Magento: custom website design or theme?

Magento: custom website design or theme?

We are often asked why we do not use pre-built “themes” for Magento implementations. Surely it would be quicker and cheaper? For those in the dark, a “theme” is a set of pre-packaged files that customise the layout, design and in some cases the functionality of a website. To quote WordPress: “themes are files that work together to create the design and functionality of a […] site. Each Theme may be different, offering many choices for site owners to instantly change their website look.”

Simplistically, the advantages seem wonderful:

  • They are often free or very cheap
  • Implementation is very quick: simply download it and install
  • They already work (well, provided you are using standard Magento, out of the box)
  • Magento themes and designs seem too good to be true; they are moderately priced, responsive, and usually offer some type of global customization (such as control over colours and fonts)

There’s a dazzling and confusing array of websites that offer pre-designed Magento Themes. However, these themes may not be the best fit for you, and can actually cost you more in the long run.  There are, for sure, a lot of poor quality themes out there – even those that have sold 1000s of copies.

At Screen Pages, we are in the business of designing “bespoke” websites which reflect the brand, product range, marketing and promotional activity, fulfilment and customer service of a business – exactly. This inevitably involves careful and creative thought, analysis, planning and – critically – customisation. There are no technical reasons that we don’t use themes: in every project, our design team works very closely with the development team to ensure that the end product will be one cohesive site, rather than it feeling like a design was forced into place and the inevitable compromises that would bring. The ability to customise an e-commerce website in whatever way required is in fact one of the biggest advantages of Magento itself.

Themes and “customisation”

Themes rarely account for any customization you may require, or want to add in the future – as your online trade evolves and grows. Most themes are based around standard “out-of-the-box” Magento and only style the main Magento pages (home page, category page, basket, check-out and account pages). It would be a miracle if they worked on any additional or bespoke pages you have (e.g. catalogue requests, store locators etc). An area of particular sensitivity would be any customisation in the checkout process.

Generally, a Magento theme will not take into consideration any customisation or unique functionality, which could include visual/display needs (product information/representation, sliders, JavaScript effects) or other product pricing, grouping/fulfilment options.

Most Magento websites we deploy may use at least 5-10 third party modules/extensions: complications may arise with the compatibility of 3rd party modules. It is often one of our biggest challenges to get individual third party modules to function, operate and perform together, let alone entire designs.

Themes and the development process

When we work, our custom designs are given to trained, managed (& Magento-certified) developers with all of the imagery, CSS styles and layouts needed to create the front-end website code (CSS sprites & SCSS where required) and to provide a visual reference for the development process. Recreating this from an off-the-shelf theme would be time-consuming. Similarly we are quickly able to create new elements (and customise those designs) that match the original design.

Example of detailed design deliverables, for custom design development

As a professional (and certified) Magento partner and developer, perhaps one of the biggest concerns we have about building a significant, commercially sensitive e-commerce website using third-party software is around warranty, liability and overall quality control. When we buy and install a third party extension, we have no idea about the underlying code that makes up the theme. It is a real possibility that by installing these themes, we would “corrupt” a Magento website with code that may not been well written, audited, documented or worse, could even pose a security risk. There is a general inability to check the quality of the underlying templates and CSS & supporting Javascript prior to use in order to de-risk the initiative.

Themes could only ever serve as a base to a “mature” website: we are 99% certain that no theme will match any clients’ requirements in entirety and we would quickly sink into the realms of uncertainty: our current design and specification process is aimed at taking the questionable unknowns out of a project scope, so that we can offer a contractually-bound fixed price project fee with the highest levels of warranty, backed by high service levels and a quality ongoing support and update process.

Themes and ongoing support & development

Finally, when Screen Pages designs and implements a custom design for a client, you will have access to all the underlying design files so that should a change need to be made, everything will be readily available, filed and stored in a professional repository and software version control system.

Some clients will also be concerned by intellectual property rights: Screen Pages contracts to give the intellectual property of the entire website and design to the client – if a theme were used, there may be restrictions in this regard.

Nothing is constant but change. You will want to make modifications.  There might be no or little support and once any form of customisation, change or update has been made, it is difficult to decipher where the buck (liability to fix) may stop. Magento itself introduces changes: some theme providers might not be able to keep up with Magento’s development.  As your website trades, you will be studying its performance with a view to optimising conversions by analysing customer journeys (through analytics, usabiity studies or customer surveys). It is a given that this will drive constant (but generally minor) change: conversion rate optimization usually depends on your marketing, customers, product and overall messaging & proposition – you will wish to have freedom to make enhancements without risk or compromise.

Having a custom website built and supported by a properly capitalised, well-structured organisation will give you the peace of mind knowing that your Magento implementation will accommodate everything (and we mean everything) you want now and in the future.


  • Screen Pages designs and builds custom e-commerce websites that reflect and amplify uniquely and absolutely a business’ brand, product range, proposition and marketing activity. Themes do not do this
  • As professional and certified developers, we would be concerned about code quality, extensibility and maintainability of a theme
  • Where any form of customisation is required (& there generally is for our kinds of clients), there is a potential for risk
  • As a retailer, you will want intellectual property, warranties and high service levels – in practice as well as contractually
  • Our design and specification process is designed to remove uncertainty – not introduce it (in a fixed price project with a clear milestones).
E-commerce responsive design in Magento: the pros & cons

E-commerce responsive design in Magento: the pros & cons

Summary: Specific mobile support for e-commerce websites has economic return. What are the pros and cons for Magento websites of a responsive design as opposed to a separate mobile optimised store?

