The first decision you should make is what kind of campaign you want to build because that will help you decide what your infrastructure should look like.
If you are simply intending to put your products into FBA and limit yourselves to Amazon, you probably don’t need any kind of integration since you simply send them your stock, create your listings and Amazon takes care of the rest. If, however, you want to sell on more than one channel fulfilling from your own warehouse, you will need to build integration: mainly because you will need to ensure that the stock levels on each channel are accurate at all times.
I’ve made no secret of my opinion that your goal should be to build an infrastructure to support multi-channel campaign so let’s look at the options.
STOCK & ORDER MANAGEMENT
When it comes to marketplaces, the main thing you need to get right is your order management. You will quickly find your listings demoted or, worse, your account suspended if you can’t fulfil your orders as promised. Defective orders are most commonly caused if your stock levels on the channel are inaccurate: if you tell Amazon you have 2 in stock but then sell one on your website and one on Ebay, you need to quickly tell Amazon that you’ve sold out. And for this you need to connect your stock control system to the channels – potentially hundreds of channels.
You could outsource your logistics to a 3PL (third party logistics) company which would initially save you the headache and cost of building some additional systems integrations but you would need to segment your inventory – meaning you ring-fence a certain proportion of your stock. In the short run, this may feel like an easier solution but, in the long run, it costs more and you risk creating product silos where you have a stock available for Amazon but have none left for your warehouse which in turn ties up more of your cash.
Loosely, there are two ways to automatically pull in orders:
1. Native Plugin/Extension
Some of the bigger platforms like Shopify or Salesforce, offer extensions that allow you to connect your system with specific marketplaces. These provide a hassle-free way to create listings and mange orders but there are a couple of things to looks out for: firstly, it’s not enough to just create listings: marketplaces are competitive environments and you need to be able to control the way they are structured (optimised) to ensure they show up in searches and convert browsers into buyers (more on listings later); secondly, most plugins only connect to one channel and you want to be able to connect to lots of them.
2. API .
API (Application Programming Interface) integrations in this context are custom built connections using pre-existing architecture to send information back and forth. There is typically a one off fee to get them built and often a small ongoing maintenance cost.
Both of these options will allow your system to update stock levels in “real-time” which is the minimum requirement.
The optimal set up
For the majority of e-commerce businesses, the systems set up tends to look something like this:
In more complex scenarios, you may already be receiving orders from other channels or may have an ERP system as the main hub but, in each case, the orders are sent to the warehouse which will likely have some kind of WMS (Warehouse Management System) for printing picklists shipping labels and manifests. there is then communication back again with shipping information so that the customer remains informed.
To add a single marketplaces to this set up would more likely look like this:
In this scenario, the listings are being created using the data already stored in the website (more on that later). Order details are sent back to the website and then sent with the website’s own order data to the warehouse for dispatch while tracking information follows the same path back until it reaches the website when tracking information for eBay orders goes one way and website orders another.
Then, if you want to add a second channel…
Each time we add a new channel, we need to build a new integration. And if you want to keep expanding, you end up with something like this:
This is why you should use a listing tool. They already integrate with the Marketplaces: creating listings and unifying orders. This means you just need one set of connections instead of multiple.
So, instead, your integration map looks like this:
Every sales channel, whether it’s a marketplace, comparison shopping site or affiliate network, requires you to send your data in a pre-determined structure: Ebay’s titles can be no longer than 80 characters long, Amazon requires a barcode to create new listings, Fruugo want prices excluding VAT. For every site you go on you will need to completely reformat your product data supplying the right category and attribute values and this is your biggest anchor on scalability.
To list a pair of Jeans, Amazon’s upload template lists 44 required fields. And that doesn’t include any that are recommended.
Good quality listings matter – they help your products surface when shoppers search, listings rich in data convert better and the best quality listings rise yo the top of search results.
But creating quality listings is tricky. You first need to learn what the requirements are which takes time and then apply that knowledge to a lots of products. That work is ongoing as new ranges and products are added and multiplies every time you add another channel.
Businesses tend to solve this problem in different ways.
Option 1 – Throw people at it
The most common solution is to dump your data into a spreadsheet and get someone to go through line by line adjusting the values for every product. Assuming the person in question knows what they are doing, this approach can produce the best results but it is slow, inaccurate and expensive.
It does depend on the size of inventory, if you’ve only got 20 products, creating elaborate descriptions and well-structured titles is more feasible than if you add 200 new products a week.
Option 2 – Ask your developers:
Coders can create rules to automatically transform your data – turn Charcoal into Black or a size 9 shoe into a European size 42. This type of mapping works well for simple transformations like these but tends to write horrible copy.
In most companies that I’ve worked with, getting time from the IT team is like getting help from Amazon Seller Support – almost impossible. And, even if you do manage to get enough time to generate the right data, the chance are that the requirements will then change and you will need to call on them again to update their mappings.
Option 3 – Use a Data mapping tool
Most listing tools require you to provide ready formatted product data but a handful include Business Rule functionality where you can create your data mapping without the need for any coding skills. You may still want to write your titles and descriptions by hand by you can save considerable costs by automating the lion’s share of the work.
There is still a considerable time investment required as you need to learn the requirements of each marketplace, learn how the listing tool works and spend time constructing the rules you want, which needs to be done afresh every time you add a new channel.
Listing platforms with this kind of functionality are almost universally expensive and require long contracts. Fine if you’re an enterprise business but not, perhaps, if you’re a small independent where a large, up-front investment is not an option.
Option 4 – Managed Services:
Agencies that specialise in listing optimisation and channel management are becoming more prevalent. Some like Feedonomics and Listabl have their own technology meaning costs can be kept to a minimum.
This combination of technology and human oversight is ideal. Expensive human intervention is reserved for where it really matters like constructing high performing titles or quality images that attract buyers.
Hopefully, by now, I’ve done well enough to explain my reasoning but I tried to explain your options which may have muddied the waters a little. So, rather than leave you to come to your own conclusions, allow me to nail my colours to the mast:
- Don’t just think in terms of Amazon. Build an infrastructure that can support many channels.
- Built an integration that utilises what you already have in place as much as possible.
- Don’t try and build your own connections. Use a listing tool. I won’t pretend that I’ve used them all but I’m into double digits and here are my observations:
- ChannelAdvisor – the market leader offers solid software and great global coverage but it’s a pricey option
- Product Up – good mapping capabilities but, like ChannelAdvisor, it’s more aimed at Enterprise level sellers
- Channable – Great price and solid functionalaity. Relatively easy to use but at the expense of some control/flexibility.
- Listabl – I can’t not include my own software. It promises to be the best and offers more automation than any other platform but it’s young and boasts relatively few connections at this time.
- Work out how you’re going to create your listings as this is the most work and the hardest to automate.