January 3, 2013, 3:48 PM

How to choose

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International Military Antiques, which started selling original and replica antique military goods online in 2009, took a test-and-learn approach to picking an e-commerce platform. It started in e-commerce using the free Community Edition of Magento's platform, but eventually moved to the paid Enterprise Edition, which costs the e-retailer less than $1,000 per month but offers more pre-built capabilities that he wants to use. Those features include marketing promotions and newsletter applications, a fuller content management system, full-page caching—which helps improve page load time and thus site performance—and about twice as many reporting capabilities as the free edition. "It's much more robust," says Alex Cranmer, International Military Antiques' vice president.

The move to the paid edition came on the advice of International Military Antiques' web development services provider CorraTech, a company that focuses exclusively on web development with the Magento and hybris e-commerce platforms. 

With all the integrations Cranmer wanted to add to the free platform, it would cost him more to have CorraTech build them from scratch or fix bugs integrating ones from Magento's marketplace than to foot the bill for the Enterprise Edition, which had many of the integrations ready-made. Cranmer says he was paying CorraTech more than $1000 a month to work out bugs in the free platform that were already fixed in the paid version, so the move made sense. Since switching to Enterprise, the e-retailer has added extensions to upgrade the stock image viewer and the abandoned-cart e-mail generator, Cranmer says.

Magento, which is owned by eBay Inc., doesn't work directly with e-retailers on development issues although it does offer some packaged support services for merchants and developers working with its code. Retailers on the Magento platform typically hire outside web developers to build or integrate features, or do the work in-house. How much hands-on responsibility a retailer wants to take with a platform is another consideration to take into account when evaluating platforms. Cranmer says he is happy working with CorraTech and leaving support issues to that company to sort out with Magento.

Before choosing Magento and CorraTech, Cranmer looked into alternates by asking five other developers to walk him through sites they'd built on three or four other platforms. Building an e-commerce web site is like building a house, he says. In this case, Magento is the architect and CorraTech is the contractor. "This shouldn't be the first house they've built, nor the first for this architect," he says. "You should only have developers who know it and are certified in it."

Efficient upgrades

Speed was a key factor for Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. when it selected an e-commerce platform. The retailer, which sells motorcycles and gear to dealers and consumers, was unprofitable when it decided to restructure its North American business two years ago, says Matt Sheahan, vice president of sales and operations.

In addition to needing an updated warehouse, distribution and fulfillment infrastructure, the merchant sought an e-commerce platform that would integrate all inventory and allow it to sell wholesale and direct-to-consumer via dealers' franchised web sites, a corporate web site and on Amazon.com, he says. The company had to find an e-commerce platform provider that could do all that, on a budget and fast, he says, to help cut mounting losses.

The merchant began by revamping its back-end infrastructure with UPS Logistics and Distribution, part of United Parcel Service of America Inc.'s supply chain services for businesses, Sheahan says. Shortly thereafter, UPS told Triumph about its new integration with Bridgeline Digital, which provides an e-commerce platform, called the iAPPS Product Suite.

Because Triumph was already integrated with UPS, it stood to save a lot of time and money implementing Bridgeline for e-commerce, Sheahan says, although he declines to say how much. After looking into a few other options and determining that, in addition to the UPS integration, Bridgeline iAPPS also offered the marketing and analytics functions Triumph needed, the merchant signed the vendor and launched in 90 days. Additionally, the platform offered Triumph an easy integration with Amazon's marketplace, Sheahan says, which the retailer was eager to join to expand its customer base and grow brand awareness.

"The flexibility and speed with which they've been able to react to what we need in a very tight timeframe has been remarkable," Sheahan says. "You really need a partner who is empathetic to your business."

Bridgeline's e-commerce customers spend an average of $150,000 to $250,000 in the first year of service, which covers initial site development and software fees, then $85,000 in subsequent years for continued service and maintenance, the company says.

During the initial development stage, Triumph asked Bridgeline to customize a few elements of the e-commerce platform, Sheahan says. Triumph needed the platform to accommodate motor vehicle sales laws, which vary by state, and allow for the site to redirect visitors to local dealers' own e-commerce sites if the consumer entered a ZIP code nearby one, he says.

Laura Canada made similar changes working with OrderDynamics. One change involved adjusting the vendor's loyalty program module so the retailer could validate customers' membership numbers against its customer relationship management database.

"We were really happy with the team OrderDynamics put together to help us get online, but even then there's a learning curve for them to understand the business and its quirks," he says, referring to the fact that each business has its own way of operating, as with Laura's loyalty program. "You really need to ask a lot of questions, do your homework, see specific examples and follow through with them to make sure what you're asking for is what they're really delivering."

When chosen well, an e-commerce platform not only fits a retailer's basic needs, but it comes ready to fulfill extra requirements with ease and speed.


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