Quick and easy – make your ecommerce platform do more, faster!
Choosing a good ecommerce platform is the first decision for many businesses that only begin their journey.
Flawless online presence, where a good amount of world economy now runs through, is a must. Such software has two main goals – make your life easier as a merchant and businessman, and improve the shopping experience for your clients. Ecommerce platforms can manage larger customer databases and enable users to sell products to themselves without the necessity for a human intermediary during the sales process. Many specialists think that shopping carts created bigger trust between shoppers and merchants, despite there not being any structural reason to why one is more reliable or inherently more safe. Yet, there is now a broad expectation that most shopping will work quite similar anywhere online, and most players on the market prefer not to spook clients away with less popular solutions, even despite their possibly better functionality. That is reasonable and it is hard to argue against the entire market. Notice also, that this does not mean the design must be uniform and boring as well – to the contrary. The best environment I can imagine is a website looking like nothing any user has seen before, with innovative design and color, but also intuitive enough, that a person would have no trouble navigating around. How to balance all that out, without breaking the bank?
Let me start with a disclaimer, that personally I prefer complete ecommerce solutions to integrating standalone shopping carts with some base platform website, usually of the WordPress kind. For large majority of users this will actually save them some time and sweat, and will usually also enable cleaner integration with your CMS and other software. Standalone systems are commonly harder to run and set up, and there is no nice Mr/Ms Consultant to aid you at least through a call centre. You need to set up your own hosting, and remember that successful stores create a lot of traffic, so a growing shop will be costly to maintain on your own. Small users also routinely forget to update their webpages and they slowly go both visually and functionally obsolete, but also less secure.
This does not mean there are no situations where that is necessarily true. For organizations with atypical needs, having access to code may be necessary when vendor is slow or does not support adequate level of customization. Some ecommerce software vendors solve it through plugins and friendly APIs, but for some companies this may not be enough and would prefer their own developers to pursue modifications. Using ready solutions has some other drawbacks too, like in most cases lack of real design control or limited templates in general, but that is not always the case and many programs have really neat designer features, so always check the visual capabilities of ecommerce platforms of shopping carts. Some good non-hosted lite shopping carts are Magento and OsCommerce.
But the most important part in choosing ecommerce software is the features that it provides. And there are many packages to choose from, starting from smallest of web based free open source apps, up to heavy products by market leaders. Assuming, that a good requirements analysis has been made, and that you do have a good idea of what you need now and what probably will be your scaling needs in the mid term future, it is time to review what features are most popular on the market and which ones will you need. To help you avoid headaches stemming from misaligned software, below is a list of features you may find important, that a good ecommerce program should have.
- It should be able to sell more than a product. Physical objects are the crux of majority of transactions on the online marketplace, but a business should not restrict its selling tools to only one type of merchandise. Make sure that the software manages different classes and types of products and that it can process them differently according to your needs.
- It should be able to integrate with a shipping solution and help you with shipping costs calculation – like automatically finding a better option for that package. Customers dislike surprise shipping costs very much, so best shipping should be available to users even before they go to checkout.
- Product pages should be customizable, and look different for different types of product (if you need it to be)
- It should integrate with your financial software, or have this functionality. Automating your tax procedures saves accounting dozens of hours.
- It should have rich social media integration options. These days Facebook is pushing its marketplace stronger than ever, trying to pull in as many small vendors onto its platform as possible. It is hard to tell which vision will prevail – Facebook’s one stop shop for social AND ecommerce, or distributed shops to which traffic goes through outside websites. At this moment however, Facebook Marketplace has not shown to be viable business channel for many industries. That is why to use social media power and run your marketing through it you need good integrations, a step short of actually switching to specific Marketplace-like solutions with more control on your side.
- It should integrate flawlessly with your CMS and marketing software – this part is crucial, especially for those who already run high profile marketing campaigns that would lose out a lot of power if switched to a unsupported platform. Using customer data in the best possible way is harder without software being able to talk to each other in real time and without manual data transfer from one silo to another.
This list in blatantly not the most comprehensive one – I aimed to cover both the absolute basics and things some fresh ecommerce entrepreneurs forget. The last bullet point should then be not to trust anybody too much and to focus on your requirements. Can’t go wrong like that!
Features are one thing, but shopping is clearly not only about convenience – but also other factors. When it comes to visual design, as we all know well (thanks to decades of A/B testing penetrating the market), small changes in store or checkout design can have big impact on final conversions and click-throughs. Many e-commerce solutions are claiming to be designed with users in mind, but most of them fall short of the desired goal. To guarantee that you will not make the most basic of mistakes, ensure that your brand new software running the shop has at least some of the features outlined below, in no particular order. Those are the features that I most often find lacking in stores I visit:
- Make sure that the shopping cart and checkout pages actually look like ones. Customers should immediately feel where they are, and what function this page has – and that it is markedly different than other subpages. For example, removing some navigation or suggestion elements can help. Have a help button that will explain main contents of the page in a visual manner as well.
- Highlight CTA buttons and limit them. Many websites have multiple CTA buttons that do more to distract than to actually motivate. Have ones that are rare, clear and move the customer along the shopping process. Same goes for checkout buttons, which should be distinct graphically from other types of buttons.
- Have large product images that are in high resolution. This is self explanatory. If when using built-in zoom you see pixels, update your photos. If the shopping cart software does not allow zooming or large pictures – drop it.
- Allow guest checkout – among all the barriers to conversion, many users dislike the obligation to register an account. Whether it is because they do not want to share their data – a reservation that is mostly offbeat, as guests mostly leave the same information data in the end – or they just want to save time with confirmation emails and account setup. Listen to them and do not force anybody to register, unless your business depends on deeper interactions strongly.
- Unclutter the key pages – the places where a decision has to be made by a customer should avoid distractions and large blocks of text. The sole focus should be on presenting all the necessary fields as easy and clear as possible to fill correctly.
- Enable multi-layered navigation. To make shopping and navigation easier, create a rational tree of categories, where layers of dependencies enable users to look up desired features of a product inside a desired group of products by a specific producent. Filtering out the unwanted products presents the desired ones better.
If you follow those very fundamental design rules, your shop should work better for you as a conversion tool. To end this article, I would like to recommend three programs that are good all-encompassing ecommerce solutions – for large stores with very large number of products and clients Shopify gets great reviews as a clean, simple solution. For small shop owners, like craftsmen or decoupage artists, who run small batches of custom products – Squarespace besides being an easy website builder, gives users reasonable and affordable ecommerce platform. Finally, Zen Cart is a free, open source shopping cart that can be customized with ease to serve your specific needs. If you need more information about all stuff ecommerce, check our ecommerce solutions.