hirobe talks to: Justin Biddle, Consultant and Founder of Exetail Consulting

This month on hirobe talks, Tom Wynne sits down with Justin Biddle, Consultant and Founder of Exetail Consulting to get his expert insights on choosing the best e-commerce platform, the true cost of ownership and the impact of AI on the e-commerce space.

You can watch their chat here or if you’re short on time, have a read of the transcription below:


Hi, it’s Tom Wynne at hirobe, welcome to our video series.

Hi Justin, how are you doing? Please tell the viewers who you are and a bit about your background.


Sure. My name is Justin Biddle. I originally trained as a soldier when I first left university and came into e-commerce after I left. I set up a little .com business a few years back and then got into interactive TV. So the first actual websites I built were for TV, which has been over video on demand platforms, which was back in the early 2000s. Anyway, I went and did an MBA and after that I set up a consulting business.

That then sort of morphed into an e-commerce agency, because I was doing a big project for a retailer who wanted help with vendor selection, looking around for the right platform and the right partners for them. We came across Magento, after talking to an old friend of mine who was Magento developer.  We decided, rather than finding the right partner, because the partners weren't very developed, we'll pitch for it ourselves.

We then set up a Magento focused agency back in 2009, which we then sold in late 2016 to a company called Williams Commerce, and I stayed on with them for a bit. I’ve been involved with a platform called Shopware, which is a German open-source e-commerce platform, for the last three and a half years. That's coming to an end now because they're not focusing on the UK specifically. Actually, that's what they hired me to do. So I’ve spent a long time in e-commerce now. I mean, you could say it’s been over 23 years, but 14 or 15 years is probably more precise.



I suppose with all of that experience, you've seen trends come and go over the years?


I certainly have. The interesting thing is that, in the short term, we always overhype the new technology. We always get over excited about these things. But in the longer term, we probably underestimate the impact that they actually have long term. I've seen lots of these new trends come and go. I think no one thought back in 2000, when we were doing IPTV, that anyone would ever bother to use a laptop. We thought phones were rubbish and we thought everything will be on a TV. Obviously, we thought there might be tablets or small TVs. But, you know, the hype was different then.


That’s the way the market has gone. My sister doesn't remember having to use like Teletext because everything is just Netflix or Prime subscriptions. I remember booking holidays on Teletext with my Mum.

You’ve recently left Shopware, so what are your plans for the immediate and, I suppose, the mid-term future?


There are a few plans in the offing. I'm doing quite a bit of work with some old colleagues, some projects with Shopware and some projects that we're working on outside of Shopware, but around the Shopware ecosystem. I've also picked up a couple of projects with some of my old merchant clients. They’re always asking for help and it's nice to be in a position to actually be able to help them.

That's been quite exciting at the moment. I'm talking to a few platforms and companies that are entering the UK, including a data platform, a couple of e-commerce platforms and a pin platform as well. This is a perennial problem. The problem that we have helped to solve with Shopware is how do you take a platform or a service that's being pushed out in one particular territory and make it relevant for other territories as well? How do we position it in new territories? How do we come up with a go to market strategy that makes sense for these types of platforms? So there's a lot going on.

Obviously, I think times are slightly hesitant right now. They want to find efficient ways of moving their agenda forward if you like, but I think there's plenty out there. It's an exciting time. Then, again, I think we're at a time of massive flux right now so it's an exciting time to be refashioning and redirecting slightly.


That's a really good point that we haven't really mentioned before. Just working from the recruitment side of things, on business development.

Obviously, it's been a really difficult year for most people and businesses with layoffs and hiring freezes. But it feels like we're coming to the end of it now. Things are ramping up and people are getting new budgets. I think people are being quite optimistic now about new opportunities, which is quite exciting.