First, let’s start with a definition of “responsive design”. According to Google, “responsive web design, responds to the needs of the users and the devices they’re using. The layout changes based on the size and capabilities of the device. For example, on a phone, users would see content shown in a single column view; a tablet might show the same content in two columns.”

The man given the credit for coming up Responsive Design as an approach is Ethan Marcotte in A List Apart [see]

I think we can assume – at the very least for the purposes of this article – that some kind of mobile site is a “good thing”:  in a recent mobile traffic study,  sites with mobile support converted over twice as well (1.31% versus 0.55%), with a 4%+ reduction in the bounce rate. Thus,  we can deem the alternative to be a “mobile-optimised” version of the website. In the Magento world, that means a separate store (in the same Magento instance), with its own URL, catalogue and set-up.

Responsive design

Force4’s responsive e-commerce website

So what is the business rationale for a responsive e-commerce website?

1. One website, many devices
The most obvious advantage of responsive design is that a responsive online store can provide a great user-experience from the same, single website across tablets and mobiles.

Let’s take the following example. Someone searches for a product on their smartphone during a lunch break at work. They find an online shop that has the product they’re looking for, and decide to continue researching this product on the same site when they get home. Except, when they get home, they will use their desktop instead of their smartphone. Later on, when purchasing the product, they’ll probably be using a tablet.

If the site in this example is responsive, this person will have a positive user experience when transitioning from mobile to desktop because they will view the same site on their desktop as they did on their smartphone. On the other hand, if the site is a dedicated mobile site, this person may become frustrated with the fact that they have to locate the desktop version of the site, then possibly go through a different process to find the right product all over again.

2. Easier to Manage
Having a separate desktop and mobile site theoretically requires having separate catalogues, product information & banners, marketing campaigns (emails, SEO, affiliates – which site do you send the traffic to?). Whilst in Magento it is straightforward to mark your content (I use the term in its broadest sense, to include copy, data, images, e-commerce operating settings and website paramaters) for a specific “store”, there is still a process to go through to deploy the same content.

It is fair to say that the reduction in content management effort will reduce the complexity of managing your website.

Sample CSS with “media query” to determine behaviour on different screens

3. More chance of your marketing “reaching” your customer

According to Campaign Monitor, 42% of all emails are opened on mobile devices. The Pew Research Internet Project discovered “67 percent of mobile owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls – even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.” No matter the study you examine, one thing is clear: whilst your marketing may be sensitive to device size, it will not know what kind of device will be used to take action.

Even if your email is mobile friendly, your landing page also has to be as well. A mobile-optimised email sending the visitor to a desktop website will not prove effective.

One study from KISSmetrics reported that 90% of people will delete emails if they don’t open or click through properly; this is further exacerbated by the fact that click-rates decrease on mobile devices when compared to laptops in the first instance.

Since customers are regularly going back and forth on devices it’s generally helpful if the landing page works equally well on desktop and mobile.

4. Social is mobile

Social media has gone mobile, which you may have noticed. How important is mobile for social media users? According to a study from ComScore, 55% of social media consumption happens on a mobile device.

What this means is that people will share and view content on mobile devices: what’s the point of sharing content on social media if it’s not compatible with mobile devices. Again, if a website isn’t functioning on a mobile device, users get frustrated and leave. High bounce rates lead to low conversion rates.

5. Google says so

With a massive market share, when Google speaks, search marketers listen. Google states that responsive web design is its recommended mobile configuration, and even goes so far as to refer to responsive web design as the industry best practice.

Here’s the bible from Google.

Because responsive design sites have one URL and the same HTML, it’s easier for Google to crawl, index, and organize content. A separate mobile site which has a different URL and different HTML forces Google’s busy spiders to crawl and index multiple versions of the same site.

Additionally, Google prefers responsive web design because content that lives on one website and one URL is much easier for users to share, interact with, and link to than content that lives on a separate mobile site.

Ultimately, Google realizes that unhappy people will go elsewhere, meaning that bounce rates increase and the site will not rank on mobile searches. In other words, it’s just bad for business for both Google and all of the websites that aren’t taking advantage of the benefits of responsive design.

At the end of the day, it is much easier for your target audience to find your business online if you only have a single home address, that is, a single website URL.

Watco’s responsive e-commerce website

What Magento says

As a Magento Gold partner and specialist, we are pleased that Magento itself has invested in responsive design – now reducing time to market for responsive work. Prior to this, all the coding for different devices had to be hand-coded into the website HTML.

Here’s Magento’s own words on the subject:

“Responsive is the best mobile solution for many merchants because they can invest in one site that serves customers using any device, while ensuring a consistent brand experience on every device. A single responsive site is less costly to develop and requires less time and effort to maintain than different themes for different sites and different devices.

Responsive is also good for boosting conversion, with a shopping cart and checkout designed to work in any environment and on any screen size. And having a responsive site makes it easy for mobile device-using customers to move from an email offer, for instance, to check out.

