E-Commerce Integrations: Part One

This is the first in our three-part series on e-commerce integrations: what they are, how they’re changing, and who’s innovating in the field today. In Part One, we’ll go over some basic definitions, explain why e-commerce integrations are so important today, and look at some of the essential qualities that distinguish a great e-commerce integration from a mediocre one.

 

What is an e-commerce integration?

An e-commerce integration is any API (application programming interface) that connects with an e-commerce platform to make it possible to share data or support interoperable processes with another application outside of that platform or system.  

What exactly do e-commerce integrations do?

Typically, e-commerce APIs help integrate an e-commerce merchant’s backend process or database with an external service or application, making data or information stored or generated in one application readable and usable by another. 

In order for an online store to have up-to-date information on how many items are left in stock or how long it will take to ship to a given address, that online store has to be able to retrieve and send information to any number of support applications. For example, if an online merchant has a shipping provider, an API can help connect that merchant’s orders directly with the third party shipping’s backend. This way the shipping provider has all the information they need–how many of which product in which color or variant is going to which addresses–without the merchant needing to submit that data manually. And vice versa.

What kinds of problems do e-commerce integrations solve, and what problems don’t they solve?

Twenty years ago, before APIs were popularized, the next best option developers or data processors had was to copy data manually (who doesn’t love exporting CSVs?). This was and is incredibly slow and also prone to error. 

 Soon after, practices like scraping or crawling that were originally used by companies like Google to improve search results were then applied to scanning and copying data between different applications. While scraping automates at least parts of the data transfer, it comes with three major drawbacks:I 

  1. Mismatched cadence: While scraping could theoretically happen constantly, most scraping sites are only able to scrape once every 30 days at most, due to the resources required to scrape constantly. As a result, scraped product data is frequently inaccurate and out-of-date. 
  2. Frontend dependence: Scrapers read and update based on the structure of a site’s frontend, but e-merchants’ frontends change frequently. So even if scrapers were able to revise at faster intervals, any change in the frontend makes the product data unreadable by the scraper. 
  3. Infrastructure overhead: Because frontends change rapidly, there’s a lot of overhead required to keep a scraping system up to date–with the frequency e-commerce platforms and merchants are updating their information, it’s impossible to keep up. 

What are some of the most common types of e-commerce integrations out there today?

  • Shipping services: Helping online merchants get their goods to customers 
  • CRMs and customer data: Databases with key info on customers at every stage of the funnel 
  • Third party logistics companies (3PLs): For merchants who don’t want to handle their own inventory logistics 
  • Payment gateways: To handle payments, credit card info, etc. 
  • Accounting management systems: For bookkeeping, payroll, taxes, etc.
  • Customer support software: To help support customers along their purchasing journey
  • Marketing automation: To keep audiences engaged and in the loop
  • Social media: To raise brand awareness and to create additional channels for marketing and selling products
  • Analytics: To better understand company challenges and opportunities

And many more. There have never been more services resources to make it possible for merchants at any scale to start an online business: integrations are a big part of why that's the case. 

Why do e-commerce integrations matter?

In an industry like e-commerce where there are dozens of different kinds of software tools that a single merchant needs, e-commerce integrations make it possible to automate a veritable ton of data transfers, authentication, payment, and shipping processes so the merchant doesn’t have to manually move information back and forth between different applications.  

As frontend experiences grow more diverse (think AR/VR, social commerce, the metaverse) online merchants (particularly those striving to create the best possible experiences for their consumers) are on the lookout for the right suite of integrations that allow them to reach shoppers through as many different online experiences as possible. 

That doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Why is it so complicated or difficult?

As investor and author Packy McCormick put it:

Every big API-first business looks like it’s just software – just a few lines of code – until you look under the hood. There, you’ll find all sorts of complexity. Abstracting it away is the API’s raison d’être.  

Every API has its own process and structure for exchanging the data it stores and generates. Just like you can’t plug a lamp made for a French electrical system into a wall socket in India without an adapter, you can’t transfer data between different kinds of applications without some sort of translation. 

But more importantly, today online experiences are evolving and innovating at a rapid rate, with new ways to shop and consume content online emerging on a daily basis. Without a robust backend infrastructure, many of these new shopping experiences fall into what we call the frontend trap: everything about the experience is engaging until it comes time to the backend and logistics, when the lack of infrastructure leads to confusing, clunky, and unsynced checkout experiences, that often require clicking out to the merchant’s site and away from the more engaging content. 

Complexity

Today, Violet boasts a comprehensive index of e-commerce platforms. There are hundreds of them, and while they share certain properties each has a few particularities that require their own custom API features to make sure their data is extractable and readable by another application. 

Each of those platforms may have different product schemas with different properties like SKUs, variants, location, etc,. And within a given vertical, they have different kinds of variants or properties for each model because the variety of products or services represented by that model are so different. A concert ticket, an online associate’s degree, and a vacuum cleaner all have very different kinds of variants, making a universal schema or set of models that would work for all of them incredibly challenging. The translation process involved in setting up an integration with each of these hypothetical online merchants then requires replicating the product model in a way that is efficient, but also accurate. 

