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Comment: CMS vs eCommerce platform - one, the other or both?

Today’s winners in retail are those who provide a strong product offer at a good price backed by an excellent customer experience across online, mobile, contact centre, fulfilment and returns. Each element is important, but online customer experience, in particular, is receiving a lot of senior management attention and is the focus of this article.

Retailers understand that online customer experience has to evolve beyond simple product browse and shopping cart functions. The most valuable customer is inspired by, reassured by, and emotionally attached to a retail brand. To encourage this behaviour, retailers must personalise their online presence to the customer, provide increasingly rich content, and offer more engaging online functionality.

This is most prevalent in the fashion sector with companies such as Asos, Net-a-Porter and Marks & Spencer (M&S) looking to provide daily fashion advice to engage their customers. And companies in other sectors, such as bike retailer Wiggle, are following suit with comprehensive guides on cycling, running, swimming and triathlon.

In terms of technology, the eCommerce platform, central to all retailers' eCommerce operations, can be a powerful blocker to delivering these richer experiences. The content management capabilities of eCommerce platforms typically vary from non-existent to mediocre. Even platforms with the best content management system (CMS) capability do not match the depth of function delivered by dedicated CMS platforms from the likes of Adobe, CoreMedia, Sitecore, Oracle and others. However these platforms duplicate many features in ecommerce platforms, and therefore the CMS versus eCommerce platform is not a simple decision.

ECommerce/CMS integration approaches

Whether a retailer needs a CMS, and if so how it should be deployed, is a complex question. One or other of the CMS or eCommerce platform needs to “own the glass”, constructing the final web pages and serving them to the web visitor. ECommerce platforms typically expect to build and serve the web pages, not all CMS solutions do.

There are five main options for retailers:

1.) eCommerce platform only

2.) eCommerce platform runs the shop and CMS runs a separate brand site

3.) eCommerce platform runs the site, CMS used as a content authoring tool

4.) CMS runs the site and calls the eCommerce platform via interfaces for shopping function

5.) CMS only

In general, the more important the consumer brand, lifestyle and advice content in the customer experience (and therefore by implication, the less the focus is on shopping), the stronger the need for a CMS to power the site (options 4 and 5). These approaches are actively being evaluated by consumer brands, in particular luxury brands.

Option 1 – eCommerce platform only – is a widely used approach, well-understood and suitable for a large majority of online and multi-channel retailers. By selecting an appropriate platform with CMS function, it can also deliver a rich and engaging customer experience. The Lakeland site is a good example of a flexible customer presentation delivered from a standard ecommerce platform.

Option 2 – separate store and brand sites – is most often seen where “brand” and sales are organisationally two distinct, autonomous, teams, for example as seen in some consumer brand manufacturers. There is a high potential for customer experience disconnects and this approach is normally only recommended as an interim, tactical step, or while a country-by-country rollout of eCommerce function is underway. Apple and H&M are good examples of this approach.

Option 3 – using CMS as an authoring tool – does not do much for online presentation, but does deliver tools to manage content creation and workflow. This approach is helpful for retailers who have to generate and control large amounts of content while keeping the focus on transactional capability in a simple, cost-effective way. The new M&S website is an example of this.

Option 4 – CMS owns the glass – is, so far, rarely seen in high volume mainstream retail environments (Nike is one of the closest exceptions), although Javelin Group has been involved in very interesting proofs of concept around this approach. Only some eCommerce platforms are capable of participating in this way due to the depth of interfaces required – IBM WebSphere Commerce and SAP hybris are two. This approach has the potential to offer a very strong combination of customer experience and eCommerce transactional function, but requires significant effort to set up, test and deliver and, as yet, uncertain implications on IT operations.

Option 5 – CMS only – can be a good option for specialist retailers and brands with small product catalogues, if the shopping element of the site is of secondary concern, or for sectors such as financial services, where the transactional capability is always going to be provided via integration to back-end systems. Privilege Insurance, part of the Direct Line Group, is a good example of this.


Each of the approaches above has merit, and retailers should consider the overall eCommerce architecture and desired user experience when making decisions on CMS and eCommerce platforms.

Martin Ryan is head of technology consulting at Javelin Group, specialist retail and omnichannel consultants.

Tony Stockil, CEO of Javelin Group, will be presenting a conference session at RBTE 2014 on The Global Digital Retail Revolution.