Ebizmarts – The future of retail

Ebizmarts – The future of retail

Technology is driving an unprecedented wave of innovation in retail. However, identifying which technologies will have a lasting influence, and which technologies are just ‘hype’ is not always easy.

On top of this, consumers’ expectations and behaviour are constantly evolving, meaning that creating great customer experiences both online and offline has become incredibly important. According to Cisco, 86% of customers will spend more money for a better shopping experience.

To put it simply, when it comes to ecommerce this means that putting an electronic version of your store catalogue on your company’s website doesn’t cut it as an ecommerce solution anymore. Even click-and-collect, unheard of not long ago, is quickly becoming the minimum standard for customers’ delivery expectations.

Moreover, the high street continues to be relevant to the customer experience, especially with the proliferation of pop-up and concept stores. Indeed, for retailers, providing in-store experiences that distinguish your brand from the competition is crucial.

So, as more and more retailers look for ways to distinguish themselves, it is important now more than ever to create a unified online and offline experience for your customers.

Whilst ‘omnichannel’ may be perceived as just another buzzword, it presents a key opportunity for retailers to create unique experiences for their customers.

Although the term ‘omnichannel’ has a number of meanings, overall the term revolves around merging your different sales touch points in order to put your customers at the centre of the retail experience.

Today, customers come to expect their experience in-store to be the same as online, especially in terms of inventory, product knowledge and pricing, as well as ease of check out. Meaning that even if you are an SMB with one physical location, omnichannel is something you cannot ignore.

At the end of the day, the retailers that will thrive will be the ones who allow customers to shop when, how and where they want.

For example, take click-and-collect. As the proportion of sales fulfilled in-store that were ordered online increase, you now have the opportunity to upsell to collecting customers. Meaning, your in-store customer engagement needs to be adapted.

This is where Magento comes in. Magento makes it possible for you to stay ahead of your competitors through customisable web options and extensions that connect your digital and physical stores.

Indeed, Magento, the world’s most flexible ecommerce platform, allows retailers to achieve commerce without limits.  Being fully open source, the ability to adapt and be nimble to changing consumer behaviour is becoming increasing important, so having the right foundations in place is essential.  Building on these foundations, a true omnichannel architecture can be achieved.

Overall, retail has come a long way from the traditional brick-and-mortar store, and although the advent of ecommerce led many to predict the demise of the high street, for retailers, it is no longer a question of online or in-store. Today top retailers are striving towards:

  • Clienteling – enhanced store assisted selling
  • Queue bustings
  • Apple experience checkout
  • Endless Aisle
  • Multiple in-store shipping options (takeaway, ship to store, ship to home)
  • Buy Online, return to store
  • Inventory visibility across estate
  • Ship from Store (enable store inventory to be accessed online)
  • In-store Carrier Integration

Four years ago, we at ebizmarts realised the importance of merging different retail channels and as a result ebizmarts Point of Sale (POS) for Magento was born.

Coupled with Magento, ebizmarts POS allows you to take Magento into your physical environment. The POS enables retailers to provide an omnichannel experience via a native iOS experience to access Magento, anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

To find out more about how ebizmarts POS can take your Magento operations in-store, visit https://pos.ebizmarts.com

How to prepare your website for Easter

How to prepare your website for Easter

Now that the daffodils are out and the days are getting warmer and longer, it’s time to think about Easter. Easter isn’t just about egg hunts but about holidays, entertaining and getting ready for the summer months. This type of event is a great opportunity to boost your sales by adapting your communications and your site’s content. Here are some ideas on how to do it.

easter_emailCreate your Easter email marketing campaigns

Think about what you want to say and when then plan your campaigns.  Whilst peppering your emails with pretty pictures of eggs and bunnies might be fun and attract attention, that shouldn’t be the main objective. Start by letting customers know what you can offer to address their Easter needs (chocolate, that holiday outfit, the vital ingredients for Easter Sunday lunch, etc.) Next make sure to let them know what shipping options you offer and when is the latest they can order by.  And finally, don’t forget to segment your emails.  Not everyone wants the same thing so personalise, personalise, personalise.

