How to choose the best ecommerce platform for your online store
There are hundreds of ecommerce platforms available so it can be a daunting task to select one to meet your business needs, your expectations and your budget. Given you will spend time and money setting up your ecommerce platform, making it perform, integrating it with other systems used by your business and learning how to get the best from it, you need your chosen platform to serve you well for several years.
I have worked for ten years helping retailers, brands and online pureplays select ecommerce technology and here is a method that I find works well.
Building a list of business requirements
It may be obvious, but you should choose an ecommerce platform by matching your needs to the features of the available platforms. A good starting point is the business requirements you have:
- Things the platform must be able to do
- Characteristics of how the platform is provisioned and operates
- The services you need alongside the technology itself
1. Differentiating features of ecommerce platforms
Many requirements you will have of an ecommerce platform do not help you differentiate between the available options. For example, the ability to add a product to a cart and to checkout are requirements, but since all platforms enable this, concentrating on this does not help you select an ecommerce platform.
Instead, concentrate on the features that are differentiating between the platforms. Of course knowing which features are common across the majority of platforms and which are not is where specialist consulting can help. Here is a starting list of considerations, not complete, but should at least give you ideas of what to include in your vendor research to produce a shortlist. Depending on your answer to each of these questions you may include or exclude specific ecommerce platform vendors:
- Does your business need to sell to consumers or businesses (B2C or B2B)?
- Are you selling physical or digital products &/or services?
- Are all checkouts performed with payment, or is deferred payment (e.g. by invoice) possible?
- Do you need payment by gift card, fuel cards or unusual payment types?
- Do customers accrue loyalty points and can then redeem them on the site?
- Does every customer get the same price for the same product, or are there customer-specific price lists or does the platform have to show variable store price?
- Are discounts applied for buying larger quantities of a product (tiered pricing)?
- Do you allow guest checkout (i.e. checkout without account registration)?
- Are you selling digital downloads or keys that need to be fulfilled instantly upon checkout?
- Do you need to show physical store range and stock on the web to encourage store visits or to enable ship-from-store?
- Will you be sending all orders to one place for fulfillment, or do you have multiple warehouses, supplier-direct fulfillment (dropshipping), or ship-from-store?
- How many people will be in your team adding products, managing site content, setting up promotions, etc.?
- Does the product catalog, pricing and promotions originate from another system or several internal and external systems, or is this to be handled within the ecommerce platform?
- Does your product catalog include complexity such as bill-of-materials, bundles, accessories, warranties?
- Is your product catalog as big as several thousand items requiring additional thought in how customers will find the correct item (e.g. on-site search and navigation)?
- Do you also sell your products on marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, etc.? Will you have separate or a single stock holding across your site and marketplaces? Single or differentiated product content and pricing?
- Do you operate a marketplace where other sellers can list their products on your site?
- Will your site be in one language only, or multiple?
- Do you intend to integrate with specific carriers for fulfillment?
- Do you allow shipping to international destinations? Will you show prices in multiple currencies, provide a landed cost, or will customers be liable for customs duties at the border?
- Do you need to provide after-sales support through the website and how?
- Does your contact center team need to be able to look at customer accounts to help place their orders?
2. How the platform is provisioned and operated
Next consider how the platform is provisioned and operated. Often an ecommerce platform is hosted by its vendor (so-called software-as-a-service or SaaS) and you are essentially renting space on their infrastructure and use of their software, but this is not always the case. Some ecommerce platforms are open source software which is free to download and use, but then the responsibility for building the site, creating the infrastructure to run it on and the ongoing effort of making changes and keeping the site running and secure falls to you.
3. The services required alongside the technology
In addition to the technology, you must specify the services you require from the vendor or one of its implementation partners. For example do you need any of the following services before and during implementation, or will your own team be responsible for these?
- eCommerce consultancy to work out how best to structure the business, the site, the product, pricing, fulfillment options, customer service, etc.
