IBM WebSphere Commerce Feature Pack 4 Highlights

Have you noticed that WebSphere Commerce feature packs seem to come out much more frequently than they used to?  Our friends in the IBM development labs seem to have changed their approach slightly in bringing these out much more quickly, even if this means partial releases.

Management Centre is a good example where this much-improved business tooling was brought to market relatively quickly without replacing Accelerator 100% i.e. there was still functionality within Accelerator that wasn’t available in Management Centre.  Cleverly though, they developed the marketing focussed elements early so most business users only need to see Management Centre.  Meanwhile, Accelerator is still used for the more technically oriented facilities.  Wins all round and it’s a philosophy that we greatly support. Read more »

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9 areas to watch at the front-end of eCommerce in 2011

Business Man Looking

Here’s 9 areas to watch (and perhaps react to) in relation to front-end eCommerce website development initiatives during 2011. It is by no means exhaustive, but reflects a few of the overriding trends and movements that will impact front-end development.

We’ve deliberately steered away from merely ‘design’ specific trends.  For those you could go here, it’s a pretty good list with a little overlap on ours.  For digital marketing trends look no further than Ashley Friedlein’s list on eConsultancy.com, and for the mega-trends out there take a look at Marian Salzman’s Euro RSC Worldwide PR report and her “11 Trends for 2011″.

*Update* 19/01/2011: Retail Week just published their “What’s hot in eTail” list, which is more generic but worth a read (requires Retail Week Subscription)
*Update* 24/01/2010: Fortune and CNN Money today discuss how smartphone growth in 2011 that could totally eclipse anything we’ve seen before