Update other marketing campaigns such as paid search

Create a separate campaign for Easter related offers so as not to confuse Easter related buys with normal day to day trading. This will allow you to pick up traffic from people with Easter on their mind and also make it easier for you to measure the results of your efforts as well.

Create an Easter landing page

Once you have created your campaigns, where are you going to send all this traffic?  Create a landing page showcasing all the Easter related things that you have to offer. You can organize this page as a content page containing Easter products or as a separate category on your website. What kind of products can be included in this Easter page? Anything goes, baskets, ribbons, clothes, kitchenware’s, books, etc.  As I said, the Easter holidays are not just about chocolate.

Think about gifting, offers and promotions

Easter is a time when people are more likely to spend time with their loved ones so don’t forget about the gifting angle.  Offer free gift wrapping if you can.  Create gift bundles if you can. And finally, offer promotions if possible.  You will after all be competing with everyone else for those Easter purchases.

Shopify Scripts & Checkout API

Shopify Scripts & Checkout API

Introducing Shopify Scripts

Imagine what you could do if you ran your own custom code right on Shopify’s servers. Shopify Scripts gives you the power to control your online store’s business logic – the conditional behaviors of your online store; giving you previously unheard-of levels of customization that starts at your customer’s first touch.

Shopify Scripts frees you from the headaches of managing infrastructure, provisioning servers and optimizing networks, giving you the freedom to focus on writing the code that will help you grow. We maintain the servers, you focus your energy and budget on building a world-class business.

“Shopify Scripts have allowed us to build out features that we’ve always wanted, in a truly customized way. On the front end, ease of use for the customer is increasing, and on the backend we’re seeing that correlate into more conversions and orders. We see scripts as the missing piece to Shopify’s already robust platform.” – Russell Saks, Campus Protein

We’ve created the following script templates for you to get started:

  • Percentage (%) off a product
  • Amount ($) off a product
  • Percentage (%) and amount ($) off a product
  • Tiered discounts
  • Buy one get one free (BOGO)

Get Shopify Scripts here.

How Are Merchants Using Shopify Scripts?

Automatically include a free gift with a specific item purchase, like MMAWarehouse does with their Gracie Rashguard top & free water bottle promotion.

Automate a percent-off discount with a purchase combo, like Henge Docks and their 10% discount with the purchase of two vertical MacBook docks.

Give price breaks on multiple purchases, like Greats.

This is only the beginning.

If you’re a Shopify Plus customer, you can explore the Shopify Scripts documentation, find several template scripts available in this Github repo, and talk to your Account Manager to expand your store’s functionality today.

If you’re not a Shopify Plus customer, now is a great time to get in touch.

The New Sales Channel SDK and Checkout API

Shopify’s Checkout API and Sales Channel SDK is huge step forward towards Shopify’s vision of “building for the long term” making it possible to enable commerce anywhere you can imagine, while keeping all of your data tucked away neatly and securely in your Shopify Admin.

Magento: custom website design or theme?

Magento: custom website design or theme?

We are often asked why we do not use pre-built “themes” for Magento implementations. Surely it would be quicker and cheaper? For those in the dark, a “theme” is a set of pre-packaged files that customise the layout, design and in some cases the functionality of a website. To quote WordPress: “themes are files that work together to create the design and functionality of a […] site. Each Theme may be different, offering many choices for site owners to instantly change their website look.”

Simplistically, the advantages seem wonderful:

  • They are often free or very cheap
  • Implementation is very quick: simply download it and install
  • They already work (well, provided you are using standard Magento, out of the box)
  • Magento themes and designs seem too good to be true; they are moderately priced, responsive, and usually offer some type of global customization (such as control over colours and fonts)

There’s a dazzling and confusing array of websites that offer pre-designed Magento Themes. However, these themes may not be the best fit for you, and can actually cost you more in the long run.  There are, for sure, a lot of poor quality themes out there – even those that have sold 1000s of copies.

