These days, most merchants have an online store. It doesn't matter whether you are a one man workshop selling clogs from a remote part of Scotland (and there really is one!) or a giant superstore, such as Walmart, having an online presence is an essential way of doing business. The main thing is that if you aren't selling online then your business will be missing out on sales that go to competitors who are. Many business people, who might not be too well versed in technological matters, often think of setting up an online store as an expensive and time consuming project. However, with the modern software and services that are available it is becoming ever easier to get things set up quickly and cheaply.
In fact, with some of the services we have looked at, the barrier to entry is so low that we reckon if you can write a Word document you can pretty much set up an online store. However, it's important to at least understand the basics before jumping into anything, so read on to get a feel for the things we think make a good ecommerce solution.
Hosted vs Installable
The ecommerce solutions we looked at can broadly be divided into two categories. There are those that are sold as a fully hosted service, which means you pay a monthly fee and then the company you are paying looks after all the behind the scenes technical stuff, and there are those that are sold as a software product that you must install and configure on a hosting server of your choice. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both, but one of the first decisions you should make when choosing an ecommerce solution is which type you need.
An installable solution generally comes as a piece of software that you pay a one off license fee for and then are free to install it wherever you like. You still have to pay a monthly fee for a hosting server to install it on, but you are free to choose any company you like for this so you can shop around for a good deal. However, you do need to have some amount of technical knowledge in order to install the software, configure the database, tune the web server etc. If you aren't comfortable with doing this then an installable solution probably isn't for you.
A hosted solution, on the other hand, works just like any other web service you may sign up for. Usually you can create an account in a matter of minutes and all the technical stuff will be taken care of behind the scenes so you don't have to worry about it. All you do is access a web based console that lets you manage your store and the web site around it. This is certainly the easiest option for getting into ecommerce, but it can work out slightly more expensive than an installable solution and you might be tied in to one vendor.
Whether you choose a hosted or installable style solution, the way you manage your online store will be pretty similar. Almost without exception you simply use your web browser to log into a central administration console that lets you manage all the different aspects of the store. Don't let the word 'console' conjure up images of blue screens and white text either! All that means is essentially a set of web forms that you fill in to tell the store the details of the products you want to sell or how to process an order. Most of these are very easy to use and don't require any technical knowledge whatsoever.
However, the functionality they offer can vary so make sure that the package you are thinking about does what you need it to do. For example, some solutions have much more fully fledged inventory management capabilities than others so if you don't have a separate system that does this, you might want to pay a little extra for better features. Similarly some of the poorer solutions we have looked at don't provide any way for customers to sign up and keep track of their orders. Not only do you expect to be able to do this these days, you will be missing out on valuable marketing data if you can't sign up. Whatever your requirements are, the admin console is where you will spend all of your time managing the store so make sure to check out any demo stores available to see how it works.
Marketing and SEO
Even if you have the clout of a huge brand behind you, your store is unlikely to get any traffic unless you promote it and make sure it sits high in the search engine rankings. This is where SEO, or search engine optimization, comes into play. There are many different aspects to SEO and it is often seen as a dark art, but there are plenty of practical and useful things that can be done to ensure your store is ranked fairly.
Any good solution will generate your store in a SEO friendly manner, but some do so better than others. Even experts will disagree on which things are most important so it can be difficult to tell which solution does SEO best, but you should at least look out for one that lists a lot of SEO features and if possible get someone with some technical experience to look it over. It's safe to say that, if a product doesn't mention that it's SEO friendly, then your generated store will be a mess of code that the search engines will have no qualms about ranking poorly.
Security is obviously a major concern if you are looking to set up an online store. Just as you wouldn't want nefarious types loitering around your store in the real world you don't want the underbelly of the internet taking an interest in your online store. The best way to make sure this doesn't happen is to use a highly rated ecommerce solution that takes security very seriously. Even if you are passing off the handling of payments to a third party, if your store is not secure then a rogue hacker could get in and deface it, ruining your brand and reputation in the process.
As it's such an important area we would recommend getting someone who knows what they are doing to take a look at the security aspects of any solution. However, at the very least you want to look for products that offer SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption as standard. SSL creates a secure channel for data exchange and is needed for online transactions such as PayPal.
Even if you are the most tech savvy of coding whizzkids there will likely come a time when you have to turn to your ecommerce provider for support over one issue or another. A timely response from the support team can mean the difference between your store going offline, losing you thousands in lost sales, or keeping things ticking over smoothly. Most services will offer some level of support as it is a big money earner for them, but it's worth checking what, if anything, is included with your plan. Often support is an added extra that you may pay a monthly or annual charge for so it can add a hidden cost to the price of a plan.
The Bottom Line
Even for someone with good technical skills it can be difficult to choose the best ecommerce solution for the job. A lot will depend on the requirements of the business and the store, but there are also quite a lot of poor quality services out there that are worth avoiding. It's a good idea to have a look around the web at other stores similar to how you want yours to be and try to see what they are using. Then, of course, check our review of the product. The best ones are in the top ten, but with so many to choose from there are some perfectly good solutions outside too. Check out the list here to get started.