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Why Does Multichannel Software Cost So Much?

Howdy,

Three questions for you to ponder:

  • Why does multichannel software have to cost so much?
  • Why do you get oversells?
  • Why can’t that developer just add in that one extra box that you need?

That’s the questions I’m going to be exploring in this article, feel free to jump in and add your 2p worth in the comments at the bottom.

If you have any interest on what actually happens in the background to multichannel software, the software that manages your business across multiple marketplaces like eBay, Amazon or your own website, say Magento, you’ll want to pull your chair closer and grab a cuppa.

 

The Entire Process Simplified

Before we start, let’s simplify the process down to it’s simplest of form.

Listing Process

The process to create a new product listing onto a marketplace, collect the order and then process it, you as a seller have to go through several key stages, these are:

  1. Add a product to a database
  2. List it onto eBay (or insert another marketplace here)
  3. Collect the order
  4. Despatch the order
  5. Update the marketplace

That’s pretty much the entire process in 5 steps, create, list, collect, process, update.

And that’s where the simplicity ends.

Product Data Fields

If we think about step 1 for a moment “Add a product to a database”, this product could be anything, from a microphone to keyboard, a painting to a tent, there will be common attributes about each product, these are:

  • Title
  • Description
  • One or more images
  • Categorisation
  • Price
  • Condition
  • Cost price
  • Stock quantity

As you can see this will get deep very quickly, in fact it is, let’s pick on the products description for a few moments.

A products description could just be a block of text, but more likely it’s going to be broken out into many parts.

Picking on Product Descriptions

Listing a Product onto eBayFor example, let’s pick on a pair of shoes, picking on the bare minimum of requirements for listing a pair of shoes onto eBay, you’ll need to set a Shoe Size and the product Brand.

So that’s now 3 fields just for one product!

No seller in their right minds would just use the bare minimum and looking at the eBay Sell Your Item form for the boots category on eBay, it’s suggesting 10 product attributes  to add and 3 additional fields as secondary attributes and you could add in your own custom attributes  as well if you wanted to.

And we’ve not even considered that the business probably wants to separate their data out, so that they have say 5 key bullet points that they can use on Amazon and on their website, let alone another sales channel too and the main product description.

If we now consider the data requirements that are needed here, we’ve just sprung from 8 or so fields to way over 20. But also to use any software easily, then an interface would need to be built so that it’s easy for a business owner like you to be able to actually enter this information in.

We’re dealing with “expandable” and “unlimited” data, so while in boots category there maybe Shoe Size, Brand, Style etc… if we pick a completely unrelated category say tent’s for example, I’m now looking at a page where we have Type of Tent, Berth, Style, Sleeping Areas, Brand, Season, Model, MPN and the ability to add in extra options too.

There have been several different ways to invent this, there has been the just give the seller 20 fields and let them sort them out and match them up manually, there has been custom fields route where you define what the input boxes could look like and mix in a few different input types, such as an input box, a drop down box or a checkbox.

The Need for a Framework

Oh and as I’m assuming that you maybe a larger business, you would probably want to set these fields up manually first and then use an import/export system to create, update and append information about your products.

To get to that stage a framework would need to be built that can handle that kind of data input, allow it to be searched upon (which is no mean feat over lots of fields of data) and an import/export system as well.

So have we just gone from a simple product description to a squllion fields? For which more than half were dictated by a marketplace to create?

I think so and this is just one of the challenges any inventory management system needs to cope with.

So let’s assume that this was written from scratch, this wouldn’t happen over night, it would take months, if not years to get right.

Changing Tack to Stock Control

10 Pens for Sale on the MarketplacesAgain keeping this as simple as possible, let’s pretend we have just have a plain old pen (unchewed) as a product and we have 10 of these in stock, sat our shelf.

So get that product onto the marketplace, an integration would have needed to be built that allows you to actually send the product “up” so that it can be made for sale (we’ll come back to this later), but let’s assume the 10 pens are on the say eBay. Fantastic!

A customer buys one of these pens, so we have an order for a pen and we also have the customers details, their payment details, and the selected shipping method.

Again we’re assuming that an integration has been made to the marketplace, eBay in this case and also PayPal too to collect the payment (which isn’t a small task for even a seasoned developer).

But hey we’ve sold one, happy days.

When we’re dealing with just one marketplace, then stock control is pretty simple, we have 10 in stock, 1 sold, so we now have 9 available. Or you would have thought so.

What happens if that sale was an auction, the customer has not paid yet, so that 1 pen we just sold is now sat in a holding queue?

That then means you need to track your actual stock quantity and the held quantity and probably another integration to eBay (using eBay in this example as it has a lot of API’s) to handle disputes.

Let’s ignore that for now, we sold one, ace!

Going Multi Channel

Amazon- LogoWhat’s the point of software if it’s only just going to do one sales channel?

We like our multiple sales channels as that means we can sell the same 10 pens across all the available sales channels, reach more potential buyers and basically sell more stuff.

Chucking in Amazon into the mix now, we had 10 pens listed on eBay and we had 10 pens listed on Amazon. And we sold one on eBay.

That now means that we need to let Amazon know that we only have 9 left.

Amazon uses a reports system for their integration, which basically means you send them a file that contains your stock levels, they sit on it for a while (5-15mins normally), don’t actually tell you that it went ok, only if something bad happened (and even then, they pass back a message that basically says “Huh?”), you have to assume that and with both of us crossing our fingers that it was received and processed.

Easy-peasy, we sold an item, eBay was already at 9, no need to update them, Amazon, we lobbed them a file, they didn’t go “huh?” at us about it and we’re all down to 9 now.

Our Magento WebsiteWhile all this was going on, we just took an order from our website.

Let’s say it’s a Magento website (I like Magento websites so we’re having a Magento website) and through another integration to Magento, the order has been collected and we now have 7 pens in stock, because the customer just bought two pens.

So our multichannel software has to kick in again and this time, tell eBay that we now have 7 (which is pretty quick via their API and it tells what was wrong, unlike Mr Huh? have the file back, there was an error “somewhere” in it), we tell Amazon that we also have 7, they don’t go “Huh?” at us and we’re all good.

Timmy on the phone takes an order for the last 7 pens (a real big spender that one), he enters the order manually in and assigns the last 7 pens to Mr Big Spender.

Oh pants, we need to let eBay know we have 0 left, great that will end the listing on eBay, take it off Amazon too and the Magento website.

But when we end it on eBay, we need to remember that we ended it and what the item number was, so that when we more of these super fast moving pens in again, when we list them again, we want to reference the previous eBay Item Number, so that what little best match ranking is carried over to the next listing.

Oh and we send a file to Amazon which may go “Huh?” or give us the silent treatment and we also send an update to Magento to take the item off the site and change the stock status to “Out of Stock”.

Overselling is Going to Happen

sad-face-icon_newTo recap, we’ve just had multiple integrations to different marketplaces:

  • One that we need to remember what we did on it for next time (eBay)
  • One marketplaces that gives us the silent treatment (Amazon)
  • A Magento website
  • And Timmy who took a phone order for Mr Big Spender

Now let’s times that by the other 999 products we had in our inventory system (or insert however many you have right now), is it any wonder that oversells happen from time to time?

Oversells, they suck nuts, but it’s amazing we don’t see more of them every single day.

It’s one of the side effects of the be-everywhere strategy that we see with multi-channel or “omni-channel” catch phrases being bounded around. If you sell on more than one marketplace or even on the same marketplace more than once, you’re bound to have an oversell sooner or later.

And the thing is, the software in the background has just been working it’s little leggies off try to do all the above as fast as it can, so that it’s users (that’s you) don’t phone up their account managers and give them an ear bending about DSR’s, Amazon Scores or some lerry-nut-job whose order couldn’t be fulfilled.

So if you were building multichannel software, then you’d need to add in the ability to track changes to products and update the outside world with those changes.

Piggy In the Middle

Piggy in the MiddleIf we think about what our multi-channel software does on a daily basis, it’s no small feat.

Tens of thousands of hours would have gone into making it work right for near-as-damit 99.9% of the time. But because it is a separate system from the marketplaces that it’s interacting with, in many ways it’s piggy-in-the-middle.

This is just like the school playground game, but this time, the ball is the stock levels, orders and updates and the software is the one chasing the marketplaces around rather than the other school kids.

Let’s now say that you have one product, but you have 2 in stock and two marketplaces, eBay and Amazon

The challenge that we have when dealing with marketplaces are:

  • Constantly updating API’s
  • Constantly changing products (stock, descriptions etc…)
  • No control over the the interfaces uptime
  • And hopefully a consistent stream of orders and their updates as well

Note: API = “Application Programming Interface”.
It’s the Nerd term for how you can connect to a 3rd party system using a set of calls or instructions to add, edit or remove things. Typically the 3rd party such as eBay provide these and document them accordingly (pages and pages and pages of it)

The multichannel software needs to sit in the middle and work out what is happening with the marketplaces, what needs updating, what doesn’t and doesn’t just deal with one interface to speak with the marketplace, probably several.

Piggy in the middle is the best analogy for all this.

If it was for just one business, things would probably run quite smoothly, however the off-the-shelf providers (insert any name here, eSellerPro, ChannelAdvisor, Linnworks, StoreFeeder, SellerExpress and so on….) want to scale their multichannel software to more businesses, it’s how they make money, either through a monthly fee or a percentage of sale model.

And scaling up chaos is crazy (crazy good fun though!)

King Piggy

officesThe one dynamic we’ve not covered to yet is the business itself that is using the software.

The software doesn’t just run by itself, there is oodles of human interaction to it as well, this could be a member of staff adding in new products, updating images, importing a stock update file or processing orders.

And not just one member of staff, probably lots!

If you thought that being piggy in the middle to the marketplaces, with their quirky interfaces or creating an inventory management system that can cope with extendible data that could come in any shape or form was tough, let’s account for the users (that’s you) that are working with the software everyday.

A typical day in any business will involve the following tasks:

  • Creating new products
  • Updating existing products
  • Adding more stock
  • Processing orders

You’ll note that I’m missing out luxuries like reporting & customer services, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Up until now we’ve only really covered the first 3 of these, we’ll get on to the processing orders task in a minute.

The thing is that while most businesses complete the same tasks, they don’t all go about them the same way.

One business may prefer to work heavily in excel spreadsheets, another with just the interface of the software, so not only does the front end of the software that the staff actually use need to be slick and easy to use.

This is the layer sat on top of the database that is being used in the background to store all the products and keep track of changes and the database is being hammered to try and keep the marketplaces in touch with the latest changes as well.

Order Processing

giftA topic which we only just touched a few moments ago, order processing, So we’ve managed to collect orders from different marketplaces through their different interfaces, now what?

Those orders need to be processed, this  involves some form of document being created, normally lots if we include emails as documents (such as order received, order despatched etc…).

Those need to be templated somehow and spat out either on demand by a member of staff pressing a button to print out an invoice or via some rules in the background, that send them out automatically.

So let’s say that’s happened and oh, we’ve brought in the payment for the order and matched that up to the right order (a feat in itself I hasten to add as they don’t always match up exactly, for example what happens if the customer paid too much or too little?).

Anyway, we have the order printed out in front of us, that order hits the real world, is picked and packed. But we’re missing something, that something is the courier label.

If we’re just dealing with Royal Mail, then we could have just printed out the PPI logo on the invoice. However a courier, well that’s another kettle of fish.

Unlike the USA where it’s pretty clear cut who the main providers are for actually sending orders (USPS, FedEx, UPS and DHL) with inexpensive integration tools like ShipStation or ShipWorks which costs peanuts, in the UK it’s a friggin mess.