At Screen Pages, we are in the business of designing “bespoke” websites which reflect the brand, product range, marketing and promotional activity, fulfilment and customer service of a business – exactly. This inevitably involves careful and creative thought, analysis, planning and – critically – customisation. There are no technical reasons that we don’t use themes: in every project, our design team works very closely with the development team to ensure that the end product will be one cohesive site, rather than it feeling like a design was forced into place and the inevitable compromises that would bring. The ability to customise an e-commerce website in whatever way required is in fact one of the biggest advantages of Magento itself.

Themes and “customisation”

Themes rarely account for any customization you may require, or want to add in the future – as your online trade evolves and grows. Most themes are based around standard “out-of-the-box” Magento and only style the main Magento pages (home page, category page, basket, check-out and account pages). It would be a miracle if they worked on any additional or bespoke pages you have (e.g. catalogue requests, store locators etc). An area of particular sensitivity would be any customisation in the checkout process.

Generally, a Magento theme will not take into consideration any customisation or unique functionality, which could include visual/display needs (product information/representation, sliders, JavaScript effects) or other product pricing, grouping/fulfilment options.

Most Magento websites we deploy may use at least 5-10 third party modules/extensions: complications may arise with the compatibility of 3rd party modules. It is often one of our biggest challenges to get individual third party modules to function, operate and perform together, let alone entire designs.

Themes and the development process

When we work, our custom designs are given to trained, managed (& Magento-certified) developers with all of the imagery, CSS styles and layouts needed to create the front-end website code (CSS sprites & SCSS where required) and to provide a visual reference for the development process. Recreating this from an off-the-shelf theme would be time-consuming. Similarly we are quickly able to create new elements (and customise those designs) that match the original design.

Example of detailed design deliverables, for custom design development

As a professional (and certified) Magento partner and developer, perhaps one of the biggest concerns we have about building a significant, commercially sensitive e-commerce website using third-party software is around warranty, liability and overall quality control. When we buy and install a third party extension, we have no idea about the underlying code that makes up the theme. It is a real possibility that by installing these themes, we would “corrupt” a Magento website with code that may not been well written, audited, documented or worse, could even pose a security risk. There is a general inability to check the quality of the underlying templates and CSS & supporting Javascript prior to use in order to de-risk the initiative.

Themes could only ever serve as a base to a “mature” website: we are 99% certain that no theme will match any clients’ requirements in entirety and we would quickly sink into the realms of uncertainty: our current design and specification process is aimed at taking the questionable unknowns out of a project scope, so that we can offer a contractually-bound fixed price project fee with the highest levels of warranty, backed by high service levels and a quality ongoing support and update process.

Themes and ongoing support & development

Finally, when Screen Pages designs and implements a custom design for a client, you will have access to all the underlying design files so that should a change need to be made, everything will be readily available, filed and stored in a professional repository and software version control system.

Some clients will also be concerned by intellectual property rights: Screen Pages contracts to give the intellectual property of the entire website and design to the client – if a theme were used, there may be restrictions in this regard.

Nothing is constant but change. You will want to make modifications.  There might be no or little support and once any form of customisation, change or update has been made, it is difficult to decipher where the buck (liability to fix) may stop. Magento itself introduces changes: some theme providers might not be able to keep up with Magento’s development.  As your website trades, you will be studying its performance with a view to optimising conversions by analysing customer journeys (through analytics, usabiity studies or customer surveys). It is a given that this will drive constant (but generally minor) change: conversion rate optimization usually depends on your marketing, customers, product and overall messaging & proposition – you will wish to have freedom to make enhancements without risk or compromise.

Having a custom website built and supported by a properly capitalised, well-structured organisation will give you the peace of mind knowing that your Magento implementation will accommodate everything (and we mean everything) you want now and in the future.

