Lessons from Altering ecommerce platforms

My firm, overstockArt, recently changed ecommerce platforms. It was a complete change of the site, not only look and navigation, but the whole underlying technology.

We changed from the Yahoo store platform (currently called Luminate) to OpenCart. The Yahoo store platform was prohibitive. We had to develop many external tools to accomplish what we wanted. Some basic tools we were not able to create, such as big images for framed artwork. Hardly any developers utilize the Yahoo store platform.

We chose OpenCart since it gave complete control and complete flexibility. Many programmers work on this platform. The cost was reduced and performance potential was high. Additionally, the Yahoo store solution was a service which we didn’t own. The OpenCart platform is totally customizable and resides on our servers.

As technologies change and as customers’ expectations evolve, ecommerce businesses must constantly improve their sites. Those sites, after all, are responsible for the majority of the total customer experience and interactions with our brands.

OverstockArt.com, like many other retailers’ sites, has been through several developments and updates. We’ve added many features through the years. But in 2013 we determined we needed a significant overhaul — a totally new platform. This was a significant undertaking.

In my experience, changing ecommerce platforms may end up in one of three ways.

  1. Disaster: considerable amounts of effort and money spent and you can not even use your site. Sales might even decline as a result of lack of focus.
  2. Minor impact: You establish a new site and nothing changes — earnings do not increase and shoppers do not reacted one way or another.
  3. Major improvement to sales and profits: The new site increases customer participation and conversions, providing more sales with no increase in advertising and other costs.

All merchants presumably need to be as near as possible to stage 3: growth in sales and profits. But re-platforming jobs frequently fall somewhere in between points 1 and 2.

When considering new platforms, ecommerce entrepreneurs typically concentrate on option 3: the potential for significant increases in sales and profits. This is also what technology vendors will focus on.

The questions I want to address in this post are:

  • The way to ensure or at least increase the odds of ending up with alternative 3?
  • How to reduce catastrophe, as in option 1?
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In actuality, we attempted re-platforming overstockArt many years back. It ended up in tragedy. We paid plenty of money and got nothing for it. We ended up in court and lost.

Our experience this time was far from smooth. It took longer than anticipated, with many defects. A few of my recommendations in this post will be what we, overstockArt, should have done.

There are no guarantees your shoppers will love your new site and the adoption by these shoppers will be smooth. But based on my experience, it’s guaranteed that during this lengthy project you will have problems with your web development vendor. And not all your desired features will operate easily. Finally, it’s guaranteed it will take longer than anticipated and cost more! And to make it worse, your friendly web-development vendor will probably blame you for the gain in money and time.

Our current development vendor has done a nice job overall. The first vendor (not the current vendor) told us initially that this endeavor would take 90 days, which we knew wasn’t possible. We assumed it would take 1 year — four times the vendor’s original quote. It took two years — eight times the vendor’s quote and double our estimate. Ultimately, the staff of the first vendor couldn’t finish the project. We took it out of them and hired other tech firms to complete the website.

There are a number of ways to examine a job of this size. Certainly we made many choices along the way. Here’s what we’ve learned.

  • Why should an internet retailer consider re-platforming? There are three simple reasons for this or any other significant investment: (a) Will it increase sales? (b) Will it reduce operational cost? (c) Can it reduce inventory? If the solution isn’t yes to at least one of them, there’s absolutely not any reason to take into account the project.
  • Assume the worst. Before moving forward, a merchant should know it is going to cost more and take longer than anticipated. Many web development companies base their profitability on change orders.
  • Complexity generates mistakes. The more complicated your site is, the greater possibility of error. We took all the features and improvements we created over a decade and added them to our new site. This created lots of complexity to the job. Despite the fact that our vendor knew of these attributes, the complexity and the number of features made the job very tricky.
  • The preparation phase is the most important. You know your business better than anybody. Be certain that you educate your web development vendor so the structure of the new website is suitable for your company now and down the street.
  • Maintain close communication with your vendor. When the project is launched, insist on regular updates and conversation — negative or positive. Be frank and transparent with your vendor.
  • Involve your whole team to some degree. Have your employees test the site’s frontend and backend — reporting bugs and missing features. Do this throughout the procedure.
  • Cut your losses. If the job starts aggressively, and you also feel that your vendor is becoming unresponsive, cut your losses and take over the job. Publish the website at a beta environment, push it to your servers, and use Git (the open source program control system) to involve several growth organizations to complete the last portion of the job.
  • Evaluation on multiple browsers. Test your new website not only with the most recent browsers, but also older versions of the main browsers. Also, test with a number of devices — tablets tablets, laptops, desktops.
  • Test key areas and performance.
    • Place an order with many modes of payment.
    • Can customers use vouchers?
    • Can product-page functionality work?
    • Are the search results relevant? Conduct many hunts and see if the results make sense.
    • Ask friends to navigate the site and supply feedback.
    • Test site speed for both desktop and mobile. Speed is an integral aspect of conversions.
  • Transfer all of the information possible from your previous shop.
    • Product information and graphics.
    • Customer information, such as accounts, order history, reviews, and want lists.
    • SEO info: Meta info and 301 redirects.
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It’s also advisable to put a banner on your existing site and ask customers to navigate the new, beta site to offer feedback. Clients appreciate being included. By asking them for their opinions, you are not just getting helpful information, you are also building stronger connections.

Lastly, recall re-platforming or a significant site update is a long-term play. Your sales might actually drop a little as shoppers are getting used to the new site. However, the rewards can be amazing.

Here are our results after launch the new overstockArt.com site.

  • Month 1: Disappointing sales. We experienced a year-over-year earnings increase of 15 percent. But we expected 30 percent based on past months.
  • Month 2: Major improvement to revenue, but still not at goal. We had a reduction from the previous year.
  • Month 3: Revenue increase still less projected; expansion was single digits. By now our site was bug free and began looking like a significant leap from our previous website.
  • Month 4: Conversion rate rose by 60 percent. Earnings are up much more than that as traffic increased as well. Our site looks amazing. Ultimately, our dollar-per-visit matrix is up significantly, allowing us to market more aggressively.

In short, an entire re-platforming carries much danger. However, the results can be terrific.

Have you changed ecommerce platforms lately? Are you considering changing? Please share your ideas.

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