Published on March 26, 2020 Last modified on May 05, 2022
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
The ecommerce landscape has evolved a lot over the past years:
Ecommerce sites, for example, went from being a mere “nice-to-have” to an actual necessity for merchants who want to reach the increasingly large number of consumers shopping online.
Emerging technologies in mobile phones and smart devices have also transformed the way people engage with businesses.
And what used to be distinct channels—in-store, online, mobile, social media—now form one brand experience that customers expect to be seamless and connected.
Because of this, it’s no longer enough to simply sell through multiple channels and treat them as different areas that need separate strategies. To give your customers a unified brand experience across these channels, you’ll need to have a fully integrated setup—from your internal business systems all the way to your customer-facing platforms.
Multi-channel integration in ecommerce is the process of connecting different systems, channels, or platforms involved in your ecommerce strategy with one another, in order to streamline the flow of data coming in and out of these systems and to provide a coherent and consistent shopping experience for customers.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the different things you need to know as a business owner about multi-channel integration:
Imagine a very simple shop where a merchant sells one product with four available stocks.
When a customer comes in and buys one, the merchant has to update his stock count from four to three. If he decides to put the remaining products on sale, he has to take note of the new marked down price and perhaps recalculate a new cashflow, then update his sales channels, inform the marketing and sales staff, etc.
A big task, but possible.
Of course, as a business scales up, more factors get added into the mix and the workflows get more complicated.
But the underlying concept is that each aspect of the business has to be connected in order for data (stock count, pricing, discounts, etc.) to reflect consistently and accurately across the company and in all processes.
Multi-channel integration takes care of this on the larger scale.
Unlike the basic example above where the merchant can probably get away with keeping a mental tally of things, most modern ecommerce businesses need different systems to manage a variety of data, such as:
An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which typically handles data on accounting, operations, logistics, sales, marketing, and customer relationship management;
A product information management (PIM) system, which is used to collect, customize, manage, and distribute product information across different channels; and
On top of these, there are other internal systems like a physical store’s point-of-sale, and customer-facing platforms including your webshop, mobile app, or listings in other marketplaces like Amazon, Zalando, Miinto, etc.
All these systems need to have a way to communicate with each other to keep data synchronized and up-to-date.
Multi-channel integration provides a technology solution for this by establishing the logic by which each system transfers and receives data, and then automating the whole process.
To better understand how it works, it’s worth looking into how it compares with alternative means of connecting different systems:
1. Manual transfer of data
At the most basic level, different systems can “communicate” through a manual transfer of data either by traditional copy + paste, or exporting data from one system and importing the file to another.
Obviously, these manual processes defeat the purpose of adapting business systems like PIM or ERP in the first place—these systems are meant to eliminate tedious manual tasks, so resorting to a manual transfer between them and any other system just brings back the extra time and effort you were supposed to save.
2. Point-to-point connection
A point-to-point connection is established by directly integrating one system with another, i.e., a 1:1 relationship—for example, connecting a webshop to a separate inventory management system (IMS). In this setup, when an order is placed on the webshop, the IMS can also be automatically updated with the new stock count.
This type of integration works well with two systems, but can easily get unwieldy as you adapt more.
In the diagram above, each system is connected point-to-point with one another, resulting in a complicated web of lines that represent data transfers among the systems.
Adding a new ecommerce site Webshop C will further make the whole setup complicated especially if it needs to be connected to each existing system too.
Also, a software update to just one of these systems could require you to update five different integrations, which can be costly in the long run.
While a point-to-point setup does facilitate an automatic exchange of data across the different systems, it doesn’t ensure that such data will always be synchronized and up-to-date.
For one, since data is pulled from and transferred to different sources and channels, consistency can easily become an issue. And with many connection points within just one system, an error in one can affect the accuracy of the data that flows out of the system and distributed to the rest of the channels.
On the other hand, multi-channel integration reduces the needed connection points by having only one platform through which data from different systems are consolidated and then distributed to the channels that need them.
Instead of connecting systems directly with one another, creating different connection points in the process, you’ll only need to establish one connection between a system and the integration platform, which in turn serves as the central hub that connects all systems and channels with one another.
