The Behemoth Van’s Aircraft Custom Ecommerce Site

February 23rd, 2022 by Gage Pacifera

Not long after the Harmonic Northwest team wrapped up work on the Van’s Aircraft custom WordPress site, Van’s asked for help with much bigger project: building a completely new custom ecommerce site. The site would be the place for aircraft builders to purchase parts and accessories for their build-at-home kits and would constitute a vital part of the company’s bottom line.

Challenges abounded for this project. First of all, the company inventory is considerable—we needed to find a way to account for over 8000 purchasable products with dozens of filterable product facets (think screw thread size, pipe diameter, material type, etc.) specific to nine base models of aircraft. We needed to create an effortless onboarding experience for thousands of existing customers and allow those customers to associate their aircraft(s) to their accounts. We also needed to keep orders, customers, and products in sync between the store and the company’s ERP, SysPro. And beyond that, we needed to navigate a host of regulations that pertained to special state-level tax rules, organizational exemptions, state and country-level shipping considerations (think hazardous materials and super-large items), and ensuring Van’s can track which aircraft each part order pertains to.

When we launched the site late last November, the impact was immediate and positive: customers were able to easily find and purchase the products they needed, the back office benefited from a more streamlined process for processing orders, sales went up and store maintenance-related employee hour counts went down.

You can check out our work at:

How did we do it?

A build with this level of complexity requires exceptional communication and the active participation of multiple teams with varying skill sets. On the Harmonic Northwest side, we enlisted multiple front-end and back-end developers and a project manager. On the client side, we had an amazing project director, individual owners for product data, ordering process, shipping, and accounting, plus a number of beta testers and business personnel. Additionally, we engaged with a team of SysPro specialists and third-party providers of various plugin packages. Design was provided by the amazing and versatile Blocktype Studio.

We built the ecommerce site on open source Magento, created custom middleware in Laravel, and worked with the company’s SysPro installation to better organize and clean up their data.

The tech stack for this project included:

  • Magento
  • SysPro
  • Laravel
  • Backpack for Laravel
  • ElasticSearch
  • Avalara
  • PHP
  • VBScript
  • MySQL
  • LESS
  • Gulp
  • Github
  • Sentry
  • DigitalOcean VPS

A ton of time and effort was put into this project and the list of features we delivered is far too long to spell out here, but below are a few highlights.

Custom Magento Site

We built the customer-facing website on the industry standard Magento platform. Magento was well-suited to the task due to its extensibility and impressive feature set that handles many business use cases either out-of-the-box or with the help of field-tested plugins.

SysPro Magento Integration

The biggest part of the project was creating the integrations to the company’s ERP system, SysPro. We built a number of syncing tools to ensure that products, orders and customers were all in sync between what the back office was seeing in SysPro and what the customers were seeing online.

Advanced Search with ElasticSearch

Recognized as the most popular enterprise search engine around, ElasticSearch provides pinpoint accuracy for discovery of relevant results. We spun up a java-based ElasticSearch instance to provide us with an ultra-powerful, fast, configurable search experience.

Custom Laravel Applications

The middleware part of the build, responsible for ensuring that data flows flawlessly between the website and the company’s ERP, SysPro, consists of one primary Laravel web application with one additional supporting Laravel application. Administrative users can log in to approve and analyze data that is being passed between their customer-facing and business-facing systems.

Custom API

We built what we called the “customer API” to support the primary Laravel application. This API, among other things, helps customers associate individual aircraft in SysPro to their Magento accounts and ensures that order data is properly associated with SysPro accounts. This was also built on Laravel.

Data Architecture

We ended up making many updates to the company’s existing SysPro data architecture and to individual data entries to allow data to flow efficiently between the ERP and the store.

Magento Avalara and Syspro Avalara Integrations

We integrated Avalara into our store and ERP to handle tax compliance. This included navigating regional aviation-related tax rules, tax breaks for certain organizations, and special regulations related to individual products.

Posted in Ecommerce, Portfolio, Web Development

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