All of this is good news for merchants aiming to take advantage of the explosive growth in mobile commerce. eMarketer predicts even more growth ahead, with mobile commerce growing from 19 percent of retail ecommerce sales in 2014 to 26 percent in 2017 in the US, and from 24 percent of retail ecommerce sales to 35 percent in the same time frame in the UK.

There are SEO advantages too, because responsive is Google’s recommended approach to mobile optimization and because it allows merchants to focus all their content energy on a single site. Great content that supports SEO also engages customers, provides a richer site experience and can reduce bounce rates.”

Planning a responsive project

Smashing Magazine has put together a useful guide on how to plan a responsive project [see []

Here’s a quick summary:

Putting together a mobile e-commerce website is a multidisciplinary task that encompasses business management, design, development and marketing. Whatever your agency’s size, create a boilerplate process that you can follow for all websites but that you can adapt to each project’s specifics. In the planning stage of this process, cover the following:

• Who are you designing for (i.e. your customers)? How would they use your website & how do you send them there? What are their buying habits, and what drives them to buy?
• Create designs that are suited to mobile devices, including button design, font size and so on.
• Consider what content and functions should be where on each target screen size
• Generate wireframes with details for all key pages (home page, category page, product page, basket and checkout).

Planning in this way will help you deliver an e-commerce website that is well optimized for mobile, that is targeted at your client’s customers and that converts more visitors into buyers.

Donald Russell's mobile optimised site

Donald Russell’s “mobile-optimised” e-commerce website

Are there any downsides?


The obvious challenge is cost. Bespoke responsive design and development implies that there is at least two versions of every element on every page: things don’t just end up in the “right” place without consideration.

Whilst the availability of responsive templates from Magento reduces some of the development work, there is always going to be some overhead in customising the size and location of each function, image or content area.

Typically, responsive design can nearly double the design effort and add up to 50% to the overall development effort. QA and testing is effectively at least doubled, because every page needs to be checked and tested for all the target device sizes (not considering all the permutations available in the Android world).

It’s the same site

Some retailers may not wish to have identical product, categorisation/navigation and content on their mobile site – for perfectly sensible marketing and commercial reasons. For example, their catalogues are so large or their product information/configuration is so complex that it just won’t work well on a small screen. Alternatively, their customers’ prime mobile usage is about last minute purchases inspired by promotional emails – not browsing or research.

In these cases, a separately configured mobile-optimised website may perform better.


People worry about the impact of “big” single pages which include all the HTML, code and content for all known device sizes. Theoretically, they have a point and one that becomes particularly important when considering how customers might interact with your website through a comparatively slower mobile data connection.

However, performance in our Magento world is largely dealt through proper and optimised configuration and hosting. For example, use of cache-ing systems can dramatically improve page load times.

Thinking responsively

E-commerce managers and developers need to think responsively whenever any decision that touches the website is made. Many folk still overlook those small screens – old habits die hard. Content needs to be considered vertically (as opposed to horizontally).

Particular attention needs to be paid to the technical tasks of content creation. Old style HTML tables won’t work: website managers need to use DIVs. Fixed image dimensions will break responsive designs.


Given the increasing proliferation and range of different sized devices, it clearly makes sense to deploy a mobile offering. The payoff is easily calculated and predictably returned.

The debate is around how: do you go responsive design or mobile-optimised? The former is clearly a more strategic approach, as you are laying the technical foundations for all sorts of different device sizes and planning for a more manageable online presence. However, companies may baulk at the budgets involved, particularly if they have an existing website with which they are happy. Should that be the case, our advice is that if a re-platform or significant redesign/re-brand is being planned – making it responsive will be a time saver and much the best long-term decision.

By Roger Willcocks

How to choose a Magento agency

How to choose a Magento agency

We are approached on average once a day about our services. Some of these approaches are well-considered, structured and exhibiting excellent attention to detail – well on the path to success. Some are destined to fail. Judging by what some businesses tell us about their experience of other developers, some fairly shocking work is conducted in the wild west of the Magento universe.

Magento has quickly become one of the most popular e-commerce platforms available today, fuelled largely because of the richness of its functionality and its “open source” nature. This popularity, however, means that many web developers and companies have adopted the Magento platform without investing in the proper planning, organisation and support that e-commerce software can require.

Many merchants have commissioned their websites on the “cheap and cheerful” Magento bandwagon: when the websites are live, the problems begin. “It’s easy to build a website if you don’t have to support it.” You may then find yourself without the appropriate Magento resources and expertise, and cut off from the fast-evolving world of e-commerce.

Some Magento websites have been developed in haste without:

– consideration for performance and scaleability
– investing in a support and maintenance service (with ongoing handholding)
– professional development standards (for example with hard-coding)
– long-term attention to client’s needs for flexibility and ease of maintenance
– proper study of Magento systems design, architecture and best practice
– implementation of security guidelines for cardholder data protection

After a while, you get a feel for what’s the best way of going about choosing an agency to execute your Magento e-commerce work. This article will help you make your needs more concrete and how to go about choosing an appropriate agency to meet them.

1. First, have the right team in place at your end
It seems obvious to say, but often it’s the “wrong” person who leads the process. E-commerce is a unique blend of the marketing, technical and analytical as well as a sound understanding of your operational processes and workflow (backed by sound planning and management) – all these factors should come into play when determining your requirements and their fulfilment.

