August 31, 2011, 9:47 AM

The Right Fit

Flexibility is a requirement for web retailers and for their content management systems

Lead Photo

Every product an online retailer sells has associated content—product descriptions, prices, images in almost all cases and often color swatches, alternative-view images, how-to manuals and videos. Pretty much every day a typical e-retail operation has staffers using its content management system to add products, change prices, delete color swatches of out-of-stock items and the like.

That means the content management system must meet the needs of the e-retailer, but still be easy enough to use that non-technical personnel—such as merchandising and marketing staffers—don't find it daunting.

It turns out that combination of the right functionality and ease of use is not easy to find, and getting harder as online retailing takes on new forms. For example, when HauteLook launched in 2008 as a members-only site that offered deals on fashion apparel for a limited time, Kevin Diamond and his four co-founders could not find software that met their needs.

"At the core of our business is the fact that our product catalog changes on a daily basis," says Diamond. "Every day we introduce new sale events, so we needed a solution that could handle inventory being presented that way. We also needed the ability to have items go off sale a specific time later on—at varying lengths. And, just as importantly, we had to present sales for a specific brand in a certain way." HauteLook, which was acquired earlier this year by upscale department store chain Nordstrom Inc., has had to continually update its system as it went from one sale a week to daily sales to more than 20 events each day.

HauteLook considered itself a technology company that happened to sell merchandise, Diamond says, and had the I.T. smarts in-house to do that work. But it's a different story at Songbird Hearing Inc., a small e-retailer of hearing aids that generated $2.3 million in sales in 2010 by Internet Retailer's estimate and that relies on a small, largely non-technical staff to update its web site. When she went shopping for content management software, says vice president of marketing Jennifer Haus, "I wanted a system that was simple enough that my mother could use it."

That range in technical expertise along with differences in types of merchandise and the pace of new product introduction and sales mean every web retailer has to focus on finding a way to manage content that fits its particular business.

The lack of a good fit led HauteLook to build its own content management system. As the flash-sale retailer steadily increased the frequency of its sale offers to its current 20-something events a day, the site's engineers adjusted the content management system to adapt to those evolving needs, says Diamond. But even so, the system had flaws. "As we used the system we were constantly finding ways to make it better," he says. "Looking at the work flows we've figured out how to eliminate or minimize unnecessary steps."

"There's no one-size-fits-all approach because every retailer has different needs," says Steve Rowen, managing partner of research and advisory firm Retail Systems Research LLC. For instance, a high-fashion site might require rich media and flashy graphics, while a site selling children's toys might require detailed safety features.

It's a big decision as content management systems typically start at $50,000 and range upward, Rowen says. He adds, "It really comes down to what is your brand's identity? How do you aim to connect to customers and what else do you need your site to have?"

Simple is better

While HauteLook required a sophisticated system geared to fast product changes and image-conscious fashion brands, the requirements were quite different at Songbird Hearing.

The e-retailer doesn't change its selection constantly and the hearing aids it sells don't require a slew of multimedia graphics or images. "You obviously want options, but you don't want functionality that you'll never use," Haus says. "When you go to a well-designed site like Amazon, whether you're buying a book or a Weedwacker, the page looks the same. So you have to say to yourself, 'It's not about doing something cool or jazzy, but making the site navigable and accessible.'"

The e-retailer had used a content management system that required a computer programmer to make changes to the web site. That and the rest of the retailer's web technology was provided by Datapak Services Corp., which also handles fulfillment for Songbird. The retailer replaced that content management system last year with software from Bridgeline Digital Inc. The new system, Haus says, is intuitive with editing features such as a pencil icon a user clicks to edit a web page.

That switch paid off a few months ago when Haus' marketing manager, who was primarily responsible for updating web site content, left the company. That meant Haus, who hadn't been involved with modifying site content on a daily basis, had to take over those duties until she hired someone. "I had to be able to do the things that need to get done—adding images or content or anything else—to make sense," she says. The new system was simple enough to learn that she was able to handle those chores.

Similarly few employees at Hunter Fan Co. were technically inclined three years ago when the ceiling fan manufacturer, which had been outsourcing its e-commerce operations, decided to take those operations in-house. "Our knowledge base was virtually nonexistent," says Jim Gallman, senior vice president of marketing. The retailer also needed to find a system that worked with its enterprise resource planning software that ties together accounting, planning, manufacturing and other processes.

Because Hunter Fan's technical knowledge was minimal, it turned to digital marketing agency N-tara Interactive to study its ERP system and evaluate the kind of content management system that would work with it, says Gallman. "They created a bridge from us to the technical world and all of its jargon," he says. "They were able to explain how everything relates into language that our executives could understand."

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