Special Resource Section: 10 Best Practices for Choosing the Right E-Commerce Platform Provider
In today's cross-channel retail environment, a holistic approach to making any investment decisions — especially when it comes to choosing an e-commerce provider — is the name of the game. The process of choosing the right partner for your business can be a daunting one. Here are 10 best practices to help make that process easier:
1. Check the provider's clients' websites. Pay attention to the visual design of the sites. Do they look good? Is it the same template from one site to the next? Don't focus entirely on the visual design, however. Click around. Try adding items to your cart and start the checkout process. In many cases you'll find shopping is cumbersome, the checkout process is tedious or there are actual errors on the site. If you like what you see, add this provider to your "hot list."
2. Make sure your provider offers support for search engine optimization initiatives. Let's face it, most of today's shoppers use search engines to quickly find the sites that sell the products they need. With this in mind, quiz the providers you're interested in about their SEO strategy. You're likely to hear that your brand will shoot to the top of the organic rankings. But don't just take their word for it. Check Google's PageRank on some of their clients' sites. If the ranking isn't at least a three or four, you'll probably want to look elsewhere. Another helpful exercise is to pick a few customers of the providers you're considering and search for them on Google and Yahoo. Take note of where those customers show up.
3. Be sure the provider offers advertising and affiliate program support. Online advertising and cross-promotion are vital to generating new business, as both drive additional traffic to your site. Many retailers work closely with affiliates to promote their offerings. Banner ads, skyscraper ads and other announcements are placed on a variety of related websites at a fixed rate or in exchange for promotional space on the retailer's site, making it visible to an even broader base of prospects. To optimize the effectiveness of affiliate networks, select an e-commerce provider that will allow you to monitor and track the success of each ad you place.
4. Find a provider that knows how to exploit social media. With more than 600 million active Facebook users and almost 200 million Twitter subscribers, social networking is no longer a fad. If you're not actively using these sites to market your brand and products, you're missing out on enormous opportunities. In addition to the fact that these sites are likely where your customers and prospects are to begin with, social networking sites are increasingly acting as points of entry to e-commerce sites and vice versa. More and more online retailers are building loyalty, rating and referral systems tied to social media. Make sure the provider you're considering can help you interact with social networking sites — e.g., how to use social media to engage in immediate and meaningful interactions with consumers; how to use Twitter and Facebook to offer discounts and promotions; how to integrate one-click access to Facebook and Twitter from your own website.
5. Be sure the provider offers fully integrated inventory management. Sometimes the products consumers want are unavailable, particularly during busy shopping seasons. However, if your e-commerce system links directly to your inventory management system, shoppers will receive out-of-stock messages before placing their orders. Dynamically omit out-of-stock products from search results and product catalogs.
6. Look for a provider that can help you seamlessly integrate your online data with your other databases. Providers you're considering should know how critical it is to access your data across all channels. Find the one that provides the easiest way to integrate and access your data in real time. Any e-commerce provider looking at your data from a strictly online perspective is doing you and your business a disservice.
7. Make sure the provider can help with international transactions. The web broadens your reach, allowing you to sell into markets around the globe that would be left untapped through a traditional brick-and-mortar model. That's why it's so important that the e-commerce provider you ultimately choose includes full support for international transactions. With features such as automatic translation of product descriptions into foreign languages, dynamic currency conversions and calculations, and integration with the systems of third-party international freight and shipping carriers, e-commerce providers can enable you to take advantage of every sales opportunity, regardless of where the consumer resides.
8. Get specifics on what will be in your contract. Not knowing the breadth of what's included in a contract can result in a number of ancillary costs you weren't expecting to pay. Ask your chosen solution provider the following questions to ensure you won't be paying out of pocket down the road:
- What's included in the implementation bid and set-up fees?
- What's included in monthly costs, and what's required to change orders?
- Are all of the features and functionalities highlighted in the demo included on my site?
- How do the business tools work? What can I change on the site directly?
- What will my website look like once it's live?
9. Be sure your provider's tools can be easily integrated with your other systems and solutions. Setting up a commerce-enabled website is a big enough task in itself without having to make major changes to existing systems. Ensure that the provider you choose is fully compatible with your existing hardware, web server software and operating system.
10. Work with a partner, not a vendor. Choosing the right e-commerce platform provider to work with is critical to your overall internet success. But let's face it, there are many providers out there offering similar-sounding technologies and services. So how do you know which one to choose? Make sure the provider offers the best solution for the long-term success of your business. Some e-commerce systems may cost less up front, but because of poor shopping cart functionality, lack of reliability or bad design, they end up costing you more in the long run when factoring in lost sales and excessive maintenance costs. The most expensive system may not be a good match either. It may offer functionality you'll never need or be too costly and complex to manage or modify. Find someone who can guide you through the decision, and consider the total cost over three years to five years, not just the initial acquisition cost.