Either have someone on board who knows what to do and has done this before or, failing that, hire a consultant to help.

2. Be clear about what you want
Write it down and be specific. If you don’t know what you want, then you won’t know when you’ve got it. If you are unsure what you want/need, look at your most successful competitor’s website and use the features on their site as a reference. For example, how many ways do you want to allow your customers to pay? Should they be able to add gift messages? Do you want to accept orders from outside the UK? And so on.

Also, think through your list of requirements and how you might want to manage them within your business, i.e. how much time do you have as a business to devote to managing this part of the site.
A simple way to do this is to write down what elements (& moving parts) that you’d like on each material page of the website. Then, write down the processes for fulfilling orders and delivering customer service.

Incidentally, for the naïve or uneducated, it’s very difficult to understand what is happening behind the scenes on a website page on an e-commerce website because there are so many dynamic elements, business rules, logic and algorithms as well as general website parameters.

3. Set a (rough) budget
Set a budget that is appropriate for your anticipated activity & sales. It would be ridiculous to spend £10k on a website that does £10m per annum or £50k where your aspiration is £100k of sales. If you have no idea of what commissioning a new site costs, phone a few different agencies and ask them what their average project price is for a new e-commerce website. This should give you a few pointers. We try to understand client budgetary comfort range quite early on.

As a guide, our clients spend between 2% and 5% of their online revenues on e-commerce development and operations (excluding marketing costs). This obviously excludes initial capital costs which are linked (in our case) to the amount of time that goes into the project. At Screen Pages, fully managed design and build projects can take 60-200 days, depending on the functional scope of the project: we know, we’ve done 300 or so since 2000.

4. Who’ll be working on your project?
Many disciplines are involved in putting together an e-commerce website and chances are that the person you’re dealing with won’t be involved in its delivery. You should take pains to understand the project team and the different roles involved.

In our case, there’ll be an account manager who lead any commercial and marketing issues; a project manager who’ll own day-to-day operational and functional delivery, managing both client-side resources as well as internal agency staff; creative/design lead who’ll provide mock-ups of what you’ll be getting; QA/testing staff who should make sure you are getting an error-free, quality product which won’t waste all your time spotting problems that should have been cleared up before it came to you.

You also need to arrive at an understanding of how the work will be managed day-to-day, including deadlines, key milestones, sign off stages etc. Once you’re clear about who’s involved, you should be seeking to understand what relevant experience they have and how much involvement they will have on your project.

Rough breakdown of where the time goes on a Magento project

On the other side of the fence, understand that you have your own properly resourced, internal project team and project manager as well with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. If your internal effort is not clear, this should be discussed and agreed with the agency. In our experience, lack of client testing is the biggest risk to project success – especially where there is integration with back offices for order processing or bespoke, custom functionality.

The second biggest client-side challenge is preparation of data. Tens of products can be reasonably managed manually. But when it comes to many thousands with lots of inter-relating data (variants and attributes) associated with each, getting the data import process right is non-trivial and will probably involve several iterations.

A related word of warning: stay away from agencies who outsource their development. We tried this eight years ago and superficially costs are less, but the quality is poor & management costs escalate. We find life is a lot easier when we are all working in the same office, where you can step around the corner and talk through issues – especially when it’s a piece of work that’s important to you.

5. How will I know what I am getting for my money?
You will only pay for work done completely and properly and your agency will expect paying for this work. So you will need to make sure there’s a water-tight definition of the scope of work. As an agency will generally price on the amount of time spent on your project and that time is a direct reflection of the functionality required and promised, it’s best to be clear about that!

Our method for doing this is to prepare and share rather a large spreadsheet that contains every task and “function point”, with an associated time and cost. Not only is this transparent, but it is reasonably accurate. It also includes allocation for more intangible deliverables such as quality assurance & acceptance testing.

You might also consider how mistakes and omissions are handled. Given the fact that you speak “retail” language and we speak “agency”, some of the detail can be lost in translation or quite simply forgotten or misapprehended. Find out what happens in those cases.

Later, we produce detailed mock-ups of all the material pages on your website (not just the home page). Coupled with this, you’ll be presented with a detailed functional specification which explains how every element on every page gets there and is managed.

In our world, you should ask questions on all this until you’re happy it’s what you want and we will ask you to approve it and sign it off.

6. Is it cheap?
Unfortunately, too many are seduced by an attractive headline price (usually a compelling round number). This is quite wrong: it’s not about the price or day rate – it’s about the amount of time involved. An accurate assessment of the effort involved is what matters, multiplied by the day rate.

You may be aghast at day rates north of £400, but the differential usually covers the overheads of running a professional, well-run business with experienced management.

Think about the kind of service you want/expect as well as the kind of service you need. There is a difference and you pay for what you get. Whether it’s advice, warranties, turnaround times, quality or account management – it all comes with a value.

7. How big & established is the Magento agency?
Granted size doesn’t matter, provided your agency can handle the demands of the new clients it takes on and the ongoing support and update commitments of its existing clients. You should look for critical mass: 1-2 Magento developers will not cut the mustard. You might get what you want on the initial development project, but when they start work on somebody else’s project, how can you ensure you get the service or support you need. An agency with only a few developers will not be able to cope.

