5.13 Shopping Carts

Merchants want their products displayed in an attractive and easy-to-purchase manner. Customers must be able to add or delete items from their selection — i.e. the shopping cart or storefront — and review their final selection prior to finalizing purchase. The payment process must be intuitive, fast and secure. Shipping details, tax and your returns policy will need to be clearly stated, and customers emailed with a confirmation of purchase and delivery date. That's a tall order for any software system, and the requirements don't stop there.

Whatever the storefront, it must work seamlessly with the merchant's methods of collecting payment. For credit card payments taken instantaneously online, that means total integration of software (payment gateway) and the agencies involved — the banks making and accepting fund transfers, and the relevant credit card processing company. For noncredit card payments, the software requirements are almost as onerous if the customer is not to lose confidence and go elsewhere.

Selling is only half the battle. Businesses need to keep records — for accounting and tax purposes, but also for more effective marketing and planning. A company selling real estate may quite happily transfer sales details manually, but most companies will want the process automated. And unless they're starting from scratch, or are prepared to throw out their current system, companies will expect the automation to work with the accounting package they have now.

Hence the need for detailed assessments. There are hundreds of options and packages out there, but only a few will exactly suit a particular business.

Options

Basically, there are five ways to build a store:

1. Use a Merchant Service Provider.
2. Purchase special software 'out of a box'.
3. Use software provided by an ecommerce hosting company.
4. Employ a web-design company.
5. Create an individual system in-house, writing the code necessary.

Each has their pros and cons. Before investigating, companies must decide what their online store is to achieve, realistically. No one has an ideal system, and the usual advice is not to over-engineer. Go for something that broadly serves your current needs. Allow for reasonable growth, but don't be over-optimistic. In particular, don't lock yourself into speculative systems with untried components. Technology moves on, and what you're forced to have individually tailored, at great expense now, may shortly be available in a more 'out of the box' form.

Requirements

Thoughts will come when comparing what's on offer, but here is a shortlist of questions to ask of any proposed online store software:

Storefront appearance: professional-looking result?

a. Suitable templates?
b. Customizable?
c. Displays sufficient products?
d. Graphics and thumbnail graphic displays of products?
e. Adequate product description possible?
f. Coupons can be used?
g. Gift wrap service?
h. Products grouped hierarchically for ease of reference?
i. Product cross-selling possible?
j. Products can be displayed in several categories?
k. Automatic price adjustments possible?
l. Resulting store easy to navigate for customers?
m. Payment system intuitive and easy to use?
n. Works well with all browsers?
o. Database-produced pages are search-engine friendly: if so, how?
p. Customer/merchant search facility for products?
q. Volume discounts, and how handled?
r. Also handles digital products or subscriptions?

Platform

Unix, Mac or Windows product? What version/variant exactly?
a. What database?
b. Hosting company has sufficient expertise to maintain the system, recover database crashes, etc.? Backend functions: proper records kept of purchases?

Specifics

a. Customer details?
b. Tax levels?
c. Shipping information? flat fee, by weight, UPS, Fedex real-time calculations?
d. Order tracking for customers?
e. Handles multiple currencies and tax levels?
f. Can minimum orders be set?
g. What credit cards accepted?
h. What fraud protection schemes?
i. AVS address?
j. AVS zipcode?
k. CVV2?
l. Records readily integrated directly into current accounting / sales packages?
    With software supplied?
    Via compatible databases?
m. Customer emailed with sale confirmation and shipping details?
n. Doesn't use cookies (some customers turn off the facility).

Ease of Build and Maintenance

a. Uses wizards throughout?
b. Resulting code can be easily 'tweaked'?
c. Needs simple programming in Perl, Coldfusion or ASP?
d. Uses a proprietary programming language?
e. Suitable only for the advanced programmer?

Integration

a. Can work with what payment gateway systems?
b. Can work with what databases?
c. Inventory Control?
    Automatic by product?
    Automatic by supplier?

Affiliate Schemes

a. Supports affiliate schemes?
b. Affiliate tracking and automatic commission settlement?

Marketing

a. Automatic submission to search engines?
b. Emailing to customers?
c. Email auto-responders?