- Creative branding and digital design services
- Software customization
- Selection of point solutions for web analytics, content distribution network, payment, fraud, address verification, carrier integration and so on
- Technical integration of the platform with internal systems and these point solutions
- Data migration from a previous solution, including customer, product and order history data
- Performance testing
- Security testing
Also consider what ongoing services are required after implementation, for example:
- Product sourcing
- Product content creation, including photography, descriptions and attributes
- On-site search and web experience optimization
- Digital marketing, such as SEO, SEM
- Customer services via phone, email, chat, social
- Infrastructure provisioning and maintenance
- Technical support
- Ongoing software development and enhancement, new feature development
- Security patching
- Disaster recovery
You may wish to set up your ecommerce site yourself using your own technology team, but most often you will hire a digital agency or systems integrator to build the site and integrate it with your other systems. Even for SaaS platforms there is a substantial implementation project required and this gets only more complex if running on-premises software with all of the additional infrastructure, testing, security needs.
Selecting an implementation partner can be done alongside and as part of the platform selection, but equally can be done as a separate step after the software is chosen.
eCommerce platforms for established or new businesses
Established businesses with existing revenue will already have a good sense of the volume of sales their ecommerce business must support, the number of products, the countries and languages that must be supported, the existing systems to which it must be integrated.
From this you can extrapolate key features that are required, including the number of people required to work with it, in what roles, whether or not order management capabilities are required, how complex the product catalog and pricing will be, the variety and number of promotions that might be live at any one time.
For new businesses, starting as a new ecommerce venture, there will be a business plan but there will also be a higher degree of uncertainty over revenue that can be achieved and therefore higher risk associated with the investment to get the ecommerce site up and running. For this reason, most new businesses should be targeting smaller, lower-cost platforms. The ecommerce platform shortlist identifies these simpler, low-cost platforms.
Shortlisting the ecommerce platforms
While there are hundreds of ecommerce platforms available, not all of them support all types of ecommerce business models. For example if you are a retailer, only selling products online to individual consumers, your needs from an ecommerce platform are significantly different to a distribution business selling to approved buyers on credit against an individual price list, with telephone sales support alongside a web portal. Filter your long list of possible ecommerce platforms by these significant must-have attributes to create a set of candidates for your shortlist, then assess each from an outside-in perspective to decide on a shortlist that you will approach.
Request for proposal stage
For mid-sized businesses and larger, it may be worth running an RFP (request for proposal) process, in order to give your shortlisted platforms the opportunity to propose a solution (and a cost) for your specific requirements. You will need to limit your RFP to a short list of no more than four vendors, in order to avoid the effort required to evaluate many different proposals. If you can't reduce the options to this number then you haven't understood your requirements or the platforms' capabilities well enough.
Be clear whether you are issuing an RFP for technology or services or both and in which case whether each vendor will respond alone or in conjunction with a services partner. Discuss this with your short list before finalizing the RFP documentation.
Be sure to provide a specific timetable for responses and make this as generous as possible, with opportunities for the vendors to ask questions and seek clarity. The more they know, the better they can respond with a tailored proposal that meets your needs.
Evaluation and negotiation
Once proposals are received these need to be evaluated against a structured framework that ensures a fair, unbiased comparison that produces both a quantitative score for each vendor as well as a qualitative evaluation. I have used several different frameworks for this but have a preferred one that works well in most situations.
The best overall vendor can then be taken through a round of commercial negotiation where scope of technology and services, the price to be paid and non-financial terms need to be considered. Pay as much attention to what happens in the event of problems as on the scope of the "happy path" where everything proceeds as expected.
Following the contracting process, make sure you free up knowledgeable people in your business to work with the implementation team as they will be asking lots of questions, asking for data and demanding decisions in relatively short order to keep to timetable. Be aware of this ahead of time and plan backfill if necessary to free up the right people in your organization.