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An eCommerce Case Study: Part 2 – eCommerce Project Mechanics

This post is a continuation (read Part 1 here) of the interview from April 21, 2015 between PML co-founders Bechara Jaoudeh and Skip Shuda. Bechara is sharing his experience as Account Executive on Bush Refrigeration, one of PML’ s earliest eCommerce clients. In this segment, Bechara and Skip discuss the mechanics of an eCommerce project. Part 3 talks about the results of the move to eCommerce

Skip: In terms of the size of this project…do you have a sense of how many products had to be converted into an eCommerce product listing format?

Bechara: For a company like Bush Refrigeration, they have access to thousands of products that they can put on the site. We wanted a critical mass before we launched. So we shot for about 300 products. Really, it wasn’t the number of products that we were focused on. It was making sure we represented the various product categories and that there were enough products in each category. We wanted to avoid having any skinny product categories. So we were really looking for product coverage rather than some magic number of products.

Skip: So if somebody came to the site and visited it, they would feel like there was some depth and breadth to the site?

Bechara: Exactly. And now it’s a living document. So the team has been adding products to the site continuously since launch. We are running at about 500 products right now.

Skip: To get a better sense of the time frame here, we’re having this conversation on April 21, 2015. When did the site launch and how long has the site been live?

Bechara: The site went live in April of last year (2014). In mid-April, there were still a lot of products in transition. Really, from a time-table perspective, I would say May 1st would be the anniversary of the full eCommerce site.

Skip: So what would you describe as the major stages of this project? Technical platforms? What was the broad arc of this project?

Bechara: Bush did not have a product database prior to the inception of this project. Therefore, the largest, most time consuming part was building the database of products that were going to be added to the site. Since many of Bush’s products are sourced from different product vendors, we had to identify which product vendors already had an online presence. That helped inform our decision as to which products from each vendor we’d include and which categories we wanted to use to represent them.

We had to do competitive research online to set our pricing. In the old model a sales person receives client calls, and each sales person did their pricing based on a formula. But since we were operating in an online marketplace, we needed a consistent pricing strategy. We had to consider questions like: Is this a volume driven strategy? Is it a high touch, white glove service where you charge a little bit more for the product but you give back on customer service? We had to strike that balance between competing on price versus competing on service. You have to make sure that your site actually communicates that balance.

Crafting the product list and the product pricing was the most time consuming part of the project. Then we got into the coding. We built the new site using Magento; Magento Community Edition— so it wasn’t the licensed Enterprise version. Bush owns it fully and there’s no licensing fee every year. Those license fees [for Enterprise version] are currently running close to $16,000 a year.

Because of what we spoke about earlier regarding the different kinds of calls to action and the website really being a hybrid eCommerce site (see Part 1 of this eCommerce Case Study), we had to code various calls to action that don’t come standard as part of the Magento distribution. So we had to do some surgery on that and create some custom functionalities that weren’t available.

Another part that took a lot of time was shipping. A lot of these products ship LTL which is “Less Than Truckload” so we couldn’t use a standard UPS or FedEx extension that’s publicly available—we had to integrate with some shipping providers that are a little less known like Estes, RNL Carries and YRC. We had to do some custom integration there. While these are “in the trenches” details… these are the kind of nuances that took the bulk of the time in building the site.

Overall, I believe we were able to get the site up and running in about 8 months. And that’s not necessarily all PML coding. That included the time it took Bush’s team to actually create those product databases. So a lot of stuff was happening in parallel.

Skip: It’s interesting because it seems like, in a lot of ways, you’re helping the clients not only build an eCommerce site but you’re reengineering their whole business. It sounds like the business strategy was an important part of this.

Bechara: Oh yes. Once we initiated the product database project as part of the larger website project, we quickly encountered obstacles and factors that we didn’t anticipate… like the cultural fit of various salespeople with the online ecosystem. Really, this eCommerce project was changing the business model at Bush Refrigeration by building the site. The website was simply a vehicle but what it was triggering was a broad cultural change in which the website was no longer a brochure site.   The site is now more of an educational tool and a selling tool. The salesmen at Bush, who have been doing business the old-school way for the past 15-20 years, now had to adapt to an ecosystem that is based on comparison and research with a savvy buyer.   In addition, they now had a website that complemented their sales skills, and it was perceived as a competitor by some of the salesmen. We had to break down that resistance and educate the sales team as to how this could be used as a sales tool. We emphasized that this was not going to replace the important jobs that they did. We had to really build that trust. There was a lot of trust rebuilding between management and the sales team as we went through that transformation of the business model. Business model and the inherent cultural change was a big element that we didn’t anticipate but that became a huge factor in this project.

Skip: How about roles on the project? What are some of the key roles you would look for on any good eCommerce project?

Bechara: There are 2 teams involved: there’s the agency team (which is the PML team) and then there’s the client team. We had a project manager on the client side that took care of shepherding along the creation of the product list, as well as helping us with scoping the functionalities, approving our design, and things like that. So that was really internal to the client. Then on the PML agency side we had the account manager, the project manager, and the designer, the visual graphic designer. We also had the coders that were experts in Magento and Magento development. And then quality assurance people and data entry. Data entry was huge too. We did most of it programmatically, but in an eCommerce site there’s product creation, a lot of attribute population for products and just tons of content data entry.

In addition, we had our SEO and analytics specialists—we’re really building a marketing machine at the end of the day, not just a website. We needed to make sure our category pages were optimized, our landing pages were created for the PPC team, etc. We had to make sure that SEO was followed and best practices were followed in terms of information on the site. An analytics team integrated as well to enable conversion tracking. We wanted to make sure when a client asked a product question on the site, we wanted to be able to track that. We wanted make sure “add to cart” was tracked and that we were tracking the entire funnel so we could see where the leads were taking place.

There are a lot of elements that had to be taken care of. As a result, it was really a comprehensive team that participated in the various aspects of this project.

Continue on to our final eCommerce Case Study installment in which we discuss the actual results from this eCommerce project.