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The question of whether the ecommerce RFP is fit for purpose raised its head again recently.

I’ve received a few since the last post and have come to the conclusion that they have all entirely missed a rather large point, to paraphrase the intro from my first post.

The verdict from the first post was that it's not broken, although overly prescriptive ones are bad. Generally, in the comments the word was that if handled well they can serve a purpose.

Personally, I really do feel the Forrester scenario based, storytelling approach I highlighted and reviewed is a great methodology to allow freedom of expression on both sides.

However, format and scope are key determinants of good and bad ones and I'm going to stick my neck out once again and suggest that scope is going to become crucial, and that any RFP with a single channel focus should be consigned to history over the next few years.

Remember the ‘year of mobile’? It took a few years to actually arrive. A similar ‘year of omnichannel commerce’ is on the way, inching ever closer. With it should arrive the suitably focused omnichannel RFP.

Evolving retail

The retail world has changed dramatically over the last five years and is continuing to evolve, very nicely in my opinion. Plenty of you won't like the term omnichannel commerce or retailing but I think it has real meaning and is only going to become more prevalent.

If anyone had a doubt that the term had arrived in general usage, a trip to Retail Week Live earlier this year would have confirmed this beyond any reasonable doubt.

Their recent Multichannel Now 2013 report states that it might have been more appropriate to call it ‘Omnichannel When?’.

Although in its opening there is an acknowledgement that some of the participants refused to use the omni word, a direct quote from it illustrates a strong desire for that everything everywhere type approach in order to keep pace with the customer:

A director of a high street retail group adds:

The most important thing we feel we should be offering, but can’t quite yet, is omnichannel. I use the word sparingly, but in this context it is appropriate. An omnichannel view of stock is the dream we can’t yet get to. It is a particular challenge because of the number of brands and the number of warehouses we have. An omnichannel view of stock is one element and the other omnichannel element is an integrated set of data on our customers.

Retail organisations are now being forced to think differently, beyond the silo based approach of multichannel. They are wrestling with ways in which to join their businesses up from the point of view of the customer, primarily.

Joining things up internally is equally challenging for retailers, but must necessarily follow (or precede, I’m not sure) this.

An ecommerce RFP sits nicely in a multichannel world, along with an email platform RFP or an RFP that involves digital marketing – commonly the extent of a ‘full service’ agency remit, currently. An RFP with a narrow ecommerce focus will necessarily become outdated as the commercial landscape evolves.

The current ecommerce RFP

As an early mover, most every RFP I see at the moment is broken. The examples in question have a single channel focus with no opportunity to expand or elaborate beyond this. This has not always been for reasons of organisational need either.

When probed, it’s become clear there is no consideration by the business that things might be more effective if the departments worked more closely together, or that they actually have any kind of interdependence or commonality (back to this point later).

Consequently, this approach means there’s been no planning or budget allocation in other parts of the business either.

Scope and focus, however, are for the brand or retailer to decide, and herein lies the problem: a lack of creative thinking outside the norm, and a lack of understanding of a) what help is available in the market, and b) what the real needs of the business as a whole are.

Due to lack of market awareness an RFP will often exclude and will not be submitted to supplier companies that are very able to help – often those that are MOST able to help. As I stated before in my first post, overall they ask the wrong questions and so it is therefore difficult for them to be placed in the most appropriate context.

For example, a good question for an ecommerce (or just plain ‘commerce’) RFP to pose today might be ‘what happens to my ecommerce data? How can we best utilise this?’ Or, ‘how will you help me get the best from my online channel in an omnichannel approach?’

Simple, lateral questions that open up a whole new world of possibilities. I will admit that technical questions relating to stock handling and visibility across a business are often touched upon, but that’s because RFP’s are generally very tech-focused – especially if put together by a consultant – and not focused on the bigger picture and real benefits for the business.

That said, apart from an API info back office related operation is mainly excluded from documents assessing suitability of front end ecommerce solutions.

Data is the new glue

Mobile has now moved up the food chain and solidified into a bona fide channel; data is the new glue that can pull everything together.

Data though, has been excluded from every single document that has passed my way, and wrongly so in my opinion. In the current retail context, this surprises me almost beyond belief. To go back to an earlier point: if an organisation needs to understand what’s common across its separate operational departments it need look no further than its customer and the data generated by them.

The vast majority of organisations are not thinking in a complete, holistic way yet though. Until the structure of retail organisations changes and loses its silos - and crucially the individual budgets relating to each - then a ‘commerce agency’ or commerce service provider will not be truly viable.

Whilst there might be a need/budget for online there might be no perceived need or no budget allocation for stock and logistics, single customer view, CRM, or mobile etc.

If retail organisations are like rabbits in the headlights when it comes to negotiating the supplier market currently, they face further confusion in a future marketplace of ‘commerce’ service providers.

In future, all Commerce RFP’s should be preceded by an intelligent RFI (Request for Information) so as to take into account specific and potentially beneficial remit of respondents and narrow the field effectively. The scope of the RFP and the questions it asks will though, still be entirely dependent on the approach of the brand/retailer.

Suppliers of the future

So, as retailers change, suppliers will too. Competitive pressures will force service providers to formulate new and compelling offerings to give them an advantage over their competitors and make them invaluable partners to their clients.

