Your ecommerce shopping list: what should be in your basket?

By Fraser Davidson, Director of Technology Services at Javelin Group.

Fraser_DavidsonWhether you are launching a new ecommerce business, expanding an existing business into new markets or territories, or you have simply outgrown your existing ecommerce solution, you will need to choose from the huge array of ecommerce platforms and add-on solutions on the market.

But what questions should you ask the platform vendors, and what are the essential tools for a successful ecommerce site?

Regardless of your offering, territories or scale, there are some fundamental capabilities that all ecommerce sites require; whether you need a basic or advanced version of each capability will depend on your own business requirements. Most platforms now offer a very wide array of features as standard, but determining the level of sophistication of each feature required for your business will be critical when choosing a platform and specialist add-ons.

A Multi-Device Approach

With an increasing amount of ecommerce traffic shifting away from traditional desktop PCs and on to smartphones and tablets, it’s important to consider a range of devices from the start. Some retailers build separate ecommerce websites for mobiles, whereas others are embracing responsive web design, an approach which uses a single platform for all devices. Web pages are designed to respond and adapt to each device, using fluid grid layouts and flexible images. Whichever approach you choose, you may want to consider the mobile design first. With space at a premium, it will help you focus on the most important features and functions.

eCommerce Platform

Although ecommerce platforms differ in the features offered, they all include the core functions: managing the website, building each page and serving it to the site visitors. They have tools for managing page layouts and content, and may also include on-site marketing and merchandising, search and order management features. Some of these functions may not be developed enough to meet your requirements and so another key ingredient of your platform is the ability to integrate with a host of additional solutions.

The importance of easy maintenance at the back end of the platform should not be underestimated; you will want to make the most of all the powerful functionality available in your new platform. Many businesses have only a small team managing their website, so you will need to consider your team’s size, level of technical knowledge and daily priorities. Ask vendors to demonstrate common processes to you and include both your business user and technical teams in a selection process to obtain their input directly.

Search Engine (e.g. Oracle Endeca, Fredhopper)

A search engine powers both the website search box and the navigation links, and is one of the most important aspects of your site from a customer perspective. Once potential customers arrive at your site, you need to ensure they can easily find the required product or service.

The split between customers using free text search and category navigation is dependent on the type of products offered, the number of SKUs on the site and the quality of the navigation, so you need to think carefully about both and make the search journey as simple as possible, whichever path a customer chooses.

As well as basic keyword and phrase search, consider features such as search suggest (which allows customers to see anticipated search terms as they type and is fast becoming expected by customers on ecommerce sites), redirects, synonyms, misspellings, management of phrases, the ability to alter the priority and indexing of data fields, and placing merchandising alongside search results.

Faceted navigation using product attributes is invaluable in refining large data sets and giving customers truly flexible and relevant navigation options. As it relies on good quality product data to work effectively, make sure your internal processes are ready to enrich and validate your product data.

Many platform vendors now provide well-featured search engines and only a minority of retailers need an additional solution. You may consider a separate search engine if you have very high transaction volumes, very large or frequently changing product catalogues, a need to index external data or a lot of non-product content to search.

Recommendation Engine (e.g. Avail Intelligence, Baynote)

Alongside your search engine, you may like to consider a recommendation engine which automates recommendations (behavioural targeting) and is used to provide a “you saw this, we recommend that” function. It is easy to implement in its basic form and normally provides a measurable uplift in order conversion and value.

Many (but not all) recommendation engines are paid for on a revenue share basis, taking a cut of the uplift in sales they initiate. Some are limited to web recommendations; others can deliver email recommendations or power other personalisation on the website.

Product Information Management (e.g. Informatica, Riversand)

You will need to manage your product catalogue and although most ecommerce platforms include the ability to do this, larger retailers often use external systems such as a dedicated Product Information Management (PIM) system. The PIM provides tools to manage, validate and augment product data and can provide additional features such as a translation portal (for translating product data) and supplier portal (to enable suppliers to maintain their product data, price and availability).

