E-commerce – A Vital Decision
Just how easy / affordable is it to get into selling online? Probably easier and cheaper than you think, but there are pitfalls for the unwary.
There are a whole host of dedicated shopping carts out there, some free and open source, some expensive. Some are hosted, some have to be installed on your web server. Which to choose, which way to go?
Firstly, don’t expect impartial advice from a web design company. They will probably have a lot of r&d time and energy invested in one or two particular packages, and will tell you unequivocally that this or that particular package is the only way to go. Be assured, it isn’t!
Secondly, if you have a limited budget and a lot of products, aren’t too critical about the look or branding of your site and don’t want to employ a web design company then have a look at hosted solutions. At the budget end we suggest:
Actinic - from £19.99/month (for up to 100 products)
EMPowershop - from £19.99 / month
If you have a bigger budget then just Google ‘hosted e-commerce’. But – do be aware that although these systems all boast of being incredibly easy to use and unbelievably versatile they will, like any computer programme or application, have their limitations. It will take you quite a while to get familiar with the interface and you will at times be frustrated because the software will not do what you want it to. You may find yourself spending a lot of time on forums asking for help from other users – so check that this feature is available.
If you go to a web design company ask them what software they propose using and check it out. We used osCommerce for some years, but no longer recommend it for the average small business. While it has the advantage of being free it is in our opinion a clunky, camel-designed bloated monstrosity that is hard to customise and keep secure and up to date. Offshoots of this include Zen Cart and OscMax. These are better, but be very sure that the web developer you are using has complete mastery – check their portfolio, ask their clients – and make sure you get a price for the regular security updates that these systems always seem to need.
There are dozens of other less well-known shopping cart systems. Each has its supporters, each will have some merit, but most will also have drawbacks in terms of design and template limitations, ease of use, security and ease of updating. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and it is worth doing a lot of research before committing yourself to any one system or designer. In particular, you need to know how easy is it to install software updates, and whether there a facility to make complete backups including the database.
One of the popular e-commerce solutions nowadays is to use a plug-in for WordPress. There are several available, some free, some charged for but generally not expensive. Some work better than others, and each has a different range of features. Here are two WordPress sites we have created that use e-commerce plugins:
Sledgehammer Simple - uses the Wp E-commerce plug-in
Paradise Kitchen - uses the WP Simple PayPal Shopping cart
These plug-ins are great if you want to be able to add products yourself and have all the functionality that WordPress gives you.
But do you need a dedicated shopping cart system with its built-in set of features and limitations? If you only have a few products to sell then sometimes it is more satisfying aesthetically to integrate a basic PayPal shopping cart into your existing website. Combine this with a clever piece of software that can deal with downloadable products and you have a very versatile system with a unique look. Have a look at the purchase page from this site we recently created for an author and publisher. We have been able to give the site a unique look and feel yet it has the ability to sell both physical and downloadable products.
Whatever your eventual choice, make it an informed one. The success or failure of your business may depend on it.