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.

Shopping Carts

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.

Price and Support

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.

Server Environment

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, but be aware that some hosts do charge a fee for them to do this for you or require that you do this yourself. 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.

Application Maintenance

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.

Other Cart Limitations

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.

Site Security

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 installation or 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.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)

If you are selling online, you must adhere to PCI DSS, which is a set of policies and procedures for the security of credit and debit transactions and protect cardholders against misuse of their personal information. The major credit card companies created this in 2004. Your host should have this covered for the server side of your e-commerce application and data, and from there, steps you take, such as password strength, user restrictions, etc are applied for a well rounded secure environment. Before considering a host, you should make sure they have this covered completely and can advise you on the steps you will take within the cart application as well.

Also note that dependent on your credit card processing or storage, your may need to have a vulnerability scanning authority to scan your site, as well as provide quarterly self-assessment Questionnaires (SAQs)

If you are hiring a web designer to customize and design the look of your cart and/or finding you a host, they should also be aware of PCI DSS as well

For more information on PCI DSS, please visit the PCI Security Standards Council web site.

Merchant Accounts

A Merchant Account provides you with the ability to process credit cards and debit cards. 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 Amazon Payments™ or the like, 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.

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. Some cart applications do, however, integrate to provide the appearance of continuity, which is preferable, but do note that using these types of payment processors do not mean that you are personally absolved from PCI DSS.

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 and/or your shopping cart application may limit you to certain types of Merchant Accounts you can use; however, it is important that you review the different methods and make your own choice of which is best for you.

Product Data

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, Numbers or comma 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:

  • Product Code (or number) - Some shopping carts don’t accept spaces and characters other than underscore and dash, so it will save you a lot of time and effort to keep this in mind when creating product codes.
  • Product Name - A descriptive name is always a good idea, because some carts will use the product name as the title for search listings and at the top of your browser’s window.
  • Category - In most shopping carts, you can have a product listed in more than one category, so you should list the category or categories/subcategories, so that your designer knows how and where you’d like them to display.
  • Product Price - This detail should not include the dollar sign, but should include at least two decimal spaces.
  • Product Weight - This is usually listed in ounces, so you will want to convert your weight to ounces.
  • Product Description - Plain text is fine, since part of your designer’s job is to ensure the text is formatted appropriately.
  • Product Image - This will be the primary photo that your customer will see within the category section and within the product display and will be used to create a thumbnail and large photo of the product for the product’s display in different sections of the shopping cart.
  • Additional Images - These may be the front and back, different colors, ect. Your customer should be provided with photos that clearly show the product in all of it's aspects.
  • Related Products - Related products are those that go well with the product that is currently being displayed to the customer, often accompanied by a heading such as “Other items you may like” or similar. Most shopping carts offer this section as a part of their stores.
  • Attributes - Attributes are, for example, sizes, colors, dimensions (if more than one dimension is offered for the product). Don’t forget to include whether an attribute changes the price. For example, with sizes in clothing, an X-large to 3X-large item often costs a few dollars more than the small to large sizes.

In Conclusion

From reading this, you can see that selling online is not a cut and dry effort. There are decisions to be made and extra costs associated with some aspects. 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.