The key point of a multi-channel integration setup is having one integration platform that will be at the center of the whole process. This integration platform can be:
A commercially available pre-built system that contains the basic components you need to set up multi-channel integration, and which you can customize to fit your own workflow; or
Software-as-a-service, where the platform is hosted by a third-party supplier. Often, these platforms already come with pre-built connectors and guidelines like business rules that help you better define the connections across systems.
Facilitating a seamless integration among various systems can be a challenge—in fact, it’s one that we’ve seen many of our clients using three or more different systems face.
At 1902 Software, we’ve built our own component that acts as a base integration platform which can be tweaked and customized according to different factors such as the systems that need to be connected and how data needs to flow across systems (i.e., one-way or two-way).
We’ll talk about this component in more detail further in this guide, but now that you know how multi-channel integration works, it’s time discuss how this kind of setup can help with your ecommerce strategy.
Benefits of multi-channel integration
Multi-channel integration brings together both your internal systems and customer-facing platforms. As such, when done right, its benefits to your company come twofold:
Streamlined processes - With a central integration platform, your data flows in a much more streamlined manner than within a tangled web that a point-to-point architecture has.
Easier management - Since every system only needs one connection to a central hub, it’s less complicated to establish a consistent approach for every integration, regardless of how each system is built differently.
Scalable and allows for growth - As your business grows, you may have to adapt more systems that will need to be integrated into your existing infrastructure.
Multi-channel integration allows you to easily scale and add more systems or platforms as needed without needing to worry about additional connection points.
In itself, an optimized internal workflow already translates to a smoother sales process, and therefore, better customer experience. But beyond that, here are a few other things that multi-channel integration helps with:
Better insights on your customers’ shopping behavior - Since every channel is interconnected along with your internal systems, you get more accurate and contextualized insights about how your customers shop your products and engage with your brand.
These insights are a powerful starting point for you to further refine your customer experience.
Strengthened brand identity - You might view your physical store, online shop, and other ecommerce platforms as distinct channels, but to your customers, all these are just one brand.
Multi-channel integration enables you to streamline and synchronize information across your different channels, giving your brand more credibility.
Case study: Implementing a multi-channel integration strategy
One of our clients who’s engaged in wholesale used to struggle with manually synchronizing data across their different business systems.
To solve this challenge, we devised a multi-channel integration strategy that eliminated the need for manual tasks and simplified their overall workflow.
The challenge: manual synchronization
Our client manages multiple systems for their ecommerce business: three different ecommerce sites built on Magento, an ERP, a PIM, and an IMS.
Aside from the challenge of keeping these systems interconnected, their ERP, PIM, and IMS also need to be connected to their suppliers, where product information and data on inventory levels come from. These additional integration points only added to the complexity of the setup.
Initially, our client had a point-to-point connection between their Magento ecommerce sites and ERP system, where orders coming from the webshops are automatically synchronized with the ERP.
Aside from this, however, the Magento webshops were disconnected from the rest of the systems so the transfer of data had to be done manually.
Note that our client was managing hundreds of products across three different ecommerce sites. Manually exporting and importing data from these shops to the different systems took up a huge amount of time, effort, and resources on their end.
The strategy: multi-channel integration
Using our integration component as a base, we built a platform that will act as a central hub through which the three ecommerce sites, ERP, PIM, and IMS will be connected.
Since our client already had an existing workflow that they followed when they manually synchronized data, we simply adapted and transformed it into automated flows within the multi-channel integration component:
The diagram above illustrates how each system communicates with each other through the multi-channel integrator as a central platform.
The result: optimized workflow
This multi-channel integration strategy highly streamlined our client's workflow.
Before, data had to be transferred from the webshop to the ERP, and then imported to the inventory system—a disconnected flow that only caused unnecessary bottlenecks in the synchronization of data.
Upon the implementation of multi-channel integration, each system now has a direct connection with the integration, which in turn can distribute updated data in real-time.
How can 1902 Software help?
At 1902 Software, we have seasoned technical experts and developers with extensive experience in building custom integrations between multiple webshops (Magento, WordPress, Umbraco) and business systems like ERP, PIM, and inventory.
We work together with your third-party suppliers (like ERP and PIM providers) to help develop custom integrations and streamline your processes.
As we mentioned previously, we’ve also developed our own multi-channel connector that acts as a base platform for your integration needs. If you purchase our integration component, you'll get a copy of the source code.
Get in touch with us if you have any questions about multi-channel integration.