Each courier has their own API and they all work differently, there is only one main software tool that has licked this and that’s Metapack. Metapack uses a SaaS model (software as a service) so that it’s pay-per-use and costs upwards of 12p per label. This is either a complete bargain or a massive expense, it depends how you look at it.

Many of the current software providers (in the UK) looked at it as an expense and built their own integrations into the couriers directly, thus adding another layer of complexity to the software that they built (and bloating it out even further).

Business Rules for Order Processing

courier-logosOne  area we’re missing here is that just because the customer selected Royal Mail 2nd Class, that doesn’t actually mean that it’s how the order is going to be sent. There are business rules that most likely need to be processed on top of the order to work out which method the order should be shipped.

If we think back to the example of the pens earlier, they are really light and have no real size to them, a letter would do. However what happens if the customer also bought some other office supplies at the same time and the weight hit 1.2Kg and the order value hit £35.

Suddenly the method that the customer chose and paid for doesn’t become cost effective, so instead a business rule may be that such an order because it has gone over 1.2Kg and went over £30, to send it via a courier instead.

But what happens if that customer was in the top of Scotland and our normal courier would charge us a surcharge, then a secondary rule would need to be put into place to switch the order so say Royal Mail tracked. It might not be as quick, but surely saves the £12 surcharge.

MetapackSo any software that deals with orders and the despatch process needs to account for business rules that need to be applied to orders and this is where something like the 12p to Metapack becomes more attractive because they have this level of rules ability built in. Different software products have different ways of working with such orders and some have elected not to tackle it at all (ie ChannelAdvisor).

Back onto topic, we have the invoice, the courier label and we then ship that order off to the customer. Happy Days right?

We then have at least a carrier that was used and most likely a tracking number. These details then need to be passed back to the order source, so that the customer can be updated and in the case of Amazon, so you can get paid.

This involves another call back to the marketplace or order source (for example the Magento website) to update the order and change it’s status to shipped. And most likely at the same time, the inventory system has been altered to confirm that item has sold, a record was kept and possibly an email was sent out too.

Not as straight-forwards as it looked originally?

Pricing Multichannel Software

Generally there are two ways that multi-channel software providers will charge you:

  • Fixed price
  • Percentage of sale

Some multichannel software providers go with a tiered system, if you have X number of products or orders then you pay this amount and the cost increases the more products and sales that you make.

Others go with a percentage of sale. It’s this one where the costs can really spiral out of control and it’s no uncommon to find businesses paying £30K, £50K or even £80 or £120k a year to such providers.

Yes, obviously they’re turning over millions, but at these kind of numbers, we’re getting into the territories of buying houses with the amounts being paid to multi-channel software providers.

There is another billing method worth noting here, is that it’s pay per user. So you pay say £80 per user head in the business to use the software.

It doesn’t really matter how you cut it, the more you sell, the more you should expect to pay.

How much you’re actually willing to pay is a completely different topic!

So why does multi-channel software have to cost so much?

The thing is, up until now the current 2nd generation providers have been building their own bespoke systems to cope with inventory, orders, the marketplaces & other business rules. This takes a shed load of time and a lot of money.

As the software grows, so does the complexity (and we’ve already seen some of the complexities including in the basic 5 steps, create, list, collect, process, update) which then adds in the requirement for an on-boarding team, staff that can help businesses migrate to the new software and of course a development team to keep everything working as it should.

I know from personal experience of doing this twice, first time around at Marketworks (eBay auction management software), also doing this myself with my own business, migrating to a software product can be painful, especially if prior to the migration all you’ve been using is the eBay Sell Your Item form or 1st generation or proprietary software like Turbo Lister.

Oh and the second time around at eSellerPro, sometimes it can take months. Every business is different and so are their requirements and it’s not as straight-forwards as it looks.

The more customers that are added, the more depends are put on the software to do feature x, y and z. Some multi-channel software providers just draw the line in the sand (ChannelAdvisor is a good example of this) and “say we do this”, then find partners for everything else. And others try and do everything under one roof.

We’re also missing a sales team, support staff & marketing, oh and a management layer as well somewhere too.

Everything & everyone has to be paid for.

In Summary

Any multi-channel software is good software. I whole-heartedly believe that.

A business even using excel has a competitive advantage over a business that isn’t using excel. It’s that simple.

Remember those 5 stages create, list, collect, process, update from the beginning? Even simple nowadays is complex when it comes to managing multiple marketplaces and this complexity causes overheads, costs that need to be accounted for.

The thing is that some of these multichannel software providers (some with the help of myself) have taken the level of complexity, features and options to a whole new level, levels that were not thought possible only a few years ago and it’s the percentage of sale software providers that can get really, really expensive, the more you sell, the more you pay. It sounds nice, but the thing is, it gets to a stage where the amounts being paid is just plain silly.

A Different Take on Multichannel Software

Howdy,

Two questions for you:

  • What if multichannel software didn’t have to cost the earth?
  • What if you knew of a way to deliver multi channel software that can meet the needs thousands of cool people?

What would you do?

Sit on it? Work out a business plan to bundle it up and sell it as typical 2nd generation software? Or would you go a different route after trying both?

I’d like to share a story of what happened last year, when looking for multichannel software to launch a new business onto eBay, Amazon and to build their own website and the typical options out there, just didn’t work.

 

Backed into a Corner

backed into a cornerBack in March 2013 we were looking for multichannel software to launch a new business onto eBay, Amazon and to build their own website.

The natural option eSellerPro wasn’t an option and neither of us were fans of ChannelAdvisor, plus both of these were really expensive for a start up (you’re talking +£500 a month and £2,000 upfront costs), so we picked the next best option.

After 3 weeks in all the stuff I took for granted was missing.

  • What do you mean we can’t import 61,000 products in one go?
  • What do you mean we’ve got to assign one of the variations as being the parent sku?
  • And where on earth are child sku’s?

As we dug deeper we soon realised that the normal alternative wasn’t going to work (I’m doing my best not to name them), it was so far away from what I was used to. What I took for granted that should be in multi-channel software, well… was missing.

This just isn’t working out is it? What are the options?

I don’t know we’ll try a different provider, after a phone call they also wanted £500 a month and 1% of sale because we had soo many products (61,000 is apparently lot for most companies).

This is just nuts, how could you start a multi-channel business without the software that was so sorely needed? There was no way this could be done manually. There was just too many products to do it with.

What about?

Magento Usage Statistics Feb 2013Magento?

It can cope with that number of products easily, it can handle complex product relationships, variations, multi variations and so on…

After all it’s the most popular open source software to build eCommerce sites with and powers 26% of the top 1 million eCommerce with (see here), so it’s at least got to have a decent founding.

So that’s the inventory & order management part taken care of. Ok what about the eBay & Amazon part?

Why don’t we give M2E Pro a whirl? It can’t be that bad and hell it ain’t going to cost us £500 smackers to get started with is it?

So that’s what we did and what we ended up with something quite different.

Note: If you’ve never heard of M2EPro before, it’s an extension for Magento that allows you to use Magento for the order & inventory management and allows you to sell on to the marketplaces using the same inventory. Oh and it’s subsidised by eBay too.

Sipping Coffee

CoffeeDid we just replicate eSellerPro?

As near as dammit we had.

Yea not everything & all the bells & whistles, but it was close. Scarily close.

An import system that could take all 61,152 products in one hit, a templating system that allowed us to make comprehensive listings onto eBay with keywords, the stock levels were kept up to date pretty much in the same manner as what the Channel Profile does.

And for orders, well the framework was there to automatically deliver the orders to the supplier, then once the order was shipped, grab the tracking numbers and delivery back into Magento which in-turn, M2E Pro would pick up and notify eBay & Amazon.

Holy moo-moo, what if we bundle this up into a business?

So we did, we put the numbers down on paper, moved them, added, removed and that’s where we got stuck.

The numbers just didn’t work.

It wasn’t really until year 2 where after a huge amount of risk a lot of unknowns that such a business would hit any form of black. And that’s where it got curious…

If we couldn’t make the numbers work on software that was basically free, how the hell do the existing providers actually turn a profit? And that’s where things started to make sense, they do but they don’t. SaaS products/services tend to be highly lucrative,  however the life is being sucked out of them by bloat.

So to support N number of businesses you need N number of support staff, N number of developers, N number of account managers and so on… Humans need humans, especially if you’re looking at a high monthly fee product and especially one that takes a percentage of their sale. It just doesn’t scale very well.

Basically, none of us particularly liked the numbers, great idea but we were all out.

Now What?

Icon-round-Question_markI’m sat there with the tools and the knowledge to make a massive, positive difference to the world. But the normal thinking of bundling this up doesn’t work.

WTF now?

Dave, what if we gave it away for free?

Dave looked at me oddly.

Yea seriously what if we gave away the knowledge on how to do this?

It’s not the original business model, but we know that won’t work, the numbers say it won’t. So why don’t we take a completely different tack and share. I know that if you do something with passion, the money part kinda sorts itself out, I’ve seen this time and time again. I know it works.

Note: This is not for the faint of heart, you have to have some heavy form of commitment to even consider doing something like this, a topic for a different day

So that’s what we decided.

Show the world how they could gain access to low-cost multi-channel software, that didn’t cost £500 a month, didn’t come with all the expensive bloat and if you needed something extra then you bought it off the shelf, without paying oodles to support 100% of a product for which you were only likely to be using a mere 40%.

We hammered out a vision that encapsulated this, a goal for us to follow that followed this line of thinking and we came up with this:

“A hybrid of both free and paid for open source software where multi-channel business owners can pick & choose the tools that suit their business, both now and in the future.”

Quite a hefty goal, but that’s where we’re swinging for.

Last Year

And that was back last September.

Since then we’ve been working our little socks off, mainly because I set such a ridiculously high goal that we’d have to think differently. Did we hit the final goal? No, but we got bloody close though.

We called it “UnderstandingE”, a name that I been sat on for a few years, it seemed perfect for what we wanted to do and that’s what we rolled with.

What I needed TEN Years ago

When working at Marketworks & eSellerPro, I always kept in the back of my mind, what did I need when selling online. “How does this port to what the person to I’m speaking to right now?” and crucially “How does that port to the multichannel software that I working with right now?

I think that’s the key reasons why working at eSellerPro was like being a pig-in-poop, if it was a good idea and the demand was there, then it got put in. That was some wild times, but ultimately ended up in a product that has issues dealing with such a veracious amount of development being applied to it.

Basically in hindsight, it was overkill. Really good overkill I hasten to add and nothing has even got anywhere near it since.

Stuck in a rut

The thing is, businesses that are using current software tools they’re used to paying silly amounts each month and there does come a time where the brighter business owners work out that they’ve just paid way over £30,000 (say $50K USD) for software that yes has helped them to get them to the stage where they are at, but for that kind of money it’s starting to hurt and hurt bad.

Some of you reading this you’re just too far down the line, you’re too comfortable with paying this kind of money, as much as you hate it, you’re stuck with it.

And my advice for a long, long time has been not to move software providers, it’s painful and doesn’t happen over night. It’s really up to you to work out how much of a difference it would make to you and your business.

A Different Way

But what we can do is make a difference to the businesses that have not got to this stage of lock-in yet, that can still be nimble.

So thinking back to the original questions:

  • What if you knew of a way to deliver multi channel software that met the needs thousands of cool people?

