8 Steps for Choosing E-Tail Storefront Software

Here’s what to look for and what to avoid when choosing an ecommerce solution.

Beyond your product ideas and your decision to retail online, the most important choice you’ll make as you enter e-commerce is the software that will power the shopping experience on your site.

How can you be sure that browsing on and buying from your site will be an easy and even entertaining experience for your customers? And how can you choose storefront software – also known as e-commerce and “shopping-cart” software – that will accelerate, rather than impede, your growth?

Here’s some advice from fellow entrepreneurs as well as those in the storefront-software industry:

1. Decide What You Need

When it comes to the software powering your e-commerce site, you have three basic options: Design and build it yourself; buy a software package, install it and host e-commerce on your own server; or subscribe to a software system that’s designed, administered and hosted elsewhere.

For most startups, subscribing to storefront software makes more and more sense. The choices and functionality are improving fast, and can offer big savings over outsourcing everything from site design through order fulfillment and customer relationship management.

2. Beware the Promise of “Turnkey Operation”

Some storefront software vendors offer a package that promises “everything you need” to get up and running in e-commerce – but then you discover that you need a Cadillac, and only have a Chevy. Most software is available in several levels of functionality that, naturally, costs more as you add bells and whistles. So be sure to choose the level that’s robust enough for you from the start, and won’t require expensive “add-ons” later.

Popular features you may want on your site include the ability to present customers with their purchase histories, to cross-sell and up-sell consumers during their visits, to use visitor information in your database for e-mail and other promotions, and to support transactions in foreign currencies.

3. Pick a Storefront System that Can Keep Up with Your Growth

Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of settling for storefront/shopping cart software that can handle their initial business volume and grow to some extent with them, but don’t anticipate how the system could be overwhelmed by rapid growth. It’s worth investing up front, or monthly, in storefront software that clearly can accommodate even your best growth scenario.

Kapil Juneja learned this lesson the hard way the first time he selected e-commerce software. “It took us about three hours to fulfill 50 orders, which is about what we were getting each day,” says the CEO and founder of Corporate Toners, a Los Angeles company that provides computer-printing supplies online. “But we didn’t make sure that we had a bulk feature that would allow us to handle all our orders in just a few hours. So it took us 12 hours to fulfill 200 orders.”

And watch out for extra fees that also could grow with your business. Some vendors charge transaction fees on top of your monthly subscription. If you’re already paying 2 to 4 percent to a credit-card company for each transaction, adding another 1 or 2 percent cut for the software can get pricey.

4. Be Sure You Can Make the Site You Like

These days, good storefront software offers you ample opportunity to tweak the vendor’s standard graphic templates, or even transform them, for the online presentation you want.

When Becky Bennett launched Flags on a Stick, for example, the software she chose limited how much and often she could customize her online catalog pages. That didn’t cut it, because seasonal and holiday flags are the lifeblood of her business. So she switched storefront software. “Now I’m able to be creative and do what I want with the pages, and it’s made a huge difference,” the Minneapolis entrepreneur says.

Many software systems, off the shelf or by subscription, can only approximate the look and feel of a Web site you may already have. So be certain the storefront software you choose can nearly replicate, or at least echo, the “brand” that you’re already expressing.

“We didn’t want our Web site to look differently once you got into the e-commerce portion,” says Tom Kereszti, owner and founder of Café Razzi, a San Francisco company that sells Italian-made espresso systems online. “It’s important to the brand to keep the feel and look and ambience the same.”

5. Insist on SEO – Search Engine Optimization

By far, most online shoppers use Google, Yahoo and other search engines to find you. So it’s vitally important that your software can set up a site that’s extremely friendly to search engines and optimizes your visibility.

“Not all ‘shopping carts’ generate dynamic Web pages that can be ‘crawled’ by the search engines,” notes Tom Harpointer, CEO of AIS Media, Atlanta, an e-commerce applications developer.

Simply put, stay away from those that don’t.

6. Is Your Shopping Cart Friendly?

Consumers will quickly abandon online shopping carts that are difficult or frustrating to use. It’s one of the biggest problems plaguing e-tailers.

“You probably want a product that indicates the progress of a cart through checkout – ‘You are at Step 1 of 3 steps,’ that kind of thing,” says Miki Dzugan, president of Rapport Online, a marketing consultant in Sedona, Ariz.

7. Make It Easy on Yourself

You’ll gain operational efficiency and management insight from buying or subscribing to storefront software that integrates your company’s other functions, including inventory management and accounting.

“You want to integrate all of those things that typically you’d have to buy multiple packages to obtain,” says Sean Rollings, senior director of product marketing for NetSuite, a San Mateo, Calif.-based software provider. “That way you can focus on managing your business rather than running all your various software.”

8. Software Support

Your company’s fate can depend on the smooth operation of your storefront software. You must be able to get effective support from the vendor at a moment’s notice. That means 24/7 availability of either online chat or tech reps on the other end of an 800 number.

Especially beware of providers who have only limited customer-service hours: If they’re based in Asia, for example, and available only during their own daylight hours, you’ll find yourself trying to solve technical problems one step, one e-mail, one day at a time.

And know who and what you’re dealing with in customer support. At all costs, stay away from one-man operations, no matter how slick and legit the software may appear.

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