Digital transformation has become a prime focus for retailers these days. In order to grow, brick-and-mortar stores realize they must use their digital touchpoints to enhance their customers’ in-store experiences.
Online retailers recognize they need to separate themselves from the pack through faster and more informative shopping experiences. And omnichannel sellers and brands are aware they need to provide their customers with a seamless, cross-channel experience.
To meet the exigencies of digital transformation, retailers have been turning to business-to-consumer (B2C) commerce suites to automate their merchandising, streamline operations, and boost the impact of their business teams on the experience of their customers.
However, choosing such a platform can be difficult.
“It’s a very competitive space. Differentiation is challenging,” said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst with the Aite Group, a global research and advisory firm based in Boston.
“It’s a maturing market, but some aspects of it are growing faster than the market as a whole,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “The home mobile side is growing more quickly — and in the developing world, it’s growing much, much more quickly.”
Hands On or Hands Off?
How much the business should be involved in the technical implementation and operation of the platform is one of the first questions a commerce platform shopper should consider, Gartner analyst Mike Lowndes suggested in a research note on digital commerce platform architecture. Gartner, a research and advisory company, is based in Stamford, Connecticut.
“If the business will be less involved, then a more packaged or single-vendor solution may be appropriate,” he wrote. “However, if IT organizations are to be involved in more than governance, leaders need to understand the high-level approaches available to make the best decision for the business.”
When examining a new digital commerce venture or replacing a legacy platform, organizations often search first for a digital commerce platform vendor before considering the impact of the vendor’s product architecture on their business and future needs, Lowndes wrote.
“Alternatively, this decision is placed in the hands of a development partner or system integrator on behalf of the business,” he added, “sometimes with unforeseen consequences to flexibility, future-proofing and fit for purpose.”
Big Versus Small
When shopping for a B2C e-commerce suite, the size of the purchaser is an important consideration.
“If you’re a sophisticated e-commerce provider with an IT group that does a lot of your Web development, then you don’t need a turnkey solution. You just need good cloud-based functionality and a good, secure platform that’s flexible so you can do what you need to do,” Aite Group’s Peterson explained.
“If you’re a small organization, you may need Web services, Web design and a lot of other things,” he continued. “If you’re smaller, you’re ceding more control to the provider. If you’re larger, you’re keeping more control to yourself.”
A recent Forrester Wave report on B2C commerce suites notes, for example, that SAP Commerce Cloud is a suite suitable only for organizations with deep technical skills or a strong partnership with a system integrator.
“SAP commerce cloud is a best ft for companies looking for an industrial-strength full-function commerce platform in wide use across several industry verticals,” the report points out.
IBM’s Watson Commerce is another suite that requires technical chops to deploy, and IBM is also in the process of modernizing the solution’s architecture.
“IBM is a good fit for large enterprises with the budget, resources, and willingness to bet on the company’s ability to execute on its modern platform vision. Less mature organizations will likely find this suite too cumbersome,” Forrester concludes.
What to Look For
At the start of the shopping process for a B2C suite, an organization has to evaluate what it sells. Is my product complex or is it simple?
“There are solutions that are better for selling simple products than complex products,” said Gartner Vice President Penny Gillespie.
Where a product is being sold is another important consideration.
“Some platforms do better selling locally and regionally than globally,” Gillespie told the E-Commerce Times.
For example, in Forrester’s report notes that Digital River’s commerce suite is a good fit for companies looking to expand globally and to outsource the transactional overhead of doing business internationally.
Forrester offers three general recommendations when shopping for a B2C suite:
- Make sure the suite contains the core set of features that drive a customer’s online experience — including search, personalization and promotions, and the analytics to tie those three elements together. The ability to target content and products with consumer incentives across the consumer’s shopping journey is essential to giving the consumer a differentiated shopping experience.