Summary

  • Screen Pages designs and builds custom e-commerce websites that reflect and amplify uniquely and absolutely a business’ brand, product range, proposition and marketing activity. Themes do not do this
  • As professional and certified developers, we would be concerned about code quality, extensibility and maintainability of a theme
  • Where any form of customisation is required (& there generally is for our kinds of clients), there is a potential for risk
  • As a retailer, you will want intellectual property, warranties and high service levels – in practice as well as contractually
  • Our design and specification process is designed to remove uncertainty – not introduce it (in a fixed price project with a clear milestones).
E-commerce responsive design in Magento: the pros & cons

E-commerce responsive design in Magento: the pros & cons

Summary: Specific mobile support for e-commerce websites has economic return. What are the pros and cons for Magento websites of a responsive design as opposed to a separate mobile optimised store?

First, let’s start with a definition of “responsive design”. According to Google, “responsive web design, responds to the needs of the users and the devices they’re using. The layout changes based on the size and capabilities of the device. For example, on a phone, users would see content shown in a single column view; a tablet might show the same content in two columns.”

The man given the credit for coming up Responsive Design as an approach is Ethan Marcotte in A List Apart [see http://alistapart.com/article/responsive-web-design/]

I think we can assume – at the very least for the purposes of this article – that some kind of mobile site is a “good thing”:  in a recent mobile traffic study,  sites with mobile support converted over twice as well (1.31% versus 0.55%), with a 4%+ reduction in the bounce rate. Thus,  we can deem the alternative to be a “mobile-optimised” version of the website. In the Magento world, that means a separate store (in the same Magento instance), with its own URL, catalogue and set-up.

Responsive design

Force4’s responsive e-commerce website


So what is the business rationale for a responsive e-commerce website?

1. One website, many devices
The most obvious advantage of responsive design is that a responsive online store can provide a great user-experience from the same, single website across tablets and mobiles.

Let’s take the following example. Someone searches for a product on their smartphone during a lunch break at work. They find an online shop that has the product they’re looking for, and decide to continue researching this product on the same site when they get home. Except, when they get home, they will use their desktop instead of their smartphone. Later on, when purchasing the product, they’ll probably be using a tablet.

If the site in this example is responsive, this person will have a positive user experience when transitioning from mobile to desktop because they will view the same site on their desktop as they did on their smartphone. On the other hand, if the site is a dedicated mobile site, this person may become frustrated with the fact that they have to locate the desktop version of the site, then possibly go through a different process to find the right product all over again.

2. Easier to Manage
Having a separate desktop and mobile site theoretically requires having separate catalogues, product information & banners, marketing campaigns (emails, SEO, affiliates – which site do you send the traffic to?). Whilst in Magento it is straightforward to mark your content (I use the term in its broadest sense, to include copy, data, images, e-commerce operating settings and website paramaters) for a specific “store”, there is still a process to go through to deploy the same content.

It is fair to say that the reduction in content management effort will reduce the complexity of managing your website.

Sample CSS with “media query” to determine behaviour on different screens

3. More chance of your marketing “reaching” your customer

According to Campaign Monitor, 42% of all emails are opened on mobile devices. The Pew Research Internet Project discovered “67 percent of mobile owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls – even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.” No matter the study you examine, one thing is clear: whilst your marketing may be sensitive to device size, it will not know what kind of device will be used to take action.

Even if your email is mobile friendly, your landing page also has to be as well. A mobile-optimised email sending the visitor to a desktop website will not prove effective.

One study from KISSmetrics reported that 90% of people will delete emails if they don’t open or click through properly; this is further exacerbated by the fact that click-rates decrease on mobile devices when compared to laptops in the first instance.

Since customers are regularly going back and forth on devices it’s generally helpful if the landing page works equally well on desktop and mobile.

4. Social is mobile

Social media has gone mobile, which you may have noticed. How important is mobile for social media users? According to a study from ComScore, 55% of social media consumption happens on a mobile device.