Statistics

a. Sales, page views, referring URLs?
b. Sales by customer?
c. Sales by product?

Pricing Policy

a. License fee?
b. Installation fee?
c. Previous upgrade prices?
d. Additional coding charges?

Support

a. Software produced by large and reputable company?
b. Software has good customer base?
c. Adequate build instructions?
d. Online tutorials available?
e. Software user's club and help center?

Pros and Cons

Everything needed to build the store is provided by the package, often with payment gateway provided. Some are a breeze to work with; others can be troublesome. Very largely, companies get what they pay for: the better packages with extensive backend facilities are expensive, though not as expensive as a site that doesn't work properly. A few hundred dollars saved on the purchase price will disappear if a professional programmer has to be called in. An Internet search will generate many suitable candidates. A very small selection of middle-range carts:

Product

Platform

Currencies

Market

Database

Relational Database/

Inventory Control Price

Actinic Business

W U

over 30

S M

ODBC

yes/yes

CatalogIntegrator

W U

$+

S M L

1 3

yes/yes

Cf-ezcart

W U M

Cold

Fusion

$

S M

1 2 3

yes/yes

Dansie

Shopping Cart

W U

$ £ E +

S M

3

yes/no

Intershop

W U

E £ $ +

S M

5

yes/yes

Make A Store

W U

$ +

S M L

3

yes/yes

Real Cart

W

$ +

S M

1

yes/yes

SalesCart

W U

$

S M

ODBC

yes/no

StoreFront

W

$ +

S M L

1 2 4

yes/yes

W=Windows U=Unix M=Macintosh ColdFusion=hosting requires Cold Fusion server

E=Euro, over 30=s/w designed to handle over 30 currencies through

country-specific versions (currencies otherwise depend on the PSP)

S=small, M=medium, L=large companies

1=Access, 2=SQL Server, 3=MySQL, 4=Oracle 5=Sybase

ODBC=Any ODBC compliant database

Software Provided by the Hosting Company

Many attractive deals exist. Some throw in detailed statistics of your visitors and their movement through your store. Some will also include marketing.

Pros

1. No difficulties in integrating shopping cart, payment gateway and merchant account.
2. Speed: the software is easy to use, and you can start building straight away.
3. Support: the hosting company will know their system and can help accordingly.

Cons

Remember, however, that:

1. You must still assess the software provided to ensure it does the job properly: evaluate the alternatives.
2. Terms may be restrictive: adult or politically incorrect material is usually banned.
3. Banners etc. advertising the hosting company may appear, compromising the image or integrity of the store.
4. The hosting company gets their cut somewhere: the merchant account provided may not be the best going: shop around.
5. Modest hosting charges allow for only limited support: check their rates for anything else.
6. The hosting company may have the right to delete credit card information from their server some time after you have supposedly retrieved it: check that they keep a backup copy for customer disputes later.
7. You may be locked in: transferring to another system/hosting company/merchant account can be difficult, especially if there are long leases involved.
8. You are tied to the fortunes of the hosting company: if the latter suddenly goes out of business, so may you.

Build Your Own System

By far the most expensive option, but provides great flexibility. In general, this is the larger company route, for corporations with deep pockets, teams of IT professionals and timescales of six months or more. Be cautious of web development companies that offer their 'own in-house ecommerce solution'. Unless that solution is very basic (when you'd be better off sticking with an 'out of the box' program) there is always the danger of time and budget overruns. And even if matters are firmly secured by the contract, you may still be landed with a system that only the originating company can maintain or extend.

Doing your Sums

Companies need to assess the pros and cons carefully, which means investigating what card processing charges they'd face elsewhere. Examine the sample sites or demos available on the hosting company site. Ask for a client list if necessary, and double check that the order processing covers all that's needed: shipping, tax, order tracking, inventory management, customer feedback, integration with your accounting system.

Shopping carts also need to be introduced intelligently if high abandonment rates are to be avoided. {11-12}

Questions

1. Give the pros and cons of the various ways of attaching a shopping cart to an ecommerce site.
2. What would you take into account when selecting third party shopping cart software?
3. Why can using the hosting company's 'free' shopping cart software be a false economy?

Sources and Further Reading

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