That balance is delicate and challenging to get right, made all the more difficult by the wide range of schema-complexity across  e-commerce platforms. While some have simple schemas, or ones that even seem simple from their perspective, it can still be difficult to translate that into a schema that a given channel or merchant can actually integrate with. 

Real-world consequences

The stakes are also high with e-commerce: very few  APIs out there have as many implications as e-commerce APIs. You’re manipulating digital bits, but those bits don’t just change a color, or inform the number of likes on a post. These bits will create physical actions in the built world. Someone will receive the API request, money will be taken from their bank account, and someone has to fulfill the order, and two to five days later that product is going to be delivered to someone’s door. The ones and zeroes translate into real-world realities quite quickly. 

These physical ramifications are especially true with the order lifecycle afterwards. For example, in Violet’s case, if an item has been returned or canceled, we need the customer’s card data, we need to return the money from the merchant and the channel and give it back to the customer. There are a lot of moving pieces to one simple return, all of which are happening in the world.

Accommodating myriad scenarios

The multi-faceted nature of e-commerce systems is often also why you see so many plug-ins and extensions: oftentimes APIs don’t always offer the exact functionality that every app needs, so you build extension features and add-ons to make it work with your own database. If it’s not a cloud platform (not Shopify, but more like Magento) you can actually extend the code base, and it changes the platform itself. At Violet both kinds of extensions are a part of our process. 

What goes into the making of an e-commerce integration? 

To build any integration, you need to go through five key phases:

Evaluation

Does the platform have the models & objects (carts, coupons, products) that you require?

Support

If the platform has the models you need, can it support all the actions required?

Access

Can you authenticate and access what the API partnerships require?

Building

This is the fun part! It generally breaks down into two parts:   

  1. Creating models: To build an effective integration, developers must create code-level “models” of every item sold by a merchant. Every model has a property. An effective integration must have equivalent models in their system that represent the models in the systems they’re integrating with.
  2. Translation: This is when you translate from your models and properties into the other party’s schema.

What makes a great e-commerce integration (as opposed to an average or poor one)?

While there are many, more granular aspects to e-commerce integrations that we value (and that we’ll cover in Part Two of this series), we generally look for five things on our e-commerce integration checklist: clarity, efficiency, access, stability, & community

Clarity

Clarity is one of our core values at Violet, and essential for us whenever we’re building an integration with an e-commerce platform. From their documentation to their sandbox directions to blogs and in-app experiences, we prize tools that are easy to understand and intuitive to start using. 

Efficiency

For us, an API is as much about efficient processes as it is about the end-result. Supporting features like webhooks, avoiding two-click checkout or cart processes, and getting all the required information with a single API request are all examples of small details that make a big difference in how efficiently a potential partner can get the integration up and running. 

Access

Not all APIs provide quick and easy access to their documentation and tools, creating roadblocks and paywalls to getting started. Some APIs will give access to certain features only to take them away. This may work for some business models, but at Violet we prioritize democratized access to our tech so everyone can benefit. 

Stability

At Violet, we’re trying to build integrations that last. We’ve had some unfortunate experiences building integrations where we’ve gotten something really powerful up and running only to have our partner sunset their integration, or sell to somebody else, or roll out a new API with no support for transferring current partners. To avoid any inconvenience to our customers, it’s incredibly important to us to work with other partners who are like minded in building long standing, stable integrations to underpin tomorrow’s most innovative e-commerce businesses. 

Community

While we’re in no way beholden to more established e-commerce platforms over newer start-ups, we do think it’s important to consider who else is using the platform we’re integrating with. The power of an e-commerce platform to accelerate online purchases is based on the quality and type of merchants they’re supporting. So when building an integration we think it’s important to have a clear understanding of the network we’re plugging into, so we can build stronger integrations that serve their needs. 

Why does this process matter so much at Violet? What do we mean by unified API?

As of March 2022, Violet has built a lot of e-commerce integrations, and we experience the pain that comes with that process every single day. We do this hard work, so you don’t have to. The result of this hard work is a unified API.

 We are building this unified API because we believe in the potential of connecting all merchants, platforms and channels. Our product was born out of a desire to take down barriers and open access to any online merchant or channel with an internet connection. As is likely now clear, building this many integrations into a single API will be no small feat, but we believe the long tail payoff will be well worth it, for merchants, for channels, and for all of Violet’s e-commerce platform partners. 

. . .

Key terms

API: An application programming interface, or API, is a piece of software that enables companies to open up their applications’ data and functionality to external third-party developers, business partners, and internal departments within their companies.

Schema: In software development, a schema describes the structure, content, and semantics that organize the data or database.

Object: An object is the representation of a single entity that is described by the schema and accessed by the model. For example, a shirt in an e-commerce store’s inventory would constitute an object. Objects usually have properties (aspects that vary from object to object) and classes (groups of objects that share an identity or properties).

Model: A model is described by the schema and allows for a system to programmatically access and manipulate the properties of an object. 

For additional e-commerce key terms, visit our E-Commerce Glossary.