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Ecommerce July 10, 2014

15 Questions to Ask When Selecting an Ecommerce Platform

You're at an exciting time for your business and it's stressful as hell.

Perhaps you’ve just entered into one of these scenarios:

  • Decided that your retail stores could use an online outlet.
  • Are trying to upgrade your ecommerce platform.
  • Just delivered your crowdfunded campaign rewards and want to sell more.
  • Finished final rounds of development, testing, and logistics.
  • Are currently developing a plan for a future ecommerce business.

In any case, you’ve found yourself in one of the most desirable dilemmas that a business owner can have:

“There’s demand for my product and I want to deliver… but how? With what?”

It’s an exhilarating problem to tackle indeed. You’re looking to find a solution that is powerful, secure, and cost-efficient but at the same time won’t limit your growth due to a lack of scalability and unforeseen limitations.

You may have to compromise on some features, but by addressing some of the key areas to consider before and during your research, you can better compare the solutions.

Here are fifteen questions you should ask when selecting an ecommerce platform.

1. How Big Is Your Product Catalog?

The first question you need to ask yourself is how many items do you need to sell? Your answer to that single, seemingly simple question can dramatically alter your available choices. You’ll find that some ecommerce providers are great for smaller “mom and pop” shops while others can handle the demands of enterprise-level national chains.

Let’s say you’re selling a t-shirt. You might think of it as one item, but it could actually be 500 different SKUs when you consider color, size, men’s vs. women’s cut, short sleeved vs. long sleeved, and so on. Be sure to count up your product catalog accordingly, and leave ample room for growth in your estimates.

2. Do You Want to Host It Yourself?

Do you want your catalog to live in the cloud, or on a machine (or bank of machines) that you physically manage and control? This can get a little tricky with high numbers of seasonally variable products. Cloud-based providers will typically support on-demand growth for those peaks when current events drive high volume to the site. Otherwise, you’ll need to plan out how to handle the holiday rush, for whatever holiday or time of the year when your product will have the biggest demand. This leads us into the next question, pricing.

SEE ALSO: 5 Easy Ecommerce Solutions for Non-Technical People

3. How Much Does It Cost?

There are many potential areas for costs to go up or down. If you are using a cloud-based provider, there will typically be a monthly fee, usually based upon catalog size. There may be a transaction fee, too. Just like American Express and Visa take a cut of every transaction, so to do some pre-packaged, packaged ecommerce providers. Running the show yourself, you can control costs by taking care of some updates and maintenance yourself as well as avoiding some transaction fees. Don’t forget though that you are trying to run a business, so you are likely to hire a system administrator who you will have to pay.

4. How Does It Scale With Your Business?

While you’re looking for the optimal solution in this moment, you ultimately need one that will grow with your company. Unless you’re planning on selling one product forever, you’ll need a platform that provides you the flexibility to add to your product line.

  • How does the platform allow you to manage the product catalog?
  • Are you stuck keying in each item manually or can you maintain a spreadsheet of product information, which is transferred into the ecommerce system in bulk?
  • If you pick something more appropriate for a small shop now, and later grow beyond your wildest imagination, can your data be migrated out of the system?

You can’t always predict how successful a product line will be and you may decide to expand sooner than you think. You don’t want to box yourself into a solution that will not flex to accommodate your growth.

5. Are There Plug-Ins and Integrations?

How customizable do you need the system? For example, some storefronts have two sets of users, retail and wholesale. If you need this, can the system support it? Along another line, if you wanted to extend the software to perform other functions, are there plug-ins available?

  • Are there supported extensions?
  • Are the official integrations with existing software that I have?
  • Where can you find a list of them?

You might ask yourself why you would need them, but once you see the list of extensions, you’ll likely think of at least one great idea that you could use an extension for.

If the software is open source, other people might have created extensions that you can easily plug into your system and easily upgrade the ecommerce package. Of course, with open source, you can typically create your own extensions as well, though this requires development experience.

6. How Much Control Do You Have Over Design?

Some things are simple. Aesthetic appeal, while subjective, is one of those things. A store has to look nice before someone will shop there. If your company has an in-house design staff, you can likely manipulate your site CSS, generate graphics, and generally mold your site around the platform.

On the other hand, many entrepreneurs don’t have that luxury. Additionally, why would you want to spend yours and your developers’ time working on design when you can get exactly what you want from within the solution?

In most situations, it boils down to a single question: does the platform support templates?

A template reduces costs considerably for a small shop initially, but limits the customizability of your storefront as you grow. Find a solution with the right mix of customization for your needs.

7. How Does It Offer Support?

It is the middle of the night and you’re having some issues with your site; who do you call? When researching a new ecommerce platform, you need to find out what support options are available before these problems arise.

  • Do they provide live 24/7 support via email or online chat?
  • Are you stuck with a support forum online where you must rely on the kindness of strangers for answers?
  • How much online documentation is available?
  • Are there different tiers of support where free might get you a support forum with problem ticket submission but paid might give you direct access to a live person?

Every vendor is going to provide some type of support. It is just a question of are you comfortable with the level or levels available, and if you grow, will it continue to support you down the road.