Yea I’m standing up (Dave too) and are firmly planting ourselves off the fence and are saying there is a different way. It doesn’t have to cost oodles, we’re not saying it’s free, but we’re saying that it’s a damn-sight cheaper than anything else out there and it’ll get you far, wayyy far down the line.

And there is nothing quite like putting money-where-your-mouth is, so that’s what we’ve done.

UnderstandingE went live on January 1st 2014 at around 4pm (kicking & fighting, we had to do an emergency site move the day before).

It’s not finished, it will never be finished. But we’ve started and that’s what matters.

Rabbit Hole

rabbit holeLet’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I don’t know where it leads, but to be honest it doesn’t matter where it ends, as it’s about the journey to find the end.

Fancy coming along for the journey?

Whack the button below and get dug in.

[button size=”large” style=”round” color=”blue” url=”http://understandinge.com/”]Say Hello to the 3rd Generation[/button]

Matt

PS. If you’re looking for me to write anything about eSellerPro over the next year, it’s doubtful. Even with my ability to remember screens and how things interact, that knowledge has been put aside, what’s been left undocumented is just that undocumented. It’s time to move on.

30 Seconds of Silence as the Penny Dropped

We were on a call yesterday with what you could say is your “typical” multi-channel business owner, in many ways he’s probably just like you.

Business is doing well, it’s been a slog this year and literally this weekend has just started to show signs of picking up. One eBay account, one Amazon account, a website that could do better and nothing really that complex to put high demands on pretty much any of the 2nd generation multi-channel software providers.

But why on earth did he go completely silent on us, for what felt like hours?

Read on and you’ll find out why.

 

Typical Business As Usual?

Being in the most demanding categories for the marketplaces, fashion, he has to deal with complex inventory, sizes, colours, mixed sizing, demanding buyers, demanding marketplaces and most of all, the challenge of seasonality.

Fashion has to be the #1 toughest category to do well in online and this chap is rocking it & is set for his highest turnover Christmas ever.

On the other hand, in many ways it’s not a complicated setup they have, we’re only talking one eBay account with a couple of thousand listings, Amazon does really well for them now they’re settled in and from an operational standpoint, the team is experienced.

The booking in system for new lines is fast as they use excel & a couple of macros to create the variations & the order processing system is simple, no real warehouse control per-say, but a simple system that works and can manage 200-400 orders a day with ease.

Curiosity

As the conversation progressed he brought up the project me & Dave have been working on. He had seen a couple of the emails, read some of the articles and was wondering what was keeping us so busy. So we told him.

For the sake of this article and because he’s switching providers in January to the 3rd Generation we’re going to call him “Mohammed”, plus the numbers quoted are vague to protect his business.

The conversation went something like this:

Dave: “We’re building the training guides for the 3rd Generation of multi-channel software”

Mohammed: “So what does that mean exactly?”

Dave: “Well you know you’re using <removed> right now to manage, eBay, Amazon & your website?”

Mohammed: “Yes”

Dave: “Matt found a way of using Magento for exactly the same thing. You’ve heard of Magento?”

Mohammed: “Yea, I want to move our website to that after Christmas. We’ve been frustrated not being able to add anything to our current site”

Matt: “If you’ve looked at Magento, you’ll have seen it can handle fashion products just like yours, sizes, colours, shoe sizes etc… It has basic stock control and does pretty much everything you’re used to right now on your website.”

Mohammed: “Yes, my cousin uses it for his site and it does well”

Dave: “Matt was asked earlier this year to set up an eBay/Amazon & website business for a friend, he couldn’t use the software you were using as it’s too expensive so we had to look alternatives. He had already been working on Magento for a connector for eSellerPro, so knew it well. What he ended up realising was that Magento & an extension called M2E Pro could do pretty-much the same as the software you’re using”

Matt: “That’s right. They aren’t too dissimilar to your setup, but they had more products. Well 61,152 to be precise and roughly 2,400 variations. We were quoted £500 a month + 1% from one of the providers, it was a new business and there was no way that the business could afford that. So we have to look at other options

What I found was as Dave said, pretty much exactly what you have set up right now and we automated the supplier feeds in and the orders go off to the suppliers directly. We downloaded Magento for free and M2E Pro is also free because eBay subsidise it. He’s only just added his website now, as we’re using Magento not for the website part, but for the inventory & order management capabilities”

Mohammed: “Free & Free, I like the sound of this already”

Dave: “Yea we thought you would. The thing is besides the work the that Matt & the client put in, they’re only paying £114 a month for a server”

Mohammed: “What no commissions?”

Matt: “No commissions and the only reason he using such a ludicrously expensive server is because he complained about speed of one of my small servers. They’re not built for Magento, plus I didn’t want the hassle, so I got him a pair of xenon quad core processors, 16Gb of RAM and two SSD disks with hardware RAID 0 and dared him to complain about speed again. After that he never did, probably was a little over-kill if I’m honest”

Mohammed: “So he runs his business using Magento & M2E Pro, the same channels, has more inventory than us and pays £114 a month?”

Dave: “How much did you pay <removed> last month?”

Mohammed: “I’ll get the invoice, it’s here somewhere”

Mohammed: “Got it”

Silence

We heard the chair creak in the background, the sound of paper shuffling and then a deeply exhaled breath.

It must have only been 30 seconds or so.

But it felt like hours.

Finally

Dave finally asked, “did you find it?”

Indeed Mohammed has found his invoice, it had £1,500 on it  (approx $2,400 USD).

What I had set up for a client earlier this year can scale and for Mohammed came in at a tenth each month of what he’s paying right now and is set to save him around £17,000 – £19,000 next year.

UnderstandingE goes live on January 1st, what do you think he’ll be doing that day?

The Pieces are Almost a Picture

We’ll be open with you, the pieces of the puzzle are not all there yet, but we’re getting close, very close.

For Mohammed’s business, he’s going to need a couple of extensions to get all the backend features into place, two order extensions & two courier integrations (Royal Mail DMO was one of them) and a couple of the extensions we’ve been building to get him going. Plus we should never forget the training of the staff (which is where UnderstandingE comes in) and the time to migrate products between systems.

And on that note.

Say Hello to the 3rd Generation

We silently put the UnderstandingE site live a week or so ago. The reason why is simple, it doesn’t matter what you do for a launch party, it’s what you do for the next 6 years that truly matters.

While the guides are not published yet, they’re being released on January 1st, the forums are open and we are listening.

We’re listening to business owners like Mohammed and business owners like you.

Tell us what you need
Tell us what you cannot live without
Tell us how you want to innovate in your business once again
Rid your business of bills costing tens of thousands each year

And the best thing is…. We will show you how for free.

The 3rd Generation, everything you’ll need to know. It’s a click away (click here!!!!)

Come over & say hello to the 3rd Generation.

And we’ll see you there.

Matt & Dave

Part 2 – Hands Up I Was Wrong – But What About?

In this second part of the History of Multi-Channel Software, we’re starting a journey, a journey to find the utopia and a journey that we’re going to share openly, wins, failures, the lot.

The utopia for multi-channel software that can fit the needs of any business regardless of size, type, location or revenue both today and tomorrow.

And to do this effectively, I need to admit I was wrong.

 

A Re-Cap

In part 1 of the History of Multi-Channel Software we covered how we have ended up where we are today with the collection of software providers that offer pretty much the same options, all wrapped up into different interfaces for multi-channel businesses to use.

I also shared with you the vision for the future which I’ve put below, the “utopia”, the goal that we’re aiming for and the commitment that I believe together we can achieve. I also admitted that I don’t have all the answers and never will but are willing to share this journey as we go and we invited you to join in.

The Vision of the Future

“A hybrid of both free and paid for open source software where multi-channel business owners can pick & choose the tools that suit their business, both now and in the future

I Used To Think…

I used to think that multi-channel software had to:

  • Fit the needs of every business perfectly
  • Have every single feature, bell & whistle going
  • Advanced to the point of being over complicated
  • Do everything, anyone could ever want
  • Be one system that encompassed everything

And the thing is… Hands up, I was wrong, so very wrong.

The Glimmer of Hope

Crude by today’s standards, I had built my own eBay order management tool back in the early 2000’s using excel, outlook, an addon for Outlook and some VBA (Visual Basic for Applications).

I was parsing the notifications for “end of auction” and “end of transaction” emails from eBay using a plugin for Outlook (which amazingly you can still buy it today, see here), loading them into an excel spreadsheet and then using VBA to process them, adding in notification flags for a pick/pack/despatch process with mail merges to create invoices , then email mail merges to email customers their order received, packed and then despatched notices.

I’m probably being a little mean to what I built back then by calling it “crude”, it took me from using a paper tracking system to a semi-automated system, which then led the business to a stage where it could afford more advanced software such MarketWorks or ChannelAdvisor (the only two options we had back then) at around £15-20K a month turnover and then we added in MarketWorks, we ni-on quadrupled the business in 3 months.

I have always wondered “what if the business could have afforded the best software available earlier on?”.

As I sat there in the cyber-cafe looking at eSellerPro for the first time, I genuinely felt that “this was it”. What had frustrated me as a business owner myself and through having seen hundreds of business at Marketworks, seeing them struggle with a slowly developed product with the possibility that those frustrations could be answered and what you use today in eSellerPro is part of the answer I saw back then (after a ~3 years stint that is).

The Stark Reality

I believed one product could fit the needs of every scenario thrown at it and that is where I was wrong.

  • No software product will fit the needs of every business perfectly, ever
  • Software doesn’t need every cool idea in it for it to be viable and meet the needs of the vast majority of businesses
  • Who needs complicated when straight-forwards will work just as well?
  • Why does software need to do everything for everyone, when the core essentials are all that are needed?

The reality is that:

No single software product will ever meet the needs of every single business perfectly

And Wrong Again? Maybe Not….

I know many of you will cringe at the idea of ChannelAdvisor, having a core system and with bolt on modules, using specialists in their own areas, it’s a “hybrid system”.

Frankly speaking, you’re most likely scoffing at the idea because it doesn’t help that the base system is so expensive it rules it out as being a viable solution for +99% of all multi-channel businesses.

The thing is, I believe we were all wrong about this “hybrid” approach and I’ll explain why.

Take the massive cost out of this hybrid approach, so let’s say we take £600 monthly minimum fees and floor them by 95% to just £30 (yes that is thirty quid or $47 USD, or less but that’s a topic for another day) and suddenly it’s a lot more attractive don’t you agree?

Hold on to that thought for a few moments…

Breaking it Apart

Let’s boil everything down to the three key parts of a multi-channel software product.

An inventory management system, an order management system and listing abilities to marketplaces. This goes for any of the 2nd generation providers regardless of origin.

Inventory Management
The inventory management system would need to be able to with both simple and complex products (variations), kits, virtual products, stock control, imports, exports and customisable fields that you can match to eBay & Amazon item specifics.

Order Management
Then the order management system which would need to aggregate orders from multiple channels, websites, multiple eBay accounts, multiple Amazon accounts (if you’re being naughty lol), have order stages, customisable despatch options, links into couriers and back to the marketplaces for order updates. Email notifications, while they’re not an essential they are a nice to have and are of notable value for any order management system.

Listing Abilities
Being able to match up to existing listings on the marketplaces, create new listings and keep prices, descriptions and stock levels updated. And be kept upto date with the updates that these marketplaces like to do every few months.

These 3 are the key components for any multi-channel software product. I am missing one other part on purpose though, support. Because this component it is so special, I need to be address it specifically at a later date.

The Current Approaches

As we saw in part 1 the vast array of options, there is no one right way of approaching each of these components and when we look at the different providers out there, they have all come from different angles and ended up with varying levels of success for each of the 3 components.

