How to implement product configurators and CPQ

Use configurable product to sell complex products online

With more and more transactions moving online, we should be able to sell any product digitally. Right? But what about complex products and services? I am not talking here about selecting a color and size which you can quickly solve with variants. How do we make it easy for customers to buy really complex products or services that require making several choices, adjusting multiple parameters to choose between thousands of combinations?
Our goal is to give customers the freedom of customization while providing a great shopping experience.

Configurable products to the rescue. So, what is a configurable product?

A configurable product is a product that customers can change, configure, personalize before it is purchased. Let us look at some examples. I always prefer to look at examples across different industries to make sure we design a generic solution.

Let’s start with the most straightforward product – a t-shirt. It is enough to let the customer select a variant by picking a size and color in most cases. However, if your business sells corporate ware, you should allow a buyer to customize a t-shirt by adding a company logo, text, and an image.

If you are in the entertainment industry and sell tickets to concerts or sports events. A customer needs to pick a date of performance and seats. TicketMaster does it by displaying a seating plan for the venue.

Leading digital brand Nike allows a customer to customize their shoes in a fun and visual way.

DIY stores like HomeDepot in the US sell many configurable products, for example, custom vanity top or custom-built closets.

We find even more examples of configurable products in B2B, where even buying a screw becomes a complex task with tens of parameters to adjust and thousands of variations.

Many services that you buy online are also examples of configurable products. An insurance policy needs to be customized for every customer; enterprise SaaS software purchase may need configuration; you need to schedule an appointment by selecting the date & time for your haircut or car service appointment.

You may ask, why should I bother with a configurator when I can just add all possible configurations as different products or variants to my catalog? It is a valid question, so let’s discuss it quickly before diving into the configurable product implementation topic.

There are multiple advantages of using configurable products vs. adding each option as a separate product:

  1. More choices. Returning to the t-shirt example. Yes, you can create a lot of different variants of text and colors (i.e., “I love NY” or “My Dog Thinks I’m Cool”). But the t-shirt configurator gives the customer ability to create something that is personal and increases the chance of getting an order.
  2. Usability. Selecting your concert seat on the seating plan is an incomparably better customer experience than browsing through the list of all tickets. Row 6 / seat 27 does not tell me anything if I cannot see where it is in the theater. When it comes to complex B2B products, a configurator can significantly reduce the complexity of selecting the right product and reduces the possibility of a costly mistake.
  3. Site Performance. A single configurable product can replace thousands or even hundreds of thousands of SKUs in your catalog. A large catalog leads to slower performance and higher hosting costs.
    MISUMI is both a manufacturer and distributor that supplies parts for various industries, including automotive, medical equipment, consumer packaging, semiconductor, and others. It offers over 20 million products globally and 80 sextillion part configurations. Sextillion is a number with 21 zeros! It is impossible to have all these options presented in a catalog as product variants. A configurable product is the only way to implement it in digital commerce.
  4. Catalog maintenance. Product information changes quite often. Maintaining a massive quantity of SKUs puts an unnecessary load on your Backoffice team.

Implementing Support for Configurable Products

Configurable products are quite common and help to sell complex products online. Now, let’s talk about how to implement them. Each type of configurable product requires a configurator. You can implement it internally if your configuration is unique, use a configurator provided by your supplier, or buy one of Configure Price Quote (CPQ) systems. More about CPQ later.

I always prefer generic and reusable solutions. Let start by saying that a configurable product is just one of your catalog’s product types with a special flag – Configurable.  We will need one more additional parameter here – Type of Configurator. Even if you have only one type of configurable product right now, it will be prudent to assume that you may have more in the future.

As far as the catalog is concerned, a configurable product is just another product in the catalog besides these two additional fields. It has attributes, pictures, description, product associations, assigned categories, and so on. A customer can see it in the list of products, search for it, and open its Product Details page.
On the Product Details page, a customer will either see the Configure button to launch a configurator in a separate window (Nike example) or a configurator that is embedded into the page (HomeDepot example).

Add to cart button is usually disabled until the customer completes the configuration. The result of the configuration (configuration data) is attached to the cart item and included in the order. The configuration data depends on the Configurator and what your business needs to fulfill the order. It can be a date and seat number in the concert ticket’s example, CAD drawing for some B2B machinery part, text, image, and their positions in the t-shirt case. Ecommerce system should not be concerned with what the Configurator returns. It just needs to attach configuration data to the order item and pass it along to the fulfillment system.

When implementing configurable products, it is essential to clearly separate (decouple) responsibilities of a configurator and digital commerce system.

  • Ecommerce System defines products as configurable and launches proper Configurator
  • Configurator provides a user interface to support the configuration process
  • Configurator collects configuration data and passes it to the Ecommerce system
  • It is up to the Configurator to decide if the configuration is complete and the product can be purchased
  • Ecommerce system attaches configuration data to a cart item and stores it in the order
  • Ecommerce system can provide a default price, but Configurator should be able to override it as some configurations can be more expensive than others.
  • To increase usability, you may design the Configurator also to return a short human-readable description of the configured product to display it along in the cart together with the product name

Preconfigured Products

Some configurations may be more popular than others. To make it more convenient for customers to buy them, you may add them as variants of a configurable product. That will require an additional change to configurable products in the catalog – the ability to attach configuration data to the product record. Preconfigured products may not necessarily contain a fully completed configuration. You could also store partially configured products to give users good starting points. That saves customers time and reduces complexity.

CPQ Systems

Sometimes, instead of building a custom configurator, you may need to integrate a 3rd party CPQ (Configure, Price, Quote) system. CPQ platforms used in manufacturing offer powerful modeling and visualization tools, manage configuration lifecycle, generate a bill of materials, and have sophisticated pricing engines. Many of them have already partnered with leading Ecommerce software providers and offer pre-built integrations.

SAP, Salesforce, Oracle, and other vendors are offering a variety of CPQ systems. You can learn more about different CPQ systems and vendors here.

Configurable products help businesses to reduce complexity and extend the types of products that can be sold online. You can significantly improve customer experience and get better business results by implementing product configurators and integrating them with your digital commerce system.
Interested in learning about other types of digital commerce products – explore the Product section of the Digital Commerce Canvas.

Are you using configurable products in your business? Share your experience in the comments. Let’s learn more from each other.

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