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What Do You Need In An Online Store?

Run a search these days on one of the popular search engines for storefront software and you'll get back hundreds of offerings. Sorting through the possibilities is mind boggling. How can you possibly decide what software or service to use?

Start by answering five questions:
Selling binaryware or hardgoods?
Selling a few or hundreds of items?
Need shipping and/or tax calculators?
Need to take credit cards for payment?
Need back-end order processing?
Note the emphasis on "need".

Don't start looking for what you think you want; carefully define your minimal needs. The appetite for "want" is bottomless. If this is your first internet store, a modest beginning is warranted, especially because needs will change and evolve over time. So, try to start simple and build from there.

The "want" appetite is gladly feed by marketing people. Storefronts are available with all sorts of bells and whistles. Most of them you won't need and setting up a storefront with a zillion options can be a daunting task.

The question not asked above was "cost?". Naturally the cost of the storefront software will always be a factor. It can range from free to thousands of dollars. In this rapidly evolving segment of the software market, cost and features do not always correlate. There is some excellent freeware out there, so be sure to look around.

You'll also want to decide the buy or lease question. Some storefronts are provided as services hosted from the providers site while others are stand-alone packages that you host from your own site. Stand alone packages can be initially more costly while leased storefronts will cost more in the long run, sometimes much more. Stand alone stores will require some page editing using a text editor or wizards, while hosted stores may provide a browser based on-line editor. Your preference here depends on how comfortable you are using a text editor and how desirable you feel it is to remain independent of a particular provider.

Forget about the Internet shopping mall. With a brick and mortar store, location is everything. Not true on the Internet! Here you're just going to have to bang away at search engines, news groups, related sites, and anywhere else you can think of to get your store known. Niche markets will do best. Do not try to compete with the big guys unless you're one of them.

Binaryware or Hardgoods
Selling binary products like downloadable software or music is quite different from selling hardgoods. With downloadable products you will most often want to provide immediate URL access for the download; and, with software products, a registration code. In either case, the storefront will need some way of providing a download location to specific files once a credit card charge has been authorized. Packaged storefronts do not handle these requirements well. Back-end customization is usually required. Look for one of the specialized delivery services if binaryware is your product.

A few or many Items
Ideally we would like to make a sale direct from a web page simply by letting the customer select from a picture of the item; however, this isn't practical. Usually you have more than one item you want to sell and want to give the customer choices. You also want to give them the opportunity to buy more than one of a single item. This means that a "buy" link has to present your customer with a list of items from which to make selections.

This select list is the single most important feature in storefront software. The purpose of the list is to allow customers to add items in varying quantities to a shopping cart. The shopping cart itself is simply the storefront memory for saving these selections prior to check out.

Generally the select list will display items of a type and category relevant to the item shown in a "buy" link. For a store with just a few items, this may be a list of all items for sale. For large stores, this link might open a storefront sales catalog in a particular department with further choices by product type, category, and a keyword search.

This select list is almost always derived dynamically from a product database. The product database can be built into the storefront software itself or it can be a separate application residing on the storefront host server. Which type is best suited for your purposes will depend on what back office services are needed and the availability of a host that will support database connections.

A separate product database can be updated automatically for available quantity when a purchase is made. The built-in database can't. On the other hand, the built-in database will not require any special server software. Storefronts using a built-in database can be hosted anywhere. In either case, you will almost never be able to directly import existing product records to the storefront database. Existing records rarely have the kind of information you want on the sell side.

There are some other factors to take into account regarding the storefront select lists. Does the list allow the customer to make preference choices and does it support dynamic pricing? That is, if you are selling tee shirts for instance, you will want to give the customer style choices, but will each style choice allow the customer to specify size and color? If a particular size is extra money, can the select list compute a new price by adding to the base price of the item?

If you are selling just a few items, then all customer preference options could be shown in the select list as separate items. However, this technique can result in a very long and confusing list if there are a lot of options. For instance, if you have 10 items for sale and each has five options, you end up with a list of 20 items.

A good rule is to keep a selection list under 20 items. Longer lists are confusing. This makes it critical that the storefront software has a means of dynamically generating selection lists from a product database based on some combination of description, type, category, or keywords in a "buy" link.

Design
One further note on the select list. Don't worry about the look, the color, background images, etc. As long as the selection list is clean and well organized, you'll be OK. The list must have at least an item description and a means for selecting quantity. Thumbnail images of items and an ability to mark up descriptions with HTML tags or style designations is nice but not essential. Remember, at this point the customer wants to buy.

Shipping and Tax
Calculating shipping costs and sales taxes for an on-line store is a complex process not just for the storefront software, but also for the merchant. To accurately calculate shipping costs, you will have to enter the point of origin, the weight, and the dimensions for each item into the product database line by line. Computing sales taxes is worse. Taxes can vary from community to community, state to state, and country to country; and, if that isn't enough, item type to item type. For instance clothing is not taxed in some states while it is in others.

