September 4, 2013, 4:23 PM

Special Report: How to evaluate e-commerce platforms

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Retailers, however, may not have the tools within their platforms to design a responsive web site. If that is the case, Deller recommends creating a mobile-specific site.

"Responsive design is an approach that came from a lack of good platform technology or content management systems which couldnít serve content to multiple templates efficiently," he adds. "A modern platform can do just that. The result is a much leaner web page for the smartphone user, which is shown to significantly increase sales over a responsive site simply by reducing the download time."

One way retailers can determine whether to build a dedicated mobile site or use responsive design is to study their analytics to determine which devices shoppers use to access their sites.

Armed with that information, retailers can weigh the pros and cons of responsively designed sites and mobile-only sites. "What weíre seeing now is the division between brands launching dedicated mobile sites versus those opting for responsive layouts," says Amazonís Taylor. "We power sites that do both and weíve seen both be successful—it ends up being the retailerís decision on what approach works best for them."

One advantage of a dedicated mobile site is that it can provide a carefully crafted mobile experience that loads quickly, whereas responsive sites scale to the form factors of new devices beyond mobile, such as televisions and gaming consoles wired to the Internet. "That can provide some SEO benefits over the alternative," Taylor says.

The Amazon Webstore e-commerce platform is hosted on secure Amazon servers that scale capacity as needed based on traffic. Since the platform is a software-as-a-service offering, retailers pay no licensing fees and connect to the Amazon.com host server via the web to update product catalogs and download orders and customer information. As Amazon makes improvements to its Webstore technology, every store gets free access to those upgrades.

"When retailers build on our platform, itís still their own site on their own domain, but they are backed by the same scalable technology that powers Amazon.com, enabling them to focus on what they do best—products and merchandising—instead of managing their technology," Taylor says. "Our variable cost model isnít based on licenses or servers or bandwidth, itís based on revenue—meaning itís in our best interest to make sure our clients are as successful as possible."

Even when using responsive design, retailers need to keep in mind that mobile usersí needs differ from shoppers using PCs. Mobile shoppers tend to be more task oriented, such as checking a price or whether an item on the retailerís web site is available in-store, and are less likely to browse once they log on to a retailerís site. By scaling down the amount of information delivered to mobile shoppers, retailers can make it easier for them to navigate the site and quickly complete their task.

"In the mobile world, it ís important to reduce page clutter and just give shoppers the necessary data they need to transact—less is actually more," says AT&Tís Upchurch. "The days of fitting all the content and the entire product catalog from an e-commerce site onto a mobile site are behind us."

Socially inclined platforms

Just as mobile commerce is prompting retailers to rethink their needs in an e-commerce platform, so too is social media. The rapid commercialization of social media has opened a new sales channel capable of reaching a wide cross-section of consumers.

One opportunity for retailers engaging in social media is to embed a link to a microsite within a Facebook page or blog that enables consumers to purchase a highlighted item.

Viridís facePlant module allows a customer to share a product to its timeline in much the same way as he shares a post. However, when a consumer clicks on the product for more information (he sees a Play button as a call to action) he is given the option to buy the product in Facebook without having to leave the site or do so through a pop-up window. FacePlant leverages marketAgilityís Portable Data Services Layer (PDSL) to interact with product data and enable purchases.

"Tapping into social media extends the reach of a retailerís store through another sales channel, making it possible to bring the store to the shopper rather than the customer having to come to the store," Deller says.

The marketAgility e-commerce platform supports such features as search engine optimization, rich media, warehouse and inventory management and gift cards, and has modules to support more than 60 applications from other e-commerce services vendors.

Connecting across channels

Not only is a consumerís ability to connect with retailers through multiple channels breaking down the barriers to how she interacts with them, it is creating expectations among consumers that theyíll have the same type of shopping experience online as in the store. "Companies investing in e-commerce need omnichannel visibility," says Amazonís Taylor.

Indeed, online shoppers expect to be able to order an out-of-stock item in the physical store through a kiosk or have a store clerk do so using an Internet-enabled handheld device or cash register.

"Omnichannel visibility will also give multichannel retailers the power to centralize their online, phone and in-store transaction data on a single platform, as well as the customer service tools to manage those transactions, when customers interact with brands anytime, anyplace," Taylor says.

Price considerations

When choosing an e-commerce platform provider, experts recommend retailers look past the platformís initial price tag, as that represents only a portion of the true cost. "Retailers should be asking about total operating costs over the life of the platform," says AT&Tís Upchurch.

Experts say retailers should first consider how the new platformís capabilities will impact customer satisfaction versus how it will directly impact business performance. A focus on serving customer needs, they say, will create positive business returns.

"Itís easy to think that retailers should be asking their platform provider, ëWhat are you doing for me?í, but whatís more important are the needs of their shoppers," Taylor says. "If a platform provider canít provide tools and functionality that positively impact the consumerís experience, then itís not doing its job."

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