Let’s pick on two other providers as an example. StoreFeeder, StoreFeeder came from a fulfilment background so as you would expect the despatch process in StoreFeeder is amazing. I love how you can batch process orders easily and I’ve not seen anything to touch it at the price point they offer. ChannelGrabber, they needed simplicity, so ease of use is unparalleled.

Each and every multi-channel software has come from a different direction and ended up with something that can (or is being) labeled as “Multi-Channel Software” and they can all be boiled down to these 3 components.

Again, hold onto that thought for a few moments too…

So a Time for a Different Approach

Keeping the key components in mind, 3 questions for you to seriously consider.

#1 What if we took the ChannelAdvisor, hybrid approach. One core system that has inventory management, order management and listing abilities and bolstered it with industry expertise?

#2 What if we took away the costly overheads and we leveraged a platform that was open-source and getting back to that £30/$47 I mentioned earlier, what if it would run on shared web-hosting, which is available anywhere, globally, inexpensively?

#3 What if we then said because it’s open-source, you can extend it further and gave you the power to innovate?

What if the listing abilities were available for free to eBay and Amazon was ridiculously inexpensive?

And Then Consider

Originally I thought this hybrid approach wasn’t the correct path to follow. It’s expensive with the current providers but on the flip side allows us to bring in industry expertise in each area, when you need it, if you need it.

So what happens if we floor that massive overhead, leverage the already existing technologies that are proven globally, bring in expertise when needed, if needed at all and open the doors to be able to innovate through open source? The potential is huge?

Interesting theory right?

Like we said in Part 1, we know that this new approach works, it’s not a theory for us or you anymore.

All that is needed is a journey to be started, for knowledge to be shared and for each of us to work together.

We have the the vision of a world where you can use a hybrid of both free and paid for open source software where you can as a where multi-channel business owner you can pick & choose the tools that suit your business, both now and in the future.

Find out more at UnderstandingE.com/NOW

And in part 3, we reveal all :)

Why is eSellerPro still the best of a “Bad Bunch”?

It was 3 years ago I left eSellerPro and still today, eSellerPro is generally the better choice for larger multi-channel marketplace businesses, but why is this? That’s the question I aim to answer in this article & accompanying video.

I’m answering the same question a couple of times a week and rather than repeating myself over and over, I thought it would be more productive for me to create a video and explain the once :) If I’ve referred you to this page, scroll down and hit play on the YouTube video.

 

So why 3 years on is eSellerPro still the best of a bad bunch?

Just for the record, “Bad Bunch” is not my term, this is the term being used by business owners like you to describe the multi-channel eCommerce software providers out there today.

And back on topic… Well, the answer falls down to only three key areas:

  1. Inventory Management
  2. Importing & Exporting
  3. Stock Control

So let’s look at these in more detail. You can either follow these in the video below or the written overview that follows.

1. Inventory Management

I’m really surprised that none of the other providers have picked up on this and this can be boiled down to two key areas, inventory structure and the extensible data fields called “custom fields”. So let’s look at the inventory management side in more detail and custom fields, I’ve covered before.

Simply Master, Sub, Listing, Variation and Kit inventory records are the answer here.

No other multi-channel software product out there has an inventory system similar to what is found in eSellerPro and it’s still holding strong  with the inventory types we created over 6 years ago. And this boils down to several key inventory types, these are:

  • Master
  • Sub
  • Listing
  • Variation
  • Kits

Basically you have maximum control over the way your inventory works and if you’re selling products that come in variations or have more than one sales channel, then these really come into their own and kick every other software providers butts.

2. Importing and Exporting

If we take a moment to look at what some of the other software tools have out there and then look at eSellerPro, you’ll then understand why importing & export still rocks in eSellerPro.

Let’s take Linnworks, what would take a single import in eSellerPro takes 3 imports in Linnworks, oh and then you have to combine this with a disjointed interface, managing lots of inventory becomes cumbersome.

Now let’s look at ChannelAdvisor, ChannelAdvisor has the second best importing system out there and in a few places a superior import system as you can run excel based logic when importing product data, but it’s let down by the poor inventory management system behind it, thus falls flat on that part.

ChannelGrabber, they still don’t seem to be able to handle a single import for all products, instead you have separate records for the same product. So if you have one product and 10 listings on the channels, you have 11 records (or there-abouts), times that over 1000 products, you can see the problem.

Other software tools like SellerExpress, StoreFeeder, 247TopSeller etc… I’m unable/unwilling to comment on, but they don’t have the same inventory structure we covered in #1, so they’re basically flawed for larger businesses when compared like for like.

3. Stock Control

In eSellerPro there is a system that was a cool idea in the beginning and even today I’d personally class it as “insanely cool” and I bow to the developer that built the code behind this, it’s amazing.

This all boils down to the way that stock is managed over multiple sales channels and inventory records. But let’s keep it simple!

Say we have a pair of sunglasses that we have 10 in stock, we are selling these on eBay on two accounts, Amazon and our website, we can sell these sunglasses on all the sales channels and when the stock level decreases, then all the channels are updated, when we have stock arrive, then the stock levels are also updated.

But it doesn’t stop there with the channel profile you can set up minimum quantities to limit the risk of overselling, you can use it to calculate prices and it’ll list and delist products as your products come in and out of stock and also by it’s very name “Channel Profile”, you can have more than one profile doing different things for different products

So why is eSellerPro still the best of a bad bunch?

Their inventory system is designed for large multi-channel marketplace businesses, their import & export system is one of the best and most flexible systems out there and finally with the Channel Profile, you can have ultimate control over where and how products are listed.

And frankly what did you expect?

After all I genuinely did believe that eSellerPro was the last software product I would be helping create for multichannel businesses, this is clearly shown  six years on as it’s still the better choice of a bunch of providers out there.

I hope that helps you!

PS: If you’re one of the 3rd party software providers I just covered above and don’t like my summaries or explanations, make your software better, the keys to doing this are covered in the video :)

The Story Behind the eSellerPro & Magento Integration

I’d like to share with you the story behind the connector that integrates eSellerPro and Magento together, where it came from and where it is today.

It’s been quite a journey and it’s not 100% complete, the fact is it will never be and after throwing countless hours at it, but what is available today is pretty darn fast and as for configurable, well we’ll see how configurable it is as we dig in.

 

Looking Back

Looking back to the first time around to integrating Magento to eSellerPro it was a nightmare and dog-slow.

Working with the Magento core is relatively straight-forward once you’ve worked out where to look and have spend countless hours digging around what was created worked, but it was slow, maybe taking 17-20 seconds to build a configurable product, this time around we’re talking seconds to create a new or update product record (well 2.6 seconds on average).

The Reason Why

The reason why the connector was built in the first place was because one of the businesses I work with wanted Magento for their website, well even that has a story attached to it. I believed OpenCart was the better approach for them and the owner wanted Magento, so we had a duel of functionality & features, Magento won hands down for them and integrating it was the last challenge.

Keeping eSellerPro as the back-end tool for managing product data, categories, stock levels, reordering and order management was a complete no-brainer. We’re not looking to replace it, what the core of eSellerPro does is amazing (remember I worked there for 3 years, we built way-way-beyond cool stuff and the competing products don’t stand a chance for at least another year while the gain ground), we just wanted the best website technology possible and Magento fits that bill very well.

Matt, just integrate it properly

After us both getting frustrated after being told that Magento was “being” integrated fully into eSellerPro and no time-frame and with version Magento version 1.5 is already supported, but it not support inventory creation, I was just told “Matt, just integrate it properly“, so that’s what I’ve done.

Version 1.5?

Since then I’m working with 3 businesses that are using Magento 1.5 (as recommended to by eSellerPro), the thing is, it wasn’t until version 1.5.1.4 where PayPal Website Payments Pro was properly integrated into Magento, it had it as an option but that only worked if you were in the USA and prior to this version it just didn’t work.

We’re at version 1.7.0.2 today and while the majority of the features are the same or similar, Magento has been through two huge updates since 1.5 which was released almost 2 years ago (it’s so old it’s not even mentioned in their release notes). We’ve had version 1.6 released that had several structural updates made to it in August 2011 and the most recent version 1.7 which was with the 1.7 community edition being released in April 2012 and two minor updates since to bring us up to where we are today.

Note: If you’re looking for a reason on why you should upgrade from 1.5, take a look at this page which is the release notes for Magento version 1.7 and start scrolling. Yes that is 10 feet of page scrolling for fixes in version 1.7 alone!

Anyway, back to being told “Matt, just integrate it properly“, out came the weapon of choice, Notepad++ a text editor. I don’t think of myself as a developer or a coder, I just want to solve the challenges that the people I work with and if that means I have to get in and get dirty with coding, I will do. Since last October,I’ve not stopped working on the integration to Magento in one form or another.

The First Version

The first cut worked, we had orders being collected, orders being marked as shipped or being cancelled, stock and price updates coming through and the first revision of inventory loading working and I even had configurable products working too (that’s “variations” if you’ve not heard the term “configurable products” before).

I’ve done it” I said,
a pause of a few seconds went by…
done what exactly Matt?“,
integrated Magento for you, would you like to see it working?

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked and we could do everything that eSellerPro said they could do in 1.5, but crucially we could create products and update them too. We started to talk more and it turned out what I had written in the first version was perfectly adequate for one part of his business, “that’s amazing Matt, but my business partner who also sells out of our account too, he changes his eBay item specifics all the time, how does it cope with that?

Well, I had skirted around a couple of areas to get this working in under 3 weeks and one of those areas was around attributes or custom fields as you’ll know them by if you’re a user of eSellerPro. They had to be pre-created in Magento for them to be added to from custom fields or other fields from the product data feed from eSellerPro.

Leave it with me, I know what needs to be done. Is two weeks ok?” I said, it was agreed and I dug in.

The Second Version

During those two weeks, Christmas came & went and while taking two days off, the rest was spent on working on the connector. I had also considered that other businesses may want to use it as well, so a good chunk of this time was spent on making it versatile for it to be able to used by multiple businesses with multiple Magento sites.

It actually took me another 3 weeks to get it to the stage where it was intelligent to work out what the state of play was with the data and Magento site it’s connected too and it was able to work out what needed to be done and what had already been done (I’m being a little vague with this to ensure that I have some form of competitive advantage by the time you finish reading this).

Also during this time, I had one of those “Matt’s strange days”, it was a Friday and by the end of the day I had spoken to two other business owners on unrelated topics and they both had pretty much demanded that I also integrate their sites as well. My work over Christmas had paid off as I knew that I could do anything they threw at me and the connector with another 100 hours thrown at it would work amazingly for them.

So where are we today with the Magento connector?

I originally started with 4 user settings, right now as I skim down the config file a rough count is 320 separate options and that’s not including the arrays that are used to tackle the bespoke options that have come along and I’ve made versatile so that they can be used on other installations.

To give you some idea of what these settings do, here is an insight to a handful of them:

  • Decide if categories should be created and if so what statuses they should have as well, whether they should be included in the menu, active when created or set as an anchor category
  • What to do if there are no categories sent with a product
  • How and when to handle product variations
  • Whether we should be generating meta descriptions, keywords and titles and whether these should account for the data not coming from the standard fields in eSellerPro, but from custom fields or outside sources
  • How and when to create attributes and what to do in special circumstances
  • Whether related, upsell or cross-sell products should be created as part of the process
  • To include image labels (alt tags) with images or not and what to use as their labels
  • How to handle custom URL’s for products
  • What to do with tiered and grouped pricing
  • How to manage different variation types and what to do with them while being loaded to Magento
  • Which of the yes/no options for products in eSellerPro and where these options should be mapped to

And we’re not even scratching the surface. I’ve built in extensible arrays that can handle almost anything we throw at it and in short, it’s now at the stage where I can do almost anything we want.