What this means is that people will share and view content on mobile devices: what’s the point of sharing content on social media if it’s not compatible with mobile devices. Again, if a website isn’t functioning on a mobile device, users get frustrated and leave. High bounce rates lead to low conversion rates.

5. Google says so

With a massive market share, when Google speaks, search marketers listen. Google states that responsive web design is its recommended mobile configuration, and even goes so far as to refer to responsive web design as the industry best practice.

Here’s the bible from Google. https://developers.google.com/webmasters/smartphone-sites/

Because responsive design sites have one URL and the same HTML, it’s easier for Google to crawl, index, and organize content. A separate mobile site which has a different URL and different HTML forces Google’s busy spiders to crawl and index multiple versions of the same site.

Additionally, Google prefers responsive web design because content that lives on one website and one URL is much easier for users to share, interact with, and link to than content that lives on a separate mobile site.

Ultimately, Google realizes that unhappy people will go elsewhere, meaning that bounce rates increase and the site will not rank on mobile searches. In other words, it’s just bad for business for both Google and all of the websites that aren’t taking advantage of the benefits of responsive design.

At the end of the day, it is much easier for your target audience to find your business online if you only have a single home address, that is, a single website URL.

Watco’s responsive e-commerce website

What Magento says

As a Magento Gold partner and specialist, we are pleased that Magento itself has invested in responsive design – now reducing time to market for responsive work. Prior to this, all the coding for different devices had to be hand-coded into the website HTML.

Here’s Magento’s own words on the subject:

“Responsive is the best mobile solution for many merchants because they can invest in one site that serves customers using any device, while ensuring a consistent brand experience on every device. A single responsive site is less costly to develop and requires less time and effort to maintain than different themes for different sites and different devices.

Responsive is also good for boosting conversion, with a shopping cart and checkout designed to work in any environment and on any screen size. And having a responsive site makes it easy for mobile device-using customers to move from an email offer, for instance, to check out.

All of this is good news for merchants aiming to take advantage of the explosive growth in mobile commerce. eMarketer predicts even more growth ahead, with mobile commerce growing from 19 percent of retail ecommerce sales in 2014 to 26 percent in 2017 in the US, and from 24 percent of retail ecommerce sales to 35 percent in the same time frame in the UK.

There are SEO advantages too, because responsive is Google’s recommended approach to mobile optimization and because it allows merchants to focus all their content energy on a single site. Great content that supports SEO also engages customers, provides a richer site experience and can reduce bounce rates.”

Planning a responsive project

Smashing Magazine has put together a useful guide on how to plan a responsive project [see [http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/03/19/how-to-plan-your-next-mobile-e-commerce-website]

Here’s a quick summary:

Putting together a mobile e-commerce website is a multidisciplinary task that encompasses business management, design, development and marketing. Whatever your agency’s size, create a boilerplate process that you can follow for all websites but that you can adapt to each project’s specifics. In the planning stage of this process, cover the following:

• Who are you designing for (i.e. your customers)? How would they use your website & how do you send them there? What are their buying habits, and what drives them to buy?
• Create designs that are suited to mobile devices, including button design, font size and so on.
• Consider what content and functions should be where on each target screen size
• Generate wireframes with details for all key pages (home page, category page, product page, basket and checkout).

Planning in this way will help you deliver an e-commerce website that is well optimized for mobile, that is targeted at your client’s customers and that converts more visitors into buyers.

Donald Russell's mobile optimised site

Donald Russell’s “mobile-optimised” e-commerce website

Are there any downsides?

Cost

The obvious challenge is cost. Bespoke responsive design and development implies that there is at least two versions of every element on every page: things don’t just end up in the “right” place without consideration.

Whilst the availability of responsive templates from Magento reduces some of the development work, there is always going to be some overhead in customising the size and location of each function, image or content area.

Typically, responsive design can nearly double the design effort and add up to 50% to the overall development effort. QA and testing is effectively at least doubled, because every page needs to be checked and tested for all the target device sizes (not considering all the permutations available in the Android world).

