Monday, March 17, 2008

Identifying a good shopping cart for your online ecommerce store

When I decided on starting off my own e-commerce website, I was totally confused. I did a quick search on Google, and discovered thousands of shopping cart solutions, each one offering too many features, but I didn't find a single one that was just 'right' for what I needed.

Before I write more, I must explain the relationship between a shopping cart and ecommerce solution. Well, to put things simple, an ecommerce solution is a solution/website where you can sell your stuff online, just like super store owners sell stuff in retail outlets. Now, when you go to bigger stores like Walmart, or Target, or Harrods, you end up picking a shopping trolley or a shopping cart from the store, in which you can stash your items, and walk along, remove a few which you do not like, and add another few while you're browsing through the store.

An electronic shopping cart works in a similar way. Although there are no physical items that you can pick from racks and put into the shopping cart, but you can click some buttons like "Add to Cart" or "Buy Now" or "Add to Order" and your desired item is added to your 'virtual' shopping cart.

Ecommerce doesnt end here, it takes you to next step where you checkout, and enter your shipping and billing details. You are then redirected to a secure interface where you make payment using your credit card, and then a sale is recorded. What's happening at the backend is, your credit card is being billed by the merchant firm, who gets an authorization from your credit card issuing bank, and once that authorization is issued, your purchase is confirmed. You usually end up getting a few emails from different parties that were involved in an electronic transaction like ecommerce.

Okay, so now when I planned starting off, I came accross so many solutions, each one with its unique features. I tried a few demos including 3dcart, OSCommerce, ZenCart etc, but none of them had a simple to use admin panel, which was my first requirement because I was a novice and wanted something which is super easy to use, and makes my life easier instead of loading me with technology.

The search went on, and I finally had to start searching based on following criteria.

1) The solution price: I think it made more sense to me to invest in a solution that doesn't burn a hole in my pocket, and still meets all requirements that I have. I experimented with many. Found OS COmmerce and Zen Cart etc to be free to use, so I thought they'll be a choice when it came to price.

2) The search engine performance of the live solution, when it goes live: Almost all solutions I experimented with had a not-so-impressive performance with search engines. All of these used complex structures, with an exception of 2ShoppingCart, that I found to rank high on search engines. The reasons for this included an optimal use of alt tags, mod_rewrite (a technology to convert dynamic links into static links that end with html extensions )

3) Easy to use admin panel: Well, to be honest, when I tested OS Commerce , Zen Cart etc, they all failed this test, because they were very complex to use for me a guy who wanted to be a shop owner, not a computer programmer because they offered complex handling for daily simple tasks, and they scared me to say the least. I was frustrated when I looked at admin panels of most of the open source applications, and some of the hosted solutions such as 3d cart etc, but generally what I loved was the easy to use admin panel from Volusion Software or the one from 2ShoppingCart. Both offer intutively easy to use admin panels, that make routine tasks so much simple.

4) The maintenane costs: For me, since getting a site up and running wasnt the only problem, but I knew I am going to need a lot of help with updates, and images, and all other aspects of the site, I wanted a solution that's backed by some serious guys that will be willing to help me when I needed help. I am still communicating with different vendors to see what their online support contract costs, but generally there were firms like Volusion and 2ShoppingCart that offered a turn key solution with free support for life so I was kind of relieved to know that i'll have after sales support once my shopping cart website is up and running. A few others that were excellent were 3dcart because they're a hosted solution, but needed upgrade fees and more, and then Paypal, but franky speaking Paypal was dissapointing because they dont offer the bells and whistles that I needed for my store in order to be able to sell anything to my customers. Paypal had a rather dull interface, so I decided to go with someone else instead.

A few other factors that are less important, but still carry weight are technology used, loading speeds, response rate, stability, number of products allowed, hosting fees etc, which we'll discuss in next article.