August 13th, 2008 | 12 MIN READ

How to Choose Ecommerce Technology & Software

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

This is a recap of Elastic Path Software and FitForCommerce's web seminar The Art & Science of Choosing Ecommerce Technology. The on-demand version is now available along with a downloadable mp4 version (video iPod compatible) in our webinar archive.

Disclaimer The participation by FitForCommerce or Bernardine Wu is not meant as an endorsement of Elastic Path and/or its products and services. FitForCommerce received no payment, sponsorship, or other consideration for this webinar.

eCommerce Diligence - Ten Steps to Choose an eCommerce Technology

Requirements Diligence

Knowing what want and what you need

  • Clarify business, operational and organizational drivers
  • Conduct competitive and best practice analysis
  • Document your starting point
  • Determine and prioritize your requirements

Selection Diligence

Knowing what's out there so you can make the best decision for you

  • Decide on the best solution model/type
  • Create a long list of 5-10 providers
  • Send an RFP and review responses
  • Narrow down to a short list
  • Final Diligence
  • Negotiate with finalists – and SIGN!

Requirements Diligence

1. Drivers

Clarify business, operational and organizational drivers

  • Assess yourself, take a hard look at your own business
  • Map out your operations including business flows, system context diagram
  • List out pain points, points of failures, SWOT
  • Agree on your business objectives
    • Include vision, metrics, competitive advantages
  • Take the opportunity to re-engineer your business
    • Improve your processes
    • Re-evaluate your products/services
    • Better define your target customers
    • Think about a redesign
  • Set concrete, measurable objectives for your eCommerce business
  • Understand your people and your culture
  • Involve your company’s key stakeholders
  • Document and socialize!

Example – If you have a very customer-centric culture, then any partner you choose should have as equal a focus on customer excellence. Even if you have a small ecommerce team, if you have 1 or 2 tech-savvy hands-on team members, then any technology you choose should have enough flexibility to put control in the hands of your techies.

Regarding HiPPOs (Higest Paid People in your Organization), how do you achieve buy-in?

Bernardine suggests you identify who the HiPPO is early on and include winning this person over in your strategy and documentation. If your CFO only cares about spend, pitch on ROI. If it's a visionary focused on brand or results - identify them very early on and include it in your strategy.

2. Analysis

Conduct competitive and best practice analyses

  • Check on the competition
    • See what you like and don’t like
    • Decide what you want to include and want to avoid
    • Check competition in your category, but also mindshare or budget competition
    • Think about what’s needed to give you a competitive edge – short-term and long-term
  • Learn about “Best Practices”
    • Network with peers
    • Research the industry
    • Reach out to experts in the field
    • Read voraciously
    • "Play" with other great sites
    • Use quantifiable data as much as you can

Decide what you like and don’t like on other sites. Your "competition" isn’t just other sites in your category, it could be other businesses targeting the same audience, or even other channels - brick and mortar or catalogers.

When you network with peers, find out what worked and what didn't - don't be afraid to ask for real numbers.

3. Starting Point

Document your starting point

  • Create a baseline
  • Don’t assume anything
  • Be clear on your starting point
  • Detail your metrics and functionality
    • Web analytics
    • Sales/marketing analysis
  • Document your current processes
  • Revisit ‘why’ something is done the way it is
  • Know the Voice of the Customer - survey, customers will tell you where you are and that can be different than where you think you are

If you are getting help from a systems integrator (SI), should you just listen to them? When you ask a group to evaluate for you, there's always going to be a bias - even if it's not intentional. SI's may not necessarily hit all the important areas. If the SI is more experiened with licensed format, the recommendations will be slanted to a licensed solution vs. hosted and vice versa.

Ideally if you seek outside help, you will either choose 3rd party help that is not related to any of the vendors OR solicit opinions from multiple SIs.

4. Requirements

A common mistake is to work out requirements after choosing a provider. Bernardine advocates doing your requirements way before you choose a delivery method. There may be some features that are essential to have at launch, and other features can be rolled in at later stages. Go through this process, although painful, as diligently as you can.