It’s the same site

Some retailers may not wish to have identical product, categorisation/navigation and content on their mobile site – for perfectly sensible marketing and commercial reasons. For example, their catalogues are so large or their product information/configuration is so complex that it just won’t work well on a small screen. Alternatively, their customers’ prime mobile usage is about last minute purchases inspired by promotional emails – not browsing or research.

In these cases, a separately configured mobile-optimised website may perform better.

Speed

People worry about the impact of “big” single pages which include all the HTML, code and content for all known device sizes. Theoretically, they have a point and one that becomes particularly important when considering how customers might interact with your website through a comparatively slower mobile data connection.

However, performance in our Magento world is largely dealt through proper and optimised configuration and hosting. For example, use of cache-ing systems can dramatically improve page load times.

Thinking responsively

E-commerce managers and developers need to think responsively whenever any decision that touches the website is made. Many folk still overlook those small screens – old habits die hard. Content needs to be considered vertically (as opposed to horizontally).

Particular attention needs to be paid to the technical tasks of content creation. Old style HTML tables won’t work: website managers need to use DIVs. Fixed image dimensions will break responsive designs.

Summary

Given the increasing proliferation and range of different sized devices, it clearly makes sense to deploy a mobile offering. The payoff is easily calculated and predictably returned.

The debate is around how: do you go responsive design or mobile-optimised? The former is clearly a more strategic approach, as you are laying the technical foundations for all sorts of different device sizes and planning for a more manageable online presence. However, companies may baulk at the budgets involved, particularly if they have an existing website with which they are happy. Should that be the case, our advice is that if a re-platform or significant redesign/re-brand is being planned – making it responsive will be a time saver and much the best long-term decision.

By Roger Willcocks

How to choose a Magento agency

How to choose a Magento agency

We are approached on average once a day about our services. Some of these approaches are well-considered, structured and exhibiting excellent attention to detail – well on the path to success. Some are destined to fail. Judging by what some businesses tell us about their experience of other developers, some fairly shocking work is conducted in the wild west of the Magento universe.

Magento has quickly become one of the most popular e-commerce platforms available today, fuelled largely because of the richness of its functionality and its “open source” nature. This popularity, however, means that many web developers and companies have adopted the Magento platform without investing in the proper planning, organisation and support that e-commerce software can require.

Many merchants have commissioned their websites on the “cheap and cheerful” Magento bandwagon: when the websites are live, the problems begin. “It’s easy to build a website if you don’t have to support it.” You may then find yourself without the appropriate Magento resources and expertise, and cut off from the fast-evolving world of e-commerce.

Some Magento websites have been developed in haste without:

– consideration for performance and scaleability
– investing in a support and maintenance service (with ongoing handholding)
– professional development standards (for example with hard-coding)
– long-term attention to client’s needs for flexibility and ease of maintenance
– proper study of Magento systems design, architecture and best practice
– implementation of security guidelines for cardholder data protection

After a while, you get a feel for what’s the best way of going about choosing an agency to execute your Magento e-commerce work. This article will help you make your needs more concrete and how to go about choosing an appropriate agency to meet them.

1. First, have the right team in place at your end
It seems obvious to say, but often it’s the “wrong” person who leads the process. E-commerce is a unique blend of the marketing, technical and analytical as well as a sound understanding of your operational processes and workflow (backed by sound planning and management) – all these factors should come into play when determining your requirements and their fulfilment.

Either have someone on board who knows what to do and has done this before or, failing that, hire a consultant to help.

2. Be clear about what you want
Write it down and be specific. If you don’t know what you want, then you won’t know when you’ve got it. If you are unsure what you want/need, look at your most successful competitor’s website and use the features on their site as a reference. For example, how many ways do you want to allow your customers to pay? Should they be able to add gift messages? Do you want to accept orders from outside the UK? And so on.

