It's one of the age-old dilemmas faced by business owners: You've got a terrific product or service to sell, but not a good means of selling it. But, as with so many factors in business, there are plenty of software applications available to conduct ecommerce efficiently. As more consumers turn to online shopping, ecommerce websites have proliferated. Ease of use is, of course, the main objective, but there are several other factors to consider as well.
Some observers recommend that businesses develop their own ecommerce software in order to best address their individual needs. That may sound like a daunting undertaking for anyone who isn't a software programmer, but in reality, the process can be relatively simple. Making a list of the types of features and functionalities you're looking for, whether something you've seen on another website or applications that you'd like to see, is the first step. This list may then be turned over to ecommerce software suppliers or website developers.
There will likely be some give and take at this stage. It may be that what you're seeking is extremely difficult (or expensive) to implement, and a reputable supplier/developer should be able to suggest alternatives that can still do the job the way you want it done. What do you want to achieve? The ability to quickly create invoices, maintain your shipping orders, figure in taxes, shipping charges, and make such additional costs transparent to your customers are some of the most often-requested functions.
In fact, taking the customer into consideration should be of primary importance. Anyone who's had to go through a seemingly endless series of steps to simply place and pay for an order online can readily attest to the importance of ecommerce software that is easy to use and understand. In addition, some customers may simply want to price your goods for future reference, or to compare to similar sites' prices, rather than placing an order right away. In such a scenario, providing prospective customers with an accurate estimate of what their cost will be with your company is of paramount importance.
Also worth remembering is to ensure that your ecommerce software is flexible enough to take into account changes you may want to implement down the line. While you cannot predict everything that will happen to affect your inventory, pricing, etc., in the future, you likely have expectations as to where such factors will be a few months or even a few years from now.
Shopping Cart Software Payment Processing. Many programs offer credit card processing, as well as check, PayPal and/or other methods of processing payments.
Webpage Design. Many ecommerce software programs include step-by-step explanations of how to design your site's web pages, eliminating the need to consult with outside designers.
Storefront Design. Again, step-by-step explanations and examples of how to incorporate various templates and other tools to give your virtual storefront a fetching, attractive design are often included.
Inventory Control. Truly efficient programs will track your inventory and automatically generate reports, usually at whichever interval you request (quarterly, monthly, weekly, even hourly).
Shipping. Nearly all shopping cart software includes a tool that calculates shipping costs for customers, based on parameters that you set for your business. This can be particularly helpful if you regularly ship overseas, and may eliminate the need to individually respond to shipping cost queries from Canada or Europe. And, given the size of the U.S., it's a valuable tool for domestic orders as well. Some software allows customers and businesses to link directly to FedEx and UPS.
Tax Calculation. Again, most shopping cart programs can calculate taxes, which can vary greatly from state to state. Any future applicable taxes for online sales can be addressed as well.
Customer Order Management. Many shopping cart programs allow customers to view their previous purchases, and routinely "recognize" the customer when they return. A simple "Hi, John" message when John Doe comes back to your store can be an invaluable tool for driving customer loyalty.
Additional Marketing. The creation of coupons, gift certificates, and similar incentives for return or preferred customers can underscore your business's relationship with those customers. By inputting parameters (a ten percent off coupon on an order after John Doe has spent $100 at your store, for example), these offers can be automated without necessarily having to pour through your entire database of customers and their orders. Many programs can also create sales reports and page-view reports that can help to optimize prospective customer conversions. If you notice that many prospects abandon their orders upon landing on a certain page of your website, that page may be in need of anything from a tweak to a complete redesign.
Security. Few things are more important in today's virtual marketplace to a customer than assurances that his personal information, including credit card info, is protected. Many shopping cart programs encrypt such information, and process credit cards only through reputable services.
Despite its name, "shopping cart software" is often what online businesses mean when they talk about ecommerce software, and is not limited to the functionality of your customers' online shopping carts. Some of the factors that come into play with efficient shopping cart software include:
With these criteria in mind, selecting the right shopping cart software should be relatively easy. Most third party observers rate ecommerce software in four general areas: Feature sets, ease of use, ease of setup, and help/documentation.The feature set refers to everything from the shopping cart itself to the software's accounting and inventory functions. Programs that offer the most features, and the most flexibility, routinely receive high ratings, and if they include video support and training, marketing suggestions, and/or social media (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) connectivity, so much the better.
Ease of use and of setup are self-explanatory. Again, step-by-step explanations of how to determine your needs, and designing your site to address those needs, as well as quick accessibility for customers, are important factors to consider. If a program takes forever to load, or includes hard to understand menus or is otherwise confusing to customer navigation, it probably isn't what you want for your business. Even if you and your staff find your ecommerce software effortless to use, it's still important to include top-notch customer and technical support. Help menus, customer forums, user manuals, frequently asked questions (FAQ) pages, and similar features can make the difference between customer conversion and customer desertion. Likewise, the software's manufacturer should offer support to you through telephone and email at the very least, with live chat capabilities an added bonus. Any reputable company will also be reachable by regular mail, but chances are, you're not going to want to wait that long.
Also continuing to grow in importance is search engine optimization (SEO), the means by which your company can rank higher in searches on Google, Bing and other such search engines. Employing the right SEO terms to attract the right customer to your store is critical in today's online landscape. SEO software is usually separate from shopping cart software, but can still be an integral part of your ecommerce efforts. When designing your company pages, you should employ words on your landing page that shoppers (usually not your regular customers) will be typing into the search engine box. Keyword phrases relevant to your business can typically be found on a number of websites devoted to the topic.
Using as many relevant keyword phrases as possible is, in general, a good idea, though if done carelessly, the end result may read like search engine gobbledygook; not a good idea under any circumstances. Increasingly, a high keyword density that sounds unnatural may be flagged by search engines as spam, which will result in your site being removed from the search engine, hardly optimizing your company's potential. But, by employing well-written articles and other web content that contain as many keywords as possible, your site will be much more likely to come up in search engines as a shopper looks for them.
In summary, most ecommerce software providers worth their salt will include demos, help videos, whitepapers, third party testimonials, and free trials that can help take the mystery out of how to build and manage an online retail business with confidence. In addition, since things change almost minute by minute on the Internet, it's important to ally yourself with a company that regularly updates its technology and customer communications. Many software providers feature blogs, regular news "update" sections, and/or newsletters to keep their customers as up to date as possible.
A generally helpful guide to the plethora of shopping cart software available can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_shopping_cart_software.
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