A Web Storefront Product for Developers, by Developers

For a small to midsize company, there are advantages and disadvantages to integrating an online store with back-end accounting and product-availability systems — otherwise known as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

The benefit of easy, real-time access to inventory, product pricing and the customer database is a no-brainer, especially for understaffed businesses struggling to offer multichannel sales environments to grow to the next tier of their industries.

For most, though, building and maintaining integration software can be a lot of work.

However, as a business expands, the need to sync live inventories and current pricing with product offerings online becomes a necessity.

“For multichannel businesses, cross-channel store visibility — from the online store into the physical store inventory and vice versa, from the physical store inventory to the online store offering — needs some integration,” said Michael Brinker, a partner with Deloitte Consulting and leader of its national Web channel solutions practice.

Stores that sell their wares in cyberspace must always be on and might experience consistent traffic and transaction volume at all hours, especially if they serve a global market.

But according to Brinker, most ERP systems are not designed with availability in mind. Rather, they need to wind down every once in a while for batch-mode data transfers. This presents challenges for sellers that know no geographic borders.

“An event in which the site goes down for [data] backup is not an option,” he said.

Delivering Pros Without Cons

One third-party reseller of Sage Software has developed a solution that enables real-time integration. RemoteXerver by HighTower — an accounting, distribution, CRM, HR and manufacturing software company — takes data from online storefronts from the virtual till to a firm’s back-end accounting system.

Designed specifically for the Sage MAS 90 ERP system, and particularly users of Sage e-Business Manager, RemoteXerver adopters can leverage the product tables stored in Sage MAS 90, forgoing replication of product data for the Web store. Product categories, pricing and images also populate the e-commerce site from the ERP system.

The database does not work one way, simply filling data needs on the new storefront. It is fed, too.
 
Once shoppers check out online, their transaction summaries — complete with payment type, sales tax, shipping calculations and credit or debit card approval numbers — post to Sage MAS 90 Sales Orders.

This eliminates the stress of balancing costly custom development for data integration with the cost of lost business due to site or back-end system time-outs. In general, software that integrates an SMB’s e-tail site with its accounting system tends to be complex, Brinker said. “And most small businesses don’t have sophisticated back-end accounting to begin with.”

Filling the Gap

HighTower already had a mature back-end product with which to work. It fielded complaints from developers about their limited ability to change e-tail page features through the Sage e-Business Manager product.

“Elements of page design such as background colors or image use could be modified, but the product display templates of e-Business Manager are rigid in their structure,” said Rob Nordin, president of HighTower.

For example, all product and pricing information, as well as illustrations or images, must appear in a single column. Niche businesses looking to attract buyers through appealing page design were stuck with a program that severely cut their opportunities for creative page layout.

“Where it’s complicated has more to do with information models between the accounting and e-commerce systems, between information mapping and operations,” Brinker said of the linking of back-end and front-end solutions.

“The taxonomies of the e-commerce system might not match the accounting system,” he said. “The e-commerce system is developed for rich, customer-friendly product descriptions and marketing information. Mapping to much less information of the kind in the accounting system is difficult. ERP is a manufacturing system, not a marketing system, so the way it describes products isn’t necessarily the way you describe them online.”

Nordin said RemoteXerver jumps this hurdle by allowing users to display products in the way that makes the most sense from a marketing perspective. RemoteXerver is an implementation of the XML-RPC industry standard, so developers have resources for sample code and document structure.

Back to the Drawing Board

HighTower had significant experience with e-Business Manager before working up RemoteXerver for release.

At first, the company’s design team planned to let e-Business Manager handle the portions of the Web store that were not marketing-driven — the shopping cart, for instance — and develop RemoteXerver for the more attractive product display and positioning.

“We were building a tool, not a product for an end user,” Nordin said. “That was a challenge for us. We actually released the product to the development community two years ago.”

But post-launch, HighTower felt its creation was incomplete.

“We realized that we needed to show developers how to work with the tool,” Nordin said.

Since then, HighTower has created sample services that make use of RemoteXerver and demonstrate its flexibility and creative expanse.

“As ERP vendors move into the online store space, more and more, it becomes probable that accounting and marketing [software development] will be married up,” Brinker said. “There will always be a certain amount of marketing that needs to be put around the product on the front.”

Kelly Shermach is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., who frequently writes about technology and data security. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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