May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

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

Taking front-end technology to the next level

With e-retail sales exploding-shoppers spent $165.9 million in 2007, up 21.6% from 2006-retailers need to find technology vendors that can take their front-end customer touch points-the e-commerce platform, site design and site search-to the next level. By doing so, retailers can install applications and devise marketing and merchandising strategies that will enable them to compete more effectively for new customers, and grow their sales from repeat customers.

Before selecting any front-end applications, retailers first need to consider the objectives of their business and how they want to interact with their customers. Next, they need to identify a vendor that is likely to meet their needs. When those two exercises are completed retailers can consider the platform and applications they want to run, then how they want to design their site, and finally, how consumers will conduct site search.

The starting point is defining the customer base. Without an understanding of what draws shoppers to their site, what shoppers’ needs are and what they expect in the way of the shopping experience, retailers are only guessing about the types of applications that will improve sales.

“Once retailers understand who their customer is, then they can begin to figure out the features and functionality they want to have on their web site,” says Tony Svanascini, CEO of site design firm Inc. “There are lot of advanced technologies out in the marketplace, but in order to create a good customer interface with that technology, it has to be relevant to the customer.”

One of the most common traps retailers fall into when selecting front-end technology is to install the latest bells and whistles, even if they do not necessarily enhance the shopping experience.

Avoiding this trap requires upfront research by retailers to define the functionality their own shoppers want and that will differentiate their site. “It’s a lot of homework,” says Bernardine Wu, CEO of consulting firm FitForCommerce. “But a lot of mistakes can be avoided by performing due diligence at the outset and not listening to the sales pitch hyping the hottest new features and functionality, which can sway purchasing decisions in the wrong direction.”

The downside of failing to define the needs of their audience will be to implement technology simply for the sake of doing so or because a competitor is using it. In the latter case, retailers tend to forget that the technology needs of a competitor’s customers are likely to be different from those of their own customers, which means their shoppers may not respond to those features.

“Retailers have to be willing to try new technologies, but they can’t force fit it if those features don’t appeal to their audience, because if they do, it will be a distraction to the customer,” says Darren Hill, managing partner for e-commerce solutions provider WebLinc. “It does not make any sense for a retailer to begin implementing Web 2.0 technology when they have not mastered Web 1.0. The goal is to first make their site functional at a base level to service their own customers’ needs.”

Instilling confidence

Applications that deliver convenience and ease of use and make shoppers feel confident they can find the products they want in as few clicks as possible provide retailers with base functionality.

“The end goal for retailers is to bring the customer in the store, get them to the product they want as quickly as possible and get them through checkout promptly,” says Miguel Younger, vice president of operations of e-commerce solutions provider Solid Cactus Inc. “E-retailing is not necessarily the entertainment experience that bricks-and-mortar retailing can be. For retailers that don’t provide content, it is best to keep things simple and address the customer’s needs rather than attempt to create an entertainment experience the customer may not necessarily want.”

Many retailers unwittingly overwhelm shoppers with entertaining features, such as video or 3D graphics, because they are popular. What shoppers really want are easy navigation paths. About 50% of site navigation is now done through site search, according to industry experts.

Making discovery possible

“Enabling shoppers to discover the product they are looking for and match the right product to their preferences is what makes for a successful shopping experience,” says Randi Barshack, vice president of worldwide marketing for site search provider Mercado. “Shoppers don’t want to be overwhelmed by a retailer’s technology. What they expect is relevant technology that takes them through the product search progression much like a sales representative in a store would.”

Just as important as keeping the choice of e-retailing technology in line with customer needs is selecting technology that meets the retailer’s long-term needs. The rapid advancement in e-retailing technology is accelerating the pace at which many applications are becoming outdated. It is essential then that retailers select scalable platforms that will grow with their business and remain relevant for many years.

“There are retailers that purchased platforms just a few years ago and have outgrown them already,” says Kelly O’Neill, product marketing director for e-commerce solution provider ATG Inc. “Retailers want to select platforms that can be integrated into existing systems without requiring a major overhaul, that remove the technical limitations to future enhancements and allow them to operate in a more web-centric manner.”

Determining whether a vendor’s technology is a fit with the retailer’s needs requires evaluating the vendor by asking in-depth questions around ease of use, integration, and how often the vendor releases upgrades.

Ease of use is a point retailers need to clarify upfront as many retailers prefer to take direct control over implementing business rules. “Retailers want to be able to add business rules quickly and in real-time through the administration console, not through I.T.,” says Barshack. “Retailers should ask to see results for other clients that implemented similar features and functionality to determine if the money spent will deliver the desired ROI.”

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