Follett Higher Education has a lot of moving parts to its business. The collegiate book and campus store retailer manages 1,800 ecommerce sites for about 1,250 colleges across the U.S. and Canada, ranging from Stanford to Texas Christian University. Each site not only sells widely different products, but also has numerous other nuances—such as the types and forms of financial aid payments accepted to specific campus cards that can be used for online purchases.
Follett manages the ecommerce sites for the schools it works with, but collaborates with each college for pulling in content and products specific to each school.
About two years ago, Follett realized its current platform—built on International Business Machine Corp.’s WebSphere Commerce, but hosted on Follett’s own servers—needed an upgrade, says Lori Krzyzewski, senior vice president of ecommerce for Follett Higher Education. Follett wanted the ability to deploy changes faster by using an agile approach that would let it push out site updates continually as needed.
Additionally, the retailer’s servers needed what the company describes as a “multimillion dollar” upgrade. It wanted to explore moving to the cloud, which offers computing power for storing and processing data very quickly—power that would be expensive and time consuming to build out, buy and maintain in-house using its own servers. Hosting on the web in the cloud enables retailers to mine and process data—from shopper contact information to inventory information and more—much faster and for less money than on their own. The cloud also allows retailers to scale their capacity up and down and pay only for what they need when they need it.
“We had servers coming of age,” says Roe McFarlane, president of Follett Higher Education.“We had to decide if we should double-down our on-premise model or move to the cloud.”
The retailer spent 18 months researching ways it could upgrade its ecommerce technology and weighing its hosting options with the assistance of consulting firm Accenture. In the end, Follett decided to migrate to the most recent version of the ecommerce platform it was on from IBM Corp.—HCL Commerce V9—but move to cloud hosting rather than upgrading its servers. (India-based HCL Technologies Ltd. purchased several IBM products, including IBM WebSphere, in July 2019 for $1.8 billion.)
The $50 million ecommerce technology investment was a massive undertaking, McFarlane and Krzyzewski say, and included a new content management system—Adobe Experience Manager—as well as moving to a responsive design and mobile-first approach to its website design. With responsive design, a single website adjusts to the size of the screen the visitor is viewing and only requires that the retailer maintain one codebase and one set of web content. Mobile-first is a design approach that starts with designing for a smartphone screen then scales up for desktop. Proponents say this is a smarter way to design a single site for mobile and desktop, as scaling up for a larger screen is typically easier than shrinking a site for a smartphone. Follett also added several new features and functions. For example, it added PayPal as a payment option, and shoppers can now create and share wish lists.
Another big piece of the overhaul was to move to a microservices site architecture. Microservices, which are growing in popularity as a way to build and manage ecommerce sites, are individual components or independent services that can be swapped out with ease to keep an ecommerce business current, more agile and able to deploy faster. A microservice can be any application or feature on a website—such as a site search tool, for example—and it will use an application programming interface as a calling card of sorts to connect with and pull data from a separate application, such as a product database. This approach, proponents say, enables businesses to be more agile and constantly iterate to better serve shoppers.
The project was “mammoth in size due to the complexity and size of transformation,” Krzyzewski says. Beyond the 18-month research and planning phase, the overhaul took an additional 18 months to complete, she says. It required more than 275,000 developer hours, 8,000 user testing hours and 7,000 pages of business requirements. 250 engineers outside of Follett worked on the project, and individuals working on the overhaul spanned Canada, the United States, China and India.
The transformation, which went live in June 2019, has paid off in several ways, Follett says. For example, the platform’s customizable user interface supports faster releases and allows Follett to quickly update its school ecommerce sites with localized content for each campus, McFarlane says. With the old platform, Follett deployed updates six or seven times a year. Now, it’s deploying new code to improve sites weekly. Since making the move, the conversion rate for desktop and tablets has increased 15% and smartphone conversions are up 19-20%. (Follett says 43% of traffic to it campus sites is from mobile). With the new platform, Follett says its conversion rates for desktop has reached as high as 15% during its busy periods of August and January.
A big benefit of the new platform is the ability to spot areas where the platform can improve and make changes more quickly. For example, Follett uses IBM’s Tealeaf analytics software, which captures website interactions of shoppers, to help it identify where they might be having trouble or frustrations navigating a site.
Now, if it sees an area or feature it needs to modify, remove or add, it can do so more quickly because of the new cloud and microservices-based platform. For example, under the new technology, it trimmed the checkout process from several pages to a single page. Plus, it cut in half the number of clicks required to find and purchase a textbook.
Follett Higher Education is No. 93 in the 2019 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.