In a competitive global business environment, where the marketplace is defined as anyone and everyone with an internet-connected device, effective e-commerce capabilities are a necessity for every successful business, regardless of size or industry. Businesses that do not have an efficient and effective e-commerce presence operate at a distinct disadvantage.
In general, e-commerce is defined as the sale of products and services using network connections provided by the internet, including the electronic transfer of money and the data necessary to complete the transaction. A successful transaction requires the exchange of personal data, financial data, and logistical data, as well as access to fulfillment systems, customer service software, inventory management, and appropriate security protocols.
E-commerce systems, services, and software have evolved well beyond mere access to an electronic shopping cart. Modern e-commerce systems often provide marketing and discovery services, logistical coordination, and content management tools. Finding and deploying the best solution for your business will require a thorough examination of your current business enterprise needs and a clearly documented assessment of each vendor’s set of features and tools.
These guidelines will help your IT staff and business decision makers systematically assess and document each e-commerce service vendor’s features and tools to determine which is the best match for your current business requirements.
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What is your product or service?
Before you can begin assessing e-commerce software and services offered by vendors, you must have a clear understanding of what product or service you’re selling. The answers to questions like the following will go a long way toward determining what features and tools you ultimately should be looking for in an e-commerce solution:
- Are you selling a physical product? Can it be shipped easily from your primary business location? Is the product located at a warehouse?
- Will more than one physical product be offered for sale? Can they all be shipped easily from your primary business location? Will the products be located at a warehouse? More than one warehouse?
- Does your business manufacture the product or is it manufactured by another business? Where will the inventory be housed?
- Will the physical product be shipped directly from the manufacturer? What logistical and shipping services are required? How much integration with existing systems will need to be addressed in your decision-making?
- Are you selling services? Will your business provide the service or are you acting as a broker for other businesses or independent contractors?
- What determines the completion of a rendered service? How will you invoice for services designated as complete? Will work in progress be tracked and reported?
- Can the service be delivered in its entirety via internet connection or will a physical consultation be required? Does the consultation need to be conducted on premises? Is a face-to-face teleconference consultation adequate?
- Does the successful delivery of the service require continuous collaboration? How will that aspect be handled?
Only by documenting the answers to these and other business-related questions can your decision makers move on to the next step of assessing which form of e-commerce service or software will best fit your business requirements.
SEE: Hiring kit: ecommerce tech analyst (Tech Pro Research)
Type of e-commerce system needed
E-commerce services and software are often categorized by the type of transaction taking place. The categorization is determined by recognizing who is doing the selling and who is doing the buying:
- Business to consumer (B2C)
- Business to business (B2B)
- Consumer to business (C2B)
- Consumer to consumer (C2C)
- Government to business (G2B)
- Business to government (B2G)
- Consumer to government (C2G)
The most common business-related categories of B2C, B2B, and B2G are fairly self-explanatory—when you or your business buys or sells products or services online it falls into one of those categories.
SEE: How online merchants can combat e-commerce fraud (TechRepublic)
Consumer to business (C2B) transactions are much rarer and often involve crowd-sourcing campaigns. Government to business (G2B) transactions are not as unusual, but the e-commerce services and software used in this category are generally controlled by government entities.
The other two consumer-related categories, C2C and C2G, generally will not apply to business operations unless you are developing a platform to handle such transactions. If that is the case, you are likely going to require a completely different set of guidelines.
Potential benefits of an e-commerce system
There are numerous benefits to choosing an existing e-commerce service or application, including:
- Quick start: Most existing e-commerce services and software include templates, site-building tools, and drag-and-drop features that allow for quick deployment of basic electronic shopping carts and marketplaces.
- Open 24/7: For small businesses, the ability to be open for business beyond the basic 9 to 5 workday can be a huge boon to overall success.
- Savings: By tapping into existing e-commerce software and services, businesses can save precious time, money, and resources.
- Achieving scale: Establishing an effective e-commerce system allows small businesses to quickly and efficiently achieve magnitudes of scale in terms of the addressable marketplace.
- Simplified payments: By handling the financial processing of payments and fulfilling shipments, e-commerce services and software simplify the entire transaction procedure.
- Built-in marketing tools: Many e-commerce services and software offer tools for marketing products and services, including discovery, SEO, email marketing, and analytics.
- Customer service quality: Established and thoroughly tested e-commerce services and software can provide sophisticated shopping experiences for your customers right out of the box.
Features to look for in an e-commerce system
Whether stand-alone software or part of a service, e-commerce applications should have certain common features. The priority of each feature or tool for your specific business will vary, but each feature should be available in some form or fashion from every vendor. A vendor that can’t provide one or more of these features or tools should be considered with a skeptical eye.
Automated shopping cart
Perhaps the most basic of e-commerce system features, and probably the one most often associated with the industry, is the automated electronic online shopping cart. An efficient, accurate, and flexible shopping cart must be a standard feature for any software or service under consideration.