Experience counts for a lot, especially with Magento which has over 2 million lines of code which will soon be all yours and in the tender care of your agency in this open source world. How many years has your agency been working with Magento and how many sites have they built or taken on?

Of course, there is an obvious third party verification here: Magento itself. Magento operates a formal partnership programme with a system of certification. To qualify for partnership – a formal agreement – a partner must have conducted a certain number of Magento implementations and have a number of “certified” developers, which means they’ve had to sit an exam and the agency would have to invest in their training.

You can check Screen Pages’s partner credentials on the Magento website.

Here’re a few additional questions which might help you clarify.

– Do they have examples of businesses of your size, type traffic and revenues? There is a question of relevance and “appropriateness”.
– Have they built sites on the same version of Magento that your site will be built on?
– Have they built responsive and mobile sites?
– Have they delivered integration?
– Have they built multi-currency or international sites?

In short, can your intended provide examples of successful delivery of capabilities that our dear to your heart? Look at the client list & check they are “like you”. Building sites that take 10 orders a year is not you, nor is John Lewis.

For the record, Screen Pages has been working on Magento since early 2009. Here’s our story with Magento.

8. What happens after it’s built?
Building websites is the easiest thing we do. The hardest thing is supporting & extending them. After an e-commerce website is made live, that’s when the whole question of service and support kicks in. It’s fair to say there are always a few issues and niggles that nobody spots, let alone the snags that come up as you manage products, prices, promotions, content & data on your site on a daily basis.

You need “organisation” to deliver this with processes for handling support, with manpower & management. Make sure your agency has a proper agreement with structured, documented processes for support, maintenance, problem resolution, warranties etc. Check this is written down in their contract: a sensible and embracing agreement is a good sign of a professional outfit.

Ask how many support questions are asked each month and how many are dealt.

At Screen Pages, under our standard agreement, we offer a 30 day warranty on all issues after the site is made live and an unlimited warranty on any issue we’ve introduced.

9. What other services does the agency provide?
This is question is a two-edged sword. You may feel it’s convenient to have your marketing, SEO, affiliate management etc all under one roof. Or you may feel that you want a specialist rather than a jack-of-all-trades.

Our view is that it is much better to pick best-of-breed agencies for each service you need: how can you expect the in-depth service/expertise/back up if there’s only 1-2 people in each discipline?

We have taken the approach that it’s better to work with experts – we have established relationships with consultants and agencies whose services are “appropriate” for our kinds of clients.

An important exception to this is hosting. This can be a challenge with the monster that is Magento: a few Google searches will reveal the need for careful consideration of its configuration, performance and optimisation. It’s unlikely that you will not know what to ask for or even comprehend what you’ve been told about cacheing, secure FTP, PHP ini files, MySQL etc. Let us take care of all that for you. We have learned the hard way how to optimise our Magento websites and make them work fast. (Here’s how we host Magento websites.)

And finally, two final commercial suggestions that may be worth more than the others combined:

10. Take references
This is obvious, but incredibly often overlooked. (Here’s some of our e-commerce clients).

11. Check out their financials
Again, it goes without saying, but take a look at their accounts and understand where an agency’s business comes from and its profitability.

B2B e-commerce in Magento

B2B e-commerce in Magento

Whilst Magento has established market leadership as an e-commerce platform capable of handling a wide range of B2C (business-to-consumer) requirements for online success, its ability to handle B2B (business-to-business) needs often goes unsung.

Why embrace B2B e-commerce?

Forecasts suggest that the B2B ecommerce market will be double the size of B2C. According to Econsultancy “by migrating B2B customers online, companies have seen a 44% increase in average order value and 38% of the B2B executives agreed that customers have spent more. In addition, half of the companies have reduced their acquisition costs and 52% have decreased their support costs. Perhaps most importantly, the more channels customers buy from, the more money they spend and the more loyal they are. In a time when companies are struggling to find growth in the traditional channels, this may well be the best way to stand out from competition and increase sales.”

86% of companies in a study conducted for Internet Retailer by Forrester Research say they now sell online to customers who used to purchase from them only offline. The study shows that businesses are expanding in several ways how they reach customers through e-commerce: many are now selling online to customers who once only purchased offline through call centers or salespeople.

The main business drivers for B2B e-commerce therefore fall into two categories: efficiency and opportunity. Efficiency comes from making business transactions more easy and quicker, delivering the benefits of convenience, automation and integration. Opportunity is delivered by adding value, improving service, increased new business and embracing new sales channels such as mobile.

Having now worked on quite a few Magento B2B implementations (Elektron Technology, Watco, SnapOn, QC Supplies, Demco, Anixter, Aston & Fincher – as well as integrating trade purchase capabilites on several B2C e-commerce websites), we are able to set out some whys and hows for B2B e-commerce on Magento.

 B2B e-commerce: key stats [source: Stibo Systems]

Basic e-commerce implementation in Magento
Let’s start by looking at the e-commerce basics, including pricing, ordering and fulfilment and how they are implemented in Magento.

The golden rule is to set up your B2B website as a dedicated, separate store (“website” in Magento parlance). This enables you set up different catalogue data and content (including pricing, specific payment and delivery methods as well as offering different functionality and layouts). This is quite straightforwardly done in the Admin Panel (normally we’d allow a few days to set up and configure).

Important configuration tasks include:

  • import existing customer accounts, addresses, emails (& passwords if available). This is particularly pertinent if migrating from an existing website and you have the passwords.
  • establish the payment on account (or by invoice) payment method. A small customisation to the checkout would allow the capture of a purchase order (optional or mandatory).
  • restricted access to generic trade pricing can delivered by enabling Magento Enterprise’s private sale functionality which requires a customer to login prior to accessing the website
  • VAT numbers can be captured (& validated) during the checkout process

It’s worth spending more time on pricing. After the initial debate about whether to display prices or not (& or what version), you can set up different pricing regimes by a number of different tools – once logged in.

You can then use “catalogue price rules” to offer across-the-board discounts to specific customer groups; individual prices on a per product basis can be assigned to customer groups, as well as “tiered” pricing (volume-dependent pricing).

Setting up structured pricing for different customer groups in Magento

Magento also lends itself very well to international sales (with full local currency pricing or currency conversion), with the possibility of separate languages.

Improved fulfilment by automation integration

Integration is critical to the B2B process as most companies have sophisticated ERP or back office systems and the case for automation is compelling. Technically, this either involves conventional file transfer of XML or CSV data files (to an agreed frequency) or direct communication through an API (application programming interface) or Magento “connector”. In most cases, the key is to export orders perhaps with other customer data) and to import stock and pricing. Generally, the critical part of such integration projects is the analysis, documentation and specification of the work flows/transactions associated with this, and then to ensure the bespoke development/integration work is delivered and tested as part of the project.

Magento has (generally) good tools and technology for this: Screen Pages has integrated Magento with well over 20 different back office/ERP systems. These range from SAP & Navision at one of the end spectrum to SME packages such BrightPearl as well as 3rd party fulfilment/warehouse management houses.

Additional B2B e-commerce transactional services

Once the basics have been covered, you look at providing a better service to your customers and adding to value to existing business processes. Common requirements in this category include:

  • Presenting your products in a way that is more attractive to trade buyers; for example, navigation and browse habits could be radically different. Conventional categorisation should be re-evaluated. For example, many buyers will order by part number or product code (a small customisation enables customers to add products to the basket by entry of multiple codes); catalogue buyers will use onsite search with these codes as well. A final touch is to customise the Magento “list” view (as opposed to the more popular “grid”) or category pages
  • Many B2B customers will create the equivalent of “wishlists” (whatever language you use to describe such shopping lists) or more, they will ask for quotes which need submission and approval prior to order. We have implemented a 3rd party module ( for handling this elegantly.
  • Repeat purchases are (mercifully) widespread in this world. Maximise the marketing and service potential offered by the “my orders” page and encourage customers to repeat orders with ease via this mechanism
  • Enhanced delivery options: offer your customers “nominated” delivery (where they pick their desired delivery date on a calendar): this can be assembled via a combination of popular extensions
  • Upload credit limits (with your account import as above) and implement balance checks and alerts in your checkouts (if required). Better, these limits can be fed through customer data integration
  • Trade account application forms may be appropriate for certain businesses: capture all the customer data you require before approving and creating the account. A simple form coupled with an email should accomplish this.

Valued-added customer service (& increased sales)

Many will feel that a (new) B2B e-commerce website presents the opportunity to offer a lot more to entice and persuade customers, as well as supporting their need for information.

Magento’s content management approach (with rich content and media) allows you to integrate anything from case studies and testimonials, installation and training material to full video and “clickable catalogues”. Integrating a blog on the website is an excellent way to deliver this extra material (and highlight it in customer communication such as email newsletters).

At the end of the day, businesses should be aware that whilst their customers are “at work, doing their jobs”, they are also consumers and their reaction to websites is largely coloured by their usage and experience of popular B2C websites. Falling behind their expectations is a risk many will not want to take. Consequently, standard practices in B2C e-commerce such as a proper study of analytics, regular review of the user experience via usability tests and ever-important customer surveys will help you understand what works and what doesn’t.

Mobile usage in B2B

Mobile usage in B2B e-commerce: key stats [source: Scott Design]

Customer acquisition

A final attraction offered via B2B e-commerce is the chance to acquire new customers by not just a “better website” but by more effective use of “best practice” online marketing, including SEO and email marketing.

Magento has excellent SEO management, offering your precise control over the important assets that Google likes (page titles, meta data, URLs, links and, of course lots of relevant content): good positioning in the search engines could bring you more customers.

Finally, Magento has a number of partners who offer automated, personalised and targeted email automation (such as Dotmailer and Bronto), which would help your marketeers deliver structured, lifecycle email campaigns to your customers. The clever part here is the high-level of integration with your transactional and e-commerce data as these extensions exploit the Magento API.

A final note on mobile. Over the next 12 months, almost half (48%) of companies reported plans to add a mobile sales channel, and 25% are investing in online marketplaces. Clearly, mobile commerce appears to be the future of B2B selling for most (78%) companies. Magento – equipped with both mobile store and responsive capability – makes this transition easy.


All in all, with the predicted upswing in B2B e-commerce, Magento offers the right tools for reliably delivery a best pratice e-commerce channel, with desired functionality offered either out-of-the-box, via extensions or specific customisations for your environment.

