Channel and inventory management is one of the most competitive software niches. Matt Ferguson helps reader Seb find the best one for him.
I got into “multi-channel” selling a couple of years back, to increase sales and reduce the risk of all my income coming through one marketplace. It’s going well with sales on Amazon and eBay, including international sites, and my own store. If any one channel went down tomorrow it wouldn’t kill my whole business in a shot like it would have before.
This year I’ve hit a roadblock. There’s a lot of admin overhead from running all these channels, we are overselling more and more often, and keeping listings in sync is an absolute nightmare.
I know I need a multi-channel management system but the more I research it, the more my head hurts. It’s impossible to figure out exactly what features they have, how much they charge, what the setup and support is like, and how well they actually do what they are supposed to. There doesn’t seem to be any clear market leader and some of them charge way too much.
How can I sort the wheat from the chaff and find the right solution for me, at a reasonable price?
— Seb S., Toronto
I know your pain all too well. We help people like you for a living, and this problem is very common for successful ecommerce traders. And therein lies the positive part – you wouldn’t have this issue if things weren’t going so well.
We did examine this topic a while back, looking over the types of systems and things to ask yourself in terms of goals and needs.
With that defined, we should think about a few key questions to ask the platforms. Let’s outsource that headache of yours!
Can the platform import or connect to live eBay listings?
This is a big one, given that you are already trading on eBay.
Up until now, you’ve been creating listings on eBay manually or via the File Exchange process. By the way, if you did use File Exchange, please let eBay know how it works, as their help documentation appears to have been written when DOS was the operating system of choice. Also, allow me to convey sympathy for all those nights you cried yourself to sleep.
Anyway, you’ve got listings on eBay. As we know, eBay sellers live and die by their listing history. I won’t get into a debate about the value that history too much. “100 units sold” is one piece of history some sellers believe has value, however, the most valuable piece is the best match history that you can’t “see”. Admittedly, this isn’t too big a deal if it’s dated, but I said I wouldn’t get in to this, so I won’t.
Let’s just agree it’s important to keep listing history where the sales are regular. You’ve built a listing to a good position in search, sometimes taking years to get there, and you don’t want to lose this ranking.
Some platforms will not be able to save your history. To move over all eBay operations, you’ll have to remove your listings and rebuild them using the system. If you have high-performing listings, which have been active since Mel Gibson was popular, this is not a good idea.
Many platforms thankfully have realized this, and increasingly offer the ability to connect or import your active listings without losing your history. However, some are not able to import variation listings. Other platforms might charge this as an extra service, sometimes for several thousands of dollars.
As an eBay seller, you need to confirm the platforms’ abilities, policies and pricing on this topic. And I would also double-check the legalities of them getting things wrong. A loss of history on a key listing can have a dramatic impact on revenue over the course of time it takes to regain position. Make sure they are aware of this, and will not treat this topic lightly.
Does the platform connect to my website?
Most sales people are going to say yes here. When do sales people not make everything sound about as easy as eating popcorn? But the key is understanding how that connection has to happen.
If you are looking to centralize all your sales and data, you want your website to be considered just another channel by the system.
Some platforms assume your website is a database/order control point and they will simply piggyback marketplace operations off of the website. They will push listing data from your website, and pull orders from marketplaces back in to your website. If that’s what you want, then there won’t be an issue in going this route.
However, other systems work very differently. They will treat the website as just another channel, and expect you to keep all orders and data on their system. The operations flow is different here, as you are now going to use their platform to manage the site, not the other way round.
It doesn’t matter which you prefer. It only matters that the platform caters to your desired choice.
Let’s also talk about “connecting” in more detail. Any two systems with open API’s can connect, just like any two people with phones can communicate. But realistically, you need to know the person’s number… and have a reason to call them at 3am crying.
You ideally want an out-of-the-box solution. You want them to be able to plug and play this connection, with a simple on-screen wizard to get it set up. Or, you want the platform to make the connection for you.
Platforms sometimes offer this all for free, built-in, as part of the package. But some will charge you for it, and others will wash their hands of it entirely, reminding you that it “can” connect but they aren’t going to set it up for you. Make sure you know which one is being offered.
Does the platform offer reporting which can be customized or automated?
If you read my posts often, you’ll know I harp on about data until I bore the most hardened data fanatics. But there is method to this madness.
Too many sellers don’t check data in the right places. They don’t, because they can’t find the time, or they don’t know what to look for. But data really can guide you away from failure and towards success.
Some platforms incorporate this into their package and offer detailed, comprehensive reporting, which is really going to help you spot things you may have never noticed before. You might suddenly realize all those designer Bigfoot-themed flip flops, despite selling in high volume, are flopping on profitability.
Other platforms don’t bother with reporting. They see their position as a listing management tool, or an order centralization tool – reporting isn’t their style.
If you handle your own reporting now, and it’s fairly well-organized and efficient, maybe this isn’t a big deal. I would certainly learn about the platform’s reporting and think about how these reports could solve problems, unearth issues or reduce present workloads for you.
Does the platform do a managed launch for you?
All platforms are going to make it sound like you are 101% supported through every step of the launch journey, and are guaranteed 25-hour round-the-clock dedicated support with a team of 7000 people all dedicated to you being successful.
