September 2, 2014, 12:28 PM

Sponsored Special Report: Foundations for success

A sponsored special report on the business-to-consumer and business-to-business e-commerce platforms that provide the technology backbones of e-commerce.

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Today’s online shoppers are more demanding than ever. No longer content with e-commerce sites that deliver content at blazing speeds, make navigation easy and offer one-page checkout, consumers now expect e-retailers to have the technical sophistication to offer features, such as real-time inventory counts, order tracking, product ratings and reviews and in-store pickup for items purchased online. And shoppers also expect retailers to deliver a satisfying shopping experience no matter what device they’re using to access the web store.

To meet these expectations many e-retailers are reevaluating their e-commerce platforms to see if they are advanced enough to meet online shoppers’ expectations. More often than not, e-retailers are concluding they need a new one to keep pace. In an Internet Retailer survey from this summer, 61% of retailers said they expect to replace their e-commerce platform within the next two years, and 62% cited e-commerce platforms as a top technology budget priority.

But selecting a new e-commerce platform is not easy. Not only must retailers choose a platform that meets their current needs, they also need to select one that meets their future needs as well.

Retailers should also think about whether they will need a systems integrator to install and customize the platform, if it makes sense to run the platform in-house or if they should go with a hosted platform or operate the platform in the cloud. With so many decisions, it’s enough to set a retailer’s head spinning.

“E-commerce platforms are more complex than ever, in part, because they are being designed to perform in ways originally not intended and because of all the choices e-retailers have about how to operate and maintain them,” says Andy Lloyd, general manager of commerce products at NetSuite Inc., a provider of e-commerce platforms and business systems.

Before selecting a new platform, Lloyd recommends retailers first determine what kind of shopping experience their customers expect and what impact those expectations will have on their existing information technology infrastructure.

“E-commerce platforms have to seamlessly integrate with back-office systems, such as inventory and order management and point-of-sale, so retailers can gather a 360-degree view of their customers and interact with them across every touch point in the way the customer expects,” Lloyd says. “E-commerce platforms can no longer exist in a silo.”

Understanding customers’ expectations can help retailers identify the core applications they need so they can sort through the myriad options now standard on most platforms, says Kirsten Knipp, vice president of product marketing and brand for Bigcommerce, an e-commerce technology vendor. For example, a retailer that designates mobile commerce a key component of its business will want a platform that supports mobile web sites through responsive or adaptive design, Knipp says. Responsive design optimizes navigation, images and content to fit the screen of the device the consumer uses to access the site. Adaptive design uses predefined page layouts sized to fit the screen of mobile devices, tablet and desktop computers commonly used by consumers. When the device accessing the web site is detected, the site serves page layouts sized for the device.

Having richer features come standard with e-commerce platforms helps reduce development costs and the need to buy them as add-on applications. “Every feature that has to be built or bought comes with a cost, which means the money spent to develop that technology is not spent on marketing and merchandising,” Knipp says. “Not many retailers consider technology development and management a core competency. That’s why they expect richer out-of-the-box features in an e-commerce platform.”

Mobile as standard

Mobile shoppers, who move across handheld devices and desktop systems, expect retailers to deliver a consistent branding and shopping experience, no matter what device they’re using, which is why more retailers are demanding the ability to support mobile capabilities through their e-commerce platforms.

“The more agility a retailer has with its platform when it comes to features, the better positioned it is to grow its business,” says Elizabeth Hunter, vice president of e-commerce for Newgistics Inc., a provider of end-to-end e-commerce solutions and systems integration services.

Including richer standard features also enables small and midsized retailers, which typically have modest I.T. budgets, to create customer experiences similar to those offered by larger retailers. “Creating a unique customer experience is one of the challenges small and midsized retailers face,” says Ben Pressley, head of worldwide sales for e-commerce platform provider Magento Inc., a unit of eBay Inc.

Many small and midsized retailers, for example, do not have e-commerce platforms that can natively support mobile web sites and lack the financial resources to build a separate mobile site from scratch, says Pressley.

“Including responsive design in our platform makes that technology more affordable and enables small and midsized retailers to provide the mobile experiences they need to compete with larger retailers,” Pressley says. “A poor mobile experience or no mobile site can be seen by consumers as a weak point, and consumers tend to have long memories when it comes to weak points in the shopping experience.”

Limited information technology resources are not the only culprit preventing small and midsized retailers from taking their sites to the next level. A homegrown platform built using proprietary programming codes can constrain a retailer’s ability to create the dynamic shopping experiences it wants to give shoppers because adding a new shopping feature often requires substantial development work to make it operate on a custom platform.

“A lot of platforms built in-house are so heavily customized that it becomes extremely challenging to integrate third-party applications, which boxes in retailers when it comes to expanding their platform’s functionality,” Pressley says. “This is why we are seeing more retailers move off homegrown legacy systems. The less time retailers spend creating applications from scratch or writing bridge codes to integrate them into their platforms, the more time and resources they have to focus on their core marketing and merchandising capabilities to stay competitive.”

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