Also, think through your list of requirements and how you might want to manage them within your business, i.e. how much time do you have as a business to devote to managing this part of the site.
A simple way to do this is to write down what elements (& moving parts) that you’d like on each material page of the website. Then, write down the processes for fulfilling orders and delivering customer service.

Incidentally, for the naïve or uneducated, it’s very difficult to understand what is happening behind the scenes on a website page on an e-commerce website because there are so many dynamic elements, business rules, logic and algorithms as well as general website parameters.

3. Set a (rough) budget
Set a budget that is appropriate for your anticipated activity & sales. It would be ridiculous to spend £10k on a website that does £10m per annum or £50k where your aspiration is £100k of sales. If you have no idea of what commissioning a new site costs, phone a few different agencies and ask them what their average project price is for a new e-commerce website. This should give you a few pointers. We try to understand client budgetary comfort range quite early on.

As a guide, our clients spend between 2% and 5% of their online revenues on e-commerce development and operations (excluding marketing costs). This obviously excludes initial capital costs which are linked (in our case) to the amount of time that goes into the project. At Screen Pages, fully managed design and build projects can take 60-200 days, depending on the functional scope of the project: we know, we’ve done 300 or so since 2000.

4. Who’ll be working on your project?
Many disciplines are involved in putting together an e-commerce website and chances are that the person you’re dealing with won’t be involved in its delivery. You should take pains to understand the project team and the different roles involved.

In our case, there’ll be an account manager who lead any commercial and marketing issues; a project manager who’ll own day-to-day operational and functional delivery, managing both client-side resources as well as internal agency staff; creative/design lead who’ll provide mock-ups of what you’ll be getting; QA/testing staff who should make sure you are getting an error-free, quality product which won’t waste all your time spotting problems that should have been cleared up before it came to you.

You also need to arrive at an understanding of how the work will be managed day-to-day, including deadlines, key milestones, sign off stages etc. Once you’re clear about who’s involved, you should be seeking to understand what relevant experience they have and how much involvement they will have on your project.

Rough breakdown of where the time goes on a Magento project

On the other side of the fence, understand that you have your own properly resourced, internal project team and project manager as well with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. If your internal effort is not clear, this should be discussed and agreed with the agency. In our experience, lack of client testing is the biggest risk to project success – especially where there is integration with back offices for order processing or bespoke, custom functionality.

The second biggest client-side challenge is preparation of data. Tens of products can be reasonably managed manually. But when it comes to many thousands with lots of inter-relating data (variants and attributes) associated with each, getting the data import process right is non-trivial and will probably involve several iterations.

A related word of warning: stay away from agencies who outsource their development. We tried this eight years ago and superficially costs are less, but the quality is poor & management costs escalate. We find life is a lot easier when we are all working in the same office, where you can step around the corner and talk through issues – especially when it’s a piece of work that’s important to you.

5. How will I know what I am getting for my money?
You will only pay for work done completely and properly and your agency will expect paying for this work. So you will need to make sure there’s a water-tight definition of the scope of work. As an agency will generally price on the amount of time spent on your project and that time is a direct reflection of the functionality required and promised, it’s best to be clear about that!

Our method for doing this is to prepare and share rather a large spreadsheet that contains every task and “function point”, with an associated time and cost. Not only is this transparent, but it is reasonably accurate. It also includes allocation for more intangible deliverables such as quality assurance & acceptance testing.

You might also consider how mistakes and omissions are handled. Given the fact that you speak “retail” language and we speak “agency”, some of the detail can be lost in translation or quite simply forgotten or misapprehended. Find out what happens in those cases.

Later, we produce detailed mock-ups of all the material pages on your website (not just the home page). Coupled with this, you’ll be presented with a detailed functional specification which explains how every element on every page gets there and is managed.

In our world, you should ask questions on all this until you’re happy it’s what you want and we will ask you to approve it and sign it off.

6. Is it cheap?
Unfortunately, too many are seduced by an attractive headline price (usually a compelling round number). This is quite wrong: it’s not about the price or day rate – it’s about the amount of time involved. An accurate assessment of the effort involved is what matters, multiplied by the day rate.

