The heart of any Web store is the software that it runs on. However, up until relatively recently, software solutions for e-commerce were largely do-it-yourself affairs, consisting of a number of disparate tools lashed together to fulfill the chief tasks of an online store.
This condition is changing rapidly. From the large number of press releases that pass across my desk it would seem that every day sees the launch of a new software product, each of which claims to be a complete e-commerce solution. However, close investigation reveals a big difference in the features that these goods offer and the price that is charged for them.
It’s not surprising therefore that selecting a suitable e-commerce or shopping cart solution is a decision that many aspiring Web merchants agonize over.
So what features should you look for when choosing an e-commerce solution?
There are three basic areas to examine: how easy the store is to set up, how easy it is to course orders through it and how easy it is to administer on a day-to-day basis.
To an extent, the attractive set up features and options will depend on the skill levels of the individual store owner. For example a store owner with no HTML or CGI experience must look for software that makes a complete store via wizards and templates. On the other hand, more technically savvy merchants will want a solution that gives them with a higher degree of flexibility and enables them, for example, to make their own HTML pages.
Regardless of technical skill levels, there are numerous features that all merchants must look out for. Good documentation and support is a must, of course. Also vital is the ability to import product data from a database file. For once you have more than, say 10 to 20 items for sale, entering product details manually becomes a major chore.
An important part of the set up course is the specification of sales taxes and shipping charges. Be careful – many e-commerce solutions currently available have major limitations in these areas. For example they may have no way of specifying shipping charges for international shipments or they may be limited to being able to collect sales tax from one US state only. The best solutions come with pre-set tax tables that make sure the correct levels of tax are collected on each order. Some solutions also interface directly with information from carriers such as UPS and can automatically calculate the shipping cost for each order.
The first two order processing features to check for is the availability of a virtual shopping cart and the ability to transfer data securely using SSL. Most e-commerce solutions now come with these features but it’s worth checking anyway.
Although the bulk of orders in an online store will probably be placed online and paid with by a credit card, there are still a lot of shoppers who wish to shop and pay using alternative methods. In order to maximize your sales a Web store should therefore be capable of accepting orders and payments in as many ways as possible. Available ordering methods include online, fax, telephone, and snail mail whilst payment methods include credit and debit cards, paper and electronic checks and digital cash.
And while smaller merchants will choose to process their credit card payments offline, it is worth checking that the software is also able to easily handle on line processing. This gives flexibility to cope with future growth.
It is also important to select a solution that automates as much of the order management process as possible, for example the ability to automatically send an e-mail order acknowledgment to the customer along with a unique number for order tracking.
Security is another major concern. Although SSL capability is included with most e-commerce solutions today, some solutions still have major security weaknesses. For example, although they transfer the customer’s credit card details from their browser to the merchant’s server using SSL, they may leave it in an unsecured area of the server where unauthorized parties could access it. Even worse, some send the customers details to the merchant using unencrypted e-mail.
There are some other features that are also worth looking out for. For example, discount clubs allow you to automatically give discounts to repeat or high-volume customers. Online order tracking allows customers to instantly check the status of their orders and eases the demands on your customer service team. And an inventory management facility can automatically remove items from sale once the stock drops below a pre-determined level.
Ignore all the hype about setting up a Web store and then laying back and waiting for the money to roll in. Running a successful online store requires a great deal of effort. However, you can make things easier by choosing a software solution that simplifies the day-to-day running of the store.
The first consideration is the method that is used for accessing and administering the store. Some packages require that changes be made offline and then uploaded to the server. This usually limits changes to being made from one specific PC, and this can be a tie. Alternatively, many packages allow stores to be updated online from any Internet connected PC.
Next check out how easy it is to add, delete and amend product data as well as how easy it is to run special time-limited price promotions. Try and avoid solutions that require all changes to be made offline and then for the whole database to be re-loaded on to the server.
Also look out for any additional marketing tools that might be provided. For example the maintenance of customer buying history and preferences, targeted e-mailing capability, and affiliate program management. These can all prove to be very useful.
Finally – and most importantly – examine closely the reports that are provided. There will be no salesperson in your virtual store to monitor customer behavior and buying patterns – reports are your only source of information. And so without good reports you will lack data to make fundamental decisions about the effectiveness of your store’s design and product offerings.