The key components of an effective ecommerce site: 2010 version

09.12.2009

One of the most exciting aspects of ecommerce is the opportunity to create a virtual shopping space unlimited by the usual constraints of the bricks-and-mortar environment. Interactivity and creativity can be combined to deliver to shoppers a perfectly branded and dynamic experience, one that has its doors open for shoppers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Yet the ecommerce sites of many brands still fail to deliver in all the ways that are required. All too often we see retailers with creatively dazzling and technologically advanced executions that provide a beautiful brand experience but fail to deliver on the necessary but unglamorous back-end and functional aspects of a site.

While an ecommerce site without aesthetics is not compelling, a site that is not functionally effective and easy to use will cost you sales, and if it is not integrated with core business systems, it will become inefficient. Getting the balance right for your business is important for sustainability, flexibility, and maintaining a competitive edge. But what are the key back-end components required to achieve this balance for today’s modern ecommerce site?

1) An ability to administer multiple website domains from the same back end.
This could be a significant benefit for retailers wishing to maximise search engine optimisation in different markets by using different top-level domain names (TLDs) -for example, www.acmewidgets.com as well as www.acmewidgets.com

2) Website analytics. It is essential that you know what is happening on your site. Tools such as Google Analytics can give you a fine-grained view of things such as most frequent site visitors, most common search terms, most viewed categories, and, critically, where people drop off from the site. With the understanding you gain from analytics you should continually update your ecommerce structure and design.

3) Globalisation options. The internet is making the world an ever-smaller place, so you should extend your focus beyond your home market and offer language options on your site; this will also give your brand the option of further expansion into other markets. Sites should be able to deliver multiple language display for both front and back ends, along with store views customised to include promotional graphics that reflect language choice. Of course language options and currency options do not necessarily go hand in hand, but retailers should also aim to accommodate multiple currency capabilities and manage different sales tax arrangements. A modern ecommerce site should be able to determine whether sales tax needs to be applied based on a shopper’s location.

4) Tailored sales rules. A modern ecommerce site should be able to automatically create different sales rules for groups of products, such as changing the price of individual goods depending on promotions such as buy one get one free and the like. Similarly volume discounts, first-time buyer incentives, and customer loyalty schemes must be applied automatically by the site. The ability to determine eligibility and track points should be built into ecommerce at the outset, and this will require that the site is linked to offline customer information systems.

5) Multiple payment options.
More visitors are lost during checkout than anywhere else on an ecommerce site. Some customers may not be comfortable with entering their credit-card details online, so it’s important that the online platform allows variable payment processing such as phone and fax. Regardless of payment method, any modern site must be able to create custom transaction emails tailored to include the specific visitor information such as language options and delivery. And while we’re on the subject of checkout, visitors are often turned off by lengthy procedures, so where possible use a one-screen checkout system. If this is not possible, then ensure that customers know the total number of steps required to complete the sale. Rewarding registered customers with single-step checkout is a big bonus.

6) Flexible order fulfilment functionality. In terms of the management, invoicing, and shipment of orders, all these aspects of order fulfilment should be handled from one back end that should be able to split orders into separate invoices or separate shipments if necessary. Online retailers may also need to issue credit notes and refunds, so a sophisticated platform should be able to handle this as well. It should also monitor stock control so that out-of-stock products are not displayed and the manager is alerted when stock volumes become low.

7) Personalisation.
Sophisticated ecommerce should provide visitors with a personal experience, as giving them the power to create their own look and feel for the site will make it more memorable and encourage repeat visits. 

But don’t leave personalisation up to consumers alone. By creating custom landing pages that support specific pay-per-click advertisements you can significantly increase your sales conversation rate.

8) Cross-selling and upselling. Any good ecommerce platform will maximise sales opportunities by showing visitors other products they should also be interested.

9) Navigational options. Visitors should also be allowed to filter products by a number of criteria, change the display style, and compare products. In addition, allow visitors to tag products with keywords; tagging has become a standard form of web browsing behaviour and is a great way for visitors to explore other product offerings in an online store.


10) Top-quality imagery.
Simple things like zoomable product images can make a big difference. Visitors like large, good-quality images and don’t want to reload a new web page every time they’ve clicked on a thumbnail.

11) Intelligent on-site search.
An intelligent search form that corrects commonly misspelled words or suggests results for similar search terms can help reduce visitor drop-off. And a search should never return a simple “no matches found” result; if there really are no matches, a list of relevant product suggestions should result instead.

12) Social shopping. Research shows that visitors value the opinions and comments of other buyers; in fact, they can be one of the most influential factors in improving conversion. Before publishing customer comments and reviews, however, we suggest moderating them. Community polls are another great way of engaging visitors, and they can also help you decide which products to promote. With the growth of social bookmarking tools and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, you should look to integrate these channels into your store interface to extend the reach of your brand.

13) Contact forms. Using a naked email address for enewsletter lists and the like has a couple of disadvantages. First, it means opening a separate mail program to get in touch; second, email addresses are often “harvested” by automated spambots. The best solution is to use a quick-fill form to get in touch.

Only once you’ve integrated the above features and best practice should you go on to consider the graphic style and look of your site. When doing so, take your audience into consideration. Ask yourself: Who is going to buy the product? How should products be positioned? What will encourage people to buy a product? Anything that you are selling should be a good fit for ecommerce and be within the price range for credit-card purchases and easily shipped or downloadable.

I am sure that many of the considerations outlined previously will come as little surprise. Why, then, do so many brands fail to achieve a successful ecommerce presence? Often it is due to back-end administration tools that fail to provide the structure needed for the online retailing team to market and merchandise the site’s front end effectively. Coupled with this are often overly complicated tools for back-end administration that stifle ecommerce success. Some retailers find that they have steep learning curves to overcome in order to successfully deliver the components outlined previously.

And even for those brands that can implement a modern ecommerce site, the job is not finished. Ecommerce is continually evolving, so you should constantly be enhancing, expanding, and refining your site. Look to analytics to track the return on investment that the site is delivering and to plan the potential of the site. Implementing a test-and-learn strategy that explores the potential of technological developments will allow you to stay at the forefront of innovation. If your company can successfully address all the points outlined in this article, your ecommerce efforts will be sustainable, flexible, and competitive.

Terry Hunter is managing director of IT and ecommerce consultancy CyberDMG.

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