So here it is: 9 areas to watch at the front-end of eCommerce this year


  1. “f-commerce” becomes a verb Beyond mere fan pages and ‘like’ buttons, merchants will re-focus on Facebook and look to develop eCommerce websites completely within Facebook.   With more than 500 million active users (50% of active users logging onto Facebook in any given day, the average user having 130 friends and people spending over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook, more here) the potential ROI appears to be huge. And yet developing an eCommerce solution inside Facebook is not without its potential drawbacks.  In this post, Michael Hoffman remarks (in the comments) that firstly, “Facebook provides no service level agreements. Therefore, if Facebook is down, you are down. If your app is performing poorly, there is no one you can call directly. All applications are treated equally.” Michael’s second point is equally poignant…. so let’s think about Facebook security for a moment…. it’s a fact that Facebook profiles are sometimes hacked so is there a knock-on issue in this regard towards f-commerce? And what about the .api, the PCI compliance, the optimisation of Facebook eCommerce stores for mobile devices, and payment….wow, the list goes on (and that’s not even counting the growing WhiteWalling trend as recently discussed by Drew Benvie).  What is certain is that those merchants that get to grips with any potential issues first, will also see the upside first; and already pioneers like JC Penney are putting their best foot forward already as are ASOS in Europe (n.b. ASOS link requires Retail Week subscription). On the flip side, on the merchant eCommerce websites itself, there is little doubt that exposing a shoppers social graph will unearth recommendations and reviews that an algorithm simply would not. I can’t think of many people who wouldn’t be delighted to see what their social graph (or certainly a selection of their social graph) has been buying and saying about particular products and services.
  2. The Mobile Web Explosion If last year was the year that mobile commerce finally arrived (actually it was the year before last imho), expect to hear the herd stampeding this year. Mobile internet use is going to keep rising, and along with it, so will the number of mobile versions of existing sites needing to be developed or thought through.  Think about access by phones, tablets, even eReaders plus a host of other devices – and think about it strategically would be our opinion.  Apps no doubt will continue to be developed, but they’ll find their place within retail strategy (and it will probably be less important than your average app developer will tell you today) because really it’s the mobile web that will explode.  In the short term, payment is going to be a key area to nail down in transactional eCommerce terms and those that thought about payment strategically in the first place should have little problem exploiting investments already made on their conventional eCommerce sites (which is what we were able to do for Halfords and ICI/Dulux).  And remember, where there’s payment there is also security to worry about and ‘NFC’ (near field communications) and ‘payment wallets’ and ‘mobile vouchers’ will muddy the confusing water for many.
  3. Yay. Internet Explorer 9
    We can all look forward to the release of IE9 (rumoured to be Q1), and along with it better support for CSS3 and HTML5.  It’s so easy optimising complex eCommerce sites for the myriad of browser types and versions that another big release won’t make much difference will it? Hmmmm (See point #9).
  4. Ahem. Yay.  Firefox 4
    I rest my case.  It too, is expected, to be released, this year.  The punctuation just doesn’t do this whole cross browser compatibility nightmare justice, but alas, our perspective on all this is covered in point #9.
  5. Web Standards become the standard.  All hail CSS3 and HTML5
    On the upside, with IE9 joining the list of browsers supporting CSS3 and HTML5, expect to see these standards even more widely used.  Interpretation aside, adhering to web standards in eCommerce is very important for many reasons (which we won’t go into detail about here) but two aspects that are very relevant are improved ‘Search’ and ‘Accessibility’.   Then again, add ‘Page weight’, ‘Ease of Maintenance’ and ‘Extensibility’ and benefits relating to the support for access by multiple devises – and everyone in eCommerce should get the message. Maybe grabbing more headlines during the year will be CSS3, mainly because it’s more designer-y (and designers write about this stuff a lot) but to be fair eCommerce site experience WILL become richer, deeper, with a greater sense of dimension than previously; in part (at least) due to CSS3. Whilst ‘text & box shadows’, ’rounded’ corners, ‘gradients’, ‘animations’ & ‘transitions’, a wider variety of fonts and multiple background images will get lots of design-led attention, on an eCommerce site all new design possibilities will need to be thoroughly A/B and multi-variate tested anyway (the results are always surprising) so lets not get too carried away for designs-sake without testing.
    Importantly, whilst HTML5 isn’t going to replace flash altogether, it will at least put it back where it reigns.  So for now and the foreseable future, HTML5 and Flash will simply co-exist.  Proof of that can be seen with one of our partner’s in eCommerce 10CMS, who is helping our retail clients leverage flash components on eCommerce sites in the area of interactive merchandising (with non flash alternatives also served) with stunning conversion results. Their approach in the future is that designers/merchandisers/whoever will be able to serve content in basic html, flash or HTML5. Choices.  Great.  So to say Flash will disappear in eCommerce because of HTML5 is pretty nonsense, but getting the balance right isn’t.
