The heart of any web store is the software that it runs on. But 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 major tasks of an online store.
This situation is changing rapidly. Every day, it seems, brings the launch of a new piece of software, each of which claims to be a “complete” e-commerce solution. Close investigation reveals a huge difference in both the features offered and costs of these solutions.
So if I’m confused by the array of e-commerce solutions out there, many aspiring web merchants are equally so. At the heart of the issue is which features are necessary, which are nice to have, and which are wholly unnecessary in an e-commerce solution?
There are three basic areas to examine: How easy the store is to set up, how easy it is to process orders through, and how easy it is to administer on a day-to-day basis.
To an extent, the desirable set up features and options will depend on the skill level of the individual storeowner.
For example, a storeowner with no HTML or CGI experience should look for software that creates a complete store via wizards and templates. On the other hand, more technically savvy merchants will want a solution that provides them with a higher degree of flexibility and enables them, for example, to create their own HTML pages.
Regardless of technical skill level, there are several features that all merchants should watch 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 process 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 ensure the correct level of taxes 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.
Another area to investigate is the range of advanced features and services that are provided. Services like domain name registration and automatic search engine submission can save a lot of hassle. And additional features such as auto responders and chat rooms can help build a top-class store.
The first two order processing features to check for are 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 by credit card, there are still a lot of shoppers who wish to shop and pay using alternative methods. A web store should therefore be capable of accepting orders and payments in as many ways as possible be it by credit cards, debit cards, paper checks, electronic checks, or digital cash via online, fax, telephone, or snail mail.
And while most smaller merchants will choose to process their credit card payments offline, it is worth checking that the software is also able to easily handle online processing. This gives flexibility to cope with future growth.
So what else? Well, 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 email order acknowledgement 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 email.
There are some other features that are also worth seeking out. 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 the virtual shelves once the stock drops below a pre-determined level.
Ignore all the hype about setting up a web store and then sitting 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 operation of a store.
First, consider 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 onto 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 emailing capability, and affiliate program management. These can all prove to be very useful.
Finally — and most importantly — closely examine 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.
Some e-commerce software solutions only provide basic analysis of server logs, for example, the number of hits and referrer information. Of course, this is totally inadequate. Ensure that the solution you choose provides a complete suite of detailed reports — for example, a sales history analysis and information about the most common paths that customers are taking through your store.