The funny thing about e-commerce is that so much has changed. We've come so far, and yet, in many ways, nothing has changed. There are still merchants with rubbish data thinking that will do. They're still platforms that don't necessarily think about how merchants actually use their platform. There are so many things that we still don't do, even though the technology is almost unrecognisable from what it was, say 15 years ago. Some of the processes and issues with e-commerce still sit there in exactly the same format as it did before.


Yeah, that's a really good point.

It’s something that we've spoken about before, but what is actually the total cost of ownership and what does this means for agencies and merchants?


I’ve told you this and I'm certainly very keen to tell your audience. I do a total cost of ownership study and at the moment, it's focused very much on the lower mid-market. So on the platforms that service that mid-market, Shopware is on that list. Magento slash Adobe are on that list as well, obviously for those that need more Flexi open-source type solutions, something they can bend to their will. The two big lower mid-market SAAS platforms are BigCommerce and Shopify Plus, and also, I put in Salesforce as well.

The idea here is to say, you get headline costs from different platforms, and they say, it costs this much on this. But actually, that doesn't give you anything close to the full story about how much does this cost for me as a merchant business to use this platform? Because the initial licencing costs or revenue share costs or the total cost of ownership are very much not the same thing. So I've spent a lot of time trying to put an Excel model together that looks at these different platforms and makes assumptions at different levels.

So there’s a 2 million, 5 million and 20 million turnover. There’s also a 50 million turnover that I'm doing at the moment as well. They make assumptions at those different levels like what version of Magento would I be on? Would I be on the Adobe commerce paid version or on the Magento open-source version? What kind of agency were they require? And therefore, what how much would they cost? So the idea is that to make a proper apples for apples comparison between these platforms, you take in the licencing costs and the cost of supporting that platform by a third-party agency, the cost of evolving that platform, any hosting costs for things that aren't SAAS or for elements, or even on these modern platforms that aren't SAAS. So you add all these things together and you add in any hidden costs of any particular platforms.

The obvious example in Shopify is the cost of using Shopify pay, which is more expensive than other payment providers. And then if you use a third-party payment provider on Shopify, they then charge an uplift for that. So actually modelling all these things together becomes important. Of course, you can go even further, you can say, well if I have this kind of business, this is the email marketing platform I should be using, and this is the order management system I should be using. I haven't gone that far but what I have done is look at the cost of using that piece of e-commerce software and made it freely available.

If you go to exetail.com, which is my little consulting business, there's a link to the research there that you can freely download. I hope people will use it. What I hope it will do is allow merchants and consultants and agencies to say here's our situation, we can change these things in these particular ways for these particular reasons. But let's make a reasoned decision or reasoned understanding of actually how much these things cost. It’s only one part of the decision making when you do a vendor selection, but, you know, I think the finance director would say it’s a pretty important one. It's certainly an important thing to know, even if you don't make a decision based on it, you should how much it's going to cost.


Yeah, I think that's such a such a valid point. Because the other thing is just looking at cost as one part of it, when actually it’s the total cost.


Over the lifetime of the platform, there's an important thing as well. You know, it's over four or five or six years.


Of course.

I suppose then from your background, is it about finding the right agency to support you with that, as well as the cost of it all?


Yeah, we make those assumptions. So the assumptions are that, if you are at a 50 million level, you have a 50 million type of agency. Basically, I can make you an e-commerce website for any cost you like, if you say I've got 100 pounds to spend, I can build you an e commerce website. If you say I've got 100 million to spend, I can build you an e-commerce website and I might even use the same platform for both. But these things are not equal.


That's such a relevant point, which brings me on nicely to my next question. Something I've seen is so much competition in e-commerce platforms now. Historically, there's probably three that dominated the market, with one sort of miles ahead. Now, it seems like there's an array of options for clients to choose from. It’s a very tough question to ask you, with all your years of experience, but I'm going to ask it anyway.


If you had to choose three e-commerce platforms today, which ones would you go with?


I'm not going to give you a particular 100% straight answer, I'm afraid. No one builds an e-commerce platform to not serve an audience. Every e-commerce platform has been built to serve somebody, and they will be the best for somebody, so there is no 100% right answer. It's very much horses for courses. But in order to give you some kind of answer, I think you should look at what kind of merchant am I? The first thing you might say is, well am I B2B or B2C? Once you've answered that question, that makes that decision much easier.  

Assuming we're B2C, let's face it, a large percentage of the mid-market e-commerce market is B2C. So a consumer facing platform is what's required. So then we've got to ask how big are you? Depending on how big you are, and therefore the sorts of assumptions you will have made, like we did with the total cost of ownership, then a whole bunch of platforms hone into you.

Another piece of work I've done, which I’m thinking about releasing as well, is a vendor selection grid. This asks what criteria we should be thinking about when we're selecting a platform? The total cost of ownership being one of them but also agency ecosystem is important too. Third party tech platforms and ecosystems might be important as well. Scalability is quite often an important criteria. So what are these criteria and how do we bring them to bear? Then of course, how important are they to each particular merchant?

I think at the lower end of the market, you’ve got to ask yourself, if you're not using Shopify, why not? There better be a good reason why not? Because Shopify is, frankly, pretty bloody incredible with what it does.

Now, it's not the panacea for all ills by any stretch of the imagination, but if you are doing straight e-commerce, with a fairly cookie cutter type product, you've got to ask yourself, especially at the bottom end of the market, why, you would exclude Shopify? There’s lots of reasons why you might, but they should be almost your default option, in my opinion.

Of course, there are lots of others out there at the lower end that are perfectly good, they just don't have quite the same ecosystem of app, technology and extension providers. Obviously, WooCommerce is out there, it's pretty strong. Actually it's huge, in many ways it's bigger than Shopify. But I think that it requires a little more expertise to get it right. And then there's Wix and Squarespace is as well. Then of course, there's BigCommerce, that has been doing pretty well, certainly in the UK, and is a very well put together platform. So I think, you know, at the lower end, Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce and then there's Wix and Squarespace.

However, in the mid mid-market, things change. I think, obviously Magento and potentially Adobe commerce, especially with HYVA themes, the new sort of reworked front end for Magento. It takes away so many of the performance issues that Magento used to have, not all of them, but it makes it much more performance and puts them back in the game again, I think makes that platform good for the mid-market. Whether or not the Magento ecosystem is growing or shrinking, it may be shrinking a bit, but I think in time, we could potentially see a resurgence. There’s always a question around what Adobe plan to do with Magento, which is the fly in the ointment to a certain extent. Obviously, I used to work for Shopware. They're pushing quite strongly into the US, and they’ve always been strong in Europe, but we're not prioritising the UK in the short term. But they're still a very interesting platform and they’re doing some really interesting stuff.

BigCommerce again, have a a very strong mid-market, especially in the UK, less so on the continent, but become a become a very strong proposition here in the UK. And of course, there's Shopify Plus again. There are many more reasons why you might not take Shopify when you're in the mid-market space, mainly because I think when you get to be a bigger merchant, you really understand how you need to sell what information you need to pass to other platforms and how workflows need to work. As a result, you need more customization and that's where the downsides of proprietary SAAS platforms come into play.

There are also some really interesting new entrants and one of the ones that I'm really looking at the moment and really excited about is a Scandinavian platform called Sentra, which is a headless platform but with effectively a SAAS back end, but effectively headless at the front end. So they put together some really interesting sort of solution stacks with Storyblok and Contentful. I think that's going to be really interesting going forward.

Obviously, at the top end, there's a whole bunch such as Salesforce, there’s Commercetools that are doing really well, there's Spryker, then there’s SAPs and all the rest of it. I think at enterprise, everything is a whole different ballgame. In fact, what I'm trying to do right now is take that total cost of ownership work we were doing earlier and move it into the enterprise space. But I'm finding actually, trying to nail down an apples-to-apples sort of setup for each platform is so hard because obviously everything is less out of the box in the enterprise space.

There’s up and coming ones as well, which I think everyone will be looking at. Salesline are making a big entry into the UK at the moment, which has been really interesting. An Italian platform called Commerce Layer has been pushing into the UK for a bit as well, as well as Centra as well. So lots going on.

If you're going to take just three across all those, Shopify has to be on your list. You know, almost whatever level you’re at, but certainly at the lower end in the mid-market, it has to be on that list. You'd probably argue that BigCommerce would have to be on that list, certainly in the UK, less so in Europe. The reason why this matters is because in Europe, they don't have the agency network to support these guys. They don't have all the right technology providers or all the right order management platforms and all the right search platforms, that makes sense for those countries.

So the proposition is less in that country, the same way that Shopware in the UK is stronger now but three years when I first joined, it was like why would I take Shopware when I can't have my email marketing provider or marketing automation provider or I can't use the ERPs? So, it's interesting how these propositions are very different, whichever country you put them into. So I'm taking just three, right? I’d say Shopify then I’d probably take BigCommerce and probably the open-source version of Magento too.


I know it's one of the hardest questions I think I’ve asked because there is no answer. I think, if you can just pick three, as you've said, it depends on your needs and it depends on your geography to some extent. So yes, it's very hard to limit it. There's so much competition out there from the likes of Commerce tools, Spryker, Shopware, that it's just a really interesting market at the moment.


Commerce tools comes to play for any merchant that's less than 100 million, as do most of the enterprise focused platforms. There will be agencies trying to offer solutions for people below that amount, but it just doesn't make sense. When you pick these platforms, you've got to be the right size fish in the right size pond. You do not want to be a tiny fish in a huge pond, because no one knows you exist. And if you're too big in a small pond, then you know, that can be an equally large problem as well.


That's it and it’s really exciting to see the new ones that are coming to the UK as well. Maybe they're established elsewhere and other markets that are now making their way across the UK and planning to grow. There's a few that come to mind that are really making headway. It's going to be interesting to see how those fare in this market.


What do you think of AI and what it means for e-commerce?


Well, I think it’s scary but exciting as well. I mean, from an E commerce perspective, per se, I don't think it's that scary, but from an overall perspective, I think it's terrifying. I think there was something in the news today about how they did some tests on a drone in the military and there was a drone controller that got killed by his AI controlled drone. It decided that the thing that was stopping it maximising its efficiency was the handler telling it not to attack the enemy targets. It's just bonkers.

I’m not quite that negative about it. I think for e-commerce, there is potential for massive efficiency gains for those merchants that have got their data in order. I think that data is the key thing here. In any kind of data project, and AI is essentially a data project, the old adage goes, garbage in, garbage out. So for those that get their data in order, AI becomes something that can really supercharge their business. But I think AI itself can only be used in a limited format to help improve data.

The key thing about data, about any kind of data that you may have in your merchant business or agency business, whether its customer order or product data is do we trust it?

Part of the problem that many have with data is that if there is no data there, you can trust it because you know you don't have anything there. But if there is data there, you know you have to question whether that data is trustworthy or not. Obviously, that's not so easy to tell. It's very easy to tell if you have data or not, not so easy to tell if that data is trustworthy, except through subjective analysis.

So the key thing with data is, do we trust it and the key problem with AI is that we can't be sure that we trust it. So for me, that cleaning up the data side still resides primarily. There's still a massive role for us humans, thank goodness in this process because there’s all kinds of things that machine learning or ML, which I think we still should be calling it, can do for us like in the content side and the customer experience side. We've already seen what chatGPT can do for us, in terms of optimising our product descriptions, for instance. But we could also do automatic product faceting or merchandising, which again, there are already some more new products out there.