  6. Landing Page optimisation & cross channel optimisation
    Online marketing vs. offline marketing vs. traditional marketing vs. digital marketing.  Phew.  For many (usually vendors) it’s still a noisy battleground, but for some merchants who’ve moved away from ‘which’ tactic to pick, to establishing a genuine blend of activities, there’s big benefits to be had from measured, optimised and fully integrated activities.  A great example of where this is going to come home to roost before our very eyes in eCommerce circles during 2011 is the optimisation of (digital) landing pages from (offline) Quick Response (QR) codes on packaging, shelf labels and (whisper it) traditional direct mail. By encouraging bar code or QR code scanning a customer can be taken to an optimised page where they can read rich contextual product information, or in turn be encouraged (post purchase perhaps) to share product comments using audio, photos or video.  The real skill is of course integrating everything, everywhere – and those merchants that can get nearer to integrated marcoms across all customer touchpoints will benefit most.  So whilst we expect to see greater use of QR codes on products and adverts to send customers to (many more) product and offer landing pages in the first instance (it was just an example) – the real battle ground is going to be integrating cross channel activities and having a genuine handle on customer behaviour via cross-channel analytics.
  7. Tighter Social Network Integration
    Whilst we have already discussed Facebook in a little detail, overall there will be a surge toward tapping into established 3rd party social networks.  Clearly links (to-and-from) Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Blippy, Foursquare, Amazon, LinkedIn, Go Try It On, Shopkick and Group On and the like WILL have their merits (albeit sometimes merely volume based) but really that’s only half the social network story.  Whilst many major online shops have now realised that it is actually pretty difficult to establish their own social networks (e.g. HMV’s www.getcloser.com failed last year) many will persist; and for those that do so the rewards may well be significant.  Those that maintain their own social functionality (perhaps combined with simple hooks into established social networks as well) will tightly embed and integrate social networking directly into their main eCommerce sites using services like Pluck (which we have implemented before) or KickApps. ASOS is one retailer who is a long way down this road already within the eCommerce industry with its ASOS Life portal that combines blogs, forums, ideas as well as an online market place for clothing. But it’s not just fashion retailers getting in on the act – Sainsbury’s and ASDA have significant presence already too.
  8. Location Location Location
    First aired in May 2001, Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer are going from strength to strength on their hit show….oh hang on….From Gowalla to FourSquare, to ‘check-in’s’, ‘augmented reality’ and ‘mobile vouchers’ – location based offerings are rapidly becoming the eCommerce solution de-rigour.  But beyond the hype (and there’s been a lot) and the fact that 2011 might not even be the year for mainstream adoption, in eCommerce circles ‘location’ services will rapidly become a pretty important component of a genuinely joined up multi channel retail strategy.  With the potential to optimise retail operations in areas such as Supply Chain & Logistics, Merchandising and Store Operations, “location location location” takes on an altogether more complex, and potentially rewarding, topic for eCommerce executives in 2011.  And with smart phones likely to become practically de-facto during the next few years, delivering mobile solutions that leverage both ‘location’ and ‘proximity’  to deliver a better customer experience, are simply a must.  We can certainly see ‘check-in’ promotions happening more often already in the US (e.g. the first 500 checkins instore receiving a free prize or a free voucher) but actually campaigns that focus on the ‘volume’ of followers will be less important than those that centre on the number of ‘influential’ customers a brand has; and as the commercial value of ‘influence’ and ‘trust’ in the social web begins to manifest, merchants will not only need to time their run toward the social web correctly, but also get their aligment spot on.  Look out for Facebook ‘Deals’ in the near future in the UK, and ‘local’ being the location battleground (offers around the corner from home/work, or where you are right now), and the continued rise of Google Places.  And they’ll be a return of older names in the mix like ‘Yell’ who understand locality (and advertising and SEO) pretty damn well.
  9. The end of the browser compatibility war This year the focus on browsers will shift from negativity to positivity – and looking ‘forwards’ not ‘backwards’.  The web has changed, and it is no longer a one-size-fits-all arena and nothing like an eCommerce site brings that into sharp focus.  Complex, dynamic websites are going to look different on an iPad to an Android phone to a site viewed on IE8 etc etc.  Supporting different browsers simply does not mean that every eyeball should see the exact same thing.  And if anyone in eCommerce front end design has enough time and money to spend on IE6 vs. better desktop browsers and the host of mobile browsers then I’d be frankly pretty surprised. Here’s the rub.  If it looks different in different browsers its not a bug.  And lets take it one step further: Browser capabilities are to do with the browser maker – not the designer. It really is time to look forward not backward on browser compatibility.