Several key Magento extensions have been catered for now through the connector, my personal favourite is one that allows us to make images swap on colour choices on product detail pages which I’ll be documenting later this week (choose a colour on this item, neat eh?), data feed extensions for feeding out product data to Google Product ads, affiliate networks and also to provide stock & price control updates for external 3rd party just-in-time customers.

Flexible

There have been a couple of delays in the sites going live. Yes we’ve had bugs to iron out and bucket load of features that have been added in along with bespoke requests to handle, but what I’ve found is that while what I’ve written is perfectly capable handling the complexities of the data for getting data in and out of Magento quickly, the servers sat behind the sites have not been. If we combine in the learning curve for the business owners too with Magento and bringing their data up to scratch so that they can handle the functionality and features they really want, it’s been a little too long, hence why I’m working to a questionnaire I’ve put together that covers 41 topics to make them easier each time.

I had no illusions that this was going to be an easy task, multiple Magento versions and the thing is that no one server is like the other. We’ve burnt through 3 hosting providers already with the existing users of the connector, Magento really is a beast and unless we’re throwing quad cores and a minimum of 6Gb of ram at it, then it’s not going to be fast.

both myself and the connector have needed to be flexible

Thankfully I’ve managed moderately high traffic sites before, my UNIX skills are pretty good and the understanding of what needs to be done, can sometimes surpass the businesses own developers. I’m a curious person, it’s just the way I’m wired and I always ask.  This has been a life safer more than once and it’s always nice to be just told & trusted with “Matt here’s the root access details, just make it work” and crucially being able to make it work without screwing up everything in sight.

We ground one server to the floor loading 40,000 products in, we knew it was going to happen it was only a shared server. We didn’t expect the issues we had with running PHP has Fast CGI on the new dedicated server though, that took 5 hours to track down and solve, the last time I checked, the 40,000 products had been re-loaded and an extra 10,000 had be loaded on top.

Flexible is most apt word here, both myself and the connector have needed to be “flexible”. Flexible with the tech that the Magento site is being hosted on, the extensions that are being used and to dig in deep and solve the challenges that have had seasoned professionals stumped. Being an “all-rounder” and knowing eSellerPro inside out has helped to no end, oh and throwing as many hours as it has needed has really helped break the back of the most difficult of challenges.

Sites Going Live

I’m looking forward to sharing some of the stories with you on the move to Magento from the site owners themselves. Most have been through more than one site previously and are looking forward to moving to a super flexible platform, but keeping their sanity by using eSellerPro for all the back-office tasks.

The first site went live over a week ago, we’re already working on their second site and that will be replacing another eSellerPro website with Magento as the front end, but crucially keeping eSellerPro as product data store, stock control and order management tool. I’m expecting at least 3 more to go live in the next two weeks as well.

I have a 3 custom requests that I’m working on currently, but the one that I know you’re label as “oh my god that’s cool” if you’ve got any SEO background.

I’m working on an image renaming option. So that the less-than-SEO-friendly image names that are loaded into eSellerPro are renamed and processed to have delicious naming conventions that make it easy for Google to recognise and also easier for customers too. Cool eh?

In Summary

I didn’t expect for the integration to have gone so deep from the first conversation and being asked to “just integrate it properly“.  Wherever possible features and functionality are tied deeply back into eSellerPro, it’s the right approach as you can handle all the inventory data with ease, stock control & pricing and processing orders are far better off being processed in eSellerPro, but for the website side, Magento just rocks.

Recently I covered both Why You Should Not Use Magento and also Why You Should Use Magento and I can sum these up into one line, if you give it the resources it needs and you want the flexibility of an external website where you can do anything you want, then Magento is worth looking at as an additional or replacement site.

Now that the connector is robust enough, you can have it linked back to eSellerPro and have the best of both worlds. Would you like to know more?

Matt

2nd Impressions of Magento & eSellerPro Connector Update

In this post I’ll be sharing with you some of my findings so far after working for the past 3-4 months with multiple Magento sites.

Approximately 18 months ago, I worked deep into Magento for a clients site and I came out of that experience with some distorted impressions, now that Magento has progressed, I must say the second time around a lot more enjoyable.

The past week has been excellent fun and it’s looking likely that we’ll have 3 completed Magento to eSellerPro connectors completed and one live in the next few days. But before they go live, I’d like to share a few of the challenges we’ve had along the way and hopefully you can learn from them too.

Resource Hogging

By far the biggest challenge we’ve had has not been with the connector between eSellerPro and Magento itself, but the servers that the Magento sites are being hosted on.

In short, Magento is a beast and it needs lots of resources.

magento resource hoggingAnd when I say lots, I mean lots. Even 2 dedicated Xeon cores and 4Gb ram is still struggling to cope with ~15,000 products.

Granted a lot of these are variations (footwear), but even still it was being sold as “Magento Ready” VPS (Virtual Private Server from Vidahost) and so far it’s not been performing as well as one would have hoped. On another we got to 29K products on a shared hosting package and it did rather well in comparison, the only troubles we ran into there was that it’s proving slow to load and the other 50K products will have to wait until it’s moved on to a full dedicated server in the next day or two.

I’m now doubling my suggestion “that if you’re not paying £50 a month hosting fees then it’s not enough” to £100.

That means you can have a decent dedicated server to power the beast with plenty of room to grow and don’t have to worry about the number of connections and the amount of time a process is taking to run.

Oh and if you’re reading this thinking oh my goodness £100 for web hosting alone for a website… Then your right, it is expensive, but when you need flexible options and have large amounts of inventory, then Magento makes sense.

Common & Cool Magento Extensions

A couple of extensions have come to my attention and I think you should be aware of them too.

Magento Shipping Extension

Magento has some basic shipping options and also matrix rates that you can import via CSV, however these are not that flexible if you have complex rules and one extension that is being used by 4 sites so far is the “Product Matrix shipping extension“.

This extension is sick and if you want to see how configurable it is, see their Google document here which has exactly 1 squllion well documented examples included.

Image Switching for Variations

magento image swapping for variationsI was surprised that this didn’t work out of the box with Magento, it’s got every other feature you’d want, but image swapping when a variation such as a colour is selected from the drop-down box, nope.

Hidden in the depths of Google I found a really old article that showed  you how to set up images to swap on Magento’s configurable products using a £45 extension called “Magic Zoom Plus“. This extension adds the zoom window that we see on eBay listings, but it also opens the main image up into a lightbox too so the customer can see the full sized image.

Anyway… the core reason for wanting this extension is because if you set the variation products up to have images too (which the connector from eSellerPro Magento now does), you can select a colour option and the main image changes.

If you’d like to see this in action, have a look at this demo product on my Magento testing site (change one of the colour options in the drop-down box).

SagePay

sagepay_logoOne of my old nightmares was with PayPal Website Payments Pro and Magento, back at something like version 1.5.1 PayPal was in there but not actually working for the UK version. Two minor updates later and multiple calls to PayPal it was finally working, so when it came to SagePay and Magento, I was kinda hoping for a more pleasant experience.

To integrate SagePay is a piece of pie. I’ve now set this up several times and we’ve had it running in an hour, the extension you want is this one, it makes it easy and the SagePay Tech support team are ace.

M2ePro – Listing to eBay & Amazon from Magento

This is a topic for a different article really, but it’s of worthy mention.  M2ePro has come on leaps and bounds from what it used to be (“cranky” was one word for it) and it’s exceptionally flexible now.

While not the most well documented product out there, their support is amazing! We’ve had 2 minute replies continuously for any questions we had and there are so many options to fill your boots with.

The setup wizards are OK, but some of the options are not well explained and we’ve found a few things that need to be setup just right for them to work. But it’s promising and I’m hoping to release a full step-by-step guide to getting up and running with M2ePro in the next few weeks, plus I’d like to get the business up and running on it first and can use that as a reference point.

eSellerPro to Magento Connector Updates

eSellerProWe’re so close to having our first Magento site that is powered by the connector I’ve built between eSellerPro live, literally 2-3 days and I can’t wait to share!

The data transformation needed has gone through multiple stages of development now and the process the data goes through has had major revisions. It’s running approximately 14.4 times faster than it was before (I time each transaction and log it) for small batches and for larger batches, the speed increase is almost exponential because of the way the data is now being handled. If I lost you with that lot, basically it runs fast when creating or updating products.

When the connector was first written I only hand a handful of settings, today there are 148 settings that completely change the way the connector works between eSellerPro and Magento for all parts of the integration, inventory creation, stock & price updates, order collection and of course updating orders back in Magento too, allowing for it to be completely customised to each installation and data sets that the business has.

To give you some idea of the flexibility the connector has, here is a glimpse of what the Magento to eSellerPro connector can do right now:

  • More Magento Versions Supported
    Supports Magento version 1.7.X and confirmed working with Magento 1.5.X as well
  • Category Creation
    Creates categories on-the-fly and with configurable options as well. Such as making the category active by default, including it in the menu or even setting it as an anchor category
  • Category Blocking
    Category blocking to block specific categories from being created, which is super handy when someone has old categories that they need to ignore or use elsewhere
  • Data Cleansing
    Category cleaning, so that moving from an existing website to Magento is much (much) easier and can mean that the category tree can stay the same temporarily while the product data is updated. There are a few amazingly sick things I’m not going to share around the categories, but they make the moving from one site to another a lot easier.
  • Up to 5 Variation Styles Supported
    Variations or configurable products are supported and now up to 5 different attribute sets can be catered for dynamically and they’re matched to the right visibility. Oh and if they’re all out of stock, guess what the master product is marked as inactive as well.
  • Dynamic Attribute Creation
    You’ll know these as custom fields from eSellerPro, but in Magento they’re called “Attributes” and these are created dynamically and with what-ever options you like by default too. Want to swap the type to another type such as a dropdown or text area, the connector now checks for attribute type changes so not to slow down the loading process.
  • Data Transformation
    The value of specific Custom fields can be transformed at the load time, for example one user has a full URL for a YouTube video that they wanted porting to a specific attribute in Magento, we had three options, update eSellerPro, hack the site’s template or just let the connector strip the URL part and load only the YouTube video ID.
  • Cross Selling in & Tested
    Related, upsell and cross-sell products are now fully supported from being set in eSellerPro in the “Related/Kits” tab and they’re loaded automatically and controlled back in eSellerPro where you can import and export all you like.
  • Tiered Pricing & Groups
    Customer pricing groups are in and tested and up to 10 groups are supported. These are handy for sites where you have B2C and B2B going on. Oh and tiered pricing (which is price breaks upon quantity) is also in and working.

 

Payment Processing WarningsPaypal Logo

During the setup process for these sites, I’ve noticed that that both PayPal and SagePay have been being set to AUTH and not SALE transactions.

Just in case one of these slips through to a live site environment or is changed at a later date, there are some massive warnings sent on orders to eSellerPro now that make it really clear that the site is set up as AUTH and not SALE (there is an option to block them from being sent and also turn the warning off as well).

If you’re wondering what the differences is, the SALE version means you get paid, the AUTH version means you only authorised the payment but haven’t taken it yet.

Spotted the problem yet? :)

Magento Theme Support

The differences between a well written and a botched theme are now becoming apparent.