You may be aghast at day rates north of £400, but the differential usually covers the overheads of running a professional, well-run business with experienced management.

Think about the kind of service you want/expect as well as the kind of service you need. There is a difference and you pay for what you get. Whether it’s advice, warranties, turnaround times, quality or account management – it all comes with a value.

7. How big & established is the Magento agency?
Granted size doesn’t matter, provided your agency can handle the demands of the new clients it takes on and the ongoing support and update commitments of its existing clients. You should look for critical mass: 1-2 Magento developers will not cut the mustard. You might get what you want on the initial development project, but when they start work on somebody else’s project, how can you ensure you get the service or support you need. An agency with only a few developers will not be able to cope.

Experience counts for a lot, especially with Magento which has over 2 million lines of code which will soon be all yours and in the tender care of your agency in this open source world. How many years has your agency been working with Magento and how many sites have they built or taken on?

Of course, there is an obvious third party verification here: Magento itself. Magento operates a formal partnership programme with a system of certification. To qualify for partnership – a formal agreement – a partner must have conducted a certain number of Magento implementations and have a number of “certified” developers, which means they’ve had to sit an exam and the agency would have to invest in their training.

 
You can check Screen Pages’s partner credentials on the Magento website.

Here’re a few additional questions which might help you clarify.

– Do they have examples of businesses of your size, type traffic and revenues? There is a question of relevance and “appropriateness”.
– Have they built sites on the same version of Magento that your site will be built on?
– Have they built responsive and mobile sites?
– Have they delivered integration?
– Have they built multi-currency or international sites?

In short, can your intended provide examples of successful delivery of capabilities that our dear to your heart? Look at the client list & check they are “like you”. Building sites that take 10 orders a year is not you, nor is John Lewis.

For the record, Screen Pages has been working on Magento since early 2009. Here’s our story with Magento.

8. What happens after it’s built?
Building websites is the easiest thing we do. The hardest thing is supporting & extending them. After an e-commerce website is made live, that’s when the whole question of service and support kicks in. It’s fair to say there are always a few issues and niggles that nobody spots, let alone the snags that come up as you manage products, prices, promotions, content & data on your site on a daily basis.

You need “organisation” to deliver this with processes for handling support, with manpower & management. Make sure your agency has a proper agreement with structured, documented processes for support, maintenance, problem resolution, warranties etc. Check this is written down in their contract: a sensible and embracing agreement is a good sign of a professional outfit.

Ask how many support questions are asked each month and how many are dealt.

At Screen Pages, under our standard agreement, we offer a 30 day warranty on all issues after the site is made live and an unlimited warranty on any issue we’ve introduced.

9. What other services does the agency provide?
This is question is a two-edged sword. You may feel it’s convenient to have your marketing, SEO, affiliate management etc all under one roof. Or you may feel that you want a specialist rather than a jack-of-all-trades.

Our view is that it is much better to pick best-of-breed agencies for each service you need: how can you expect the in-depth service/expertise/back up if there’s only 1-2 people in each discipline?

We have taken the approach that it’s better to work with experts – we have established relationships with consultants and agencies whose services are “appropriate” for our kinds of clients.

An important exception to this is hosting. This can be a challenge with the monster that is Magento: a few Google searches will reveal the need for careful consideration of its configuration, performance and optimisation. It’s unlikely that you will not know what to ask for or even comprehend what you’ve been told about cacheing, secure FTP, PHP ini files, MySQL etc. Let us take care of all that for you. We have learned the hard way how to optimise our Magento websites and make them work fast. (Here’s how we host Magento websites.)

And finally, two final commercial suggestions that may be worth more than the others combined:

10. Take references
This is obvious, but incredibly often overlooked. (Here’s some of our e-commerce clients).

11. Check out their financials
Again, it goes without saying, but take a look at their accounts and understand where an agency’s business comes from and its profitability.

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