Screen Pages’ insight and experience with Magento and its implementation in a B2B world can help businesses gain competitive advantage by improved efficiency, better services and increased sales.

By Roger Willcocks

5 years of Magento: a retrospective

5 years of Magento: a retrospective

February 2014: 5th anniversary of our work  with Magento

It’s now 5 years since we made the decision to adopt and invest in Magento as the e-commerce platform we offer to our clients. This decision was existential in the fact that at Screen Pages all we do is offer e-commerce services and we only use one platform to deliver them. In a sense, it was an all or nothing decision and once we’d made that decision to marry, we knew in advance that we’d have to embrace it wholeheartedly, commit it to it thoroughly, invest in it significantly and work with it through thick or thin, health and in sickness – perhaps not forever, but at least for a long time. (It’s unthinkable to just do a bit of Magento or offer to use it on one project – that’s a recipe for disaster.)

Confronted by the need to invest in a new platform: the software we were using at the time was not attracting adequate investment and the world of e-commerce was evolving swiftly.

Why we chose Magento in 2009

Having conducted a desk and paper exercise, taken due diligence from a retailer then using Magento 1.2 (with sales of over £1m per annum) as well as formally meeting Roy Rubin (then CEO of Varien, as the business was then called), we commenced our first projects in early 2009. We decided upon Magento because it offered the best price/performance of the available e-commerce platforms, it offered full customisation, bespoking & integration (required by our clients) and, if you wrote down all the features and functions needed for a “best practice” e-commerce website, it had them or they were available as extensions (or failing that, could be customised). Plus, it was “open source”, so businesses had more control and portability.

One of those early clients, Christopher Ward, has evolved over time and is now on Magento Enterprise, seeing its online sales more than double in that time.

At the same time, we invested in new open source development practices and software, new operating system and server configurations as well as in building relationships and partnerships with a whole new universe of businesses and complimentary service providers.  Not least amongst these was Varien itself. Magento is now part of eBay and has evolved considerably over time: we have worked hard to foster relationships with Magento’s management, commercial, technical and product marketing teams to ensure that our joint clients receive best advice and we are well supported in our undertakings to them.

Importantly, many of our staff who were experienced in one type of e-commerce service delivery have bravely acquired new skills and remain the backbone of Screen Pages’ technical and project teams.

Many of our more successful clients chose to migrate to the new world with us, including Bella di Notte, Donald Russell, the Real Flower Company, the RSPB and Sportswoman. One went elsewhere, then came back: QC Supplies.

Magento has evolved in those 5 years

Looking back at the software itself, we have seen Magento become a more reliable, capable and scalable platform as well as developing the largest customer base of any e-commerce software platform in the world. We have seen the evolution of Community Edition from version 1.2 to 1.8 and the successful introduction of Magento Enterprise (now at version 1.13) – a risk in itself, as the early success of Magento was down in part to its “open source” and unlicensed (read “free”) nature. It bears testimony to the quality of the product that its customers would now pay $15,000 per annum.

Although we have Community Edition clients, our preference is to work with Magento Enterprise. It has better scalability, configuration  and performance options making it suitable for e-commerce operations with more traffic and sales, larger product catalogues, multiple or international stores (including languages, currencies and brands). There are certain marketing capabilities which some clients require (trigger emails, loyalty schemes, targeting, private sales etc). Above all, though it is backed by a considerable product development and support organisation and budget (backed in turn by the considerable eBay balance sheet). In a word, if you’re serious with revenues over £1m, we’d recommend Magento Enterprise (see official video).


It’s easy to look at Magento simply as a static software service. It’s not. We’ve learned the hard way that one of the most challenging aspects to building successful Magento e-commerce operations is to understand how it is configured, deployed, hosted and updated – overlaid by client-specific factors such as trading volumes and characteristics. We’ve evolved from using Amazon cloud, to designing a self-managed cloud-based environment and settling on a private network at Peer1 (a Magento Platinum partner), based on its Magento managed service offering, but pre-configured to meet our client needs.  This evolution reflects the learning curve and investment required to offer the high performance, flexibility and scale that our kinds of clients need.

Magento’s popularity, however, means that many web developers and companies have adopted the Magento platform without investing in the proper planning, organisation and support that e-commerce software can require. Some merchants have commissioned their websites on the “cheap and cheerful” Magento bandwagon: when the websites are live, the problems begin. It’s easy to build a website if you don’t have to support it. Common short-comings would include critical hygiene factors such as consideration for performance and scaleability, a proper support and maintenance service (with ongoing handholding), professional development standards and code management, long-term attention to client’s needs for flexibility and ease of maintenance as well as implementation of security guidelines for data protection.

We have developed processes to migrate existing Magento websites and provide ongoing support and development to clients who need better support and service.

Because of our success over a period of time, Screen Pages was honoured with a Magento Partner Award at Magento’s global conference in Las Vegas in 2013: based in part on its exceptional client satisfaction ratings, its success in securing and implementing Magento Enterprise projects and its number of certified developers.

In April 2013, Screen Pages qualified for Gold partnership based in part on its exceptional client satisfaction ratings, its success in securing and implementing Magento Enterprise projects and its number of certified developers.

