E-Commerce Replatforming: Replatforming the Right Way
Transitioning to a new e-commerce platform presents a multitude of challenges and opportunities for retailers. Far from being merely a "systems" issue, a new e-commerce platform needs to take into account a full range of strategic issues driven by marketing, merchandising, customer service, purchasing and operations, as well as overall corporate goals and objectives.
Virtually all departments in the company should be involved. There are multiple variables to assess and prioritize even though there's no "silver bullet" in this business — i.e., no one right way or right solution. However, there are many wrong ways to do it. Failing to include your entire company in the process is one of the biggest.
To make the replatforming process manageable, appoint a change team that includes representatives from all major departments. The team should have several initial meetings to outline and flesh out goals and objectives for the new site. It will need to develop a detailed project plan, which it can fine-tune with the new e-commerce solution provider once that third-party company has been chosen.
In most cases, there will be those in the company (at every level and in every department) who aren't thrilled at the idea of replacing the current e-commerce platform. They've grown accustomed to it and may have even been a "champion" of the system when it was first acquired or developed. They don't think anything about it should be changed. There will also be those who feel that the functionality of the current system leaves a lot to be desired, but are loathe to change anything about its appearance (or "skin"). Nevertheless, the company has decided for reasons that the change team needs to articulate that it's time to move on. The team needs to live up to its name and encourage positive participation throughout the company.
Goals and Objectives
A good way for the change team to start is by clearly stating the goals and objectives for the new platform, addressing everyone's issues and concerns in the process. Some of these will be operations-oriented (e.g., support for same-day shipping, accurate display of shipping and handling charges, reduction in cart abandonment), some merchandise-oriented (e.g., site search must support sizes and colors), some customer-focused (e.g., providing customers secure account log-on access to their purchase histories) and some technical (e.g., how application programming interfaces will be used). There are always financial issues to keep in mind as well.
Part of the replatforming process is developing key performance indicators (KPIs) which measure company activity driven by and related to your website. This is an excellent way, incidentally, to tie the e-commerce platform implementation into the legacy order management system, warehouse management system and accounting applications with which it must interact.
An obvious advantage of KPIs is that they are, by definition, numbers driven. They're not only useful in encouraging continuous improvement across all aspects of the company's activity, but they also help to demonstrate the advantages of the new platform once you've converted to it.
Timing is Everything
Be particularly careful when planning the timeframe for your replatforming project. When you look back on the project after it's been completed, I guarantee the one thing you'll want to have done differently was to allow more time. Project management becomes paramount. How long is "enough time"? Here's a good yardstick to follow:
- two months for initial planning;
- two months for a systems candidate search;
- two months for candidate evaluation and selection;
- one month for implementation project planning;
- four months to six months for implementation and data conversion; and
- one month for testing and employee training.
That's a total of a little more than a year. Round it up to 15 months (there will be holidays and vacations that slow things down) and you have a reasonable schedule. A replatforming can be done more quickly, but probably shouldn't be done more slowly than 18 months. It's very difficult to sustain commitment and enthusiasm if the project takes longer than a year and a half.
Be sure to take into account that your new platform is part of an "ecoverse" of other systems and solutions. With e-commerce in particular, you absolutely must pay attention to such integrally related issues as mobile commerce, tablet commerce, site search, search engine optimization, affiliate sales, third-party sales platforms (e.g., Amazon.com), website analytics and social media activity as part of the replatforming process.
Nuts and Bolts
Your change team should prepare a detailed budget and timeline, including a sufficient testing period prior to going live. The budget isn't just for the system; it should also include fees to outside consultants (who can provide both strategic and tactical assistance), the ecoverse modules you'll require, hardware upgrades, hosting fees and other costs that might be incurred — e.g., travel expenses to visit other merchant-user companies as part of the system selection process.
If all goes well, system testing can be a once-through on all aspects of the new e-commerce system, including its integration with other platforms (i.e., regression testing). Most often though an initial set of tests will uncover issues that need to be resolved before going live. After the bugs are fixed and reconfigured, you'll want to retest everything, including things that worked right the first time.
Training should be left until the system is working properly and all documentation has been prepared. It can be done at your site or the vendor's site, and should include the training of a designated employee on every aspect of the new platform. This will be the person who trains your new hires and who will do refresher training for current employees.
Finally, you'll probably want to go live with your new e-commerce platform in the early morning hours on a Sunday. Traffic on the site is likely to be near its lowest, giving you a window of opportunity until much later that day to resolve any last-minute glitches.
If your replatforming involves a new hosting site, your change team should have already set in motion the site redirection process at the appropriate time based on the project timeline. It may take a few days for the redirect to be widely employed across the web, but it could take several months for you to recover in the search rankings. These are technical issues that your change team must pay close attention to and should start planning for early in the process. This, in fact, is a good example of how moving to a new e-commerce platform is a major project that can be as challenging as it will be rewarding. Plan carefully, don't rush it, keep the project moving forward and keep your eye on the ball! That's it in a nutshell.
Ernie Schell is the executive director and founder of Marketing Systems Analysis, a consulting firm that specializes in specifying, selecting and implementing solutions for direct commerce order management. Ernie can be reached at email@example.com.