Determine and prioritize (must have, should have and road map) your requirements

  • Define them at a detailed, feature-by-feature level
  • Create use cases and user personas
  • Include systems, data and processes your eCommerce system will integrate with
  • Create workflow designs, screen mockups to show how your site will operate
  • Include requirements for managing the site
    • How products are loaded and manipulated
    • How pages are changed
    • How promotions are managed
    • How orders are managed, fulfilled
    • How customers are handled
  • Prioritize your requirements
    • Rank them in numerical order
    • Rate them as nice-to-have and must-have
  • Use ‘use cases’ to describe ‘how’ it should work

Some tips: clearly state not just the feature, but how the feature will work. If it's a wishlist - can the list be emailed? Must you have an account to create a wishlist? Will there be product recommendations and low inventory alert emails sent to the wishlist creator?

It's possible you're thinking of features that your customers don't even want or need. Survey your customers and discover what they want from your site.

You don't want to cut and paste a list of features because you probably won't use them all, and they may not be relevant to you. Unnecessary features carry cost - it might be money, management overhead or more responsibility.

Selection Diligence

5. Approach/Model

Decide on the best solution approach or model based on your business drivers

  • Do a quick overview of different types of DEPLOYMENTS and different types of SUPPORT that are on offer
  • List the pros and cons of each
  • Determine the type of solution you need
    • In-house
    • Consultant
    • Point solutions
    • Platform solutions
      • On-demand
      • Licensed
      • Licensed with hosting
      • Custom
    • End-to-end solutions
  • Your “long list” of providers should have the same type of solution, might include different technology and point solutions that need to work together
    • An exception is if you want to see the differences between types of solutions and you need information from vendors in order to get that
  • Your list might include multiple technologies/providers needed to work together

If you do not have in-house technical skills, nor do you already have a partner or sub-contractor that you trust to provide technical expertise and execution, then you will need to rely on a provider that offers their solution on-demand or ‘for rent.’ Managing your own servers and software may not be right for you right now.

Also, unless you have particularly sharp and inexpensive tech skills in-house, buying code or renting the technology is usually better than re-inventing the wheel. Besides, why not rely on technology that’s been tested and beaten up by many others before you? The important thing is to make sure you’re deciding which way to go based on your needs and limitations, not based on a few vendors that you like. When there are competing goals between your techies and your marketing/management, it's important to select a solution that provides site administration tools to each user. For example, a marketing manager can manage promotions and warehouse manager can manage shipping from the back end without relying on programmers.

6. Long List

Create your “long list” of 5-10 providers

  • Research your options in Guidebooks (IR Buyer’s Guide), trade shows, relying on peers and consultants, FFC Provider Directory
  • Send out preliminary email, including (if available):
    • Your business objectives
    • Your annual online or company revenue
    • Budget range
    • Project timeframe

State any unique requirements that might eliminate some providers, e.g.:

  • Multi-sites, multi-language/currency
  • B2B, purchase order flow
    subscriptions/continuity configurators

If you're researching vendors, it's a good idea to attend the biggest trade shows. Excellent shows are Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibilition every June, Annual Summit every September and eTail East and eTail West.

If you're looking for marketing solutions go to search marketing Search Engine Strategies (SES) or Search Marketing Expo (SMX). Go online and check out the exhibitors in advance. Also look at the content. Look for upcoming events.

7. RFP / RFQ

Send an RFP/RFQ and review responses

  • Create your Request for Proposal/Quote, including:
    • Detailed requirements
    • Workflows
    • Designs
    • Business Drivers
    • Relevant competitive analysis
    • Relevant best practices
  • Set expectations
    • Your business objectives
    • Your budget range
    • Your timeframe
  • Offer a Q&A period with a deadline
  • Give providers 1-3 weeks to respond, depending on the type of product/service
  • Start a tracking document
  • Stay in contact with them

Don’t be surprised if a third to a half decline to bid on your RFP – especially if you have a tight time frame or a tight budget. It's always a good idea to call them anyway to find out more about why they chose to decline.

Another tip: checkbox RFPs don't leave room for explanation why a feature isn't available. It's possible customizations are available as a custom build. Leave room beside Y/N field for explanation. How is the requirement delivered? Is it configurable? If so, who does it? How long does it take? If you don't provide this do you have a point solution to recommend? Are you partnered with any of these point solutions? Allow vendors the ability to describe the parameters, whether yes or no.

