Your e-commerce platform questions answered

31. May 2018

The old days of calling up a business or driving to a physical location to hunt down products weren’t all that good. Shopping was a time consuming, and often difficult, process. But the rise of connected devices has completely changed the way we shop and nowadays, 81% of customers whip out their phones or open their laptops to research products before they make a purchase. That’s why e-commerce is more important than ever and choosing the best e-commerce platform can make or break a company’s success.

E-commerce is expected to become a $4.058 trillion dollar global industry by 2020 and 40% of internet users have bought a product online. As customers become increasingly tech-savvy, they expect their online shopping experiences to be as easy as walking into a store and choosing a product.

However, e-commerce platforms make that level of seamless usability a reality, which is why most enterprise businesses are rushing to make sure their e-commerce platforms are as efficient as possible. Simply put, e-commerce platforms are tools that enable businesses to sell products and services online.

But even as we see a boom around e-commerce, with online companies like Amazon reporting unprecedented growth, the methodology for choosing one remains a bit of a mystery. Here are some of the answers to a few of the most pressing questions around e-commerce platforms.

What is an e-commerce platform?

As online shopping becomes a huge part of our everyday lives, many businesses, especially small to medium businesses (SMEs) have struggled to keep up with customer demand that offers goods and services online as well as onsite.

The rise of e-commerce has changed all that. In the past, companies were tasked with the job of building their own e-commerce platform which was usually an expensive, labor-intensive process that involved IT set up and in-house e-commerce management teams.

Today, myriad e-commerce software offers all the front-end components of a web-based business in one package and makes it easier to build a digital storefront that allows buyers to interact with products, make purchases, and communicate with service reps. The best e-commerce platforms also offer back-end functions, such as order and inventory management, accounting, and customer data collection, which allows sales teams and service reps a birds-eye view of customer engagements across channels.

Why are e-commerce platforms so important?

At their best, e-commerce platforms run like a successful brick and mortar operation. Just like a manager can look out over showroom, observe the checkout counter, and greet customers at the door, an e-commerce platform allows for a complete, 360-degree view of customer engagement and helps to deliver consistent, personalized interactions with customers based on their clicks, shopping carts, and engagements across channels.

Another benefit of e-commerce platforms is the ability to go beyond the ‘We’re having a sale’ email blast and offer deeper, more meaningful engagements with customers. Recent studies show that consumers are spending 7.8 hours a day engaging with digital content. Imagine a customer spending nearly 8 hours in a brick and mortar store; they’d probably be offended if their salesperson couldn’t remember which products they liked. Likewise, 75% of consumers are more likely to buy when a retailer recognizes them by name, knows their purchase history, and offers suggestions based on past purchases.

That’s why many enterprises are working hard to make sure their e-commerce platforms incorporate all the best parts of brick and mortar shopping into their online experience, from adding live chat options, which 44% of online consumers say is one of the most important features an e-commerce platform can offer, to incorporating digital wallets so that customers can more efficiently pay for their purchases.

The best e-commerce platforms for small businesses provide companies with easy, single-platform access to their customer’s purchase histories and preferences as well as tools for buying, fulfilling, and returning purchases. And now that mobile accounts for 59% of all sessions on e-commerce sites, customers expect those platforms to work seamlessly across devices.

How do you choose a great e-commerce platform?

In a recent study by Salmon, 47% of senior professionals responsible for enterprise e-commerce reported that overall market growth was their main reason for choosing their current platform. Yet, 29% reported that they were without the technology needed to manage the emerging trends of the next five years.

Most businesses know they need an e-commerce platform, but many rush to get started without worrying about scalability or planning for what happens when their e-commerce platform actually grows their business.

Another important factor in choosing the right platform is the user experience (UX). It should be a given that UX is crucial to e-commerce, yet in the Salmon study, 29% of respondents reported that “customer’s needs are consulted too late in the project”.

Brands that embrace usability above all else become the site’s users keep coming back to. Whether it’s the seamless journey from product discovery to purchase on Amazon or Schuh’s gorgeous 360-degree product views that look just as great on mobile as they do desktop, customers like to know they matter. Creating an experience they want to engage with is one of the most important ways to ensure an e-commerce platform adds value to a business’s overall web experience.

Who’s leading the charge in e-commerce?

As e-commerce platforms become essential for almost all businesses, some companies are going above and beyond to make sure their offering stands out.

For example, Pinerest is leading the way for merging social media with e-commerce by incorporating easy-to-navigate buying options for its users. The social media platform, which boasts 110 million monthly active users, 55% of whom visit the site to find and shop for products, has partnered with over 20,000 merchants to introduce “buyable pins,” allowing users to make purchases as they engage with content on Pinterest. They’re also pioneers in visual search, allowing users to zoom in on any pin to search for specific colors, patterns, and products.

Cosmetics retailer Sephora is a brand that has managed to bolster its in-store sales by investing heavily in its e-commerce platform. Its Beauty Insider rewards program allows fans of the store to rack up rewards points for in-store and online purchases, and also connects make-up lovers to a Beauty Insider Community to share product reviews, photos, and chat about products. Since the majority of the brand’s sales still happen offline, Sephora has also invested in smaller storefronts that arm sales reps with smartphones to order and ship products from Sephora’s website.

Understandably, most businesses don’t have the same number of devotees as Sephora or Pinterest, however, it’s crucial for them to remember that e-commerce platforms are an extension of the same personalized customer service a sales staff would offer face-to-face. Whether they’re clicking on their phones or are in-store inquiring about products and services, customers want their e-commerce experiences to be efficient and tailored to their unique needs.

What does the future hold for e-commerce?

As Herbert Lui writes on Shopify’s blog, “in the grand scheme of the commerce universe — both e-commerce and Amazon are still in their infancy. Or as Jeff Bezos likes to say, it’s always ‘day one’ at his company.”

In fact, Shopify claims that e-commerce makes up for just 11.9% of retail but, that number is expected to climb to 17.5% by 2021.

To predict the ways in which e-commerce will evolve, it helps to look at some of the best e-commerce platforms of 2018.

According to the Salmon study, industry insiders predict that robots and machine learning will be two of the biggest trends for in the coming years. Many e-commerce platforms, however, are already experimenting with these technologies. For example, retailers like H&M are currently incorporating chatbots to boost customer engagement, and Amazon has used artificial intelligence to create its reorder and subscription services.

A casual search for e-commerce platforms yields what seems to be a never-ending list of companies vying for attention, each claiming to be the “best  e-commerce platform.” For a small business just beginning to test the waters, the wealth of choice around e-commerce platforms could actually start to feel like a curse.

If you’re looking to get started in the world of e-commerce by doing a bit of comparison, it’s important not just to buy into the hype: start by reading e-commerce reviews, then decide which features are most important for your company and your customers. Think about scalability, user experience, and what successful e-commerce means for your business, not just today, but in the future.

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