Content management tools
Few businesses have the luxury of perpetually selling only one product or service. At some point, you will have to edit, add, or subtract content from your e-commerce marketplace, and a proper set of easy-to-use tools will be of paramount importance. This is another feature you can’t afford to compromise on.
Integrated blog or articles
In addition to the content found in the e-commerce marketplace, it is typically beneficial to have educational and supplemental training content. A well-informed customer is much more likely to become a paying customer. E-commerce services and software with this capability can add greatly to the success of your business.
Promotion and discount tools
Occasionally, you may want to add special promotions, like discounts or coupons, to your marketplace offerings. Systems that do not have this feature can limit your choices. Depending on your business, this could be a deciding factor.
Under certain circumstances, your e-commerce marketplace may double as your primary website. Your software or service will need to provide adequate drag-and-drop tools for creating a basic website.
Likewise, it may be necessary to find a service that can provide feature-rich website hosting services.
One of the primary functions of any e-commerce service or software application is the ability to collect data pertinent to each transaction and store it securely for subsequent access. Knowing how data is collected and stored could also be vitally important for integration purposes.
Multiple payment options
The modern consumer is accustomed to paying for products and services using many different methods. Your e-commerce service or software should be able to accommodate all forms of payment, including credit cards, debit cards, electronic payment systems like PayPal and Vimeo, ACH transfers, and even blockchain currencies. It should also be flexible enough to accommodate new payment methods as they become available.
As part of its data collection process, your e-commerce service or software should have simple search functionality, including search by customer, transaction, product or service, and date.
A primary benefit of an online marketplace is the potential for increased visibility. The primary method for increasing visibility is to optimize search engine results. The best e-commerce services and software will offer tools that enhance your marketplace’s SEO.
No matter which e-commerce system you choose, it will likely have to integrate with several other systems in your business. Look for e-commerce services and software that can seamlessly integrate with payment gateways, inventory systems, financial management applications, and logistical systems.
Depending on the nature of your business, you many need an e-commerce system that can automatically scale with changes in demand associated with seasons, promotions, or potentially, holidays.
All e-commerce services and software should be able to handle transactions originating from mobile devices—this is a must-have feature.
The best e-commerce services and software should have built-in shopping experience and marketing features. Depending on your business needs, look for email marketing tools, automated lists of related items, and automated “customers who bought this also bought this” lists.
Social media tools
Social media continues to play a vital role in marketing, and your choice of e-commerce software or services should have tools to support these platforms. Simple tools that display items in your online marketplace on social media should be a priority feature in your decision making.
While not a current priority because of its still nascent status, AI-based personalization features should still be a feature to consider during the decision-making process. The more personalized your marketplace can be, the more likely it is that your customers will have a pleasant experience.
Unified multi-channel shopping experiences
If your business has both a brick-and-mortar and an online presence, your online marketplace should have features that can unify the shopping experience over both platforms. You don’t want to lose sales because your e-commerce system could not relay information to your physical retail outlet and vice versa.
Seamless physical-to-digital transitions
As a corollary to a unified multi-channel experience, your choice of e-commerce services or software may also need to include tools that seamlessly transition incomplete online digital orders into physical orders at the store. Technology like kiosks that can display partially complete digital orders and turn them into completed transactions at a physical location could be of paramount importance under certain conditions.
Secure transactions (privacy considerations)
In the modern regulatory environment, businesses collecting the personal data necessary to complete an online e-commerce transaction must always be in complete compliance with privacy laws. Your choice of e-commerce services or software should reflect this reality with no exceptions.
Merchant management interface
While the customer-facing parts of an e-commerce system should obviously be of the highest quality, the merchant interface used to change market prices and items on offer, or apply discounts, etc., must be equally sophisticated. Ease-of-use requirements associated with your decision-making should be applied here first.
Analytics and reporting
Successful strategic business management requires the extensive use of analytics and activity reporting. Your choice of e-commerce services or software should have tools and features that allow your management teams to collect, create, collaborate, and communicate essential information to decision makers within your business.
The cost of e-commerce services or software is going to vary greatly depending on what features and tools your business plans to deploy. A basic online shopping cart and marketplace can be purchased for as little as $29/month, while full-service e-commerce design, development, research, and hosting services at the enterprise-level could easily cost millions of dollars.
The best strategy is to carefully and honestly assess what your business needs and wants to achieve with an e-commerce strategy and then choose vendors that meet those requirements. Only then can your business decision makers begin to trim vendors from their final list of contenders.
The business relationship you have with the vendor of your e-commerce software or services can often be a key factor in your decision-making process. In many ways, you are forming a business partnership with your vendor and will want to look for a relationship that fits your business culture and your expectations of performance.
Measure and rate relationship factors like these to determine the best fit for your business:
- Ease of use
- Merchant interface
- Quality of reports
- Availability and responsiveness of support
- Level of expertise and experience
Dozens of vendors offer e-commerce services and software, but here is a short list of some of the major players in the industry: