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The Online Marketing Channel Part II – Website Platform

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In the early days of websites it was common practice for a web-master to custom create the site in programming languages such as C, C++, PHP, and Python. The first real cost effective technology breakthrough came in the late 1990’s with the advent of open-source content management systems (CMSs) for websites. These CMSs allowed retailers from all industries to utilize templates to  build and manage most of the ongoing content changes on their website from an administrative login at a much lower cost.

Part 2 of a 4 Part series

In the early days of websites it was common practice for a web-master to custom create the site in programming languages such as C, C++, PHP, and Python.  In these systems, each site was typically hard coded and there was often no administrative capability, thereby necessitating all website changes go through a webmaster to implement.  All updates made to the website were in effect custom programming changes, and making practical use of such websites was cost prohibitive for most retail jewelers.

The first real cost effective technology breakthrough came in the late 1990’s with the advent of open-source content management systems (CMSs) for websites. These CMSs allowed retailers from all industries to utilize templates to  build and manage most of the ongoing content changes on their website from an administrative login at a much lower cost. Examples of some of the more popular CMSs include Joomla, WordPress and Django. From there things continued to evolve, and  in the early 2000s the open source movement made its way to e-commerce website frameworks such as OSCommerce, Drupal, Zen Cart, and Magento.

The advantages in using the open-source software are (i) that it provides a comprehensive admin portal with many pre-built features and a well-documented programming framework; and (ii) that there are many skilled programmers available in all markets who can work with the open source code to achieve the design and functional objectives of the project.  All of these platforms provide administrative capabilities for controlling essential website functionality, including:

  • customer account management (CRM)
  • product catalog management
  • wish list functionality
  • responsive mobile-friendly website templates
  • social share links
  • content management system (CMS)
  • integrated blog
  • ecommerce and order management (optional)
  • built in analytics
  • on site search engine optimization (SEO) tools

The above functionality allows store personnel to meaningfully engage with their customers online, which is essential to generating more sales. If your website does not provide all these features then it is time to look for a new one–their importance cannot be overstated.

Having these features allows a retailer to do quite a few things with the website that they otherwise could not. For example, the CRM can store basic profile information about your customers if they choose to provide it, including their name, e-mail, birthdate, and anniversary.  Combining this information with a wishlist feature allows you to know what engagement rings Ms. Smith is interested in or what fashion bracelet Mrs. Jones wants for her birthday. A responsive website design allows Ms. Jones and Mrs. Smith easy viewing from all mobile devices, and the social share buttons allow them to share the items they like with their friends, thereby providing additional no cost advertising and promotion of your store and its products.

The CMS and BLOG allow you to provide fresh content updates to the website which, when coupled with basic SEO practices, greatly increases your exposure within search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing.  The analytics measure every action taken on the website and show you how your customers got there in the first place, what they clicked on, how long they stayed, the devices they used to view your website, and more.  

Sounds easy, right?  Wrong. While open-source software is free to use, there are often significant barriers that need to be overcome to provide this functionality. A jeweler still needs a fair amount of custom programming to be done and there can be significant costs to modify the core code base to meet a jewelers online technology needs.

One of the biggest disadvantages of using open-source software is that it can be  difficult to get what you want in an easy-to-use format. Magento sounds great, but the admin is very complex as it is designed for serious e-commerce operations, which are not the norm for most of today’s independent retail jewelers.  WordPress has an easy to use CMS, but it is not designed for showcasing inventory in a format that allows for wishlists, product details, etc, and it has many security holes which require regular updating.

Having worked with open source software such as Magento and WordPress for many years, one of the other hidden problems is that the design and functional customization required to develop a luxury retail jewelry website typically break the platform’s ability for forward compatibility and easy updates.  In essence, these open source websites become islands with no easy way to stay connected to many the advances of the open-source development community build. Because of that, store owners are forced to rebuild their website when new features become available, or spend a hefty sum trying to get those features installed on their current site.

However, the biggest concern with using an open-source platform is that they lack the following specialized features that all retail jewelers need:

  • Virtual diamond search so that when a store sales associate does not have the right diamond in the showcase, he can go to his own store’s website to search his vendors inventory instead of going to the back office to make a phone call, logging into Rapnet, IDEX Online or a diamond dealer website, and then printing the certificate or waiting for one to be sent to him.  
  • Point-of-sale product data integration to automatically add in-store items to the website catalog.  Remember showing products on your website is guaranteed to drive client enquiries about items via wishlist, email share, social share, phone call, and/or walk-in inquiry.  And showing products which you have in stock is always the surest and fastest way of satisfying a customer inquiry.
  • Brand catalog product integration so that your authorized brands control product selection, pricing and availability of their items from within your website.

Many vendors and third parties provide plug-in modules to add the above functionality to your website, but then you have to manage multiple accounts, multiple passwords and a hodge podge of website technology that often doesn’t integrate well.  The more modules you add, the messier it gets.

My advice is that if you have a modern responsive website, do not embed vendor modules into it.  There are many plug-in modules out there that vendors push on their authorized retailers. When they first came out these solutions were nice because they added the vendor’s catalog directly into your website. But as platform website technology has gotten better in recent years, the disadvantages of these embeddable solutions has come to outweigh their benefits.  The inventory showcased in the embeddable links are not easily connected into the website wishlist, CMS, or shopping cart, and items in the embeddable links are not searchable from the website search box because they run from a different database. Worst of all, these modules all look and function differently from each other so it leads to a very inconsistent and often unsatisfactory user experience for customers visiting your site. So the next time a vendor pushes their embeddable link solution on you, it would be better to ask them for their product data feed to eliminate the above disadvantages.

The real breakthrough for jewelers will be the widespread adoption of a true multi-tenant website platform specifically customized for retail jewelers. Such platforms overcome all of the disadvantages associated with open-source website development by tying many parties and many systems together to provide an economy of scale to the website development, maintenance, use and upgrade process.  The “parties” in this case refers to vendors who provide their digital catalogs into the platform database for centralized distribution to its authorized retailers who access these digital catalogs on a permission basis from within their own website. The “parties” also refers to point of sale companies who need to build data bridges to the website platform so that products, customers and wish lists can be synchronized.

With a properly built website and the right technology in place, in the next installments of this series we’ll be ready to get into website data and then some specific advice about how to use the online marketing channel to drive business to the bottom line.

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