- Make sure the suite is agile enough to give business users the tools they need to rapidly change content. Business users need a 360-degree view of their customers, along with a promotions and campaign engine they can control, so they can attract customers and induce them to make purchases.
- Make sure the suite incorporates operational efficiencies that reduce costs and provide an upgrade process that requires little regression testing and no recoding. A containerized approach to upgrades that manages versions and automates scaling is critical to simplifying the upgrade cycle, as is the use of an abstracted API layer to isolate the commerce runtime from store customizations.
Transformation Versus Optimization
When purchasing a B2C suite, a buyer should understand the difference between a solution that’s going to optimize an organization’s performance and one that can transform it. A transformational solution is one prepared to deal with the future of e-commerce.
Just a scant six years ago, optimization was the driving force behind digital commerce investments, but that isn’t the case anymore, Gartner research shows.
“In 2012, customers were investing in digital commerce for cost savings. In 2017, it was about transformation and delivering great customer experiences,” Gillespie said.
“When I think about delivering a great customer experience, I think about delivering a personalized customer experience,” she continued. “And when I think about delivering a personalized customer experience, I think of content being relevant, my process being easy and seamless, and content that resonates with me.”
One characteristic of transformation is putting commerce in context. For example, the app for a furniture store will be able to show a consumer how a piece of furniture will look in a home, or a clothing store app will display how an item will look on the consumer.
Another characteristic is shifting from being reactive to a consumer’s wants to being proactive or anticipatory of them.
“Today, 99.99 percent of all transactions are initiated by customers,” Gillespie explained. “In the future, we’re going to see more and more transactions by merchants or suppliers based on what they know about the customer.”
Make a Road Map
Commerce platform shoppers should create a road map for digital commerce and manage technologies based on the digital commerce technology ecosystem, Gillespie recommends.
“This will lead to a complete digital commerce solution, maximizing the value of both the commerce platform and the corresponding digital commerce ecosystem applications,” she said. “Organizations underestimate the requirements of a digital commerce solution. As a result, they deploy incomplete solutions that impede their journey to success.”
It’s important to scrutinize an IT vendor’s digital commerce platforms to ensure they match the road map and requirements, Gillespie advised, and to identify requirements delivered natively. “This can reduce unplanned spending on additional technology and lower integration costs.”
Create a Short List
Commerce suites need to provide customers with more than just access to a company’s goods, observed Hayward, California-based Charles King, a principal analyst with Pund-IT, a technology advisory firm.
“It also needs to highlight and reinforce a company’s brand and go-to-market strategy,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
“Customization, search, personalization and support for company promotions are all critical parts of that process,” King added. “I’d also add that mobile transaction support and optimization is a critical issue for many, if not most, retailers — especially those in consumer markets.”
After performing its initial analysis, suite shoppers will need to create short list of prospects. When making that list, “first and foremost, invest time and effort in determining what your own organization hopes to accomplish with online commerce, along with developing realistic budgets and timelines,” King recommended.
“Then take a long and close look at primary vendors, along with whatever strategic partners — banks, hosted service providers, designers and such — are working behind the scenes,” he continued. “That includes examining a vendor’s existing sites, and arranging discussions with those customers.”
If a suite shopper operates in a particular industry, platform providers that focus on that industry should be good candidates for a short list of finalists.
“You need to understand your vertical,” said Aite Group’s Peterson, “and identify players with expertise in that vertical, so you don’t have to explain to them what you’re doing or adapt their technology to what you’re doing.”
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
As a shopper works down the list of candidates for a suite deployment, sales pitches can start to fog the shopper’s focus, but it’s crucial to keep what needs to be accomplished front and center, King advised.
However, “companies also need to determine how flexible or willing to compromise they can be on specific points,” he added.
“Realistically, it will be difficult to find a commerce vendor that’s a perfect 100 percent fit for your situation,” King continued, “but considering and remaining focused on your organization’s core requirements will go a long way to determining which B2C partners are worthy of serious consideration.”