How to Choose a Subscription Commerce Platform

[Updated November 2017]

Choosing a subscription commerce platform is a complicated business, and one that’s critical to every subscription commerce business. The choice you make will impact the day-to-day operations of your business and will be hard to change later. It’s worth taking the time to get it right.

When I set up our beauty subscription box business in 2011, we opted to use Magento as our shopping cart software (using the AheadWorks Subscriptions and Recurring Payments extension) and PayPal Website Payments Pro for recurring payments processing. This setup seemed like a good choice because several similar companies were already up and running using something similar. The system certainly wasn’t without its issues, though, and things weren’t all plain sailing.

Recurring payments software has been improving all the time since then, with existing solutions becoming more robust and new providers emerging. Whilst what’s on offer is now better than ever before, choosing between all the different options is, if anything, even more difficult.

What Components do You Need to Take Recurring Payments?

In general, your system will need two or three key components:

  1. a website or shopping cart platform
  2. a recurring billing management system (typically now integrated into the shopping cart)
  3. a payment gateway
Recurring Payments Platform Architecture

The shopping cart is what powers your website, displaying products and checkout pages, etc.

Unless your shopping cart platform has sufficient support for recurring billing, you’ll want a recurring billing management system, too. This handles the many subtle complexities of subscription-based payments, such as automatically emailing customers about credit cards expiring.

Lastly, the payment gateway is the system that the shopping cart or recurring billing system talks to. It takes your customers’ payment details (e.g. credit card details) and talks to the payment networks (e.g. Visa and MasterCard) to process the transaction.

How to Choose a Shopping Cart for a Subscription Commerce Business

Choosing an e-commerce shopping platform is a complicated decision as there are many factors to consider. In some ways, when looking at a subscription business, your choice is easier because there are fewer good platforms that support recurring payments.

Some popular choices at the moment include:

  • CrateJoy – an all-in-one platform for running a subscription box business with a strong range of subscription-focused features, including refer-a-friend campaigns, analytics and shipment management. CrateJoy raised $4 million of funding in October 2014.
  • Subbly – another all-in-one subscription commerce platform. Subbly are proudly self-funded and run by a small, passionate team that believes in building a sustainable business.
  • LemonStand – a general-purpose e-commerce platform with built-in support for subscriptions.
  • Shopify – the leading cloud-based, general-purpose e-commerce platform, Shopify offers a number of plugin apps to add support for subscriptions. Some of the most popular are ReCharge and Recurring Orders.
  • Magento – an open source shopping cart system with very extensive and flexible generic e-commerce functionality. Out of the box, the platform has limited support for subscription billing but some 3rd-party providers sell extensions offering extra subscription functionality.
  • WooCommerce– another open source shopping cart system, based on the WordPress platform. It has a subscription commerce plugin.
  • Bespoke website – you may want to have a subscription commerce website built from scratch using a technology such as Ruby on Rails or PHP. If taking this route, integrating with a dedicated recurring billing management system may be a good choice as it will do a lot of the subscription management legwork that would otherwise require extensive custom development work.

How to Choose a Recurring Payments Management System for a Subscription Commerce Business

Subscription management functionality is built into most of the shopping carts mentioned above. But if you’re building a bespoke platform, then you might want to integrate a system to help with handling the recurring payments. These systems do add an extra expense but typically provide advanced features such as the ability to automatically send customers emails about their payment cards are expiring:

  • Recurly – allows you to easily build PCI compliant transaction forms to be integrated into your website. (Has support for the SagePay payment gateway which is popular in the UK.)
  • Chargify – well-funded company with a very good set of features.
  • Zuora – another major player. Seems to have more of an enterprise / large-company focus.

Other recurring billing platforms include StripeSpreedly and CheddarGetter.

Factors to consider:

  • Does the system support a suitable payment gateway in your country?
  • How easily can you integrate it into your shopping cart platform?
  • Can you rely on the business being around for the long haul?
  • Are key features present (e.g. dunning management)?
  • Are costs reasonable?

How to Choose a Payment Gateway for a Subscription Commerce Business

Choosing a payment gateway is another rather complicated decision and it’s not one we can go into in depth in this article. A few key factors to consider, however, are:

  • Does the payment gateway work for businesses in your country?
  • Does it integrate with your chosen shopping cart platform or recurring payments system?
  • Does it have suitable support for subscription payments?

(If you’re based in the UK, our sister site, PaymentBrain, has more information about UK payment gateways and merchant accounts.)

Summary

Choosing a subscription commerce platform is a fairly complicated and important choice as it’s one that strongly impacts your day-to-day operations and is quite complicated to change later. Fortunately, most of the cloud-based platforms offer a free trial, so you can sign up and give them a go. (They’ll often extend your trial if you ask nicely and haven’t had a chance to test it out properly.)

Would you like more advice on choosing a subscription commerce platform? If so, you may like to join our subscription commerce newsletter.

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