Over the years, I've seen (and worked on) a lot of e-commerce, ranging from the huge (multi-retailer aggregated stores; custom implementations for multimillion dollar companies; etc.) to the small (nonprofits who need simple donation systems; small wholesalers or retailers who need a simple way to get their products online) and everything in between. And one thing I've noticed about all of these implementations is that the same issues always come up, regardless of the size of the effort or the budget.

This week I'll provide some links to some low-cost e-commerce solutions, but first I want to prepare anyone who's considering an e-commerce site for their business with some caveats or issues to think about BEFORE they begin deciding on a technology. The technology, after all, is meant to serve your needs as much as possible, rather than you having to bend all your processes in the service of the technology. This is less possible when you're using off the shelf products, but it may help if you consider the following issues first--and then do your OWN rating of the products below, based on these criteria.

  1. Outline your current process. This could be as simple as a bulleted list of how you currently get your product from the shelf to the customer, online or off; but should be as detailed as possible. This should be done for any business process you're considering automating, but is especially important with e-commerce. How do you currently handle inventory? Accounting? Credit card and other transactions? Order processing? Shipping? Taxes? Write down, step by step, what happens. Involve everyone who touches the process in this outline and get them to tell you in detail what they do. You might be surprised at the level of work involved in "their part."
  2. Identify any and all outside systems and people that interact with your sales process online or off. That includes: Web content management, accounting systems, inventory control, membership management, event management, transaction processor, bank's merchant services, publication systems or designers who might need lists of donors later, the IRS or your accountant, your wholesaler, etc.
  3. Next, determine your current profit margin and/or "cost of sales." How much can you afford to pay an ecommerce provider and/or a transaction handler? Typical costs for all-in-one e-commerce solutions (that handle both the credit card fees and the transaction itself) range from 2-5% of the gross revenues of your sales. Is this affordable for you? Do you need to adjust your pricing? Is it worth doing if you make no money--e.g., if you're a nonprofit providing a service through your products?
  4. Write down every product you plan to sell online in a spreadsheet and note if anything is "special" about any of them. For instance, if you're a nonprofit that wants to "sell" donations online, are they sales-tax and shipping-exempt? Do some products have a complicated shipping cost because they're either large and light, or small and heavy? Do some of your products require specific information to be given to the customer in various states? (For example, if you're selling wine, you can't ship to all states; if you're selling anything with lead in the manufacturing process, California will require a warning... etc.)
  5. Consider the importance of "additional information" that customers may want to provide for some products. For example, gifts may require space for a gift card; donations may require an "in memory of" note. Does the solution you are considering provide this ability easily? How do you receive this information?
  6. Look at your business process outline again and circle in red the places where MANUAL things happen. For example, you now have an inventory control system, and Jane in Accounting has to manually enter "minus one" of a product when it is sent out. Decide as a group which of these manual steps is worth automating... keeping in mind that the more you automate these, the complexity of your e-commerce solution will be multiplies exponentially, and your internal business processes will need to change. (Jane from Accounting may hate manually entering items in the inventory system... BUT she may also feel a little out of control if she does NOT see every transaction pass through her fingers. It's worth a discussion!)
  7. Look at your products in aggregate and make a list of what you want to display on the front end of your store. For example, large picture; small picture; long description; short description; etc.
  8. Determine what kind of promotion you want to be able to do. Google adwords? Email marketing? Promotion codes? Coupons? Discounts for special classes of customer? Multiple levels of discounts? Gifts? Gift cards? Promotion of products to your homepage or elsewhere in your site? Cross-promotion (e.g., if you bought this widget, you will also need the batteries to operate it).
  9. Finally, sit down as a group and make a big long spreadsheet with all these questions answered. These are your "requirements". Mark each one 1, 2, or 3, where 1 is "must have," 2 is "nice to have" and 3 is "not necessary."
  10. Then identify your considered set of solutions. Tomorrow I will have a quick list of these but there will be many, many more you should research. 
This process is much easier to accomplish if you have an outside partner to walk you through it (and I'm not just saying that!) because there are so many things you do automatically that it doesn't occur to you to write down. An outsider--and it doesn't have to be a paid consultant, just someone who knows about online stores to tease out these questions for you--can help you think about all the myriad things that happen between a product leaving your hands and ending up on your customer's doorstep. But if you can't afford a consultant or the time to do this, at least begin with this exercise; then you'll have a framework for evaluating a variety of low-cost solutions without finding out something won't work later on down the road... when it's too late to change.