The Switch: Re-Platforming Project Guide for Ecommerce Merchants

With the 2012 holiday comfortably behind Web retailers now is the perfect time to begin the process of moving a digital storefront to a brand new ecommerce platform. If you're actively involved in a retail platform switch (or are only considering it), Website Magazine has put together a three-part series to guide digital merchants through this immensely challenging project.

In this, the first part of Website Magazine's guide to ecommerce re-platforming, the focus is on auditing the numerous features that are required and in demand by retail-centered enterprises in 2013. The next two installments will focus on the specifics of making the technology transition to a new platform, and, on developing a post-transition strategy for moving forward.

Do I Really Need to Re-platform?

For many the interest in finding a new online store software provider will ultimately relate to their performance - in the most recent holiday shopping season as well as throughout the rest of the year.

While those that had a "good" 2012 and improved results (e.g. sales) are unlikely to make the transition to a new platform, it remains important for successful merchants to routinely explore the solution vendor landscape in order to understand the variances in licensing, maintenance and support costs offered by other providers as well as the features currently in use by their retail competitors (so as not to fall too far behind in their efforts to meet or exceed customer expectations).

Those that performed poorly however will first need to explore what's preventing greater sales performance. That's not always easy but with a data-driven understanding of performance it is possible to eventually choose a platform which meets your enterprises expectations and can correct the virtual ills plaguing any retail Web presence.

Quick Re-Platforming Analytics Audit

There are dozens of reasons why a digital retail enterprise may consider switching ecommerce platforms - from a lack of organic traffic due to poor SEO controls, to a failure to integrate with other essential ecommerce-friendly software solutions/platforms like robust CRM systems. To find out what's preventing your ecommerce storefront, dive into the analytics.

Analytics solutions contain lots of actionable information on performance and those insights should not be ignored by retailers switching to a new ecommerce platform. For example, how often are products posted to social networks? Are support requests increasing? Did conversions fall off after a new feature integration? Are there water-cooler complaints circulating internally within your enterprise about the complexity of the system you're currently using?

Ideally, there should be some available mechanism in place to track and regularly perform audits that can be used to indicate the right time to consider a formal switch. In order to do that, conversion goals (e.g. for support tickets generated, or social shares initiated) and performance benchmarks must be in place. Moving to a new platform without empirical evidence that a move is required is a dangerous game that the savviest merchants avoid at all costs.

Ecommerce Platform Feature Audit

In the first part of Website Magazine's Ecommerce Re-platforming Project Guide, let's explore five essential, high-level features that should be audited - on your existing site and in any new shopping cart being considered.

Marketing Features: The features that enable an ecommerce enterprise to promote its' products effectively to prospective and returning customers - both on and off the website (or application) itself - should be an area of immense interest for retailers. Areas of discovery should be site search capabilities, recommendation, and merchandising controls - as well as how these features impact conversion.

Technical Features: It's often what happens behind the scenes that most impacts what occurs in the front. While a well-staffed and smart team of developers can ultimately make anything functional, a well-documented code base and supportive developer community, not to mention a reliable infrastructure, are of immense importance.

Administrative Features: It might be the least "sexy" of all the features, but they are undeniably the most important - features for those that make formal business decisions. Administrative requirements such as the ability to run performance reports and export data are often one-off line items are the feature request list but their importance is critical.

Support Features: Merchants are demanding in their requests for support features. Ticket-based support systems, while still in regular use among top merchants, aren't the only way to provide assistance to product buyers and site visitors. For example, it's not uncommon today for merchants to buy into third-party software providers of support technologies such as live chat. Are these and other integrations available through modules, plugins or add-ons?

Design Features: Most ecommerce platforms today offer their ecommerce customers a great deal of control over the visual elements of their websites. "Fully-customizable" however doesn't necessarily mean that designers shouldn't be involved in decisions made related to an online ecommerce presence. If there's a trend toward going mobile within your enterprise, know whether the solution you're evaluating can keep pace.

So how should you approach your re-platforming project? Can what you learn from an audit influence which ecommerce solution is chosen? Ultimately, the features listed above need far more exploration and discovery on a merchant-by-merchant basis. They do serve as a good starter guide for making a platform switch.