8. Are There Any Marketing Features?

Once you have your product catalog in the system and you’re selling products, you then want to acquire more customers. Before choosing an ecommerce platform, find out how it helps you reach and engage customers. What you are looking for here is:

  • Does it support something as simple as a coupon?
  • If yes, can they be one-time use coupons or are they only time-bounded?
  • Can you sell electronic gift cards?
  • What about integrated newsletter support?
  • Does it allow you to, say, send a newsletter to everyone who hasn’t made a purchase in the last six months?
  • Or is it just an all or nothing newsletter?
  • Can different people have different frequencies of newsletters where some receive daily and others receive weekly or monthly?
  • Lastly, what kind of social media support is built in?

You may end up turning to another solution to handle most of your marketing but the more integrated and seamless your solution is, the better.

SEE ALSO: 12 Awesome Marketing Tools You've Never Heard Of

9. How Are Customer Payments Processed?

This is actually a two-part question.

  • How are you expecting people to pay for their purchases?
  • Where will you be selling?

With payments, it’s about finding the forms of payment accepted by the platform, like American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Discover, or PayPal.

The question of location makes things a little more complicated. If you sell to someone in Canada, are you showing the price in US dollars and accepting only US dollars as payment, or are you showing the price in Canadian dollars and accepting currency conversions? What about France? Accepting payment in Euros is no different than accepting Canadian dollars, but do you need to localize the display to show the site in French? You’ll likely want to start with at least support for English and US shipping, but how far do you want to grow? Can you expand when you want to?

10. Is It Secure?

The world is full of evil people who want to take advantage of security lapses on ecommerce sites. Managing the ecommerce platform on your system means you are responsible for the security of the data being processed. Security might be part of the self-hosted ecommerce package you’re using, but ultimately, the data security falls on you.

On the other hand, relying on a cloud-based provider means they are responsible. The key three-letter acronym to be aware of here is PCI compliant, where PCI stands for Payment Card Industry, and is the regulatory body involving the handling of credit card processing data.

11. Is It Optimized for Search Engines?

SEO, or search engine optimization, represents how visible your pages are within search engines. Every crawl-able page on your site, of which there are many in an ecommerce store, is affected by your data structure and how your platform manages your product tags.

Ask (or look) for information on the features available to make sure your product pages are indexable by search engines. You’ll need to know how much control you have over URLs, how much metadata you can tweak, and what other SEO elements you have access to.

Also, do you have page-level control, where you can customize only the meta-data / head of one page, or must you do it store wide? How a platform supports SEO and how you take advantage of it could make or break your success.

12. Does It Support Reviews?

A secondary part of SEO strategy is reviews for your storefront. In essence, does the ecommerce platform allow user to generate reviews? The more complicated question is how are they rendered on the product pages and how they are shown to users.

If they are loaded via JavaScript, after the page loads, then there is no SEO benefit. But, if they can be loaded and rendered in the HTML directly, the search engines will find the reviews and their text will be indexed (making for some killer search results that are likely to drive traffic). This is a huge benefit in the SEO game. Be sure to ask if and how reviews are supported by the package.

13. Does It Support Mobile?

People are increasingly relying on their phones for online banking to electronic ticketing to, of course, ecommerce. Throw tablets into the mix and for some sites, the combined user base give them more traffic than desktops. The simple question here is really: just how exactly does the ecommerce software support mobile?

It can be as simple as offering different templates for different screen sizes but a second, more important part to the question is how does it support touch screens? The interaction is markedly different, as anyone who has used a native app versus an in-browser app will tell you. If you’re only relying on mouseovers for informational popups, for instance, the mobile user could is in trouble. The point is, be conscious of the mobile space because it may prove to be more valuable than you currently think!

14. Is There A Free Trial?

Probably deserving a higher spot in the list (not that the order really matters) is a free trial. It's one of the first things you will look for and is quite possibly the most important deciding factor on which to try. 

When picking a new software solution as important as an ecommerce platform, it is imperative that you kick the tires a little. There is only so much you can get through reading their marketing material and online documentation.

  • How easy is it to setup a simple test run of the ecommerce solution?
  • Is the free trial fully functional?
  • How much support is available during the free trial period?

This will allow you to see how the front end will look with some customization. More importantly, it will show you how the back end processing is managed and what difficulties you or your employees might be dealing with.

15) How Does The Platform Affect Site Speed?

Last but certainly not least, it is important to consider the performance of the site. You have a VERY limited window to capture attention, and slow load speeds are a like customer repellant. What’s more, performance is determined by a ton of compounding factors.

Some basics to consider are how the package allows you to increase overall throughput, usually by throwing more hardware into the mix, and also how the user experience can be optimized. Offering checkout to users without having them create an account drastically affects performance in the user’s mind as it skips a direct input step. Faster is always better, but be aware that with great speed, there typically comes great compromises to functionality.

What's Next?

No one package is right for everyone or there wouldn’t be such fierce competition for your business. Certain packages are more capable than others all around, but others will more directly address your specific needs. Asking the right questions early in the game will ensure that you have a solid, long-term solution for your company. 

Check out these other great articles to learn more about ecommerce platforms, tools, and resources:

Let the community know about your ecommerce experience in the comment section below!

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