Some themes look like they have been written by a blind baboon, but others are so well written they’re amazing.

Some themes look like they have been written by a blind baboon

I mentioned the use of the YouTube video integration earlier, this was dead simple with what one of the designer guys had done, literally pop it in and it worked and if you wanted the extra flexibility of sizing, you could set those via attributes or using a simple syntax for the attribute.

One of the connectors has been set up to manage custom containers and blocks as part of the loading & updating process for products, so that the actual product layout page can be set up and managed eSellerPro and the site changes accordingly, it’s soooo sick, I’m going to have to show you how this works in a later article too.

Anyway we digress.

Magento, second time around has been an enjoyable experience. Not without it’s frustrations though, the entire core of the product appears to be undocumented and not a wiff of a comment anywhere which makes extending it a real challenge at times, but what can be done with it is pretty darn cool.

Am a convert yet from OpenCart? Maybe… but as I dig in deeper, they’re chalk and cheese.

What do you think of Magento?

What’s your thoughts on Magento? Have you used it for your site are you thinking about it or maybe you’ve been looking at something else… Let me know in the comments box below, I’d love to hear from you.

Matt

What is Order Aggregation & How Can it Help Your Business?

Aggregating orders from multiples sales channels is one of the main features in 3rd party software, but what are the benefits of doing this and how can it help your business?

I delve deeply into order aggregation in this article and explain how this can help your business tackle multiple sales channels and still leave you with (some) hair.

I’ve also included a video accompany this article and I would value any feedback you have in relation to the aggregation of orders from multiple sales channels, maybe this is something you take for granted through your current provider or maybe it’s something you’re pulling your hair out with right now. Let me know in the comments box at the bottom, I’d love to hear from you.

 

Order Aggregation Video Overview

What is Order Aggregation?

This is a process that collects orders from more than one source and aggregates them into a single location, this could be into your own system or that of a 3rd party.

Simply put, while you may be able to manage one, even two sales channels and even possibly three with a low velocity of sales and/or inventory, the moment you try to scale the business or add any increase in sales or inventory you’re going to run into a brick wall.

Order aggregation at any level of complexity can help you and your business deal with sales orders from one or more sales channels in a structured manner.

Winding Back to the Order Life Cycle

Let’s consider the typical life cycle of an order before we dig any deeper into this subject. We make one or more products available on one or more sales channels for customers to buy, this could be eBay, Amazon, your website(s) and maybe even a trade counter or retail store or may be many stores.

A customer commits to purchase one or more items and an order is formed. We may take payment straight away (cash over the counter or electronically) or the payment could be delayed (think eBay here) and some common details are taken and we then need to process the order.

For orders taken over the counter in a store or trade counter are orders that require little packaging in most instances, however for orders that need to be fulfilled by a delivery process you will likely need to create any documentation to pick & pack the line items and then possibly bespoke courier labels to prepare the order for despatch.

Once the order has been despatched, then typically with most online order sources, we need to update the channel source with common details, such marking the order as despatched and some other luxury data, such as the method, time of despatch and tracking details. We may also desire to email the customer to let them know that their order has been processed and despatched.

In the background, for the line items on the order, we need to keep track of their quantities, which is super important when dealing with multiple sales channels, so we can notify the other sales channels of stock updates or maybe to identify that the stock level for one or more products has fallen below a set level and a re-ordering process needs to be triggered.

Typically when you first started your business with one of the online channels, keeping just one channel up to date is relatively straight forwards for low volumes of orders, however as soon as we mix in multiple sales channels, a high velocity of orders and/or large inventory base, keeping everything in-tow can be an impossible task to complete manually.

Locating software that can solve all or part of this process can be hugely beneficial to the efficiency of the business, resulting in costs savings and sanity of the staff & business owners. It’s these benefits that I delve into for the rest of the article.

Benefits of Order Aggregation

Even if we just had two eBay accounts, logging out of one account and then into the other is cumbersome and time-consuming, as we’re duplicating the effort placed to process orders. It’s amplified when we have many order sources, in some cases to the point it would be almost impossible to do so.

Single Interface to All Orders

If we imagine that you have several order sources, these could be two eBay accounts, Amazon Seller Central or Marketplace, two websites and the desire to take manual orders in a retail or trade store aggregating the orders together for unified processing can by hugely beneficial and even if you have just one sales channel.

However, if we mix in the other features of the software providers offer, making use of a single orders screen can be an added feature to gain efficiency.

Customer Services

By bringing in orders from two or more sources into a single location can be hugely beneficial. Not only for ease of processing orders in mass, but also as a single reference point for all processes relating to orders, thus lowering the time spent by customer services in resolving order-related issues.

Some applications also include the ability to process payments & refunds from the orders screen. besides the obvious of not having to jump to a different system to conduct such an action(s), a by-product is that you are easily able to administer this and keep a history of the transactions have been made (such as who, when, why and for what amount in a refund).

Platform Specific Functions & Marketplace Integrations

If the order system that you use also has direct integrations back to the order sources, such as eBay, Amazon or Magento, then payment processing issues can be tackled from a single interface. For example if we need to check a PayPal payment or to make a refund, instead of giving all the members of staff the login details, it can be controlled in the orders system so that this is no longer needed and depending upon the system used, an audit history can be maintained for referencing later if needed.

If we pick on eBay for a few moments (as this marketplace certainly has some platform specific functions!), just because we received an order, this doesn’t mean we were actually paid for the order.

eBay have the disputes process that is unique to eBay and when processing large amounts of orders, the amount of unpaid orders can become a concern to your business (turning on immediate payments doesn’t suit all businesses). Some software applications allow the automatic processing of disputes back to eBay, so that stock  that isn’t going to be paid for, can be released with the minimum amount of effort of you or your staff and with minimal time lag. So that the order can either be committed to that customer (after payment) or released back onto the sales channels for resale.

Amazon is not without its quirks, specifically around the fact that unless you mark an order as shipped you don’t have the funds released for that order. So being able to mark multiple orders as despatched from multiple locations and then the system going back to update the different sales channels to confirm they’ve been shipped can not only keep customer service communications down to a minimum (especially if you include the despatch method, time and tracking information), but to also to get paid for those orders.

Amazon also keep track on how quickly you despatch orders, remember Amazon only cares about ITS customers, then if you consistently ensure that your orders are processed ASAP for this channel and keep within their allowed levels (and far higher than these are strongly suggested) then you will ultimately benefit from a stronger relationship from them.

Here are some examples of what such an integrations could offer you:

  • Leaving feedback when orders are shipped
  • eBay dispute integration for unpaid orders
  • Marking orders as shipped when marked as shipped in the orders screen. In the case of Amazon this means getting paid for the order.
  • Updating the sales channels with the despatch method and tracking number, so the customer can see these details within their marketplace account

Business Rules

A by-product of being able to collect the orders from multiple channels is that you are able to process business rules on the orders. You might become confused here with these, this is not as simple as matching the delivery method chosen by the customer to the right order, that’s just matching, I’m talking about business rules and I’ll explain these now.

Business rules might be as simple as if an order arrives and is over 2Kg, then a courier should be used as the despatch method. Maybe if an order has an order value over £30 and as such its deemed by the business that it would be safer to send via a courier or a recorded method of delivery. Not just the shipping method that the customer chose at the time of checkout.

Also couriers are renowned for having exceptions to their services and typically there is either a delay in posting to certain locations or an extra charge. By applying a business rule (or several) to your orders, you could create an exceptions list of postcodes and select a different despatch option.

An excellent example of this is Northern Ireland, almost all couriers charge a premium for delivery to this location. Lets say we receive an order from Amazon and there is two line items and normally these would be sent via a courier, however because the courier wants $10 more to this location, using a service such as Royal Mail tracked would be more suitable. Its still relatively quick and it’s a traceable method, but works out cheaper than the main courier and has the attributes not found with normal Royal mail offerings.

Here are some of the attributes of orders that you may want to apply business rules to when processing them:

  • Order Source
  • Shipping service selected by the customer
  • The value of the shipping selected by the customer
  • Order value
  • Weight
  • Quantity
  • The destination of the order (postcode/zipcode, state, region and/or country)

Unified Processing & Documentation (Including Email Notifications)

Integrated Label ExampleAnother benefit of aggregating orders is that all the orders can be processed in the same process, so that could be the same (or similar) despatch documents, thus saving an array of custom documents to each order source and standardising the entire pick, pack and despatch process.

Obviously I’m guessing that you would desire customisation to the despatch documents, as if we have one part of our business branded in a certain fashion and another part to another, ensuring that the documentation is either universal or customised to the sale source would highly beneficial.

Depending upon the software being used, some allow you to fully customise each document, this could be the picking slip, shipping document and invoices. These documents could also be depending on the shipping method set by the business rules be customised paper stock, for example if the order has been allocated to Royal Mail 1st or 2nd class, then the document printed could include the PPI label, so  there is no need to stamp or add a stock for this.

The paper stock could also include an integrated label, so that once the contents of the order have been checked, you peel off the label, pop it on the front of the package and then spike the sheet or pop the rest of the sheet into the package itself for the customers reference.

Going beyond the paper documents, we must not forget email notifications. It’s quite possible to include a PDF version of the invoice for the order in the order despatched email and also for the email notifications to be tailored to each business identity and order source. Of course if you have the courier details from a courier integration to the orders aggregation software, then including the tracking information (and ideally links to track the order) could be a huge win for your business.

Despatch Process

If you can imagine that you have your orders in a single place of reference and have control over the documentation and business rules being applied to your orders, then we shouldn’t forget the ability to find a process of despatching orders that works well for your business.

Some businesses have really simple despatch processes, this could be a single document that fulfils multiple roles, such as invoice, picking slip and shipping list. Whereas another business may require barcode scanning of orders and products to ensure the accuracy of the despatched orders.

Whereas others may be required to enter or scan a serial number of the product being shipped in the order, for security or tracking. Having a software product where the despatch process can be altered, either globally for all orders or specific order parts can be hugely beneficial when working out a despatch process that works for you.

To add an extra dimension here, it’s not uncommon for a business to be looking at the despatch process and idealising other people’s businesses when it comes to order efficiency. The biggest eye-opener for me personally was during a visit to Expeditors in Avonmouth, Bristol.

This company specialises in warehousing and despatch of orders for 3rd party companies (amongst several other services). When I queried the team over despatch process and whether they used a unified process, the eye-opener was that for each business they worked with, they each had a tailored despatch process. Some had barcode scanning, some had picking lists for later processing and some just had a single sheet for all the despatch functions.

Stock Control

If your orders are being collected to a single location, then if we know what your stock level was before the order was received and the amount sold. We know what your true stock level is and this can be uesed to update the other sales channels where you are selling the same inventory.

This process varies from system to system, but the crux of this process is exactly the same, we know what we had to begin with, we know we have X number less and where from and where the item is being sold to, thus we know where we need to update with the latest stock level, so that we still achieve maximum market exposure of our products, but minimise the risk of overselling.

Note: See this article relating to the eSellerPro Channel Profile which is a process that does just this.

Accepting Manual Orders

One order source that we shouldn’t overlook is manual orders, these could be orders taken over the phone or trade orders. By allowing these to enter the normal despatch process can also be a huge win. Taking an order over the phone, checking stock levels and taking payment can be a tricky task when using multiple sales channels and without this basic information to hand, it can be impossible.

By having ALL the information about your inventory in a single place and being able to process an order with this information at your (or your staff’s) finger tips can make a call with a customer into a few minutes rather than 10’s of minutes and saving awkward situations of taking an order and not actually having the stock available to fulfil the order.

