In this four-part series, we'll examine where to sell your products or services online, how to set up a sales window, which e-money transfer services to use and how to build up your data history.
Part Two: Setting up an online sales window
Your small business has a website. It's doing a good job advertising your wares, helping your customers to make better decisions, and connecting you with potential suppliers and business partners.
But you want to take it one step further, and – eschewing online marketplaces like eBay – use it to sell your wares yourself.
Adding a sales window to your website means diving into a slightly intimidating world of web mechanics and service providers, some of whom will provide you with pieces of the e-commerce puzzle for you to assemble yourself. Meanwhile, other services offer easy-to-set-up online storefronts – for a price.
If you're a do-it-yourselfer, there are two halves to the website-selling picture:
First, the shopping cart system, that lets users browse around your store, add items to their purchase list, and (fingers crossed) check out and complete their purchase.
Second, there's what's called the "payment gateway:" the online service that processes and validates credit cards and other payment information. Small online stores don't usually deal directly with credit card companies. Instead, payment gateways act as a bridge between merchants and credit card companies, who want to make sure that the often-fraught business of handling online transactions stays with a manageable number of trusted agencies.
To make an online store work, you'll need a shopping cart and a payment gateway – or, to choose a solution that bundles them both together.
Here's an overview of ways to make your own online store work:
Buying a whole online store
A burgeoning category of "online storefront" services like Ottawa-based Shopify.com, Yahoo Small Business and ProStores (a subsidiary of the ubiquitous eBay) make a tempting proposition: They'll build and host e-commerce websites for you, with a minimum of user investment or effort. Going this route won't add sales to your site, so much as it will build a whole new site for selling your wares.
Pricing plans vary, but most include a combination of a setup fee, a monthly fee of $100 or less and a percentage cut of transactions that ranges from 0.5% to 2%, you'll get a turn-key store backstopped by technical support and full-service assistance.
Sites like these work hard to be layman-friendly (or, as the case may be, owner-friendly) offering ready-made online store templates that you can slap your logo above and use right away, even though the option of rolling up your sleeves and diving into the code. And they handle the nitty-gritty work of handling and processing credit card information. The downside? Your online store is entirely in the hands of your service provider, making it hard to switch providers should you later decide to.
This is especially true if you register your domain name through the online store. Tim Richardson, a professor at Seneca College's school of marketing and eBusiness, advises owners to register their web address separately from their hosting package; it's much easier to switch hosts later if you control your domain name independently.
"You want the freedom to switch hosting and not be held to ransom," he says.
Doing it yourself
At the other end of the spectrum from buying a whole online store is the option of building a shopping cart into your existing website. This approach buys you more flexibility, more control, and, depending on your setup, less overhead. But going this route will require a web developer's expertise to implement and maintain.
The good news is that there's some well-established shopping cart software that's available as free, open-source software that you can plug into your website; packages like osCommerce, Zen Cart, or – if your site is built on the popular Drupal platform, Ubercart.
Then, you'll need to pair the shopping cart with a payment gateway that actually handles your customers' credit card information. Beyond PayPal, the market for payment gateways is fragmented, but leading players include Authorize.net, and, closer to home, Victoria-based Beanstream.
However, control and flexibility comes at a price: you'll be hiring developers to set this up for you, and to make any changes you might want down the line.
Plugging the store into your existing site
The third option is to keep your existing website, but to drop in a "hosted shopping cart" – a service that lives on another server, and is maintained by another company, and that essentially makes a cameo on your website whenever it's called upon. Many payment gateways, including Beanstream, offer this as an option.
This is an option preferred by the Goliath of the online-payment industry: PayPal, which is owned by – yes, eBay. PayPal offers online payments with a twist: Instead of asking users for their credit card numbers at every store, they set up an account with their credit information at PayPal's central website, and thereafter only have to key in a username and password to pay PayPal-affiliated merchants. This offers users convenience and protection in case they're not 100% sure about an online merchant.
From the merchant's end, PayPal' integrates easily with existing websites, either for making quick purchases, or for adding a complete, self-contained shopping cart with a PayPal-powered backend.
Making hosted shopping carts work your website isn't exactly a snap, but it's not a coding nightmare – usually, it involves dropping in some HTML code, and fiddling with it from there. A business owner will want to hire some help, but the costs should not be onerous or the upkeep outrageous.