The idea that this one's out of stock but here’s the right replacement items. Fit predictors, one of the biggest problem in an e-commerce, certainly in fashion e-commerce, or demand forecasting for inventory. That's something AI can get its teeth into right now. We’re already seeing the customer services type thing, where we can set up automated bots and they can actually be almost indistinguishable. You know, once you got the data right, segmentation, and propensity to buy models are a piece of cake with AI. Then there’s the real time offers. As a merchant, you're always trying to find the profitable price that the merchant will pay for any particular item and AI gives us the opportunity to effectively open a negotiation on every single transaction we do, at no impact to us. But all this requires us to get our data in order.

I'm not sure that AI is the thing to do that. The problem with AI right now is that we cannot 100% trust the output, because there are so many variables that go into it, and it may not have made the right assumptions that we wanted to do within those variables. Now, obviously, we can put process AI through process to help us do that, which of course is what we'll be doing next. But as I say, the issue with data is that we have to trust it and the issue with AI right now is that we can't necessarily 100% trust its output.


I think that’s a small answer for such a broad question, because AI is at this moment, for me personally, a little bit terrifying, especially if we don't use it right. As you say, I think it's all about data management and the input that we can put out. From a recruitment perspective, one of the things I love is finding the exactly the right person for the right role based on personality and different things. If AI is able to just scan LinkedIn for keywords and can just say, you're good for this job, I don't think that's quite right. That's just one of the things from my industry. Even like going to Tesco. I know it sounds silly, but I always go to the self-checkout because it's so much quicker and easier. But are we losing human interaction? That, for me, is one of the big concerns as well.


Yes, it’s essentially like a black box technology, which is part of the problem. Again for merchants, they’ve got to think carefully. The reason why we go through all the pain as we do as a merchant is so we understand how our customer buys and therefore we can make decisions based on that experience. By handing all of this over to AI, we lose that experience within our business and effectively we outsource our core business.

In the last few days I’ve enrolled for Oxford University’s AI program. Going forward, I think the most important thing is understanding the technology itself and how it can be applied. It’s a re-education moment, I think.


Yeah, I think there’s going to be a big demand, like you say, for people with skills in that area, so it’s certainly worth your time to do that.

Are you attending any e-commerce conferences or events this year?


I’ll just send my holographic avatar. The next one I’m going to is one called the Vervaunt Pulse, which is an agency organised conference. Last year was absolutely epic and I’m sure it will be good again. Think it’s on around the same time at the Adobe Summit, which again is always an interesting one. I always love Meet Magento because I come from the Magento ecosystem from way back and I always see a lot of old friends from that area.

One thing I would recommend for anyone, especially in agency or technology or even recruitment, is the Ecom Collab Club which runs once a month on a Wednesday morning in London and sometimes in Bristol as well. They are a really smart bunch of guys who have put together a networking event for agencies and technology partners and its always worth going to.

I think the traditional trade shows are kind of dying a bit of a death. I went to IRX this year and it was quite quiet. I think ShopTalk is the new one in town and even that was apparently ok at best. But I think the technology platforms are running better events themselves for their own ecosystems. The ones I tend to look at are the marketing automation platforms, as they run great conferences. The traditional trade show either has, rabid sales guys standing waiting to sink their teeth into you as a merchant, or they’re overly sales focused because there are sponsored talks to go along to, none of which are particularly appealing to a merchant or useful. So they’re not turning up.

In order for these trade shows to make sense, you’ve got to have a mixture of merchants who want something and agencies who want to provide that thing and then put something in there for everyone. So I don’t think the trade show format works so well anymore, so I think it’s down to these platforms and their ecosystems to produce.


That’s really useful. I’m going to look into a couple of those events. I’m already going to a few but there’s definitely some more I would like to attend. You’ve probably just cost Hirobe a bit of money in tickets and train fare, but my bosses can pick that up and I’ll just enjoy the train. Listen Justin, I really appreciate your time, I know you’re a busy guy at this moment in time so thank you for having a chat with me. I wish you all the best in all your new ventures and all that you’re doing on the side as well.


It was my pleasure. Thanks Tom.

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7th July

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