Did you ever imagine you’d see cars sold online? Given their size, variability, shipping challenges, and cost, many considered automobiles immune to the advance of eCommerce. And yet Carvana designed a system of selection and distribution that proves selling complex products and distributing them, no matter how custom, is possible. All it takes is a little ingenuity.

We can imagine some of you are balking at that last suggestion. “My product is just too custom,” you might say. “There are hundreds of possible configurations!” You might also be concerned that an eCommerce site isn’t up to the task of showcasing the complexity of your designs.

You might be right…but you probably aren’t. There are a number of established strategies for selling complex products and custom configurations online that can be modified to sell almost anything. This article will introduce a few and demonstrate how they work in the real world.

Selling Complex Products Through Productization

Yes, selling a product with dozens or hundreds of possible configurations can be challenging online. But ask yourself how often each possible configuration sells in the real world. Some of your more obscure arrangements might never sell, or sell infrequently. You may find that there’s a much smaller set of combinations that make up the bulk of your sales.

Imagine that your ten most popular configurations make up 90% of your sales volume. You could convert those ten to standard catalog items and offer them on your eCommerce site. The vast majority of your customers will be perfectly happy to choose from this slimmer selection. Only those in the remaining 10% would need to contact you directly, allowing you to streamline your sales processes.

Add a Configurator Tool to Your eCommerce Site

Let’s say your selling complex products and you can’t winnow your configurations down to a manageable number of catalog items. Are you out of luck? Not at all! A number of retailers use web applications to simplify even complex product customizations.

In its simplest form, an online configurator tool allows customers to select options from a product's customization categories. Take a look at this example from Dell Computer. As you choose your options your price updates in real-time. It features nearly 60 different customization areas, many with three or more options. We had our crack team of statisticians run the total number of possible permutations, and the official tally is enough to bury a T-Rex up to its neck. If Dell can do it, so can you.

You can also upgrade your customer’s experience beyond a simple options checklist. You could add visual flair by including a 2D or 3D representation of your product that changes to reflect customizations as they’re selected. This is particularly useful if the chosen options dramatically change the look of the product. This 3D sneaker customizer from Nike demonstrates what’s possible. It’s B2C rather than B2B, but the concept is easily transferable.

Another way to simplify customization is to ask your customers a series of questions designed to lead them to their ideal configuration. This works well when your customers don’t know precisely what they need and require a bit of coaching.

There are a number of off-the-shelf configurator products you can add to your website to make your eCommerce dream of selling complex products a reality without the time and expense of custom software design.

Simplify Your Customization Options

Maybe you don’t have the budget for a configurator tool and productization doesn’t cover a wide enough swath of customers. Instead of reducing the number of configurations you offer, you can limit the categories open to customization. This still allows customer choice while reducing the number of possible builds.

To clarify what we mean, let’s apply the Nike and Dell configurators to the other two strategies we’ve talked about. If Nike wanted to productize instead of offering customization, they would choose their most popular custom shoe designs and only sell those online. Likewise, Dell would create distinct server products for their most-requested configurations.

If instead, Dell wanted to offer limited customization, they could lock down certain features and only allow customization on the most critical options, those that matter most to their customers. You might only get to choose your processor speed, total RAM, and software installations. The other options that can’t be customized might reflect the most popular choices.

It should be clear now that selling complex products online doesn’t have to be complicated. Anyone can do it. All it takes is research, know-how, and the right tools.