This is another excerpt from the training course I’m putting together. As such, I wrote it while trying to figure out what I’m going to call the course and apologize for any frustration that seeps through.
E-commerce software should be an asset to your internet marketing strategy, not an anchor. It often becomes the latter, though, when developers or business owners go feature-crazy.
The Old Ball and Chain
No, I’m not making some sexist 1950s reference. I’m talking about your e-commerce software.
Make no mistake, your cart affects your brand. Customers’ checkout experience will affect their opinion of you as much as your home page, if not more.
Think about it: How many times have you been excited about that purchase until a surly checkout clerk half your age ruined your day? Or a salesperson stared at you blankly after you asked what you thought was a basic question? Lots of carts do that, too, by:
- Requiring registration.
- Making search impossible.
- Breaking basic usability rules.
- Making customers feel like morons.
At least 75% of your competition has a goddawful e-commerce site. Choose the right one and you’ll have an immediate advantage. Here’s what to look for:
Figure Out What You Need (Hint: It’s less than you think)
First, write down all the features you think you need in your shopping cart right now, and the ones you think you’ll need in 3 months. Features might include:
- Personalization, like engraving requests.
- Customer accounts and account management.
- Product packages: The ability to assemble multiple products into a single package for simpler purchase.
- Coupon and promotional codes.
- Shipping integration with UPS or some such. You don’t need this unless you’re shipping a LOT of stuff, trust me.
- PayPal or Google Checkout integration.
- Multiple product images.
- An easy product page editor.
- Giftwrap options.
- Inventory management.
- Multiple levels of categorization.
- Bulk product upload.
- Order data export.
That’s hardly a definitive list, but these are the gotchas I often see folks cry about a month after their online store launches.
Now, write down the features your customers need in your online store. You forgot about them, didn’t you?
Put those two lists together.
Now, take that list and cross off at least half of the features. I will bet you a Kit Kat you don’t need ’em. What does an online store really have to do? Show products. Accept payments. Deliver order info to you. Not expose your customers to identity theft. That’s it. Figure out the minimum you need right now, as well as what you may need in 3 months. Stop there.
Way back in 1999 I had a client request advanced onpage personalization: When returning visitors landed on the home page, they’d see products related to their last purchase or product view. Why’d they want this very expensive feature? Because “Amazon has it”.
You are not Amazon. Don’t even try. Amazon has cornered the market on being Amazon. I gave them a very reasonable quote. They had an aneurysm, fired me and went with someone else. A few months later, without ever launching, they went out of business.
If you’re starting out, you need to the ability to list stuff, take money for that stuff and then ship. That’s it. If you already have a thriving business, yes, you’ll need more features.
Always ask yourself, “Will I use this feature the first month I’m online?” If the answer is no, then you don’t need that feature just yet. At most, you need the ability to add it later. Featuritis kills many online stores. Don’t let it kill yours.
Good E-commerce Software:
- Has the ability to not require registration for checkout. Or a spiky club with which customers can whack you each time you force them to register. One or the other.
- Integrates with major credit card processors like Verisign and Authorize.net. If the salesperson tells you they’ll be adding that ‘any day now’, slap them. Then tell them Ian told you to.
- Generates HTML or XHTML code that looks clean. 90% of e-commerce systems I see create code that resembles FrontPage 1.0 or the gibbering of a stoned lunatic. Neither loads quickly, works well or presents a good target for search engines.
- Generates simple URLs. This is great: ‘MySite.com/shoes/converse/123’. This is fine too: ‘MySite.com?product=123’. This is not OK: ‘MySite.com?this=asdf23asdf12423l4jkq23k4jhafd9872134hjkasfd’. It’s true that search engines are way past caring about dynamic URLs – that’s why my second example is fine. But no one – neither search engines nor your users – want a URL that reads like a cat walked on the keyboard.
- Stores session data in a cookie. Again, it’s the 21st century. At least until the customer begins checkout, all session data should be stored in a cookie. The alternative is storing it in the URL, which leads to URLs like ‘MySite.com?sessid=asdf234awerascsdf23’ and an SEO catastrophe, or storing it in a session variable, which creates all sorts of other headaches if your store gets busy.
