In order to sell online, there are details that need to be considered. Some of these details provide a convenience to you or your designer, while others impact the overall cost of running your online store.
All shopping cart applications are not created equal, and they are something you cannot sell online without. Your web designer should be able to determine what cart is best for your needs; however, if you are choosing one for yourself or just want to be an informed site owner, there are certain points you should keep in mind, such as the cost of the shopping cart application itself and any support provided with the cart, as well as any other limitations of the cart.
In most cases, the degree of support you can get (even paid support) is dictated by the type of cart you choose. The cost of hiring someone outside of your paid or hosting support to fix or update your cart can be extremely costly. Your bottom line depends on considering expenses, and even a one-time event can hurt your profits, so it is important to be aware.
Some carts are free with generally no support but online forums for help (open source), some are licensed to the host for your use requiring a higher monthly fee than basic hosting plans but offering support from the host (hosted), and others can be licensed-to-own requiring you to update them or use limited or paid support options purchased from the licensor (owned). Keep in mind that with an open source or owned cart, you still must have a host, which is a cost above and beyond any price of using these two types of carts.
Owned carts generally need to be installed on your server, which the cart seller should provide free of charge within your own purchased hosting environment. On the other hand, hosted and open source carts are generally installed on the server by the host free of charge. In all of these cases, you or your designer/developer do the setup of the admin, products, categories, etc yourself.
No matter the cart type chosen, it is important to have a host that has an extensive knowledge of the type of cart you wish to use, since different cart applications require different server environments that allow them to function properly. A change in server environment can be devastating.
If you have a maintenance contract with a web designer/developer that includes cart support, they can provide the application support (functionality modules, product additions, look and feel, application maintenance, etc.) you need for a fee that is often less than the cost of outside support options. This frees the site owner of the requirement of knowledge of the cart’s support needs and upkeep. On the other hand, if you do choose to maintain your own cart, it is important to communicate this with your designer, so they can help you choose a cart that is in line with the time and attention you have available, as well as your technical knowledge and abilities, to maintain and support your cart.
In some cases, particularly with shopping carts or e-stores offered with your hosting account, there can be limitations that affect whether it will be feasible for future growth. Some require that you maintain only a set amount of products or less. Any addition of products beyond that set amount will increases the monthly cost of your cart with the increase of products. The problem with this upgrade is that in some cases the increase in monthly cost make the open source, hosted without limitations or licensed carts a better, and less costly, alternative.
As a general rule for those carts with limitations on number of products, the least amount of products is usually 25 (this can be more or less dependent on the host), so a cart such as this would be a great starter cart for a new business, but you must consider future growth and how moving later or upgrading your account will impact your bottom line.
It is important to note here that you don’t find limitations on number of products with owned or some of the open source carts. However, larger numbers of products do require that you have the server space and bandwidth to run the application delivering hundreds or thousands of products, which can potentially increase hosting costs, as well as require more intensive application support.
There can be other limitations, other than the number of products or server space. Cart makers and hosts should provide listings of what the cart offers and what it does not. Careful side-by-side reviews of these listings should be done to avoid surprises that may make it impossible for the cart to provide the functionality or future growth you desire.
Security is of paramount importance for e-commerce, and no online store should be without it. Your customers will expect to know that you are protecting them. This is where SSLs come in.
An SSL, or Secure Socket Layer, provides encryption for sensitive data, i.e. credit card information, while it travels the hubs of the Internet. Most carts provide an encryption method to protect the data that resides in your shopping cart’s database; however, that protection does not extend beyond the boundaries of your shopping cart application, which is why you must have SSL enabled as well. It is important to note that you are responsible for protecting that data in both cases.
Most generally, you host will offer SSLs for you to purchase; however, this is at a cost above and beyond your hosting fees. If the host does not offer SSLs with, or to purchase with, your hosting package, you will need to purchase one outside of your hosting environment including any support for it, of which you may end up doing on your own or paying an outside source to do for you with each expiration date.
In some of the “everything is included” types of carts, a shared SSL is included in the hosting package for free. These SSLs protect all sites on that one shared server. Shared SSLs are in the name of the host and are generally at no cost to you for these types of carts. These are fine so long as the host has configured the SSL so that your customers don’t get a browser warning, which notifies the customer that the SSL is not yours. This can scare off customers, since it indicates a potentially fraudulent site. So even though this may seem like an economical choice, you will want to make sure you know the configuration before you go all out for a cart with a shared SSL.
A Merchant Account provides you with the ability to process credit cards and debit cards, and in some cases checks. This, like the SSL, is outside of the cost of the hosting, cart and support fees. There is generally a monthly fee of around $25.00, but this can be more. You also generally pay a percentage cost of your sales as well for the use of a Merchant Account. Some carts allow for several different payment processing methods, while others only allow you to choose PayPal™ or Google Checkout™, and still others include payment processing but at a much higher percentage per sale rate. You should first know what type of cart you will choose before considering the Merchant Account, so that you know both are compatible.
It is important to note that you cannot charge a customer’s credit card before you are ready to ship the products. Because of this, some e-commerce owners choose Simple Validation, which can collect, and in some cases validate, a customer’s credit card information, so that they can charge the credit card when they are ready to ship, since not all e-commerce stores have warehouses of products available. With a method like Simple Validation, you will still need to have some type of Merchant Account with either a browser-based application or a swipe machine for inputting and processing the credit card data. If you do already have a physical presence with payment processing, Simple Validation will allow you to use that existing setup.
Another point to note: With some payment processors such as PayPal™, excluding their Virtual Terminal™, your customer is sent from your site to a PayPal site to pay for their purchase. While this method may seem like the economical choice, it is not in the least a professional choice, since it requires your customers to traverse two sites in order to checkout.
Since a Merchant Account is part of your internal or in-house portion of your business, your designer/developer can point you to different types of accounts; however, it is important that you review the different methods and make your own choice of which is best for you. In some cases, your bank may be a good start in pointing you forward, since they are familiar with your credit and can better determine, without a lot of application trial and error, which you best qualify for. In the case of smaller businesses or new business owners, a good start can be something like a PayPal Virtual Terminal™, which allows you to use the Simple Validation method and keeps your customers on your site to checkout.
For any e-commerce site, it is important to have an accurate listing of the details of your products. This will not only help in making sure the product displays in your store are accurate but will also serve as a resource of information for you in the future. When dealing with multitudes of products, it is helpful to have a cart application that allows you to upload this file for a faster initial upload of products or for future additions. Otherwise, adding products to your store can be time-consuming and tedious. If you do not have a listing, or do not have the knowledge to create this file, you can ask your designer/developer to include this as one of the tasks they will provide in your contract.
The easiest way to compile these details is to gather all of the information within an Excel, Access or tab-delimited text file. If your designer/developer is creating this file for you, you will still need to provide them with the information. The following is a list of information you will want to include for each product:
From reading this, you can see that selling online is not a cut and dry effort. There are decisions to be made and costs associated with each aspect. Being an informed site owner can mean the difference in profits or losses because of the choices made. If you are hiring a web designer/developer, they should inform you of each of these, the costs involved and what your best options are in tackling them. That is part of their job…providing you with the information you need throughout the entire process of building your online store.