External Fulfilment

Not every company fulfils their orders internally, with the process of fulfilment becoming cheaper and cheaper and whole host of specialised companies out there that are capable of dealing with both stocked and just in time despatch (ProFS and Expeditors are two good examples of these).

With such orders, you can either allow the 3rd party company access to your orders or even in some cases integrate to their EDI or API systems for automated exchanges of the order data for them to fulfil the orders for you.

How Can it Help Your Business?

Bringing orders from multiple sources to a single orders screen will give you an exceptional business advantage. You can see your orders, process them in-mass, most likely be able to integrate with couriers, expedite the time it takes to process issues in customer services, apply business rules to the orders and have a clear picture of what is happening in your business, right now.

Going to the extreme, any and I mean any! order aggregation software will help your business become more efficient.

The processes in even less ‘evolved’ applications will allow you to process your orders more effectively and apply one or more processes to your despatch process. Some applications will go much, much deeper and allow for the full customisation of the processes, documentation and integrations involved with collecting orders from multiple sources.

Your Feedback

Maybe this is something you take for granted through your current software or maybe it’s something you’re pulling your hair out with right now. Let me know in the comments box at the bottom, I’d love to hear from you.

Updating Kit Product Costs in eSellerPro Automatically

In ecommerce unique products are like goldOne of the most powerful features in eSellerPro is its ability to manage Kits. Kits are made up of multiples of a single SKU or multiple SKU’s but taken together produce a new product and one which can be unique.

In ecommerce unique products are like gold

Kits in eSellerPro are very cool and John knows first hand how powerful the use of these kits are, but there is one part of the kits that is not ideal, updating the kit prices. John shows us how to tackle this challenge using a little excel magic.

Before we dive into how to tackle updating kit prices in eSellerPro, John is absolutely right, In ecommerce unique products are like gold and we cover over free or inexpensive ways of leveraging kits aptly named Podcast sell more with the same products and this can work for anyone whether they’re using eSellerPro or not.

 

eSellerPro & Versatile Inventory

We were able to create an inventory system in eSellerPro that enabled users to deal with the complexities of inventory management, multiple sales channels and the requirements needed for larger businesses.

The outcome of this is what you see in eSellerPro today and while we’re focusing on kits, they make up just one part of the inventory system, there are several inventory types in eSellerPro, such as Master SKU’s, Listing SKU’s, Stocked Sub SKU’s, Variation SKU’s, a rare type called Holding SKUs and Kits which we’ll focusing on in this article.

eSellerPro Kit Products

One of the benefits of using eSellerPro for kit products is its ability to manage the stock which makes up the kit. In short kits are amazing.

It’s possible to sell individual SKU’s [say a camera case], as well as Kits of SKU’s [a camera and a case] and eSellerPro will keep the stock accurate. Thus it’s possible to hold say just 10 SKU’s yet make up 100’s of unique products (or close to a million in one case).

The Downside of Kit Products in eSellerPro

While eSellerPro does an excellent job in keeping the stock levels correct, so you don’t oversell every 2 minutes with complex inventory, but it does not count the individual SKU costs in the kit. This is where the guide that follow steps in and makes it easy for you to do so.

So if your selling price is based on the item costs there will be manual work to do in calculating the cost price of the kits. For many of you, your suppliers regularly change pricing then this addition work can seriously negate the benefits of kits. This is especially true if you use formulas to calculate selling prices in your Channel Profiles. Additionally if you post accounts to accounting software your cost of goods lines may be incorrect.

Thanks to John, Help is at Hand

If you are familiar with importing and exporting in eSellerPro then there is a simple way in which your kit costs can be updated.

Here’s one way how to do it and if you know a better way let us know!

Step 1 – Backup!
Before you start export your kits and save the export somewhere safe.
(You can do this using the process explained in step 4)

Step 2 – Create the Layout
Now create an Import/Export Layout with the following columns:

  • StockNumber
  • CostEach

An example of such a layout is below, with the key areas highlighted.

eSellerPro Custom Export Layout

Step 3- Search, Filter & Export
Sort your inventory by ‘Kit Parts’ and export these with this layout. Save the export spreadsheet. Lets call it “StockNumberCostEach.xls”.

A screen shot on how to filter for just the kit parts is show in the screen shot below.

eSellerPro Filter Kit Products

Step 4 – Export the Kits Using the Standard Kits Layout
Using the search filter in Inventory, search for the Product Type: “Kits” and along top press the Excel icon. Now export these using the layout shown below:

eSellerPro Export Kit Products

The resulting spreadsheet will have columns with Stock Number and Quantity for all the kit parts in your kits.

Step 5 – Crack Open Excel

We are going to use Excels VLOOKUP function to find the individual parts prices and add them up.

Once you have your Kit Export Spreadsheet you will need to copy the StockNumberCostEach.xls spreadsheet to a new worksheet in the Kit Export Spreadsheet.

You can then use the VLookup formulas in the following download to calculate the kit pricing. A typical cell formula is similar to this:

=(VLOOKUP(B3,’Parts Pricing’!$A$1:$B$671,2,FALSE))*C3

If we just lost you, don’t worry, John’s provided us with an excel spreadsheet ready for use. You can download this spreadsheet, with the formula’s included here:

http://lastdropofink.co.uk/kits-Formula.zip

Excel Worksheet for eSellerPro Kits

This spreadsheet assumes your kit part pricing export has been copied to a worksheet called “Part Pricing” and it has formulas for kits with up to 17 parts. (scroll to the right if you can’t see them).

Add the data from the two exported sheets for the kits and the kit parts and enter them into the sheet above.

Note: If you have kits with more just follow the formulas given and don’t forget to copy the results and use “Paste As Values”. You can then delete all the columns except the StockNumber and final Prices.

Step 6 – Import Into eSellerPro
Then simply import the spreadsheet using your StockNumberCostEach.xls layout as the “Import Kits” option on the same tab as shown in Step 4.

Step 7 – Create a Support Ticket
Finally – Send eSellerPro a request to add automatic updating of kit costs to their development schedule.
(this was John’s suggestion and I’m leaving this in, I laughed very loudly when I first read his guide, I hope you do too!)

Updating Kits in eSellerPro Summary

Kits whether in eSellerPro or not can give your business the edge and also help customers by combining products into new products so the purchasing process is a lot simpler for them.

The base of this article was provided by John Hewitt from Bamford Trading, an eSellerPro user since 2006. I’d like to express my thanks to John for sharing this with us and if you have any questions, just pop them in the comments box below.

Delving into Niches with Multiple Websites – Part 1 Why & How

Hola! Welcome to the first part of a series of articles on how to run multiple niche websites and really tap into multi-channel eCommerce without eBay & Amazon.

Multiple eCommerce WebsitesI have been meaning to write this series for quite some time now and it’s going to take me a while to work through the different aspects I’d like to cover, hence breaking it up into multiple parts which will take me a few weeks to cover.

It’s my intention to start from the beginning in this article and cover the theory, then in the following articles work through turning the theory into practice to reach the final goal of you being able to run multiple web stores from a a single installation and really tap into the power of going niche.

I know I’m going to get distracted along the way, this is for good reason, I’m going to be focusing on a single open source eCommerce platform called “OpenCart” to deploy this concept with you and there are a couple of extensions that I’d like to include as part of this guide, this includes a free to use addon that will enable you to sell on eBay from OpenCart and also to delve into an Amazon integration as well.

To be completely up front with you, I have developed a complete integration from eSellerPro to OpenCart and while it would be handy if you have eSellerPro to power multiple websites from, I’d like to stress that this is not a requirement and I’ll be keeping this in mind throughout the series of articles as I delve into the how to power multiple nice websites with OpenCart.

So for now in this first article, let’s focus on the “Why” and start on the “How” parts.

 

Why?

I’m fully converse with deploying numerous selling persona’s on eBay & Amazon. I’ve done this previously with +15 accounts and I know of one company that has taken this & thrown it to the wall and has over 30 limited companies all specialising in niches just on eBay.

I previously wrote a pair of articles that desperately need a rewrite that covered why using multiple eBay accounts might be a good idea (you can read them here and here). As I mentioned, they need a rewrite and let’s summarise these, as the theory is straight forwards and comes back to a just three key factors,  these are:

  • Timing
  • Personal choice
  • External factors

For the vast majority of manufactured goods, you are not the only company selling them, thus every single day, customers choose your competitors over you. There are an infinite number of reasons for this, timing, colour scheme, layout, description, title are a few factors.

Also, an interesting set of factors that I delved into a while ago was that there is a limit to the exposure for a given sales platform on a given day. This was started because I could see no viable reason why eBay sales should stay consistent within a specific window of 20% on a single day.

So let me ask you two specific questions here, if the response is anything like the one I normally receive back, this is exactly why you need to carry on reading this series of articles:

  1. By midday, can you make an estimate within 10% on the total value of sales for that day? (if you’ve not tried this yet, try it)
  2. Look at the sales totals for each day over the past two weeks. Do they stay within a 20% window?

Yep thought so. I’ve found some business owners that use eBay & Amazon can estimate their daily sales figures to the nearest £100 quite accurately just using that morning sales and others that can be well within 1-3% window on daily sales values in excess of £15K per day. The thing is, that’s not natural.

It’s what lead me to write a pair of articles, the first called “Why do eBay Sales Stay Consistent?” and the second to explore a hypothesis, that why I cannot prove, but I’d bet money on it or a subset of what I cover being in place, because its exactly what I would do, the article is here and called “The eBay “Best Match” Position Bias Modifier Hypothesis“.

I know I’ve not fully answered the “why” part just yet, but I need to explore a sub-topic, around choices. That’s next up :)

Choices, Choices, Choices

Choices, Choices, Choices. Which Colour do you like?While timing can be pure fluke (when they find your product) and I’ve already made a case for external factors in the earlier section, the one factor that you can most easily influence is choice.

Buyers like choices, I like choices, but what influences my choice of which company to buy from, especially to what influences my partner to what she buys on eBay can vary greatly. Sometimes its just the way the product data is laid out, sometimes its gallery picture, sometimes it’s the sellers feedback, shipping prices, the colours used, the photographs, the list is almost endless.

The fact is here, is that I, as any of your potential customers may open your product listing and “not like it” and move to the next one. It could ironically be for the same product. It doesn’t matter, the point is, I have personal tastes on what I like and so do your customers.

This is one reason “why” you should consider multiple persona’s for your selling activities. For example you could one persona set up as a full professional looking business and the second the complete inverse, maybe one account that just uses variations, one that does not, one that as separate listings for each product variation and there are a whole host of possibilities, as soon as you break away from the “single business” approach.

And back to Why?

I wanted to cover the choices section in some detail, mainly because it’s the easiest to understand, I like black, but you may like blue, that means we will respond differently to different pages, it’s a quirk of being human, we have different tastes.

Going back to the three key points, Timing, Personal choice, External factors. Your product may be overlooked, it might even not be shown for a specific search and being at the right place at the right time can and does play a role in the ultimate goal of the customer buying your product. We’ve looked at personal choice in some depth and I’ve already hinted that when using marketplaces that external factors such as my hypothesis for when it comes to “best match” search results, the worrying part is that is exactly what I would do.

These are just some of the reasons why you should consider a multi-faceted approach to eCommerce and I’m sure you can think of more reasons why this approach makes good sense (if you have any you’d like to share, let me know in the comments box at the bottom).

I’m fully converse with deploying numerous selling persona’s on eBay & Amazon, but for websites, this can also be tough nut to crack, mainly because it can be expensive and the results take time to take effect, hence this article series.