8. Short List

Narrow down to a “short list” of 2 to 5 providers

  • Eliminate obvious mismatches
  • Compare apples to apples
    • Create comparison table to put responses side by side
    • Add your commentary or scoring
    • Color-code your scoring to denote the rankings and ratings you created
  • Factor in costs
    • Provider implementation, license fees, upgrades, support
    • Your overhead - servers, bandwidth, in-house staff, consultants
  • Schedule presentations
    • Be sure they demonstrate live sites
    • Walk through the administration tool
    • Understand what limitations exist
    • Ask for a test account
  • Involve all key stakeholders in these evaluations
  • Come prepared with questions and concerns – ask, ask, ask!
  • Follow up

Don’t be too quick to eliminate providers based on a few ‘wrong’ answers – check with them to make sure they understood the question or to find out why or how you could mitigate it or alternatives.

Then ask for presentations and demos - this may be 1 or 2 rounds. Make sure to meet the team in person, more than once. Meet the sales and operational person. Ask questions, don't be shy.

9. Finalists

Final diligence for the final 2 or 3 providers

  • Select 2 or 3 finalists based on fit
  • Ask for proof
    • Check client references and live site examples (at least 10 examples)
    • Ask for their client list (or get it from the web) and call them to get their perspective
    • Get proof points or proofs-of-concept for all their stated capabilities and promises
    • Have questions prepared for the client references and ask about any limitations they have encountered (with the product and with the services)
  • Meet the team that will be supporting your project
    • Even if it means interviewing multiple candidates
  • Get a look at their “roadmap”
    • Find out what is in the works and when they expect to have it
    • If your implementation is dependent on new development, get clarity on what and when
  • Get everything in writing

When checking live sites, beware of making visual judgements. For example, if you see a checkout process on a live site running the platform you are evaluating, don't assume that the technology operates that way - it just might be how that particular site implemented it. Go back and ask the vendor questions.

The proof points you want are more about the "guts" of it. When you ask for proof points, ask for a test account so you can play around with the administrative tool or promotions engine. Kick the tires. If there's no demo available yet, ask for proof of concept.

Also think about how the solution will improve team or customer experience.

10. Decide and sign

Because things happen and 11th hour and fallouts happen, go the distance with your top 2. You don't want to have to start all over again if there's a problem with your first choice.

Also remember no solution is perfect and the industry is young; most providers haven’t figured out total excellence in service.

Negotiate, decide and sign

  • Manage your own expectations; nothing is perfect
  • Build in time and money for scope creep
    • This is where YOU might expand your requirement list
  • Don’t discount the intangibles
    • Take into consideration the fact that you feel a particular provider is a better cultural fit with your organization
  • Determine your top 2 contenders and start negotiating; you should be happy to choose either one - the difference comes down to personality or pricing
  • Get written documentation
  • Negotiate with your top 2 until you are comfortable
  • Ask for help with the agreement or contract
  • Sign with the one you feel best fits your needs

Make sure you meet the team you'll ultimately work with including deployment and support - it's not the sales team.

Pretend you and the point person will be taken off the project the day after you sign - you want to make sure everything is spelled out in writing and very thorough.


How much value is there in asking customers what they want? What if they're not the most sophisticated demographic?

It always helps to identify pain points, and ask what features they would like to see. You are unlikely to get technical answers, but you'll get functional ones.

Survey your top 100 customers. Involving them in your redesign and upgrade decision making can even increase loyalty because they feel their opinions matter to you. Remember they may be loyal to you, but they ARE aware of your competitors' strengths too.

With the multitude of options for platform providers, a lot have (or say they have) the right functionality. How do you determine who's good vs. who has all the "good answers"?

It all goes back to detailed requirements and parameters. By getting into details, you'll find out what is true vs. what's Memorex. Talk to the sales and the engineer.

If your shortlist looks kinda long (more than 5-6), your requirements are not detailed enough.

There are a couple of options to go out and find help with the legwork of requirements gathering. Along with FitForCommerce, other options for consultants include B2C Partners or Forrester and Gartner analysts.

Another thing is lots of new ecommerce vendors are entering the market. Do Google searches, read other retailers' blogs etc. Also, lots new vendors will use PPC advertising because it's quick visibility.

What about solutions that emphasize certain pieces of functionality like social media and web 2.0?

When it comes to making a technology selection, it's not so much whether you should be doing XYZ, it's whether there's the capability to do it in the future. When looking at innovations, make sure you have already covered the basics - don't choose a tool because they're strong on web 2.0 but don't have solid catalog management and shopping cart.

How do you find out if a solutions provider is good when they don't have a large portfolio?

Depends on if you want to be a guinea pig. Know your appetite for risk. If there are NO references, proceed with caution. Don't let up on the diligence! Find proof points if references are not close to what you do or need, or ask if they can show a proof of concept.

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