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The Future of Spree Open Source Software

Posted on October 28, 2015 by Sean Schofield

There have been a lot of questions and speculation regarding the future of the Spree OSS project. Please understand that our acquisition occurred as First Data was preparing for its IPO and there were significant restrictions on what we were able to discuss publicly during that time. Now that the IPO is behind us we can resume our public conversation with the community.

What is Happening to Wombat?

Our Wombat product is being discontinued as of March 31, 2016. It’s been a privilege to help and watch our Wombat customers grow over the years. We are working closely with our customers to ensure an orderly transition. Wombat is a closed source product and so the source code will remain private and closed source. The integrations for Wombat, however, have always been open source. They will remain open source even though we will not be maintaining these integrations going forward.

What about the Website and Demo?

We have made several changes to the Spree website. We’ve removed the references to Wombat and we’ve discontinued the “sandbox” demos where you can try out a hosted version of Spree without installing it locally. The sandbox takes quite a bit of time and resources to maintain – especially keeping it up to date with the latest version. Developers interested in the open source software can still try it out easily enough – just clone it from Github like you would any other project.

We’ve also disabled the extensions directory. The directory contents are quite out of date these days and it requires time and energy to curate everything in there. Unfortunately there aren’t enough volunteers who want to spend time on such a thankless task.

Will we Continue to Support Open Source Software in general, and the Spree Project in particular?

Our team continues to be interested in both using and supporting open source software. You can expect to see us continue to contribute to both new and existing open source projects going forward.

We will be spending significantly less time as a company on the Spree project. Several of our employees remain personally interested in the Spree OSS project, but as a company we can no longer dedicate significant resources to this effort. This means that you can expect a decline in contributions from employees who were previously being paid to work on open source as part of their day job.

What about a Foundation?

We’ve also heard people asking about the possibility of setting up a foundation. It’s unclear how this would resolve the lack of a strong core team with a unified vision. A proper foundation (see Drupal or Linux) requires significant legal and administrative expenses. More importantly it requires a dedicated group of volunteers to run it. Spree needs a new group of core contributors that are willing to volunteer a large amount of time to help maintain it. A foundation won’t help us to achieve that – it will actually be counterproductive since it will just add to the overhead needed to run the project.

Who will Contribute to Spree going Forward?

Like any successful open source project, Spree requires a continuous supply of new contributors. There are, however, some unique challenges in the case of the Spree which is somewhat of a niche framework. It appeals to Ruby developers who are interested in ecommerce. That’s actually a pretty small universe of people, especially when you factor out everyone who is doing ecommerce for just a single project and then moving on to something else. It’s much easier to form an active core team for a project like Rails since it’s a generic framework that can be used by a much larger universe of developers (people interested in web applications).

In addition, as the Spree software has matured over the years, many stores that use our software have “locked in” on a particular version of the software. This tends to result in short bursts of contributions by initial adopters followed by long periods of inactivity.

As a result, over time our community has generated a lot of developers who are incredibly interested in the future of Spree but they also have a very specific vision for how Spree should move forward. In many cases, this vision is at odds with what other developers need for their specific projects. For instance, developers working on legacy installations are not always interested in adding new features to Spree. They may be more focused on improvements in performance and keeping up to date with security enhancements.

What’s the Deal with Solidus?

Solidus is a fork of the Spree project. The contributors are primarily developers from Bonobos as well as a consulting company that has done work for Bonobos and other Spree customers in the past. The developers behind this project have a lot invested in a specific version of Spree and they’re working to improve performance and making other subtle improvements. If you’re looking to work on a very stable version of Spree and you’re comfortable with locking in on the version that Bonobos is using, then this might be a good option for you.

Spree Needs a Strong Core Team with a Unified Vision

Spree needs a new core team of dedicated contributors. That’s easier said than done. Our experience over the past several years is that for every ten people who say they want to contribute – only one of them actually follows up with a meaningful level of contribution. That number gets even smaller over time since most contributors tend to drift off to other projects within twelve months.

An even bigger challenge is to get a sufficient level of core contributors that agree on the future direction of Spree. We attempted to do this last year when we convened an in person “summit” with several of the key contributors and users. There was a lot of agreement on the types of things that needed to be done but very little agreement on the best path to achieve them. The biggest problem was that everyone was pretty much locked into a specific version of Spree and they only wanted to change what was needed for their specific agenda. This culiminated in the Bonobos and Freerunning guys deciding to create their own fork of Spree. That’s not a bad thing – developers need to focus on their own problems first and foremost.

What’s Next?

