The Small Merchant Forecast: Profitably Cloudy
Selling successfully online requires more than a solid business plan and the right product mix. It also takes the right ecommerce platform to power back-end operations and the front-end storefront that is at the heart of the business. Making the wrong decision at the outset can lead to years of growing pains, or worse, no growth at all.
For small and emerging online merchants, Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS; aka “cloud” computing) offerings have evolved as the ecommerce solutions of choice. This is primarily because PaaS solutions offer a relatively low cost of entry, can be rapidly deployed and require fewer IT resources than licensed ecommerce platforms. But not all PaaS ecommerce solutions are created equal. With the growth in merchant demand, the number of hosted ecommerce offerings has also multiplied. So, when conducting the complex, but essential task of evaluating a PaaS ecommerce platform for your business, here are a few things to consider.
Design Simplicity (not simplistic design)
For online-only merchants, your store is your brand. So, having a store that looks great, without sacrificing usability, is a critical element in brand building. A number of providers, however, offer merchants a limited number of templates to work from, or charge a premium for expanded themes. This results in cookie-cutter online stores (I’m sure you’ve seen them), which do nothing to inspire visitors to become customers. This is an excellent way to turn-off visitors and miss out on sales—B2C sales that grew 9.8% to $142.5 billion in 2010, according to comScore.
Look for an ecommerce platform that offers multiple customization options, both for non-technical users and experienced web designers. The more design flexibility you allow in choosing a platform, the more opportunities you’ll have to realize your vision for your online store.
Make sure the platform lets you sell products the way you want and/or need to. Say you’re selling shorts and they come in three sizes small, medium and large and three colors black, tan and blue. Ideally, this should be represented as a single product with selectable options, but with some ecommerce platforms it would take 9 separate product pages to represent the available options. This is far from a best practice in creating an intuitive shopping experience. Make sure the platform you choose allows you to create configurable products, bundled products and whatever other functionality you need to sell effectively. Magento Go is particularly good at this.
Marketing & Reporting
How you sell your products today may not be the way you sell them tomorrow. And how you sell tomorrow depends on how you react to the information available today. Ensure the ecommerce platform offers a rich set of marketing tools that allow you to offer a range of promotions that work for your target market. At the same time, look for reporting functionality that goes beyond Google Analytics. Information is a valuable commodity. The more insight you can gain from your site’s data, the better you’ll be able to adapt to ever-changing market conditions.
To engage customers, including social elements in your online store is a virtual necessity. Look for functionality that allows customers to post directly to social networks, share products by email and create and share wishlists, at a minimum. Product reviews are an excellent way to add user generated content to the site serving to guide other customer’s buying decisions. Combined, social shopping features can keep customers on the site longer and hopefully spend more.
Costs count. Examine all fees before agreeing to anything, even a free trial. Businesses can’t afford to setup their online store twice. Setup fees are one area where providers can tack on unnecessary costs. Just what are they setting up anyway, when you’re doing all the work? Transaction fees are another cost to avoid. These are recurring costs that will only grow proportionally with your business, dragging on the bottom line month after month.
Bottom line: when choosing a PaaS ecommerce platform, make sure the platform works for your business, and not the other way around.
About the Author
Brian Grady is Principal at Gorilla, an award-winning design, development and online strategy firm based in Chicago, IL.
Brian has over 15 years experience in leadership positions in the ecommerce, software and telecom industries, and brings a wealth of knowledge in helping multichannel retailers, brand manufacturers and B2B businesses sell more through the online channel.