Product Reviews (e.g. Bazaarvoice, Reevoo)

Depending on your offering, you may want to include a product ratings and reviews capability, which is built into some ecommerce platforms. Product reviews can help conversion rate by giving confidence to shoppers and reduce returns (as customers can consider the relevance to them of any disadvantages before they make a purchase). Another option is standalone services, which provide moderation services (in several languages) or can publish your reviews independently so they appear more authoritative.

A/B testing (e.g. Monetate, Google Analytics Content Experiments)

A/B (or split) testing tools enable you to test different versions of a page, button, graphic or a whole page flow and see which produces the best outcome. An example of where this tool is particularly useful is the checkout process. Drop off rates can be very high and even small tweaks, such as colour or texts changes, can make a measurable difference to conversion rates. Some platforms offer basic A/B testing, so before you select an additional tool, take the time to understand how much effort you will be able to put into this activity.

Payment Services Provider (e.g. CyberSource, Sage Pay)

eCommerce platforms rarely provide payment services, so you will need a Payment Service Provider (PSP) which provides facilities to accept payment using a variety of different methods such as credit card, debit card and many more. Most provide a means to host the payment page on behalf of the retailer, reducing the retailer’s PCI compliance burden.

PSPs are often chosen based on cost, variety of payment methods and the ability to process payments in the countries in which the retailer is operating.

Fraud Screening (e.g. CyberSource, ReD)

Fraud screening is another essential element of an ecommerce site. You can detect fraud by using rules in the checkout such as country of origin and size of basket. For retailers with more sophisticated fraud detection requirements the PSP is normally used to provide fraud screening services at an additional cost, although stand-alone fraud detection services are also available.

Addressing (e.g. PostcodeAnywhere, Experian QAS)

You may also consider using an addressing (postcode look up) solution during checkout, as although there is an additional cost it can reduce checkout drop off, increase deliverability of the goods, and improve accuracy of fraud screening.

Order Management (e.g. IBM Sterling, Manhattan Associates OMS)

Once the checkout process is complete, your ecommerce platform captures an order and the warehouse management system is responsible for picking, packing and despatching. For many retailers this arrangement is sufficient, but for some with more complex fulfilment needs, such as multiple fulfilment centres, supplier inventory visibility, complex reverse logistics, two man delivery, pre-order, back order, build-to-order, constrained delivery slots and nominated day delivery, an order management system is required as a bridge between the platform and the warehouse management system.

Warehouse Management System (e.g. JDA RedPrairie, Manhattan Associates)

If you are shipping physical products to your customers, a warehouse management system is required, either as a part of your solution, or via a contracted third party fulfilment provider. Choose a system that suits your products and orders as some warehouse management systems are better suited to store replenishment than to single order pick, pack and despatch.

Email Marketing/CRM (e.g. Teradata eCircle, Experian Cheetahmail)

Another essential element of your ecommerce solution is an email marketing system fortransactional emails. Emails are sent to a single customer, normally in response to a specific event (e.g. customer registration, order placed, order shipped) and are typically composed and sent by the ecommerce platform. For bulk marketing emails, you will need to use an email services provider or an add-on to manage the marketing in-house. When choosing an email services provider, in addition to the cost of the service, consider the depth of tools available to compose and layout messages, the ability to report on open and response rates, and the ability to export data to other tools.

Web Analytics (e.g. Google, Adobe SiteCatalyst)

And finally, web analytics is an essential addition to every ecommerce platform, providing an environment in which visitors’ and customers’ on-site behaviour is captured and can be analysed. Your platform may provide some analytics and there are also some highly sophisticated free tools available as well as several competing paid-for options.

Solution Implementer

The success of an ecommerce implementation is critically dependent on the quality and experience of the chosen implementer, so once you have considered the vendors and add-on solutions, you will need to turn your attention to the implementer. Typically an implementer will be an independent systems integrator with an established partnership and track record with the preferred solution vendor, and is often chosen in tandem with the ecommerce solution. It is a crucial element which requires careful consideration, and may well be the decisive factor between one solution and another.

With the large number of platform vendors and add-ons available, many ecommerce businesses seek expert guidance on ecommerce solution architecture (i.e. which solutions to buy and fit together) from specialist consultants.

First published in: Direct Commerce June 2013 – Issue 213

For further information, please contact Fraser Davidson.

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