If you’re building an e-commerce Web site, your ability to control how it looks, the way it feels to the user, and how it works can be limited by your choice of “storefront” or “shopping cart” software.
These are the most important elements of an online retail site. They provide customers with a secure environment where they can load up their electronic shopping cart with your products, then pay for them at “checkout” without fear that their privacy and personal information – especially credit card numbers and other financial data – are at risk.
Even if you’re not planning retail capabilities on your business Web site, we highly recommend going through this step and reconsidering. It can give you a big edge over competitors with an information-only Web presence.
We cover what you need to know in:
- Storefront Software Packages
- Shopping Cart 101
- Amazon.com: The Gold Standard
- When to Hire a Pro
Storefront Software Packages
Many providers offer all-in-one “turnkey” storefront software that promises to handle all of your business Web site needs, and it probably does – to a point.
While it may include a variety of design templates and other graphics to give your site its look (some free, some for added cost), you’re limited to what’s offered unless you know enough about writing code to alter the templates.
It might not include all the functions you want, and may even be written in the provider’s own combination of codes, again making it tough to customize without technical expertise.
Besides flexibility in design and function, these are some other important features to look for:
- Growth Potential. Can the software grow with your business? Does it limit the number of products you can add to your Web site?
- Special Offers. Just like brick-and-mortar stores, will it allow you to offer easy-to-use coupons, gift certificates, gift wrapping and other customer incentives?
- Cross-selling. Does it include an option to automatically show products that are related to those already in your customer’s cart, and make it easy to add them to their purchase? This can be a significant boost to your sales.
- Marketing. Does it include newsletter, e-mail, guestbook, blogging, affiliates linking and other marketing tools?
- Top Sellers. Is it easy to highlight top-selling products on the home page, and allow shoppers to buy from there?
- Track Sales and Manage Inventory. The best storefront and shopping cart designs include analytics for tracking sales, customer behavior on your site and other vital data, as well as automatic inventory management.
- Volumes Sales/Wholesale. Does it allow you to offer volume pricing and/or wholesaling?
- SEO. Be sure it can optimize your site for search engines. The best packages include a function that generates search keywords and meta tags based on your content.
- Feedback: Encouraging customers to write reviews and comments is good for business, as are their testimonials about your excellent service, prices and quality.
Shopping Cart 101
Most of a business Web site is defined by style – how it looks and feels. Your shopping cart is different: It’s defined by functionality.
In e-commerce, function trumps glitzy graphics, flash and bold color palettes every time. The best storefront Web designs are glam-free and built with service and simplicity in mind.
The purpose of Web site shopping carts is straightforward: to collect a customer’s payment easily, accurately and securely.
There are two primary types of software: those you buy and install, or those leased from your Web site host for a monthly or annual fee.
Hosts who offer this service will design and manage your cart, keep it secure and add new features as they become available. One of our recent favorites is an audio component that walks tech-challenged customers through the checkout process.
Here are some good places to start your search:
Amazon.com: The Gold Standard
Amazon has one of the most widely admired – and imitated – storefronts and shopping carts on the Web. Among its best features:
- An “Add to Shopping Cart” button on every product page.
- Online bridal and baby gift registries.
- A “Tell a Friend” button for to e-mailing the page to others.
- Password-protected personal contact and financial information, with the ability to save your address and those of gift recipients.
- “One-click” completion of your order form.
- A “Wish List” for saving products you might decide to buy later.
- Intuitive customer relationship management (CRM) that remembers your previous purchases, then automatically offers recommendations for similar products.
- Customer product reviews.
If you decide to add a shopping cart to your business site, study Amazon.com for guidance and cues. One of the best: It is low-key, flash-free and doesn’t bombard you with jarring, annoying audio pitches or distracting visual gimmicks.
When to Hire a Pro
Shopping cart/storefront software is very complicated, and most small business owners don’t have the expertise or ability to create their own. We don’t recommend trying it: Too much rests on the outcome.
If you’re unable to find software with the features you must have, hire a professional to develop your own. He or she should have both the technical skill to make it work reliably, and the design sensibilities to make it look good.
Be sure a design mock-up is part of the deal, so you can test the shopping cart before your customer does. The process, including testing, shouldn’t take more than a month. But don’t rush it. You’ll need some time to catch and fix any bugs that show up (they will) or design elements you don’t like.
And include site management in your deal, at least for the first few critical months. You might have to pay more, but will rest easier knowing your online storefront is in capable hands.