May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: E-commerce Solutions: The Foundation of Successful Retailing

(Page 7 of 9)

Regardless of where e-retailers spend marketing dollars, retaining control over the marketing channels, offers and content of the campaign directly impacts the quality of their brands.

“Retailers need to have influence over every marketing touch point they have with consumers, because that is when consumers are interacting with their brand,” Best says. “Retailers want the widest net possible to catch consumers when they are ready to buy and more marketing opportunities are emerging to connect retailers with consumers and enable them to effectively compete for, and win, the consumer’s business.”

The time for retailers to take advantage of those opportunities is now.

Raising the bar on serving the customer on back-end applications

Payment, customer service and fulfillment may take place on the back-end of the sale, outside of the awareness of most customers, but raising the level of the technology that powers these functions is just as important as any upgrades retailers make to their front-end or marketing applications.

Many customers who are let down at the end of the sale will abandon the shopping cart and make future purchases elsewhere. Subsequently, the biggest challenges facing retailers when it comes to taking their back-end technology to the next level are integration and interoperability with their existing platforms to ensure full visibility into the customer’s order-and thus the ability to provide full service.

“Most e-commerce platforms lack real-time visibility into all the necessary back-end touch points such as the call center, warehouse and order status,” says John Marrah, CEO of e-commerce platform provider ProfitCenter Software Inc. “Retailers need platforms that provide a 360-degree view of the purchase so they can deliver the same functionality across all sales channels.”

Homework

Implementing a platform that delivers a total view of the customer requires retailers to do their homework. Retailers can choose from all-in-one platforms or build a platform using best-of-breed applications designed for a single purpose, such as live chat.

“The selection of point solutions is growing rapidly and it is important for retailers to make sure that the applications they choose are not only interoperable with the existing platform, but also can later be removed, replaced and retooled as necessary,” says Bernardine Wu, CEO of consulting firm FitforCommerce Inc. “If not, retailers will wind up spending a lot of time and money to get it right.”

Beyond integration and implementation issues, retailers need back-end applications that provide flexibility, especially when it comes to engaging the shopper. Nowhere is this more important than in customer service, as more retailers are relying on chat applications to proactively aid the sale process.

“Knowing when to voluntarily engage the customer so as not to disrupt the shopping experience is extremely important,” says Chris Wampler, chief technology officer and co-founder of chat technology firm UpSellit.com. “Retailers tend to put a lot of time into their platforms technology-wise, but not necessarily as much business-wise. Knowing when and how to engage shoppers can enhance and further monetize the customer relationship.”

Besides selecting a platform that provides a 360-degree view of customers and flexibility when engaging them, retailers need to consider how to take checkout to the next level. One solution is to offer payment options beyond credit cards, which can boost conversions, as there are still millions of consumers reluctant to provide credit card information on the web to make a purchase, do not have a card or just prefer not to use a credit card for certain purchases.

Momentum

“Alternative payments are gaining momentum and the more unique payment options that retailers can provide, the more opportunities they have to grow their business,” says Sergio Pinon, CEO and co-founder of payments provider eLayaway LLC.

As its name implies, eLayaway provides traditional layaway terms which retailers can offer on products, allowing consumers to pay for them through an installment plan backed by HSBC Bank. When the purchase is paid in full, the retailer ships the item. Although layaway programs fell to the wayside as alternative payment methods moved into the mainstream, interest in them is returning as retailers want to grow their online business by reaching consumers that don’t use credit cards, Pinon notes.

“Layaway programs provide shoppers that don’t want to use a credit card to pay for a purchase or that don’t have one with an opportunity to purchase the item they want rather than put it in a wish list,” says Pinon. “The risk with putting an item in a wish list is the shopper may never come back to purchase it or they may buy it later from another retailer.”

To purchase an item on layaway, shoppers click on the eLayaway icon at checkout and are then asked to provide a checking account and bank identification number. Next, they select the period over which they will pay for the item. A monthly payment amount is calculated and presented to the shopper, who has the option to adjust the amount up or down, which automatically adjusts the date the product will be paid in full and available to ship.

Monthly payments are debited from the shopper’s checking account via the automated clearing house. Payments are processed through HSBC bank and sit in escrow until the full amount is received. Shoppers pay a flat 1.9% transaction fee and eLayway earns interest on the money in escrow until the full amount is received. Retailers are notified when each payment posts and receive the entire sum of the purchase when payment is complete.

To ensure payments can be made by the customer and prevent fraud, eLayaway will validate the customer’s bank account. “Unlike a credit card authorization that is done in real time, we’ll put the transaction in slow motion and take the time to validate the account and the customer,” says Pinon.

Ideally, retailers will make shoppers aware of the layaway option prior to checkout so they will feel they have the buying power to get the items they want, Pinon says. “Layaway programs are a way to reduce sticker shock for consumers because they enable shoppers to purchase product over time, rather than downgrade the purchase because they don’t have the money at the moment,” Pinon says. “Retailers can also aid in the reduction of sticker shock by showing shoppers what they would pay in interest if they purchased the item and carried a balance on a credit card.”

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