Our work with Magento has been recognised in the industry. The fashion start-up Atterley Road  was picked as one of Vogue’s Top 10 retail websites – a massive honour. Two clients – Loake Shoemakers and This Works – were honoured at the ECMOD Direct Commerce awards in April 2013. Loake Shoemakers received the award for the best British menswear brand (in the £5m-£30m category) and This Works received the award for Best Exploitation of Technology (for businesses with sales up to £25m). We’ve been invited to speak at Magento Live in the UK on two occasions. Working hard with the Magento community, we have forged good technical and commercial relationships with other complementary software and service providers, whether it’s module or extension providers (Sweet Tooth, Predictive Intent, DotMailer, Aheadworks, Flint, Ebizmarts, Mageworx, WebShopApps and many more), or payment gateways such as Sagepay or Verifone.   We’ve also done a fair bit of Magento customisation, whether it’s to offer particular delivery, customer service or fulfilment options, represent and navigate product catalogues in a specific way – let alone customising layout and user experience. We’ve learned there’s a wrong way and a right way to do this kind of work, in a way which protects the “core” of Magento as well as the interaction of 3rd party modules and future upgrades.

Many of our clients are operating multi-channel businesses or distributed (or sophisticated) fulfilment, so integration has often been on the agenda:  most actively traded websites are integrated with back office systems. We have worked with systems such as SAP & Navision at one of the end spectrum, to specialist mail order/direct commerce packages such as MNP & Khaos, to EPOS/retail systems such as Eurostop as well as 3rd party fulfilment/warehouse management houses: over 30 different back office systems all told.

We have now delivered a lot of Magento projects

Now, 5 years on, we have implemented over 40 Magento Community Edition websites, over 20 Enterprise Edition websites and actively manage about 50 e-commerce clients,  Our clients include fashion and lifestyle brands (such as Atterley Road, Begg Clothing, Choc-on-Choc, Christopher Ward Real Flowers and Rodial), reputable charities and not-for-profit organisations (such as the RSPB, BHF, the Bodleian Libraries, Kew Gardens and Historic Royal Palaces), established and trusted brands (such as Loake and Donald Russell), well-known mail order businesses (such as Micro-Scooters and Van Dal), trade and business suppliers (such as Demco, Snap On, Watco and Aston & Fincher). This range provides us with broad insight and drives constant innovation and improvement as online evolves. [See our Portfolio for a showcase of our e-commerce work over the 5 years]

Combined, online shops that we run receive over 100,000 visitors per day (and typical configurations have been tested up to 500,000 per day). In total, our clients take several thousand orders per day on average. Our client websites perform well:  they convert at an average of 3%. They are integrated with many different back office systems and they all run fast, reliably and securely.

Magento itself is now unquestionably the clear market leader in its sector and, you might argue, the most successful e-commerce platform on the planet. 33% of the market in the UK uses Magento, over 200,000 merchants worldwide (2,500 of which are using Magento Enterprise). $26bn of sales go through Magento (going on $50bn, given growth projections). There are 6000+ extension, 2,000 certified developers, 200 partners and, to boot, Magento is still searched for in search engines more than “e-commerce” and its website had 13m visitors in 2013.

Our journey with Magento has been hard, expensive but ultimately rewarding. Screen Pages has re-invented itself – so to speak – under the bonnet, whilst still offering the same proposition to its clients: best practice e-commerce, professionally delivered and supported.

By Roger Willcocks

Magento transactional emails: best practice for customer engagement

Magento transactional emails: best practice for customer engagement

Magento sends out abundance of onsite transactional emails for different kinds of customer interaction. These include account creation, email newsletter sign-up, order confirmation etc, let alone others (in Magento Enterprise) for order follow-up, abandoned basket chasers etc.

The standard layout is relatively bland (“quietly understated”). Whilst we tweak this to make them “on brand” (using the website styling), it is very rare that retailers embrace the fact that these emails are fully content-managed, so they can say what you want & how.

You are missing out on a major customer engagement, promotional, brand-building opportunity in not working these emails, in particular email subscription, account creation & order confirmation. Imagine this: your expensively acquired visitor is persuaded to come along to your website and is vaguely tempted by the idea of promotions and hints and tips (the promise of your email news service), and at this supreme moment of anticipation, they receive the rather drab Magento “newsletter subscription” confirmation email. #fail.

Here are some suggestions.

Email newsletter sign-up

Personalise the email. Restate the benefits of sign-up: special offers, news, hints and tips etc. Thank them and offer a promotion.

Email newsletter sign-up

Account creation email

The important elements are a guide to current promotions and major departments. We include a special offer to get the visitor to place that first order and explain the benefits of having account. Importantly, we refer the customer to other channels/touchpoints (such as Facebook).

Account creation email


Order confirmation email

The order confirmation arrives just after your new customer is putting their credit card back in their wallet – at the point of maximum expectation. As well as reminding her of the lovely items she’s purchased, try to get some feedback you can use to persuade other potential customers and perhaps reduce the load on your customer service team by publishing the answers to their FAQs.

Order confirmation email

Creating your own transactional emails in Magento

If you’d like to design & customise your own transactional videos, go to System/Transactional Emails in the Magento Admin Panel and you can edit the raw HTML yourself.

Need help? Here is an online video to guide you through the task.


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