    What’s missing from our list? Please make some suggestions in the comments section.

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JC Penney + Facebook = eCommerce $’s

I was really excited to see that JC Penney launched a Facebook store this week, a move that will be replicated by many merchants in 2011, as they clamour to increase sales as a result of the social networking sites huge popularity.

I only had time to take a quick glance, and I can’t say that I bothered to go too far through the buying process, but a few things jumped out at me immediately, both good and bad.  On the whole though, I think this type of Facebook application is a sure sign of things to come – so fair play to JC Penney being the first major US retailer to offer proper online shopping on Facebook as opposed to a simple fan page with links.

(Click on images to enlarge)

JC Penney Facebook Homepage

I’ll start with the negative stuff.  As an embedded application, the navigation is slightly ‘awkward’ feeling compared to a conventional eCommerce website.  That’s fairly understandable, plus I believe that as applications like this grow in popularity, users will learn that this is the way apps ‘work’ inside facebook on a desktop.  But the app also felt very ‘mobile-like’ and I wasn’t so keen on this.  I assume it’s this way because of the way the application needs to be served, plus the fact that Facebook is assessed so readily on mobile and smart phones already (so it’s been optimised for these users first and foremost).  But the downside is that content is pretty minimal and simple, and I have to be honest it feels a little strange when I’m on a beefy laptop as opposed to my Smart phone.

JC Penney Category Page

The JC Penney Facebook store claims to be ‘fully integrated’.  I am not sure what that means other than the application is fully ‘enclosed’, i.e. you don’t leave Facebook to browse, register, purchase or recommend or review items.  This is great – and not to be underestimated as an approach – as personally I am not so keen on the hand-off to another domain part way through a transaction and I’d guess I am not alone.

JC Penney Product Details Page

I did spot a few glitches (again possibly understandable given this is very new?) that suggest the ‘integration’ isn’t as complete as many customers might desire.  For instance, a few items I browsed and selected to purchase were not available to buy, although I wasn’t made aware of this when browsing.  That’s frustrating and doesn’t happen on decent conventional eCommerce stores.  And a few images are missing here and there, which combined with the skinny, ‘mobile-feel’ means that the experience isn’t amazing.  Plus I also noticed that with Google Chrome, a few of the alert messages appeared over the application navigation which was a little bit annoying.

But to be fair that’s all sour grapes.  On a positive note what I liked was the proposition consistency – ‘free shipping’ on overs over $69, ‘free shipping to store’, and ‘store returns’ supported.  This is a great confidence booster and possibly hints at further multi-channel integration to follow.  And I also liked the search capability and the faceted / filtered navigation facilities provided.  This gave me confidence and felt natural – a useful combination of a standard eCommerce site and a proper mobile website.   And the way you skip through pages was simple and pretty usable in my opinion (I’d much rather this approach than a page a mile long).  And furthermore a simple, but effective, solution for customer’s on the move is that it’s easy to find a traditional store with the ‘find a store’ facility.

JC Penney Shopping Bag

All in all I liked what I saw.  I’ve been waiting for Facebook to be more than a fan-page festival in terms of eCommerce – and here it is.  There is no doubt that M&S, ASOS, Arcadia Group and the like, will be following with their own facebook stores in the very near future simply because there are more than 550M facebookers out there.

Facebook is a channel that won’t be ignored.  And JC Penney is there at the forefront of it all.  Already with 1.3 million fans, they should be about to truly benefit from social commerce in the way that makes most businesses sit up and take notice.  Dollars in the cash register.  All hail f-Commerce!

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Facebook, Social Graphs and eCommerce

Social Graph

The Social Graph

I recently wrote about Facebook’s ‘Universal like Button’, but Mitchell Harper (co-founder of BigCommerce a provider of shopping cart software) has also written a nice post on Mashable.com which discusses Facebook’s .api based way of accessing what Facebook calls a user’s “Open Graph” ; the list of everything he or she has “liked” across the entire web.

In the post, Mitchell outlines the impact of the Open Graph for eCommerce.  These are his 5 predictions:

  1. Amazon won’t be the only online store with sophisticated personalization.
  2. Facebook will start driving more traffic to some online stores than Google.
  3. Google will adopt Facebook’s Open Graph protocol.
  4. The Open Graph is laying the foundation for wider adoption of Facebook Credits.
  5. E-commerce conversion rates will increase.

Go here to read more from Mitchell.  I’ll need to think about his predictions more.  But I’d like to make some observations:

  1. With such a key element of an eCommerce website being developed to leverage Facebook’s Open Graph .api  and their information [i.e. product browse and product Information pages] will the .api uptime be good enough for leading merchants and professional eCommerce solution builders? With these pages being highly optimised for conversion, merchants won’t want to lose credibility (and customers) at such a vital stage of an online purchase by displaying broken links, images and missing content.
  2. For this to ‘tip’ into the mainstream, will Facebook be able to satisfy those engaged in the privacy debate? Remember Beacon?  There is a massive difference in privacy ‘politics’ across different geographies and will Facebook be able to develop a flexible enough .api to satisfy the differing cultures and styles of eCommerce globally? I can’t help but think that the ‘opt-in’ vs. ‘opt-out’ issues will be infinitely more poignant when the outcome is information shared on 3rd party eCommerce sites.

