Shopping Cart Options for Small Business

This week’s topic is on the exciting, hurly-burly world of shopping cart software.

What the Heck Is Shopping Cart Software?

The shopping cart works by basically keeping track of what your customers order until they are ready to complete the order or “check out.” At that point, the cart collects their contact information, collects their credit card information (unless you are doing real-time credit card authorization, then the cart “hands the customers off” to a form merchant account site and waits to hear back), then generates a receipt for the customers and sends you information to fulfill the order.

What to Look For

  • If you are doing real-time credit card processing, your shopping cart software needs to be able to tie into the merchant account software. You might think there is a standard, but boy, would you be wrong. For that reason, you should really decide on both in tandem to ensure compatibility.

  • Some hosting companies include shopping cart software as part of your hosting package. This can be good because then you don’t have to lay out any cash or do any significant set-up. You basically just embed some information within the HTML of the page describing the product on your site, define a few variables, and you are done. And a lot of times the hosting company has already found merchant account providers their software works with.

    But the downside is that you may not have a lot of control over the way the shopping cart pages look when your customers are checking out. Plus you may not be able to use all the features a cart may have because the hosting company may not want to turn them on.

  • It is handy if the cart logs all the transactions in a text file on the server. You definitely don’t want to log credit card numbers in that file because you just become a target for hackers. But logging customer names and what they bought not only helps you do an analysis later, it is an audit trail in case something is ever disputed.

  • When you are doing real-time credit card processing, a single point of failure is when the shopping cart software hands off the customer to the merchant account server so the credit card number can be authorized.

    Booklocker.com’s shopping cart (the Danise cart) allows us to get a pending order notification via email at the point at which our customers have entered their contact information. If we don’t see the process completed after that point, we know something went wrong and we need to follow up. That is a good thing because, as I pointed out last week, merchant account servers go down more often than anyone wants to admit.

  • You want to be able to configure what your customers seen while checking out and the information they get in the receipt after they’ve checked out. So make sure you have a lot of power to change elements of the shopping cart interface.

  • There have been a few stories lately about some shopping carts having “back doors” in them that could, if exploited, make your site vulnerable to hackers. Make sure you have the latest version of a shopping cart, so any known security holes are fixed. Also, do a search of the newsgroups and see if anyone is talking about the software. You could get a heads-up on any problem with the software before you commit.

Do You Even Need Shopping Cart Software?

Here is a radical idea to consider: Is your inventory small enough that you don’t even need a shopping cart? Many Internet marketers will tell you that any size inventory needs shopping cart software. I used think that way to before I married my wife.

Check out this form.

It is part of a site my wife started before we were married. Even by my wife’s own admission, the form is unpretty (the site is too). The form puts everything she has for sale on this site (23 products) on one long page.

But despite its unaesthetic look and the fact it bucks conventional thinking, this little form generates a significant amount of our income every month. Here is why I think it works:

  1. It is suggestive selling at its most basic level no fancy recommendation engines or databases here, just a group of complementary products put together by someone who knows what her customers need. (We’ve found multiple-item orders are the norm on this site.)

  2. It mimics a direct mail form direct mail marketers have trained people over the years to fill out forms to complete the sales process. As a result, they are comfortable with that process and this form is just an online version of that.
  3. It is the poor person’s version of Amazon.com’s one-click buying there is just one step in the transaction, not multiple screens a customer must navigate to complete the sale. The fewer steps customers must go through, the higher the closing rate.

Obviously, this can’t work for huge inventories of products. If that is your situation, then you have to go with a shopping cart of some kind. But if you have a limited inventory, it is possible you don’t even need to monkey with a shopping cart.

Specialty Carts

What about shopping carts for that small business that happens to be a service provider? If you find yourself building a web site for a dentist, doctor, chiropractor, personal trainer, hair salon, photography studio, architect, contractor, cleaning company or other small business that provides a service, check out http://www.serveclick.com. It’s affordable software ASP-delivered that lets you add real-time appointment scheduling functionality to the site. (Thanks to an alert reader named Jackie Engel for pointing out this product. And giving me the verbiage to describe it, too!)

So How Much Should You Pay?

Well, most shopping cart software ranges from free to about $500. A great place to find a good selection is at
The CGI Resource Index.

So, if we subtract $500 from our budget of $4,000, left over after last week’s buying spree, that leaves us a budget of $3,500 going into next week, when we’ll address how to handle that in-bound email from customers.

See you then!

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