If you are new to selling on the Internet (what people call "e-commerce" or "electronic commerce"), the following paragraphs may help you gain a better understanding of how it all works.
At the heart of any e-commerce Web site is a shopping cart program that allows customers to find and buy products and services. We will explain what a shopping cart is, how it is added to a Web site, etc.
What is a shopping cart?
A shopping cart is a software application that allows your customers to do things such as searching for a product in your store catalog, adding a selected product to a basket, and placing an order for it.
The shopping cart "integrates" with the rest of your Web site. In other words, there are typically links on your Web pages that customers can click on, and which allow them to perform some of the functions described above. For example, many ecommerce Web sites have a "search" link appearing on every Web page, as part of the navigation area. The link points to a feature (i.e. the search feature) provided by the shopping cart.
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How does a shopping cart work?
Typically, all shopping carts share the following structure. A shopping cart normally includes:
- a database that stores information such as product details, customer data, order information, etc.
- a storefront that displays this information to store visitors (e.g. product detail pages, search pages, checkout pages, etc.)
- an administration area that allows you, the store administrator, to manage your store. For example, this is where you add products, set up shipping & payment options, process orders, etc.
Because most of the information is contained in a database, the shopping cart creates pages in "real time" when a customer visits an ecommerce store and requests a specific page. Unlike the HTML pages that likely make up most of your Web site, the shopping cart pages don't exist until a customer requests one. The page is dynamically generated by the Web server by retrieving data from the database. So a store that has 4,000 products, does not actually store 4,000 product pages on the Web server. The pages are created on the fly when a customer visits the store and, for example, looks for a specific product.
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Storefront vs. Administration
Most shopping carts include two components: the storefront, which is what your customers will see (the catalog, the search pages, the checkout pages, etc.), and the administration area, which is what you will use to manage the store. Although you find both components in virtually all ecommerce applications available on the market, the features that each of them offers vary substantially.
A good storefront should include at least the following features:
- A store catalog that is easy to browse and that presents product information is a way that is both useful and graphically pleasing.
- A search feature that allows customers to quickly locate a specific product. The more filters are available on the search page, the better (e.g. price, part number, description, etc.)
- A customer service area where existing customers can change their account information, view previous orders, etc. There should also be a way for customers to retrieve a lost password.
- Special pages where customers can easily find products that are on sale, featured products, products that belong to the same brand, etc.
A good administration area should include at least the following features:
- A way to easily set general store settings such as the way products should be displayed (e.g. how many products will be shown on each catalog page), the currency and date format to be used, etc.
- A module to create and manage product categories, and order the way in which they are displayed on the storefront.
- A module to create and manage products, and assign them to categories. To improve productivity, there should be tools that allow you to change settings across multiple products at once (e.g. change the price for all products in the "tennis shoes" category).
- A way to assign options to products (e.g. color and size), with the ability to set price changes that are dependent on the selected option (e.g. if you select an XXL size shirt, then you pay an extra $5). To improve productivity, there should be tools that allow you to assign the same options to multiple products at once.
- Flexible ways to set multiple shipping (e.g. UPS Ground is free for order over $100), and payment options (e.g. real time credit card processing, COD, and NET 30, but the last one only for wholesale customers).
- A module to manage orders effectively (pending, processed, shipped, returned, etc.).
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Merging the shopping cart with your Web site
How will your customers get to the product catalog? How can you make your home page link to the "Monthly Specials" page, created dynamically by the shopping cart? And how can you make the pages that the shopping cart creates look the same as your "About us" or "Contact us" page? The look and feel of your online store, and the way it merges with the rest of your Web site, are crucial elements of a successful ecommerce store.
Typically, you will be able to create HTML links that take a user for any HTML page that you may create for your Web site (e.g. the "about us" page), to a page generated dynamically by the shopping cart, which retrieves information in real time from the database that contains your store catalog and store settings. For example, the "About Us" page could contain a link to a page created by the shopping cart that shows products that are on sale in that particular month (assuming that the shopping cart does have the ability to do so).
How easy it is to place such links into your HTML pages varies however from application to application. Make sure to select a shopping cart that allows to do so quickly and easily.
As for the graphical interface used by the shopping cart to display the store page, some shopping carts limit you to using pre-formatted templates. Stay away from that kind of ecommerce software. Choose a shopping cart that does not use templates, but rather allows you to use your own Web site design as the graphical interface for the store pages.
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