In reality, some platforms really will roll out a red carpet to get you started. The pricey ones usually do. They may offer to setup and launch everything for you as part of the service, with weekly calls, training sessions, and clear milestones. They will give you forms to fill out, questions to answer and chocolates to eat while you do it.
Other platforms will simply give you the keys to the system, an 80-page PDF manual, pat you on the back, and say “have fun”. This is to be expected for the more economical platforms, and that’s fair – you can’t pay the price of a Casio watch and expect to get a Rolex.
Dissect their launch deliverables carefully and get them to itemize exactly what they will do, what you need to do, and if there are any hidden costs. Make the salesperson work for your business on this point, to ensure you don’t bite off more than you can chew.
I’ve seen sellers fall into the trap of assuming the platform will do it all, and then realizing that to get the platform working they will need to double their workload for the first few weeks.
Can the salesperson offer a comprehensive, itemized, price list?
Car manufacturers pretty much break even when you buy a car. It’s the spare parts, service warranties and other add-ons that make the business profitable.
In many ways, multi-channel platforms can operate like this. They may tell you it’s only one dollar per month, omitting that this doesn’t include selling on any active channel! Or perhaps they will tell you that the listing and inventory modules are all included in the price, omitting that orders processed have a revenue-share percentage added to the final bill.
To be fair, most platforms are very open about these things, and usually, the core functionality and general operations are easy to understand and calculate.
But I would watch out for the extras and nuances you want to have. Let’s say you want to sell on Amazon, and they tell you it’s a flat fee per month. Great, no worries? Well, selling on Amazon is one thing. But what if you want to use their built-in repricer? Does that count as part of the “selling on Amazon” package? Or is that extra?
Maybe they offer a warehouse management module with the price. No worries there either. But maybe you want Amazon FBA to automatically support other channels for shipments, tracking and order updates. Is that included in the warehouse module, or is that an extra service?
Does the pricing vary for different channels? If they are offering you a fixed fee, maybe that fee goes up when you add more channels. Find out. If they offer you a revenue-share model, ask if there are any channel activation fees added before that revenue share kicks in.
None of this may be purposely designed to nickel-and-dime you. Salespeople are still people, so most are as decent as any other profession. But salespeople often work on commission and are up against targets to keep their job. Don’t expect them to highlight the details for you. Be sure to ask, and get confirmation in writing.
An itemized list of all modules, services, connections and fees is often the safest way to rest assured that what you think you are buying, is what you are actually buying. Problems in this area really can be simple misunderstandings and nothing more, but don’t assume it’s their job to define every nuance for you.
Can the platform give you detailed feedback and potentially some hours saving estimates?
It’s always the little things that add up. You start your day with a few goals in mind to achieve. You hit a small roadblock on your first project and get delayed 30 minutes. Then you get a call. Then an email comes in that you must jump to. Then a opportunity you can’t ignore demands some attention. By the end of the day, you didn’t achieve what you intended to, because a bunch of extra things got in the way.
Business as usual, right?
A multi-channel platform is supposed to reduce the amount of hours needed to run your business. Or, at the very least, achieve a better result for the same number of hours.
I would suggest writing down all the little things that routinely suck up your time. Add to a list anything you know will keep needing care or attention, and try to put a daily, weekly or monthly estimate of time on each one.
Once you’ve got a list, go through it in detail with the salesperson. You want to make sure that this platform is going to address the routine headaches that suck up your time. If the salesperson doesn’t know, ask them to find out. Ideally, the platform will allow something to be completely automated, or reduce the energy and time required to achieve the same end result.
It’s easy to believe a dream. In fact, we are all predisposed to prefer a believable positive lie over a negative complicated truth. Don’t fool yourself. Itemize your day and time, and ask your contact about each topic. If the one big, manual, time-consuming thing you do every day is not going to be fixed or streamlined by the platform, are you still going to want to use it?
This list will also help you pick between platforms. Platforms won’t fix all issues (unless you’re really lucky, and in that case you probably just need to play the lottery and retire), but knowing which will help more, and in what way, will help you pick the right one.
Ask, write down, compare, re-ask and get everything in writing
There are other questions, but because there are so many variables, it would take pages and pages before we covered even the majority of them.
However, as a general principle, you need to be patient – don’t rush.
Attend a demo, ask questions, then write them down along with the answers. Attend another demo, ask the same questions, ask new ones, write it all down. Attend another demo, add more questions, keep writing it all down. Then circle back over your notes and ask the questions you missed.
If you’re like me, you will hate doing this. But you’ll thank yourself in the long run. No one knows your business better than you. No one knows where your energy and time goes more than you. No one knows what you need in order to get time back and increase efficiency better than you. You are going to have to drag each platform through your check list, if you want the right option to become increasingly clear.
Ask for references too. Get a few. If the platform isn’t able to provide references, that’s a bit of a concern. Ask the referees about support, timetables and general feedback on the platform’s stability.
One final big theme you should ask about is the contract duration, how to get out of the contract, and if there is an initial grace period. Many offer trials, so you can try it and see if it fits. Some platforms have longer contracts with auto-renewal dates. Don’t get trapped and caught out, and also ask if you can have a one or two-month grace period where you can leave at any point during that time.