Should these issues be negated, there is little doubt that those merchants that have been involved in delivering a Facebook presence for some time are in line to benefit first.  They will have established fan groups who are most likely to share their Open Graph.

And in terms of a single ‘big win’ in social-commerce, Facebook’s Open Graph appears to be an initiative worth analysing and assessing.  Just how quickly benefits or drawbacks manifest remains to be seen.  Yet somehow I can’t see too many leading merchants simply ‘waiting to see what happens’.  Facebook’s platform and reach is simply too powerful to ignore.

“Facebook Open Graph” image taken from “Facebook Cookbook, Building Applications to Grow Your Facebook Empire.” http://www.oreilly.de/catalog/9780596518172/toc.html

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eCommerce & Facebook’s Universal “Like button”

There are plenty of rumours that Facebook may be aiming to “weave itself more tightly into the fabric of the Web” with a universal “Like” button.  This facility, it is thought, will enable users to easily share their views on any site, product or service.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of eCommerce, and its clear that customers may benefit from this type of facility.  Have a look at  my mocked up screens. (Click to enlarge images).

Being able to see the universal number of ‘likes’ would in all likelihood be a useful gauge of overall interest in a product, and I’d be interested to see how users would contribute and be influenced by this type of information – particularly if they can see how many of their ‘friends’ have ‘liked’ the product in question.  Additionally how would this kind of service complement a series of more detailed authored reviews which are promoted by vendors such as Bazaarvoice, Power Reviews and Reevoo?

Clearly there’s an impact at the Facebook profile page too, here’s my mock up on that.  Clearly merchants would be very keen to continue there outreach into Facebook’s personal profiles.

Overall I think at face value this represents a win-win for customers and merchants, although I should imagine that there would be a degree of fear on behalf of merchants when it comes to introducing potential clicks aways from the online basket.

What is also exciting about this type of service is that it will enable Facebook to capture more and more detailed information about what customers like on the web; which may in turn lead to more intelligent targeted advertising.

All eyes will be toward Facebooks F8 Conference which takes place tommorow.

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The Future of Media in the Social Era – Question?

Just been reading through a presentation by Gartner on the future of media with respect to social networks. In this the article categorises users in terms of Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators.

The presentation then focuses on various age groups. In this it highlights that the younger generation is more focused on creating content, whereas the older generation are far more passive and are either inactive or just browse information. I wondered what the reason for this is? Is it the natural habit of one generation to use social networks? Or is there an alternative driver which forces this behaviour?

One example would be that the younger groups are more switched on to social networking and it is more natural for them to promote themselves via social networks as this is how they would naturally communicate to their friends and family through Facebook, Bebo, MySpace etc…

Conversely, it may be that the older groups have spent many years developing their own personal social networks based on their experiences through their working life. They have less of a need to promote themselves through an electronic social network. Whereas younger people have not had time to develop their personal network and therefore rely on business focussed social networks such as Linkedin, Plaxo or Xing as a form of self promotion.

These are just guesses at the reasons for the skew in behaviour. I guess the question is, why does this distinction matter? Well, if I were considering my social networking strategy, I would seriously consider who my target market was, and that would help to determine the most effective use of social networking. For example, if I were running SAGA who’s target market is the over 50′s, according to this study you should consider pushing information out through blogs to engage with your market. However if your target market is more youth based, then you perhaps want to look at more informal social networks like facebook and consider techniques such as understanding sphere of influence to help drive  your message.

So what is my point? Don’t just go head first into all aspects of social networking. Look at your target market, consider their online habits and then adopt a strategy that is aligned to those habits.

Oh and here is the link to the presentation, draw your own conclusions.

http://www.slideshare.net/jeremiah_owyang/the-future-of-media-in-the-social-era-presentation

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