- Lets you add and edit products without a computer science degree.
- Lets you add categories with a similar lack of computer science degree.
- Generates a basically sound site from the perspective of SEO. It’s easy to test this: Ask the salesperson if the site’s SEO-friendly. If they say ‘Yes, we generate search engine friendly URLs’, but can’t name any other reason it’s search-friendly, they don’t understand SEO, and using their cart could be a mistake.
- Has a demo site for both the customer and administrative components. ‘Demo’ means you can actually log in, add and edit products and try the customer side. ‘Demo’ does not mean a salesperson leading you through the cart on Webex. That’s helpful, but you need your own time to check things out, too.
- Doesn’t slow down. If the demo site makes you think you’re back on a dial-up connection, something is wrong. If the salesperson tells you it’ll be ‘faster on your server’, slap them again. E-commerce software is not complex. It should run smoothly on a very small server. If it doesn’t, it won’t run any better on yours.
- Can be customized if you’re installing it on your own server.
- Comes with a solid uptime guarantee if you’re using their server.
- Provides sensible, easy-to-follow navigation for your customers. If you have 1 level of categories, it should require no more than 3-4 clicks to locate a product and add it to your cart.
- Lets you launch sometime this year. An e-commerce launch shouldn’t take more than a few months, at most. For some smaller stores it should take a week or less.
- Includes or allows addition of a decent search tool.
Make sure the e-commerce software you’re looking at has at least 1/2 of the features I’ve listed. If it doesn’t, keep looking.
What Not To Look For
If you’re looking for any of the following, you’re probably on a collision course with reality:
- An online store you can maintain, 100%, months on end, without hiring a web professional. Sorry. Your store is on the internet. You’ll occasionally need someone to help you maintain it. Maybe more than occasionally if you’re busy, or if your store is complex.
- The kitchen sink. You’re still rolling our eyes, saying “Ian doesn’t want us to pick lots of features because his developers don’t want to code them.” You couldn’t be more wrong. Please, ask for every feature under the sun! I can charge you more! But the result will be a failure.
- Integrated marketing. The online store is only part of your internet marketing strategy. It is not your internet marketing control panel. Don’t choose an e-commerce package on the basis of its e-mail newsletter tool, analytics or other marketing features. There are specialized tools for those – anything your cart includes will be second-rate at best.
- A miracle. Online store software is just a lot of lines of code. Nothing more. If you’re relying on a store’s feature set to launch your business into the stratosphere, stop reading this and go all the way back to step 1: Plan your internet marketing strategy. Because right now, you haven’t got one, and you’re going to be very disappointed with the results.
- ‘Pushbutton setup’. Many hosted carts boast you can be online, selling products, in just a few minutes. That may be true. But with that quick setup comes a cart that’s hard to customize, hard to manage, and probably slow. There’s definitely a place for these kinds of shopping carts and online stores. Yahoo! stores is a great way to launch a business. Just don’t expect much after that.
Carts I Like
A few carts I like:
- If you have to customize it, Volusion can get really complicated, but if you’re looking for a balanced, easy-to-use but marketable online store, it can work wonders for you.
- Shopify has worked well for me. It uses the Vision customization system, which makes the look a bit easier to tweak. It can be buggy but on the whole I like it a lot.
- I’ve only demoed it, but 3dcart has gotten good reviews, and looks solid.
- If you want open source, OSCommerce has a good community. I have to say that most of the stores I’ve seen running OSCommerce are awful, but I’m betting that’s the developers, not the software.
- Magento is new on the scene (at least version 1.0 is) but looks intriguing, except that the store on their site requires registration. If that’s optional, it’s worth a look. If not, bag it.
- Elastic Path is perfect if you have $30,000 or more. It’s expensive. It’s also the best e-commerce suite I’ve seen, period. My developers love it, which scares me a little, but it’s a great system.
Think Versatile, Not Monstrous
Your best e-commerce choice will be adaptable, not a feature-laden monstrosity. I don’t care if you’re a multi-billion-dollar corporation or running a shop out of your house. Either way, the leaner and more flexible your online store software, the better.