All software projects have a shelf life. The first Spree commit was made over eight years ago when Rails was in its infancy. Since that time there have been over 15,000 commits by over 700 different contributors. If you take a look at other popular Ruby libraries from 2007 you’d be hard pressed to find one that remains relevant today. The fact that Spree has remained a popular open source project for such a long time is a testament to the efforts of all of us working together to constantly improve the code. We have done all of this while trying our best to maintain backwards compatibility for our existing users.

We’re going to leave it up to the community to decide how to proceed. Our users need to decide if they want to continue forward with the current Spree codebase, use the Solidus project, or perhaps start another fork using a completely new approach. If we’re presented with a credible plan to maintain the project long term, then we’ll gladly turn over the keys. In the absence of such a plan, however, the project will naturally move it into “maintenance mode” and something new will eventually take its place.

It’s been a privilege building Spree together with you for the past eight years. Over that time we have learned from each other, empowered our customers, started numerous companies and forged lifelong friendships. Regardless of what happens next – we should all be proud of the great work we’ve done together.

Tips to Perfect Customer Service

Posted on October 21, 2015 by Alexander Diegel

Customer service is they key to ecommerce growth. You can have the best products in the world, but if your customers have a continuously bad experience it will tarnish your brand, and possibly do irreparable harm to your company’s reputation. Follow these steps to ensure you’re providing outstanding customer service every time.

1) Provide Timely, Effective Communication

Effective communication can solve a lot of problems and, more importantly, eliminate them before they happen. Sending a simple order confirmation will eliminate any doubt a customer may have that his or her order went through. Additionally, giving the customer a reasonable expectation of when to expect the item and/or providing shipment updates will keep customers informed and happy.

When your business reaches a certain point in its growth, you’ll find that keeping up with these emails can be a headache. At that point, automating your communication through services like Twilio or MailChimp can greatly simplify this process.

2) Provide a Customer Support Option

In the off chance that something goes wrong at any point in the process—whether an item’s out of stock, an order didn’t arrive, or the customer received the wrong size—you want to provide an easy way for customers to get in touch with you or your customer support team.

Depending on where your business is in it’s level of maturity, this could be a simple “Contact Us” link in your website that provides an email address and/or phone number. If and when your business is a little more established, you may want to look at a third-party service, such as Zendesk or Desk.com to help you with support tickets and error resolution.

No matter how you go about it, be sure whoever is on the receiving end of these issues/inquiries is prepared to give timely, effective, and friendly resolutions.

3) Engage in Social Media

Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, 78% of all customers see social media as a customer service alternative. Some may go there directly, some may go there if whoever’s manning the options on point two has dropped the ball.

If it’s the latter, that raises the stakes even higher on social media, making it even more important to respond quickly and effectively. If a customer has a bad experience, you can be sure that they will call out your company on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social profile you have associated with your business.

Conversely, if you provide a great experience, they’re likely to commend you and your business for all to see. Make sure you’re the retailer receiving the positive publicity, not the negative.

4) Track all Customer Interactions

Tracking all correspondence can save you, your support staff, and your customers a lot of headache. If customers have an issue and talk with two different people without a history of previous interaction, they will be left frustrated when they have to start from scratch with a new person.

Conversely, if a customer calls in and you can quickly say “Yes, I see you called in about exchanging your shirt for a different size on June 16th,” he or she will be left both impressed and relieved that someone is on top of the issue.

Create labels in your emails, attach notes to the thread, or do whatever it takes to keep all customer interaction in one easy-to-manage place. If you’ve talked with Joe Smith before, you should be able to easily search and find any and all correspondence with Joe.

Down the line, an error resolution service like the aforementioned Zendesk isn’t a bad idea. Zendesk tracks all correspondence that comes in via email, and all you have to do is search the support ticket number through your Zendesk account.

5) Never Argue About Returns

All of the above is great, but if you or a staffer argue with customers, especially about returns, they’ll think of your company in an extremely negative light. And with Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, etc. that’s not something any growing business can afford.

Remember, this is people’s money you’re dealing with, so put yourself in the customers’ shoes. You’re selling your product based off of an image on a computer. There’s going to be problems. And when there are, friendly, understanding, timely and efficient resolutions are the ways to keep customers coming back and sending their friends to your web store.

Bonus tip: Provide Online Chat

This tip is definitely for well-established businesses with customers on their site all day, but why else would you be in ecommerce if not to grow and dominate your market? Heck, some of you may already be there.

An online chat will require a paid solution like Olark and a staffer to monitor the chat, but once your business gets to a certain point, it’s well worth the investment. 77% of customers agree that online chat positively impacted their experience with the company. You simply can’t get any faster resolution than chatting with your customers in a live, real-time interaction.

