The Commerce Catalog is Broken

Ever get an ad from a brand to “shop the look,” only to click through and find that process takes much more effort than you anticipated? What should be a single click often devolves into navigating through styles, colors and sizes until you can hunt down the look yourself. That’s if you even get that far.

This frustrating user experience is all too common with commerce sites. A landing page doesn’t match a styled shopping experience. A site’s filters don’t accurately allow you to sort by size, sale and other factors. These types of mismatched experiences result in high bounce rates, and even the loss of a potential sale to a competitor.

Much of this misalignment has a common culprit: The commerce catalog. Typically, a commerce platform imposes a rigid catalog structure on a brand, so the merchandiser is forced to conform to what the technology dictates.

Today’s commerce experiences demand a far more flexible approach than what’s available with legacy commerce catalogs. As new shopping channels and media emerge — from livestreaming to the metaverse — there’s no time for merchandisers to wrestle with rigid hierarchies. Let’s look at what’s broken about the commerce catalog and how to fix it.


Working Around Legacy Systems

Most commerce catalogs today are built to support structures based on legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. In fact, many organizations still create their product catalog by pushing the structure directly out of their ERP. These systems treat the commerce catalog as a tightly coupled, rigid and structured way to display information based on internal business processes.

To get around this structure, organizations have created workarounds, complex integrations, data replication and other strategies to adapt to modern ways of shopping. When an organization wants to shift its product experiences based on a new offering, flash sale or any kind of merchandising change, all those workarounds must be addressed. This results in a delay in getting those new experiences out to customers (often measured in days), affecting a brand’s ability to generate revenue.

This is not only a problem for merchandisers in the “shop the look” or miscategorization examples given above. It’s also an issue for branded manufacturers selling within business-to-business commerce channels. One of the primary challenges with B2B commerce applications is each customer has its own negotiated pricing contract with the branded manufacturer.

Then, the commerce platform’s catalog, along with its integrated ERP, often fails to support the negotiated contract pricing in the B2B use case. As a result, developers must build complex custom solutions to support these needs, or implement a punch-out system that directly connects into their ERP system, where they maintain separate catalogs for each customer. Meanwhile, these developers are fearing the day they need to make pricing changes across a thousand unique catalogs in their ERP system.

Breaking Up the Commerce Catalog

Rather than creating such complex workarounds, there’s a fundamentally different way to handle these commerce catalog challenges. The best approach is to break down the commerce catalog into component parts by decoupling the products from the catalog. That way, each component of the catalog can be isolated into its own set of separately managed microservices.

For the “shop the look” example above, a brand could manage this process with a microservices-based catalog by merchandising individual SKUs separate from their parent product. With the flexibility to work with each individual component of the catalog separately, merchandisers can easily compose the experiences they want for their targeted customers, without IT’s intervention.

Adaptable, microservices-based architectures aren’t just valuable in commerce. They’re used in most modern, cloud-native software applications across industries. Essentially, any industry that wants to move faster and accommodate change is leveraging this approach to software development.

So why should commerce teams be forced to wrestle with a legacy catalog structure that prevents them from merchandising the moments they want? It’s time to break up these rigid, hierarchical structures from the late 1990s-early 2000s and embrace the flexibility of modern microservices in commerce. Your customers (and cart conversion rates rates) will thank you.

Bryan House is the SVP of Product and Customers Success at Elastic Path, where he leads the UX, Product Management, Enablement and Customer Success teams. Previously, House was the Chief Commercial Officer at Neural Magic, a deep learning software startup where he ran Product, GTM, and Customer Success. An Acquia founding team member, he helped lead the company to $170+M in revenue. His expertise spans digital commerce, machine learning, digital experience platforms and open source technology.

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