A new breed of commerce service provider will emerge: one that takes a view of the bigger picture and will facilitate a retailer to operate seamlessly across its channels of choice with one trading platform. Full service will then have real meaning, not just ecommerce design & build with a bit of digital marketing.

There are already those that come at this from a technical perspective, majoring on providing stock visibility and logistics across an entire business. There are plenty of all in one, front to back providers out there, predominantly back office software houses that have evolved into ecommerce and tagged on a front end.

There are some that have gone the other way or widened their remit through acquisition of other service providers. Others will view the bigger picture from the data marketing, customer insight perspective – by far the newer approach, and I dare say there will be a small number that will encompass both.

To such a service provider, a conventional, narrow focused ecommerce RFP will be incredibly restrictive. Actually, it will be useless. It will invariably be asked to respond to the ecommerce RFP as is, and may actually exclude itself from the process due to not being allowed/able to beneficially apply its full remit to the wider context the retailer faces.

It is excluded from helping and educating that retailer in an area where it has experience and the retailer doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.

This begs the question: which is the correct approach - the single channel focus of the retailer or the service provider that looks beyond a single channel?

My money is on the latter.

Conclusion

My take is that anyone - retailer or supplier - speaking about customer experience is thinking along the right lines. Retailers and brands that think less about channels and more around the customer will win the day and suppliers that tune in to this will become more attractive.

Even for pure play retailers offline acquisition should be considered and the customer journey can be very complex and so customer insight is crucial. Data should be included in future RFP’s, because a prescriptive, technical, single channel focused ecommerce RFP will not serve a retailer of any description well in the new age of omnichannel commerce.

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Published 27 June, 2013 by Mark Bolitho

Mark Bolitho is New Business Director Ecommerce at more2 and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can chat with Mark on Twitter or find him on LinkedIn or Google Plus.

3 more posts from this author

Comments (6)

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Ray

Very nice piece with some interesting view points.

over 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Mark,

Thanks for Part2.

Again I agree in principle - if you get the wrong approach, then an RFP won't solve the problems.

But that doesn't mean the RFP process itself is broken, just the way people use it.

I've seen good RFP projects and some terrible ones. And as you point out, it's often the lack of collaboration across departments that makes the project rotten.

If a business doesn't get digital and hasn't adapted its culture to embrace ecommerce, then no RFP will deliver a solution that future proofs them.

However, if the business thinking is right and the resource has been prioritised to do this thoroughly, then the RFP is an essential part of the overall process to help find a good fit partner.

Thanks, James.

over 3 years ago

Kevin Tarrant

Kevin Tarrant, Marketing and Facilities Manager at more2 ltd

Hi James

Thanks for your comment. My real point here is that I think a sharp focus on a single channel, be it ecommerce or email or anything else, doesn't allow freedom of expression. How about a Commerce RFP as opposed to an Ecommerce RFP?

I think businesses fail to look at the bigger picture, maybe they'll send out a series of RFP's for different parts of their operation, i.e. a silod approach.

I think with the evolution of the retail landscape, the RFP format must evolve too in order to remain a useful tool that serves business well.

Thanks once again for putting the baby down and chipping in!

Mark.

over 3 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

I hasten to add, the previous comment was from me.
Tech glitch somewhere...

over 3 years ago

Phil Raynor

Phil Raynor, Owner at Ecomsult Digital Consultancy

Nice post, Mark.

I think the answer is yes and no. I totally agree that it is now a digital & multi-channel not ecommerce world.

The issue is, the majority of merchants are ill-at-ease trying to navigate it. This leads to the Rumsfeldian "known unknowns". Organisations appreciate they are ill equipped to develop solid digital strategies. If in doubt, go with what you know...the tried and tested RFP.

I have been at both ends of these tomes and I would say it's a trade-off between prescription and collaboration. The answer lying somewhere in the middle.

Platform providers and SIs will bring an enviable experience of different environments, markets and those all-important lessons learned! The merchant provides the expertise in their arena. Work collaboratively and you stand a fighting chance.

Ultimately, an RFP requires a provision of a solution to a problem/ facility for an opportunity. Whilst technology should be an enabler and not the jump off point it is still critical to understand the subtle but fundamental differences between suppliers. In that the RFP remains king. The issue is it is just a tool being wielded by an unskilled workman/ woman half the time!

over 3 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Thanks for your comment Phil.

The RFP as a mechanism it itself is not the problem, although, as you say, in the wrong hands it becomes unfit for its ultimate purpose.

Here I've tried to draw attention to the often very departmental approach to them, and how that can be detrimental to the business as a whole.

Specifically, I've been stuck lately how customer data is excluded from ecommerce RFP's I've received.
The retailer has had no inkling that the former could be utilised to enhance the latter and so has not asked the right questions.

To my utter amazement, when I've shown them how this is possible they have told me its beyond the scope of the RFP and the territory of another department, which does not have any budget at the moment.

James' guide to writing an RFP highlights the need for departmental collaboration, but even in cases where that happens there's no guarantee the right questions get asked.

Supplier market awareness is generally poor amongst retailers, which I find slightly ironic as it is evolving in response to their needs - even if they don't actually realise this!

It's a real shame though, because I'll necessarily have to exclude us from submitting a response because we aren't permitted to have an input beyond the ecommerce piece.

Education is the key: it's a little bit of a catch 22 but only when there's an awareness that a possibility exists does it become a consideration.

Cheers,
Mark.

over 3 years ago

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