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How to Increase your Brand’s SEO

Posted on October 14, 2015 by Alexander Diegel

SEO has been something of a buzzword lately. But what is it? SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and is described by wikipedia as “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s unpaid results—often referred to as “natural,” “organic,” or “earned” results. In general, the earlier (or higher ranked on the search results page), and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine’s users.”

What that means for a business owner is, whatever search terms that resonate in your industry, you want to be at or near the top of the listings that appear whenever people put that term or phrase into Google. The more people that see your site, the more people will shop on it, and the more shoppers you have, the more sales you’ll get.

Follow these tips to maximize your SEO to see your webstore’s traffic spike, and the sales roll in.

Identify Keywords and Phrases

You need to figure out what key terms and phrases you want to trigger your appearance in a search. For example, if you’re a high-end shoe retailer, then you’d probably want to have an appearance when customers search for “High end shoes.”

Maybe you’re not ready to take on Nordstrom’s or Barney’s (the first and second results to appear on Google when you enter that phrase) and you still do a high volume of sales inside your physical store. In that case, your location can help you drive customers to online and offline sales, such as “High end shoes in Pennsylvania” or more specifically, “High end Shoes in Philadelphia, PA.”

Content-Driven Traffic

Whatever you determine to be key terms and phrases, maximize their use through fresh and engaging information on your web store. Running a blog is a great way to keep new content on your site. One thing you don’t want to do is force these keywords into the content. It has to seem natural, as it will turn off readers/shoppers, and will be recognized as a forced attempt at maximizing SEO by the search engines.

The more fresh content you have, the more traffic will come to your site. And, again, the more traffic you have is the more opportunities you have for sales.

Share on Social Media

Whatever new content you have, be sure to share it on any and all social accounts that you have associated with your store. These are just more channels for you to attract traffic. Sharing on Google plus, specifically, will directly help your ranking on Google’s search listings.

Blogs, news about your company, and new/featured products are the kinds of things that you want to share with your community. Social media is having more and more of an impact on ecommerce, so start sharing now.

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Ecommerce Product Description Best Practices

Posted on October 07, 2015 by Alexander Diegel

You can have the best products in the world, but if you can’t communicate that quality effectively, how are customers going to know? And, more importantly, how will they feel comfortable clicking that “buy” button? Here’s some tips and advice that will help you seal the deal.

Show Don’t (Only) Tell

We’re not here to tell you NOT to tell the story behind the product (in fact, look at the next point) but don’t ONLY tell. Include multiple high-quality images of your product. Show different angles, viewpoints and elements of your goods.

Remember, you’re selling online. Your customers don’t have the option to hold and feel and get comfortable with the item they’re about to buy. So do your best to recreate that in-store feeling by providing big, beautiful images of your goods. Provide 360 degrees worth of angles or, even better, make it a gif.

Tell The Story Behind the Product

Your business has a story, and so does your product. Tell it. For inspiration, check out Ayr’s blog, Editions. Ayr, a women’s fashion startup, releases new apparel every season, and additions to their line receive a one-paragraph story of the goals and thought process behind the design.

You don’t necessarily need to include such in-depth descriptions on every product, (you don’t want to get too wordy) but new and/or featured products deserve extra attention, and are worthy of a story behind their production.

Emphasize Uniqueness

Your competitors are going to have similar products, but there’s something about your inventory that makes you different. Whatever it is—the design, the manufacturing process, the price—make sure you emphasize this in your descriptions. If your customers don’t know why your products are better/different, what’s to stop them from going to the competitor next time?

Include an Obvious Call to Action

You’ve got the customer interested. They’ve looked at the product images, read the story behind the product, and really like what they’ve seen thus far. Now it’s just a matter of sealing the deal. You can push the customers over the edge by simply providing a “Buy Now” or “Add to Cart” button within the page that features your product description. If they’ve made it this far, they’re already interested. Turn the opportunity into a sale with a strong call to action.

Allow Customers to Easily Share their Experience

If your customers have a positive experience shopping with you, they’ll be willing to share your product with their friends and family. Now they won’t write a blog about it, but if you provide simple buttons to like, tweet, pin and/or share, it will open their friends and followers’ eyes to your brand.

Word of mouth has always been a great sales/marketing tactic. Social media has given the opportunity to spread the message faster and to a wider audience than ever before. Take advantage of it!

The Bottom Line

You’re going to have competitors; it’s unavoidable no matter the industry. But you can set yourself apart with unique and effective product descriptions. Making that sale is the first step to turning a customer into a “brand ambassador.” Once they see why you’re the best option for them, they’ll keep coming back—and sharing with their friends.

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