eCommerce is the ultimate market-leveling tool for SMBs. Through eCommerce, the location and size of a business no longer matters.
In essence, the Internet has created a jumbo-sized virtual shopping mall in which any and every conceivable retailer can be a tenant.
Yet, cyber mall occupancy alone does not guarantee long-term commercial success. Rather, nextgeneration site functionality and ultra-reliable, highly responsive site performance are essential ingredients for increasing eCommerce revenues. Retailers with the deepest pockets gain a decided market advantage since they have the money both to develop next-generation site functionality, and to build and maintain an eCommerce platform capable of delivering the full impact of this functionality to each and every site visitor.
In reality, options today offer small business more choices that help in leveling the competitive playing field. With today’s web hosting environments — optimized for next-generation eCommerce — platform investments are reduced to a fraction of the cost of individually owning and operating an eCommerce site. With this approach, small retailers gain a significant market equalizer that enables them to compete effectively against their larger rivals.
In this article, we will describe the direction of next-generation eCommerce sites and also highlight how web hosting can dramatically reduce the IT costs necessary to effectively support next-generation eCommerce. As a result, SMBs can increase eCommerce sites and simultaneously decrease their IT costs.
1. Functionality that replicates the in-store shopping experience, and
2. Functionality that creates a distinctive online shopping experience.
o 360° product views – One of the eCommerce drawbacks is the physical separation between shoppers and products. Products such as books and DVDs – for which physical touch is not a decision variable — are two products that have sold well through an eCommerce channel. Other products, such as apparel, do benefit by physical touch. And even though apparel is sold online, the lack of physical touch contributes to instances of shopping online but buying instore.
Next-generation eCommerce sites will do more to transform the online shopping experience into online buying by presenting the product in user-controlled 360° views. In this manner, the shopper gains a richer perspective on the product’s appearance, similar to the instore buyer behavior of holding up and turning the product for closer examination.
o Layered informational mini-screens – In current-generation eCommerce sites, shoppers commonly click through several full screens to gain a deeper knowledge of the product being considered. This site design dictates back and forth navigation by the shopper to re-visit information. Consequently, the full breadth of information sought for a purchase decision seldom resides on a single screen. Next-generation eCommerce sites will offer mini-screens overlaid on the initial product screen, which allows shoppers to zoom in and out of relevant product details and, in the process, never lose connection with the product being evaluated.
o Upfront alerts on product availability – A strong benefit of eCommerce is the capability to present the full range of products and product features. Inventory costs and space limitations of brick and mortar stores are challenged to equal this capability. At the same time, product presentation in an eCommerce site without availability status is frustrating for shoppers, particularly those who have expended time loading their shopping carts only to be informed that availability of one or more products or a specially designed product will be delayed. This scenario is far less common with in-store shopping since the range of inventory is directly visible to the shopper. In next-generation eCommerce sites, product availability status can be offered to the shopper throughout the shopping and selection process. By presenting product alternatives when there are availability delays – which can be built as an option into the site design — allows shoppers to balance their desire for product immediacy and selection range.
o Streaming video – Brick and mortar stores are naturally restrained in the contextual presentation of their products, with actual product benefits limited to a shopper’s understanding of the product and imagination, and perhaps the creativity of in-store displays and external advertising (print, audio, and video). In next-generation eCommerce sites, streaming video propels contextual presentation to an entirely new level, with streaming video mini-clips that spotlight beneficial product features in multiple real-world contexts. Not only will streaming video stimulate a shopper’s imagination and strengthen intent to purchase, it can also be effective in cross-selling other products and optional features, which provide a valuable means to increasing sale size and revenue growth.
o Live chat – An eCommerce site enabled with live chat can address a shopper’s questions or site use issues on the spot. As a result, these sessions contribute to impromptu purchases and a reduction in abandoned shopping carts as well as repeat visits. Live chat offers two specific benefits:
(1) the on-demand availability of sales representatives enables quicker and more efficient customer communications than serving customers in most brick and mortar settings;
and (2) sales reps have fingertip access to a wide range of product information and are typically better product knowledge experts. With the advent of VoIP (Voice over IP) in a nextgeneration eCommerce site, live chat expands from text exchanges to more personal voice conversations. Text and voice communication also can deepen loyalty and spending by premium customers and can transform intermittent customers into regular customers if both text and voice communications are strategically employed and supported.
o Personalized sales assistance – In addition to being product experts, online sales reps can also become dedicated customer aides. Electronically armed with real-time knowledge of customer identity, profile, and past online and in-store purchases, these sales reps can personalize and enhance the customer’s shopping experience. While similar personalization is possible in brick and mortar settings, location and in-person relationships are limiting factors on the number of customers that can receive this personalization. eCommerce does not suffer from these same limitations.
This next-generation eCommerce functionality is not free. Clearly, there are costs to develop, test, and deploy. These costs, we believe, are unavoidable for retailers who are serious about increasing their eCommerce revenues.
Equally important, but not always fully considered, are the costs of an eCommerce platform capable of delivering the full impact of this functionality to each and every site visitor. In our view, scrimping on the platform will have serious eCommerce revenue implications. Among the most notable to avoid is creating a platform that results in an uninspired shopper. For example, if the functionality does not perform to its potential – through slow responsiveness, jerky video, or voice quality inconsistency – the net result is that shoppers leave the eCommerce site and never return.
To avoid this scenario, companies today must have world-class Internet-connected data center and web servers. To attain world-class, multiple components must be in place. Lacking any one of these jeopardizes eCommerce potential.
o Redundant and highly scalable Web servers – Accommodates all instances of peak visitations and minimizes the risk of server downtime.
o Physical and cyber security – Protects the eCommerce platform and customers’ personal information (e.g., credit card numbers) from disruption and theft, respectively.
o Wideband and redundant access between the data center and the Internet – Access congestion directly correlates to slow response times and a poor shopping experience. Furthermore, as richer media is added to the site, higher bandwidth levels are essential.
o Data center utilities – Air conditioning, heating and electrical power are as essential as the web servers themselves. Failures in these systems are catastrophic to the health of any business.
o Around-the-clock administration – Without flawless operations and expert insight, none of the preceding points are meaningful. This flawless execution is the benchmark of nextgeneration eCommerce and anything less will degrade eCommerce potential and waste the investments in next-generation eCommerce functionality.
The good news is that the cost of these platform components does not have to be a barrier to nextgeneration eCommerce and the benefits it can deliver to the retailer: more revenue and improved customer loyalty. From our analysis, SMBs can reduce their IT costs associated with eCommerce by up to 75% by using a high quality Web Hoster versus a do-it-yourself approach of owning and operating these platform components.