The first major decision you’re going to make when it comes time to establishing an eCommerce website (assuming you’ve already made the decision to do it and what you’re selling) and probably the one that will have biggest long-term impact on your business – selecting a shopping cart platform. Choosing the wrong shopping cart platform is something that can turn around to haunt you for years to come – and switching from one to another is costly and time-consuming (and usually a pain in the ass).
The problem is, shopping cart software is a dime a dozen, and doing a google search for “ecommerce shopping cart” doesn’t exactly guide people in the right direction. In this two part series, I’m going to outline some of the features to look for, some of the major players out there, as well as some resources to help you in navigating through the maze of options. All while trying to keep this article short enough to hold your attention.
As I’ve mentioned in our eCommerce Consulting Services overview, the shopping cart market has matured enough where most of the platforms out there share the same set of basic features to accommodate most of the standard shopping cart needs. That’s not to say you shouldn’t review these features carefully – I wouldn’t even consider any shopping cart platform that does not have a feature matrix readily available. If you don’t know what features you’re going to need for your site just yet, just think about the products or services you’re selling and think about the properties of them. Do they have variants (colors, sizes, etc.), or kits, are they drop shipped? These types of questions will help identify what kind of features you will need. It might also be helpful to find other websites selling these same products and try to determine what they are using. Many times, it is listed in the footer of their site, or other times you can view the source of the page and it may be commented somewhere in the header what platform they’re using. If not, you can always revert to contacting the webmaster directly and straight out ask them what platform they use and if they’re happy with it (just don’t let them know you’re looking to enter the market as a competitor). Aside from what I’d consider the “normal” features, here’s a few other items we identified as high priority items for one of our last eCommerce sites.
- Integration with back-office systems: Something many merchants don’t consider until they reach a volume where manually recording your website sales into your accounting system become too time consuming. This is oftentimes a feature that is available with many carts through a third part add-on. If you will need your website to integrate with your accounting system – even if not at first, make sure it is scalable and a solution is available to accommodate this functionality. Also, some of the more recent developments with managed providers like NetSuite and Interprise Suite allow for a fully integrated back-office and front end system all in one! We’ll cover this topic a little more in depth in a future article.
- Extensibility: What we mean by extensible is that the solution allows for the integration of add-ons and third party tools. This allows for the platform to be more scalable and flexible to meet your needs. And you never know, at some point you may want to add some unique feature (for example like rotating product videos instead of photos) and although most shopping carts don’t support that today, you wouldn’t have to rely on them to develop it in a future release, you could have a developer modify the platform to allow for this new functionality.
- One-Page Checkout: It still amazes me that many of the shopping cart platforms out there still don’t have this feature. With all of the studies indicating the huge decrease in shopping cart abandonment rates just by having a simplified one-page checkout without requiring users to register, this is a must-have in my opinion.
- Design Flexibility: Maybe this is my personal priorities, but usability and accessibility should be important factors when it comes to the design of any website, including eCommerce sites. What exactly does this mean? I’ll refer you to Jakob Nielson’s site and the Website Accessibility Initiative to fill you in. At the end of the day though, CSS based website designs allow your site to be more compliant with both of these standards. Many shopping cart platforms today use hard-coded table based designs that are often difficult to modify or are even impossible to design around a complete CSS framework.
- Custom URL Rewriting: Most shopping cart platforms today tout their “SEO friendliness” and included in these features is usually URL rewriting. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend a platform that does not have URL rewriting. URL rewriting allows you to have “pretty” URLs, for example: instead of having a URL like www.mysite.com/details.asp?productid=12345&menuid=4&cat=3 you could have www.mysite.com/details/product-abc.html. Why does this even matter? Well, it has been noted that having keywords in your URL is an SEO factor. But, the real benefit lies in what a user sees as the URL, what link would you rather click on, some convoluted string of mumbo jumbo, or a nicely formatted URL with the product I’m looking for right in the URL? But like I said, most platforms already have this feature, but many times the structure of this URL is hard-coded and defined by them. So they may append product ids, other characters, etc. onto the URL. So they’ve added the keywords to the URL, but it still hasn’t done much to improve the “look” of the URL. Some platforms allow you to actually define, product by product, the URL that you’d like to use. While this seems like it could be a maintenance nightmare, the benefit of the feature outweigh any increase in workload for managing your products.
- Custom Meta Info: Having the ability to have custom title, and description tags for each page on your site is a must. I can’t count the number of eCommerce sites that every page has the same title on every page – that’s an SEO no no.
There’s obviously many other features you’re going to need, but these are a few of the not-so-standard features in today’s standards. In Part II of this article, we’ll cover some of the major players in the shopping cart platform arena, but first let’s direct you to a few of the resources out there to help you in making some of these decisions. And when I say a few, I mean it. There’s not a lot of unbiased information out there with candid reviews of shopping cart platforms – unfortunately. Mark Baartse makes a good attempt with shopping-cart-reviews.com but at this point the information available is limited. And if I could recommend a feature for the site, it’s the ability to search by or at least have the results come up with average rating. Pulling up PHP carts and having a list of 60 of them doesn’t exactly help me which ones to narrow down. The compare feature is nice, but again, out of that many options available how do I know which ones to compare? Otherwise, this someday could be a useful unbiased resource. Doing a Google search for “shopping cart reviews” comes up with a variety of affiliate sites and not very helpful resources with enough reviews. There’s some scattered comparison resources out there, Top Ten Reviews has a little bit, but other than scouring forums for feedback you’re on your own for the most part. At the end of the day, your best bet for honest feedback is to contact random sites that use the software (not the referrals they give you) and ask them about their experiences with the software, aside from perusing through the forums for the platforms you’re considering. But stay tuned for part 2, where we’ll point you out to a few of the big dogs out there with some of our experiences with them. To be continued…