Going Niche of Niche

WorldStores +70 StoresIf you have a wide range of products, then it can be relatively straight forwards to slice your products up into groups and create persona’s for each group.

I’m not going to be covering how to do this with eBay here, but instead focusing on a different way of approaching this through multiple eCommerce websites over a couple of articles.

An excellent example of this is in the real world is WorldStores, take a look at this page. That’s over 70 dedicated websites  Each site is niche site to a specific range of products and this is the opportunity & challenge I’m going to be tackling in this series of articles. How to go multi-channel with multiple websites, on a budget.

If you’d like a corporate example see shopdirect.com that are responsible for Littlewoods, Very, Isme (previously Marshall Ward), K&Co (previously Kays) and the other is thehutgroup.com, they have at least a dozen eBay accounts that I know of and if they had 30, I’d not be be surprised, let alone the assortment of highly specialised “Niche” websites.

Which website platform to use?

If we pick on a few examples Magento can be, sorry “is” a resource hog, to run multiple websites off Magento (or even one larger site for that matter) then you’re going to need specialised hosting, which costs, its far from a simple platform to use and as soon as you mention “Magento”, all costs go up a minimum of 60%.

If we look at the bespoke offerings from eSellerPro, then cost, features & time to deploy is a major factor here and if we look at the ASPdotnetStoreFront from ChannelAdvisor, ignoring the setup costs & design fees, the £200 a month is a non-starter for each niche website.

We need cheap, we need ease of use, some snazzy functions that don’t require massive amounts of processing power & can be run on a shared web hosting account, an arsenal of free or inexpensive themes, an extensions & addons base that is varied and equally inexpensive and that’s why I’m picking on one of my favourite open source website platforms called OpenCart.

If you’ve not seen OpenCart before, then I think its about time you did. You can see both the front end of the base installation of OpenCart and the administration panels through their demostration sites here.

For me OpenCart makes an excellent choice, the admin is easy and the front end is feature rich. It’ll happily run on shared hosting accounts, its free, the themes are super cheap and crucially…. get this!! It will run multiple webstores from a single installation!

Summary & Your Feedback Please!

We know that niche works, I’m in a niche, you’re in a niche. But there are so many sub-niches we can get into with a product based business, we just need a cost effective route to do so and that’s exactly what I’ll be digging into in this series of articles using OpenCart as a base.

My closing questions are below and you can let me know your reply in the comments box below.

  1. Have you considered creating niche websites before? What stopped you?
  2. Do you already have niche websites, what has been your experiences so far?
  3. What would you like to see in this series of articles?

I look forward to hearing from you :)

Two Week Update & eSellerPro to BigCommerce Integration

This post is a mainly about what I’ve been up to for the past two weeks,  but you’ll soon work out its mostly just for you :)

BigCommerceI’ve now completed the full integration of eSellerPro to the Big Commerce website platform and are on the home run of the bug finding & eyeing up further customisation to the account it’s running from.

If you’ve not heard of BigCommerce before it’s a fully hosted website solution which isn’t expensive (especially as its in USD). The more I’ve played with it, the more I like it, its straight forwards, can be designed with bespoke designs and guess what… it just works :)

Give it a whirl, here is a demo account I created which is open for the next 15 days.

With the error trapping I’ve added in the 6 hour coding bender on Saturday, if it does go tilt (which it will do sooner or later[you won’t hear that from normal developers]) it’ll be obvious where it has gone Pete-Tong and as much as I’d love to boast about a few of the ways I’ve tackled some interesting features, I’m not going to and I’m just saying its “slick”.

This is the first time I’m publicly eluding to the fact that I’ve written API connectors from eSellerPro to 3rd parties and it’s not the first, more like the 4th now. I have CubeCartOpenCart & a web based EPOS solution next on my agenda for integration projects, oh and I have a sickly fast Magento integration.

Remember I’m aware the way and what data needs to flow between such tools and as I’m a perfectly capable coder in multiple languages, this is handy as I’m not BS’d by 3rd parties and also I’m realistic with timescales and what can and cannot be done.

If you’ve got a 3rd party integration requirement to eSellerPro/another provider or alternatively you’re interested in the eSellerPro to BigCommerce integration you can contact me here.

Internet Retailing Expo 2012

This year’s event was a weird one for me, I didn’t go to visit any stands, instead I attended to meet people and frankly if they didn’t know me already I didn’t pay them any attention. Instead, I got to speak to the cool people.

I did see one presentation though, it was the team from My1stWish & eSellerPro’s Eamonn, the recording is supposed to be released this week, I’ll pop it up as a post once it’s been made public.

After refusing to pay £34 to get home 2 hours earlier late on Thursday night, I grabbed a Sub & stacked up on more caffeine and there it hit me, the sickest idea I have had in years was conceived. I cannot believe it’s never been done before and you’ll facepalm when they see the finished product. I will be pushing for it to be released with a global free option for smaller businesses, more on this in the next few months.

Advanced eBay Listing Creation Tool Pending Upgrade

This one has been a programming nightmare for me, I didn’t know what was involved in getting this working until now & if I did I wouldn’t have started it.

The IF & IFNOT logic that powers the largest multichannel businesses is about to go mainstream and I’m only a few days away from adding it to the processing core of the advanced eBay listing builder.

If the IF & IFNOT logic testing is new to you, it’s a method to programmatically work with data to make the data you input such as images and bullet points show and hide if or if not they’re entered, which means you can break the listing data away from the template design that makes the listing look “pretty”.

An example is below, so that if {{Image1}} is blank it won’t bring through the image into the template.

[[IFNOT/{{Image1}}// <img src=”{{Image1}}” /> ]]

This is a basic example, as it’s normally better to load image URL’s into a JavaScript array, however, this will be available for ALL the data entry fields and I will be providing use-case examples shortly & support in the forums.

We’re due for some tutorials as well for the tool, the more people I talk to who cannot whose business does not warrant even the first stage tools, they need a tool like this to put the efficiency in their business for both data input and presentation.

I’ve not forgotten the integration into WordPress which will allow me to offer you some heavily customised features per user including customised listing templates, account defaults and… I now have the code finished for the killer feature that is missing from nearly ALL eBay listings which isn’t even a paid for addon by design companies and guess what it’s going to be… free. More on this as soon as the artwork is completed which will be under 2 weeks.

Summary

So a quiet two weeks for blogging, but I’m doing battle with a spoon, I can’t wait to explain what that means, maybe a video this week?

I’d like to thank those who have registered for the forums, if you haven’t yet, its free and you can register here and as you’ll see by the couple of recent threads, you’ll get quality replies back (amongst my gibberish :) ), see you there?

Auto Creation of Logic Tested CustomFields in eSellerPro Using Excel

eSellerProCustomFields in eSellerPro is exceptionally useful, by their very title they’re “custom”. But to make the most from them, you’ll be needing to logic test them and hide the ones that are empty. That’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this guide.

I’ve created a CustomFields group called ‘Default’ and included a couple of standard fields. If you see the custom fields that are included, this really could be for any category of products that are used on eBay.

Group Name Name Display Field Type Display Order Visible Item Specifics
Default DF_Colour Colour 1 1 yes yes
Default DF_Dimension Dimension(cm) 1 1 yes yes
Default DF_Manufacturer Manufacturer 1 1 yes yes
Default DF_Material Material 1 1 yes yes
Default DF_MPN MPN 1 1 yes yes
Default DF_Type Type 1 1 yes yes
Default DF_Type_2 Type 2 1 1 yes yes
Default DF_Warranty Warranty 1 1 yes yes

 

Logic Testing

The issue is that when we list an item to eBay with these values, then eSellerPro is smart enough not to send the fields that have empty values, however in the description of your eBay listing (or Amazon profile or paragraph for that matter) so we need to logic test them.

Tip: Never use the CustomFields description tab to store descriptions, always use the paragraph builder.

To logic test them properly we need to wrap a statement around the fields.  There are three types of logic tests we can run these are:

  1. IF – If the value matches
  2. IFNOT – If the value does not match
  3. IFNOT/ELSE – If the value does not match and an alternative

I’m not going to cover how these logic tests work any further, I’ve already covered these in this article, so just roll with me on this one as I’ll be providing you an excel formula and example spreadsheet at the end of this article for you to use in your descriptions.

Using the table above as the example, if the colour is empty then ideally we’d not want to show it in the description area, so we would write the following:

{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour]]// {{CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour}} }}

Note: The “square brackets” are to stop forward slashes and other odd characters from breaking the value to check against.

That’s pretty easy to write one or two, but what happens when you have 10 or even 40 of them and how on earth do you cope with wrapping the contents into a table structure?

Easy, we use excel :)

Yep its really straight forwards in excel, but before we can do that, open your eSellerPro account and follow these steps:

  1. Go to Maintenance on the left menu
  2. Approximately 4-5 icons down click on “CustomFields”
  3. At the top there is an excel icon, press it
  4. Select the option called “Export all Custom Fields”
  5. Save the file to your desktop
  6. Open it

You’ll now have all the fields in your account. We are now going to edit this file and its really important that you do not import this sheet back into eSellerPro. Don’t do it, I’ve never tried it and I’d not like to do so either.

So in Cell I2, enter this formula:

=”{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:”&A2&”:”&B2&”]]// {{CustomFields:”&A2&”:”&B2&”}} }}”

This will make something like this:

{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour]]// {{CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour}} }}

Sweet eh? Now grab the bottom right corner of cell I2 and drag it down. You now have the basic version which you can copy/paste to anywhere you like such as your eBay template, a paragraph, an Amazon template and so on…

Creating Tables

Creating tables using this method is a little more tricky but perfectly do-able. First we need to not that the following functions will not make the opening <TABLE> and closing </TABLE> tags, you’ll need to add these in afterwards, but hey the hard work is done by copy & paste :)

So this time instead of entering the formula above, we’ll use this formula in cell I2:

=”{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:”&A2&”:”&B2&”]]//<tr><td class=’label’>”&C2&”</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:”&A2&”:”&B2&”}}</td></tr>}}”

This will make:

{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour]]//<tr><td class=’label’>Colour</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour}}</td></tr>}}

If I spell out what the above is doing. If the value of DF_Colour is not blank, then bring in a table row (TR) and two table data cells (TD), the first with the display label and the second with the value.

Wrap these up in a table tag and we can end up with something that looks like this:

<table cellspacing=”0″ cellpadding=”0″ id=”customfields”>
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour]]// <tr><td class=’label’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Colour}}</td></tr> }}
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Dimension]]//<tr><td class=’label’>Dimension(cm)</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Dimension}}</td></tr>}}
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Manufacturer]]//<tr><td class=’label’>Manufacturer</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Manufacturer}}</td></tr>}}
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Material]]//<tr><td class=’label’>Material</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Material}}</td></tr>}}
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_MPN]]//<tr><td class=’label’>MPN</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_MPN}}</td></tr>}}
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Type]]//<tr><td class=’label’>Type</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Type}}</td></tr>}}
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Type_2]]//<tr><td class=’label’>Type 2</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Type_2}}</td></tr>}}
{{IFNOT/[[CustomFields:Default:DF_Warranty]]//<tr><td class=’label’>Warranty</td><td class=’value’>{{CustomFields:Default:DF_Warranty}}</td></tr>}}
</table>

And the neat thing is that it took nothing more than a few minutes and copy/paste!

Reference File

I’ve uploaded examples of both of these to this file:

Useful?

Did you find this guide useful? Let me know in the comments below :)