There are lots of different kinds of websites out there. Most of them provide free content in some way. Others can be used to directly sell to your customers and clients. Most of the time, we refer to these kinds of websites as
- shopping cart websites
- ecommerce websites
- storefront websites
Regardless of the exact name, a shopping cart website is designed to sell to a customer directly, and will usually allow them to pay via several different methods, select different shipping options, and otherwise offer a streamlined shopping experience.
If you’ve decided the purpose of your website is to sell directly to customers, you’ll need to set up some kind of shopping cart software to make that happen.
From a user-friendly design perspective, I think the best example of an effective shopping cart website would be Amazon.com. In fact, I challenge anyone who is thinking about setting up their own online storefront shopping cart website to spend some time interacting with Amazon.com, and taking note of what makes this shopping cart website easy to interact with. Obviously, most of us are not going to have as much inventory as Amazon.com has, but for a large store they are a great example.
The Usual Pre-Launch Home Work
Most of the work in getting ready to launch a shopping cart website is similar to setting up any other website. You’ll need a good domain name, a web host, and you’ll probably want to do some market research, just as you would when starting any other website. I’ve talked about these topics in other parts of this website too.
Before getting started with any shopping cart website, though, I strongly recommend figuring out the other details before committing to a web host, so that you can find out exactly what you’ll need.
When it comes to accepting payments directly on your website through some sort of shopping cart website, you’ll need to start off by thinking about how you will get paid from your customers.
Credit Cards and Debit Cards
In order to get paid with credit cards, debit cards, and echecks, you’ll need what is called a Merchant Account. There are many different merchant accounts available. The best place to start looking would be through your own bank. They know you, and can probably help you best, and in person too. There are many other options available online, each with their own pros and cons. You’ll also need to figure out if you’ll be accepting credit cards in person or online only.
When accepting credit cards online, you’ll need a payment gateway through your merchant account. Most of the time, you’ll pay a modest monthly fee for this ($25 on up), in addition to any other fees associated with the merchant account.
You’ll also want to make sure that any payment gateways associated with your merchant account are able to work with different kinds of shopping carts. As a web developer, I sure wish they’d standardize these things. Not every shopping cart website plays nicely with every merchant account and payment gateway. Generally, any merchant account that uses the Authorize.net payment gateway would be a great help, because nearly all Shopping Cart Websites work with Authorize.net.
Paypal is the most common way I get paid as a WAHM. Most people seem to have a Paypal Account, and Paypal allows you to accept credit cards on their website too. The other main benefit of Paypal is that there are no monthly fees, only per transaction fees.
Every now and then you’ll run into someone who has some aversion to Paypal and wants to lecture you on the three thousands reasons why they hate Paypal, but in general Paypal is a necessary payment method for web businesses.
Paypal, incidentally, also has a merchant account and payment gateway for a price too. Thankfully, the merchant account (Website Payments Pro) carefully conceals the fact that they are “Paypal” so the few remaining paypal haters will still shop your store without having an aneurysm.
Checks and Money Orders
Checks and money orders are also necessary evils, although they should never ever be considered as your only way to pay. Why?
Because most people are frankly too lazy to print off your order form, write a check, address an envelope, put a stamp on said envelope, and mail it.
When I used to have a shopping cart, I would (begrudgingly) accept checks in my shopping cart website, and it seems that half of the people who place an order and promise to mail in a check never quite get around to it. Obviously, you should never ship until paid either for that reason. The main reason why I hate checks is that I, too, am lazy and hate driving to the post office to check to see if a check finally arrived, and then driving to the bank to cash it before the bank closes for the day. Thankfully few people pay with checks anymore.
Website Security for Shopping Cart Websites
Many payment gateways and merchant accounts will require that a website owner purchase a security certificate (SSL Certificate) for their website. This is what provides the https:// in front of a URL, indicating that the connection is encrypted. This does two things.
- it makes your customers (at least the ones who understand ssl even a little) feel more secure buying from you.
- it provides the necessary security for your merchant account and protects your customer’s information.
Most SSL Certificates are purchased from your web host (which is why I said to wait on web hosting until you’ve figured out other issues). Some web hosts, such as my favorite, Hostgator, provide a free SSL for certain levels of hosting.
Additional Web Hosting Needs for Shopping Cart Websites
I’ve noticed most web hosts try to sell you more web hosting than you really need. If you’re going to have a shopping cart there are some bare minimums you need that will do you just fine. These are
- the most up to date php installed on the server
- sql databases (1 or more)
- ssl certificate (preferably not a shared certificate)
- “Fantastico” or some other function in your cpanel that will allow you to install a shopping cart website with the click of a button.
You don’t necessarily need to know what these crazy words mean in order to make sure your web host has them. Most web hosts will have a comparison chart that should list these items. The only one you may not find is “fantastico”. Sometimes that is listed as “free scripts” or something else. If you hire a web designer, or if you are fairly techie and up for a challenge, you can just do the install manually, though scripts like Fantastico make is oh so much easier. Even though I can do a manual install, I still prefer the one click option of such a feature.
Shipping Your Products
Next up is to think about how you’ll ship your products. Most of us here in the USA will probably at least choose to use USPS.com in some way. Well, in order to have shipping prices and options available on your website, you will need to use some sort of module plugged into your shopping cart (that is, working with whatever shopping cart system you’re using) so that your chosen method of shipping, or different shipping options, can accurately display.
It may be a bit confusing, but this is not the same as signing up for a service like Stamps.com, which allows you to order postage online and print labels. This is usually listed on different shipping service websites as a “webmaster tool”. Usually, you’ll need to register your website, and insert a license key into your shopping cart website system.
Many people also sell downloadable products, and thankfully most shopping cart website systems allow you to securely sell downloadables. This means, a customer actually has to complete payment before they can download the product, and no one can directly link to the download link. Therefore, your downloadable products are secure.
Product Images for a Shopping Cart Website
Think for a moment about your own shopping habits. What kind of photo do you need to see in order to finally decide to buy whatever it is that you’re selling?
If you’re selling something that doesn’t photograph well, try to create an action shot if possible (ie, someone using the product). Make your photos look as interesting and inviting as possible.
Shopping Cart Website Systems
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. There are many different shopping cart website systems available out there, and many of them are free and customizable to some extent.
Zen Cart is free with a user friendly interface for inserting your products and configuring the nitty gritty of running a website, but sadly Zen Cart is not at all user friendly for non-techies for making a website look the way you want it to, or making user-side customizations. Most of Zen Cart’s “free” add ons are not well supported either. If you want to customize Zen Cart you really need to know php, html, and css well, and have plenty of coffee in you.
OSCommerce is very similar to Zen Cart. Pretty much everything I’ve said about Zen Cart applies to OS Commerce, with the exception that OSCommerce lets you directly edit template files from within their admin. You still need to know PHP, HTML, and CSS to get anywhere.
You basically need to either spend time teaching yourself these languages or spend some cash hiring me to set one up for you.
WordPress’ Cart66 has free or paid options for very easy shopping cart websites. The thing I love about this option is that it works within WordPress, and is much better for SEO (getting the attention of search engines), layout, and integrating good content in with your website. The other good thing is that you don’t have to be a major geek like me or decked out with plenty of start-up cash in order to get started with this kind of shopping cart. You can use it with pretty much any free WordPress theme. The paid option gives you more freedom in regards to payment options, shipping modules, and so forth.
There are many other shopping cart plug in options for WordPress now, such as Woo Commerce.
Did I miss Anything?
Was there a topic regarding starting a shopping cart website that I missed? Do let me know.