on their own.


Jack of all trades, master of none

And it is exactly here that we change our perspective and take a look at how online retail has evolved in the last decades. The first web stores were built with software suites that could do it all: They had a built-in product information system (PIM), an integrated search and filter mechanism, different payment methods, and a discount logic, to name but a few. When retailers wanted to be able to publish some editorial content, commerce software providers added some content management capabilities. This development resulted in complex, monolithic software suites – consisting of millions of lines of code – which did everything all at once.

At first, this sounded like a good idea: Retailers got everything in a one-stop shop and didn’t have to worry about maintaining multiple pieces of software. But then the problems started:


1. Specialized competitors

Over time, new specialists entered the market or adapted their business model to be commerce-compatible. Providers of content management solutions such as Magnolia have focused their attention on giving content managers the tools to build attractive and content-rich web applications. Compared with the integrated CMS modules of popular commerce platforms, they offer complex workflows and collaboration processes and much more, and are in fact light years ahead of the functionalities in the integrated commerce suites.

2. Slower innovation cycles

When more features are added, the system becomes bloated and increasingly hard to maintain. As a result, before the CMS functionality of a given commerce suite gets a highly anticipated update, the software provider might decide to upgrade the search and payment parts of his product first. In this case, a retailer could either cross his fingers and hope that the competition doesn’t overtake him, or invest heavily in adapting the software himself.

The shortcomings of this integrated approach become clear when we look at the way retailers try to generate attractive shopping experiences for their customers.


Creating unique user experiences

Retailers need to have complete control in shaping the online customer experience. These days it is no longer enough to import product information and present it in a standard, uninspiring online store. Instead, customers are looking for websites that inspire, contain entertaining and educational content, and make the stay as enjoyable as possible. People don’t simply want to be ushered from product to checkout in the fastest way – instead, they like to take detours, enjoy gorgeous photography, maybe a small video or a well-written guide on a topic of interest. Finally, they would like to be able to purchase in an efficient and secure way. This approach, which is often referred to as experience-driven commerce, is now used successfully by innovative retailers such as LUSH, Carhartt WIP or Bulls.


Five steps to experience-driven commerce

So what could retailers learn from the world of aviation? 


Follow a best-of-breed approach:

It is vital not to rely on one “perfect” software solution to rule them all. Instead, use specialized solutions and make sure they work together smoothly. Modern software solutions are equipped with flexible APIs, so exchanging data between them requires almost no individual development work. An aircraft manufacturer defines the overall designs and the interfaces, which the specialist suppliers work towards.

Focus on marketers being able to create the experience:

Even though it takes a modern technology stack to create a convincing online experience, creative people and marketers need the tools to build attractive pages and “own” the experience. Even if an aircraft’s wing geometry is state-of-the-art and the materials used make the plane a lot lighter – what the traveller wants to experience is a comfortable chair, a nice interior and friendly staff. Use a dedicated CMS such as Magnolia to help you build these attractive shopping worlds. 

Use commerce functionality á la carte:

A producer of fuel tanks might also be able to provide passenger toilets and seats, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that aircraft manufacturers have to use the entire product portfolio. Instead, they will pick exactly what they need. In this sense, a retailer should pick a commerce solution that allows him to use exactly the features he needs at any given moment. Via its flexible API, the commercetools platform allows retailers to use only certain functions – such as product information, cart, checkout etc. – and inject them into their CMS.

So, the next time you’re on a plane flying to your holiday destination – remember that the products in your in-flight magazine are not the only commerce aspect. The airplane, the service and your seat are a hybrid of matching the best commercial products to give you a unique in-flight experience. Take this approach when thinking about online retail and your web store.


Roman Zenner


Roman is the Industry Analyst and Content Writer for commercetools. He has been working as an author, consultant and speaker in the field of e-commerce for nearly 15 years. He regularly publishes articles in professional journals and has authored several books on webshop software. He also lectures at conferences and moderates expert panels.





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About the author Guest blogger

Magnolia has an amazing community of partners and clients, among them quite a few wordsmiths. From time to time, they put their expertise into blog posts and share them on this platform.

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