Unless you're running a large operation, don't worry about taxes and shipping costs. If you can, add a flat shipping and handling charge to the item price and say S& H is included. Customer's like this. In fact a lot of shopping carts get abandoned without sending the order because of sticker shock and resentment over the last minute add-on of S& H charges at the checkout page.

With sales and VAT taxes there is some confusion over how they apply to internet sales. Don't worry about it. If need be, include a small amount in the item price to cover that portion of sales occurring within the state in which you're doing business. Your state doesn't care if you collect the taxes, only that you pay them. So, be sure to keep records to demonstrate where orders were shipped in case this becomes an issue with your state tax guys.

Credit Cards?
The short answer is YES; you need to take credit cards. Some 90% of online sales are paid by credit card and the credit card sale is likely to be 4 times the amount of a sale made using alternate payment methods. So make sure your storefront software or service integrates seamlessly with credit card processing. Best results will be achieved when the payment process is transparent to the customer. That is, your customer doesn't want to feel that they're being shuttled off to some other site to make payment. You need to look and be professional and to do that your payment processing must appear to be a part of your storefront, even though in most cases it isn't.

Forget gimmicky solutions like e-mail and wallets. Unless you use a third party card processor, you'll need a merchant account with a gateway service for connecting to the financial networks. There are now some very economical merchant account services and the barriers to getting an account for the small Internet store have been significantly lowered. Shop around. Credit card processing will be an ongoing expense of $20 to $100 per month. If you don't make this commitment, expect the cost in terms of lost revenue to be much higher.

Back Office Utilities
Sometimes referred to as your back-end store operations, these functions almost always include some form of detail order logging of the sale information to an orders database. Back office utilities may also include such functions as sales log analysis, bulk e-mail management, a virtual terminal for processing credit card transactions, order tracking, product database updates, manual order entry, and much more.

While these utilities are not essentially a part of the storefront itself, they may be functionally a part, especially with service provider hosted storefronts. Some of these services can be very expensive and won't be needed for small and/or start-up accounts. Your best bet is to find storefront software or a service that is transparently supported by optional add-on modules for back-end utilities. As a minimum, you'll want a credit card processing function with detail order record keeping and a virtual terminal.


THINGS YOU PROBABLY WON'T NEED

This list is practically endless: however there are a few commonly sought after features that can significantly add to the complexity and cost of a storefront without providing a consummate return. Your goal should be to go after the bulk of your market at the outset; target the smaller segments latter.

GIFTS:
Don't even think about having this capability if it is not needed for the types of products you offer and essential to the success of your operation.

MULTIPLE SHIPPING DESTINATIONS:
This is required with a gift capability, but can be a separate feature as well. There will have to be additional forms for every shipping destination.

PRECISE SHIPPING AND TAXES: If you insist on a careful calculation of taxes and shipping charges with each order, be prepared to shell out the big bucks for the storefront. Consider how multiple shipping destinations will complicate this calculation when trying to price the order.

FULFILLMENT E-MAIL:
As long as you're shipping your own products, this won't be an issue. Your basic store should send you an order e-mail with a confirmation to the customer. A fulfillment e-mail is sent to a third party shipper. This is an item specific function and requires an item by item entry to a product database.

CUSTOMIZED LOOK: A lot of storefront software and services boast about their ability to let you customize nearly everything about the look and feel of the store. Much of this isn't necessary to your online success. Basically you need to show a picture of the product, provide a good description, and make it easy for the customer to make selections. The look isn't going to generate traffic, having a well promoted, competitively priced, niche market product, will.

ICQ/HUMANCLICK:
Instant messenging will drive you nuts. If you have a busy site, have plenty of people available to answer questions.

FRONTPAGE/PAGEMILL:
These WYSISWYG editors can be great for the intended purpose, BUT using them to build storefronts can cause problems with much of the software.

IN CONCLUSION: Keep it simple!

Storefront software with a lot of features and customization possibilities will require you to make a lot of choices. There'll be questions you've never even considered, never mind having the answers. After you start to create traffic, there'll be time to think about refinements.

Look for a storefront where the buying process is very linear and well defined. A customer should be able to easily find what they want and move quickly through to the checkout process.

Software and any credit card process that presents a customer with an error page without a retry capability will lose that customer. Storefronts that require a sign-up or sign-in before getting to the checkout page will lose customers.

Giving the customer an option of setting a cookie so that on return visits their shipping and/or credit card information is already filled in is nice. However, never pre fill a credit card number. This is scary. Finally, do not try to gather information from a customer not essential to delivering the product.
Originally published on: http://www.linz1.net/
Tip: About Flash
Words on Flash pages are graphics, so they can't be found by search engines. Flash also can take very long to download and may not play out as intended. The actions in a short movie may play with momentary pauses as the file loads to the browser and the audio can appear out-of-sync with the graphic presentation. The extra effort needed to try to overcome these problems is reflected in the high price.

However, small bits of flash effects, or flash text ,added to pages are attractive and possible for the cost conscious.
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